Tuesday, 27 September 2011, Rye.
Now I’m in the hut, watching the rain, on the far side of the Atlantic, wondering if the sea will allow us out on the lobster boat. Did the swan thing really happen? The mother of all swan pedalos (a legendary 12-seater) is to be found on a pond in Boston. EB White wrote a story about it, The Trumpet of the Swan. Or so I’ve been told. The swan pedalos in Boston are old, older than most of the people – who are recent immigrants drifted in over the last four or five hundred years. ‘Man in America was late,’ said Charles Olson. Who promoted ‘archaic postmodernism’. Swan pedalos were the originals, the first settlers, passerines who stayed.
As we drive out of town on a road that stretches from Maine to Key West, my informant, the bookseller/novelist Greg Gibson tells me that his ambition is to eat his way to Florida, trying a new off-highway speed-gourmet experience every night. The smart Portuguese fisher folk, island people who came from the Azores not the mainland, don’t bother to blame it all on Obama. They have diversified very successfully into the Dunkin Doughnut franchise. The big oil companies, who run everything (or would if they thought it was worth the hassle), are the ones peddling eco politics and tame greenery. I am convinced, after the long voyage from Hastings, that swan pedalos are the economic solution to the energy crisis: no fossil fuel, gentle exercise, walking-speed travel allowing you to know precisely where you are, to hold conversations as you move gently along. No built-in obsolescence. Excellent stability. Two-seaters for dialogue. Six-seaters for family. Twelve-seaters to cross the Channel.
I left the pedalo, Andrew and the crew, at Trinity Buoy Wharf. I was salt-burnt, drenched to the skin after our final passage up the choppy Thames on a rising tide. I could safely leave the farce of the Olympic Park infiltration to them: the challenges, arrests, duckweed, surveillance and paranoia would be in good hands. Andrew would turn the whole affair into a Carry On film made by headlong subversives, with dropped trousers, funny voices and regular dips in the thorium-enhanced sludge. But I was away: what I couldn’t take, after all those blameless miles of English topography, all those libertarians hugging the river bank between Tonbridge and Maidstone, hermits in woods and tattoo-enhanced anarchists on narrowboats, was the sloganeering of the Olympic zone. The boasts. The absurd announcements of feats that would never be achieved. Making life better, brighter, louder with Westfield.
Coming ashore, I rode three-hundred yards on the DLR before it stopped, hanging on its high rail. Nick, who gave me a lift, dripping and shivering, to the station, shouted up that the West Ham bid had been chucked out and the stadium fiasco was cast into Athenian limbo, as a useless charge on the public purse and Lord Coe’s vulpine vanity.
So I’ve spoiled the story. You know that we made it and that my memories are unreliable flashbacks channelled in Gloucester, Mass., while I wait for the rain to stop. There is a big blackboard in the Writers Center on East Main Street. It says: ‘Iain Sinclair 3pm.’ And below this: “the devil awakens”. The room is full of ghosts, Gloucester poets, Olson and Vincent Ferrini. Above the desk as I type is Ferrini’s black cowboy hat. Check it out in Henry Ferrini’s film about Olson, Polis is This.
When I returned to the swan, which Andrew floated from its drunken mooring, close to the Rye bridge, I heard how he had spent most of a day bailing and drying the plastic bird out, after being swamped by the health-and-safety dinghy. Young Tom patched a couple of holes, after Edith had been bumped and dragged too fast. But sinkings are good drama. Once we decided to steer well away from the support vessel, there was never another hitch.
Peddling in gentle reverie, one with the water, we relished the Rother. Sun shone. The dinghy kept well out of the way. We were alone in the riparian world, adjusting to a speed a little less than a brisk hike. Cows were curious, but not very, despite Kötting’s orgasmic moos and taunts. He fell into a near-catatonic rhythm, until two young women hiked along with a strutting dog. ‘Ahoy! Is this right for London? Are you lesbians?’ They smiled and saluted, they’d heard it all before.
