[To whom it may concern: At no point on these cycles was I less than 2 metres from anyone – and then, generally, only for the few seconds it took to pass].
This morning at 5.25 our nearest blackbird began to sing and no matter how melancholic his[i] improvisations occasionally are, the clarity of them always makes me smile inwardly. Listening for a while, I know it’s time to get up and shut the window and curtains before all the other birds strike up and I’m drawn into their joint ecstatic optimism . . . or alternately, depending on how insomniac the night was, its “bloody racket”[ii].
It’s too early, but I often feel I should trust this joyous (or competitive) outpouring and quickly go out – and I would, I would, if it weren’t for the children, and, if I could achieve the habit of a short afternoon siesta. This, I can never get to work, even if I have the house to myself; even if I had the county to myself or lived upon an uninhabited island. That was another thought: that some forms of isolation come naturally. Appropriately, just the night before, we had stumbled into watching again, the 1963 Dirk Bogarde film, The Mind Benders[iii] (still very worthwhile, if less subtle than I remember[iv]) without realizing how apposite it was to Spring 2020. Living in comparative obscurity, wouldn’t it be easy to give up the reason or need for communication and never be tempted again by the topical or the temporal?
The lane unfolds strangely, past a sealed postbox to hump over a river. By a house with tree trunks filling the garden, beside a flattened bird table, young shoots growing all around and daffodils swaying abundantly . . . A sprightly old woman emerges from the front door smiling in recognition, though I’m sure she’s a stranger. Descending to the other side of the hedge above the wall, above the climbing lane which almost overhangs the valley, we talk. I ask if she needs supplies. No, she has everything she requires. As she looks around, up into the woods and the sky above, down into the miles of country below, her final words to me are pronounced happily, as if she wouldn’t mind too much: she hopes she won’t die today. With a sphinx-like smile she adds that she knows she won’t, because she has talked to somebody. That will protect her. What happens next is impossible to relate without sounding ridiculous. As if she does it every day, her head rises into the air without any sense of its being detached – there’s nothing frightening or ghoulish in this, for at a certain point, she turns into a swallow-like bird, or perhaps a spirit, to flit off sideways at great speed . . . and I know she’ll be back before lunch.
A dream of course – one that incorporated several places and impressions of a cycle from the day before. Except that the house by its garden of felled timber, massive, smooth trunks of beech, looked empty. A holiday or second home perhaps? There was no-one visible, only plate-glass windows minus curtains. A building lacking any architectural distinction, no older than the 40s at a guess, yet beautifully situated, nevertheless.
Lying abed awhile to ponder this surreal transformation of elements from real life – one that somehow felt like the key to a long story – I was sidetracked by thoughts of The Uninvited (1944)[v]. This has long been my favorite filmic invocation of ghosts[vi] – although I do admit to being biased: I’d cycle a million miles to see any film featuring the luminous Gail Russell[vii] . . . As Gail faded, I transferred to Kristen Stewart in the silent chateau of Olivier Assayas’ Personal shopper (2016)[viii]. But these entirely personal deflections are irrelevant, since the spirits in both films have varieties of revenge in mind.
On Sunday last, the day preceding my bizarre, inconsequential dream, the atmosphere that remained prevalent while I cycled along, was that I had the country to myself. Later, with a large view over the southern section of Windermere to a chain of mountains in the sun beyond, nothing moved, not a boat or a car or even a person could be seen. Normally, on a beautiful April day in Spring, every holiday caravan site and lake-view hillside would be teeming with visitors. Instead, under fitful sunlight, apart from the bluster of the breeze and two briefly squabbling skylarks, there was silence. It was the world of the Survivors[ix]
Postbox dons a mask 5th April 2020
Earlier that morning, an isolated postbox “temporarily out of service” for “Health & Safety reasons”, had been a subtle indicator that something was wrong. With only an empty holiday home and one other cottage (well-supplied with cars) in the vicinity, “totally inconvenient and nobody ever uses it anyway”, would have been a perfectly acceptable excuse. Personally, I’m impressed that the Royal Mail (or GPO as my intransigence prefers) are still working so diligently, but I suppose they feel they have no choice?
