"If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay......"
We drove north some more and came to a beach called Rattray Head where the craters and hills of sand, the tracks of the dune buggies, the pools of water like small salt lakes were like scenes from Luke Skywalker's home planet. We were on the moon and the fluorescent plastics, the netting, old clothes and furniture, the burnt out car, the sign saying "Stavanger," the crate of oranges and strings of onions on the sand, washed ashore were debris orbiting in space. We heard the sound of the light house--a low drone of a horn from a tower which looks as though it's been iced--and running up a dune to take a closer look you fell and colors (samples of paint) spilled from your pocket like a magic trick: Happy Dawn, Touch O' Lime, Flume, Thistle, Rookery Nook... I told you about a motorway called M8 which links west and east across Scotland's central belt. It's a fast, straight passage-way between two cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh. It takes about fifty minutes to drive between them. It's quite a bleak, bland ride and thinking about it now I can't think of too many interesting sights. There's a couple of caravan parks, the usual petrol stations, a few fields, a scrap metal merchants and a derelict asylum. The railway runs along side. There's the Honeywell factory and the Motorola offices, which are on the left as you go from Glasgow, the right if you're travelling from Edinburgh. There's the Harthill service station. It's halfway and sits each side, spanning the road with a covered bridge with windows. It's filled with graffiti, broken glass and puddles of water (of rain which comes though the leaks in the roof and windows, and of people, those who can't wait to use the facilities on either side). If you happen to live near Harthill (though where that would be I'm not too sure--Coatbridge perhaps, or Bathgate, Kirk of Shotts, Caldercruix, Armadale, or possibly Harthill, itself, of course) you can catch the bus to Edinburgh or Glasgow from here too. It swerves off the motorway specially, and, if there are people waiting, stops at a bus shelter. If there aren't it keeps on going, without slowing down and swerves back onto the motorway, so, in Harthill, you have to be on time. Harthill has the usual amenities, the usual services--the cafe/restaurant, the petrol station, the toilets, the Sega and pinball machines. You can fax from Harthill. It gives the normal motorway-stop experience. And yet, there's really no need to stop--the M8 is fast, straight and short. You'll be there within the hour.
Last summer we talked motorways, and we talked driving. You and I had come north (further than we were now), on the A92 and A952--the roads to Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and at last by way of the small B9033, and a few other side roads surrounded by fields flanked with gorse, daffodils and grass, stone walls and fences of barbed wire which twisted and wound sharply, unexpectedly, over the flat land to the sea and St Combs. Our friends Matthew and Louise live there. They share their house with a beautiful light brown mongrel dog with pointed ears which smell of warm bread and paws which smell of basamati rice and newly cut grass. She can open doors, of houses, cars, refrigerators and cupboards. From miles away she can hear coats beings eased off pegs and the lids of jars being squeezed open. She comes for re-assurance when on Guy Fawkes night, rockets and fire-crackers are set off nearby. She swims in the sea with seals and growls when she doesn't get petted. She likes to sit on people and stand on high things--walls and rocks--so that she can see far off. She might be descended from a type of Australian sheep dog which walks on the backs of sheep.
We sat in their front yard for hours (in summer the light lasts for ever here). Matthew told us about his friend Michael who stopped at a motorway cafe. Outside were parked rows of Harley Davidsons. Inside were monks in habits playing ball games and Sega machines. Sometimes new and old come together and highlight something timeless. It's a bit like the story of the Tibetan monks who visited the Museum of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. The red-robed monks liked to discover modern things like Coke. They poked their heads through a cardboard cut-out scene of a waiter serving a glass of Coca-Cola. In the Museum shop, one monk sang a chant to a voice-stimulated Coke can with shades on and made it dance. The monks loved this American soft-drink shrine and in a way Coke is a religion--something that orders the universe--although, of course, as Buddhists, the monks would see all that stuff as illusory. Still that doesn't make it unimportant. It's like being in love, which depends in a way on illusions, on feelings that we are special. I guess it's the same for Coke which is like a kind of communion wine or holy water of consumption (and that's not so off the wall--the world's first coin-operated vending machine, invented in the first century A.D., dispensed holy water). We drink the idea, not the product.3
Motorways scar the landscape crossing and cutting it, binding it like belts of metal. Trees are felled to make way for motorways, wildlife is deprived of natural habitats, formally peaceful dwellings are surrounded, people risk life and limb living in tree houses, camping out in forests protesting about the buiding of motorways. You said that because forests, along with lakes and oceans, are spaces for our myths, we might be getting rid of all our legends and stories. I guess too, because in nature, time is caught in space--the hour of the day, the season, where the sun is over the horizon, where the moon and stars are in the sky, the age of each natural thing, which like tree trunks show a count of years --we might be leaving behind time which is natural too. Perhaps unlike the ancients we don't have a sense of wonder. And yet motorways can be beautiful. Their flat greyness and white lines seem graceful. Their signs seem crisp and clean. They sweep ahead forever under vast and hazy skies. Sometimes, flying down the coast, the sun rising, white, on my east side, glaring on to the sea so I can't see it anymore, is like re-entering another atmosphere, another zone. Sealed and wrapped in the glass bubble of you car, motorways give a type of freedom--a different time and space, a different reality.