A certain amount of friction, as is to be expected, was generated by the conflicted demands of photography and sound, production and talent. Boom shadows were in shot. No dialogue was taken clean. We weren’t wearing regulation life-jackets, hard hats, gooseberry waistcoats. Native swans puffed themselves up to defend their turf, then thought better of it and scooted on ahead, in the direction of Bodiam. Tomorrow would take us to the castle, an early start (by their standards) would give the mist shot. Travel was narrowing the mind quite effectively. I would be happy to go on with this for months, years, dissolving into the reeds and meadows.
Friday, 23 September 2011. Winchelsea Beach to Rye.
We hadn’t been out at sea more than a couple of hours when rumours started to drift after us from Hastings: our swan theft had launched a cult. Call it, as the boys did, chewing at their miserly roll-ups with salted lips, ‘morphic resonance’. You can always tell a philosopher manqué, an amateur Sartre, by the quality of their fumbled tobacco tube. Rolling, licking, spitting shreds, lighting up in a seaside gale on a rocky shore, gives the crewman time to chew over a knotty condundrum without committing himself to speech. The boredom of waiting, days at a time, for weather to break, or catering to arrive, or safety operatives to find the right plug for their deflated dinghy, creates the perfect climate for philosophical discussion. Some nonsense by Karl Popper about one black swan in a world of white. Kötting who travelled a little, between festivals, had overheard, and totally misunderstood, a few phrases from Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life (The Hypothesis of Formative Causation). While rambling about ley lines and Robert Macfarlane’s ‘sea-roads’, he connected these concepts, and anything else that was vaguely New Age and hippie-dippie, with morphogenetic fields.
‘Energetic resonance occurs when a system is acted on by an alternating force which coincides with its natural frequency of vibration,’ he read, frowning like Martin Johnson. ‘Like Tom said: kinetic. Like tides and moons and things like that, man. Stretched strings responding to appropriate sound waves. The absorption of light waves of particular frequencies by atoms and molecules, resulting in their characteristic absorption spectra. Electronic Spin Resonance and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, man. Out of a mixture of vibrations, however complicated, the systems respond only to those of particular frequencies.’
What he seemed to be saying, through the Mars bar trapped in a mesh of crusty beard-wire, was that the vibrations of our paddle wheels, carried on the tide, disseminated in beams of dying-red sunlight, had triggered a copycat reaction back in Hastings. The crime we had attempted and achieved, in liberating Edith from Swan Lake, had somehow broadcast that knowledge to a troop of rough-drinkers, bench-sleepers and marine casuals. Two thirsty lads waded through the muck, wrestled a pedalo into the English Channel, and headed out in the general direction of Dieppe. The offies had closed for the night in St Leonards and they had some notion that after a bit of a peddle, to work up a thirst, they would be filling the swan with duty frees.
The next night, another pedalo went awol. It was found drifting, a mile or so out, abandoned, a ghost. Locals, nodding wisely and spitting green, were convinced that the deserted swan was the end of our voyage. We pushed on and a pirate armada trailed in our wake. Guard dogs now patrol the Fun Fair pond to deter poachers. But the pedalo fleet continues to grow. All around the coast of Britain plastic swans are massing and nudging their way towards the River Lea and the Olympic Stadium. Morphic resonance. Ley lines. Sea-roads.
After two hours washing the swan down, and watching the Toms polish their wetsuits and remember keys left behind in Hastings Old Town, the crew straggled down to the shore. Mel had been entertaining us with tales of sleeping in a haunted chapel. She didn’t know much about our local reputation as a centre for mild Satanism, Aleister Crowley heritage boutiques, black leather, skull tattoos, hairy gothism, and the sacrifice of Kentucky Fried chickens. But she picked up on the vibe. Morphic resonance again.
John Symonds visited Crowley, The Great Beast, in his magical retirement, in a large Hastings house that took in paying guests.
He invited us to luncheon but excused himself; he always ate in his room he said, but he would see us afterwards. I wondered what concoction he was going to consume privately; later I discovered that it was nothing more involved than a boiled egg and an injection of heroin.
