Monday, May 16, 2011

Amor Loci

I could draw its map by heart,
showing its contours,
strata and vegetation
name every height,
small burn and lonely sheiling...
WH Auden: Amor Loci

I remembered a visit to an old slate quarry in North Wales, some twenty years ago.  Mosses draped thick over the piles of slate, clothing walls in a formless green.  Ferns had pushed through the floors of old buildings, overhung with self-seeded sycamore and rowan.  The air held a chill dampness, despite the warmth of a summer day beyond.
We stepped into a building which would once have been the forge.  In addition to being essential to the working life of the quarry, making tools and hoists and pins, it would also have been the centre of gossip and friendliness, a chance to warm scarred hands by the fire and talk.  And my guide pondered how those conversations would have echoed off the walls, endlessly reverberating between the slates, so that even now an inaudible echo of the words is still held in the air, captured and timeless.
I remembered this because I recently walked through Wescoe.  A hamlet barely, more a cluster of farm cottages perched on the side of a fell, a narrow lane which leads to nowhere in particular.  The hedgerows are thick with stitchwort and foxglove.  A few tall ash trees whisper of winter’s winds.
In the 1920s and 30s, it was regularly visited by WH Auden. His family had a cottage here, used for christmas and summer holidays.  He would hole up here as a refuge from the unhappiness of public school, a chance to write his early poetry, his verses full of the imagery of his imagined north; a land of stone quarries and ancient stones, of daring trips made by groups of young men across the moors at night.  There is a picture of him from this time, leaning against a slate wall, the fedora and pipe disguising his youth.

By the late 1930s, he would spend isolated new year holidays here with Christopher Isherwood.  We can imagine the intensity of their conversations around the fire, their youth and passion and sense of otherness, set against the darkening cloud which was massing over Europe.  Isherwood had not long returned from Berlin; he was more aware than most of the gathering storm. 
In 1938, Auden and Isherwood left for America.  The family sold the cottage at Wescoe after the parents’ death in 1948.  It is said that Auden kept a map of the north Pennines above the desk in his study. His later writings allude again and again to these northern moorlands, a form of memory in exile, as though tracing a map of his youth.
Passing through Wescoe now, there is no sign, no blue plaque.  Only the few atoms rubbed from the sleeve of a young man leaning against a door, and those late-night conversations echoing between the walls.

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