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No flies, no flies on Billy Silverfish.
Wide sky. A long straight road shifting and simmering in meridian sunstrobe. Borderland landscape censored by ragged hedges.
Clammy hands squeezed the piecrust indentations of the slippery wheel. Silverfish stamped on the brakes, skidded, wrestled the rented car, thumpthump, onto a low grass verge. What kind of car? A silver one: when their journey started, back in the heat of London, several lives ago.
Silverfish tore the upside-down map from Dryfeld's grip. He was melting inside his undervest, white shirt, leather waistcoat, sports jacket, corduroy car coat. His vest was sweating, his waistcoat was sweating. Tarry fingers slipped and slithered. When he locked his arm around Dryfeld's bullish neck, the dealer gagged.
'Brilliant. I entrust the map to a guy who's colour blind. That blue thing is a river, you asshole, not a road. That's the fucking Wye.'
'If you insist on dragging me away from civilisation, you deserve everything you get. You see a forest, I see ranks of future books.'
Dryfeld was enjoying this, feeding on Silverfish's rage. The pumping of the driver's agitated heart rattled the pens in his pocket.
'Forest? What forest?' he screamed. 'I come from Canada. Watched any airline commercials lately? Canada is one big forest in which three nebbishes buy books and one sells them. That's me. Numero uno.'
'You want to be a mapfetishist, help yourself. I'm gone.'
Dryfeld wrestled his bulging book sacks from the back seat, leaving the door wide open, while he strode off between scraggy hawthorn hedges down an undeviating road.
Silverfish beat his head against the horn, crows lifted from stone fields. Now, in the midsummer heat, the flies were on him. They liked him, they loved this crazy Jewish diabetic. They described him, ravished him with tender, frenzied tongues. They bit and burrowed among the black hairs and salty craters of Silverfish's wrist. They danced in his sweet blood, extending and retracting a multiplicity of jointed legs. Recognising a member of their tribe, a future ancestor, they paid their respects, shitting into his invisible wounds. He was as fast as they were. He lived on bug time: burning, ranting, forcing. Silverfish chewed Benzedrine wool as a tranquilliser.
Suddenly, it was too much. The puff went out of the man. His sugars had been stolen, converted into alcohol. He oozed syrup. The broiled cabbalist pressed his cheek against the merciful chill of the windscreen; he rolled his beard, a coating of honey and flyknots, between glass and bone. Leaning back, he fumbled in his breastpocket for a loose cigarette; demolished it in three deep drags, lit another from the stub.
Dryfeld, in a shimmer of distance, crossing between dark bars of shadow, printed by irregularly spaced trees, onto the pink road, was a squat, toadlike excrescence, burdened with two sagging pouches. A hunchback striding towards oblivion. The vanishing dot on a TV screen in a prairie motel. Silverfish smoked and watched. At the very last instant, before his fellow dealer was absorbed into that secret cleft of darkness where the hedges met, he cupped his hands, shouted.
'I don't need a map. I'll track us to Hay. You can smell the fear twenty miles off. I'm part Native American.'
When Dryfeld, back in Reading, had asked him which part, he'd ripped open the buttons of his shirt to expose the lettering on his undervest: Seattle Indians. 'My heart, bonzo, pure Kwakiutl. We walked over the Bering Strait in the first pogrom when your great-granddaddy was figuring out a way to barbecue his Diplodocus.'
Shivering in mirage distance, Dryfeld held fast to his occulted puddle. Veins pulsed in his throat. His tongue was too thick for his mouth. He chewed his lips for moisture. His cropped skull wavered with leaf-fish, a hairnet of cool foliage.
It was a standoff. Silverfish wouldn't fire the engine, Dryfeld wouldn't take one step down the road. Shadows lengthened. This is how they advanced through England, over the Severn Bridge, up the Golden Valley — along the border country, dipping, without consideration, in and out of Wales. Between bookshops they argued and fought, stopping frequently to go toe-to-toe under motorway bridges, in service stations, with the car jammed across a pedestrian precinct. They ate (slept when they could) on the move. The car was ankledeep in burger cartons and jerk chicken wrappers, insulin syrettes, Moose Head lager caps (Silverfish); silver foil dishes with bean curds and threads of sprouting stuff (Dryfeld). It was an ashtray, a depository for ravaged newsprint.
