Urban Departures

I am essentially urban in character, more contented within walking distance of a well-stocked bookshop and reliable eating place. Contemplative moments are snatched in art galleries, or during operatic or classical music performances. Though I grew up in an isolated, rarely visited country, from my twenties I made the city my stamping ground. Whether in the alleys of Naples, the culinary back streets of Barcelona, Parisian boulevards, or the grubby, winding streets of London, I feel that I am in my natural habitat. What is it that makes one of us urban in character, and the other drawn to rural life?

There are alternative landscapes I am drawn to when I feel confused or depressed. I have written before of my primordial love of deserts. Ancient forests, rivers, mountain tops, and the seaside. Intuitively I visit these places when I am low in spirits and invariably I return to the city brightened.

Reading Roger Deakin, years ago, awakened a curiosity about rural life. I began to wonder whether I could inhabit the countryside, willingly relinquish urban conveniences. I began to speculate whether urban life was in some way draining me of my life force, and acting as a catalyst for a protracted mild depression. Just over a year ago I laid the first stone of a new chapter. As always in England, urbanity is never far away, but the transition is now underway.

In my last post I referred to Olivia Laing. I finished her enthralling examination of the effects of alcohol on a series of writers. After putting The Trip to Echo Spring down, I wanted to stay with her voice so started her first book To The River. Though the same easy erudition is present, the tone is more contemplative. At first the subject brought to mind Robert Macfarlane, but after a few more chapters it was Roger Deakin’s voice that comes through in addition to Laing’s strong presence. Laing shares with Deakin this ability to bring forth images of absolute lucidity, images that the reader can also inhabit.

Need Need Need

Below is an extended quotation from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. The book is a beautifully written, lovingly researched, fascinating account of why writers drink. It is one of those discursive, genre-busting books that I enjoy so much. Laing succeeds in offering an alternative way of reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cheever. This passage concerns John Berryman, whom I must read sometime soon.I quote without further comment a passage that continues to play on my mind.

A line came into my head then. It was from another Dream Song. What was it? Something about pieces. ‘The pieces sat up and wrote’? Yes.

Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up and wrote.

The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation – for love, for nourishment, for security – with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.

There are the terrors of the infant waiting for the breast, or they are if you read Freud and Melanie Klein; and these are the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world. Hardly any wonder that the Dream Songs are so obsessively interested in the state of being skinless or having one’s pelt ripped off or stripped away. Indeed, Berryman once joshed bleakly to his editor about having them bound ‘blue-black’ in scraps of his own skin.