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Daniel Canty, author of Wigrum (2013) and Les États-unis du vent (to be published in English by Talonbooks in Fall 2015), recently completed a six-month residency at the Studio du Québec, in London, England. In this series of dispatches, Canty shares his reflections on some of that city’s foggy history and the sometimes foggy process of writing. (Those who have missed Canty’s early lines, and his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh reports are invited to consult Meta-Talon.)
Let me tell you an English tale. Although its origin harkens back to the Middle Ages, I have taken it from a more recent children’s book.1 Maudie and the Green Children tells of the discovery, by a child who is said to be simple-minded, of a couple of green children.
Maudie lives alone with her mother. One harvest day, as she is sent back to her house to fetch cider for the workers in the fields, she hears strange cries echoing from the old wolf pit (the last of their kind had recently been hunted out of England). The muffled conversation, or so it seemed, of a tinker-bell and a kitten. The British Isles, we have always wished to believe, are criss-crossed by occult meridians, the ley lines where parallel realities are said to intertwine, and it is not such a rare occurrence, even in these doubtful days, for the ground to open under a cottage or farmhouse, like a divine sign, to remind us of the mysterious depths of earth and time.
The trail of stories travels by twists and turns. Maudie, as innocent as an idea, decides to venture down into the pit. A little girl and her younger brother, green of hair, eyes and skin, are standing there, huddled together, hands held, and trembling like leaves. Their greenness glows with an uncanny light. Maudie wishes she could touch them, verify whether their apparition is a mirage or reflection, ready to dissipate at the slightest touch. But their fear is such that Maudie, who understands this kind of frailty, contents herself with a smile. She offers them her name, like a vow, and climbs back out to the fields to announce their arrival.
Soon, adult hands raise the green children out of the wolf pit and into the light of the world. They are taken to the castle, where the local lord orders a feast in honour of these miracle visitors. The green children, sitting in the midst of the hubbub, ignore the venison and eggs, the milk and honey of the feast, only to jump on a plate of green beans when it is set before them.
The lord solemnly declares Maudie’s mother their custodian. They will share her bed of hay in the stable, be raised as kin. The little girl with the tinker-bell voice, strong of mind and body, has the most delicate manners with flowers. She watches tenderly over her little brother, who is wilting in plain sight. They speak a language foreign to all, know nothing of the ways of this world. They must be educated. The pastor wishes them to forget the warbling tongue they share, to choke out the very memory of the land they pretend to come from. The little girl has told Maudie of their life on the other side of the river that separates this world from a green land, where neither Sun nor Moon shine. One day, they followed the fairy path, let themselves be led deep into a dark passageway by a devious light to the other side of the world.
Years go by. Their skin pales. The green boy, who cannot get used to the ways of this world, falters and dies. The little green girl grows ever more self-confident and beautiful. A good miller from the next village asks her to be his betrothed. Witch hunts satisfy the thirst for drama of those without imagination. A few years later, she comes back alone, a beautiful little green boy, round as an apple, in her arms. Her son will be raised amongst humankind. He is baptized in honour of Maudie’s lost father. He reminds them of the little brother. Some vows are as powerful as enchantments. Each time he will be told he is green, in the same way one can be accused of being simple, Maudie, who is as strong as an ox, will run to his rescue.
Once upon a full moon, Maudie follows her half-sister, fleeing between the boughs, her boy sitting on her shoulders, running to the wolf pit, to find the way back through the dark passage, the river that separates our worlds. Maudie, who does not know how to swim, will remain on this side of the world, the reflection of another world fixed in her gaze. At the time she is telling us her tale, she has also become a mother. She confides in us that she longs for a return, to learn how to swim. Nothing is simpler than once upon a time, that magical phrase where the beginning of everything turns back upon itself and follows the twisting paths that snake out of the world.
When I think of the green and clement land glimpsed by Maudie, I cannot refrain from thinking of the artful lawn, that universal trapping of English comfort, and of the inner life of blades of grass, flowers, and trees.2 Patient buds, the deepening of time in tree trunks, cricket song … We live in the environs of other times than our own. They are sufficient to convince some of us that other worlds exist within the world: universes taken from our own, whose crossing allows us to come back into our own.