Dryfeld headbutted Silverfish in a Happy Eater outside Swindon; split his nose, cracked his spectacles, which were now held together with Elastoplast. Silverfish stamped on Dryfeld's ankle and kneed him in the folds of his kilt. In Middlesbrough they'd been stoned in the street. In Bath they'd been taken into custody for kicking down the door of a bookshop that was still closed for lunch at five o'clock. In Margate they fisted sand down the throat of a runner who propounded, at inordinate length, insane theories about T.S. Eliot's breakdown and the strategic impact of Margate on The Waste Land — instead of delivering the receipted bill he'd promised for the poet's stay at the Albermarle Hotel in Cliftonville.
Zero on zero. Nothing connected to nothing. In millennial Margate the only connections left were for smalltime pill-poppers, Balkan exiles trading charity chits, the officially disabled, hole-in-the-wall businesses that doubled hairdressing with the cashing of dubious cheques. Pawnbrokers fencing electrical goods to punters who couldn't afford electricity.
'The shelter overlooking the beach, the pier, the sands, that's the moment of fracture in twentieth-century consciousness, the birth of modernism,' the runner spluttered, spitting rock diamonds, as he lifted his face from the gritty poultice. 'Read it yourself, lads, on that wall. The Eliot anagram: TOILETS.'
Dryfeld and Silverfish were gone, on the road out, Canterbury, Rochester and points west. The only books in Margate were hooky rent books and pseudo books, porn videos in plastic overcoats.
I watched them. Didn't I tell you? I was there in Wales; making up the numbers, taking my turn at the wheel. But it was too late, I'd lost it, the old fever. Disqualified. I'd turned grass, written up a previous trip, very much like this one; book dealing is cyclical, you visit the same places and the same people on a seasonal basis until one or other of you hands in the endpapers. That's how the pragmatist Dryfeld called it. Keep moving, accumulate, fill as many houses as you can with stock; undisclosed addresses, garages, back rooms, rented lofts. Take words out of circulation. Then vanish, disappear, die. Achieve immortality through rumour. Plot your suicide like a novel. That's right, I thought: the suicide novel. The unrepeatable confession. I'd opted out of my proper sphere of activity, gone public. I was banished from the freemasonry of the disaffected, the chronically peevish. Book dealers identified the wound, their sorry lives were dedicated to picking the scab, keeping it wet.
Dryfeld and Silverfish were manacled together by the exigencies of plot. One standing beside a filthy, mud-spattered car, elbow on the horn, smoking and coughing, and the other, balanced by two heavy canvas bags which he will not put on the ground, keeps his back to the man who is shouting his name, his nom de guerre: alibi, a.k.a., inhabited lie. A blood-red sun dropping, more slowly today than any other day, into the west. All of this is so theatrical. It doesn't have the nervous inevitability of proper fiction. I believe it, but I don't care about it. That's the problem. One of the problems: like the shooting pains in my left arm, trapped nerve or a failing heart, arteries silted up with motorway breakfasts; or the wrecked knees, the final demands, stalled imagination, tendency to repeat myself, short-term memory loss, tendency to repeat myself. Night sweats. Death fears. The commission to write a book on Walter Savage Landor and his gloriously misconceived utopian experiment in the Ewyas Valley.
What had Landor said? 'Intricacy, called plot, undermines the solid structure of well-ordered poetry.' Poetry for Landor, as fiction for the rest of us, was 'a sort of ventriloquism'. I could have Silverfish say anything I fancied, but I would still be talking to myself. Dryfeld could live or die. Or so, squatting beside Arthur's Quoit, I tried to convince myself. Not true. Such plot as there was, they owned it. I was lost without them. I couldn't write another word until they were back in the car, freewheeling into Hay. Cranking up another dialogue, another argument, a final reconciliation.
Silverfish was a dead man, cancer of the tongue, but I didn't know it. Not then. I couldn't do a Dickens and play for sympathy. Dryfeld was finished. As a name. He would abandon this way of life before I did, before I was aware of his decision. Of how that decision would be taken for him.
In this strange golden light, fossil forms in the stones of the megalithic cromlech came to life; constellations of mould gleamed like nicotine patches. The burial place with its balanced capstone was a petrified gun carriage, a folly. I remembered something I'd read, broken phrases, an early attempt to get this book moving. 'Big sky. Long straight road. Leading nowhere. Notches in the hillcrest: gun sites.' My pen was in my hand, my red notebook open on my lap. That was now. This is then. Trying to isolate details that might, at some unspecified future date, initiate a narrative. A set of photographs. A film. A poem.
