Sunday, 11 December 2011

Strawberry fields and crumbling cliffs

Angela Williams at Literary Places just sent me a recommendation that I'll definitely follow up: Welsh Journal by the poet, critic, teacher and broadcaster Jeremy Hooker, in which the Hampshire-born author describes his experience living as a 'foreigner' in Welsh-speaking rural Wales. The particular point of relevance, Angela tells me, is that Hooker describes in the book how he misses the countryside where he grew up, and it strikes a chord that it's more or less the same landscape - southern coast and chalk downland - that has such deeps for me.

The Green Letters journal - issue 8, 2007 - has an interview by Fiona Owen, Mystery at the heart of things, in which Hooker talks about the landscapes and literature that have informed and inspired his work. There are also several poems at the Poetry Archive,  notably Landscape of the Daylight Moon ("From early on, from boyhood, I was haunted by chalk landscapes which I first saw the back of my parents' car. Many years later I looked at paintings by Paul Nash who was also obviously haunted by the same and similar chalk landscapes") and Strawberry Field ("In recent years I've returned in a poem to the area where I was born at Warsash near the Hamble River between Southampton and Portsmouth").

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Strawberry Field stirred up a memory or two.  I know the location - it's only a few miles from where I was brought up - but had quite forgotten it. It's not chalkland, but on the soft Tertiary rocks of the Hampshire Basin, whose soil and microclimate are good for strawberry farming. This particular tract of farmland - the majority of the area in the Google Maps view above - is on the north shore of the Solent, between the Hamble and Meon estuaries and cut off to seaward by low sandy cliffs. Despite being between two major conurbations and by one of busiest sea routes of the south coast, it's remarkably isolated. The main land routes, road and railway, from Southampton toward Portsmouth completely skirt it, having to go well inland to the lowest crossing over the Hamble. It is, however, easily walkable by the coastal path - Warsash to Lee-on-the-Solent - which is part of the 60-mile Solent Way.

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I haven't been there for perhaps 40 years, but current photos show it hasn't changed much from how I remember it. The classic salt marsh near Warsash (see Bing Maps here) and the eroding cliffs with chines (see Bing Maps here and here) are still there. Due to the rapid erosion, however, I gather one of the derelict WW2 emplacements has gone since the Bing Maps picture was taken.

I'm not entirely sure about revisiting it - the problem again of the wisdom of "going back" - as my chief memory concerns a very pleasant walk (or at least it seemed pleasant to me) with an early girlfriend on a dazzling summer day - only to be told afterward that things were off because I was "too solemn". Though it seemed an unfair and impossible-to-remedy accusation, I undoubtedly was. At that time I was getting the first attacks of the depression that dogged me through the next decade and more. That onset, rather than the specific incident, makes this location feel very desolate in memory.

Listen: we are composing
the day between us, mingling
our voices with the sounds.
Or say we are a small part
only – which is true -
like sails reduced to pieces
of white butterfly wing
by the breadth of the waterway
and the shadow of Fawley
which speaks of power
with its moon city
and tongue of leaping flame.

From the edge of the Common,
among salt-loving plants,
where gun-emplacements
keep the memory of centuries of wars,
the shore appears dingy.
But step out
towards the water line,
where the tide has receded,
and what you find is like a palette
webbed stickily with yellows, purples,
reds, bright green.

- from Strawberry Field, Jeremy Hooker

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licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

- Ray

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