For this new series on The Clearing, Paul Kingsnorth asked writers and artists from across the world to respond in their own way to a simple, one-word theme: transformation. The result is a series of explorations, in words and images, of the alchemical cycle of change: breakdown, rebirth and renewal. We begin with an extract from Paul’s new book, Savage Gods.
I had a plan. I always have a plan. Without a plan, I am lost and fumbling. It’s a skill, making plans like this, containing your life and direction within them, a skill that can get you to places you always wanted to be, a skill that can get you out ahead of others who don’t have plans, who don’t have a direction. Ha ha, you think, as you sail by, look at me! Look at my plan! I am in control of my life! I know how to sail! Usually you think this right before you hit a squall and end up in the sea, clinging to a plank of splintered wood. You are not as good a sailor as you thought you were.
That’s the trap. A plan can become, in an eye-blink, a cage arrayed around you like the swords in a tarot deck. Sometimes you find that your plan is so good that you can’t escape from it. You get to where you wanted to be, and there is nothing else there. Only you, suddenly lonely and with no way back. I inherited my compulsion for plan-making from my father, whose need for control eventually killed him, so I should really have learned my lesson. But lessons don’t work like that, do they? Not for me, anyway. I don’t think I have ever learned a lesson in my life. I don’t watch somebody make a mistake and conclude, well, I’ll make sure I don’t do that, then. We pretend that we can learn lessons like this because the alternative is to face the music: to accept that most of what we do in our human lives is driven by some deep, old compulsion we can neither understand nor control, and that when it comes upon us, all we can do is hold on to the wrecked boat and pray. Or laugh, depending on our personalities.
I had a plan. The plan was to settle, to have some land, to root myself and my family. To escape from the city, to escape from the traps. To grow our own food, educate our own kids, draw our own water, plant our own fuel. To be closer to nature and further from the Machine. To be freer, to be more in control. To escape and, at the same time, to belong. To learn things I didn’t know anything about but wanted to, because I felt they’d make me a better, rounded adult person: planting trees, keeping hens, managing woodland, carpentry, wiring, building, all the small skills required to run a few acres of land and to be part of it. On top of that, to bring up our young children at home. And on top of that, to write books: truer books than I had ever written before. To write something great, something real, something so intense that nobody could read it without dimming the lights first.
It’s good to be ambitious. Or is it? I don’t even know any more.
We – my wife, myself, our two young children – moved to this small townland in Ireland when I was forty-one years old. Our house is on a small rise, on good sandy loam, a few miles from the river Shannon, which divides the east of this island from the west. We are in the west of the country, just, which means we are in the Romantic bit. The house is a little two-bedroom concrete cottage – can you have a concrete cottage? – built – poured – in the 1950s, to replace an older stone-and-thatch affair. The history of Ireland is a history of people escaping just as soon as they could from the tiny, picturesque, damp, cramped, whitewash-and-thatch cottages which people from the rest of the world still associate with Ireland.
Our house is small and a bit damp. It is not surrounded by breathtaking mountain scenery or sweeping white beaches, because we could never afford to live anywhere like that. It is quite an ordinary little place – modest compared to many new rural homes – which suits me somehow, because I feel I am quite an ordinary person, and I could never live in a big house. The land around it is gentle: crooked fields, still owned by small farmers, home to beef cows, a few sheep, the odd goat and occasionally a strip of wheat or barley. The fields are divided by hedges of thorn, elder, oak, ash, sycamore, lime, under which streams run and past which old lanes wind. It is a pleasant, unspectacular, nooky, modest sort of landscape. It is my home, though I am still a stranger in it.
We moved here from a small Cumbrian market town where we had lived for five years, though I’m not from there either. Where am I from? I was born in Worcester, lived in Malvern until I was two or three – I don’t remember it – then moved to the suburbs of northwest London, near to where both my parents had grown up. When I was eleven we moved to High Wycombe, an ugly town in Buckinghamshire which had been an attractive town in Buckinghamshire before the 1960s got hold of it. Then we moved to a small village near Bath, in the West Country, the kind of village with no farmers left in it. When I was eighteen I went to university in Oxford. Then I moved to London. Then back to Oxford. Then to Cumbria. Now to Ireland. Meanwhile, my parents had moved to Surrey, then to Cyprus where my nan, a Greek Cypriot from Famagusta, had met my granddad in the war. When my dad died in Cyprus, my mum moved back to England: to Yorkshire, then to Cheshire. My two brothers are currently in Reading and Warrington. We’re not done yet. See how we run.