The thing was that neither Dryfeld nor Silverfish, pressganged into contiguous but untouching autobiographies, realised that I had gone, that I had ever been there. Ungrateful clowns. They were rapidly and selectively transcribing their own diaries of this day. Dryfeld, blinded by sweat, unsuitably dressed for life on the road (in a four-piece yellow tweed outfit), saw himself as the hero in a fiction. I was eliminated and Silverfish was recast as a Vietnam vet (to excuse the psychosis): the Chopper Jock. That was Dryfeld's running gag: Silverfish, who could pilot a Chinook, napalm any jungle co-ordinate, fry flesh, was incapable of parking the hire car on the pavement outside a bookshop without tipping over rubbish bins, jamming traffic cones in the undercarriage and breaking the feet of unwary pedestrians. Low comedy masked despair. The silent shriek. This book business, the never-ending quest — paranoia, double-dealing, bounced cheques, gratuitous and long-premeditated insults — was a way of holding off the darkness, converting hell into a lurid cartoon. If it was funny it couldn't hurt. The palms of Dryfeld's hands were black with blisters; broken, bitten nails scored tramlines into the innocent meat of his balled fists.
Silverfish was all undertext. Dryfeld, blustering against this misguided odyssey, the lost hours when we couldn't be in bookshops, had him all wrong. As I did. Silverfish, blocked autobiographer, knew himself to be incapable of describing the events, actions and reactions of a mundane life. What he was composing, as he waited for Dryfeld to return (which that stubborn man would never do), was a premature memorial notice in an antiquarian book journal. His own obit. Honour among his peers. What else should he aspire to? '... after a long and painful illness, stoically borne. William Everard Silverfish, well-known to British dealers for his scholarship, especially in areas of minor Eastern European fiction in translation, will be sorely missed.' (What other sucker can we find for those unsaleable dogs? Missed? I'll drink to that. One less bounty hunter out in the territory. More stock to fight over. Here's to you, Billy boy. Wherever you are.)
Our accidental parking spot in the Welsh borders was a place of revelation, off-piste, but sited at a notable conflux of energies. All my narratives begin here. You have to make a proper entrance, arrive by the most propitious route. This I had arranged. I was at the wheel when we left Clifton (two shops and eight junk pits gutted in two and a half hours, a sluggish start). I guided them over the old Severn Bridge into Chepstow, an estuarine hamlet living on its memory rind, shuddering from the loss of status when a bypass carried traffic away from the steep descent to the quayside. Here, under red cliffs, were the ghosts of transported Chartists from Newport. Here, against the black castle walls, perish all republicans and freethinkers. Here begins the cussedness of the forelock-tugging, piss-in-your-boots Welsh, border folk bred into playing one side off against the other, trimming to a shifting wind. The sense, standing on the battlements, staring upstream, of exile; dense woodland, reaching to the water's edge, hinting at malarial scenarios, parallel world jungles.
There was nothing in the Wye Valley to hold us. Silverfish had no taste for the picturesque. Dryfeld loathed the countryside; between bookshops he would bury his head in catalogues. His sense of geography was functional and perverse: Chinese takeaways (the only places where he watched television), newsagents, grease caffs, charity shops (for ties, jackets, shoes), barbers (Trumper's of Jermyn Street), swimming pools, railway stations, massage parlours, morticians. The rest was invisible. Tintern Abbey, he judged, very reasonably, to be retail landfill: adequate parking facilities, easy access to the M4, M5, M50, decent stone left by the Cistercians, culture chaff scratched in the sand by previous tourists. One man's sublime is another man's heritage wrapping paper. Poem-things for honey pots, J.M.W. Turner's lightshows revamped for wine labels.
