On Becoming. 4: (Environmental Causes)
Take a little walk to the edge of town
And go across the tracks
Where the viaduct looms
Like a bird of doom
As it shifts and cracks
Where secrets lie in the border fires
In the humming wires
Hey man, you know
You’re never coming back
Past the square, past the bridge
Past the mills, past the stacks…)
(Nick Cave “Red Right Hand”)
Nick Cave is a very clever writer. By saying “Take a little walk” we immediately know he is describing a tiny place. The viaduct is by far the most imposing object, the electric supply is primitive. Border fires? Fires to protect the town from attack by wild creatures? Or just the unshaded heat of the dessert? There is one square. There is one bridge. By implication, there won’t be many mills or stacks.
And this song resonates with me very strongly. Ramsey was like that, except we didn’t have a viaduct. Or a square. Or a bridge. There had once been a windmill, right on the edge of the town, converted of course to a house. But it was only a short walk to the edge of town even if you started at the other edge. Corner to corner at the widest point, you could walk it easily in an hour.
And standing at the edge you could see for miles. The fens are flat. Johannes Vermuyden drained the swampland in the 1650’s and the result was acre upon acre of fertile, black soil. A rich, peaty loam formed from bog oaks thousands of years old. Occasionally one of these tree trunks would work it’s way up and the farmers would drag them out of the ground and lay them on the edges of the fields. Eerie things, black to the core, these were trees that grew in the Cambrian era and would have given shelter to dinosaurs.
But the soil. That’s all anyone cared about. It turned easily, and was fine like wet ebony dust. So to maximise yield, the farmers had all uprooted every bush, shrub and tree — Anything that would take an inch of the precious soil away from the serious business of growing sugar beet. Of course, this short sightedness gave them problems because this peaty layer was gradually being blown away due to lack of cover. We had cold hard winds that had come down off the Ural mountains and had nothing to break them until they reached Ely cathedral. Beneath the peat was nothing but clay. Brown, sticky, heavy, full of stones, terrible for agriculture and I gather, not really any good for ceramics. You could make bricks out of it, but that was about all.
So the landscape was flat and almost entirely denuded of features. From the edge of town you could see nothing but a black horizon, sharply edged against a hard sky. The sunsets were remarkable. The sun would glower like the eye of Sauron and the sky would gradually redden. Blue transformed to baby pink, then russet, the clouds reflecting the sunlight in gold streaks. Sometimes you’d see patches of grey like the belly of a salmon. But it always turned a heavy red just before the sun sank below the horizon. Then night would fall quickly. On a clear night you could see every star in the heavens. Cloudy evenings produced a night of impenetrable, inky blackness.
We lived on the edge of Town. My Grandfather had been a builder and had purchased part of a disused airfield on the outskirts. He was a unique individual to say the least. My mum was terrified of him, as was I. I don’t know the full details of the arrangement. I gather when my parents married he offered them the house at cost — Superficially a generous act. I gather he did something similar for my Aunt, although it transpires he owed her a lot of money and she took the deal because she knew she was unlikely ever to get paid otherwise. I don’t know what arrangement he had with my mum, but it is worth mentioning that he cut her out of his will when she married my father. I think it’s fair to say he was quite a manipulative person.
When my grandfather arrived there, there were no drains. He built the sewers. Quite a big civil engineering job, although it must be said, the town at that stage was little more than two roads converging on a T junction. I gather he’d overstretched his budget, cut corners and there was an accident. I think a tunnel collapsed during construction and a man was killed.
He was a very strange man, and no doubt. I received a letter from him on the day I was born. It was written in his quite extraordinary, crabby, Victorian handwriting on headed notepaper:
“From the desk of Baron Kenneth Bertam Benfield, Knight of Malta, Knight of The Sovereign order of St John of Jerusalem, Fellow of the Royal Society of Builders, Architects and Stonemasons, Air Vice Marshall, Commodore of the Fleet, Grand high Pooh Bah, Gold Badge of the English Fighting, Drinking and Swearing Society, Bronze Swimming Certificate, Belle of The Ball, Best in Show…. ad nauseum)” The above surmounted by the ancestral crest, three pawnbrokers balls (Argent) on a field (rose) with a wombat passant and a bend sinister or whatever it was. I forget what the crest really looked like but it was the whole heraldic song and dance. There was probably a motto. “Occidere Pauperis” or somesuch.
He wrote me this grandiose letter telling me to aspire to greatness, stand on my own two feet, man up and inspire fear and respect in others. He included a Crown piece featuring the head of Winston Churchill “Aspire to be like him and you won’t go far wrong”. Better not mention Eugenics, the British Indian Holocaust, the Sudan, The Boer Genocide, The Turkish Armenian Genocide or a dozen other war crimes, eh?
So. An overbearing egomaniac with delusions of grandeur for a grandparent. I look at myself in the mirror and see his frown, his jowls, his hairline. And it worries me. He had the capacity to be all the things I can’t stand. And there is his blood in my veins.
But that is how I came to be born in Peterborough (the nearest hospital) and live the first 18 years of my life in a town that to this day, after years as a traveling musician, is still one of the remotest backwaters I’ve ever seen. It was a pretty bleak existence. And as soon as I was able, I went to London.