Undead babies

Ok, I stole the title from Martin Amis. Me and Marty, we’re like that, you know (elaborately mimes two clenched hands)? But for all that, this actually happened. I didn’t dream it. And I have absolutely no explanation for it. It happened, as many of the most memorable things in my life, in Dorset. Specifically in Lyme Regis, or even more specifically, outside it in the Undercliff. Magical though it is, you can’t see much in there because it’s a ravine, so all the lovely seascapes you came there for are invisible most of the time, so we planned our walk to do both: walk out along the beach, then when we’d got fed-up falling over slippery rocks in the wrong shoes, cut up one of the streams leading off the cliff, find the Undercliff path and go home that way, preferably via the Volunteer.

Pond-hopping along the beach seemed hard work back then and I was really pleased to find it was just as hard when I went back last April, after far too long away. New boots, new coat, new someone I was with that day, but the same Lyme magic, the same sun sparkling off the blue water, the same smell of expectation and hope. It’s just a place that makes me happy, for all its oddness. And what happened was more than a bit odd.

We found some fossils because you can’t avoid it, but most of them, as always, are about three feet across and cemented into rocks that must weigh about a hundredweight so no point even trying to take them home, apart from the fact that I know zip about fossils and I never worked out what you’re actually supposed to do with them. It was Easter, but it’s Lyme, where the sun shines and we didn’t know much about the tides. We learned about them later in our lives and very nearly ended them, but that’s another story for another time.

We knew all the streams flowed down things called chines, little valleys which if they weren’t actually paths would let us scramble up into the Undercliff and find the path. Some of it was literally a scramble, so we did. About half-way up we met a group of people coming down.

It wasn’t imagination but they looked like something out of a Lidl advertisement: clean, long-limbed, Tuetonically athletic and casually blond. About seven of them, aged from late twenties to early sixties. We all said hello. From the back of their group, up the hill, they were passing things down to the bottom and being too far apart they were throwing the things to each other like rugby players cheating. Small packs, a blanket roll. Something else.

As it went past me I had a strange thought. When they’d gone I talked to my friend and asked her what the people had been throwing down to each other, passed by a six or ten foot throw, one to the other. She looked at me, worried. She asked me what I thought they’d been throwing, slightly disturbed, in that English oh-silly-me-it-couldn’t-possibly-be-but-I-thought way that people do when they’re actually seriously worried and don’t want to scare the person they’re talking to.

What we thought one of the things they were throwing, happily, confidently and practiced, down the cliff, one to another, was a baby. Even now, twenty years on, we’re both still sure it was.

 

 

 

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My happy space

I don’t know when I found it. Maybe when I was small, but although I can remember Weymouth and Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon I don’t have any memory of Lyme Regis. Geography field trips went there from school, but I didn’t do Geography A Level, so that wasn’t it either.

I think it was the French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles’ masterpiece that I read when I was 20. I remember reading it and re-reading it, then The Magus, and Daniel Martin, of course the car-crash can’t-not-look-at-it The Collector, A Maggot and the Ivory Tower and Mantissa. I think the French L’s W did it.

The Collector was a hard act to follow and it rocketed Fowles from ‘Who?” to definitive Sixties Writer with his beard and his Guernsey and bluntly, his gut, according to the sleeve notes pictures. Jealous, me? Damn right. He got out of town and high-tailed it to the kind of place you only found on BBC2 in those days, Lyme Regis, a half-forgotten slice of Georgiana on the instep of the Isles. No railway went there since Dr Beeching sorted that out, but the viaduct is still there.

