Mareld

Muscae volitantes

For the last two days willow seed has been blowing through Berlin. I haven’t had a chance yet to speak to anyone about whether this is something Berliners are used to and so whether there is any accepted explanation as to where it all comes from. Perhaps hardly anyone is aware of its origin. At any rate, I don’t imagine that it will last much longer; the wind will surely change at some point and clear the city out. But for now at least the fibres collect in the streets at the points at which there is the least wind. As you walk through these puddles your shoes part what’s gathered and give it over again to the minute currents of air that eddy only an inch from the ground. Then it all falls again and settles.

I am sitting in the kitchen with the window open on to the courtyard outside. A flautist is practising in one of the adjacent buildings. Someone is drilling elsewhere. Two swallows dart past the window, one following the other, describing the exact same course. Here too willow rises, falls or dances about, though most of it not quite high enough to escape the sump between the housing blocks. Light, clumped strands occasionally float in, drawn by the through-draft between the bedroom and the kitchen. And as I look at the sky, I see lines and dots drifting across my vision.

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William Walker is venerated as the man who saved Winchester Cathedral. The cathedral had ever since its construction been slowly undermined by the river Itchen that passes right by it and, by 1906, was in serious danger of collapse. Once this was realised, Walker—by then an experienced diver—was employed to shore up the foundations. For five years, Walker dived under the cathedral and replaced the ruined support with over 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks. He conducted his work alone and in complete darkness.

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The crypt of the cathedral is now home to a statue by Anthony Gormley. The crypt still floods at times, the water rising up around the statue’s legs.

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And all the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice, 

A singer must die for the lie in his voice.

Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies’ Man is something of an accident. Some years before its release Phil Spector took a huge advance from Warner Bros. on the understanding that it would be paid off by his future work. When this work did not appear, the record label wanted its money back. The solution, brokered by Spector’s lawyer, was to put Spector together with Cohen, another of his clients, so as to pay off the debt with the album that followed. The only reason Cohen seems to have agreed to take part in the project is through personal commitment to the two men’s lawyer; certainly he had no affection for Spector, who he considered ‘the worst human being I have ever met’. And while that assessment has the ring of analytic necessity, it must have been particularly inevitable after those album sessions. Not only did Spector expedite disagreements in his favour with the help of a loaded gun, but, as Rolling Stone reported on the album’s release, once the sessions were over ‘Spector, it seems, simply took what the singer felt were tapes still in progress, kept them under lock and key, mixed them like a solitary mad genius and released the album without bothering to consult with his artist’. Perhaps predictably, Cohen was not pleased with the album. It seemed to him ‘junk’, nothing more than his lawyer’s ‘masturbation’, and he wanted the album buried. The record was, then, conceived in debt, developed at gunpoint and disowned upon delivery.

It makes sense that the pairing was only conceivable inside their world—and even then just barely—as a kind of last ditch attempt to square the books. Cohen’s last record had been New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which is no short distance in substance or style from what came next. Listening to that record you certainly wonder what artistic reason could have convinced Cohen to submit to the kind of glacial misunderstanding of innocence that characterises Spector’s productions. And it is likewise hard to believe that the man behind (within, charging through) ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ could have found much of Cohen’s erudition particularly endearing. Perhaps the financial burden forced such a distance between the men and their own settled self-understanding as to make the project at least conceivable in the abstract as simply the meeting of a producer and an artist, both of some repute. At any rate, the pressure put on the two by the weight of the situation seems to have forced them to find their way to some barely tessellating interests around which they might have hoped to sustain the mere impression of collaboration. It’s for this reason, I take it, that the album lands on and is dominated by the themes of excess and pathological male sexuality.

