We drove out to the south coast to eat ice cream and read on the beach. It was busy and we were still not used to crowds.
Arriving at Birling Gap and Beachy Head felt like ticking off another spot on my Throbbing Gristle map of Great Britain. Poorly recreating an album cover made me very aware of coastal erosion. The beautiful scenery nevertheless felt wholly detached from this spot’s notoriety as a suicide hot spot, just as it does on the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats.
I sat in the brush, getting bitten by ants, reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — “not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.”
Stray thoughts and observations entered my mind to make up for the gap. Peri-glacial deposits resembled malformed vertebrae down on the shoreline. A Spitfire flew overhead out of time. Burnt-back heather spiralled charred. New growth now rises. We parked for free with our National Trust membership cards. I’m pretty sure there used to be a house here.
I was walking home from church, along the long concrete promenade that links Saltdean and Brighton, and saw the same Spitfire as it happens.
It’s interesting that you brought Cormac McCarthy as reading material. His novels are set in places far from where you were reading them. What caused you to relax with a novel by an American and about America?
I think that’s precisely why I like them. The American South / West looms large in my (un)conscious. I have never been but spend a lot of time thinking about whilst imagining life beyond this cramped isle.
I’ve spent my whole live in the United States, but very little of it has been in the Southwest. I lived in Arizona for a summer, in Flagstaff near some ancient native ruins and in the Grand Canyon park where I worked. And I traveled across the Southwest once in heading to the West Coast.
I can’t say I have a strong sense of the Southwest nor am I drawn to it. There is an immensity to the landscape, especially when crossing vast deserts. There are plenty of canyons as well. But I could never feel at home in that landscape. I prefer the intimacy of the Midwest and Upper South with its mix of woods, waterways, and farms.
My family comes from the Eastern United States, North and South. Actually, McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was set in Tennessee where he spent his early years. That is part of the region where my mother’s family comes from and it feels familiar to me. It’s a much more enclosed world without the open sky of the Southwest.
Even so, there is something about McCarthy’s portrayal of the Southwest. It does capture the imagination. The Southwest is an intriguing place to visit, in imagination or in person.