To Confabulate

It’s been a long time since I wrote something, 8 months if published blog post are anything to go by (which they aren’t, of course; I’ve written scrips and scraps, but lack the impetus to push them towards finalisation).

I’ve just walked from work to Bradford on Avon, on the day the election results were announced. Hung. Seems apt, as the Conservative’s discuss a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party. But seats were lost: comfort; comfort.

I finished reading Confabulations by John Berger the other day. Notes on language: on what it means; what it can mean; where to look for it; how we should look aslant. So much observation, so much imagination; extrapolating. But it’s not the imagination of an idealiser, though Berger is an optimist, constantly seeing and reseeing hope. It strikes me quite forcefully (if that isn’t a contradiction) how he can turn his experiences to the political with the reader barely noticing. He talks of the ahistoricity of political rhetoric, his scorn for the ‘socialist’ Hollande.

Berger is a thinker of, and in, the visual. The ‘mother tongue’, he argues, is pre-verbal, perhaps even pre-cognitive (by which I mean, before we develop a cognitive sense of our selves and surroundings). We behave a language before we utter it. In one delightful, and memorable, section, he talks about the language plants speak in their gestures, one we can never hope to ‘translate’.  Formal, contemporary translation is something Berger rallies against: “… true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal.” (p.4)

A convergence then occurred. I began reading The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, for the first time. It opens with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

All things are engaged in writing their history… Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march. The ground is all memoranda and signatures; every object covered over with hints. In nature, this self-registration is incessant, and the narrative is the print of the seal.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in The Old Ways, p.5.

I wonder about the walk I’ve just done. What is the language I have just spoken? What is its narrative? The first step is the hardest, they say, but such meanders come easily. The difficulty, I think, is to say why to relay that story. Which is why I feel burdened with scraps and scrips. But right now, as I write this, it seems that ‘narrative’ is too strong a term. That although there is a ‘start’ (work’s office), and an ‘end’ (Bradford on Avon, or perhaps this canal-side pub), it’s the trod in-between that gives wayfaring its meaning… not meaning… something less than ‘meaning’… but somehow, more.

I left a trail, a signature. Particularly memorable, is the steep track by the woods: the ground still soft from rain, but (an important ‘but’) the most noticeable trails were those of cows. I might have left a story, but what of the cows’ tales? I feel like: if it’s difficult to work out my own narrative, what hope for the cows?

The cows’ trod: it seems like their path. But further on, there’s speaking of a more human nature. I looked at a map of Dorchester earlier, and followed the straight Roman track to London. But on the walk, between two gates, the footpath through a field couldn’t even hold true. But there’s still more language to read. The curl of the sown seeds. The stacked black hay bales. The ribs of the fire-blasted barn: the bones bent this way and that, from the fire that melted it. Is this the narrative of the farmer? A cypher for rural industry? The fire’s story? How do the scorched trees fit a narrative like this? Innocent bystanders or tortured participants? Who knows? And who cares?

There is no story, is how I want to conclude this story. There is, because now it is written. In a sense, the narrative is double, because there’s the path I’ve left, and this account of the path I led. And there’s the stories of the walkers, and they walkers’ dogs; of the guy eating his lunch at a kissing gate (white, loose shirt; the tussled hair: every bit the romantic); the birds singing and rabbits darting; the unseen cows and bull; hardworking and blighted farmland (an antithesis of the bucolic, the romantic).

A plethora of narratives, tying and untying themselves from each other, not fully decipherable or translatable, like the rise and fall of the very voices in this pub garden. But every now and then, something catches. 500 Miles on the stereo; a cyclist with an Irn Bru jersey: converging lines: they meant something to me, right then, even if my meaning is not their (the singers’; the cyclist’s) narrative. Confabulations, indeed.


John Berger, 2016, Confabulations, Penguin Random House

Robert Macfarlane, 2012, The Old Ways, Penguin Hamish Hamilton