Off grey

Hospitals don't have architects, I think they grow randomly along veins of misery. Even the ubiquetous displays of art by kids meant to cheer things up fail to dampen the corrosive vibe of daily life and death decisions. I turned down a picture-strewn corridor at Addenbrookes, took a stairway to the John Radcliffe and emerged in a hospital gift shop in America somewhere where phantoms in green gowns solve the stranger riddles and rhymes of being human. This particular institution sits in the crushed ruins of a venerable stone-built seat of learning like a grey concrete giant, spilling obese and white into its hinterlands. The walls of its arteries are pale tan, beige, white and the grey of corpses. We ghost past more school art projects, terminated by a healthy eating advertisment sponsored by Subway. A handful of alcohol rub and their irony is cleaned off.  We are ushered into a room where we discuss some corpse grey matter in measured and respectful tones. When we pack up to leave, I look more closely at the display of equipment behind glass along one wall. At the turning point of a forty hour US trip, I'm strangely drawn into their waving tentacles. It's a display of the history of electric shock therapy machines and I can't fathom whether it's a celebration or a warning.


Three Beautiful Things: Jewels

  1. The hazel tree in its full autumn garb, untouched by frost or gale, blazing in the late evening sun.
  2. The beech hedge flat and straight, a mosaic of metallics: gold, silver, bronze, copper.
  3. The yew tree at its deepest emerald, speckled with spittalberries like rubies.


Waiting for Frost

Autumn is running late and the summer landscape has grown tired without the mercy of a frost to send it to sleep. The foreground is pocked by the rusted heads of teasels, scratched with dried grass, dusty with the heads of thistles gone to seed. Bullace hang blue-black like dried blood spatters on the coppergreen bush. Unnamed plants grow in unkempt lines, one on top of another, following the bones of fields and the sinews of old lodes,their tired tops translucent against the evening light, like tatters of painted paper laid in ragged overlaps. The mist rises from the drowning, a golden blanket to trick the tired sun into sleep so that the cunning fen can come alive, screeching and squealing, yapping and creaking in the dark. The moon soon stands clear among its stars, casting my long, weak shadow over the crawling fog. Underneath the secret, waterlogged land heaves and writhes, closing lodes like muddy, swallowing lips and opening others like gashes in the secret re-arranging of the night.


Hot Blue

 July and the old river has fallen asleep in its deep bed swaddled with thick green reeds, each one new and unblemished. As we move though them to reach the slumbering, muddy stream we stir flocks of Banded Demoiselles, electric echoes of the blues of midwinter reflected in the long, slow sigh of the heatwave. They are so blue, their banded wings are striped with cobalt and their bodies like splinters of stained glass, metalled and shot though with argon arcs. 


A Nightingale in the Scrapyard

Carolina swampland. Trees grow out of the black water like the broken columns of some dead civilisation. Waterlilies lie on liquid soot and ripen under ripped stumps. The dirt roads dip into wet hollows. Dragonflies and damsels fly the ranges and men curse them. Butterflies of an old kind, dark and striking, wander between the soot footed pines. These are not the drifting motes of English lawns. These are shocks among the stun grenades and guns and shell cases crunching under foot. War gestates in these woods. We hear that there is a stranger on the range. A wanted man and so we shall have live ammo. There is hunger, like dogs sniffing for a crumb. The roads on the high ground are bound side to side by sand coloured vehicles. Men and women crouch on the ranges, firing, and there are many ranges. Miles of ranges. Recruits stretch into the distance. It is 4pm and the sun is shining and the flare one mile down the sniper range hurts my eyes. Men lie in fake tenament windows waiting to kill electric muslims.

Leaving the swampland for home, crossing the higher ground, with everyone silent because our own mission has been a failure, we pause in a queue of traffic for yet another checkpoint. Through a screen of trees I see row upon row of motorcycles, scrapped. Harleys, Elektra-Glides, Ducattis, Kawasakis and Hondas. Glittering chrome handlebars curl like dinosaur bones. Brilliantly coloured bodies glow like great dead dragonflies. Corrosion wanders through the piles which are stacked like strata exposed. For a moment I am struck with regret because I have missed, perhaps, the most poignant photograph of my life. We lurch into motion and cross a thin stream draining the swamps and all that they bear, into the blackwater of the Cape Fear river.

Our guide recommends bars, one has a wet t-shirt contest, others are rawer still. If we are feeling adventurous there is a country music bar where a fight is the price of admission. He didn't mention the lounge in the sorry mall. It promises live music and we chose to slake our boredom there. It has four screens each showing a different sport. Segregation has long died in North Carolina, so they say, but that appears not to be the case here. The barman is agitated for a moment. We want beer. A man watches us. Another watcher sits in the DJ's hut. The barman touches his hands free and the DJ touches me on the shoulder. He is almost seven feet tall. His sharp eyes bite. But he wants to play whatever whatever we want because the band is late and we look like tippers. They play us Beatles and Stones and the dark faces tolerate it. The band arrive. They have no drummer, he is not sufficiently stoned today. The bassist and stand-in engineer rips our ears with feedback. He wants us to buy his album and we don't. But when he grudgingly invites the fat lady to sing, apologising for her in advance, we discover the music of a woman told she is talentless by a talentless liar. All the bar is looking away, staring at the TV or the barmaids chest. Not one watches the woman sing and every man here is listening with every ounce of his attention to the nightingale in the scrapyard.