We were agreed (try York, Winchester, Lincoln, Durham), it was a waste of time to hit bookshops within bell range of some notable hunk of ecclesiastical architecture. They thought they were doing you a favour. Locked glass-fronted bookcases with stock displayed like holy relics, unwanted desiderata, near-first editions in tattered wrappers unimproved by a glassine makeover. We were in and out of the Tintern shops in seconds, a yawn of country stuff (chewed up and bloody with squashed insects), a pederasty of kiddie colours, dormitory romps, strict discipline in alpine chalet schools, yakking bunny rabbits. Dryfeld bought nothing. Silverfish refused to look at such horrors. 'Do you have any real books?' he asked the snivelling proprietor. (These come in two sorts: the kind who ask what you're interested in, then deny they've ever heard of it, and the ones who force stock into your pockets, pour lukewarm coffee down your throat, beg you to abuse them.) To the scorn of the others, I made a small purchase: a well-weathered copy in black cloth of Eric Gill's Beauty Looks after Herself. I had no special interest in the old goat, but vaguely recalled that, like Landor, he had tried to set up some sort of community at the neck of the Ewyas Valley at Capel-y-ffin. 'The art of the spider is the art of God,' Gill wrote. This was a mistake, buying a book that could never be resold. I consoled myself by studying the shape of the stains on the endpapers, the subtle gradations of decay, chemical compromises between nicotine pulp and the damp of some riverside cottage: bruised greys and blues, the pink of wild thyme breaking from the hinges. An aerial map of a landscape still to be penetrated. Gill's abbey in a fug of vaporous conjecture.
They had gone, or it was too dark to make them out. Too dark to complete my tour of the megalithic stones. I was marooned by my own design. The sweep and rush of the energies of this place had been enough to hotwire those hairtrigger psychotics, and they were right. The carefully chosen burial site aligned — using creases in the surface of the igneous rock as a sighting device — with the topography of the hills, with other notable features (including the monolithic Dryfeld). That's why Alfred Watkins, author of The Old Straight Track, apologist for ley lines, man of business, haunted this country. It had been the locus for his original revelation: everything connects and, in making those connections, streams of energy are activated. You learn to see. You forget to forget, to inhibit conditioned reflexes. You access the drift. Watkins was an outrider, a brewer's rep. If he were still in the game he'd be jockeying a Ford Mondeo around the motorway system, stumbling on the karma of the M25, speculating on London's orbital road as a prayer wheel, a dream-generator on which the psychic health of the city depended.
Watkins was a photographer, an inventor, a champion of the pinhole camera. The stalling (or recomposition) of time seemed to complement the transcription of the ley lines, when, in fact, it was creating relationships that would not otherwise have acquired any significance. Photography is a fiction, a partial reading of landscape, a remodelling of the flaws and contours of the human face. Riding west out of Hereford, over these hills, auditioning future photographs, Watkins suffered his moment of inspiration. His grey images, fated to bleach in reproduction, are stupendous in their dullness and quiet obscurity. Better to have built himself a chamber of transformation, a cloud chamber, a room-sized version of his pinhole camera. But he was fated to burden himself with box after box of static scenes: dim arrangements, green pathways bleeding to grey, chlorophyll light repressed and silenced. Watkins's photographs of mounds and steeples and solitary stones did not chart the lost culture of a people in sympathy with the planetary circuits; they fixed their own time, the twenties. Outdoor coves in sturdy boots smoking stiff pipes as they rest on a gentle tump. Long-striding chaps with cod-scientific gubbins in their capacious pockets. Measuring devices. Stout twine and a thingummy for taking stones from horses' hooves. Drill that brain pan, let in Babylonian starlight.
What happened, so I believed, staring at Watkins's photographs, was that the ley hunter was seduced into making journeys. It wasn't the alignments that mattered, or any of the individual stones, it was movement. Track Sighted on Notch, Llanthony: that was the frontispiece of Watkins's 1925 publication. Movement fires the imagination, carrying us back across suppressed landscapes we remember but have not yet located. There is something in this borderland, the transition between shale, greywacke and Old Red Sandstone, that haunts me. Watkins refers to the occultist and imperial geographer Dr John Dee, and his excavations among the Longmynds. A great treasure remains undiscovered (or undisclosed). Watkins repeatedly photographed the area around the ruins of the Augustinian priory at Llanthony. His prints become doors swinging half-open or half-shut, according to taste. One page in The Old Straight Track confronted me with a triptych, panels for a pagan altarpiece. They summarised the novel I couldn't write.
These narrow photographic strips had everything my Landor book would never achieve. Better to cut my losses, pull out before it's too late. I can't hold it together. I haven't begun to plot the moves, build up the characters, and already there's too much narrative, too many digressions. All I wanted, and I'd engineered it quite successfully, was a knockabout scene with two bookdealers on a long straight road. Midsummer's Day. The privilege of being out in the air, on the gentle slope of a hillside above Bredwardine. With the prospect of great finds in the town of books still to come.