‘Anyone got a pickled egg?’ Kötting demanded, buttoning up his jacket. It had been a difficult night in the camper van. On earlier shoots, Andrew laid out the ground rules early by head-butting his way around the line-producers and safety operatives. Now it looked as if he was turning on his immediate associates. Loyally, they denied it. Philippe wore a fat sticking-plaster across the swollen bridge of his nose. ‘The door of the oven opened when I wasn’t expecting it,’ he said. ‘I was taking out Andrew’s underpants to heat my porridge.’ There was an open wound, dressed with tooth marks around Kötting’s ankle. What they get up to in the privacy of the van is not our concern. We would be replacing one of the Toms with a permanent medical man, school of Dr Hannibal Lecter.
We found our sea-road, under a cloudless sky, and peddled east. The Toms disappeared over the horizon, to sunbathe and cast for mackerel. The further out we drifted, the further away they kept. I was a little worried about them. They were becoming rather casual about the employment of inflatable safety jackets and hard hats. Their craft was patched like a Hogarthian pox victim. I wasn’t sure that we could move faste enough to rescue them, if they started to flounder, or took a freak wave.
Windmills along the foreshore, alerted us to the harbour entry. A Don Quixote moment. Reluctant to quit the open sea, where the swan performed so well, we were aware of the days passing. We peddled smoothly up the long channel to the fabled English port. Kötting tucked up his feet, panting heavily. ‘What what what?’ he said, when I asked if he needed I rest. ‘This is performance art, alright. This is a film. I’m faking it.’ The beads of sweat were not faked. Not the loud banter with the shaven-headed heavies in the Alien Patrol Coastal Vessel. ‘Are you all brothers?’ he taunted, with a homophobic leer, as they cocked their automatic weapons.
This was a magical passage, dirty industries on one side, customs officials on the other, and wild life responding to the swan’s stately motion. Turning away from the town centre and under a bridge that led to the Rother, Andrew spotted a potential mooring site, involving all the necessary bits and pieces of performance art. A slither up a sheer mud bank. Knocking on the door of some innocent watching celebrities dance and slugging back gin by the pint measure.
‘Can we tie up our swan for the night?’
‘No problem, mate.’ He hallucinated, hanging over the gate.
Mel was waiting with the car and a hamper of congealed fish and chips with which the two Toms lubricated their wetsuits, while the rest of the crew headed down to the pub. Now we would penetrate the inland river systems of the sweet underbelly of an England still basking in its golden Indian summer. The sea had been survived without problem. The swan gloried in her freedom. The crew were fed and watered. What could go wrong?
Thursday, 22 September 2011. Hastings Old Town to Winchelsea Beach
Once upon a time, on the south coast of Britain, a naked man enveloped in a quilt of swan feathers haunted the pebbled shore, nursing a bottle of fine wine, purchased early each morning at a minimart catering for a loose association of cheerful sportsmen and inebriates: all-day drinkers, some of whom followed the football, some of whom noticed the weather – and some of whom, like the Duvet Man, drifted through the soft-focused marine topography on their own rails, stopping here or there, taking up a position, keeping their counsel. This man became, for me, freshly arrived from the clot and grip of London, an emblematic figure. A sadhu requiring no acknowledgment or patronage. A figure of place. And an unsponsored blessing for the microclimate of Hastings and St Leonards.
That ever-alert photographer, Anonymous Bosch, made contact with the Duvet Man, after he vanished from the shoreline and drifted inland. He was noticed around the Medway and then rumoured into the outreaches of London sprawl. Bosch had an innate sympathy for outsiders, riverbank squatters, tin-shed communards, drop-outs of every stripe. He made several dignified portraits of his new associate. When I examined these, I realised what he had captured: the spirit of our coming odyssey, a swan shaman. A human wrapped in feathers staring at the waves.
In the cartoon cosmology of Andrew Kötting’s Swandown – which became my own mortality chant and Swansong – Duvet Man was one part of a divine couple, the god and goddess whose platonic marriage set the terms for our expedition, by sea and river, to that home of the immortals, the Olympic Stadium of the Lower Lea. The swan bride, made of the same pliable plastic as our craft, was an effigy of Marilyn Monroe, skirts adrift and ballooning, at the end of Hastings pier. This tawdrily glamorous effigy, fetishised from Billy Wilder’s Seven Year Itch, was a figure of outward, a come-on for traditional seaside pleasures. The billowing folds of white skirt, the exposed thighs and imagined absence of underwear (promoted by Marilyn herself), lent the bubble-gum statue a Leda-like status. Film-dream made, not into flesh, but into pedalo-skin: riding and floating above the choppy wavelets that rushed beneath the pier’s tired supports.