Not that Cohen or Spector ever reached any shared understanding of those points. In fact the record is marked by the painful dislocation of the lyrics and production. Spector’s arrangements are without exception drunken, crass and unrepentantly fanatical. They have the stench of a party that’s gone on for days with no sleep or open windows, sustained by the enthusiasm of a host who will not let anyone leave. The bearing of Spector-as-host stands in contrast, in the abstract at least, to Cohen’s exhausted lyrics. These are sketches of debauchery that stumble about with a knackered lilt. They point to desires that find no competent groove and at the heart of which we do not find a happy life. But in Spector’s hands they lose any distance from their subject, for no irony could withstand that air. As a result the words become debauched and pornographic, not so much depictions as expressions of the life that the production clearly revels in, but without which the voice would remain simply blind to itself.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Spector’s effect on Cohen is found on the album cover. Cohen stares out flanked by two beautiful women. While Cohen’s songs are often mournful of loss, regretful of weakness and seem attempts to reach out a hand which had been withdrawn, that love is absent from this photograph. It is as if with this album the pretence of kindness of, for instance, the song for Marianne is bled dry so that all that is left is distancing lust.

Without a clue, Spector told the lie in Cohen’s voice by backing it with ruined optimism, ruined, that is, by Cohen’s erudition. Any ironic distance between singer and subject is lost in Spector’s production. And so too the uncomplicated optimism for that world is poisoned at the heart. But in ruining themselves together something emerges that perhaps neither could have honestly, consciously achieved. I sense a barely conscious thought of what Cohen’s writing did to him. With each song composed, and another revered, a greater weight is placed to sink further down. It is as if Cohen had always thought of himself engaged in an attempt to dispel shadows by finding the precise words that would conjure them away. But I hear a bleary consciousness of the possibility that all that digging and all the celebration of the secrets he revealed just served to drive the him further into the dark. Perhaps he was like an explorer whose trips back home for adulation and esteem were plainly just a way of acquiring the means to drive further into the empty map. Spector’s production shows the love of that air that Cohen was well able to breathe.

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I took this photograph last summer on the night in which I swam in the bay at Sörgraven. It was taken from the top of the cliff before we clambered down to a ledge from which we could strip and dive into the sea, and it is the last photograph I was able to take before the camera battery died.

Though through late summer the nights in this part of Sweden are often light until long past ten, this evening the cloud cover meant that even with a long exposure little of the landscape made it through. I suppose that this is part of the reason the photograph diverges from my memory, though the difference unsettles my confidence that I’ve not just made up the whole thing.

That night the water was thick with a remarkable type of plankton that at the least disturbance emits a strong green glow. In fact we had made our way down to the bay for the sole reason of showing this to E’s niece who, like me, had never seen anything like it. We first caught glimpse of it two days before as we swam in the afternoon. M had noticed that the water seemed a little oily, as if mixed with a cordial, and realised what it was. So we returned in the evening and stood at the edge of a jetty, staring in to the water to look for any signs. To my amazement, the fish that we could not have otherwise seen left traces like bullets as they darted about, as if racing from the light they stirred up. We threw stones into the sea and watched the paths they drew behind them as they sank. We watched them until all that was visible was a faint retiring glow, and then nothing. Having confirmed the presence of what we’d hoped to find we climbed to the ledge on the nearby cliff. E was the first to take the plunge. That night I stayed firmly planted on the cliff face, hanging on like a gargoyle, and watched her swim from there. She broke the water with a dive and then led the light upwards in an arc that sent glowing bubbles racing her back to the surface for breath. Oddly, as I looked on I had the sense that I was forgetting it all at just short of the pace of seeing it, as if for some reason it found no firm footing in me.

The Swedish word for the phenomenon is ‘Mareld’, of which the only English equivalent is ‘bioluminescence’, although ‘Mareel’ is apparently still used on Shetland. Though I have only seen Mareld in the sea, it is apparently also often found on the surface of decomposing fish and timber as well as certain kinds of fungi, giving each the appearance of smouldering coolly in the dark. In fact this is one reason offered for its having the name it does. According to the OED, at least, ‘Mareld’ is a compound of two sources, the first of which is the old norse word mor, which means moulding or weatherbeaten. The second, eldr, is the base for the early Icelandic for fire. ‘Mareld’ means, then, something like the lingering metabolism of places marked by loss.

