Memory is a funny business. Sometimes, moving through water, I feel I’m washed of all thoughts, all desires: content to luxuriate like a starfish, rocking on my own pulse, sensate to no more than the wavering light as it sinks through space to reach my eyes. I might as well have never been born; I’m not sure I know even my name. And then, on other days, the opposite occurs. There have been times when, sunk in a river or a chalky sea, I have felt the past rise up upon me like a wave. The water has loosened something; has dissolved what once was dry; weighted as if with lead, it filters now through my own veins. The present is obliterated, but what the eye sees, what the ear hears, it is not possible to share.
One midsummer, after the end of a love affair, Olivia Laing packs up some oatcakes, a large cheese, maps and ‘a pair of sandals of unparalleled hideousness’ and walks the river Ouse in Sussex, from source to sea. On her way she opens herself to experiencing life around her – the insects, the falling sparrowhawk, the wave of pollen drifting towards her across a field – and yet also meditates on the past – memories of visiting this river with her lover Matthew, industries now fallen into disuse, fossils, the draining of the marshes. Most of all, the book is haunted by the spirit of Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s own sensitivity to landscape and water.
Laing writes that she had spent the previous spring obsessively reading Woolf’s work and notes her preoccupation with water and its metaphors. ‘Woolf’s metaphors for the process of writing, for entering the dream world in which she thrived, are fluid: she writes of plunging, flooding, going under, being submerged. This desire to enter the depths is what drew me to her, for though she eventually foundered for a time it seemed she possessed, like some freedivers, a gift for descending beneath the surface of the world.’ During her journey Laing returns to Woolf’s work again and again, and her response to it is always sensitive and acute, bringing the novelist into the landscape and then freeing her from it.
Place was one of the sticking points in Laing’s failed relationship, as she is rooted in Sussex and he in Yorkshire. She grew up there, lives in Brighton and has regularly visited parts of the Ouse for years, although never before has she walked its length. She feels the land in her bones. Her observations of the countryside are beautiful; very precisely and knowledgeably written. She can identify birds by their song, neatly dissect an owl’s pellet and effortlessly list the plants she passes:
The field ended in a double ditch, and from it grew a mass of flowers in a profusion of colours and forms, such as is seen trimming the edges of medieval manuscripts. Black medick, I counted, buttercup, horsetail, ribwort plantain, hedge woundwort, musk mallow and curled dock, the clustered seeds a rusty brown. Wild rose, dandelion, the red and white deadnettle, blackberry, smooth hawksbeard and purple-crowned knapweed. Interspersed with these were smaller, more delicate flowers: cut-leaved cranesbill, birdsfoot trefoil, slender speedwell, St John’s wort, heath bedstraw, tufted vetch and, weaving in and out of the rest, field bindweed, its flowers striped cups of sherbet-pink and white. The stem of the knapweed was covered in blackfly, and a spider trap shaped like a dodecahedron had annexed a few pale purple flowers of vetch inside swathes of tight-woven web.
I particularly like the use of ‘trimming’ in that passage, which seems to me to work in both its senses: creating a bright border to the ‘text’ of the field and also shaping, as all this land is trimmed by the hand of man.
The landscape is physically marked by history but it also acts as a receptacle for memory in a less tangible way. As she walks and loiters and dips into the Ouse’s waters, Laing’s mind wanders. She traces her love of rivers and faint mistrust of woods to a spooky encounter with The Wind in the Willows, and this triggers a diversion into the life of Kenneth Grahame. Seeing bees, she ruminates on the Woolfs’ marriage, on Derek Jarman and his garden at Dungeness. Horsetail, ‘the living link between our own age and that of the dinosaurs’, leads her on to Gideon Mantell, who found traces of the iguanadon nearby in the early nineteenth century. She settles into a wallow and thinks about John Bayley and Iris Murdoch (marriages are something she thinks about quite a lot). The marshes sigh over the drowned knights who fled the Battle of Lewes and the army of Simon de Montfort, and death – Virginia Woolf’s, a farmer’s, a rat’s, our own – is never far away. Nor are other worlds and their visitors. Laing recalls Odysseus’ descent into the underworld, Dante’s tour of the Inferno, and the strange realms encountered by Cherry of Zennor and True Thomas. In a way this walk, this ‘journey beneath the surface’, is Laing’s version of this, a physical and intellectual descent into a world apart which may provide consolation, understanding. Thus the book is structured around a very particular locale but constantly moving outwards, absorbing new material, perhaps like a river too.
Essentially backward-looking as much of Laing’s journey is, reminders of the present are often rude shocks. A landfill site where Asham, the Woolfs’ home, once stood, disfiguring the hillside; a woman ranting and swearing in a pub garden. As the walk progresses and Laing spends more and more time alone with her thoughts and birdsong and bright air, one senses in her a growing distaste with the mass of humanity, mindlessly consuming and destroying. Even so, as she reaches her destination, she feels ‘as purely happy as I’ve ever been’.
But that’s how we go, is it not, between nothing and nothing, along this strip of life, where the ragworts nod in the repeating breeze? Like a little strip of pavement above an abyss, Virginia Woolf once said. And if she’s right, then the only home we’ll ever have is here. This is it, this spoiled earth. We crossed the river then and pulled away, and in the empty fields the lark still spilled its praise.
(The rather tiny photograph of Olivia Laing is from the Marsh Agency's website.)