Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The County of Hertfordshire

I spent Monday night in the Holiday Inn at Hemel. We went to a chain pub. The others stoked themselves up rather too much with a mixed grill; I had scampi chips garden peas and a pint of Greene King IPA. I commented excitedly (to the bemusement of my colleagues) on finally spending a night in the County of Hertfordshire.

I needed to grab an extra blanket from the top of the wardrobe, though the window (for my safety) only opened an inch. I finished Pushkin's "Gypsies" and lay in the dark, the IPA revolving.

Am I in Hertfordshire? What is a County?

Is it an invention of the Revd. R.H. Webb? Is it heritage five-star dining and commuter-belt MPs? Is it the Emergency Services? Is it the canteen staff? The Ruines of Time? A shit-hole? I lay in a steel frame several floors above the soil. Beneath that, a long way down, was chalk.

All over the world people are writing the word "loosing". Only three in every 17,000 are writing about arrows. 270 are being figurative (loosing off accusations, or a volley of farts). The other 16,727 mean "losing".

I thought of Hertfordshire as a dragon's wing, sliding into the London basin; my idea was dominated by the ribs, which were the through-roads. Out-there/in-there, though it's hard to credit, is the real "place", what you can't touch; it looks like they always do, like grey fields and the backs of estates. And the glittering sign of Holiday Inn. A stream dribbles under the road.

Was only now I made the discovery that, some hundreds of years ago it seems, I spent several nights in Hertfordshire, visiting relatives. I was so young I didn't care about counties then; I thought I was just in London. The morning sunlight glittered along the street and its bright cars - red, pea-green, cream. Sparrows chirped in the eaves; a model of a Spitfire on one of those low cabinets with sliding glass doors. Complete set of Beatrix Potter. Cats who stood side by side eating from their bowls in the kitchen. I imagined that during the week the windows admitted the world of entertainment from nearby studios: Bing, Nat, Cliff... I leafed through a big book of stills from the Silent Era, falling in love with Paulette Goddard somewhere in the last few pages.

When I was young counties were of no interest. My geography was counterculture; the true places were brilliant points of light defined by their red and purple Jeremy Reed energies; they existed as seams in space.

Counties become of interest to older inhabitants. The mass of life that has accreted its facts and false facts to form the world we are moving through becomes a quietly moving object of contemplation in itself, seen forming its patterns over so many generations and from simple beginnings; an increasing amount of this history now with some personal resonance attaching to it. Penned in to locality, they thrust their hands deep into it, they probe right through it, still seeking...

But I want a big answer now.

[My scampi was fished and breaded in Scotland - in between these operations it went off to China to be hand-shelled*.]


At 5:38 am, Blogger Vincent said...

I was very aware of counties as a child. You have reminded me of something I had to do at boarding school. We were given an outline map of England and had to draw in all the counties freehand; and then colour them. I learned that for any such layout, you only need four colours (or is it three? my learning has not stuck) to avoid two adjacent counties being coloured the same. My piece of paper and my india-rubber were both worn down by all the corrections I had to make; but for years I remembered the shape of the counties, particularly Buckinghamshire, in which I live now.


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