Why distant objects don’t always please

I always feel a peculiar sense of frustration when I’m somewhere which has a spectacular view or that has some kind of historical importance. Stood on the deck of HMS Victory, scrubbed and Brasso’d into Bristol fashion, trying to engage my mind with time and the moment and fuse it there forever. Or wandering widdershins around Stonehenge, conjuring up the spirit of long slumbering Druids with their golden sickles and bunches of mistletoe and all the sensations that have coursed through the site. I feel that I should be doing more and somehow seal the place in my soul like a photograph. The Caldera at Santorini, the Coliseum in Rome, Old Town Square in Prague, the view from the Military Road out at West Wight as you drive towards the white cliffs of Freshwater, the Chebika oasis in Tunisia. They deserve at least a Shakespearean sonnet or an enigmatic few lines that sum up its entire being, topography and the significance of that point in time being stood there in awe/wonder/bored/depressed/happy, in a definitive turn of adjective juxtaposed with a peculiar noun. Perhaps a funky haiku or something that would fit neatly on Twitter. A five word review. Stonehenge: Ancient rockery in a field. Buckingham Palace: Dysfunctional family in subsidized housing. For instance, the Pavilion at Brighton with the dragons clawing their way through the ceilings and down the chandelier in the dining room, crouched, waiting to hear Beau Brummell call the Prince Regent a bloater should become part of my story somehow. Same with the bazaar in Marmaris. And Salisbury where the original wooden crosses used to mark the graves in Flanders if fallen choristers are displayed. I feel like I should do more than mundanely wander past. I mean, what are you to make of the Taj Mahal (the real one, not the curry house in Wakefield; though they do a lovely Pakora), or the statues of Easter Island? The temple complexes at Ankar Watt? Maccu Piccu? Wandering around Dickens’ House on Doughty Street? The half ruins of Pompei? Or Bunker Hill in Boston, MA? Edinburgh Castle? How can we connect?

 

Linked to this love of place is my love of Gazetteers and guide books. I devour them stretched out at home on my sofa, travelling in my imagination, enjoying tourism of the mind. Through books I can go anywhere. I picture myself walking Wainwright’s fells just by reading the guides and following his routes in the hand drawn charts; this is the real life Spyglass Hill where you can roam for treasure like Jim Hawkins, as if tracking your progress on Billy Bones’ map. Back in the 1990s I explored London with Weinreb and Hibbert down every street and through every square through their encyclopaedia. I have been on the road to Oxiana with Robert Byron and gone around a 1950s Britain with Sir John Betjeman. Places and what’s written about them – and increasingly the TV series and the films shot in particular locations (Last of the Summer Wine has recorded Holmefirth and that sleepy part of West Yorkshire forever, in a similar way that Get Carter has ennobled parts of Newcastle, Gateshead and the countryside beyond) – act as markers in time, helping you to connect with people who passed through long before you. But the closer I get to the places and the people associated with them (Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey, Churchill’s bedroom at Blenheim Palace, the kitchens and asymmetric façade of Nostell Priory) it seem that sometimes the farther away I feel and I’m left with a melancholy sense of impotence. I want to grab the places and digest them. Consume them into the DNA of my mind by osmosis. Instead I look in wonder and say, ‘It’s lovely, isn’t it? Fancy a drink?’

 

One of the problems with life is that time slips away from us imperceptibly. Until we’re brought to a sudden halt by an event. Usually a bad one. And then context comes rushing at us and we realize that the moment when we stood on the deck of the Victory and saw the sunset on Santorini were burnt onto our souls all along. But it’s still too far away to touch.

 

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton

 

In Brighthelmstone did fussocky, squab Prince George

A bumblin’ pleasure dome decree,

Where Dandies quiffed their buttered buns

And bits o’muslin entertained the golden ton,

Next to a frigid and quite intemperate sea.

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