“This is one moment / But know that another / shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.” TS Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
I’m at my happiest travelling: even when it’s just a night in a chain hotel for a reading, I love wandering around somewhere different. It breaks the routine; makes me live in the minute. This week, exploring Kent, was full of pleasures: we went to Seasalter, to eat at The Sportsman (where I had the most amazing poached oysters with pickled cucumber and caviar; ray with cockles, and warm chocolate mousse with salted caramel). I loved the Curiosity exhibition at the Turner Gallery in Margate, inspired by 17th century cabinets of curiosities and featuring delicate, blown-glass sea anemones; Shackleton’s penguin; pictures made from split-hairs and the magician John Dee’s black scrying glass.
Then there was a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, with all its literary connections: Chaucer’s pilgrims (who like me, journeyed from Southwark); Eliot’s play; and most interestingly, the painting of St Eustace that inspired Russell Hoban’s dystopian novel Riddley Walker. It’s a wonderful picture you could stare at for hours, depicting his conversion to Christianity after seeing a tiny Jesus crucified on a stag’s antlers, and then the various ways, like Job, his faith was tested – his wife kidnapped by pirates; his sons by a wolf and lion. Having been at the folk festival, it was also interesting to see the pagan touches that had crept in around the edges of the grand Cathedral: Sheela-na-gigs flaunting their breasts; squinting peasants and Green Men in the roof of the cloisters.
Finally, there was a drive to Dungeness, a place I’ve always wanted to visit: a shingle spit so arid it’s classed as a desert, with a power-station whose energy warms the sea, and draws a churning mass of birds. It feels incredibly remote, but the bleakness is tempered by strange plants growing everywhere, regardless: orange poppies flaring amidst the pebbles. We went to see Prospect House, where the film director Derek Jarman made his famous garden, full of driftwood sculptures. On the wall was part of John Donne’s The Sun Rising – a plea not to be disturbed by the business of the world:
BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Home now, but whilst on the subject of holidays, two links for armchair travellers to writing I’ve really enjoyed recently – a wonderful piece about the landay form practised by the women of Afghanistan, and Sarah Howe’s fascinating blog-posts for Best American Poetry about her journeys around China.