And then, one night, fire came. Whether this was a traditional insurance barbecue or an act of god, nobody knows. Lumps of the pier crashed into the bay. Slot-machines on the shingle for the first metal-detecting scavengers. Marilyn was seen no more. Perhaps she melted in an evil-smelling mush, like a biro cap held in the flame of a Bunsen burner. Or one of John Latham’s books airfixed to a gallery wall. The fact remains: Marilyn Swanskirt vanished. As, in sympathy, and around the same time, did Duvet Man. The two absences, male and female, are united as the votive presences for our voyage. And reconfigured, as we cast off, in the shelter of the Harbour Arm, as twin testosterone-peddlers and rescued Lady of Shallot. Edith the white swan on whose bucket-seats we perch like Edwardian gents.
The sea welcomes us, libations made, Edith reeking of old wine and recent Swan Lake mud. The east-running tide absorbs us, sweeps us along. After the frustrations of the first days, the dark Poseidon-cursed winds and clouds, it was a bad moment when I noticed the name on the prow of our safety raft: Poseidon. In dull orange rubber. Indeed the only hazards we faced at sea, as we rounded the first headland, came from the two Toms, the professionals hired to keep as afloat. This pair, stiff from a night sleeping in wetsuits, were so pleased to be freed from the shore and back in their native element that they swooped around us in decreasing circles, outboard at full throttle. Coming alongside to shout bogus nautical advice, which we couldn’t hear against the roar of their engine and the screaming of the gulls, they swamped the swan with a sideswipe of wash. I bailed furiously, while Andrew attempted conversation with a gay kayak enthusiast, travelling at pace towards the nudist beach (as they describe an outcrop of barnacle-encrusted rocks). This site, hidden away at the foot of a tangled glen, always reminds me of that notice on a café, on the road into Hastings: Courtyard at the back available for Smokers and Naturists. Kippered, inside and out.
From time to time, we catch a glimpse of the camera crew, hanging for dear life to the rail of a support vessel out of Rye, some old salt who takes his wage from keeping speed down to a level where they pitch on every wave. Occasionally, their groans carry across the sea. Some retch and cramp. Others are a fetching up liquid green snot. But they keep the images rolling. Bosch, who transfers into the flabby dinghy with the two Toms, reports that Edith seems, as we come towards Winchelsea Beach, to disappear from sight, with only the crowns of our heads visible above the riding swell. But the pedalo is watertight and stable. My instinct is to push on. We are right in the zone. The gods with us. Why spoil a good thing by returning to land: ever? There is much talk about Donald Crowhurst. Faking reports and drifting in circles before going over the side.
The crew won’t require much supper, but they love the creature comforts of their camper-van nest: the fug, the roll-ups, the rendering technology that rolls on into the early hours, while Philippe gives readings from The Idiot. Or rings up contacts in seven or eight European languages to find some sensible project to get him out of here. Andrew emails all the actors who have featured in his earlier films, trying to persuade them to come down for a peddle. Strangely, they seem to have developed sudden injuries requiring major operations and bed-rest. Not available at any price. Only Dudley Sutton (a game old turkey whose fading memory has wiped his experience on This Filthy Earth) and Eden Kötting (who has been in the movie all her life) are happy to take a seat. Happy happy happy. We drag Edith up on the shingle. And Mel, who has been turning cartwheels along the shore, beside the designer-modernist houses of pensioned rock stars, takes out her contact lenses to sat-nav me back to Marine Court. Tomorrow we’ll follow the tide to Rye. Or Norway.
Wednesday. 21 September 2011. Hastings Old Town.