My wife, Jyoti, had it different. She was born in Darlington, but from a young age she lived in Leamington Spa, in the same 1930s semi where her mum still lives. Her mum is a Punjabi Sikh, as were her late father and gran. The family moved from India to Britain in the late 1960s, invited by the government to plug the gaps in the British labour market; a fair exchange for a few centuries of colonialism. We occupied your country – now come and drive our buses! Jyoti’s family moved across half a world, but now they’re more settled than I am. She still has a family home. I wish I had a family home. I can remember when I had one. I couldn’t wait to get away.
* * *
My plan went wrong almost immediately. When I first arrived here, instead of feeling liberated, I felt like crying. I had loved the little town we lived in, where my son was born, where my daughter went to school, where I joined the fell running club and laboured up and down mountains every Tuesday night, then went to some small rural pub for sausages and beer. I had felt more at home there than at any time in my adult life. I wrote my first novel there, which I could afford to do because Jyoti was a psychiatrist who earned actual money. But psychiatry was killing her, her role was not to cure people but to medicate them, to stick plasters on the wounds the Machine had gouged into the people at the bottom of the pile. There was nothing she could do about the wounds, and they kept coming. We had always talked about owning some land, moving to a smallholding. Jyoti thought about her mum’s village in India, where her mum had tamed a wild mynah bird, where her granddad was the village wise-man, where her gran milked the family buffalo, where there were bombardments of morning birdsong that would wake you from your sleep on the flat roof. I thought of little farms I had seen and camped in on long walks with my dad over the hills of Britain as a child and how they represented something to me that was very different from the flatness of the suburbs. I thought about sheepdogs and hens and lambs and the still of the tangled banks. The green stillness. In Cumbria, only the rich can afford their patch of the green stillness.
We left Cumbria because we weren’t millionaires, but we also left because I was driven by my severance, my lifelong companion, and I needed to push away, as far away as I could push from everything I had known. I was getting complacent. I was starting to enjoy myself. I had friends and hobbies and a hometown I liked and this was intolerable. I could see myself getting fat and cosy and staying in the same place forever and this vision filled me with horror. I had to go because I was starting to get comfortable, and I have always run from things – houses, towns, jobs, girlfriends – when they started to make me feel comfortable. Until I was thirty-five, I ran away from being at home, and then I wanted to be at home. Don’t ask me to explain this. How would I know how to explain it? I’m a writer, not a therapist.
* * *
Maybe that does explain it. I’m a writer, and to me this has always been a calling, a duty. It’s always been my guiding light, my personal mythology. I’ve built my life around it: what the writing needs, the writing gets, and all else is secondary. Maybe this sounds pretentious or affected, but I can’t help that. It’s what I’ve believed and cleaved to for longer than I can remember. I am a writer. Writing has controlled me, and now perhaps it has become me. Writing has been put, always, before everything, because if you don’t pay obeisance to the god then the god will abandon you.
And so I have always run, or so I’ve told myself, because the writing needed me to. The writing needed me to stay on the edge, to stay burning, to stay ahead. The writing needed me, at some level, always to be unhappy. If I settled anywhere and got too comfortable, I would soften around the edges and the fire would die. I would end up writing bland memoirs or ghostwritten books about cats. ‘You must stay drunk on writing’, advises Ray Bradbury, ‘so that reality cannot destroy you.’ Alice Thomson goes further. ‘Art that doesn’t come from pain’, she instructs, ‘is just entertainment.’
Pain, severance: it took me so long to realise their importance, their inevitability, their necessity. The grinding wheels of opposition are where the words are milled. The creation comes from the pain of the grinding. It is the heart being ground. It is the longing that creates the art, or the attempt at art. For that to happen, you need always to not quite be who, or where, you are. You need always to be under pressure, like a layer of sedimentary rock or a steel girder holding up a skyscraper. From the pressure, from the pain of the contradictions you carry and embody, from the wrenching of the oppositions that tear you, comes the energy that bursts into words, comes the flood, comes the pouring. You must always be not quite where you want to be, and you must never quite know where you want to be, and nothing must ever be enough to bring you contentment. Contentment is your deadliest foe. The fruit must always be just out of reach, and the world you walk through must always be a shade greyer than the one you can make yourself from what lives hidden in your heart.
In your multiplicity, in your contradictions, in the pulsing thrum of all your wanting and all your loss is your chance to make something that might matter; is your chance to capture the pure, intense moment, in all its light and rage, as if time were cast away from it forever.
PAUL KINGSNORTH is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry whose acclaimed books include One No, Many Yeses, Real England, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Beast and The Wake, which won the Gordon Burn Prize and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This is an extract from his new book Savage Gods, a memoir that draws on his move to Ireland and the day-to-day conflicts of being a writer, smallholder, husband, parent, and a son whose own childhood was shadowed by his father,