Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Country Matters

I got bored of writing at about 3pm today, and decided to have an excursion. First, I went to gather kindling from the paths around the cottage. Then I walked to the little town close by. Here I am, being W.G. Sebald:

What I really did was walk to Waitrose. Of course I did, for this is the country, and I am from the city. I also went to Waitrose because the little town was completely deserted at 4pm and every single one of its shops appeared to be shut. Into the brilliantly-lit Waitrose cathedral I went, grateful for all its comforting condiments, tortillas, eighteen kinds of honey and 10% off with its store card. There's no place like home.

At the checkout, the conveyor belt would not move. My stuff sat forlorn in the middle of the strip. The checkout lady bashed at big red buttons, muttered, got a colleague over. They peered at it together, and had a laugh about not breaking the equipment. Then she asked if I wouldn't mind pushing all my stuff down towards her.

I jovially packed my wares, and enquired whether I could claim my free coffee. In London you get this yourself, from a semi-permanently broken machine, with a long queue of tutting shoppers if it is working. In Suffolk, there is a whole cafe area, and waitresses make the brew for you in real time. The two of them, with identical thin blonde ponytails, chatted amiably together about someone else's two-week holiday in Turkey, during which apparently she hadn't been able to eat a thing, and had been as sick as a dog, and popped my coffee down in a glass without missing a beat.

I suddenly looked up and saw it was getting dark. Gathering my shopping together, I walked outside. Past the closed gift card and framing shop, past the Chinese Fish and Chip Shop, past the flooring shop to the edge of town. There was a narrow strip of pavement, barely visible, and I walked quite fast along it. The street lighting gave out as soon as the shops ended. Cars roared past in the twilight. I felt self-conscious, strutting along in my parka, with my two bags.

At the turn towards the tiny hamlet, it was pitch black. Even though there were houses, nothing was lit. At every set of oncoming headlights, I made for the ditch like a rabbit. My eyes must have glowed at the drivers.

We have made paths everywhere, networks of paths that crisscross fields. Some of them we have paved and enlarged. We moved along those paths under our own steam until we found ways of harnessing first animals, and then mechanical vehicles, to move us faster. Then we found sources of energy that were faster than we or animals were, and we understood that we could make that energy travel along conducting paths made out of wire. So we installed those networks everywhere too, following the old pathways. This meant we could bring more of the world into the light, and push back the frightening darkness, at least in the cities. Now we are able to transmit packets of data using yet another form of energy. We can construct rapid networks of the mind while sitting still — I know you, and you know her, and I met her, so I can connect with her. Only our mental energy is used in this network. It makes us seem immortal. We stay indoors. We do not need light outside. We do not need to move, or if we do, we can fall back on the old form of motorised transport, even if it uses a dirty fuel. It takes its light with it. My dark body, back on a Suffolk side road, was a lumpen, organic liability.

Without a car, I won't be going out again after dusk. 

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