It is tempting to think that it speaks a great deal of the differences between Swedish and English that the latter can now muster only a drab technical term for a phenomenon that in Sweden still takes the name of moulding fire. Indeed, the thought is encouraged by a story of uncertain provenance told by Sebald:

Around 1870, when projects for the total illumination of our cities were everywhere afoot, two English scientists with the apt names of Herrington and Lightbown investigated the unusual phenomenon in the hope that the luminous substance exuded by dead herrings would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had the capacity to regenerate itself. The failure of this eccentric undertaking, as I read some time ago in a history of artificial light, constituted no more than a negligible setback in the relentless conquest of darkness.

But bearing in mind that ‘bioluminescence’ is all they had to describe the aged, pale glow of a pile of rotting fish, it is perhaps less surprising that the two enterprising Englishmen should have arrived at this otherwise bizarre thought. It is as if their absurd invention served as a mediating link between their word and that thing, an unconscious effort to cross over a gulf between their language and the world from which it had seemingly departed. At any rate I have some sympathy for the men. For while I’m convinced that the Swedish term speaks more of the phenomenon as I found it, I have to take the point as a matter of faith; ‘Mareld’ remains foreign to me, and sticks in my throat.

We returned to Sörgraven the following night. This time I brought my camera and felt ready to swim. While E once more dived from the ledge on the cliff, I found I was only capable of clambering in ungainly. I have never been a strong climber and am not good with heights; I become worried I might lose my footing and move awkwardly. In this state my legs lose much of their flexibility and become strained and tense. Of course this has the effect of making it much more likely that I’ll trip or fall, as it means that I am inflexible to the shape of the ground precisely when I should probably be most sensitive. I found myself in familiar admiration of E and the way she is closed to these fears. I admired the form of the shape of the dive she held as she plunged into the dark waters, lighting them up. Nonetheless my body tenses at the thought of going through that myself.

When I had made it into the water E and I swam together, both of us still amazed by the almost supernatural cloud that we had kicked into life around us. E’s niece joined us and we showed her first hand the Mareld, leading her kicking and splashing through the shallows.

When swimming in Mareld your mind is easily led to dramatic possibilities, to thoughts of whales or other sea creatures rising from the depths preceded by a growing mass of light. And in fact you find your legs often brushed with the glare of the trace of something passing as you stand in the water. But it is easy to forget all this too and just hold yourself in muted awe at the light, to kick your legs further and keep the glow from fading. And anyway, the lighter the water the more everything is covered over by the traces left behind.

After some time we climbed out, E with natural ease, myself with clear discomfort, and dried ourselves and dressed. Mareld leaves a mildly sticky film on the skin so that to slap your flesh lightly releases some sparks. This effect fades soon enough, though, and quickly leaves you only with the sense of having one layer of skin too many and the need to wash it off.

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I walk between Wivenhoe and the university most weekdays and then home again at night. Often as I walk towards campus the sky is grey and heavy. The clouds draw in early after the sun has risen, though they hardly ever lead to rain. I tend to think of them as an advancing army, driven through a town in which they have no interest, passing so as to deplete themselves elsewhere. After the mist has risen to combine with the gathering clouds and the sky is overcast it is difficult not to respond in some way or other to the sheer weight and uniformity of the grey. Under this pressure I, for one, find it difficult to concentrate or follow a single line of thought. The effort reminds me of rescuing an insect from a pool of water, of the frustration of approaching a target that when almost grasped will suddenly rush away, tracing mad patterns across the surface and leading one about drunkenly. On such days the evening walk back home offers some respite from the load as the mass of clouds is broken, its weight lifted and the new textures are flushed with ageing sunlight before finally dispersing. Once the clouds have rolled back and the sky’s blue is as deep as ink, you can stand at the height of the valley, stare upwards and, on some nights, make out a silent, sparse array of helicopter lights tracing clandestine paths over the sky. I suppose that the helicopters belong to the parachute regiment that is based nearby and that on these nights they are out training, the landscape serving as a suitable proxy for some hostile foreign land. These lights often anticipate mornings peppered by the mechanical rattle of gunfire. That sound regularly breezes across the meadows that skirt the Colne, as if the most natural thing in the world, from the firing range tucked away behind Fingringhoe marsh. Occasionally, the cracks of rifles from the south-west are met at the river by the occasional thuds of ammunition employed, I suppose, on farmland to drive flocks of birds from the fields. On hearing these sounds I often feel like I am caught between two hidden armies whose casualties, wreckage and environmental carnage are invisible to me, as if the noise were an echo of an alternate history encroaching into our own.

