Sandling to Postling

Sandling is a proper railway station. When you alight and the train departs, you are often the only person left on the platform. There is a sense of distance from anywhere else, of the magical silence which can be created if only the bullying authorities who insist on ‘see it say it sorted’ would shut up and let us daydream when we travel. If they are so concerned with bombs and explosions then perhaps more time should be spent telling British arms manufacturers to desist from selling high explosives to Saudi Arabia which are then used to blow up innocent people in Yemen. How many dead are there?  See it, say it, sorted it indeed, as long as it doesn’t reference faraway people in faraway lands. What could any of that have to do with England apart from the profits of bombs and weapons making companies?

The train leaves and it only takes a few moments to be back on the track of the former line to Hythe. This place has an intriguing atmosphere, with trees of all sorts of shapes and sizes, grown into fantastic shapes. A lone brown bird flits between the trees and is gone. Concentrating on the map and thinking about Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Land of Cockaigne and then become aware that there is a cyclist slowing approaching.

‘Oh, I am sorry’, I say, and stand aside
‘I was just about to ring my bell’, he replies, ‘you looked miles away’.

I was. Thinking about Bruegel and I really don’t see how that painting can be understood outside the context of the iconoclastic riots of 1566, the Spanish repression of 1567 (the year the painting was created) and the general turmoil in the Netherlands at the time. I am reading T.J.Clark’s new book, Heaven on Earth.

But the really interesting thing I discovered last night in Joseph Leo Koerner’s book Bosch & Bruegel was that Bruegel was a friend of Abraham Ortelius, the map maker. And Ortelius was a humanist, and possibly a member of the Family of Love, and associated with Christophe Plantin in Antwerp…who published tracts in support of the Spanish authorities by day, but is rumoured to have published radical pamphlets by night…and that everything had to be done carefully, including thinking. What conclusions did the Humanists come to, and how did they learn to articulate their ideas in the context of fierce political and religious persecution? So was Bruegel a Humanist? And what ideas and paradoxes and tensions was he actively trying to portray, and how was his unconscious mind playing upon the scenes he created? And how much can we really now know of this? That’s what I was thinking about, that’s where I was when the cyclist arrived.

What is this rather grand looking Arts and Crafts place? I tried the t’interweb but alas, Grugle is not quite the store of all the world’s knowledge that it thinks it is. Note to self – next time, poke around a bit more for clues. The infrastructure of the train line to Europe is rather intriguing and ’tis a pity that getting to the continent is likely to become more difficult rather than easier. Infrastructure is one thing as we know, but the social relations created around infrastructure are something else again.

The M20 creates noise which can be heard for miles, even when out in the downs, and the smell and taste of petrol is prominent as one crosses the bridge. Out in cyberspace, ex members of the RCP take the twisted shillings from the Koch brothers and and clap their strange contrarian Trump-like hands and announce that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Traffic jams, pollution, plastics in the seas, yep, it’s all good in their world. Ah, where is the modern Voltaire?

This is Summerhouse Hill. It has to be an iron-age fort. What else? It can’t just be a hill. There are so many tumuli around here, and the atmosphere here is so charged with something. You can feel it. Listen to the birds sing and feel the wind and experience the vagaries of light.

As one walks up the track, the view of the sea and Romney marshes is revealed and finally at the top is one of those marvellous 360 degree views which are beyond my skills as a photographer to capture. One needs to get up here and get the sense of the place. I love it and it has instantly been added to my list of favourite places in England.

I walk around the Tolsford Hill Radio Station infrastructure, a good example of brutalist industrial expressionism. It works rather well up here on top of the hill with distant views of the channel and perhaps of France. Messages flying through the ether, scrambled, unscrambled, turned into words, music and pictures, tracking back along hard-wired copper lines, through bits of fibre optic, bursting into space, moved on by satellites, back to earth again, through the local domestic router; an email message has arrived. The world simultaneously travels in at least two opposing directions; that of the truly global and connected, and that of the suspicions of the local, of the neighbour, of the village along the track, the town next door.

Fences and barriers are at times useful, and indeed necessary things. We don’t want flocks of sheep – or even stray individual sheep slowing down the trains to Europe. But too many fences are unnecessary, there to cause suspicion and paranoia, to stoke up resentments and to act as permanent reminders of who has, and who has not. What was particularly frustrating today was the number of styles and crossing points which had barbed wire built into them. Once upon a time I might have approached such things with a hop, skip and a double somersault as I sailed over. But not now. Is this really necessary? Anyone with any sort of mobility issues is going to struggle here not to catch a limb on the barbs, or if someone slips and reaches out a hand to steady themselves will get a nasty shock – and cut – as they try to grab onto something solid. One gets fed up feeling enclosed like this, as if the self is being fenced in, being told what where one can and cannot place the feet. There is an old Norse term ‘Utangard’, which means something like ‘outside the fence’. I interpret this as a sense of freedom, of wild, of wilderness, of nature without walls and barriers, of not being shut out, barred, prevented. 

