Monday, 10 February 2014

Eternity in an hour

[On 10 January 2014 I joined Ramble #3, part of Sheila Ghelani's ongoing Rambles With Nature, with an open invitation to document or respond to the event. This is what I wrote.]

1. a letter

dear sheila

i just sat down to write some of the things that have been tumbling through my head since the ramble earlier and of course as soon as i opened the clean white page i went blank. so i thought i'd write you a quick email instead to say thank you so much for having me along. it was in a funny way so reassuring to hear you talk about your uncertainty around what the day had been, its purpose and import; the phrases you used were so familiar from the way i talk about Dialogue [the long-term experiment with new approaches to writing/talking about theatre that I co-curate with Jake Orr]. i never know what that project is; it exists in a space of uncertainty; and as a result i feel constantly as though it's a failure. but at a party on wednesday i was talking to someone about Dialogue, and heard myself say that we shift the movement of air molecules enough to make changes seem a little more possible. that discovery was so comforting. i think rambles maybe possibly does something similar.

2. time is money is time is commodity is time

The clock outside the Royal Observatory squeezes all 24 hours into a single circle.
Midday is upside-down.
We are waiting for late arrivals and talking about time.
Time as a construct that we strain to control.
I'm running out of time.
I'll make up the time.
Passing time.
Spending time.

Time has become Death triumphant over all.”
(Actually I was thinking about train timetables. But this is the line that speaks to me now.)

This Ramble is a movement outside time, a removal from time's demarcations.
(So much so that I'm late for the school run.)
And yet, it too is bound by time,
locked inside a single hour, so relaxed, luxurious and slow at first,
but speeding up, until we feel time slip through our fingers
as tangibly as a skein of silk.

3. a line in the land

My children want to know about the equator; they ask:
Is it a real line in the earth?
If you went to the desert, would you see it?
Can you see it from space?

Near the top of the curved hillside path leading up to the Royal Observatory lies the Meridian line: a thin strip of metal slicing through the tarmac like a tram rail. I stand with other people's children, feet planted on either side of the world.

At night, a green laser light rises from this point to bisect the sky. This is my favourite discovery of the day. I look for the line down the weed-strewn hill, but there's no sign of it in the mud.

Instead there's the Thames, sinuous, ever surprising, splitting London in two. Defying geography, or at least simplistic assignations of north, south, east, west. My city is laid out like a geological slab: low, by the river, the cool white gleam of Georgian neo-classical architecture; towering above, the cold, metallic sheen of modern skyscrapers. London looks more international, less idiosyncratic, with every passing year.

Sweet Thames, run softly.

Sweet Thames, give us time: to stop, to drift, to ramble, to wander and wonder. Give us everything that cold, metallic sheen would burn away.

4. on the edge of conversation

Eight women, a photographer and me.
I'm here to record the conversations.

Sheila, Rajni, Mary, Shauna, Tiffany, Lucy, Susie, Tracey.
Eight women, all members of a collective, The Working Party.
And me.
I hover at the edge, listening.

Eight women, not all present, each with her own needs for this slim hour, this gift of time. Each following her own path, scattering like bees in search of pollen. I watch them disperse and feel a moment of confusion:

what am I here to record?

Three women, two, one, three, four. And me, at the edge, listening. To a conversation of murmurs, interwoven with birdsong, so easily lost beneath the rumble of planes, the loud percussive clatter of other people's chatter.

Conversation undulating like the landscape.
(Tiffany's phrase.)

Eight women engaged in a collective activity, understanding that each contribution might require solitude.
Grateful for the generosity of the invitation: how you do this is up to you.
Somewhat anxious about how rambling looks to the outside world.

Why are you walking alone?”
Why are you, a woman, walking alone?”
Why don't you have a dog?”
These are real questions Tiffany has faced when walking alone in the park.

This Ramble is a movement outside time, a removal from its demarcations,
its expectations.
It is, perhaps, a small act of revolution: reclaiming time for a different kind of work.

Eight women, gathered as The Working Party, struggling to understand how to gather and how to work.
And me, at the edge, listening.

5. in transition (i)

In moments of solitude, I notice the trees.
The single tree, isolated in a windswept plain,
branches bent in a reluctant arc,
so stubborn.
The unnerving bulbous swell of ancient chestnuts.
Twisted bodies and thrusting arms,
and a frowning face, nose high and round, erupting from a trunk.