The path I follow treads the thin line between the railway and the bank of the Colne before it forks in two, heads across the tracks and passes through a band of woods to campus. There is always a lot to see on this walk, if only for the river’s significant tidal range. In a day the waters can swell to the height of the path before being so strung out by the drag of the sea as to seem not more than a stream at the base of a deep scar. The tides have left the riverbed covered by a thick layer of silt that has been allowed to accumulate in the years since Colchester ceased to be an attraction to vessels with deeper hulls. It is guttered by small rivulets that chase the mainstream out at low tide, the footprints of wading birds, and by the vast drainage pipes that pour whatever’s been bled from the land into the departing waters. If you take the trail at mid to low tide you will eventually come across the rotting shell of a small motorboat moored to the stumps of an embankment. I believe the boat used to lie on the riverbank in Wivenhoe outside the Rose and Crown, having been abandoned there some years before. Two summers ago a notice was posted on its boarded-up windscreen by some disgruntled local body, irritated by its dilapidation. The notice issued the threat of imminent destruction to its departed owners, should they not, whoever they might be, return immediately to claim the boat themselves. Inevitably, no rightful owner emerged and so it was taken away. I imagine it was tugged maybe a mile up-river before its new custodians abandoned it on the opposite riverbank, perhaps annoyed at the difficulty of the task of dragging a half-wrecked vessel against the tide. I feel a pang of melancholy whenever I look at this boat. It is difficult to resist the thought that it was once owned, that what now lies in irreversible decay was once a site of possibility. Something of that past life hangs around it still. It is left without care to slowly erode into the river and mud, to be broken apart minutely and as such finally taken out to sea. Seen from across the river, separated by the mud, one can sense its history clinging to the air around it like a scent of decomposition, entirely unrecoverable.

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One morning last week as I turned from the boat and the river and walked through the woods, my presence on the path sent a flock of pigeons flying from their perches high in the trees. They flew as a group in terror, though only a little further down the path, to take flight again once I had caught up with them. The flock seemed vastly exaggerated in size, as if I were driving an endless cloud of birds before me, as if I, some twenty feet below and laughably minute in comparison, posed a threat to the entire species that it could only unclearly perceive but which it could not bear. At this thought I noticed with alarm that every animal I came across would scurry away in terror, that I could not approach one living thing without plunging it into mad panic. For an awful moment it seemed as if I drove all life before me, pushing it out of reach. The thought was still with me as I walked across the squares through campus. Under a mood of mild paranoia I walked in some discomfort to my office where I took my seat and stared at the birches outside. I stared at the last remaining, fluttering leaves at the bases of the trunks, the red buds held from blossoming by the exceptionally cold spring, and the students that passed behind them all as they walked half-asleep to class.

Looking now at weather-beaten trees through a window in late October, I remember that the playground of the primary school I attended stands empty at night in autumn. I imagine the poplar trees swaying and the familiar cold shimmer of leaves shaken towards the end of their lives by a breeze they amplify and which will tear them from their branches. I imagine the tarmac playground wet, black and oily, lit by the phosphorus glow of one or two lampposts that refuse to cut out.

The school grounds are empty at night because they are not a public space. Once the doors are locked each night the grounds are apparently patrolled by the security company whose logo is prominently displayed on the board fixed to the grill of the gates. As a result, I have not returned to the school since my early teens. A curious result of this is that by passing by the school on occasional visits to my parents I am unsettled by seeing from the outside, with the eyes of an adult, a place I still understand vaguely from the inside as an eleven-year old boy. I sense that were I to climb over the fence I would revert to a form I thought I had outgrown and navigate the grounds with ease, without thought, though in covering my tracks lose them forever.

