Roth revives! See how he rises!Rumours of my death have been, well, somewhat exaggerated. I was sleeping is all. Or else off gallivanting with Epistemon amidst among the fallen. And it is has been as busy as a time as ever it will be—moving, disowning, appreciating, divagating, arguing, decorating, slicing and framing, lucubrating, rising early, failing, attending, listening, not hearing, preening, expanding, gorging, sneering, perusing, pontificating, and scribbling, but only sober words, and all without the benefit of this ambivalent sketchpad to console me.
Roth he rises from the dead,
Says, "Whirl your cava around like blazes"
"Thanum an Dhul, do you thunk I'm dead?"
In little Hornsey we manage, just, to replace each drunk bottle with another, gratis, by courtesy of guests, whose magnanimity we carefully gauge and record, by the splendour of the bottle they bring, its age, its size, the grandeur of its name. Now, Mr. Dodson warned me on these very pages that Freixenet would not be suitable for the celebration of my return. Thus, in turn, I admonished our guests not to bring Freixenet, under pain of sanction. For three months gladly have I welcomed visitors bearing various cuvées, a Cristal here, a Dom Pérignon there, and I had saved for some time a particularly fine Pol Roger for this very occasion, when two nights ago a brace of unwanted (though I dare to admit it, invited, albeit by Mrs. Roth) haplodytes descended upon us for dinner, demanding champagne for the birth of their two-bit nipper, and yet bearing with them, the damned cheek of it, not champagne, but only—
— Cava? We drank the Pol Roger. The wine was bitter in my mouth. Mrs. Roth abstained piously. I did not talk much at the table, only eyeing my bouteille diminuant with ever-growing pique. Their bottle, on the other hand, remained wrapped on the far counter. My friends, it is all I have left. I'm afraid, Mr. Dodson, that your only consolation is that it is not, after all, a Freixenet.
Le'chayim, then. Bastards.
With each slow stride, so low, the water rises slowly by my side, aswallow. And the flat sidereal rises of the moon looming, illumining, white with weight, tremulous, foaming and shiving in the weight of the vast sea. And from the sea, all ashiver with a vast cold, rising in lines of light, so slow, is the light of bells and spires, a spired city of candles and glasses, so low and so vast, and the colour of treasure, as the skin of my face rises down against the sweep of the skin of the sweep and stave of the sea, and the moon her weight and white eyes are beside me, and her bird is there in my hand to guide me.I wrote that when I was about seventeen. It was part of a dream-sequence in my starter-novel, The Ark, the drafts of which I occasionally look over with an embarrassed amusement. It wasn't all in this style. But it was parts like these that most interested me at the time. I wanted to write prose aspiring to the condition of poetry—the most flawed of ambitions, and one I now wholly repudiate. Later I wrote a poem, Chalybea, which developed some of the imagery from The Ark, in an entirely different context, and to much better effect. (It has the further advantage of being actually a poem.) I still liked, and indeed still like, underwater cities, and along with them, underwater bells.
Bells. Echoes, from below, from the hollowsThe poem's narrative was punctuated in places by the sound of a 'Flibberty-gibbety bell', wafting over the waves to the action onboard a ship. And towards the end of the story, a precious clock is tossed into the water:
of the bowels of the earth, billowing up.
In the end, they dismantled its gearsIt is the height of bad manners to discuss one's own work as if it were that of another. I quote these passages simply to illustrate that for whatever reason, I have long associated the sea, and lower regions of the earth, with bells and clocks. Now, when writing both novel and poem, and for a long while after, I had no knowledge of the folklore of underwater bells. The Funk and Wagnall Folklore Dictionary claims that
and threw it back, amid the vitreous chime
of sunlight staggering upon waves.
Bells which have sunk to the bottom of ponds or lakes or have been buried underground (of which every European country traditionally has examples) also ring at solemn times, such as midnight on Christmas Eve. Such bells were generally engulfed as a punishment for some human impiety.So, for instance, in Gervase of Tilbury's 1215 Otia Imperialia:
In Britain there is a forest, rich in many kinds of game, which looks down on the city of Carlisle. Roughly in the middle of this forest there is a valley surrounded by hills near a public highway. In this valley, I say, every day at seven in the morning a gently-sounding peal of bells [classicum campanarum dulce resonans] is heard; and so the locals have given that lonely place the name of 'Laikibrais' in the Welsh tongue.I quote the translation of Banks and Binns (2002), though 'Welsh' [Wallico] is a rather tendentious editorial correction of 'French' [Gallico]. R. C. Cox, in his article on Laikibrais (or Laikibrait), mentions, like the Folklore Dictionary, and in very similar language, that 'The tradition of a body of water in which bells are engulfed and yet are heard to peal is a common folklore motif often associated with demonic forces or the punishment of some human impiety.' For Cox, Laikibrait is the 'lake that cries' [Old French lai ki brait], associated with the inundation of church bells at Tarn Wadling, in Inglewood Forest near Carlisle.
