An Ancient Permanence?
My Aunt Sybil (sadly not the figure in black bombazine and lorgnette her name might suggest – think Gore Tex® and stout hiking shoes) on a recent visit to my part of Suffolk said it reminded her of the countryside when she was growing up, during and shortly after the war. ‘Timeless’ was the word she used, and it’s a response evoked in many who
come here. The place exudes a deep and satisfying sense of solidity, of changelessness. What was it Hardy said about Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native? “…unaltered as the stars overhead… an ancient permanence which the seas cannot claim…”
We have spaniels, and I spend a lot of time walking the tracks and lanes around my village of Blaxhall in coastal Suffolk, through forest and farmland, over heathered heath and flat estuarial marshes. And it’s hard not to think, as you tread those paths, of those that have walked that way before you. The Sandlings Walk – a long distance footpath which crosses Blaxhall Common – is a physical embodiment of this: worn down by years, even centuries of wayfaring feet, so that now you wind along in a deeply sunken furrow, flagged shoulder-high by brackened banks. And walking the same ways daily, often at the same hour, it’s hard to miss the subtle motion of the seasons, the sunrise earlier or later by a sliver, the leaves unfurling into green or crisping back to brown.
So when I began to write a series of short stories set in this place which became the collection called Sandlands, it was inescapable that time and timelessness would run through and connect them.
That ‘ancient permanence’, though, is also illusory. For witness of it, the visitor need only go to Dunwich and see the brick-and-mortar remnants of what was once a thriving Tudor seaport toppling by imperceptible increments from sandy cliffs and onto the beach below, there to be broken and reclaimed by the waves. That turn of the seasons, which feels so inevitable and enduring on my walks, we now know to be fragile. Those English vagaries of weather, once to be tutted over comfortably by gardeners, are plotted now on graphs that lead, slowly but headlong, to ecological destruction. This part of the coast suffered badly from flooding in the wake of tidal surges the winter before last, leaving swathes of pasture along the river valleys silted and saline, unusable for grazing. One story in Sandlands, entitled ’High House’, is a parable about climate change, quietly apocalyptic.
There is much of repeated patterning, both natural and human, in my stories. Migrating birds fly a thousand miles to rear their young in the same patch of gorse where they were fledged. Walkers in the village lanes retrace the tracks of earlier generations, or of their younger selves. Churchgoers slide into well-worn grooves inherited from pagan ancestors. Old knowledge is handed down: bell-ringing, the names of flowers and butterflies, the filleting of fish.
In another story, ‘Mackerel’, a young marine biologist reflects on the way that seashells grow. New layers of calcium carbonate are added asymmetrically at one edge only of the shell, in such a way that the enlarged form is an exact scale model of its previous self, the older shell still invisibly present inside the newer younger shell, providing structure and support. My father died in 2014, when I was just starting out on the project that became Sandlands. But six months later – a year, two years – he is still very much here. For my mother his continued presence is very real: she sees him, speaks to him. For me it’s less concrete but I know he’s there inside me as well, as much as he always was. It’s like the Suffolk bluebell wood, there since the Domesday Book and perhaps for centuries longer. Bulbs have been found which date back to Roman times, putting up fresh shoots each year for two millennia: different flowers but the same bluebells. The ripples in the salt marsh mud take different shapes with each receding tide, but it’s still the same stretch of shore. So while there might be sadness in this book, and ageing and bereavement and loss, there is also continuity, and renewal.
I suppose it’s the unreliability of time in an apparently timeless place – its slipperiness – which fascinates me. Within the pages of the book, the sands shift beneath your feet. Timeframes dislocate and cannot be trusted. An elderly son retreads the path of his much younger father; we meet a paradoxical great-aunt, killed as an eleven-year-old child; voices from the past are unearthed in the woods and whisper through historic walls. Things which seem solid and real turn out to be nothing more than imprints or lingering memories, the shadow of themselves. Without promising anything, it’s not impossible that a real live honest-to-goodness ghost or two might even put in an appearance.
The past, in this immutable, mutable landscape, is no foreign country but immediate and familiar. It is all around, contained within the present. It’s why I know not only that my father would have loved Sandlands – I know that he does.
Rosy Thornton for Shiny New Books