A way with words

mappa mundi

A few years ago, someone on ‘Desert Island Discs’ chose OS maps for his ‘book’…not just one, and not just the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, but a notional set of the whole world. And I thought: ‘Yes!’ I knew just what he meant. I love OS maps. The first time I flew in a plane (1981, Manchester to Belfast. Not the best time to go to Northern Ireland) I was spellbound a) by the fact of flying. Actually flying. The way you could leave the ground and stay up; b) by seeing that the maps were right. That what you could see out of the window was actually what the maps said you should see. I still haven’t got over it. Or over the fact that the maps were drawn without flying. How do they do that? Nothing short of miraculous.

Before I had new hips fitted, there were years when I couldn’t actually walk very far. Ten miles was a struggle, and then five, and then three…and then, finally, one. So I used to sit with maps of, say Upper Wharfedale, or South Skye, and imagine walks. You could figure out where it would be boggy, or hard-going and steep. You could stand on the top of a moor or a ridge and visualize what you could see. You could go everywhere, and not get lost. In practice, of course, it doesn’t quite work like that. Like the time on Skye when a large lochan seemed to have mysteriously vanished. It simply wasn’t where the map said it should be. Of course, it was. It became quite obvious when I got to the edge of a steep long drop. There it was, at the bottom. I’d just not paid proper attention to contour lines. I cannot understand why people are willing to give up their route finding to satnavs. How do they know where they’ve been, or how they got to where they are? Maybe it’s an age thing. But I stick to my maps.

Which leads me to thinking about how folks found their way when there were no maps. There were lovely speculative fictive maps, like the Mappa Mundi…but you would have to find your way to Hereford to look at it, and it still would be absolutely no use at all. And what if you were going where there were no well-found roads? I’m speculating myself, now, but just think…you ask someone how to get from a to b. At one time, if you were in a town, the reference points would be pubs. As Anthony Costello remarked when he gave a pub full of poets directions to the Kava cafe in Todmorden…it’s opposite Lidl. The times they are a changing. What happened to ‘The cock and bottle’, ‘The Duke of Devonshire’? Ah well. But, between towns and villages and hamlets?

I think it must have been done by names. I think that the names of places paint a picture, give directions. John Hillaby, in his wonderful book ‘A journey through Britain’ describes his distress at discovering the meaning of the word ‘larach’ in his OS map of part of the Western Highlands. It means ‘a place’. It means that it once had meaning; it once was populated or inhabited. Now it isn’t anything. Not even a proper memory. It doesn’t rate a symbol. A place. It’s never left me. I wrote a poem for it, and my new chapbook is called Larach (pub. Wardwood, December this year). It’s an oxymoron. The name of a place should tell you more. It should be helpful. I want to know what the names of places mean, so they should mean something. Let me explain.

If you drive from Shipley to Skipton you travel from Saxon to Norse. Both places are where sheep were grazed. Two similar, but different, languages. That tells you something. Now, I grew up in a street of houses built for mill workers. Pearl Street. The adjoining streets were Emerald Street, Ruby Street…a treasure house of a neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, this was totally misleading. I sometimes wonder at the warped inventiveness of the namers of streets, of the avenues and crescents in new housing developments…all the Grasmeres and Windermeres and Wharfedales and Braemars. There must people in planning departments who think them up. Where I lived there were streets named after battles (like Trafalgar Street and Jutland Street). In the older slums there were Yard No. 1, Yard No.2. No romancing or fancy there. But so many of them have no connection with the land or its use. Which makes the ones that do so much more precious. Like Tenterfields, on the Burnley road near Mytholmroyd, where Ted Hughes grew up. Have you ever been on tenterhooks? There’s a clue. Or Thrum Hall in Halifax. Near Gibbet Lane. Now we know what we’re talking about. They tell a story, names like this. I said last week that I’d riff on Calderdale placenames. So I will. (But, in passing, point out that Calderdale is not only home to Ted Hughes, and intermittently to Branwell Bronte, but also to the poets Gaia Holmes (my inspiration), Char March, Simon Zonenblick, Anthony Costello, and Clare Shaw…who, as I write, should have arrived in St Ives (surrounded by places with ‘pol’ in the name, and many with Z’s) to run a residential course with Kim Moore (my inspiration), and good luck to them both….

map-halifax

Last week we had Simon Zonenblick’s ‘Slitheroe Bridge’, which plays games with a false etymology. Before I forget, I should say that place names are no sure and certain guide. Slitheroe has nothing to do with slithering. My part of Batley was Carlinghow, and I still don’t know how that breaks down. ‘How’..well that’s a hill. ‘Carr’…a marshy woodland. ‘Ing’…people. That would give me, the place of the people of the marshy woodland by the hill. It would make sense, too. The topography would be right. But Wikipedia says it’s derived from ‘Carlin’ which could be a witch or a hag, or a commoner. Wikipedia goes for colourful: The witch’s hill’. I don’t believe it. I want to go for the description that would tell me I was in the right place. Go to Carlinghow, and then head up the hill and up another hill to Morley (the marshy settlement). Still, I should stick to the plan; Calderdale, that’s the plan.

