From “Fiends Fell”
The road is still closed off and my southwest-facing window is blocked by a twelve-foot drift—the wind, now from east-north-east and in its early twenties, is snarling at the roof; a pack of tenacious blood-hungry hounds ripping flesh from bone—then, for a few long disarming moments, a seductive silk caress.
No attempt has been made to clear the road as their efforts would be useless—the weather does not relent and defeats all attempt to open the pass—and even if the ploughs were successful and could reach the road I would still have to dig my way through an impossible snow drift to reach my car, which is buried under it and the battery probably dead.
This place is becoming a deep freeze. The doors and windows are curtained with icicles and the walls are thick sheets of ice. There was just enough water from the cold tap to enable me to refill the half-dozen two-liter bottles that I’d used last week to cook with and make hot drinks. It was the result of a barely perceptible thaw that lasted a few hours and which enabled water to trickle back into the system; at least enough to give me hope that I might light a fire soon.
Survival here depends on forethought and I need a few weeks’ supply of food at least, especially cereal—but if trapped for months I could turn carnivore and thaw meat from the café’s freezers in the garage.
As I silently opened the window to throw out a few leaves of salad, well past their sell-by date, a rabbit that was chewing some pear skin I’d put out earlier, caught my scent and hopped off. Banana skins are popular too.
A few days ago, in an attempt to attract a family of raven, I put a piece of rabbit roadkill close by but the only customer for my offering was a stoat and it gnawed the frozen carcass while a living rabbit, a few feet away, scraped in the snow. Perhaps the energy required to catch and kill the rabbit wasn’t worth the risk against the certainty of the meal that I had provided. The predator and its potential prey, both conscious of the other and almost rubbing shoulders: but, as we all live as neighbors, no one is on the menu today, which is why I feed the rabbit even if I’m only putting meat on its bones for the stoat. By allowing it to graze nearby unmolested, the stoat may regard it as a living larder. Perhaps I should, too. Growing up in postwar austerity our treat was rabbit pie and in the seventies I wrote asking my mother for her recipe, which she sent, along with another.
“Rabbit Pie”Get one pound cut rabbit, wash it first, put it in a pie dish, cover with water.Pinch salt & pepper to taste.Cut an onion up also.Get half pound lean lap, put altogether, cover over with plate.Leave it in oven till tender. A moderate oven not too high.“Pie Crust”1 pound of flour.Pinch of salt, say half teaspoon.Mix 2 ozs of lard 1 oz marg or butter.Rub altogether till it’s like breadcrumbs.When the rabbit is tender mix with little gravy salt.Mix pastry with little water until a dough.Roll out, put crust on pie.What’s left, make scones with it.I’ll show you all these when I come.And here’s a cheap meal if you like it.Get half pound of tripe, one onion.Cut small portions.Stew in pan till tender.Salt & pepper.Just cover with water when onions are soft.Mix a teaspoon of cornflour to a cream with a cup of milk.Pour into the tripe pan.Stir till thick on a low light.That’s a lovely meal. That’s what I’m having today for my lunch.
I watched the rabbit climb a drift and stand on hind legs to reach the exposed bark of a scrub poking through snow: evolution in action, rabbit evolving from quadruped to biped. Check it out in a million years when they walk on hind legs carrying vintage Versace handbags while poets are on all fours chewing grass—and, hopefully, smoking it.
In anticipation of further blizzards I dug my way through an eight-foot drift to the bunker where I hacked at the frozen coal until I was able to break off enough to fill three large buckets and drag them into the kitchen where, for a long time, it remained in frozen chunks, but when eventually thawed created a slop of thick gritty black sludge in the bottom of the bucket which meant I couldn’t hoy it directly onto the fire, otherwise, as I found when I did, it would turn the blaze into a hissing bronchial smog, a smoldering slack sizzling in the grate, leaving all hope of heat extinguished.