British writers entertain, with a passion equal to that of their kin for class struggle and gardening, a powerful confabulating impulse. Although I think the novel of mores and manners to be the dominant strand of local literature – obsessed with social character, the interiorized disorders of the powerful and the poor – fantasy and the apocalyptic novel also figure among national pastimes. Extending the struggle’s domain, as one of our Gallic colleagues says, the confabulators attempt to demonstrate that the mode of living which is the guarantor of their leisure time exists beyond the limits imposed by time, colours distant universes, and is even more uncanny than that terrestrial empire where the sun never sets.
Professor Tolkien’s comfortable hobbits inhabit an inaccessible out-region of the English countryside. They go to war because the creature comforts of the Shire are threatened by extremist mutants, lost in contemplation of the occult … C. S. Lewis’s children, fleeing from the Blitz to a country house, discover, at the back of an armoire, a passageway to a landscape inhabited by the figures of a Christian allegory, a kingdom plunged in permanent wintertime by a curse – Quebec could learn some lessons from Narnia’s situation – where they will be confronted by their own comings-of-age and the true nature of their faith … Tolkien and Lewis, two friends exiled far from the front lines of the war – and they are but two of the most famous examples – lost many loved ones to that war; they knew of the bombs’ crying over the landscape, the trembling of façades, the horrors of the newsreels shown before the main musicals, and mostly, they knew the renewal of the hostilities. I think it is the brute weight of grief, the close shock of disaster, that led them to contribute to the war effort by shaping spiritual landscapes. The world does not end, and these tweedy gentlemen – inheritors of the medieval fables they studied in the fortresses of knowledge, at Cambridge or Oxford – have given impetus to a host of imitators, whose vast majority concentrate on the magic of their tales, and have given way also to inheritors, darker, desperate cantors of our coming collapses.
I will only mention those we have already evoked here. Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud, a sombre science-fiction fantasy interposing itself between sunlight and the world, reminds us that, sometimes, the infernos of rationalism are no less terrible – or naive, alas – than those of faith. Dr. Ballard’s observations attest to another level of perversion. They displace disquiet into the body’s core, in the dark corners of the dreariest suburbs. His characters are dismantlers of time, plumbing their inner depths to touch the bottom of perception. They are the faithless followers of Christian mystics, cave-dwelling reclusives, visited by a parade of disquieting beings silhouetted against the horizon of disaster. I think I am not exaggerating when I affirm that the fear in which these works are rooted, although distinct from that haunting the prayers of the confabulators, can be seen as its disquieting extension.
Land of Angle, intersection of worlds. So many ends have been imagined for England. The scientific spirit is in love with the detail that kills. I have not read John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), where a virus from the far east annihilates all the grasses of England, transforming its countryside into a vast desert. It would probably be in Sauron’s taste. A brave engineer leads a troupe of pilgrims toward his brother’s potato plantation in Westmoreland. Apparently, things go awry and, along the way, the mores of civilization are profoundly put to the test. The world is a field of ruins. The resilient potato makes for a very poor flower of hope. While expecting the real end of the world, you can tune in to diverse temporary versions of it on the BBC.
Photo by Daniel Canty
I feel my conjectures have led us astray. While trying to prove that reason reasons over nothing, we soon forget the tenderer zones of being. It is best to enjoy the time given us. Akin to the moss covering Lindow man, the English lawn is a place of eternal repose. The afternoon sun lingers over its last stretch, distilling its cares into the gradual promise of the evening. At the hour when the schools and offices close for the day, the populace, liberated from its works and hours, parades back and forth over the paths of London’s commons and parks, in a slow return, marked by pauses and games – it all depends who one is, and how old – to domestic comfort. Near these green spaces, famed English gardens, as wild-haired as the standard eccentric, remind us that civilization is ordered disorder.
The care taken by the Administration to maintain these green islands in the heart of every borough underlines the optimistic or dejected élans of the primary caregivers and their allies, who count amongst their own numerous real-estate speculators. The balance of the greater good is, in two ways, a question of profit: the population benefits from these spaces because the speculators have found their due all around them. Apparently, if one can now loiter at, say, London Fields until the dark hours, it is because, in the Olympic era, the local councils benefited from enormous cash outlays. While sales offers and expropriations proceeded at a brisk pace behind closed doors, the renovation of public spaces was a counterbalancing public concession to the common man, permitted to wend his way through here, before going off somewhere else, where the current of market forces staunchly pushed him forth.