On some summer afternoons after school I would sit on my own under an oak tree that stood between the school gates and the car park, where I waited for my mother to collect me. After one September I was for good reason no longer allowed to wait on that side of the gate and had, instead, to occupy myself in the deserted playground, only a metre or so from where I had hung around before. I would walk through the designated ‘quiet area’, now the equal of the rest of the school, down to the dip in the playground. In an area cleared of tarmac and fenced by low green pickets, unforgettably tall poplar trees grew either side of a wooden bridge that spanned the clearing from one side of tarmac to the other. One day, bored of these explorations, I brought a tube of superglue into school and glued a twenty-pence piece to a bench. I would return at lunchtime for days after to see boys try, and fail, to remove the coin from the wood with stones or pieces of wood. Eventually my friend Tom brought a screwdriver to school and rent the coin from the by then battered wood.

Towards the close of the summer term the school would hold an end of year celebration named Friday Frolics which saw, for an evening, the grounds changed entirely. The main playground was fitted out with tables and chairs and parents would come to watch a band play. They drank beer and wine served to them by teachers. They ate burgers and hotdogs cooked on a vast grill built in to one corner of the playground, though it stood unused for the rest of the year. The children were given loose change and left to explore the school in its transformed state. The classrooms had been made into grottos housing games that offered sweets as prizes and cost only ten pence to play. The books in the library were cordoned, either for protection or to cover any trace of learning, by vast sheets of corrugated cardboard such that to walk through the room was to penetrate the length of a solemn, grey, silent tunnel. The music room hosted a karaoke machine. When I think now of that room I cannot recall the faces of the adults who filled it, their reason for singing as obscure to me now as ever, as my lack of interest then guaranteed. The lower playground before the poplars was dedicated to the tombola, smack the rat, quoits and similar activities. Elsewhere one could buy candyfloss and toffee apples, cheap Panda cola and lemonade. The school hall became a disco. My favourite attraction, though, was the field train. The field train was a car made up to look like a train which drew behind it several carriages. The train circled the school field, with which every child was intensely familiar, and cost fifty pence a ride. I would try to ride the field train as often as I could, spending a large portion of the night on this objectively dull tour, though it held me captivated.

A few years after I left the school the Frolics were shut down. The children who had once enjoyed everything that that night could offer had since left for secondary school and become teenagers. With an unexamined compulsion pulling them back to their old playground they would somehow acquire tickets, normally reserved for the families of current students only, and attempt to buy alcohol from the stalls that had once served their parents. Disheartened at their lack of success in procuring what they were after from the people who had, not four years before, been their teachers, they began to bring their own beer. They would take their drinks and sit in the dip of the school field under the shadow of the trees around which they used to play and silently, heavily fail to understand what had happened to them. Inevitably, the teenagers would eventually come in from the cold, inebriated, and disrupt whatever was going on in the school, scaring the children and angering the parents. In order to deal with this nuisance a security company was hired, though not to much success; the number of returning teenagers seemed to grow year on year and the school became stubbornly unaccommodating. One year it was decided that the school building was to be locked up and that only the outside stalls would remain. The next year the alcohol was no longer served. The year after that the parents stayed home.

The year I returned to school for the Frolics was a year in which the decline had already set in. I brought a friend who had attended another school. She was mocked for her clothes by two other girls, both our age. The teachers whom I remember as having been glad to serve me as a child now observed my movements on edge, at distance, evidently tired of having to guard against the hysteresis of those children they thought had left, they thought, for good.

It is to thoughts like these that I am drawn when the sheer, transparent present seems, for all that, of no depth at all, when my foresight seems myopic and the future correspondingly flat. Though I can touch the chestnut and the birch outside the window and though the light smell of their rotting leaves is right there for me, at times they leave me colder, more dislocated and cut off, than the thought of my school’s poplars swaying for no one to see, shut up.