From the country of lost names

[entry for Greer 2016 challenge]

My profession is not infrequently a little haunted by images of the past that we cannot properly account for, nor place in what might be true context.

But I choose to start somewhere else.

‘The small sand hills had a cover of Pine trees except in places where the sand had been mined perhaps in another age. The smell of resin and the shifts of cooler and hotter air embraced the children as if time or destiny had come meandering beneath the trees; such a day when they were first explorers in a reclaimed land.’

I trust these words like I trust poets from the past reaching to me across the unseen contours of time. Words bubble up in places between then and now. We are in the country of lost names, but can know again the emanations – redolent of friendship – the pervasive air of trees preserving sunlight.

Such is memory. I cast my mind back to the beginning of the exploration.

I travel everyday on a well-worn line that is our link into a well-worn city. There is steel preserved beneath my feet and in the noisy wheels. Today I do not need the covers to protect against flying rain; there is comfort in the flowing air. It was a long time ago that childhood came to an end, and I have known other beginnings. But where we live, where I came from, even now when I go back sometimes to these places I still expect to find my friends.

Our ongoing exploration through time relies these days on writing and explication and not so much on wind and sun in trees. But the daily journey takes me past a broad bend in the river which today is again restored by the sky to silver. There is another small hill overlooking the bend where once, entranced, we joined a company in re-enactment. As best we could, a re-enchantment of Midsummer from a fantastical long ago. Here again the sun took its part in our theatre by its rotation about the wooded slopes leaving just enough slanting light and time for green magic and a rising moon. Even now the written words become voices again in my head.

They reach to me, my friends. Some I always knew, others came to me when I dwelt among their words and I saw again as if for the first time a night full of stars or found myself at an open window that let the warm love in.

The names have mostly gone or been repeated for so long that we can now rarely be sure. But we work on. I am lucky I came here when I was young and was awarded a task that was believed worth doing although it could not finish in my lifetime. I can name those who appointed me but they are no longer here for me to delight them with found treasures or the sad, lost, true stories of hopes freshly glinting in words.

The war broke our family. We lived on though he was gone. We could not know beforehand. We knew about history of course but it had been so long for us, for our parents, for so many generations. Real adventures had dangers but as children we grew up in a broad vista of joined countries. We had a long history to enjoy. Without us knowing it, however, calculations were being made. The world was growing too complicated again.

Today as I near home it is love-letters. I turn over the few that were not consigned to ashes. Dear Aunt, she was not so old when I knew her. She would have stayed in that other country with her dear young man and we would have had cousins, but her mother could no longer keep house and youth must take a turn at care. There was much love either way, so we are blessed with the written word.

She wrote to her young man: “… I feel the hand that guides my pen brings me to you.” … “Alliances are made with writing. I know many lead good lives without a pen, but I am blessed both with this slow ink to gather my thought and with a quick eye when I read your replies.” … “I am particularly joyful. Spring and the New Moon and small rain have blessed the garden … the newly coloured evening, the vibrant birdsong, the magic longing …”

She was to say later: “It was for the best … my children could have been slaying their cousins … they would have been the same age.”

So now I am directed to do more than keep the archived fragments of lives. We seek the arts of joining up memories, even if our own remain disjointed. I am blessed with blossoming skill and a small community; in a similar way a house can be renewed with a garden, where we can invite distant guests to join us among flowers. As one source has said of red poppies in the field: “Where we are drawn by these ancient blind dancers, by their new gesture, their colour.” Gathered from time, many friends with lost names are present, glad of respite from eternity to live again like children.

Tomorrow I must travel to a different country. I am a guest. Almost by chance I have become what our ancient sources might have called ‘a scholar’. There is excitement and some trepidation, but invitation is again possible these days and my colleagues buoy me up with thoughts, and entrust gifts for those we have known only by correspondence. We know ourselves as humble historians but we gaze again as through an open door. I take the preview of the book and something from all of us.

I must say goodbye.

——–

On the journey we must trust the sea, which is not a straightforward gesture these days, if it ever was. But this time of year has been an uneventful blessing. I bring with me enough to reflect upon when I have wide spaces and time. I am crossing while still in the aftermath of war and anticipate seeing scenes of loss and destruction when we reach the other side. I am haunted a little by a recently found image which travels with me. We recently examined newly discovered texts. Our profession cannot easily attribute these to any age. Nor can we reconstruct the history of the survival of these stories, except that the earliest must have been itself a written text during a period contemporary with a war, but there is much added later as if from informed commentary. There could have been investigations in the soil of even later ruins.