It worked, the casting of wine on the waves, the small sacrifice of burger buns to gulls: the sea was no longer peevish, it was raging. Tom’s kinetic effects were in play, white-foamed crest chased crest. Our swan, still nameless, sat brooding on her nest of stones. Like a flood of untapped narratives.
We were going nowhere, the minders said. Old Tom, now hooded, looked more than ever like Max von Sydow in one of Bergman’s less cheerful pieces, something like The Shame. Boats of the dead sailing through a sea of corpses. Young Tom, who was never without a yellow tray of cold chips, maintained a bright and lecherous smile, as he peeled down his wetsuit and fantasised his role in Dr No. The depressed crew, now scattered on the shingle, were all in different movies.
There was nothing for it but to gather around the fire and swap yarns. Anonymous Bosch began by showing us his finger, the one that had been attached back to front. Andrew had already mentioned this, as a recommendation. He told me that AB had been out in the wilderness, in a tepee, where, having sliced through this digit, he stitched it on again with odds and ends of twine. If it had been an arm, we might have got the funding for a docu-drama. I pictured the Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, the Antarctic. ‘Where did this happen?’ I asked. ‘Preston,’ he said.
Bosch was hitching back from Manchester to his hometown – so he began, clearly on something of a roll – when, walking on the embankment beside a motorway, he fell down an open manhole. Straight into a sewer.
The audience, hugging beakers of cooling coffee roared. It was Bosch’s deadpan delivery.
Knocked out and buried in waste, he soon recovered his senses, found a ladder, clambered out, to raise his thumb and the re-attached finger. Smeared head to toe in gobs of Mancunian shit, he was not an attractive pick-up. When a lift was finally secured, the driver, after a few minutes, pulled up and asked him to move into the metal container at the back of his truck.
Beyond yarns to keep our spirits up, there was junk food. Mel, the ever-obliging runner (and driver), was having trouble with her contact lenses, which, she said, were full of milk. I pointed out Marine Court, that concrete Mother of Swans, once the tallest block of flats in Britain, and she saw something that looked like a squashed cloud. Her driving was cheerful and brisk, as she hit the buttons to mix conference calls with her personal playlist. She held a powerboat safety licence that was useful for the coast-road, but nobody let her anywhere near a boat. She ferried in pizza boxes, battered fish, chips (for Young Tom’s breakfast) and ice-cream cones with chocolate pencils for Kötting’s comedy turns. Nick, an old hand, kept his energy up with packs of hobnob biscuits and ginger nuts. Mel confessed that every time she could get away for a few minutes from the gloom of the shore, she scarfed an ice bun and played the machines in the arcade.
Driven to the recognition that if we did not move now, we would never move, we were caught in the hypnotic spell of Calypso’s cave: candyfloss, frying fish, and Kötting’s pancake makeup – which for some reason he smeared on one side of his face. We dragged the protesting swan along the shingle and around the arm of the breakwater. And then at a delirious rush, against the waving of insurance papers and lifejackets, to the edge of the sea. The libations worked. A passage was secured. The breakers let us through. We were away and peddling towards the first headland. ‘No further,’ Andrew warned. ‘I have given my word.’ But the swan had a life of its own. Salt washed off the newly painted eyes. Blind, the white beast bestrode the waves. Musicians from a ‘70s timewarp chorused us out. ‘You can’t film that,’ said the line-producer. And he was right. Anything doubtful or ambiguous, such as dogs and children, came with heads like buckets of bees. Like the way innocence is depicted on television, licence plates and infant faces seething in ectoplasmic deletion. We were between worlds. Our swan belonged and soon we would join her, marine ghosts. The Toms loved it, health-and-safetying us to the point of swamping our craft as they swept in circles around the wallowing plastic bird. Young Tom taunted the starving Andrew by holding up pickled eggs and then swooshing out beyond the harbour arm, grinning like a stoat.
In long black coat, hair tossed by the wind, the keening singer, Kirsten Norrie, gave a performance of otherworldly intensity, staring through the lens with Scottish eyes. Waves crashed at her back. Her unaccompanied voice rose and fell with heart-song passion, recalling the drowned, the fabled shapeshifting swans of legend. It was the final element, stars twinkling, lights of the town strung along the curve of shore burning gold and red. Tomorrow we would begin. Sea-roads, older than the Normans, older than Romans, revealed themselves. It only remained, after we beached the swan for the night, to pay our respects to the statue of Edith Swan-Neck in Bulverhythe. Do you recall John Keats when he put up at the Bo-Peep Inn?
