Sunday, August 23, 2009
Yellowhammer, River Hull, or, Sebald and I
‘At that twilit there were no passers-by to be seen...’, ‘Nowhere, however, was a single human being to be seen...’, ‘There was not a soul about, of whom one might have asked the way...’, ‘There were no visitors about on that leaden-grey day...’, ‘If I now think back to that desolate place, I do not see a single human being...’, ‘Slouching round the supermarket in search of cheap lager and burgers for a barbeque I’d planned for later that evening, I pondered the hordes of tracksuit-wearing simpletons among whom I live and made small talk about the rugby league with Sharon on the till before having to remind her about my nectar points...’, ‘Even in the most abandoned spot in the entire region, Shingle Street, which now consists of just one wretched row of humble houses and cottages and where I have never encountered a single human being...’, ‘Never yet, on my many visits, having come along the lane and crossed the little bridge over the moat to go up to the house, have I found anyone about...’
All right, so it doesn’t take an Inspector Maigret to spot my cameo in the above random choice of lines from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Pehaps Sebald had a body-odour problem, news of which would be radioed ahead through his rural Norfolk stomping grounds, causing the countryfolk to scatter to cellars and World War Two bomb-shelters? Whatever the reason, the endless tableaux of deserted seaside villages in his prose become self-parodic very quickly, and I say this as someone who loved the book. So let me also say right away it wasn’t through any choice of preference of mine that a long ramble along the banks of the river Hull yesterday saw me encounter a total of zero other human beings, though for long stretches I was walking opposite the back of a row of houses and then, a short distance off, the mighty temple to consumer spending that is Sutton Asda. No, I tell a lie, there was a teenage boy sitting under a bridge on the other bank from me fishing. We did not exchange greetings. I was also able to confirm, by mobile phone, that Hull City had beaten Bolton Wanderers one-nil with a goal from Algerian new boy Ghilas. You don’t get much of that in Sebald either, do you.
And then as for the people Sebald does meet! ‘At times it seems’, his friend Cornelis de Jong opines, ‘as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar, like the model of the battle of Esztergom created by a confectioner to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresia, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy’. Why are they always so wonderfully eccentric?, I wondered aloud as I watched my friend Feardorcha Ó Maolseachlainn put the finishing touches to the 1:100 scale model he was constructing out of cocktail sausage sticks of the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa, as it looked that fateful night in 1990 when Dave O’Leary stepped up to take his penalty kick against Romania for the Republic of Ireland, a model my faithful wolfhound Setanta would demolish later that evening after carelessly knocking over and lapping up the entire contents of a 1945 Château Pétrus.
Though I didn’t meet anyone on my walk, I did at least see a yellowhammer, as pictured rather smudgily above. The pictures in Sebald books tend to be indistinct affairs too, do they not. But while I may salivate over much better pictures of birds on flickr, I’m not sure if there’s any point in my investing in an expensive camera. The ratio of several hours’ tramping to one brief moment of flickering yellow smudge in the middle distance seems a truer reflection of the rate of effort versus payoff involved in the whole process.
I wish I could use my yellowhammer as a jumping-off point for a long disquisition on the whale-collecting of the Seigneur of Holderness, the vanishing villages of the East Yorkshire coastline, whether or not Andrew Marvell was gay and whether as William Empson believed he was a lifelong sufferer from the malaria he contracted in the swampy environs of Hull... and maybe I could, should, or will, one day. But for the moment, I can’t make it mean anything other than itself: one yellowhammer by the river, an unremarkable photo thereof, and this by way of my defence of the smudgy, evanescent zones around the edge of the visual field that may lead us into wonderlands of association, conjecture and mystery, or possibly lead us to nothing and nowhere at all.