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Island Farms

For the first time since Christmas we managed to take a break for a couple of weeks. The first week staying in a bothy under Irton Pike and Illgill Head in the Lakes and the second week exploring our usual landscape of the North York Moors. At the close of that week we managed, Emily Hesse and I, to sit with Alan and Helen on the seafront at Staithes and watched the children swimming in the harbour as the sunlight illuminated the strata of the cliffs.

I have been reflecting on some words of Ben Ponton and Katherine Akey in recent posts with Call Centre. Ben has been writing of the archipelago and the microsphere observable in the microworld of our lockdown homes. He even used the metaphor of the barometer almost as if our homes had their own micro-climates. The accidental and the serendipitous are part of the art of our microspheres and Ben embraces that. Katherine Akey has been thinking about the 'pain of others' and this also really resonated with me. This last year or so has been a year of loss and grief; around about twenty friends and family have died since February 2019. To somehow dissolve grief we have been doing what we usually do - seeking solace in the moors and mountains in the places we shared with our friends: that last walk in a December storm across Mount Grace with Ian, that last run through Haredale with Paul who knew that it would be his last time there. As Katherine has said - we fail to grasp horror in the abstract, our minds recoil from the grand numbers of the missing of the Somme - that vortex where tens of thousands disappeared. Srebrenica. Treblinka. It is often the single photograph of a soldier found in a charity shop, discarded because nobody can remember who he was, that shakes us and unbalances our world as we step out into the street.

My great-uncle George was one of the few of the Norfolk Regiment who made it back from Gallipoli. His brother died in a ship off Italy. My great grandma looked after him for the rest of his life. He could not marry. The horror was too present for him. My great grandad Joseph returned from the filthy plains of the dead: Arras, Somme. He could see the flares and the wire as he threw his dinner into the fire and drank himself into a murmuring peace for the rest of his life.

Katherine mentions the Napoleonic disaster of 1812. It is a moment of history that means so much to me: Antonio Gramsci, long before he was killed under the fascist jackboot, wrote of the 'invisible army of books and pamphlets' that had radiated out of France and levelled the way for Napoleon's armies. Tolstoy's vision of burning Moscow. Rachel Bespaloff's joint vision of Troy and Moscow which haunted her existential imagination until she finally took her own life in exile in America. But the story I love most about 1812 is not the horror of the retreat through the snow, the burning farms, the dead horses, the soldiers left behind in the snow and ice. It is this: that for generations there were families and individuals in western Russia, specifically around Smolensk, that were known as 'Frenchies'. These were families descended from Napoleonic soldiers who had been taken in by Russian peasants and protected. Many of them married local women. It strikes me that this is an example of planetary humanism and love which conquers horror - overcoming what Norman Geras once called the 'contract of mutual indifference'.

I want to write finally of an island in my archipelago - the 'island farm' of Sleddale not far from the Beacon in the picture above. It was called this because its pastures are entirely surrounded by moor. I first came across it (accident and serendipity again) many years ago and Emily and I often visit the stone circle to the south of the farm. It was tenanted by Fred Proud who had served in the First World War and came back to find solace in this farm, both far from civilisation and the machines and noise of war. It was a farmhouse full of flints (pygmy-flints, fairy-darts) found by the children on the moor, left by Mesolithic and Neolithic hunters whose descendants would ultimately build the stone circles. We often pick up stones or flints from here and bring them back to the microworld of our own house: the house is full of this detritus of the moor. They are nothing if not memory-stones, of course of grief and remembrance but also of humanness and solidarity and our shared landscapes and machineries of joy.


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