A very dangerous zone— Alan Cunningham

We were equals; we both had our glasses filled at the same time and regarded the other with feelings of malice mingled with respect. At grape-harvest time in the late autumn we once went through some vine-growing villages in the Markgraeflerland, and at the Stag Inn at Kirchen the old villain recounted his life story. It seemed weird and wonderful at the time but unfortunately I have completely forgotten it.”

Peter Camenzind, Hermann Hesse

On my way back from Ireland to London, I start to re-read a book I’d brought with me to Wexford but had never opened, nor even really looked at, while at the farm.

It’s Peter Camenzind, by Hermann Hesse.

And I get to thinking about the urban – or is it the urbane? – while reading on the Iarnród Éireann train from Enniscorthy to Dublin’s Pearse Street Station.

I’d found the book while staying at my parent’s house, in Newry.

I was somewhat prompted by the sight of it in my old bedroom to recall a conversation I had had in London – one with a female friend – undertaken in the weeks before I’d left.

We’d chatted about that long pursuit, of art.

And any distinction between that and – we suppositioned – a “more kind of general mode of living”.

About forming a career out of always doing art, as opposed to simply doing other, simple things.

And forming a life out of life, as opposed to fixating on simply making things be always something close to: what is art.

“I was far away. All my life, I’ve been fearful of defeat, but now that it has come it’s not nearly as terrible as I’d expected. The sun still shines. Water still tastes good. Glory is…all well and good but…life is enough, no?”

English actor James Purefoy, as Mark Antony in the TV series Rome.

And what is it, then, I think, whilst sitting on the train – to form a life?

Does such a thing exist? What must it be, in opposition to that long pursuit, for art?

I’d been thinking of these things anyway, much earlier in the day.

For then I’d been subjected to some rather moody looking photographs of well-known Irish writers, while I was bored and lost, once more, online. The photographic ads kept popping up as I was looking at new things with my smart phone. They publicised an edition of the writing journal Granta subtitled: New Irish Writing.

Writers – or publications – wanting to be celebrated, I had thought.

Getting their photos taken then – becoming advertised – as such.

Professional envy, of course.

Would I have been so critical of a photo of myself? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d let such a thing be so placed – assuming, yes, of course, that I’d ever get that chance. There was a time I think I would have done, though – yes, oh yes.  There was a time I certainly would’ve liked to have been most celebrated, as such magazines and writers – and sometimes even major cities – are.

But anyway – back to Peter Camenzind, and my new thoughts on the urbane.

A literature of forgotten moments, is my take away on reading it – as hinted at above.

I think: a literature of the happily forgotten, the happy not to be remembered.

For isn’t this what nature is?

This something – some thing, or even place – not really full of much desire at all to be so celebrated.

Nothing happens in Nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, for Nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, that is, the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen…”

Ethics, Baruch Spinoza.

And the benefit of not reading of it.

I went walking with my mother while I was back in Ireland, walking out around the outskirts of Newry, just before we drove on down to Wexford.

She pointed out Wild Woodbine and Wild Roses in the hedgerows on our walk. And her actions then reminded me that I always think the hedgerows an implicit history of the island – a history somewhat thankfully unwritten.

But still, I feel a need – much later in the week that I am back – to text a cousin of mine, a cousin well known within the family for his knowledge of all nature. And I ask him if there is any kind of book written on Irish hedgerows that he could recommend.

He replies:

to be honest with you Alan I have endless books on Irish wildlife/habitats but book wise on hedgerows, no. These tend to be geared more toward foraging and to Britain which although probably 90% accurate would not be a true representation of Ireland’s hedgerows or Mick Delaney’s “Ditch”. Personally, I’d get more satisfaction downloading specific stuff like PDF’s from bodies like An Taisce and Biodiversity Ireland. I’ve included a couple of links to a couple of useful ones.”

I touch through on my phone, to view the links he sends just after this.

But what’s written there is not literate, I find – though I don’t mean to denigrate. There simply is no story – only scientific names and details are listed in the documents I download.

The hedgerow, then – only ever recollected by the precise listing of its parts.

After my arrival back in London, my mother – still down in Wexford – talks to me over the phone, tells me of her mother’s current status. She talks of how she, my sick grandmother, is now cursing her own weakness, how she says she never thought she’d see the day that she got old.

She tells me of her general loss of appetite; of how much weight that she’s now lost.

She tells me of her understandable anxiety concerning all these sad events – you see, her mind – unlike her body – is still quite fresh.

I’d looked out over the island as we walked along the Flagstaff outside Newry, my mother and I, some weeks before; looked out over the largely empty, open geography, and at the porous, gap filled hedgerows demarking land – but land not now much troubled by any real, peculiar traits.

As my mother talks on the phone of my grandmother I think back to how I once left a bike of mine unlocked in an empty Berlin hinterhof; in a communal Wedding courtyard of a building where I lived.

My girlfriend at the time had somewhat merrily admonished me; I’d labeled it, spectacularly arrogantly, an “experiment, in society”.

The truth was more prosaic: I simply didn’t want to spend any money on a lock.

I think I’d lost the one I’d had and was getting close to broke.

The bike disappeared some days after, of course – yes, I will admit it, somewhat shocking me.

But I didn’t let that bother me.

I simply found the money necessary and bought another shitty bike – and probably another flimsy type of lock – instead.

Besides walking to the Adamstown fair while down in Wexford, I also went out walking much more aimlessly while there as well.

To Adamstown and back again, a few other days, when nothing much was happening. The weather was fine the week that we had chosen to go down and the walks were always easy and delightful.

And during every walk I took I always found myself surrounded by those hedgerows once again.

But not only by the various trees – the hawthorn or the pignut – that made up the Wexford hedge.

On closer inspection I saw that I was also surrounded by clear gaps within the hedge; by gaps in electric fences that buzzed almost silently all around; by gaps in cloud filled sky that listed over old stone walls that slumped most peacefully; and by the barriers, bollards, gates and walls surrounding land that could all still be easily usurped – by others, and by me.

And while thinking of these gaps and passageways within the many different walls I realized I was – and was quite enjoying being – all alone.

The countryside and I, we were not crowded at that moment – we were not celebrated.

But without any type of supplement I then thought of my grand mother too, and of her family all around her; of how they were now offering her support in what might be called by some her time of greatest need – is this not so? Is not our looming death our time of greatest need, for other life?

Offering support so that she is not alone – apart, of course, from being old, and 92.

But still, while thinking all of this – also enjoying all the time that I’d created for myself within the walk.

Thinking of a pain in my right shoulder, though, as well, while all alone – and thinking how I was, for now, somewhat accompanied by that at least.

Pain: felt once again and used once more to keep me company.

Thinking how it was caused, perhaps, by all my constant worry over writing. Thinking also that perhaps with all my walks I had been trying to dispel an urge to read – or worse, even to simply write.

Not quite understanding it anymore, that urge to write, while thinking of the gaps within all things, including me; finding it somewhat alien, on my walks, in consideration of the peace and quiet – the enjoyment and the solitude – simple walking and denial of all types of information caused to be.

“The time of death is a good time when life has been lived fully. There was something pleasant to contemplate in the death of an old person.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

And thus I slowly found myself, I realized while out walking on those quiet and empty lanes of Wexford county, perhaps no longer capable of walking in the larger, celebrated cities anymore – those cities that are only cities and no more.

I thought back to my city life – the walks I took and those I had avoided.

I’d found myself too often paralyzed, it seemed, by buildings, roads and by the many streets.

The city is so provincial, I thought – a gentle provocation.

The city, so un avant-garde these days.

The city, quite so boring – because of all the distracting things that one can find to do.

I am not scared, I can be capable alone, I think, on looking now at all the things around me in the country, but the city, it makes me think of all the many things that I should probably plan to do – or should not do, lest I be thought a fool.

The city, yes, I do remember it – and all the fine distractions that it offers too.

“When everyone’s building a fence, isn’t it a true fool who lives out in the open.”

Fences: A Brexit Diary, Zadie Smith

After a few weeks back in London, prompted by listening to an interview with Werner Herzog, I decide to re-watch a documentary that he made in 1976 entitled La Soufrièrea documentary regarding, somewhat, a volcano.

The film itself is easy enough to find online.

During the beginning of the film Herzog explains the situation that led to it being made.

On the French island of Basse-Terre, in Guadalupe, a volcano named La Grande Soufrière (or, “big sulphur outlet”) began to show some signs of activity. All the residents were evacuated on advice of scientists based on the island, though some of the scientists believed evacuation was not necessary. On hearing that one resident of the island – a farmer who lived in the shadow of the volcano – had refused to be evacuated along with all the rest, Herzog instantly went to the island with a small crew to film.

I listen intently to the voiceover as the film moves forward to the point in time where Herzog and his crew meet this resident.

I listen to Herzog’s dulcet German tones:

On that day we found a man who had refused to leave the district and two others. We had to wake him up first.

I see a man visualize on my computer screen, he is lying sleeping on the ground.

What’s going on here?, Herzog interprets into English for the voiceover. In the film the language spoken in the first instance – what we can faintly hear behind his voice – is always French. You have refused to leave the district haven’t you?

Yes, I am here because it’s God’s will, the man replies – and is interpreted. I am waiting for my death, and I wouldn’t know where to go anyway. I haven’t a cent, I am poor.

You are waiting for death?

Yes, and no one knows when it will come. It is as God has commanded. He will not only take me to his bosom but everyone else. Like life, death is forever. I haven’t the slightest fear. Yes, because it’s God’s will, no one can tell when death will come.

Are you afraid?

Not one bit.

Why not?

God takes everyone to his bosom, not just one, not just me, he has ordained this for us

Why don’t you move out?

Where should I go? Death waits forever, it is eternal. I am not afraid of dying

I pause the clip on YouTube to transcribe the lines above. As I type them out I see the man on my computer screen, still lying on the ground, beneath a tree.

The volcano did not erupt, however, after all the patient waiting of the refusees and the filmmakers, prompting the full title of Herzog’s film upon release, La Soufrière: Waiting for an Unavoidable Catastrophe.

A few weeks after I get back to London I go to a picnic – a demonstration of protest and disgust – in Green Park, a picnic organized in the wake of the UK Referendum regarding whether or not the country should leave the EU.

As I sit amongst some strangers and some friends, we talk about our respective feelings on the matter. I’m asked about the mood in Ireland when I was there the week before.

The mood was not outstanding, but I find that now I’m back in London I have nothing much to say.

A man appears and joins us.

He is the guest of an Italian friend of mine, visiting her for the weekend. He seems melancholy, but that does not discourage me from talking; such melancholia never does. He also seems reluctant to talk around our mutual friend, however. She walks off to go the toilet at one point and he then becomes effusive, divulging all to me. Problems, love affairs. A new girlfriend. She’s away. He misses her.

No, he clarifies, after a pause – it’s more than that.

He think’s that she is sleeping around.

But there is even more than this, it then turns out: he recently moved to Zurich, his old girlfriend didn’t want to follow him, so they broke up.

How long have you known the new girlfriend? I ask.

3 months.

And how long were you together with your previous girlfriend?

12 years.

I offer the usual, useless platitudes, never knowing what to say but: listen.

He’s nods, and says, yes, difficulty, in his slightly broken English but above all that, there is another problem, evident now, always evident it would seem, to him, to me, to everyone perhaps – he’s found he cannot take any comfort in that precious, awful gap of: all alone.

That awful, heart-crazed moment in-between; of being, as we think, now all alone.

Relax into it, I can only say (more to myself) – fill it completely with yourself, it’s all ok.

And don’t give in to any pressure to fill it instantly with only thoughts of lives of all the many others.

The core of the life of the country was that of people who never developed any kind of town-life, being satisfied, rather, to develop rural life to the point where, normally, it should have spilled over into urbanity – and most obstinately would not.”

The Great O’Neill, Seán Ó Faoláin

I walk back home from Green Park through the middle of the city.

And then a sense of sovereignty or some not quite deserved entitlement seeps from the very buildings of the city – at least this is what I think as I walk and look around.

Or is it that I simply read it there instead, coming out of me?

That’s why, perhaps, there is no monumental type of building in the countryside, the type of building in the country, well, it’s somewhat better now, but yes, I understand – that is a type of better just for me.

Some say there are no efforts at urbanity in the country, that this is what makes it countryside, though that’s not exactly true, I think, if you consider urban nature in it’s turn to be something simply citied, contained within a city and thus still a city in that way.

But they are right in their own way, there may be architecture in the country but there is nothing quite refined about it, the hedgerow, the mossy wall, the paths, they are now empty – all disregarded, all not remembered – the cities happened and were remembered somewhere else, yes, but the city in the countryside, well, it still presided.

Nature is the mother city, then, metro, politian, from which all other cities have been colonized, the city itself (but not necessarily all the people in it) going somehow backwards, part of the country of nature, and not the other way around.

The city, the city is a very old fashioned idea, I thought one day while walking through a city that seemed an ideal type of age.

Some cities are.

What is it in a city that becomes so unfamiliar, over time? That prompts a feeling of being unfamiliar with oneself?

And what is it in the rural that we always think can counter that – yet never really does?

The rural, destined not to be remembered.

No, not destined not: not meant to be remembered.

And causing one, I feel, to sometimes be so brave to almost think the same about oneself.

The weather was perfect. The wet weather which ordinarily would be enough to drive the most patriotic Irish poet out of the country kept away. It was Nature striving to hold me to herself, jealous Nature.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

As I walk homeward through the city I think again of life upon the farm – that kind of life.

I think of the subtle, mostly unknown art of turning fiendish stones in fields.

While I was down in Wexford my Uncle, the one who worked the central family farm, had been engaged – all by himself and all, largely, by hand – in doing this. Of course there is sophisticated machinery to do such things these days, but that costs money, and besides: there is part of me that recognises that he simply liked to do it by himself.

He had recalled, while we were there, in conversation with myself, how once upon a time I and many other of my cousins (mostly his sons) had done this job.

We had been saved, he recollected, (though I cannot remember this) from any boredom or distraction true to children by the chance to sit upon his tractor as we worked, each one of us received after the other, sitting on the seat while others worked a single furrow length within the field.

Where is that tractor now? I’d asked, engaged in recollection and noticing a newish looking one parked up beside a barn.  

That tractor, that was sold, my Uncle told me, then continued:

A fella from Malin Head. He sent his son down. Kept ringing me so often about it, every half hour, I thought he was cracked. But he was so enthusiastic about it that I sold it to him.

His son rings me on the day of delivery, says, I’m driving down now, I’m at Black Rock, is it far?

And I say, no, no – you’ve still got a wee bit more to go just yet.

“Father died in Autumn. It is a fine thing to die when the leaves are falling and not when the cry of Spring is among the hills.”

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

On a trip from Germany to England via train – on board, specifically, some new trains of the Eurostar Company – I experiment with their on-board entertainment system.

The free Wi-Fi isn’t working very well, so I watch instead – it being conveniently preloaded – a documentary about a number of climbers attempting to summit the notorious mountain of K2.

Watching it reminds me how much I enjoy – sometimes only vicariously – the stories of these mountain climbers, how much I often envy their complete surrender to the vagaries of nature, to a very particular state of solitude.

I watch as two climbers undertake their long ascent.

At around 5,700 meters up a rock falls and strikes one of the two mountaineers upon his back. Initially, all seems relatively all right, considering the nature of the incident, but it soon becomes clear that the injured climber is in a lot of pain and cannot comfortably move. Some other climbers and a doctor are called by his companion over a walkie-talkie radio. They are asked to come up from base camp to give some more assistance.

While they are on their way up, however, another call comes through to base camp from the companion.

The camera focuses in this instant on the German base camp contact – on his reactions and his voice.

I watch and listen to the conversation. Over the walkie-talkie, some words – faintly pronounced – come through:

I’m sorry to tell you this but I’m afraid we’ve lost Mihaino.

No!, cries out the contact at base camp and he then repeats, more weakly – no.

He sits down on a rock, the contact at base camp, and puts his head into his hands.

After a moment he speaks into the walkie-talkie again.

Can you repeat please?

I’m trying to resuscitate him but I’m not having any luck.

Jay, give me two minutes please, says the contact at base camp, considerably shaken.

