The rain would wash away the clay dust sometimes. I had a young face and a grey pallor. I rarely bothered to change my clothes: a striped rugby shirt, a sheepskin waistcoat like a draughtsboard (made by my gran from patches of leather so thick it made her fingers bleed), and a grey bomber-jacket bought in the Army and Navy store in Clydebank. Gide’s Fruits of the Earth, a rolled-up paperback, with dirty thumb marks in the margins, dog-eared and some corners torn, was forced into the lining (the pocket had long ago ripped to make a previous book fit – Metamorphosis, maybe), not just to be read but to be felt, close to my body: though not quite a doorway, since I knew the furrows the Moxies dug in the mud, dust from drilling rigs, the smell of cordite, the pecking steel beaks of insatiable yellow birds, were inescapable and necessary, here, nonetheless, was a window to be opened whenever the masculine world of ingrained dirt in blistered hands and powdered clay, worn like a troubadour or a Geisha, wore away too much at hope or ambition, or whatever it was I felt at that time. I was twenty-one. I knew bits and pieces of songs, fragments of poems, had some observations of my own – an aphorism or two of Schopenhauer’s, a line or two from Brel. Some of these things left an impression, but I’m aware now of how much gets left behind.
I can still picture myself standing on the worked cliff-edge of Cnoc na h-Airidhe, the long bore holes kilting the rock. In the distance is Ailsa Craig, a fist in the blue-grey haze, where John Keats once tread (though I never knew who he was, back then) and who, in a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydan, wrote: “I will clamber through the clouds and exist.” From that little fist on the lip of my world, where the curvature of the earth is observable, Arran rose into black jagged mountains, Bute interjected like a patchwork throw of brighter and darker greens, the tower at Inverkip pointed Godwards and spat endless smoke in his face, submarines like fat Churchill cigars floated out to sea, and the peninsula rose to where I was standing flanked by the Gareloch and Loch Long, Stronchullin to my right, the Arrochar Alps and Argyll’s Bowling Green at my back: “I will clamber through the clouds and exist.” And then? Benjamin Robert Haydan, a painter, made a plaster cast of his friend’s face when Keats was twenty-one, to prove – perhaps – that he had existed. Little more than four years later, the cast-maker Gherardi in Rome would take a second cast of Keats’ face: Keats was now just 25 and dead from tuberculosis. I picture that other one – him – me, standing on the worked cliff-edge of Cnoc na h-Airidhe, staring out through the noise of reversing trucks and urgent shouts from gangers, foremen, engineers and labourers, at squalls picked out against sunlight, dropping like a black curtain over Ailsa Craig, as tankers enter the Clyde and the moment that is writ on water breaks again, grey-grim rain repeating like stitching on the gold, the waves like a two-sided cloth being turned, first this way, then that. What are you looking at? The labourers swinging picks, the chain boys carrying theodolites, long wheelbase Landrovers lurching over mud tracks (like ships tossed on rolling waves) - it isn’t these things, though they fill his line of sight, along with a hillside stripped to the bare grey till worn like its own death mask, or barbed wire fencing, or even the soft white Keatsian clouds – is it me he’s looking at, though he can’t make me out from there? And in the same way I can barely recognise him, he looks puzzlingly at me.
At night, in that small room and kitchen flat in Cove, I’d lie in bed and count the 3 second flash of the white acetylene lamp that burned like 40, 000 candles from the Cloch lighthouse as it picked tankers out of the dark, backlit the trees along the shore road like eighteenth century silhouettes cut from black card, and turned the walls around me to eggshells. One. Two. Three. Then, to a different timing, the bouys would blink and tilt and their bells would ring and a heron would call in the blue-dark night, those river policemen in pursuit of bigger fish. Most often I would be alone. That hasn’t really changed. But then I didn’t have a mask to wear: the grey dust from the drilling rigs, the concrete dust, the peat-black dirt ingrained in my hands – it wasn’t a disguise. Now, every performance requires me to observe a distance, to adopt a mask, without giving up too much of myself: teaching is very much a balance between expressing yourself and losing sight of yourself. But I won’t find myself looking back. He knew nothing of me then and I know very little of him now. I can only catch sight of silhouettes and occasional glimpses of this or that thing brightly lit for the briefest of moments. Beside the bed is the Methuen edition of Brecht’s collected poems, something of Christina Rossetti’s, a Marillion album, Sartre’s Nausea, next to an oversized red alarm clock set to seven o’ clock in the morning.
Once, on the work’s bus, a radio quiz was playing and the presenter asked, “Who wrote the Knot of Vipers?” Without thinking, I called out: “Francois Mauriac.” Everyone turned to look at me. “No,” said the presenter, the caller having made the wrong call, “It was Francois Mauriac. She wrote it in 1932.” And I explained to the puzzled faces of my workmates: “She was a he.” If only they knew I was smuggling Kafka or Gide onto the site, worked into the lining of my jacket, ready to be hauled out in a quiet moment. I recall sitting amongst trees and heather on the hillside, the machines a way off (they hadn’t yet eaten up that part of my world), reading some book I’d bent double in my mucky hands, folding the words in on themselves. Sometimes, I read because I liked the words, not because I understood them; they were a trail to follow, even though I didn’t know where they’d lead. Once, in a culvert, the Moxies thundering overhead, the window really did become a door and I stepped through into the Fruits of the Earth, losing all sense of time and place.
Now I am so busy but absent from myself, lost in day-to-day activities. Tolstoy called this the “boredom” of the routine. Heidegger called it nihilism: the forgetfulness of being. Viktor Shklovsky proposed Ostranenie, or defamiliarisation, as a means of returning us to ourselves by making the common strange. Back then, I could open a book and get tangled up in the lines like a fish, willingly giving itself up to the net. Now, I’m not so sure. I seem to wriggle out through some hole again and back into the boredom of what Stig Dagerman called “the obligation to achieve”. And I go through life with this death mask on. Teaching requires that you shrink to the task in hand. Learning is the same. Now and then, we slip the yoke and there’s a meeting of minds, but it’s a side-glance, all too brief when it happens, leaving us wanting more and feeling defeated, frustrated. The student reading Aristotle in his flat in Pollock, the trainee nurse discussing Sophie Scholl, the care assistant talking of his experience on building sites, the Polish mother of two writing about Wisława Szymborska; we connect in passing but the real wonder is corrected away, tidied up, often without further discussion. Well - for a little time, at least, we have our heads in the clouds. We have, at least, proven we exist.
Written by Gregor Addison