I was frozen, mesmerised by Watkins's arrangement. In his left-hand panel was 'The Dodman', a horned snail crawling across the pages of a book (which might, in fact, be a table). Dodman or deadman. Dod was, Watkins suggested, another name for a wand or stave, used in measuring distances, confirming alignments. Quite right. I had seen these priapic fellows before, gathered from east London cemeteries, set to work on maps, laying down silvery, alchemical tracks. Death as a snail. ('I'm a regular Dodman, I am,' said Mr Peggotty, by which he meant snail, being an allusion to his being slow to go.) Slow to launch. The snail crawls (we assume) towards Watkins's central panel, which reveals Llanthony-Ley Sighted through the Abbey to a Steep Track. Sited, as I suspected, from the place where Walter Landor tried to erect his senatorial manor house. The right-hand panel used staves to carry the ley on towards a notch in the hill, the notch that provided Watkins's frontispiece.
Time was thin here. I couldn't breathe. It was like the account my great-grandfather left of crossing the Andes, blacking out, falling from his mule, remounting, falling again; until they descended into the mist, a landscape that was to haunt him for the rest of his life.
Arthur's Quoit. Which Arthur? Arthur Llewelyn Jones who became Arthur Machen? Tennyson's King Arthur? The bearded laureate was here, he stayed at Caerleon. They all did, they passed through, leaving their tracks, snail trails. They must be acknowledged. My great-grandfather, it was his Christian name: Arthur Norton, Fellow of the Royal Colonial Society, Member of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society. Etc., Etc.
They took a skull away, to reflesh it with laser beam scans at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff; a poor facsimile. Five thousand years old, they said. Bright as a waxwork. A being, wrenched out of deep time, infecting the perpetrators of the deed. Padding the bone map with borrowed skin. Projecting a feeble narrative on an object placed in the ground with circumspection and awe. These are stories to be discovered, not told.
I would drop down into Bredwardine, follow the ley towards the hillock known as the Knapp. I would search out the grave of the local diarist Francis Kilvert, another hill wanderer, another unfulfilled man.
The publisher Longman declined to take on, even at the author's expense, a slim volume of parsonical verses. This courteous refusal came a few months before Kilvert's death. In the late nineteenth century, with a swifter and more efficient postal service, Kilvert received the bad news only four days after he sent off his manuscript.
At the end of his story, the story of the journals that were to grant him posthumous fame, he begins to fulfil modest ambitions. He is appointed vicar of a small rural parish and he marries Elizabeth Anne Rowland (who outlives him by thirty-two years). His death grants a book he had no expectation of publishing a nice conclusion and an unintended poignancy. Worldly success, even in a small way, had already undone the quiet melancholy, the barely disguised pleasure Kilvert took in his encounters with dark-eyed schoolgirls, farmers' daughters. They spoiled the fireside conversations (unachieved Henry James novellas) with Mrs Venables, his superior's wife at Clyro. Kilvert's afternoon walks, his long tramps over hard country, anecdotes of past wars, confessions of peasant violence, granted him a privileged status as conduit for the spirit of place. Then, as the diary comes to its close, he achieves a moment of clarity and self-consciousness. The pitch of the prose loosens up as the writer accesses (he has earned it) a prevision of death. The hypochondriac is justified at last: a white stone cross, honours noted, title and degree. 'He Being Dead Yet Speaketh.' He is separated from his wife of five weeks who is buried in the southwest corner of the new churchyard, on the far side of the lane.
As I walked in the Churchyard this morning the fresh sweet sunny air was full of the singing of the birds and the brightness and the gladness of Spring. Some of the graves were white as snow with snowdrops. The southern side of the Churchyard was crowded with a multitude of tombstones. They stood thick together, some taller, some shorter, some looking over the shoulders of others, and as they stood up all looking one way and facing the morning sun they looked like a crowd of men, and it seemed as if the morning of the Resurrection had come and the sleepers had arisen from their graves and were standing upon their feet silent and solemn, all looking towards the East to meet the Rising of the Sun. The whole air was melodious with the distant indefinite sound of sweet bells that seemed to be ringing from every quarter by turns, now from the hill, now from the valley, now from the deer forest, now from the river. The chimes rose and fell, swelled and grew faint again.
Excerpted from LANDOR'S TOWER by Iain Sinclair. Copyright © 2001 by Iain Sinclair. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.