Please don’t cough on me. 5th April 2020
As for so-called lockdown, its always seemed obvious to me that you have to be able to generate happiness (or whatever you need) from within. It’s no use waiting for the world, for circumstance, fate or the people around you, to provide it . . . just as, (arguably) sociability (as a need rather than a pleasure – an important proviso), is something you should naturally grow out of.
Contrary to that ascetic-sounding assertion, it was reassuring to see one family out cycling. Despite the ads of the 1970s and 80s, (featuring what I used to refer to as “cornflake families” – though they would often be advertising other things, like margarine for example), family cycling has always been a bit of a rarity. In and around Crosthwaite and other villages there were a few walkers, some of them seriously powerwalking with all the vital lycra and ski-poles, most just ambling.
Wise and helpful way-marker clearly indicating society’s direction. 5th April 2020
Off the beaten track below High Ludderburn and over Moor How, using a footpath, I even encountered some wet mud! Naturally, being a law-abiding citizen, I walked, carrying the bike whenever it got tired and feeling relieved that to anyone who writes, it is second nature to make a project or story of their life[x] – naturally selecting, connecting and mythologizing.
Having lunch on the fellside above Park Cliffe, one curious Herdwick sheep kept coming back to me, even though the rest had all run off. Don’t think it was a ram. Perhaps it knew me in another life?
Though it’s hard to forget the constant smell of the burning pyres of animal carcases, compared to the serious foot and mouth outbreak of 2001[xi], which few in our cities would have directly experienced, the current panic can claim to be universal. In a way peculiar to our age and technology, it has been globally exaggerated or underplayed, depending upon your point of view. Since 99% of statistics are made up on the spot, I’m not sure I trust any particular viewpoint. It will be interesting to see if such a global acknowledgement can be put to use against the infinitely greater threats that have been obvious or gathering for the last 50 years. News remains a misleading and unreliable thing, impossible to separate from viewpoints, whatever it thinks. According to The Telegraph[xii] for example, “Boris’ near-death sent a shiver up the nation’s spine”. More likely journalists were relishing the possible dramatic headline of his demise, but I doubt anyone would have described the UK after such an event, as a ship without a rudder. A ship without an albatross perhaps? That would have been my description. But for all the man is a dangerously misguided and incompetent buffoon, one should not wish death upon him – though a good many people I know would be neither so sympathetic nor sentimental. Contrast our supposed worry about the fate of the Prime Minibrain, with the words of the nurse who rather than clap for the NHS, asked us please to be sure we “never ever voted Conservative again”[xiii] – a viewpoint I’d like to believe has become that of the majority. Certainly, the entire Conservative hypocrisy regarding the NHS is beyond belief.[xiv]
An unfortunate pheasant who aspired to a posh drive overlooking the lake near Avon Wood
Continuing after lunch, the bridleway and lane descended to join the A592 along the eastern shore of Windermere. A twisting road with summits and hidden dips, the speed limit of 50 mph could be considered lax. Yet under Blake Holme Plantations two maniacs in cars were racing each other at over 80 or 90. Two rare cars on otherwise empty roads.
Across Windermere all the ferries and steamers were tied up, and it was weird to see that area of attractions including the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway’s northern terminus and the Lakes Aquarium, so dormant. Fell Foot Park, (National Trust) was locked shut, with a tree trunk blocking the carpark exit. Looking immaculate, The Millerbeck Railway “Lakeland’s best kept secret”[xv] looked dominated by (essential) garden gnomes and a languid herd of alpacas.
Being a Sunday, even the dual carriageway only offered a milk tanker and a police lorry.
In 3 miles of going along it (quickest and considering the previously encountered speeding maniacs, probably the safest route), only 4 cars and the police lorry[xvi] – passed me. Normally, if I was stupid enough to cycle that way, it would be 300 at least. The comparative silence of this road is one of the most pleasant ambient differences. Usually you can hear its swishing roar for miles around. How much of this usual impatient movement could we learn to do without?
