Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Going

I’m not alone, I wouldn’t imagine, in being drawn to the technical vocabularies of others. I’m especially drawn to words and phrases that are part of ordinary language (rather than the Greek-Latin nomenclature of medicine or horticulture), especially when those phrases seem to bring a ritualistic element with them. ‘Topping Out’ and ‘Breaking Ground’ conjure up, for me, magical achievements, the slaying of fearsome beasts. I’ve watched too many Grand Designs on TV, perhaps. Even phrases like ‘second fix’ suggest tasks of great magnitude. I think that the fascination with such a language comes from an unformed daydream of being someone who uses such terms, habitually. It is the same with the Shipping Forecast: what would it be like to have a close knowledge of ‘squally showers in Fitzroy, Lundy, Fastnet’, to have an immediate grasp of a phrase like ‘occasionally moderate later’?
            Recently I learnt a new word – the going. It names the ‘throw’ of a ladder, the distance on the ground between where you place the base of the ladder and the base of the vertical wall that you are leaning it against. It names the length of a step in a staircase. It is a perfect word, and one filled with existential overtones. It seems to describe a world with an indifference to plummeting depths and vertiginous heights. What matters is the going: the forward motion that would take place even if you had to retrace your steps. There is no going back, there is just going. The going. It seems to tie time to movement as an inexorable law: now and until you leave this world you will be going. It sets us all on a horizontal plane of time and movement, where all we can do is go on. Until that is we don’t. And it, turns out, that not going on is also the going, the ultimate going.
            ‘The Going’ was the name of the first poem that Thomas Hardy wrote after the death of his wife Emma. They had been estranged for some time and it seems that Thomas Hardy had made Emma Hardy’s life fairly miserable in her final years. He hadn’t seemed to notice how ill she had become. In the poem Hardy describes his wife’s death as ‘your great going’ and ‘your vanishing’. The keep on keeping on is the going, but so too is the stopping. In both its technical sense as a measurement of horizontal distance for technologies that traverse heights (ladders and stairs) and its vernacular sense of the moving along, of leaving, it seems to describe the great incessant onwardness of life. We like to know that we are going-on but not necessarily where we are heading in our ultimate going.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Lines of Desire

For a while, some years ago, I used to like to photograph the informal tracks that were made across common ground. These tracks marked the ground with diagrams of trajectories taken, of veerings veered and short cuts cut. Repeated footfall had rubbed the grass bare and indented the earth below. The areas that I was most drawn to were the anonymous scrubs of land that people used for walking dogs, or were used as a quick back route between houses and bus-stop, or were used by kids to conduct their non-digital encounters (to drink non-digital booze and smoke non-digital joints). These tended to be untended landscapes. What the surrealists used to call terrain vague – vacant lots, no-man’s land, a landscape of the vague. Because such places were untended these improvised tracks used to ‘take’ better there than they would if they had been in front of a cathedral or in a well-kept park. But even in such over-tended places tracks of bare earth appear, cutting lines through neatly trimmed lawns.
The sculptor Carl Andre (famous to most Britons over the age of 40 as the artist behind the ‘bricks’) was once given a commission by a museum to make a public sculptor. He decided to produce a sculpted path that people could use to use to walk across a new patch of parkland in front of the museum. But he decided that he wouldn’t impose his own route; he would let common usage choose it for him. So he had the patch of land seeded and waited for the grass to grow. Then the grass was cut and the patch of land became just another part of the museum’s grounds. And Andre waited. And sure enough a track began to emerge of people who cut across the grass instead of following the official walkways around the lawn. So Andre used this track and placed his path there. It was a collective effort. Some months later other lines began to appear that veered away from Andre’s path. These were new short cuts, slightly longer than the short cut that Andre had used.
People don’t stick to the path. And why should they? I learnt recently that urban planners and their ilk call these improvised and collective paths ‘lines of desire’. As if collective desire had found its expression in these desultory pathways, as if our desire for more satisfying lives had found its satisfaction in marking-out a trajectory of barren earth.