I used to go there with a friend when she’d bought Thomas Hardy’s sister’s schoolhouse, almost by accident. It was about an hour away. We went there by 2CV, by Harley-Davidson, by company cars and always loved it, each time for the past 30 years and more now. And I still can’t say exactly why I love this place so much. It’s not just the fact it has its own theatre, or the the Undercliff. It’s certainly not the shade of John Fowles, given that nothing of his came close to the FLW, certainly not the bizarre casting of Meryl Streep in the movie. I mean, seriously? Pinter’s screenplay was good, but A Maggot was a bit of showing-off, the Ivory Tower pointless so far as I could see and Mantissa simply priggish as well as showing-off in the manner of later Ian McEwan, all look-how-much-research-I-done as he splurges it all over every single page of the book, pretending to be a lawyer or a neurosurgeon or a man who does something boring with solar panels. Fowles did the same with psychiatry in Mantissa but he did a much worse thing. He wrote every character with exactly the same vocabulary.

But enough of John Fowles. He’s dead anyway. Next I’ll tell you why the Undercliff is one fo the few places you can get killed going for a walk; how I very nearly did when walking in the other direction towards Charmouth; and, dear reader (no, Jane Austen hated Lyme. Strange woman), the strange tale of the baby hurled down the ravine and the Glade of Lounging Homosexuals.

All will be revealed (as it certainly wasn’t by the rather select walking club) but tomorrow, not today.

 

 

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Following yonder star

I was brought up with Christmas carols. I went to Midnight Mass two years ago, at Blythburgh, in the church they call the Cathedral of the Marshes that once a year has its carpark full of Porsche Cayennes and RangeRovers and Bentleys as the houses that go without lights most of the year suddenly boast a tasteful wreath on their Colefax & Fowler-tinted front doors. I even had a girlfriend called Carol once, who I met in the Christmas holidays. How much more Christmas can one person be?

For me, there has to be a journey. A physical one. Or it’s not a proper Christmas. And I have absolutely no idea why.

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It’s taken me to Lyme Regis, 130 miles from where I lived, for a magical break that lasted into the new year. We very nearly died on that one, forced to climb cliffs marked “Impassable” on the Ordnance Survey map, one step up and sliding several more down on shale that came away under our feet. I’d read the tide tables wrong. It was that or drowning, but somehow the map was wrong. They weren’t impassable. Not quite. We went to Midnight Mass that year, in a tiny stone church shining like a beacon on top of the sea-cliffs, the church packed with teenagers, couples, old people, children, a huge crowd we had seen hurrying past the windows of the Volunteer as we sat inside. I’ve never seen anything like it. But I’d never seen anything like English police acting as if they were in the Dukes of Hazard on New Years Eve.

Two police cars came into town in opposite directions, passed each other on the main street and half-pulled a bootlegger turn, sideways, blocking the road so that everyone who poured out of the pubs to hear the landlord of the Bolly play Auld Lang Syne on a saxophone in the street didn’t get run over. The few cars that wanted to drive through had to wait. Quietly, if they had any sense and didn’t want to be breathalysed. It was fabulous, real community policing with no fuss or fanfare.

Most of the other Christmas journeys weren’t quite as dramatic. Two Christmases in Spain. Last year a trip out into rural Suffolk, the year before that a trip back ‘home,’ to the West Country I never wanted to leave to see a friend I was at school with. My, those ten years have just flown past.

A trip to Leicester, when we’d been working there and left a sound recorder in a hall next to the enormous market I didn’t know even existed. I drove up the old roads, not the motorway in flat grey December weather, coming home with a bed for our big new cat, adopted in a hurry and with nothing to call his own. I think that was the best one, somehow, driving up through Towcester along A roads laid out by the Romans, back near the first Christmas time.

I’m not religious. But it’s still Christmas. And every year I dream of being in Bath Abbey for Midnight Mass, the stone angels climbing up to Heaven, floodlit to help them find their way. I won’t be there again this year.

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The French Lieutenant’s Christmas

Twenty years ago I went to Lyme Regis.

It’s one of the oddest, most wonderful English seaside towns I know. Ten days at Christmas there was magical. Even though I nearly, very nearly, got killed, along with the person I was with.

It was my fault.