Just off the M8, I saw a horn with a voice. It talks to cars as they drive past. It was dark, metallic, thin and tall, rising to a head and mouth which looked like a trumpet. Some drivers must pass it all the time, some only once in their lives. It poked the skyline of the landscape like a spire. I guess some drivers make a point of looking at it, using it as a marker or reference point (a point for narration in the story of their journey), a source of joy, wonder, awe, comfort, motivation, excitement and questions. They might tune into it, for, it's said that The Horn has it's own radio frequency, accessed within it's own ten mile radius. Perhaps other drivers know that it is there and see it from the corner of their eye, on the far side of their vision. There will be those, I suppose, who take no notice at all. But now, it seems that, driving back and forth on the M8 is like a pilgrimage. For The Horn has many voices and I do not know yet what they say or how they say it. It could be I'm not close enough, or I don't have faith. Perhaps I'm on the wrong frequency, or something is interfering.
But the pilgrim instinct lies deep in the human heart. It's a special practice as important as a great house of worship which is expressed according to time, place and culture. It could be that motorway driving is an expression of a pilgrim instint. You drive along on a journey and see strange sights, or at least sights which are strange because you see them from a motorway: a man collects a pheasant he's just run over from the central reservation, a cat runs across your path, a driver reverses in a fast lane or on a round-about because he's missed his junction, a fox scavenges in a rubbish bin by the road-side, families picnic in the hard shoulder, a child pees against the SOS phone in the lay-by, nationalists paint the St Andrews Cross and 'Free Scotland' on signs and on the tarmac of the road, a policeman throws the brown, wet body of a dead deer over an embankment, a woman removes red and white road cones so she can turn around and go the other way joining the motorway again in the fast lane, a group of kids on BMX bikes try to cross in gaps of traffic, people camp out in caravans under a flyover, a three-wheeled car goes at 20 miles an hour, cyclists, cycling three abreast go even slower, two mallard ducks fly alongside, a sparrow hawk hovers, workmen mending the road sit surrounded by tar, sand and motorway paraphenalia eating pizza, a group of cows cross a bridge overhead.
Outside everything is in slow motion (I guess it's a type of grace). Inside, in real time, we eat crisps, peanuts and chocolate, drink Coca-Cola, fiddle with the radio and tape machine, look at maps, press a knob or two, move levers, wind windows up and down, adjust mirrors. We are astronauts coming in to land. Driving is meditation. Like the True Cross in Jerusalem, The Horn is revealed to us in a dream.
We talked about a Scottish sea called Sargassum. Sargassum's blueness is dammed on two sides by light-house white walls (a sort of lido or harbour front) but it's two other sides are left open, cut-off, stopped in mid air like a watey fly-over not quite finished. Sargassum is magic - a miracle - for the water stays in place with nothing to hold it back. Crossing a dry bed of a parted Blue Sea could result in safe passage, or in drowning (or in spending days on end in a ship or in the belly of a whale). At any moment the water could burst out, flooding the land, decimating populations, causing millions of pounds of damage and catastrophic loss. Or perhaps someone might strike the wall of Sargassum and we would have a steady flow of life-sustaining water. Perhaps it would be wine.
But the water of Sargassum, and it's gulfweed and eels, is made of wire, see-through cloth stretched over gut, blue light bulbs covered with small turning metal discs and electricity. Sargassum is wet in the way that an electric fire with fake coals and flames is hot, or in the way that when you put your money in a slot and light a candle, you do it for a prayer (and sometimes the candle is a light bulb). The fire and candles are both plugged into a socket in the wall and switched on, but they - the feeling they give - feel real (the feeling is in us not in the candles or fire). Perhaps The Real is not knowing the hugeness of Being which lies out there but is actually the hugeness of Being somewhere in here.
You said Eva once read to you:
'Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something - an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. but they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was incommunicable forever.4 It sums things up I guess. We look out there for something - for the search for meaning, the hope of redemption, for the truth we take of into the unknown. But in a way perhaps we are looking for ourselves and asking who am I In infinity we need mirrors.
1.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (The Folio Society: London, 1968), p. 87.From David Shrigley's books, Enquire Within, (Armpit Press: Glasgow, 1995), and Let Not These Shadows Fall Upon Thee, (Tramway: Glasgow, 1996).3 Mark Pendergrast, For God, Country and Coca-Cola, (Phoenix: London, 1993), p. 401.4 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.102.