I was buckets.I was all buckets,I was all-over buckets,I was bucket technology,I was slop buckets, I was water buckets,I was coal buckets, I was bucket boracic,I was bucket barmy,I was kicking buckets, fuck it,I was Samuel Bucket waiting for Giro.
At first it was bright up here while the Eden Valley below was concealed with cloud, so I got out, feeling the day on my skin, smelling it, tasting it: underfoot and overhead. I walked as far as I could toward Black Fell but my feet freeze in these thin rubber boots.
The wind up there was about 10–15 mph but since I’ve come down it’s ratcheted up a few notches, bringing fog and powdery sleet with snow covering most things except clumps of bent; a veiled view for fifty paces of palest gold and dark rushes.
This afternoon a group of four ravens displayed: wings folded they dropped, flipped into a tumble. They were riding a rodeo wind.
As I watched I remembered my father standing at the kitchen window waiting to catch sight of my mother, the matriarch and breadwinner, coming home from charring—and wondered what his daydreams were as he overlooked our back garden where he was king of the cabbages: tattie dictator—spud thumper, Leek LaRue. There was a border of marigolds to greet her as she walked up the path. The Man in Black, Valentine Dyall, playing Dr. Rance in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, used to travel daily from Brighton to rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre, wearing a marigold in his lapel. When I made a comment on it, he said, in the character’s upper-class accent, there’s nothing like a good old English piss-smelling flower.
The Aeolian harp, outside power line, sounds like a low-flying jet.
Perhaps as the result of a dream, where I ate a very bitter green leek, I made a meal today of tinned fish and rice with finely chopped raw onion.
Visibility is down to ten yards; gusts of thick hill mist chased by a vigorous wind in its late twenties that stabs with icy ankle grabs through gaps in the skirting board and stairs. So I lit a coal fire on the ground floor and stood by the shaking window to work, with the sound of the fire creaking and the wind seeking an entry, like waves breaching a beach.
Yesterday I climbed to Black Fell, taking pictures as I went. Over the first ridge and the snow became firm enough to walk on and often level with the dikes, some eight feet in places. As I climbed a stile I followed the footprints of a small mammal in fresh snow. I often see their prints along our narrow tracks. Although more exposed to predators, it must be easier to use well-worn ways instead of hopping over heather and falling into shake holes: it moves me to share this space with wild creatures and travel in the same direction for a while.
The sky suddenly blown open and visibility is a clear twenty-mile. Snow thrown into wind-sculptured stacks.
Snowing today and winter grits a cold icy wind.
I suppose I always thought, or have done these last few years, that I’d get settled in a house, find some permanence (forty different address so far) where I could unpack and work on the projects that I’ve been gathering notes for in these journals. But this winter I’m thinking I’ll have to treat my hovel on the hill as my settled home—I’d never find anywhere cheaper. I have always felt like a transient, on the run from I’m not sure what. Me, perhaps?
Graham Smith told me of Dying Dave (Mulholland)’s comment to his chastising wife: If you ever lose your voice, you’ll find it in my ear.
the redden tops of old bent,green stalkson wind ploughed grounda squall skims waterchasing its tail
Last night there was a full moon with a thin dusting of clouds and it was fairly still until midnight, when a violent wind took up out of the east and shook the roof, just a couple of feet over my bed: a fast, clattering train with steel wheels screeching through narrow streets.
A ripping Fury claws a sheet of sky and shreds it.
As we struggled through a wasteland without nourishment, a gray, damp, dreary environment, we found shelter in a cave occupied by a group of monkeys. Putting a hand to my mouth I signaled our hunger and they gestured we should follow them. My companions were skeptical but I insisted, descending into the dark and narrowing cave until we reached a large chamber. The leading creature pointed to a dusty ancient copy of Don Quixote, set in an alcove. It was embellished with ancient engravings of Cervantes or his dreaming hero who was a perfect likeness of a guy we’d seen recently, way back at the beginning or even before our sorry trek.
When I woke in a bright dawn the wind was gone and the ground frozen with patches of ice and frost amongst the tufts of tussock.