We’d driven down some hundred miles or so, staying in a friend’s flat that was the top floor of a building about 250 years old where the sound of seagulls woke us every morning for an early walk down to The Cob to see if the huge ship moored and obviously┬ádragging its anchor closer to the beach each day was going to be still there or wrecked, until one morning it was simply gone.

We’d witnessed a car crash outside the town on a snowy road caused because someone was changing their┬áCD and had been driving like an accident looking for somewhere to happen. So we set off to the west of the town, where the cliffs crumble into the sea, more each time it rains, a place you can hear the landslips, hear the water oozing through the mud and rock, which isn’t reassuring. We walked along the beach, looking for fossils, because we knew we were safe from the tide coming in. I’d read the tide tables. Except I’d read them back to front, so when I thought it was low tide it was high tide and now we were trapped between a rising tide and shale cliffs that were marked “Impassable” on the map.

We proved that was wrong but it wasn’t funny. We couldn’t go back along the beach. And as we climbed we found ourselves on all fours a few times, then literally surfing back down the cliffs on lumps of rock that had come loose. We didn’t have a choice. Both of us thought at one point that we might not actually get out of this. We didn’t have phones with us. We got up onto some sort of plateau of wind-blasted trees at some point, about half-way up, where we knew for the first time that we wouldn’t fall back into the sea. But there was no road or path leading to this place. We still had to climb the rest of the cliffs or stay there forever, so we climbed. It took hours. It wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t great. Nor, when we reached the top, was finding we were in the middle of a huge bramble patch and had to go through it to get to someone’s farmyard. It wasn’t a day of choices, after the first wrong one. But we lived.

We went to church at midnight after we saw practically the whole town go past the windows of the Naval Volunteer, the pub we were in. There’s another pub at the bottom of the hill but I’ve never felt at ease there. It used to be used as a mortuary after shipwrecks. There were old people going along to the church, middle class couples wrapped in big coats and odder, young people, girls in their teens straight out of the pub and into the church standing like the beacon it was, bright lit on the hill in the dark.

I was given a saxophone that Christmas. Before we’d got home the mouthpiece disappeared and although we looked everywhere we could think of in that old flat and searched the car and pockets and everywhere else, it was gone. We drove to Bridport thinking there might be a music shop there but no luck. Except when we got back to the flat the mouthpiece was sitting in the exact centre of the floor. There was no possible way we could not have seen it if it had been there. It just wasn’t.

Lyme, where one summer we saw a family and their adult friends, all of them tall and blond and fine-looking throwing something down the Undercliff rocks, one to the other, passing it like a rugby ball and as it was thrown past we both of us thought, separately, ‘that’s a baby.’ We talked about it later. Years later we still both think it was their baby, wrapped up and apparently used to this.

More things as odd have happened there. More things more magical. I love that place. But I won’t be there this Christmas. Another year.

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The Christmas List

Traditionally, as you sink into the bottom of a large glass and wonder why it is that with eight boxes of books still unpacked since the move fifty-one weeks ago, two boxes of DVDs ditto, internet access and three large boxes of CDs, a saxophone, two guitars, a harmonica, a penny whistle, a laptop and an un-numberable er, number of notebooks, you’re still arsing around on Facebook marvelling at the state of other people’s lives, the more rubbish the better so you can feel good about yours, (Your car won’t start again? You got a job selling advertising space? You live in Bradford? I am soooooooo sorry…LOLS) it’s time to look back to other times and other Christmases. And not to look at the ones that are all about “we just got back from our 14th power break to Iceland in time to collect the new convertible.” If anyone apart from me actually says power break anymore. Pass me my Ray-Bans, would you? Mega.

Well I think it is anyway. It was alright for Charles Dickins, so I can’t see what YOUR problem is with it, exactly. It’s this anger management thing, isn’t it? I’ve been told about that before. I was JOKING! Jeez….