I am not a great fan of motorism but when I heard the roar of motorbikes I stood back from the track to let them past. In fact, I did the generous thing and opened a gate for them to which they all raced through giving me the thumbs up and making me jump sharpish to avoid being splattered with mud. Should they be on this track? I have no idea and don’t care. Perhaps they thought I was the landowner and the gate opening was a sign of allowing them to ride free across the hills. And what’s a few motorbikes compared to the way the land is divided up by a tiny number of people who always want to insist on having it all their way.

I walked alongside this small wood for a couple of hundred metres, no more, but not a gap in the barbed wire did I find. A grim metaphor for the enclosure movements. In England at the beginning of the nineteenth century it was often little more than organised robbery and enclosure continues at a global level today. Land is taken, and land is fenced and land which was common becomes private. But better to close it off and kill the underground with the poison of oil based plastics and industrial chemicals.

A small wood like this would easily have supported some chickens and a pig or two by the local landless labourers. It would even now provide wood for warmth and shelter, possibly more effectively than the leaking cardboard boxes which homeless people in urban areas try to sleep in. And as for those who quote the sin of greed, well it’s usually those that have who sin in that regard the most. In former times there were customs, and habits and social sanctions against those who took too much, or took and did not use, or took and denied the others. We having nothing like that now left. It’s not so difficult to set up arrangements where there is ‘issue’ (people are given what they need) rather than ‘consumerism’. Food banks are but one example.

If you look carefully here there are two figures on white horses. It reminded me of paintings of the Flemish Primitives and the later medieval period. If one gets into a state of being totally engrossed with a painting, one becomes aware of the concentrated messages which dominate the paintings themselves, but then of the curious stylised landscapes in the background. Flanders has few hills (Cassel being an odd exception) and one would have to travel east to the Ardennes for a less low lying topography. And often there are figures who might be incidental to the main painting, but what do they represent? They are there for some purpose and must therefore, be the carrier of some message. But of what? The first example which comes to hand as I pull a book from one of the shelves is The Magdalen in a Landscape, which is attributed to Adriaen Ysenbrandt.

Perspective is not only a difficult attribute to express in a painting or drawing, but it is a difficult concept to understand. If this painting is studied in detail, Magdalen is at prayer and we concentrate on her face which is almost at the centre of the painting. She wears a hat with a veil pulled up. The translucency of that veil is brilliantly painted. But next to it, a tiny figure in white. From the reproduction, even with a magnifying glass, it is difficult to tell whether they are holding a large staff or a crutch.

And then to the right of the painting, in front of a solid looking house, two figures walk off centre-stage. That’s a very burgher-like house, the sort of thing a prosperous farmer might live in, and very Netherlandische. And those two figures don’t appear to give any heed to Magdalen and her prayers and penitence. They have a very matter-of-fact air about them in my view, more interested in the weight and price of tups and ewes and the comings and goings at the local markets. But this is just my imagination, sticking together bits and pieces, as EP Thompson put it (quoted by Peter Linebaugh in his splendid book ‘Stop, Thief!), the revelation of ‘the secret history’ requires some ‘constructive speculation’.

And what is art criticism but that? There can be no definitive answers now of paintings of 500 years ago. We cannot smell, or taste or sense the atmosphere of repression, the fear of religious persecution, the tension as people tried to establish who believed what and how. But isn’t that partly what is so interesting? It is not just what we try to reveal about the paintings, but what our interpretations of the paintings might reveal about ourselves.

I like the idea of this space five thousand years ago. It could have been a place of dreamtime, or one of play and light and joy. The people of the neolithic era must have had games, and this landscape surely lends itself to elaborate games and rituals which small or very large groups could have taken part in. And it is just the topography for socialising, common areas where people can come together and watch the sun rise or the sunset or to enjoy the views, the feeling of being up on high, the stimulation which wide scale landscapes create. There are also nooks and crannies where people could be intimate and unseen by others. But we have no notion of what idea of community or privacy would have meant in those times.

And this is the church of St Mary and St Radegund at Postling. The building originates in the eleventh or twelfth century. It was locked today, but there is not rush, and definitely needs to be seen inside. I realised that if I walked relatively quickly, I might catch the next train from Sandling so I set off across the fields and tracks, and crossed the M20 again and waited again at the station. Quiet and still, just a bird or two hopping in the trees, and a Eurostar train on it’s way to up to London on the brow of the embankment.