My friend Ken Smith is in a coma with Legionnaires’ disease caught from a hotel during one of his South American trips and he’s dying—and Mike Hart, friend and comrade from Compendium Books in Camden Town, died prematurely a few days ago. The last few times I saw him we talked about a book he was researching, a history of Glaswegian musicians and the bands they’d played in. Mike was a kind, sensitive, intelligent, quiet-spoken, and funny man, without an edge; someone you felt instantly at ease with.
On an impulse I left the house at 3 pm and walked, partly ran, across Haresceugh and came down above Great Stockdale Beck where it feeds into the sheer narrow sides of Raven Beck near a steep fall of black water. On the way out I’d grabbed a banana, an orange, a handful of almonds, and a small bottle of water, all of which helped when I began to get dizzy on the return journey—basically a two-and-a-half-hour round-trip nonstop over heather and hard coming back. It was dark by the time I reached the safe footing of a track and an easier stroll home.
Ken, I ran across the fell to Raven Beck: heather, tufts of reeds, shake holes, rocks—and jumped fences to get you a feather to bring you back from the driving sleep where black birds fly in black air and black waters fall in black ravines. I brought you a feather—so you can speak with short-eared owls, so you can bind roots in rock with hawthorn, so you can skim wind with peregrine, so you can box with the hare, dance with the fox.
Peter did cast himself into the sea.
—John 21:7, as quoted in Cruden’s Concordance
My friend Sarah, an artist living three hundred miles away in Brighton, called for a chat.
“How did your life modeling go?” I asked.
“The tutor was a wanker. Not literally.”
We talked of the dole with its inherent complications for working-class artists trying to minimally exist at the edge of the welfare system, finding time to work without burnout as cheap labor, or getting caught by the fraud squad and prosecuted for “fiddling the dole.” The poverty trap, in other words.
We must have chattered for an hour and a half and during that time, toward the end, she rolled herself a spliff, took a puff, blew it down the phone and said: “Oh, I saw in the news that guy from Blyth harbour got jailed for having sex with a dolphin,” so I told her about my adventure in the North Sea.
One early November in the late sixties, after a lunchtime drink in the Three Bulls Head in Newcastle and yearning for solitude and open spaces, I persuaded my drinking partners at closing time (2 pm), to spend the rest of the afternoon at the coast. So we piled into two cars and drove to Tynemouth, heading onto the long, empty beach for a smoke. A London poet, Spike, who was holed up in the north in love and struggling with smack, was pilled-up on whizz and very bizzzzy swatting at his encircling devils. I made a short poem in the car for him.
When you see demonsopen your eyesand blow out the smokeor knock that bucket of shitoff your shoulders, someone added.
On the drive I dropped a couple of Romilar cough pills which intensified my desire to slip into the solitude of the sea. Although the North Sea is always cold the pills seemed to lessen its effect as I breaststroked my way toward Scandinavia on the rhythmic roll of the waves. I was reasonably fit and had always been a good swimmer, winning awards and certificates in my school days, even swimming for Newcastle once, and although it felt easy and enjoyable I had no idea if I was swimming against an incoming tide or with an outgoing one.
After about half an hour and heading directly toward Norway, I was surprised when a lifeguard pulled alongside in a white rowing boat. He was tanned and well built, a classic model.
“You’re too far out!”
“Oh aye.” The Romilar was a real buzz.
“You’ve got to turn back.”
This was an invasion of privacy, an intrusion into my reverie, my communion with the sea and besides I react badly to orders.
“Bollix to you.”
After several minutes bobbing about on the waves he devised a strategy and rowed level again.
“If you don’t come in I’ll whack you with an oar.”
Fuckinghell, I was having a barney in the middle of a big empty sea.
“And if you do I’ll capsize ya fucking boat and sink it.”
There was a standoff for a while until he said: “You see that guy back there, in black?”
When I turned to look I was surprised how far away the shoreline was.
“He’s the beach superintendent and he says you’ve got to come in.”
