Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Downland Index

A Downland Index is 'a hundred successive slow runs on the chalk downs above Brighton, each written up in a hundred words.'  These hundred short texts are themselves collections of fragmentary moments - thoughts, fleeting impressions, overheard conversations - written up after runs made from the author's home over the course of a year.  I have mentioned Angus Carlyle here before in connection with the book he co-edited on sound art, In the Field (he has what sounds like possibly the best job in Britain - Professor of Sound and Landscape at the University of Arts in London).  The texts in A Downland Index do not read like soundwalks (or soundruns) and the word 'sound' doesn't actually appear in the book's detailed index (unlike 'smell').  Nor are these circuits through space like field recordings where a stationary microphone patiently captures sound over a period of time.  Nevertheless, over the course of the book you get a composite impression from snatches of sound: the snap of a branch, the rain on leaves and branches, yelping dogs, the electric pulsing of crickets, the grating of a car's gears, a crying child, the sounds of starlings on a radio mast.

I'll quote here an example of one particular run: from 14 August (as a contrast to the cold winter's day on which I'm writing this).  There are no sounds here - the hundred-word constraint means that in many cases we have to imagine the soundscapes Angus runs through.  This text conveys time passing over the landscape, the gaze registering a detail and then shifting to a panoramic view, and the bodily pain of running over flints in the heat of summer.
The corn swayed from the two fields on either side, stalks shorter than they were twelve months ago and duller in a light that has closed over again after the brief brightness that pricked my neck with heat.  Running left for the first time from the gate weighed shut by a log suspended on frayed blue 12-ply farm twine, the spot-lit sea to the south, a plain checkered by field, hedge and settlements to the north.  The ridge rises tough and falls tougher, all my weight to the top of my knees, flints stabbing my soles, feeling my heart throb.
On one muddy November run Angus observes a deflated once-pink helium balloon in a sycamore tree, 'shaped like two halves of a lung'.  What surprised me most in reading these texts was the way the landscape sometimes resembles the litter-strewn edgelands painted by George Shaw, which I referred to here recently.  Having moved away from Brighton twenty-five years ago, I picture its borders as neatly planned post-war housing developments giving onto empty grass slopes and chalk tracks that lead you up onto the Downs.  This is not the impression you get from A Downland Index.  In an afterword Angus describes running past a debris of plastic bottles, frayed rope, pallets, hubcaps and cigarette butts which is 'densest at the city's margins'.  It still sounds strange to read Brighton referred to as a city (an official designation it received in 2001) - a reminder that the town I grew up in no longer really exists.  And perhaps the edge of the Downs was never as immaculate as it is in my imagination.  

When I was given a copy of A Downland Index by its publisher Colin Sackett, I was interested to see how this familiar landscape would come over, but unsure if I would like the central concept.  There is nothing more likely to deflate the mood of a Downland walk than having a runner suddenly pound past you.  I also find myself alienated by landscape writing predicated on some form of physical prowess (in Ecology Without Nature Timothy Morton has questioned the 'hale-and-hearty' ethics of environmental writing, some of which, he says, is increasingly 'keen to embrace other species, but not always so interested in exploring the environments of 'disabled' members of the human species.')  I needn't have worried though, because A Downland Index is full of self deprecation - the self doubt the tiredness, the ironic cheers received from passers by.  On one occasion a water bladder bursts and drenches his shorts and a schoolboy shouts "My god he's pissed himself!"  These were 'slow runs' in which speed and distance covered were not what mattered.  Running may prevent deep engagement with a particular place but it nevertheless allows for reflection on something glimpsed back along the path.  The resulting texts, like Imagist poems, focus on particular moments and leave the reader to imagine the rest.

No comments: