Hemlock

There was not one can of Cherry Coke to be had in the village of Middleton. The photo I planned of me slaking a fictional thirst on a drink I haven’t drunk for years and which I would never normally choose anyway was immediately scuppered. For the sake of this blog, for the sake of recreating a moment from a recognised classic of recent European literature, I was willing to try one again. But despite walking from one end of the village to the other, I could find only a pub open for business. I had to deduce where the village shop had been, the one in which the narrator of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn visited on his way to see the poet Michael Hamburger, who lived outside the village itself in an Arts and Crafts house surrounded by the apple orchard he tended. (This was clarified for me after my own visit and during the time of writing this post. I mean, I knew Hamburger tended an apple orchard, was in fact famous for keeping hundreds of rare English apple breeds going throughout his life; but I didn’t know his home was Arts and Crafts style, and I had completely forgotten he lived on the outskirts of Middleton and not in the village itself. This parenthesis seems odd in the general grammar I have adopted for this post, a post-facto interpolation that tears at the seams of writing. I could have placed these comments in a footnote but wanted to stress the timorous construction of the account I am giving. It is in the spirit of their necessity at this point in time that I offer them here as an extended parenthesis.) Gone was the supposedly eternal space of the village shop, and the short walk I had undertaken in the name of a key passage from Sebald’s book was thrown off course a result of its absence.

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I remarked to the friend I was with how walking through villages is more of a tantalising prospect than we generally think. Urban walking is said to hold the most potential for our desires, yet there is something particular about the layout of the small built environment of the village against the vast landscape surrounding it that emphasises human activity where it does exist. Hence turning a corner in a village is a qualitatively different phenomenon from doing the same in a city. Maybe I was describing my hope of coming face-to-face with the shop in which Sebald’s narrator himself wishes to slake a well-earned thirst with the purchase of a bottle of mineral water. I had not banked on this shop being centrally located, either, even if Middleton had a clear central gathering space in the form a village green over which the tower of the parish church loomed. Since the only visible business on the green was the pub, we scattered ourselves to see if the shop nestled elsewhere, maybe on the village’s outskirts. Finding no other possible premises, we returned to the ‘Street’ (as Sebald’s narrator puts it) and to a cottage that looked like it had once been shop premises. The sign saying ‘The Old Post Office’ was a dead giveaway, that is giving away the former place of a now dead post office. Post offices and grocery stores so often exist symbiotically, even these days, and this made me think that next to the Old Post Office had indeed been the once vital place where bread and milk could be bought.

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The present owners somehow alert passersby to this fact by picking out the former entrances in duck egg blue. They could have refitted the shop entrance with more conventional window frames, but instead have adapted features of a different kind in order not to disrupt the balance of a centuries-old elevation. I stared at the place without outstaying my welcome, imagining the narrator stepping across the threshold to make his feeble request for much-needed refreshment.

“Some two hours after my fortuitous release from the labyrinth of the heath, I reached the village of Middleton, where I planned to visit the writer Michael Hamburger, who has lived there for almost twenty years. It was nearly four o’clock. Neither in the village street nor in the gardens was there was a soul in sight, the houses gave an unwelcoming impression, and, with my hat in my hand and my rucksack over my shoulder, I felt like a journeyman in a century gone by, so out of place that I should not have been surprised if a band of street urchins had come skipping after me or one of Middleton’s householders had stepped out upon his threshold to tell me to be on my way. After all, every foot traveller incurs the suspicion of the locals, especially nowadays, and particularly if he does not fit the image of a local rambler. Perhaps that was why the blue-eyed girl in the village shop gave me such a flabbergasted stare. The jingle of the door bell had long since faded, and I had been standing for a while in the little grocer’s shop, which was piled to the ceiling with tinned foods and other imperishables, when she emerged from a back room, where the light of a television flickered, to gape at me with her mouth half open, as if I had landed from another planet. Once she had recovered somewhat, she scrutinised me with a disapproving air, her eye fixing at length on my dusty footwear, and when I wished her a good afternoon she again stared at me, utterly stunned. It had often struck me that when country people set eyes on a foreigner they are quite overawed, and, even if he has a good command of their language, they find it hard to understand him. The girl in Middleton village shop was no exception, and merely shook her head nervously when I asked for mineral water. What she at length sold me was an ice-cold can of Cherry Coke, which I drained at a draught like a cup of hemlock, leaning against the churchyard wall, before walking the last few hundred yards to Michael’s house.” (W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse (London: The Harvill Press, 1999), pp. 175-6)

I am still uncertain even as I write now whether my deductions took me close to the original location of Middleton’s village shop. Foolish of me to expect the survival of a shop recorded in a book written in the early 1990s, let alone that, even if the shop had survived, there would have been continuity of ownership. This would have been nerdy perfection – for the kind of nerd who converts their old PhD into a valid holiday pursuit. But I so wanted to see a flickering TV in a back room. And I wouldn’t have minded if the girl serving me didn’t have blue eyes (yet it would have been creepy in a good way if she had). I wanted my presence to be viewed with circumspection but knew that villages and villagers were now less circumspect towards outsiders. Perhaps it was taking the encounter too far to expect the shop to be stocking the same imperishables noted by Sebald’s narrator, even if in some admittedly very isolated cases it was still possible. Just. But it wasn’t to be. So much has moved on in the world since the publication of The Rings of Saturn. All told, however, this was all pure folly, having little to do with the serious endeavour of the well-researched and assured literary pilgrim.

I set my sights – literally and metaphorically – on locating Hamburger’s house. There was an attendant problem here too, a pile-up of wrong turns in my thinking and actions as a reader that produced the perfect misfired Sebaldian moment. Firstly, we hadn’t intended to visit Middleton at all, and so I wasn’t prepared. Ever obliging, my Dad was willing to drive me there, but I kept my real reason for going to Middleton secret as I was somewhat embarrassed at the thought of revealing my idea to buy a can of Cherry Coke and have a picture taken of me drinking it. ‘What’s there?’, he enquired. Nothing, at least for the general visitor. Everything and nothing for the initiated. Without the Sebaldian context and the ironic enjoyment of staging a flippant moment, Middleton would have struck him as pointless. Pretty, another relatively unspoilt corner of Suffolk, but very little to offer visitors. I had to give him a reason of some kind: “It’s in The Rings of Saturn. The narrator visits his friend in Middleton and weird stuff happens.” I don’t think he was any the wiser. In the end he merely accepted I wanted to go there, for whatever reason, and took our little tramp around the village as an opportunity to rest in the car listening to the radio.

Another reason for the misfire is that I had just bought two large bottles of mineral water in a branch of Waitrose in the semi-desuetudinous town of Saxmundham. I was therefore prepared in a way that Sebald’s narrator hadn’t been. I couldn’t even remember to withhold my thirst until that Cherry Coke was in my hand. (Something tells me the scene would not have played out quite as effectively for the reader if the narrator had popped into Waitrose for supplies before visiting Hamburger.) Thirdly, on account of the unexpected visit to Middleton, I hadn’t checked up on things, the simplest of things, nor was I carrying the copy of The Rings of Saturn I had bought in Aldeburgh precisely to refresh my memory during our holiday. My head was relatively empty, except for the following: Michael Hamburger, Middleton, village shop, no mineral water, Cherry Coke, and, for reasons that will be clear if you decide to read The Rings of Saturn yourself, a black beetle swimming in a small fountain. I flitted between these words as I worked out what to gain from being in Middleton. Taken as a whole, they constituted the main reason for going: ‘I suppose the other reason I could have told Dad for coming here’, I self-consciously remarked to my friend, ‘is that Middleton is the scene of a confluence of intertextual references in a classic of recent world literature!’ She raised an eyebrow at the high theory register even if she accepted it as a rationale.

Truth be told, I am lousy at this kind of thing. I like to think of myself as a thoroughbred literary pilgrim, but time and again I end up lacking the details that make such things happen. There must be some connection in this between my chequered past with Sebald research and stepping out – as successful Sebald scholars otherwise tend to do – with an index card brain ready to flick through in order to guarantee an experience is edifying, illuminating, even entertaining – in order at the very least that it should work. I seem to be programmed for self-sabotage. It’s not the first time I have frantically walked around a place in search of a site of literary significance only to berate myself afterwards for not doing my homework. Opportunities for literary pilgrimages being few and far between, oftentimes you have to grab the moment when you happen to be en route to somewhere decidedly non-literary and mundane, such as where to stock up for tomorrow’s breakfast. If I had it in mind to request this visit to Middleton, my ill-preparedness spoke volumes about the fear of ridicule or actually just the fear of looking ridiculous. That is, the thought of acting the fool in full view of my superego, channelling as it does the academy from which I feel excluded. What is the point in being assiduous if there is little point in the first place? Being ill-placed is more than failing to find the right place: it is the feeling of having touched a sphere of influence only to become an outcast, a stranger to yourself in the form of an over-zealous amateur as opposed to the fully-fledged professional you thought you were becoming. The thought, in other words, of over six years of doctoral research rendered null and void by a community that refuses any acknowledgement.