Anyway. Probably my most memorable Christmas was in Lyme Regis. We’d gone down there for ten days or so. It was one of those times when the more you remember it, the more you remember about it. The epic walk that only stopped when the abandoned railway line we were following headed off over a derelict viaduct and we eventually decided that we wouldn’t follow it. It wasn’t a very health & safety conscious trip though. That was the day after or maybe before we got cut off by the tide through reading the Tide Tables in the fossil shop and not having a phone with us had the option of climbing the cliffs that were marked “unscalable” on the map.

Well, they aren’t. Some of the time was spent sliding twenty feet back down towards the waves, surfing the scree, some of it was spent in a lunar landscape that very few people have ever seen and more was spent hacking through the bramble patch at the top of the cliffs once we’d got to the top, but we here both are separately all this time later, telling the story. Some of it was seriously ‘maybe-we-aren’t-going-to-get-out-of-this frightening, but come on, we’re English so we can’t talk about it and anyway there was nothing much around in the way of choices aside from drowning. It does focus the attention. Buck-up and bang on, what?

We’d thought a friend was coming down to join us but he didn’t. We stayed in a flat in a two hundred year old building belonging to another friend where odd things happened. I couldn’t get the Mercedes I’d had for six months down the narrow alley to the flat. What I thought was a shotgun in an usual case that was going to be my Christmas present turned out to be a vintage Martin saxophone, so old it was marked Low Tone because back then they hadn’t invented the word ‘Tenor.’

The second day after I’d opened it I couldn’t find the clamp that holds the reed on. We turned the flat upside down looking for it, packed, unpacked, but it wasn’t there anymore. We had a trip to the nearest town to buy a new one but none of the Bridport shops had one. When we got back it was sitting in exactly the centre of the bedroom floor, in plain view, on its own. I spent twenty minutes in silence watching someone make a phone call, which I wouldn’t normally do, except that she was naked and shining from her bath. I remember that still.

When our other friends came down for New Year and the street was shut by the police for more saxophone action and we ended up face down in a pile of rubber balls, that was another good bit too.

But of all of that, Christmas Eve was the best. We’d spent most of the evening in The Volunteer after trying out a drink or two in the pub at the bottom of the hill where they took the bodies from the famous shipwreck, where the landlords little dog wouldn’t let one of the bodies alone, licking the dead man’s face until he lived again. That was around the corner from the hotel I’d stayed in when I needed to get some time on my own and came down to Lyme, staying in a room that no hotel could offer now, with a shared bathroom at the end of the corridor and a single bed, much the same as it must have been when American officers were billeted there prior to D-Day in 1944.

Lyme Regis church, on the top of a hill.
Lyme Regis church, on the top of a hill.

At about half past eleven the first few came past the door. By quarter to there were more. By five to there were so many people streaming in their winter coats and some distinctly out of them down the hill that we asked the barman what was going on. Church. Midnight carol service.

So we went. It was like something out of a Jimmy Stewart film. There were the kind of old people you’d expect to see in church. There were the traditional Christmas drunks. But there was everybody else as well. Giggles of girls in their teens with vodka-vacant eyes. Guys who looked like they’d been up welding cars till late. Every kind and age of person you can imagine, smart and scruffy, sober and drunk, old and young, all crammed into this tiny stone church on top of the hill, singing the songs that somehow we really all knew.

I don’t do church. Not even if it’s called St Michael the Archangel, which gives it a bit of clout in the world of angels and other made-up stories, I’d imagine. Promised Land, anyone? Or have you just had one?

I had to go to church when I was a child and I stopped as soon as I could. I don’t believe in the Queen as the head of my faith, because I don’t really have one and I can’t see what she’s got to do with it anyway, coming from a family that even changed its name to suit their circumstances. The girls pushing thirty now who were only going back to their childhood beds by way of half an hour in Daryl’s Renault first probably didn’t have much of a faith either. Except we were all there while the wind howled outside, safe together in the light, singing songs about cold and starvation and death and poverty. And nobody said they could have got all that at home. Not even me.

 

 

 

 

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