“You see that gadgee back there, on the beach? Gan and tell him to fuck off.”
The lifeguard was affronted. “You actually want me to tell him that?”
“Aye, tell him to fuck off and say I sent you.”
So he turned his boat around and rowed inshore while I ignored the authoritarian incursion and continuing to swim, resuming my meditations on the rhythms and undulations of waves, the wonders of tides and cosmic currents. After about twenty minutes he returned, looking smug.
“We know you’re not wearing a bathing suit.”
“It’s indecent exposure and if you don’t come in he’s calling the cops.”
Now that was a winning argument because back on the beach my jacket pockets had a couple of ounces of black Pakistani hash cut into quid deals, ready to sell around the bars that night. The amphibious drug squad had suddenly surrounded me, but he wasn’t to know that. As he saw it, his money shot, his knockout punch, his harpoon hit, was the knowledge of my nakedness in the North Sea.
He rowed and I swam behind like a tethered Moby Dick until my feet touched the sand and the waves washed up under my chin. The superintendent was fuming, shouting from the shoreline, “Get out! Get out of that sea!”
I hesitated because when I’d plunged into this nautical adventure the beach was totally deserted, apart from a handful of friends, but now the super, the lifeguard, and a group of matronly dog walkers formed an agitated crowd.
One of them, with arms folded and mouth pursed, pulled her coat close against the wind and spoke.
“It’s disgusting,” she said, but with no obvious intention of walking away from the source of her disgust and in fact edging a little closer to it.
As another stopped to see the fuss and joined the small crowd, I dawdled in the deeps, dogpaddling to keep afloat.
“Out, now!” The super yelled, pacing backward and forward like a demented Groucho Marx.
Long immersion in a cold withering North Sea had shriveled my manhood to a winkle, and I was a sensitive soul.
“You’ll have to hoy me knickers owa, first.”
Hawkins tossed my Y-fronts and when I pulled the budgie-smugglers on and walked from the sea with them plastered to my groin there was so little avian contraband in view they could have passed through Customs with nothing to declare.
The beach super rushed toward me as I stepped from the waves and grabbed me by the throat. He was livid, my friends gathered; it was getting nasty.
“You can’t swim nude in the North Sea.”
“They were naked and were not ashamed, mate, book of Genesis.”
“Aye,” one of the lasses chimed in, “if you know ya Bible.”
“Don’t be brazen with me, young hussy.” His eyes were popping. “It’s against the law.”
“There is a greater law, than the laws of man, marra.”
“Aye, he’s right: shall nakedness separate us from the love of God? I don’t think so, mate.”
“That’s Romans, init?”
He must have thought we’d escaped from a seminary.
“I’ve called the police.”
When Spike grew more argumentative, quoting William Blake, small specks of spittle formed at the corners of his mouth. I just wanted to get away before the cops came and discovered my stash.
“You don’t own the sea,” chipped in Phil, a disc jockey/philosophy student who’d recently been bust by the drug squad when they raided a party at his house. He’d been warned there would be a raid but he went ahead anyway, so, given his poor judgement I thought he would make a better diversion than advocate. Alan Hull wrote his song “We Can Swing Together” for Lindisfarne after that notorious bust. I broke away and grabbed my clothes from the beach.
“You slippery little bastard,” the super howled, attempting to grab me again but held back by my idiot friends who continued to engage the enemy with vehement evangelical blabbering.
Above their jabber, the gusting wind and the thundering waves, he shouted: “You’re banned. You’re banned from the North Sea.”
As I closed the car door, pulling on my strides, the sound of a police siren announced itself in the long-forming late afternoon shadows.
“Is that true?”
“All of it.”
“That guy probably saved your life.”
“Aye, he probably did.”
Tom Pickard was born in Newcastle, England, and left conventional schooling at the age of 14. His collections of poetry include High on the Walls (1967), An Armpit of Lice (1970), Hero Dust: New and Selected Poems (1979), Hole in the Wall: New and Selected Poems (2002), The Dark Months...