Every Black’ning Church Appalls
The subject of this book is the Isle of Wight.
It is also myself.
It is also everything.
It is also nothing.
First, a study in contrasts.
As I begin the process of writing this book, for real, putting pen to paper, I am sitting in Westminster Tube Station, London. London is a place I despise almost instinctively, where I like to minimise my time, if possible. It’s not the people (the things they do) but the very atmosphere of the place. To me it seems like Lovecraft’s corpse-city of Ry’leh, a place distorted and folded into uncanny geometries, maddening to behold, a physical culmination of the gothic literary tradition; yet so utterly banal in its evil that not even the thrill of the macabre can bring any life to it. My purpose here is relevant to the work at hand; I am here to see Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’ at the Tate Britain. It was on seeing Keiller’s film ‘London’ several years ago that I first began to consider the creation of a similiar work, engaging with a subject more familiar to my experience. As I walk in front of the houses of parliament, remembering the last time I was here, being kettled by black-armoured police two years ago, I see the pathetic rump of the permanent anti-war protest, huddling beneath a gleaming new installation of the flags of all nations. It symbolises perfectly for me the malaise of this city, and to an extent of the country which it loutishly demands, with its incessant media domination, to form a proud microcosm of. Look beyond the surface politics and see the protest as a symbol of all that is genuinely, really human. Shambolic, organic, personal, brave, foolish, principled, quixotic, spontaneous, slightly insane; it’s everything this city, this vile crystallisation of late capitalism, cannot allow to exist. Debord and Baudrillard were right, the bastards; in the aftermath of the diamond jubilee and the run-up to the olympics, London is in the full grip of soft-core Monty Python fascism. Nothing happens unless approved by a committee of corporate sponsors; everything is theatre, every element carefully invested with significance by well-intentioned philistines till any hope for meaning is forever lost. A coterie of companies are running a campaign to ‘clean up’ London, to make it nice for ‘the world coming round’. They plan to remove all the litter and graffiti; in short, any sign that the city is inhabited by living things at all.
Everyone in London seems to be running to someone else’s plan or schedule, herded this way and that down paths that have been carefully set out, both in concrete and in more abstract terms. This is just my perspective of course; to someone on the inside, perhaps, it looks very different. I am not psychologically equipped for this place; it spits me out. I am an Islander, and this is the temple of the urbanists. Not just any city, but the city of cities. I remember visiting Rome, and walking around shuddering, realising why Marinetti wrote all those impassioned verses about dynamite. London has that too; it’s not alive. It’s undead. It’s cancerous. The deep-down folly of the London psychogeographers; Sinclair, Home, Keiller et al., who worship here and try to drive new desire paths along strolls and ley-lines they have taken through the buildings and the streets is, to my mind, self-evident. They criticise the city, but their thoughts are blighted with utopianism as they tread in the footsteps of Blake. “This place could be wonderful” they say, “It should be wonderful, when and where did it all go wrong?”. But it was always wrong. There is no workable adjustment, no balance to be struck between the city and its inhabitants, not without tearing the whole thing down and beginning again. The tragedy of the city is that it seeks permanence, and yet, unable to adapt or move, its eventual destruction is assured.
The destruction of the Isle of Wight, the subject of this book, is assured as well, of course. It came into existence some time in advance of London, when the river Solent finally flooded into a sea at both ends, but still comfortably within that period my sister (the geologist) would dismiss as the Holocene; the smallest and least interesting portion of geological time. Hopefully it will still be the Holocene and there will be human eyes to see it when, some indeterminate time in the future (the question seems to interest no one enough to have been rigorously studied) the progressive disintegration of the south coast and the silting of the north will erase it as a geographical entity. But the Island has never made any claim otherwise. London is a place that does things to the world; the Island is a place that has things done to it. There is no grand vision at work there, no plan, no goal. This alone makes it, to my mind, a place infinitely more interesting as an object of study.
The city embodies a false dichotomy of culture vs. nature, the masculine principle vs. the female, explored in the dark shadow-vision of occult psychogeography espoused by the character of Sir William Gull in Alan Moore’s masterly graphic novel From Hell. The city dominates the landscape, controls it. Rivers are diverted, marshes drained, coastlines shifted, islands built. The world must heal round a city like a piece of shrapnel stuck in the wound. To remove it might be fatal, but to endure it is intolerable. Less charitable eyes would see the city as a cancer; it has certainly been described by some as a parasite.