After a moment, he speaks, in somewhat broken English – Jay, I please you, try a re-animation, please try it.

The next call through is garbled but one can almost hear, I’m trying CPR…he still has a [garbled] pulse…but he’s not, he’s unconscious.

Ok, Jay, try everything you can do, I’ll try to reach Manuel, please. Understanding?

I will, I’m doing everything I can.

I call you back in two or three minutes. Wait please.

The base camp contact then says in German, to someone standing just off camera:

My God, what are we going to do? Mihaino is dead.

One of the other climbers – the famous Tyrolean mountaineer Hans Kammerlander – later explains in the documentary the attraction and the danger of this type of mountain climbing, in these terms:

And then we heard the news that he didn’t recover from his injury. During moments like this, you lose it completely. You naturally ask yourself, what are you doing here? But then of course you have to think about it realistically and with a clear head. Such is life. We know it’s a fact that whoever climbs the mountain moves in a very dangerous zone. That’s the plain truth. Many people who aren’t climbers would ask now, how can you carry on climbing this mountain immediately after someone has died, someone we all knew? Everyone who knows about the obsession of mountaineering would not ask such a question. And the rest, they cannot understand it anyway.

One day while I was down in Wexford with my mother another Uncle of the family came around to visit. I’m hanging out only with old people, I’d thought, on looking all around the living room of my grand mothers house that day, but what am I, I am no longer young.

He started talking about the various mountains of Ireland, most of which he’d climbed, some of which he hadn’t had the chance to yet.

He said – somewhat reflecting on his age I thought – it’s not now likely that I’ll climb that many more.

Instead, he told me, he simply runs these days for exercise – he simply runs along those Wexford county lanes.

And during another late-night conversation with my mother – when I am back in England – she recites some thoughts expressed by my grandmother over the phone:

I don’t know why I’m not getting any better. I suppose I’d better get my affairs in order. I don’t know how to explain it but my body doesn’t feel the same anymore.

But she also notes that certain types of things still give her pleasure.

Blue skies seen through bedroom windows.

Her family – possibly.

But the nights are drawing in.

And so she sits in bed at night, awake, afraid to fall asleep for fear of death.

In England, during Autumn, I visit an Italian friend for dinner and while talking with him and his girlfriend (who is also Irish) in the kitchen of the house where they are housesitting, the conversation somehow turns to food and Roman dialect.

È la morte sua, he says, in relation to some ingredients he is cooking with that I cannot remember now and then explains: it’s like if two things go together really well, we say, è la morte sua. It means, of one thing in relation to another, it is its death.

He pauses – smiles – and then repeats to clarify:

It means, in other words – they really, really complement each other.

On one occasion when I walked to Adamstown over the summer I passed the local churchyard on my way and remembered that my grandfather had been buried there.

I walked amongst the tombstones, trying to recall the day we buried him and where his tombstone was located.

I couldn’t find it, though, and thought – maybe – that he had not been buried there at all; that this was simply how I had remembered it, and any tombstone that I found would not be real, it would instead be selfishly created.

I did keep looking, though, convinced my memories were based in something close to truth.

No matter where I looked I could not find it, though – so I spent the afternoon considering all the other tombstones in its stead.

And sometimes you have to let such memories – well, look, you, you don’t have to do anything – but sometimes they will just fall away like dead leaves in Autumnal parks anyway; sometimes, these kind of thoughts, they are understandable, of course, but, well…they are not always very necessary.

“ ‘Do you see anything very beautiful and strange on those hills?’ I asked my brother as we cycled together to a football match in Dundalk.
‘This free wheel is missing’ he said and he gave it a vigorous crack with the heel of his shoe. ‘Is it on Drumgonnelly Hills?’
‘Yes’
‘Do you mean the general beauty of the landscape?’
‘Something beyond that, beyond that’, I said
‘Them hills are fine no doubt.’
‘And is that all you see?’ “

The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh


Alan Cunningham is a writer from the north of Ireland. His first book, Count from Zero to One Hundred, was published in 2013 by Penned in the Margins. @alanmcunningham.

Image: Rock wall/hedgerow on the path to Ballynoe Stone Circle. N. Ireland, dandelionsniffer, Creative Commons.