London is crosshatched by subterranean motives. Its images circulate by wayward paths, meet in secret locations … They force us on – ah, ah – a wild sheep chase: if London Fields is called London Fields, it’s because there were fields here, upon which a woolly flock once chewed. Case in point: in Hackney, That Rose Red Empire, A Confidential Report (2009), Iain Sinclair, graphomaniac psycho-geographer of his adoptive neighbourhood, explains that, at the end of the Second World War, when east was east (I am talking about London), Her Majesty’s Army kept a gaol under the Fields’s lawn. Some moonlit nights, one could see a troupe of Italian military prisoners, condemned to gardening duties, fleetingly liberated from its subterranean sojourn for a salutary calisthenics session. I tell myself that these boys are the ancestors of the basketball players, footballers, and tennis-men or skateboarders of the post-Olympic era. These have a thought in common with their predecessors: while they know their freedom is under surveillance, they aim to profit from it.
In a less bounteous era, the adolescent portion of these sporty boys would no doubt have pestered passersby. We are never alone, in the immensity of time, amidst the scattering of stories. I ask myself whether, at the late hour when the Italian inmates emerged, one of the nyctalopic prisoners – Carmine, why not, with his downward glance, his air of permanent melancholy – did not see, flitting between the boughs, a little green boy, who, upon seeing the gate of the gaol wide open, made up his mind to sprint over the lawn and make his way home. Ciao bello! Mi dite se si passa da Italia! 3
Some years ago, travelling to an arts residency in France, where I had hoped to be waited on with the utmost care, I was first given a berth in a windmill. I slept in close proximity to a couple of Italian performance artists. They invited me, the day after, to pass my head through a giant papier-mâché vulva which they had installed in a nearby barn, in which I would be treated to a cervical massage. They were the best of friends, or so it seemed, and every night, they slept together on the other side of a drawn curtain. Who knows what went on there, under cover of darkness? I dozed alone in the common room. A large chamber littered with beds and pierced, at the far end, by a stone hearth. I was expecting a writing desk, which I would only get a week later. And although this was a hindrance to my work, I can now say, without recourse to metaphor, that I once slept in a mill.
I did not sleep well. And I saw, on this uncomfortable night, a tiny man of moss – in dream or fact, I do not know – pass from the ladies’ chamber to the hearth. I followed him with my gaze, glued in the in-between of dreams. He seemed without malice, and disappeared without a noise, as soft as smoke, through the chimney. At breakfast the next morning, I confided in my hosts, and we all laughed. I still wonder what I saw. Nothing remained of his passage. Not even the fragrance of spruce crackling in a fireplace.
Daniel Canty, green man
1 I discovered Maudie and the Green Children (Tradewind Books, London & Vancouver, 1996), written by Adrian Mitchell and illustrated by Sigune Hamann, in a children’s bookstore in Vancouver. The author was sixty-four at the time of publication, and, given the nature of the feelings in the book, I entertained the illusion that she was somebody’s grandmother. Sigune’s illustrations, in tender pastels, no doubt influenced my interpretation. It could have been Adrian’s work. However, Adrian, as the back cover unambiguously announces, is a gentleman. In fact, I find myself wishing that those two – Sigune, Adrian – be a couple, and wishing upon them a felicity as beguiling as that which binds together the words and images of their book. Without one another, they do not exist in full, and I now see how I have coloured, through my words, this unverified union.
2 In a recent essay, dedicated to the new editions of a handful of classics of natural history, Oliver Sacks delves, with the merciful rigour that characterizes his approach, into “The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others” (New York Review of Books, April 24, 2014).
3 At one point in his confidential report, Sinclair requests the services of a dowser in order to follow the course of one of East London’s subterranean streams, certain that its bed forms the path of one of the ley lines whose mystical threads are said to overlay England. Hackney Brook weaves under London Fields to the foot of the Olympic Stadium. Its enclosure, off limits to the common man, tousled with cranes and edged with surveillance cameras, symbolizes, in its perpetual incompletion, a sort of umbilicus of the void, an urban equal of Stonehenge, with its monumental roots set in a fragile equilibrium between this world and another. Time has eroded, and it is not a river but a fall that separates our world from that glimpsed by Maudie.
Perhaps there will be a ninth report one day.