I don’t claim to have much in common with any of Britain’s literary figureheads. Fair enough, I did speak to J.G. Ballard once whilst on agency work at directory enquiries, but unless there’s some embryonic part-written novel depicting the existential plight of call centre operatives during the nation’s Thatcherite-Blairite transition from industrial decay to service sector servitude, I don’t think he’ll have taken much from our brief exchange. I do however share a little bit of weirdness with W.H. Auden.
Legend has it he had upon the wall of his New York office a 1:63 360 (1″ to 1 mile) Ordnance Survey ‘Tourist map’, those conveniently portable and evocatively shaded maps ideal for visualising a geographic area, imperfect for walking, but damn perfect for cycling. His copy depicted the north Pennines. As it happened, as a schoolkid I had the North Yorkshire Moors stuck to mine.
Auden’s was a device to ameliorate homesickness it’s claimed, as well as to no doubt inspire. Mine on the other hand impelled me to exploration. I would look at it for so long I’m pretty sure the topography of my home region was burned indelibly onto my memory, and my psyche.
I’d imagine what lay beyond that northern scarp slope of the Cleveland Hills so familiar, and so loved, by Teessiders. The map was a way to facilitate this, and in combination with a bike, well…
As one social geographer puts it:
“a topology of memories: as a sedimented, folded, undulating terrain of associations and memories” (D. Atkinson, 2007)
Leaving the northern part of the Lake District, those very fells Auden loved so dearly seem omnipresent. However the line between leaden sky and leadened earth changes with the weather. As the day shifted from bitter torrential rain to autumnal sunbeams they edged into and out of arm’s reach; at times miles away, unattainable, at times looming into touching distance. Nevertheless, the abstract, elusive outlines of Hartside, and the indiscernible summit of Cross Fell further away, cast a shadow over my day, knowing the effort to not only get access, but what comes later.
Now personally, I can totally get on board with the dourness of the North Pennines, and indeed Auden’s obsession with them, more so than the flowery beautification of Wordsworth’s Lakeland. Originating from the pebbledashed and poured concrete council estates of Teesside, and spending much time at the ‘Gare, I can appreciate that nexus of industry and nature. Similarly Auden’s Midlands upbringing exposed him to chimneys and smoke and, fascinated by the machinations of modern life, he discovered the harmonious and precarious link between lead mining and the solitude and harshness of upland life. I think that’s where his moral compass pointed toward.
“(it) starts to get interesting once hedges turn to dry-stone walls, towards wonderful desolation” (W.H. Auden, 1954)
Yet, when the dry stone walls finally disappear, and the road leaves the sweet resinous warmth of coniferous forestry, when you rise into the Atlantic windchill… that’s when it gets interesting.