Grange-over-Sands Lido 15th April 2020
On a cycle to pick up some free rhubarb several days later, and another this week, still I’ve been granted only good impressions of a world in supposed crisis. The promenade at Grange-over-Sands was a little quieter than usual, but plenty of people of every age, were out enjoying the sun, very cheerful and friendly at a distance. I passed the old Lido, constructed in 1932 and shamefully abandoned back in 1993 – by which time we’d all gone soft for indoor pools with waves and other gimmicks. Happily, it looks now like there’s a chance it might be refurbished.[xvii]
K wasn’t so lucky, encountering supermarket queue jumping in Kendal and abuse on the way back. Though her car was filled with a week’s shopping, she was shouted at by a cyclist to “Go the f**k home”. Generally, my attitude (whatever I might privately think and with some exceptions) is live and let live, so this incident was doubly disappointing. Firstly, on the basis of unjustified rudeness. Secondly, that such a cyclist gives others a bad name – and all the cyclists I know are considerate and generous people. No doubt he wouldn’t have shouted had it not been a woman driving. Normally, I’m the gentlest of people, but had he shouted at me, it’s very likely he would have found himself a long way from home needing a new wheel. Would such an encounter have been a typical example of road rage? Or could there be a different psychological excuse, of selfishness created by isolation, or tension arising from some hopefully, widely dawning realization, that human society has been going nowhere for far too long? For all its good effects[xviii] (“people will certainly be a lot fitter when this is all over,” a lady suggested to me only yesterday), I’m certainly sick of the effing C word. It’s like a mass form of displacement, this fuss over a virus. From a wider perspective, humanity is a virus of infinitely more damaging proportions. One with consciousness and conscience. One that should have become wiser long ago. We’ve been stupid for centuries – why have we never managed to slow down the world in recognition of that?
Humphrey Head 15th April 2020
Via Kent’s Bank – whose railway station doesn’t look so different from those celebrated in Love Among the Ruins[xix], eventually I reached the beautiful Humphrey Head[xx], a limestone outcrop which though geologically not quite a match, recalled Labour in Vain farm as it was in the early 1980s above Chesil Beach in Dorset, with The Fleet[xxi] lagoon in the distance and Stewart Granger (in my imagination) swashbuckling or heading out to sea to the music of Miklós Rózsa[xxii]. Alternatively, once below the crest of the head, out of the wind, with the twisted trees in an almost Italian sun, I could have been in the Apennines, yet with the whole of Morecambe bay stretched out at my feet and skylarks again, the only audible sound for fifty miles around.
© Lawrence Freiesleben
Cumbria, April 2020
i Didn’t want to be sexist about this, but “According to BWP” (The Birds of the Western Palearctic) “females have been known to sing loudly in captivity but only rarely in the wild”. https://www.birdforum.net/showthread.php?t=108016
ii To quote Thom Yorke’s archetypal song lyric: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv8dy1W1VxY – another perfect illustration of my belief that the greatest art works by echoing something already inside you.
iii https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057311/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_6 A film that casts an interesting spell of Oxford, a place I knew well in the 1970s. Particularly fascinating is Dirk Bogarde and Mary Ure’s schizophrenic house, whose front is entered via the flat Norham Gardens, just northwest of the city centre, but whose back, upstairs balcony overhangs a (rear projection of the) view from South Park, Headington Hill, 2 miles away to the city’s east. See http://www.friendsofsouthpark.org.uk/
iv Or maybe it’s just because I could do without the baby at the end. Not that I’m squeamish about birth. All of our birth children were born at home, with me the only midwife – if and when one was required, which wasn’t often. Off the radar so to speak, and only registered later, once no-one could interfere. Plus, as Dirk himself comments upon in the film, I didn’t boil a single kettle of water.
vi I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never read the novel on which it is based: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-uninvited-by-dorothy-macardle-ghosts-of-a-sensible-persuasion-1.2489668
ix https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072572/?ref_=ttrel_rel_tt : A community of survivors try to stay alive after a global pandemic wipes out “99.98 of humanity” – the kind of figure that might even reverse climate change?
x Rick Roderick interpreting Heidegger – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDqDJJcJAOgn at 24.48
xi Particularly bad in Devon and Cumbria: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_United_Kingdom_foot-and-mouth_outbreak
xvi Loaded with flat-packed cops? (To be fair, all the police I’ve personally encountered on XR protests have been friendly and sympathetic – though I’m aware this hasn’t been the case for a lot of others).
xxii https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000067/ Gazing out towards Silverdale and Heysham, I resolved to enjoy again very soon, Fritz Lang’s wonderful film of Moonfleet: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048387/?ref_=nm_flmg_com_30