Wide sea, that one continuous murmur breeds
Along the pebbled shore of memory!
Edith, mistress of the slaughtered Harold, bends over him in tender, vampiric embrace. A corpse recovered from the field at Battle in 1066. Kötting judges the composition to be ‘Medieval’, ‘fourteen-hundred and something’. Nick reckons it is Victorian, like a sentimental history painting rendered in poxed white stone. ‘Takes hundreds of years for lichen to grow like that,’ Andrew muses. ‘Unless it’s on one of Patrick Keiller’s road signs,’ I reply, with rude pedantry. But now, it is acknowledged by all, we’re ready. No going back. Open sea tomorrow. And the swan has a name: Edith.
Tuesday. 20 September 2011. Hastings Old Town.
They sit, one on either side of me, on the bench facing Swan Lake, the wetsuit minders, call them Tom and Tom. Our backs are resolutely set against the misbehaving sea. We are waiting, as always, for the crew to unstick themselves from the curried depths of the camper van.
‘It’s simple enough,’ the senior Tom said, ‘you can film at sea and you can film on land. But you must never, neverever, try and film between the two. That’s when your problems start. In that bit where it’s wet, but you’ve still got one foot on the ground.’
Tom 2 nodded and gave me an encouraging smile.
‘I’ve been dropped by helicopter in the Bay of Biscay in a force nine. It’s like falling down a mineshaft in lead boots. But you’re at sea, so you know where you are. You can’t feel your arms and legs and your tongue goes blue, the next wave is the size of the Ritz, but you haven’t got a problem.’
‘Yeah right. He’s right.’ Tom 2 grinned. ‘Sea is sea.’
These were reassuring figures, taking a chance, with the wilder elements of the crew still unknotting vests and shaking out soup from their beards, to put me in the picture. They were ex-SAS, Special Boat Service, Brighton boys. They had a hardshell inflatable with enough power to go to Dieppe for coffee and back before Andrew hauled his waders on. They were under the illusion that they’d signed on for a James Bond movie. And that they would be right in shot, bouncing from wave to wave, drowning us with their steepling wake. And maybe, if we were very lucky, after a week or two, they would let us back on the children’s paddling pool. I wasn’t cruel enough to ask if Swan Lake qualified as water filming. I saw the pain and confusion in their eyes when we dragged the swan out of its element on to the land.
‘You’ve got to understand,’ Tom 1 whispered, now that we were intimates. ‘It’s about kinetic energy. Waves are not like us. Once they’ve got a taste for rolling and tumbling, there’s no going back. They’ll roll for days at a time, they can’t stop. Like ball bearings on a tilted table. On and on and on: kinetic force. So long as they stay where they are, allright. Sea is sea. And shore is shore. What if they should cross that line, up the beach, over the road, across the promenade? Doesn’t bear thinking about. Kinetic apocalypse. End of civilization as we know it.’
Tom 2 flapped his flippers in acknowledgement.
‘Wind comes from the north, it does happen, and we might let you out. You’ll be down to Rye in an hour without peddling. Could be tomorrow, could be next month. But no filming.’
‘No filming, no,’ said Tom 2, sadly. ‘Not until you’re safely at sea, a mile out. And don’t look back. Forget the land. It’s a different world.’
Now that I was deeper into Homer, I knew what that giant eagle on the truck, when Kötting stole the swan, actually meant. A portent from the gods, a telegram straight from Zeus. Watch it.
Zeus, who was watching from afar, urged two eagles into flight from the mountain-top. For a while they sailed down the wind with outstretched pinions, wing to wing. But as soon as they were directly over the meeting-place, where the sound of voices filled the air, they began to flap their wings and wheel about, glancing down at the faces of the crowd with looks foreboding death, They then fell to work with their talons, ripping each other’s cheeks and neck on either side, and so swooped eastward over the house-tops of the busy town.