But I can see clearly enough as if by moonlight an image of a town within walls in a fair country. The town has roads in the cardinal directions and through the lower town a clean-running small river. The roads are empty into the distance. I can see a grid of streets within the walls, but the dwellings are dilapidated, mostly fallen rubble and sprouting trees. There is nobody there. There has not been anyone there for centuries. Then the earliest text tells us there was a sudden preparation for war, the walls and gates were re-enforced, the old streets peremptorily modified to serve a garrison. After that we lose the story again. Much of history appears to us like these ghost pictures.

——-

“We must believe we are worthy.” These are the opening brave words for our gathering. All of us have an inner caution. One pair who have journeyed furthest hold hands, such is the strangeness. The city has been rebuilt mostly of old material and we all needed to come over the one bridge, and our clothes were more different than we expected. There was comfort, though, in light glancing off the river, and in the welcome. This was more homecoming than professional pilgrimage – few formal observances – more family than nation, though nation was more restored than we could have imagined. To be handed a hot drink and a time without too many words to take in the wood-lined rooms, the worn but polished tables, restored ancient pictures and new flowers, and to pick-up the sense that those born here treasured their place, was enough reassurance.

The years have gone by for some of us who are not as lively as we might once have been, but we venture sturdily enough when it comes to work and can smile with the young persons. There is talk of harvests, not just of books or of old ideas, and the morning is stirred with carts arriving from distant gardens and boats poled past with straw from the barley fields. The country breathes into the city and dwellings. It feels as though history reasserts itself with certain adroitness. We know enough of the names but they carry a lighter weight now. This is not after all simply the aftermath of war.

My own presentation of texts prompts not only scholarly discussion. I am approached by young persons who wish, there and then, to improvise theatrical enactments, to match text with places in town and country, to match with the heavens over the town, to follow stars in the sky, to process with words through the gate. I am not a theatrical person and my memories are mostly personal, even those of the old texts, and I am almost afraid of such re-enactment of history, but I must allow these almost-children their enthusiasm. So music winds through fields to applause, and new memories find their way out of the lecture hall, to a town agog and laughing at the new foolery and old magic. We have not had such festivals for long enough.

After the lectures, I sit with the greybeards; a lady among gentlemen as my mother might say. She is fond of archaisms. Tom says by way of invitation, “We seem to have brought cartloads of ideas; you have released a flock of birds … But I must sit a while and rest this leg.” He winces. We had been discussing earlier my “Memories as Continuities – constructing new pathways”. He has had a long journey to reach here and his old wound troubles him at times.

I had previously remarked on his unusual and very ancient name. We of course only reveal personal names with care, and our disparate group have only slowly begun to introduce ourselves beyond our official titles.

Tom assumes I know the origin. “I think my parents caught the revival after the translations from those old archives which were found around that time. I was a surprise arrival so it seemed to make sense. It was a special time for them.”

The air has been gentle with us these last few days. We can sit untroubled, unhurried by the changing season and can even suspend thought of return journeys. Tom misses his old work.

“I spend too much time with thoughts and ordering the written word, but my family, our community, values the correspondence,” he says. “And the leg makes me less useful than I otherwise might be. But even now I miss my young days of heavy work. I can still heft a heavy pick for a time, and the rhythm of the work is like joining in an old song the while. Where I grew up we worked mostly alone, often days on end alone in the field or with a horse, or in the winter shed. But when I found my new family, they worked with song, unison. Great bouts of work could pass by of a morning with singing and whistling amid chaff and jokes and teasing. I would join them as best I could.” Tom was in the war and it has left him with a damaged leg in a foreign country, but with a new life.

We come towards the end of our official stay. In the morning we have a small tour of the town. Standing on the gate tower by the bridge we watch more carts coming for the vegetable market. They must have set out mighty early and perhaps many have been busy all night. One is a cart of flowers and a boy riding on top. He is more than a child and must be valuable to the man who looks like his father who is driving. Of a sudden I am reminded of my little brother growing up. He catches us looking down on him and his eyes flash recognition, and he waves as he passes beneath the gate.

——–

In the evening we go back out into the town. Small children are not in bed, though some fall asleep in the crook of an arm, in slings or in baskets. Older ones flit hither and thither while the dark gathers among the street trees and quiet talk flows towards music. Musicians invite us to the lit stage. From a far away country a small company with bright horns and trumpets has arrived and wound its way in from the fields, their white shirts next black skin under the darkening sky.

