Saturday, 5 October 2013

Week Thirty-Seven - Jeanette

Explorers Of The New Century by Magnus Mills (2005)
Recommended by Hamish

            even in hiding
            the full moon
            teaches us a lesson

Hamish is a poet. The haiku I quote here are all taken from his 2009 book, Our Sweet Little Time, in which he charts a year, the year his daughter was born. The haiku are beautiful, of course. Not only paeans to his wife and daughter, and observations of the shifting rhythms of pregnancy, he speaks of a sharpened sense of season. Things will change and everything takes on a newer meaning.

            winter dusk-
            the sound of knives sharpening
            from a nearby tree

Re-reading Our Sweet Little Time in anticipation of writing this post, I experienced Hamish’s words in a way I didn’t at my first reading. No, I’m not pregnant, but yes, I do feel at a precipice. As if something is swelling within me. I find myself turning over different situations incessantly in my mind. Some are within my control, some are without, but this inner churn has heightened my perception of nature, of both its constancy and its changes. I’ve been up on Loxley Common a lot this year, sometimes to read or to walk with friends, but often, simply, to be. I feel the bracken against my legs and grab at the long grass. I went this morning. October is pinching, and the visitors to the common are fewer. The young lovers who stole kisses over the summer have returned to school, perhaps even split up; the preteens playing with water pistols and frisbees probably won’t do so next year, for they will feel too old for such uninhibited childish pursuits.

Hamish and I have now been penpals for thirteen years – not prolific correspondents, either one of us, but I value my connection with him immensely. We used to know one another in the flesh, yet the decision to sustain our acquaintance by post was exactly the right one. My relationship with him is now so pen-and-ink based it would probably feel very strange to actually speak with him. We’ve followed each other through several changes, not least geographical (the ‘I’ section in my address book is entirely him, four-times crossed out, and one current. Counting up my own house moves, I am but one behind him). I never expect to see him again, but I never expect to lose touch, either.

            sometimes the leaf
            you think is a frog
            is a frog

So I love Our Sweet Little Time. But don’t take my word for it…

            ‘Hamish Ironside understands the art of writing.’
                                                            - MAGNUS MILLS

On the evidence of Explorers Of The New Century, Magnus Mills knows whereof he speaks. This book initially seems to have much in common with The Ascent Of Rum Doodle – a clever satirical adventure tale that depicts the Imperial-era Brits with their enormous sense of entitlement writ large.

‘Very good. Now it’s far too cold to stand here making speeches. I’ve no time for such flummery, so without further ado I think we’ll make an immediate start.’

This is Johns speaking, the wayfaring leader of one set of explorers. He’s ‘not in a race with’ (is in a race with) another exploring party, led by the more austere Tostig.

Tostig raised his field glasses and continued to watch as the distant, tiny figures inched across the scree. ‘Eleven men,’ he said. ‘And two dozen mules. Roughly two dozen. Far more than he needs, I would have thought, unless he’s counting on heavy losses.’

In between moans about the perishing weather and sleeping arrangements, Tostig and Johns continue to snipe at each other – in the most gentlemanly way, of course – as the journeys progress. But where are the parties going, and for what purpose? Early on, we learn it is for some form of Scientific Enquiry, following the Transportation Theory of one Professor Childish; as we press further, we understand that the mules are nervous of the destination; and it is only when we are nearly there (at ‘the Agreed Furthest Point’) that we truly understand the full weight of the expedition.

The reveal of the story is so very very clever that I can’t possibly spoil it for you; hints along the way, tiny asides where I thought, ‘oh, that’s a bit odd, why do they care about that so much?’ all fell expertly into place. I steadfastly blundered down the wrong track for page after page, believing the book to be using magical realist strategies to make an obscure point about isolation, before I almost literally slapped my forehead in recognition at what Mills was actually doing. The use of language and manipulation of reader assumptions is extraordinary.

Although this structural brilliance is an outstanding quality of Explorers Of The New Century, what I found most intriguing was its portrayal of hope. This wasn’t very hopeful.

Without further delay, the expedition continued northward, gradually moving away from the river. Snaebjorn took the lead. The day’s journey was unremarkable, save for a small incident around about noon. During the brief twilight there was a whirr of wings high above them, as in the flight of a passing bird, and a moment later a sprig of foliage fell in their path. Snaebjorn saw it and picked it up. The sprig was withered and dry, but nevertheless its discovery brought encouragement to the entire party. All agreed that somewhere ahead the land must be green and fertile, and on this assumption they pressed forth with renewed vigour.
             But, unknown to them, the bird had lost its way.

Cutting to the quick of any investigative pursuit, whether of the body, heart or mind, Explorers Of The New Century looks at the psychological tricks we devise to sustain hope. For, without hope, how do we know we’re on the right track, even if we get a sprig of foliage dropped in our path? Is the alternative – capitulating to fear, and giving up hope – cowardly or realistic? At what point are we Macbeth, midway in our own river of blood, when to retreat is as destructive as to forge on?

            heart skipping
            a beat, flipping
            like a landed fish

Contemplating metamorphosis and journey as I am, the danger of being a landed fish looms large. In the past, my own river has surged to reclaim me; I hope, hope, that it will ever be so.