This, also, from Georgina Jackson's 1883 book on Shropshire Folk-Lore:
There is a Norfolk legend which brings out the connection between pools, bells, and the Under World very clearly. Tunstall Church in that county having been destroyed by a fire, which yet left the bells uninjured, the parson and churchwardens quarrelled for the possession of them, and meantime the Old Gentleman watched his opportunity and walked off with them. He was, however, found out and pursued by the parson, who began to exercise him in Latin. So in his hurry he made his way through the earth to his own abode taking his booty with him. The spot where he disappeared is now a boggy pool of water called Hell Hole, on the surface of which, in summer-time, bubbles are constantly appearing. These, the folk say, are caused by the continual sinking of the bells through the water on their endless journey to the bottomless pit.And from Paul Sébillot's 1905 Le Folk-Lore de France, volume 2:
According to the traditions common to many standing bodies of water believed to conceal engulfed towns, the residents hear, at certain times of the year, and almost always on the occasion of great festivals, the sound of bells rising from their depths. It seems that the cities lie beneath the liquid layer, hardly overwhelmed and ruined, but almost in the state they were in at the moment they disappeared. One can even perceive them through the transparency of the waters, as those that the sea has buried; the churches remain at the bottom, and sometimes, just as our bells are singing out to announce Christian rituals, mysterious ringers set in motion the bells of the cursed cities.and:
At Christmas two bells sound at full volume, under the Mare Rouge at Relans, to announce the midnight hour, and at the same moment can be heard the bells of Radenac (Morbihan) buried in a sort of quagmire, those of the Mare Sonnante at Balaiseaux (Haute-Saône), of the Vieux Bronze, and of the monastery of Fleres, engulfed beneath a lake as a punishment for the monks' impiety: only at this time, occupied with their pious soundings, can the damned obtain some respite from their torments.Sébillot, like a good philosophe, is happy to provide the rationalist's explanation. He cites the Académicien, Thomas de Saint-Mars, claiming in 1780 that the bells he hears at the waterside are not those of the sunken Herbauge, but rather those of Nantes across the water:
One might add that these carillons are heard above all at two times of the year: between All Saints and Christmas, when the trees, shorn of their leaves, provide no obstacle to the propagation of the sound; and during the calm nights of the summer solstice.We hear the same themes even in a Joanna Newsom lyric:
In the trough of the waves,Newsom has claimed that she found her line about the 'damnable bell', after having penned it, in a fantasy novel (this one?) about the drowned city of Ys, and this accounts also for the title of the record from which this lyric comes: Ys. The story is that the Breton city was flooded and drowned after the king's daughter, Dahut, opened the dam-gates standing as its protection against the sea. Dahut is later transformed into a morverc'h (cf. Irish English merrow) or mermaid. The myth has some similarity, it seems to me, to the Greek legend of Nisus and Scylla. From the 1839 collection of Breton ballads known as the Barzaz Breiz:
which are pawing like dogs,
pitch we, pale-faced and grave,
as I write in my log.
Then I hear a noise from the hull,
seven days out to sea. . .
and it is that damnable bell.
Gwelous a ris ar morverc'h venn,The song of Dahut later becomes the peal of bells, lamenting, although the only literary treatment I can find online is a yucky bit of doggerel by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman, 'The Bells of Ys':
M'hle c'hlevis o kannan zoken
Klemvanus tonn ha kanaouenn.
I saw the wan mermaid,
I recall hearing her song
In the air, the anguish of lament.
Still along that haunted coast men tell usThe bells do not have a sound of 'silver joyance' or 'deathless rapture', for the bells are not part of the 'surge of being': the bells of Ys, as of Laikibris, Tunstall, Fleres and Herbauge, are bells of memory and admonition. The chimes are an element left over from an age now lost, kept fast, and warning us not to forget. They remind us that our world is only one world: there is a lower, just as there is a higher. They are a mark of what cannot be assimilated, a Delphic epsilon, or as Freud would have put it, a return of the repressed.
They can hear at times,
Then the tide is half asleep and musing,
The faint sound of unsubstantial chimes
Ringing through the world's tumultuous day-beat
From enchanted climes.
And they say those peals of fairy music
Are the city's bells,
Drowned long since with all their silver joyance,—
That a deathless rapture in them dwells,
Part forever of the surge of being
As it sinks and swells.
Standing on Alexander Binnie's 1897 Hornsey Lane Bridge, or rather on Suicide Bridge, as it is affectionately known, overlooking the A1 in its incarnation as Archway Road, one has the sense, more than anywhere else in London, Greenwich included, of straddling two worlds. This really is one of the most remarkable locations in the city, and one entirely unknown to me until we moved to nearby Hornsey two months ago.