We heed this warning. It does not always run smoothly between film-makers, on shore or land, who are about doing, and reckless with money that is not their own, and production staff who are about not-doing, not-spending, not-risking – although they are already involved in the biggest risk of all, the generous gift of time and energy and acumen to the derangement of a post-Herzogian vanity project. In the past, Andrew whispered, when he was young and foolish, he had been known to Glasgow kiss those who tried to preach wisdom and restraint. Now he took the sight of the eagles to heart and chewed on his salty tongue. As the days slipped by, minders, managers, drivers, fetchers, amusement arcade operators, weathermen comfortably outnumbered the active participants, who grumped and grumbled as they do.
I was delighted with all this, the interconnections and layerings were more complex and pertinent by the hour. That powerful sense of being trapped on land, like Telemachus, son of Odysseus, his palace full of his widowed mother’s hoggish suitors, layabouts feasting on his sheep and goats, swilling his wine. And all the while preparing a swift boat for escape, the great life-enhancing quest: to search out the story of his father. To find a tale worth telling, where the sun drops into the wine-dark sea.
We needed a sacrifice. We needed to pour wine on the troubled waters. Otherwise it was all economics and risk assessments, cartons of pea-green soup from Judges’ bakery. When the real gets too real, too set in its ways, throw in some magic. Kötting, having painted the swan’s eyes, was bonded. He carried to the shingle slope a number of significant artefacts, curious twigs, miniature tea-pots and the like. He scooped up a rinse of seawater and swallowed it down, like a true performance artist, before spraying the horrified swan’s cracked neck. The show finished with the production of a bottle of fortified liquor called Le Source, which featured a label showing a mountain hut and a forested backdrop.
‘That’s where I should be,’ the director said.
And we all agreed. After a couple of hits from the narrow bottle, I saw the forest beneath the waves, the stakes and piers of the ancient Roman harbour at Hastings, the one washed away by winter storms.
Putting the business back on track, we chorused the opening of Pound’s Cantos. A sprawling, shuddering epic that dares to start in the middle, on a stroke of continuity, with ‘And then…’ I read a line and Andrew shouted it back across the swan.
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship…
My papers are so sodden by this time, after various duckings and drenchings, after scratching with a swan nib dipped in black paint, that swart reads as swan. When we came to Poured libations unto each the dead, I opened a bottle of Oxford Landing red from the beach-drinkers minimart, swilled and spat. Spat blood over the swan’s whiteness, wings and neck. Before we marched through the breakers, chanting:
Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
‘Lose all companions.’…
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away…
Outward and away. Outward and away. Outward and away. We chanted and splashed our libations on the raging waves. Outward and away.
My own journey, the bigger trip, lay ahead. Not just the Yeatsian ‘That is no country for old men’ stuff. Not sailing to Byzantium. Not raging against the dying of the light. No salmon-falls, no mackerel crowded seas. I was still two years short of my biblical span, time for grander misadventures. The swan voyage was local, a domestic matter, nothing more difficult than unpicking the hubris of the Olympic Park, the Westfield Palace of Vanities. The wider picture was the North Atlantic. As soon as I stepped off the swan – should we ever launch – I would be flying to Boston, heading for Gloucester, Mass. Reconnecting with my early inspiration, Charles Olson. Who, gorged on Melville and his white whale, on the ranges of ancient mountains beneath the ocean, on European myths and the facts of American geography, did go out with the fishermen – if only to learn that the sea was not ‘finally’ his business. But Maximus left us with the best map for our adventure, the idea of open-field poetics, of his true and original version of postmodernism. Back with Homer and Hesiod. With Pound in the Washington asylum.
Look properly at your sources. It is not Odysseus who is making libations, it is a son, Telemachus, setting off to search for his lost father. As Andrew Kötting voyaged, from northern islands to Mexico, to discover the part of himself buried with his DeadDad and the DeadDad before that. And the young daughter who seems older and wiser, sometimes, than all of them, when, coming to the beach, she reaches out her arms. And laughs at the madness, the folly of men.