Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cruel Summer

It's been a June of bouts of unremitting heat and leaden skies split apart by thunder here in Virginia.

During such months you have to wonder about those madcap adventurers who made the trip across the Atlantic more than 400 years ago to simmer in a mosquito-infested swamp at Jamestown and to freeze and starve in between unedifying episodes of cannibalism.

To me the New World remains a bewildering and unforgiving place at times. Away from the cities the trees seem taller and more savage than in Europe, the brackish waterways darker, more mirky and muddled. I feel if I look over my shoulder I will glimpse heavily tattooed people flitting through the half light of the forest and spirit demons exorcised with their drums.

Where man has left his mark the cities of Virginia can also be unforgiving on the eye, sliced up by hulking, concrete freeways that divide rich from poor and strip malls that are vast Saharas of cracked concrete and testaments to prosperity lost.

Faced with the slabs of downtown Newport News and the sickly, sulphorous residue of the coal dumps at the shipyard that linger in the nostrils for half a mile up the Interstate, it can be easy to lose hope like the souls in the ghetto to the east, who live and die prematurely on the wrong side of the tracks.

Sorrow lingers down here in the streets with numbers but no names. My landmarks are the half remembered scenes in the half light where the only color is the yellow of incident scene tape and the blue lights piercing the gloom. I measure the distance of the blocks by the footfalls of the marchers who come to remember the prematurely dead.

The candles and makeshift photographs taped to cardboard are a world away from the solid war memorials that occupy pride of place in every English town but they share a common heritage that seeped into the bloody ground.

Many a time on a homicidal intersection I have yearned for a peaceful stream and an English meadow. Grantchester with its sleepy homes and bunched willows draped over the flowers of the water meadow, seldom seemed so alluring. The Old Vicarage where Rupert Brooke wrote of the lilacs in bloom, never so unattainable.

Brooke, the flowering of English youth, died on a Greek Island, in some corner of a foreign field that is forever England, on the way to one of the bloodiest theaters of World War I.

The longer I am away the more easily I slip into the Arcadian/American view of England as a place of antique steam trains, Shakespearean theaters, old maids riding through the mist and sleepy afternoons caressed by the sound of leather on willow.

It becomes more convenient by the day to airbrush from my mind the ugly asphalt of the A12 and the tower blocks of Barking, of walking the gum strewn gauntlet to Blockbuster past the crack addicts and hustlers and the schools of the East End with their grubby walls and high steel fences.

But for an island so densely populated England is yet to give up its gentle charm and the countryside is seldom further than an hour away.

On the days when the storms muscle their way up the James River, sucking the oxygen from the sky, I am increasingly far away recalling the gentle contours of Wenlock Edge and the clouds that rise like pleasure balloons over the escarpments on a Sunday afternoon.

It's becoming increasingly hard to forget about those blue remembered hills.

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