What happens is this: you begin in Crouch End, with Alexandra Palace just peeking up above the shop roofs, and work your way south, up a gentle slope, and with tall trees hanging overhead, past the large church. You turn right onto Hornsey Lane, with the council flats opposite, and further up the large social housing units and older interwar apartment blocks, also on a sizeable scale. The whole way you ascend almost imperceptibly, all the while nestled comfortably in roads of houses, protected: this is upmarket suburbia. Then at last you come to the bridge, you emerge, and all of a sudden, on both sides, you find this:
My American readers will not be remotely surprised by this: it is the sort of thing you see all over that dark continent. But in London it is most unusual. Ours is essentially a flat city, or at most a city of gradual rises. And so to me, this view represents a genuine shock of vertigo.
When I first trudged up this way, on the first sunday of Lent, on my own, in the blazing sunshine of a morning, I heard the chimes of bells wafting their way up to me from below. And there is a little world down there, too. On the bridge are wrought-iron lamp-posts, dolphins. They are the same as those seen on the banks of the Thames, world-renowned. The dolphin, not a fish, is king of the fish; hence his central place on the arms of the Worshipful Company of Fishermongers. He is king of the river. And the Archway Road is a river, too, the rush of its traffic warm and cold and calling as the currents of the Thames himself. So I descend like the celestial visitors at Clonmacnoise. You can make your way down by a snickleway beside the bridge, but I take another path, down a picturesque alley named Tile Kiln Lane, beside the reservoir to the west. I make my way down, and I begin to forget.
It is easy to forget when you have something to look at. The church at the bottom of Tile Kiln Lane and around the corner, on Archway Road underlooking the bridge, is quite striking.
It is St Augustine of Canterbury, first built in 1888 and variously rebuilt and retooled thereafter. It lies beneath the water, hardly overwhelmed and ruined, but almost in the state it was in at the moment it disappeared. The church is strangely caught out of time, like some sort of Neo-Gothic pagoda, prefigured by this ornament on the roof of the nearby Rokesly School:
As if to emphasize the timelessness of the place, a carved inscription above the entrance commemorates George Ratcliffe Woodward, who passed away, it says, 'Anno Domini MXCXXXIV'. Now Woodward was born in 1848, and did not live to a ripe old age of -724, which he would have done if he had indeed died in AD 1124, unless of course he had invented time-travel, which really would have put his various musical and apiaristical achievements to shame. What the carver really meant to grave was MCMXXXIV, 1934. But so it goes, and we ironise.
Below the Virgin and Child, between the two doors, we find a melancholy presence. It is either the graver scolding himself for a fudged date, or the very spirit of irony itself, worn out, worn down, tired, bored.
The world, she wants you to forget. When you forget, you are hers. And so she offers you cuvées and cigars, television, pop music, and now the internet—that ultimate engine of lotophagose oblivion. But London! London exists to make you remember! I have been trying to remember. M'hle c'hlevis o kannan zoken, klemvanus tonn ha kanaouenn. She leaves everything just lying around for you to stumble upon, like an unexplored attic, all in a mess. This is how provocative she is. This is how she shakes her hair at you, and grins wanly, out of the corner of her eye, all the while lamenting what she has lost: a considerable amount. The city and I are on the same side, against them, whoever they are. Certainly against her scheming servants, the knave and the fool, who would be her masters. Most irrelevant of the irrelevant are they! The only living stone is London herself, and we, of whom her walls are built. I will not listen to her servants, nor to the world with its hideous spectacle. In being hers I will become, I think, myself.
I have been trying to remember, no joke. I have been going to church. What, you thought I'd been wasting these months without you? We went to Easter Mass at St Paul's. Mrs. Roth did not come; but I cannot blame her, for it was so cold, and her back was in agony at the time. The sermon was rather lacklustre, and communion took forever, and the huge modern paintings were inauthentic, but all this was beside the point, because I felt like I was on safari. What was I doing there? I found myself mouthing the words to the hymns because I didn't know the music, and H., whose religiosity is perhaps a little more ambiguous than my own, mouthed along with me, because she didn't know the music either. I shook hands with perfect strangers and said Peace be with you. And where is the irony in that? How do the religious make sense of this beautiful ritual? The next week it was the same. A Dutch friend and I attended Sunday service at Austin Friars, the only Dutch church in the country, and the oldest Dutch-language Protestant church in the world, including Holland. And there the alienation was heightened: I could revel in it. Not only was I the only person in the room not to know the music—I was the only person there who couldn't understand a damned thing that was being said! The sermon went blaach blaach T. S. Eliot blaach blaach blaach The Waste Land blaach blaach Shackleton blaach blaach Emmaus, and although on reflection I could deduce the subject, the vast majority of it remained, well, double dutch. Which is not to say it lacked a fine strange music. Then we stood around the altar in a circle and looked conscientiously at the floor as the prayers were recited. Afterwards they were all terribly friendly and I felt like an ass; but my companion was delighted to be able to speak her own language, and that did please me a great deal.
I force myself into these uncomfortable scenarios not from any turn towards religion, nor out of scorn for those who believe, but because of an uneasy suspicion that I have forgotten something, an art older than irony. It is as if I want the city and her ways to conquer me a little. London exists more in her church services than in her church façades. This I know; but I am trying to understand it, also. In my ears are the bells. I strain myself, for I cannot hear Herbauge—only Nantes.