Friday, 15 April 2016

The Rock

The most impressive early companion of my childhood was a dark cliff, or what looked like a dark cliff, to the south; a wall of rock and steep woods half-way up the sky, just cleared by the winter sun. This was the memento mundi over my birth: my spiritual midwife at the time and my godfather ever since — or one of my godfathers. From my first day, it watched. If it could not see me direct, a towering gloom over my perambulator, it watched me through a species of periscope - infiltrating the very light of my room with its particular shadow.

From my home near the bottom of the south-facing slope of the valley, that cliff was both the curtain and backdrop to existence. All that happened against it or under its supervision. At the same time, all that I imagined happening elsewhere, out in the world, the rock sealed from me, since in England the world seems to lie to the south. If a man's death is held in place by a stone, my birth was fastened into place by that rock, and for my first seven years it pressed its shape and various moods into my brain. There was no easy way to escape it. I lived under it as under the presence of a war, or an occupying army: it constricted life in some way, demanded and denied, and was not happy. Beneath it, the narrow valley, with its flooring of cricket pitch, meadows, bowling greens, streets, railways, and mills, seemed damp, dark, and dissatisfied — dissatisfied because the east-west traffic poured through it on a main route, converting our town to a mere corridor between places of real importance, such as, to the east. Halifax, with its formidable backing of Bradford, Huddersfield, and Leeds; and to the west — after a grisly false start at Todmorden-Rochdale, backed by Manchester, Liverpool, and New York.

So while thinking distractedly out to east and west, we valley-dwellers were stuck looking at the dark hairy wall of Scout Rock, as it was called, and the final sensation was of having been trapped.  The oppression cast by that rock was a force in the minds of everyone there. I have heard that valley is notable for its suicides, which I can believe, and I could also believe that rock is partly to blame for them. Most days it seems far enough off, deflated and scenic, with visible trees and scrambling walls to its steep fields, and clearly enough there is a farm or two along the top of it, people living happily up there and cattle grazing; and it is plainly no Eiger. But other days you step out of the house, or get off a bus come from elsewhere, and are astounded to see that blackish hogback mass riding directly overhead. Something about the clouds and light, the inclination of the season, or some overnight strengthening of the earth, has reared it right out over you, and you feel to be in the mouth of a vast dripping cave, in some hopeless age.

 Now I think back I cannot understand why I almost never went near it. I remember the pylons that stepped away toward the moors behind its left shoulder — these were the first pylons I ever saw at close quarters- to read their danger sign and appreciate their single-minded soaring oddity, and their leaning stride. And I was familiar with the road that draggled off among farms and cottages down behind its right shoulder into Luddenden Foot. But the steep face itself I never encountered. The nearest I got was one memorable day I went there with my brother, up one side, through the steep bracken and birches, and along the top where a thin path kept braving the very edge. Four things make that day memorable. First, the unique new view of the valley spread out below, from a wholly unimagined angle, and from the other end of the telescope, as it were, up which I had gazed for about six years. I looked down at myself with the eye of the cliff, and that was a terrible piece of newness. Our house was not distinguishable. Too far off, too far below, in a tiny puzzle of houses. It was a balloon view: an alarming exhilaration. I felt infinitely exposed, to be up there on the stage I had been trying to imagine for so long. The second memorable detail was my discovery of oak-apples, in the little scrub oaks that twisted out their existence on the cliff-edge.

It needed this spotlit exalted rostrum to bring oak apples to my notice, though I had been seeing them all my life. Anyway, that is the first place I really concentrated on them with some surprise, and examined their corky interior and dusty wormhole, and tossed them in numbers, out into space, disappointing missiles, and put some in my pocket as if I might never find any again. And it was there that my brother told of a woodpigeon shot in one of those little oaks, and how the bird set its wings and sailed out without a wing-beat stone dead into space to crash two miles away on the other side of the valley. And there followed the story of the tramp sleeping up there in the bracken, who stirred at an unlucky moment and was shot dead for a fox by an alert farmer, and sent rolling down the slope.

But of the rock-face, the central character to all that, I remember nothing, though I imagine I stared down it thoughtfully enough. That visit altered nothing, did nothing to tame the strangeness of my neighbour. I went on feeling it was alien, belonging to other people. I went on disliking it. It worked on me constantly. It should have inured me to living in valleys, or gulleys, or under walls, but all it did was to cause me to hate them. The slightest declivity now makes me uneasy and restless, and I slip into the shadow of the mood of that valley — foreboding heaviness, such as precedes downpour thunderstorms on Sunday afternoons. It is a mood that seems to have saturated the very stones of the walls and houses — those scorched-looking west Yorkshire-grits — the pavements and the soil of the gardens and even the dark privet leaves: most of all the dark privet leaves.

A slightly disastrous, crumbly, grey light, sunless and yet too clear, like a still from the documentary film of an accident: The hours could be terribly long and empty, when the whole valley looked like a pre-first-world-war snapshot of itself, grey and faded, yet painfully bleak and irremovable, as if nobody could ever stir and nothing could ever happen there again. All because of that and its evil eye. It had an evil eye, I have no doubt. For one thing you cannot look at a precipice without thinking instantly what it would be like to fall down it, or jump down it. Mountaineers are simply men who need to counter-attack on that thought more forcibly than most people. But since Scout Rock was always there, that thought was always there — though you got used to it. It was not a frightening presence, it was a darkening presence, like an over evident cemetery. Living beneath it was like living in a house haunted by a disaster that nobody can quite believe ever happened, though it regularly upsets sleep. A not too remote line of my relatives farmed the levels above Scout Rock, for generations, in a black weepy farm that seemed to be made wholly of old grave-stones and worn-out horse-troughs.

