In the end, I was more than pleased to leave the great city – the ‘city of light’. After a while, the taut compression of time and space, the overwhelming and unremitting presence of stone and concrete and tarmac – it had all become oppressive. And perhaps it was the simple fact of seeing the falling autumn leaves that spoke silently of nature and her seasons, of landscapes and those places where the sky meets the land: yes, perhaps it was these that served as outriders to my departure.
During my stay, though, I had seen a partial re-construction of Marcel Proust’s bedroom; near to the almost lugubrious and decidedly sombre room that they had re-created, the museum curators had thoughtfully placed a bench upon which visitors could sit; it was there, contemplating the blue bed-cover and the writer’s furniture, that I was able to listen to a few extracts from his continuous novel, ‘In search of lost time.’ As I listened to the readings, I was reminded of my past – a past that seemed to be marked by or condemned to the endless pressure of the march of time; by contrast, Proust’s writing showed how delightful it is to ‘take time’ and to explore the character and quality of our conscious ‘being-in-the-world’. The effect upon me was plain and simple: I resolved to leave the city, return to the quietude of my home town in England, and re-read Proust’s writing. And this I did.
At the same time – and whilst I was back in England – I was alerted to some sensitive discussions on travel writing and of our engagement with the particular phenomena of place. In the course of this I encountered William L. Heat-Moon’s book, ‘Blue highways: a journey into America’: whilst big cities such as New York, Paris and London attract the majority of tourists, smaller towns, as Heat-Moon shows, have just as much to offer; through his writing, he restores to us the magic and mystery of small ordinary towns. These are the places that are overlooked, passed over – or worse, ridiculed and derogated because, on the surface, they have none of the obvious glamour of those great cities. But pause for a moment and look carefully at the detail of these ‘ordinary’ places – and in no time at all they unveil themselves: they are full of the exceptional and extraordinary. And, like the undramatic town in which I live, there is in each to be found a gem on main-street, a jewel in the backstreets – and a tale, like no other, to be told in the most modest of dwellings.
Proust too – in certain respects – focuses on the ordinary – and he works a very special kind of magic on the objects and scenes and encounters with the almost ‘ordinary’. And, as I read him, I tried to identify exactly what it is about his writing that is so special; it seems to me that he explores the data of all our senses, the bouquets of rose, the sight of amber, the feel of lace, then, the film of consciousness through which we experience the world about us – then, too, he expresses psychological insights as well as his acute perceptions of the character of human beings. He delights in the foibles and irrationalities of the people around him. His writing strikes me as ‘complete’. On top of this, his engagement with and disclosures about his childhood memories and experiences in the small Norman town of ‘Combray’ even seem to serve as proto-theories that anticipate the work of any number of major French intellectual figures; And, by way of outcome, he invites his reader to extend Heat-Moon’s appreciation of the charms of the ‘ordinary.’
Farnham is where I live; in its way it is unremarkable – ordinary. People retire to Farnham or leave the pressures of the city for Farnham. It is not quite Proust’s Combray nor somewhere along a ‘blue American highway’. It is, I think, despite the deformations caused by over-development, despite its wholly unimaginative local politics, a successful town. It has a long – a very long and auspicious history; in its time, it has enjoyed the presence of a variety of notable figures; there are plaques, on a wall in the heart of the town, that name many of these; some written histories of the town exist – but, like all histories, they never quite ‘get on the inside’ of people’s experiences.
I walk through, and in, and around Farnham. I walk in the afternoons, I walk at night.
Today, in the serene shadow of Proust, it is the end of November. Night has fallen. The earlier moments of twilight have silently shrouded themselves in the first misty darks of the night. Alone, I am walking the long straight path on the southern edge of the park, Farnham park. All about me are the fallen leaves of autumn. Palmate, or ovoid – or the heart-shaped leaves of the elegant limes – or in shapes I could not give a name to – they lay, quite still, in their softly, slowly dying colours: the autumn colours of transparent gold-ochre or fading burnt sienna. Chrome yellow too. Yes, these leaves have learned the art of dying. There is a stillness, and everywhere a stillness: a hymn to the silence; but this silence … it seems to portend something – a calm before … but there is no storm. All is at rest. Tranquil, reposeful – not even the stirring of a zephyr. Then, a rustle in the shadows and for a moment my heart quickens; someone – a shroud – a spectre – a man, passes by; a lone dog barks somewhere in the distance – and I remember the words of a long-ago song that keeps me company in the sleepless hours: I remember the line: ‘One too many mornings and a thousand miles behind‘.
From the path I can look across the town. dimly lit, docile, tamed – a town settled, now in the restorative hours. It rests in a confidence born of the sediments of history and its untroubled aesthetics. Wealth too.
Yes: Perhaps, in its way, it is a successful town. Perhaps it is a model for how things might work. Not a city – nor the limiting ethos of the village – but a town with a history and buildings to match and those many lives – now happy in the beautiful soft amber-and-gold lights of their living rooms and kitchens. The mood of those lights reminded me of a moment yesterday: in the afternoon, under a bright cool sky, a soft mist was hanging over the town – like a mood of such sweet sorrow. It seemed as if a painter had glazed the dry (or almost dry) shades of the trees he had formed on his canvas with the faintest of cool greys – and blended the whole with the gentlest of brushstrokes – the one in the other.
Again, the song – and the line from the song. And how much I regret the loss of that past, my past: now, I am more than ‘one too many mornings’ and a far far greater distance – I am far more than a thousand miles behind …