“The idea was to walk the line from Peacehaven to the Humber. I had devised the notion that the physical act of walking would help me to locate what was lost”.
We are immediately presented with a topographical focus and I can feel myself wanting to reach for Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way in which he opened his 1913 walk with the words
“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it.”
However, it very quickly becomes clear that Nancy Gaffield’s 270 mile walk, the Greenwich Meridian Trail from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere, is immersed in far more than topography. Her opening epigraph is taken from Charles Olson’s study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and it is neatly adapted to her venture of discovery, a venture which prompts her forward whilst reawakening the past: “SPACE” is the “central fact to [wo]man born in America” and Gaffield’s movement through space is guided by Robert Moor’s exploration of trails:
“The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward”.
The reference to Olson at the very start of the book’s journey is by no means accidental and in the opening poem ‘ORDNANCE SURVEY MAP 122: BRIGHTON & HOVE’ we read of “Disturbances within the threshold / of hearing are sampled in time” and those disturbances have a lyrical echo down the years. This is a person who is “six years old again / learning to read / the landscape”. The musical echoes of wisps of language become
“The song that the rigging makes,
Port of Gloucester. The acoustics
of the sea. Here / there”
If we can hear Olson in that reference then when, extending backward, we look at the trail that got us moving we can also hear T.S. Eliot and the Gloucester poet’s “space of enunciation” traces a landscape that contains a reference to the last section of Bostonian ‘Preludes’ which itself looks backwards to the Whitman who sings the body electric “out on the vacant lot at sundown after work”.
In the generous section of Acknowledgements at the end of this book’s adventure Nancy Gaffield expresses her gratitude for those who accompanied her on the walk (Kat Peddie) and those who were there “in spirit”: Helen Adam, John Clare and Paul Celan. And here lies a major point about this autobiographical expression of how path and trail belong within the same covers: we carry our reading, our influences, with us as they have formed the person who we are. Some of these influences lie buried and do not obtrude themselves as landmarks on the pathway and in this way Edward Thomas’s ‘Lob’ emerges as
“The man in the street says: “I’ve
lived here all my life. I’m telling
you there’s no road in or out. You
could slip into a ditch. No one
would ever find you.””
Thomas gives us an old man who has a “land face, sea-blue eyed” who says
“….Nobody can’t stop ’ee. It’s
A footpath right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds – that’s where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn’t find it, by digging, anywhere.”
Nancy Gaffield is following the Greenwich Meridian Trail as a path, walking forward in a northerly direction “recalling snippets from books, scenes from films, or events… following a trail backwards”.
Meridian is no mere scrap-book of reminiscences but instead is a carefully wrought accumulation of reflections. The notes offered at the end of each poem are helpful and they echo the very movement of the poetry itself. In the second poem which deals with Greenwich and Gravesend we are confronted with a reference to a notorious pub, The Grapes, in which strangers to the area were known to have disappeared before turning up on the dissecting table. Dickens had presented us with that pub now disguised as The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters in his mid-1860s novel Our Mutual Friend and Gaffield offers us a quotation from the early pages which includes the reference to being able to “trace little forests” on the surface of an old corner cupboard. This is no chance quotation and the paragraph had earlier included the suggestion that the pub seemed in its old age to also look back at its youth: both trail and path. The little forests, where the very word conjures up the world of the fairy-tale, are part of the “gnarled and riven appearance of old trees” where the past “seemed to twist itself into some likeness of boughs”. In Nancy Gaffield’s “migrant” language she contemplates being at the “forest’s fringe” and the whole sequence of poems becomes as Jeremy Prynne suggested about Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI “a lingual and temporal syncretism”.
Ian Brinton 3rd March 2019