Their survivors are still at it. And it was one of that family who once when he was out shooting rabbits on that difficult near vertical terrain below his farm, not quite in living memory, took the plunge that the whole valley dreams about and fell to his death down the sheer face. A community peace-offering, I feel. An assurance, too, that the watchfully threatening aspect of the rock has something genuine about it. Recently a hoard of gold coins was unearthed at the foot of it, which has left the dark face with an even stranger expression. Escape from the shadow trap was not east or west along the Road — with the end-less convoy of lorries loaded to the limit with bales of wool and bolts of cloth —but north and upwards, up the north slope to the moors. Ultimately, the valley was surrounded by moor skylines, further off and higher than the rock, folded one behind another.

The rock asserted itself, tried to pin you down, policed and gloomed, But you could escape it, climb past it and above it, with some effort. You could not escape the moors. They did not impose themselves; they simply surrounded and waited. They were withdrawn, they hid behind their edges show-ing their possessions only upward, to the sky, and they preferred to be left alone, seeming almost to retreat as you approached them, lifting away behind one more slope of rough grass or parapet of broken stone. And however rarely you climbed to investigate them in detail, they hung over you at all times. They were simply a part of everything you saw. Whether you looked east, west, north, or south; the earth was held down by that fine line of moor, mostly a gentle female watery line, moor behind moor, like a herd of enormous whales crowded all around at anchor.

And just as the outlook of a bottle floating upright at sea consists of simple light and dark, the light above, the dark below, the two divided by a clear waterline, so my outlook was ruled by simple light and dark, heaven above and earth below, divided by the undulating line of the moor. If any word could be found engraved around my skull, just above the ears and eyebrows, it would probably be the word 'horizon'. Every thought I tried to send beyond the confines of the valley had to step over that high definite hurdle. In most places the earth develops away naturally in every direction, over roads and crowded gradients and confused vistas, but there it rose up suddenly to a cut, empty, upturned edge, high in the sky, and stopped.

I supposed it somehow started again somewhere beyond, with difficulty. So the visible horizon was the magic circle, excluding and enclosing, into which our existence had been conjured, and everything in me seemed to gravitate towards it. I must have been quite young, three or four, when I started my walks to the moors. From the start, the moors were the exciting destination. It was a long climb to get up there, and a thousand distractions tended to draw me off along the slope, among the woods and lanes and farms, but even if I wasted too much time in these ways, and had to turn back, I was reserving the moors as you do reserve the really superior pleasures, even from yourself. The first half of the climb was over fields, and the first of these fields, 200 yards above the house, was a mild domestic incline belonging to the Co-op; heavily grassed, usually pasturing a herd of cows. Coming up on to that, and turning back, you met Scout Rock opposite in its most formidable bluish aspect, over the slate roofs.

The second field.belonged to the farms above. It was poorer, wilder, steeper and in it you began to feel a new sensation, the volume of space, the unaccustomed weight of open sky, and you saw that the ridge of Scout Rock was a ridge below the further ridge of moor,and moor was friendly. In the third much-steeper field you began to feel bird-like, with sudden temptings to launch out in the valley air. From that field kites or gliders would stand out at a great height, and the traffic far below on the main road was like slow insects.

Then the last fields rose in your face, and after almost a toiling stair you reached the farms, perched on knees of land or headlands, halfway up the valley sides. At that point you began to feel the spirit of the moors, the peculiar sad desolate spirit that cries in telegraph wires on moor roads, in the dry and so similar voices of grouse and sheep, and the moist voices of curlews. An avenue of tall trees ranged just above the first farm, I think sycamores, and the desolation of their foliage and silvery bark, the strange unearthly starkness of their attitudes, always struck me. I don't know quite what it was about them: something of the sky moving so close above them, of the bleak black wall at the laneside, the scruffy gorse-tufted bulge of hillside just beyond; or perhaps it was simply the light, at once both gloomily purplish and incredibly clear, unnaturally clear, as if objects there had less protection than elsewhere, were more exposed to the radio-active dangers of space, more startled by their own existence. But I liked that.

In an imperfect reluctant way, these trees were beginning to reveal what showed nakedly in the ruined farms, with their one or two trees, along the moor's edge, or in the foul standing pools on the moor itself, and in the inane frozen-looking eyes of the sheep. I suppose in some ways it was eerie, and maybe even unpleasant. But everything in west Yorkshire is slightly unpleasant. Nothing ever quite escapes into happiness. The people are not detached enough from the stone, as if they were only half-born from the earth, and the graves are too near the surface. A disaster seems to hang around in the air there for a long time. I can never lose the impression that the whole region is in mourning for the first world war. The moors do not escape this, but they give the sensation purely.

And finally, in spite of it, the mood of moorland is exultant, and this is what I remember of it. From there the return home was a descent into the pit, and after each visit I must have returned less and less of myself to the valley. This was where the division of body and soul began. 

Ted Hughes. Text of a BBC Home Service programme given by the author in 1963