Internet coverage being what is in those parts, my friend and I fumbled on our phones for information that would put us on a better footing. Such as (mainly): what was the name of Michael Hamburger’s house? On entering the village I’d clocked a large house in spacious grounds called The Old Rectory. Though an old structure, it had been modernised. Moreover, it was the name of Sebald’s home in Poringland, and despite being a popular name in rural areas, it was too much of a convergence to be true. Hamburger had passed away in 2007 (I verified this date subsequently); his wife may have continued living in their home, but equally she may have taken the decision to downsize. I was offended on behalf of the Hamburgers’ memory with the idea that a new owner would sweep in and clinically modernise the place, denying it of the charm the Hamburgers had unselfconsciously nurtured across the years. Nor would I have been surprised to learn that the apple orchard had become one of the casualties of such a process, having been replaced by lawns or grounds ripe for playing sport, a basketball hoop or two and even one of those enclosed trampolines that are part and parcel of  modern suburban blight.

Working on slim pickings, we nevertheless walked to The Old Rectory to see if we could find anything better to go on. It was a beautifully bright and warm October afternoon. I smiled at an old lady tending her garden, and she smiled back, if a little nervously. Bunting made up of flags from countries across the globe bedecked the railings around a well-maintained community building. Few and far between are the English villages that can justifiably lay claim to a significant connection to world literature, and the United Nations bunting seemed fitting in the context of the thoughts flowing through my head about what Hamburger’s writing career symbolised in terms of high culture, translation, and poetics. The bunting seemed like an accidental homage to the village’s most distinguished late resident, a community that respected literature with a capital L as well as the values underpinning internationalism. I wanted to take a picture of the bunting in front of the charming brick building but stopped myself as soon as I realised from an open door that it was in fact a primary school. Instead, nourished by the warm glow the gesture radiated, I moved on before raising any fears.

I was striding ahead as my friend lagged behind. She had sustained injuries from a fall the previous day in Dunwich Village. I had been striding then, in the direction of what I thought was Dunwich Heath, when out of the blue I heard an inexplicably strange sound like a large box of books hitting the deck. I turned round to find my friend sitting upright as if she were a doll cruelly rejected by its fickle owner. Sobbing helplessly and beside herself, both my Dad and I were also at a loss – in his case mainly because he couldn’t assist physically as these days he has only one of the shoulders he was born with. Nothing was broken, but she had scraped her knees in a way that made me shiver. Sensitivity around the knees explained her slowness in Middleton. Her pitiable limp was genuine but equally was an expression of the moment. I didn’t push her far, though, since no sooner had we arrived at the boundary of The Old Rectory than we agreed it could not have been the Hamburgers’ residence. Neither of our phones were playing ball; we gave up on searching for facts and threw ourselves open to the vagaries of (fairly lame) deduction. And then my friend’s phone offered the information that Hamburger had been laid to rest in the parish church. We turned back on ourselves in the direction of the village green.

We had little luck there either. Most of the graves were at least 150 years old; their desiccated surfaces and the simplicity of the design indicated as much. Hamburger’s grave was nowhere to be seen. Foolishly we walked up the – perhaps infelicitously named – ‘War Memorial Path’ (I read ‘War Path’), but realised that neither the Hamburger family nor the church itself would wish to lay a German Jew to rest in the vicinity of English war heroes, mostly as a result of the fact that relatives neglectful of the more subtle lessons history has to offer might protest against the interment of any German subject there. We ignored the crucifix, thinking that Hamburger’s Jewish identity – to our knowledge neither privately observant nor professed – may not have been religious but was undeniably cultural. Hence his family’s forced migration from Nazi Germany, as The Rings of Saturn and String of Beginnings: Intermittent Memoirs 1924-1954, the poet’s account of his early years, relate. We also had little expectation of discovering a Star of David in an archetypally Anglican churchyard in this most English of counties. That is, a Star of David that signified the resting place of someone Jewish.

We left the churchyard – time could not take much more futility. In any case, Dad had been far too patient and required lunch. Before closing the wooden gate I was surprised to see that the visual assemblage of the nave’s stained glass window contained two Stars of David. I read this as a sign for us to take our leave and forgo any further trespass.

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