Did the city perhaps even create the dichotomy? In the British countryside (on the Island) the environment is no less artificial than the city; it is a place that has been built up and altered by thousands of years of human interaction with the environment. There is no true wildness to it, no danger. When the British conjure up an image of a dangerous non-urban setting the source of the danger is always human: Straw Dogs, The Wicker Man, The League of Gentlemen. The rural is a place of greyness, of uncertain boundaries, of shifting paths that are built up by the movement of people and animals rather than planned by a higher authority. Here, the war between man and nature is more of a gentle, even playful wrestle. Both are constantly on the move, growing and cutting, shifting and planting. To the urban mind, the natural is an obstacle to be overcome, but to the rural mind, it is something to be worked with, to be cultivated. Both are forms of control, for tool-using, story-telling humanity is a controlling organism, but the rural approach has the potential to be more subtle and sophisticated. It’s the difference between working with the grain of the wood or driving a router straight through it.
So, the purpose of this book, then, will be to chart a different sort of psychogeography; that of the rural, the insular, the Island. This is a more private and unsure subject matter than the city; for the most part we will be dealing not with large, well-documented concrete monuments (the M25, Hawksmoor churches, The Eiffel Tower). The landscape is an archaeological document, the record of its own history and creation. The idea of time as depth is, after all, only a metaphor created from the real phenomenon of geological strata. But to cut into the landscape, adopting the techniques of the archaeologist, would be out of keeping; the methods we must use are those which will cause least disruption to the thing we are studying. We must deal with the problems of the anthropologist, but we avoid their central pitfall. I am writing, after all, about my home, and about myself. I cannot disrupt this place (at least, not without having some right to do so), for I am already a part of it. Why shouldn’t I write about what I know?
There would have been no way to avoid the personal in creating a book such as this, so instead I have decided to embrace it. To extricate the island from my webs of personal significance was never my intention; what I could never have foreseen when I began the task of writing is the familial troubles that set up greater levels of resonance than I had originally intended. As I turned my pen to my home, I found myself leaving my house; as I thought of a place that was crumbling, decaying, so were the hopes and dreams of those near to me. The process of making this book became much more of an emotional, physical, intellectual and material challenge than I had anticipated. My relationship with my place of origin has become complicated once again. I am reminded of a snatch of a poem that I wrote when I was a teenager;
Though the outfall pipes are rusted
Though the seawall stones are bleached
Here I think, I’ll sit a while
Dying on the beach
I don’t remember more, though I remember that before this point my gaze had been looking out to sea, from the north of the Island, across at the lights of Portsmouth and Southampton. I must have been sixteen, or seventeen. At that age, I longed for nothing more than to escape to somewhere, anywhere where I could be a little more myself. I imagined myself as an outsider, ill-fitted to the island by my tastes, my attitudes, my sexuality and a score of other things. Once I got off, and went to university, I began to miss the Island almost immediately. I realised that I had failed to realise an essential truth; that I was a product of the place and time of my birth. Even if my personality was partly formed as a reaction against my upbringing (and more and more I see that it was not) it would not fully make sense outside that context. Much of my thinking about the Isle of Wight has, thus, really been thinking about myself. I believe this is an appropriate way to approach a subject like the island; in fact, I believe it is an appropriate way to approach any subject in the arts. Why should I pretend that I can create something universal? Something objectively true? That is not the value of art, at least as I look at it. Idiosyncrasy and imperfection; those are what art thrives on. They are like the anti-war protest we talked of earlier; human, and thus interesting. When Mark Wallinger recreated one iteration of that protest within the Tate Britain (see how we loop back already) what he created was only the image of humanity; no more alive than a photograph, and far less interesting. I don’t personally think it deserved the Turner prize (If anything, Brian Haw, the protestor, should have received it instead), but what do I know? I very much doubt that my work will ever hang in either Tate. I do not feel presentable in London.
I am from the Isle of Wight. What does that mean, for me? That is a question it may just about be in my scope to answer. It won’t be a direct answer, naturally. Or a clear answer; it may even be a restatement of the question. However, sometimes finding an answer simply requires a thorough re-wording of the question (think of that old chestnut ‘what is the meaning of life?’). Can I find the answer I seek? I have no idea.
This is the front of the book.
Let us begin at the beginning.