April in England

bird

On a cold damp English day light rain was streaking down expensive, handmade glass window panes. Their studied imperfection distorted the black skeletal shapes of the tree limbs surrounding the vegetable garden as I found myself sitting with a friend in his kitchen talking about the conflicting feelings of being with immediate family. On our arrival I had noticed a Damien Hirst sculpture on the wall behind me, orderly groupings of fish in formaldehyde filled glass cases and this might have subconsciously triggered erudite thoughts and the slightly competitive yet urgent need for self-expression. I had forcefully made the point that spending time with my mother in particular was like looking into a brutal mirror where all my own annoying mannerisms and faults are reflected back in the harshest, cruelest light. Perhaps charitably, aware of the uncharacteristic need for me to talk things out, and sensing that I was a little agitated he agreed with enthusiasm and said he understood my position and felt the same way from time to time.

We had left about an hour earlier from Cheltenham and then, as always, found ourselves lost in the single track country lanes north of Stroud increasingly late, wretched and helpless. I had the tragicomic moment of damaging the rental car both at the front and the rear performing a single furious turn in the lane and which I knew would double the cost of the holiday and so worked hard when we arrived to not to show my unhappiness to the hosts. But another, and maybe the real source of disquiet, is the beauty of the farmhouse which has been meticulously restored and the depth of my envy can be precisely calibrated by the levels to which I seek to find fault; is it not all a little too new looking? Isn’t the Hirst a little too heavy handed? No and no I admit to myself, reluctantly.

I was withholding a melancholy that follows after a visit to my mother’s home, a nondescript, dispiriting commuter town for workers commuting to London or more accurately that slip stream of box like buildings that large corporations have quickly put up around the main western corridor from London, the M4 motorway. Her town itself might have once been attractive and charming, there are residues of Tudor, Georgian and Victorian homes but these are now almost completely hidden by the surrounding disagreeable modern housing developments. The town itself feels unresolved, it harbors the ambitions of the middle class but settles for the lower, the trainee solders and trouble makers who take the train north each weekend night looking for action such as it exists in this place, one with expensive German cars but without culture of any kind. A prosecutor might point out the dire lack of planning and the acreage of these small unlovely houses, the unkempt residues of green spaces and the loss of farmland, the proliferation of estate agents, banks and charity stores, the slow moving grey haired residents. The defense on the other hand might stumble and mutter about the number of Indian restaurants and pubs, unwittingly entrapping themselves in the process. I walk around the town in the drizzeling rain, to the slapping claps of wood pidgens and revving car engines more to escape the claustrophic house than to enjoy the scenery. I am looking for something worthwhile, something real, the fanlight of a Georgian house or the blackened timber of the few remaining ancient cottages. But mostly I just see the new houses and I look hopefully in the windows for some sign of joy but they are mostly dark and uninhabited and I expect their owners are working in IT or HR and have long hours to put in.

In the formal, regency town of Cheltenham Mary had taken evening Yoga classes and I sat in the pub across the road, a cavernous place that exposes the fact that this is a town that has only a thin veneer of civility, there is a roughness here, thick legged farm-stock women with plain faces, skinny young men with baseball hats turned backwards, my presence had been noted and disapproved of, the scent of violence or at least conflict was in the air. Best to keep myself to myself and so I put my thoughts together from the preceding week in India which ended frenetically a few days before. There is a custom on the last day of the visit to be taken to dinner which superficially was an opportunity for the team to ask questions but in reality was an excuse for them to have a good meal and, as it turns out, a lot to drink. Of course by eleven in the evening, my deadline for getting to the airport, no one had any interest in driving me there. They were ensconced sitting on the edge of the Indian Ocean, enjoying the coolness of the breezes and the miraculous flow of free whisky and had no desire to face the multiple hazards and turmoil of the roads. But eventually a volunteer was found who drove recklessly and at an improbable speed so that the journey took on the spirit of a video game with almost unbelievable obstacles thrown in our way, a genuinely vintage motorcycle that was inches from the car, countless sleeping dogs in the road, slowly moving cows almost hit, a motorcycle carrying multiple passengers; when you come from the west nothing can prepare you for this. There was some laughter which, in truth, was close to hysteria when we arrived at the airport, at least from my side.

By the time I arrived home after traveling for almost three weeks I felt that I was away for a year, and it leads to the question; what is a vacation for? For me it’s a moment in time where multiple images and conversations are retained, the more dense the better, which are replayed in more boring, peaceful times. It’s the fantasy of a different life, it’s the projection of spiritual ideas onto banal moments, it’s the sense of hope and friendship and all of these were found on this trip. A lovely dinner in London had been long planned and much anticipated. Prior to this a chance meeting occurred between Mary and an old friend on the seventh floor of our hotel above the City of London, with views of the Tower and the Bridge, humble under dramatic grey skies. At one point a commotion in the bar took place when an apple green bird was spotted sitting on the ledge, calmly watching us; an escapee from some ones careless cage, extraordinary to imagine how it can survive in this inhospitable city, but something with a transient perfection and beauty that cannot fail to fill you with optimism.

 

 

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