Calder. Could be a problem. It’s Norse, but folk argue about whether it means ‘swift water’ or ‘stony river’. But it doesn’t much matter, because it’s going to be a deepcut river in a fairly steep-sided valley. A lot of places in the valleys of the Calder, the Hebble and the Ryburn have reliable names. There’s a horrible irony about Mixenden. A mixen was a rubbish tip..and also a sewage tip. Up at the end of the ‘den’ or pastureland. Where the rubbish and worse was carted from the town of Halifax, and dumped. They built a council estate up there, in that pleasant valley. It ended up as the place of last resort for ‘problem families’. I hope none of them are into placename etymology. But on we go. A dene is a small valley, usually an open river valley. A clough is as it sounds. A steep-sided valley. ‘Clough’ is derived from the same root as ‘cleave’ and ‘cleft’. Dene and den are open. Clough is hard and tight. You see where the poetry starts to grow. Thwaite is meadowland. There are words that tell you what trees you would have expected to find. ‘Birk’ is birch. There’s a place called Ling Bob where I used to go to tell stories at the Primary School. It’s actually Hollin Bob..it just got elided over time. There would have been a significant stand of hollies there at one time. You can head off to Illingworth from there. ‘Worth’ is an enclosed piece of land. Go careful. They might not care for trespassers. Or sheep stealers.

Let’s go up the valley that used to be full of pubs owned by long-defunct breweries, through Luddenden and Mytholmroyd, taking notice of hows and cloughs, and royds, towards Todmorden (an open valley pasture, maybe a bit on the marshy side, and possibly home to foxes), until we get to Hebden Bridge, and then go right, up and up until we get to Heptonstall, where the road runs on to the moor top, and shortly, cut off to the left and slant down the hillside track to Lumb Bank. That steep valley filled with lumbs –mill chimneys –pointlessly standing among the sycamores, and the pink, sour-smelling balsam that came all the way from the Himalaya, as seeds hitching lifts in bales of cotton heading for the cotton mills..some of the last, east of the Pennines. Sit on the terrace of Ted Hughes’ old house and look down into dark valley. Go when the light’s fading. Think about the orphans. I’m not telling you any more.

So I’m thinking

of Ted Hughes’ gritstone house,

that tunnel of a yard, it’s slippery flags;

 

of that valley of cold chimneys

knee-deep in brown leaf-litter,

an abandoned artillery

firing blanks at a Pennine moon

 

of the abrasions of time passing,

the world wearing down, till it’s bland as an egg,

to the soundtrack of years, the long, long

sustain of a cello, circling these cloughs

of defunct  chapels, mills and breweries,

Hammonds, Duttons, Websters, thin and bitter,

 

of all my Methodist aunts and uncles,

Leonard especially, whose drink

was Water Bright, from the Crystal Stream

of the Pledge he signed, aged six,

 

and of this film in Japanese I saw

at the Essoldo, where the whole of an army was killed

down to the very last one, the cannibal,

shot through stubble-smoke, by farmers

burning off the fields, clearing the last of war

that ended when I was two

and still isn’t done, seventy years on,

which is not to be laid at Ted Hughes’ door

any more than the orphans

walled in the sides of the valley

in the shadow of the sycamores and lumbs.

 

No telling where following place names may take you. Now, for the next two weeks I shall be without wifi, and there will be no cobweb posts. I shall be in Ord, on the Isle of Skye, where hills are bheinns, where beag is little, and mhor is big, inver is a rivermouth, camus is a beach or a shore, nish is a headland, ach is a field. Rather beautifully, drum is a wave, and also a ridge or spine . The Pennines are like that, the crest of a great long wave. Drum. I shall look across Loch Eishort of an evening and see the Clearance sites of Boreraig and Suishnish, and so many places that are now only larach. Somedays you see Boreraig, and half an hour later, you don’t.

skye march 2012 004skye march 2012 021

I shall miss you. Maybe I’ll bring new poems back with me.

 

 

6 thoughts on “A way with words

  1. John if you love maps then I can recommend ‘Where Are You?’ A book of maps that will leave you completely lost. It is a collection of chapbooks and maps and things of wonder by Geoff Dyer. It is a box of intriguing and thought provoking contributions from various writers, artists, thinkers and poets. I have spent many happy hours with it and in some ways it has changed the way I think about maps forever.

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  2. A very interesting and thought provoking blog as always. I’ve some books about maps somewhere in the house. I love looking at maps now and then and have some books that illustrate the changes in society through photographs too. If you want to borrow them just let me know.

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