Saturday, March 18, 2017

The wind was bitter from the north

Last night a strong wind rose in the evening.  As it rattled the windows at the top of our house, I was watching an old TV play, Whistle and I'll Come to You.  The professor in this story, played by Michael Hordern, is similarly troubled by the sound of the wind as he sits up in bed.  He seems to have conjured it by blowing an old whistle, a mysterious object he had found earlier, buried near a grave on the edge of the sea.  On returning with this artifact to his room at the Globe, a Suffolk guesthouse, he had felt some kind of presence while walking over the beach.  This is how that evening landscape was described in the original story by M. R. James:
'Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynings, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe. He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynings which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet. One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress...'
The following night, whenever he closes his eyes he sees himself running, pursued by something, over that same beach and groynes, each one seemingly higher than the last... 

James McBryde, illustration from the 1904 edition of 
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James   
Professor Parkins pictures 'a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened'
Source: Wikimedia

I will reveal no more about what happens to the professor after this disturbing night.  The details are slightly different in the original story and in the BBC adaptation, made by Jonathan Miller in 1968.  Both versions are discussed in a chapter of Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie, which draws a link between Miller's film and Brian Eno's ambient album, On Land (1982) - 'both in effect are meditations on the eerie as manifested in the East Anglian terrain.'  Miller filmed on the large featureless beach at Waxham and at what is left of Dunwich, the medieval port that was destroyed by a storm and then gradually reclaimed by the sea.  Looking back on this blog to a post nearly ten years ago, I see I included a photograph of the beach at Dunwich and referred to a talk by Mark Fisher about On Land and the Suffolk landscape.  In The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher contrasts the destructive force in M. R. James's story with the gentler, mysterious mood of On Land.  Eno's eerie is alien but alluring.  It can still be unsettling though - in 'Shadow' for example, which 'features a quietly distressing whimper that could be a human voice, an animal sobbing, or an aural hallucination produced by the movement of the wind.' 

Posthumous tributes to Mark Fisher can be read at Verso, The Guardian, The Quietus, and on Owen Hatherley's blog.  I wish I had managed to see more of his talks; the k-punk blog was essential reading - see, for example, a piece on another BBC adaptation of 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', made in 2010 with John Hurt.  The Weird and the Eerie, published at the end of 2016, was discussed earlier this month by Roger Luckhurst in The LA Review of Books.

1 comment:

Hels said...

I am an Australian and can tolerate cold down to 12c.. no lower! But I lived in Europe for years and I know what "bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward" means. I think it is bleakness that makes people depressed and hopeless all winter, not the cold by itself.

The quietly distressing whimper might have been the wind, but it was probably the man's heart giving up.