I notice the trees the way I do when travelling on trains,
in moments of transition, between times.
Today I'm in transition, between an old life and a new.
I don't know where I'm travelling
but this Ramble is part of the journey
and I'm glad.

6. inside (a walking reference library)

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.
The passage from Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending that I happened to read on the morning of the Ramble.

A third dimension for thinking about cracks is that of time. This is a crucial dimension of struggle. … We come together and share a project of some sort, in an event, a meeting, a series of meetings; or we go down into the streets in a moment of celebration or anger. Later, perhaps, we disperse and go our different ways, but while we are together, our project, celebration or rage may create an otherness, a different way of doing or relating.
John Holloway's Crack Capitalism, illuminating the world that exists not-yet.

Time, all the long red lines, that take
Control, of all the smoke-like streams that flow into your
Holes, by Mercury Rev.

That life is brief was continually lamented. Time was death's agent and one of life's constituents. But the timeless – that which death could not destroy – was another. All cyclic views of time held these two constituents together: the wheel turning, and the ground on which it turned.
The mainstream of modern thought has removed time from this unity and transformed it into a single, all-powerful and active force. In so doing it has transferred the spectral character of death to the notion of time itself. Time has become Death triumphant over all.
John Berger's And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, not so much a book as an elixir.

7. edges

I trace the edges of the park: not just its outer walls but its inner enclosures, fenced and oddly forbidding. The tennis court, the bowling green, the flower garden, the rose garden. Neat, contained areas conveying rules and civilisation. Beyond the ornate gate lies Blackheath, an unfenced sprawl of common land, flat and featureless. Free.

Thick box hedges protect a sunken tiled bath, this and a high brick wall all that remains of Montague House. Once upon a time all this was private land.

Behind a high wire fence, a family of deer in a simulation of a forest. Their stillness so absolute, it's hard to tell if they're real.

8. in transition (ii)

Where trees are evergreen you can almost believe it's summer. The relief of bright sun after days of heavy rain. Thick dark leaves like silhouettes against a clean blue sky. Just the cool of the air and the paucity of flowers giving the season away.

No one mentions the hellebores. Waxy white petals turning inwards from the path, framed by pale pistachio leaves. Self-absorbed, or shy perhaps. Always hard to tell.

We stand in the rose garden, reading the names.
Ice Cream.
Amber Queen.
Ingrid Bergman.
Lady Maris Pettigrew.
Bonfire Night.
All dead. Or rather, sleeping. Gnarled stalks rise from the raw earth like claws. Waiting, needing the rebirth of spring.

Growth follows the knife, so the gardeners say.
Cut out the dead wood and throw it away.
Revitalise, regenerate.
Let new life come.

Autumn leaves still crunch beneath our feet.

9. oh yes, the conversations

I hover at the periphery of sadness and exhaustion and a group of women I hardly know, listening.

They talk about time.
In relation to astronomy.
Paying for time.
The names of the dogs we pass: Parsley, Flaxon, Lollipop.
Not wanting to be alone.
Worrying about what this day might be.
The need for hope in January, that abundance will return.
Not wanting to impose a familiarity with the landscape upon those for whom it is new.
The view through a camera lens.
A silent protest.
Painful feet.
Emily Dickinson.
The deliciousness of the hour and wanting it again.
A day too beautiful to take in.

The group as a constellation, spread out across the park.
Recognising each other in strangers.
Taking pleasure in surprise.
The fertility of not knowing but discovering.
The difference between intention and attention.
The fine line between a waste of time and a use of time that hasn't been defined.

A space for breathing.
Trusting yourself to remember.

Wondering what it all means.

10. the remains of the day

Taking quiet pleasure in a bush of viburnum
(I got the name wrong, of course),
clusters of tiny white flowers, fragile yet firm,
breathing in their heaven scent.

And a line of misremembered poetry:
time please ladies, time sweet ladies,
time please

[Sheila Ghelani is also documenting Rambles With Nature on her blog. If you're in London, an exhibition of cinepoems by straybird, made in response to Ramble #1, is at the Siobhan Davies Dance Studio until March 2. Here is Sheila's brief description of Ramble #3:

A purposefully quick ramble, #3 will consist of a series of performed conversations undertaken through, in and alongside a series of hedgerows. These conversations will be undertaken by members of The Working Party: Mary Paterson (producer and writer), Rajni Shah (performance maker), Suzy Shrubb (musician), Tracey Low (producer), Shauna Concannon (academic / digital artist), Tiffany Charrington (live artist), Lucy Cash (interdisciplinary artist) and Sheila.]

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