Their music makes the young people dance; strange at first, the horns talk in many voices sad and longing, engaging, joking or piercing like light with undeniable summons. There is more to come. The evening is tossed from one to another, passed back and forth, company to company, man to woman, told with old songs or by notes pitched without words, by gesture and dance. Though this is not our country, a few names we know, others are introduced, some do not yet have names. We older people are well past our bedtimes but closure must arrive soon enough. As the talk and excitement begin to disperse, Tom and I see again the boy from the flower cart. He approaches the very large black players still in the light of the stage and says something to them that makes them laugh and clap him and each other on the shoulders. So is memory and even history made.

——-

I am alone in the garden. The short quiet night seemed dreamless, or maybe I have forgotten. This is not our garden, but when sunlight opens the door I remember our old house when he came in from outside in a blaze bringing in the morning. Stronger as his days lengthened his small legs, he became a daring boy. I can think of him, even now, as he might be, a small herald for a good play.

“We will be worthy!” I say to Tom when he joins me on this last morning. “There is humour in that young man and his dad’s flowers and those large black men worthy of the stage.”

Tom has learned from us a little of our stories. He looks at me sharply: “We have rejoined the theatre, you and I. You might be dressed modestly standing here among flowers – but there could be ancient days to be revived on stage.” He grins. “We are a good company – you, me and the others are brought here for good reasons. Diverse company enough to play many parts, even if I might be the most ancient of beggars. We can borrow good lines where we will and hand them on to these young people for their fancy.” He pauses. “Though the long journey home from the play remains real enough.” And he grimaces this time, shifting his weight. “Lend me your arm awhile; we must join the others for food and for thank you and goodbyes.”

——–

I am home now and it is still summer. Mother is very quiet with the cat beside her on the chair, asleep again though it is only half way through the morning, such is great age. As is the custom, I have told my stories to the bees in their castles at the bottom of the garden. There is much to be busy with here and with the good people in the village who took care of mother and the household economy.

I have given my first account to the good colleagues at work. They were quietly agog, what with the letters I brought back with me. And the library people are fast unpacking the box of books the boy brought up from the station on his small cart. We all arrived early. I have called in colleagues from our sister institutes – I have close friends among them.

——–

There is my young friend Yasi, known otherwise by her extravagantly long title from the civic society, who serves in the new democratic networks within our City. She lives close to the centre and usually will run through the street to work, but this morning has walked via Green Market to bring fresh fruit with her to our Institute.

We already had a long talk before I left on my journey. “Sofi,” she told me, “international wireless links will not be renewed even for scholars, the military would never authorise that. But there is talk among the councils, guilds and traders that we might reconstruct wireless in the city, under some kind of guarantee. We must make it local in and around the town, for children in the morning schools. Would you know your historians who would want to work with our writers?”

We had already learned there were loosely connected but determined younger people who had survived the war who were intent on a different philosophy to find new creativity. What better than to work with imagination and theatre and music? Children explore and find their own extraordinary voices. History for them is more like geography.

“We will need some kind of constitutional authorisation,” I said before I left. “These are still dangerous times and war has unhinged more than trade and economies.”

Even as I am repeating just now this same old caution, I am reminded of the bridge I recently crossed into a still only partly re-built city. Our clothes seemed out of place then; our purposes not so much. The family welcome and the spontaneous final festival are still fresh in my mind. This morning, we are looking at one another again, and then at the others round the room. I can see our young people slightly anxious and our older friends and scholars cautiously waiting.

“On second thoughts”, I find myself saying, “let’s just start writing the scripts and gathering in some of these keen scholars and impatient former soldiers. They have lost too many years already in this long aftermath. We will educate ourselves as we go along.”

So we begin our peaceful conspiracy, and construct stories. We are joined by many from the country of lost names who walk beside us, their presence more akin now to those called by the half-formed syllables of a child. They are happy to look again as if through our eyes on familiar affection and to help us find words. Perhaps it was always so. But we should write for them.

——–

The above is an introduction – not quite a manifesto. The work starts here. Some here re-interpret the world through history and through utterance, like children who can write of their new experience in the dark. This is more than literacy; we share listening and finding with our looking.

Phil Harris
29th June 2016

Acknowledgement: I owe Ian Jack, journalist, for the insight that ‘children experience history more as geography’.