Beneath the Ice-Shelf

Aidan Higgins

One hundred and sixty years ago in the dreadful frost and snow at the beginning of 1814, kind-hearted Charles Lamb was out in all weathers, visiting the imprisoned Leigh Hunt who had been put away for two years for ridiculing the Prince Regent. Hyde Park was then littered with dirty people and provisions (not that much has changed in the interval), Mary Lamb had toothache very badly and was about to go mad again. Insanity ran in the Lamb family like a streak through Brighton rock.

Trust I find you in fine fettle, friend. Stay well muffled up. Up here in the Pennines they still count sheep in the old lingo. Bumfit. Deep snow still lingering on here where none in their right minds would go marching. Down below in murky Birmingham it’s all Bingobongo-banga I can tell you. The soccer Yahoos prowl about with skulls shaven to the pluck in the manner of convicts in Dickens’s day, invoking Magwitch and the hulks. Their looks of fixed hostility bode ill for old England. The pro football season gets into its swing with a ritual killing. But this generally happens away from the actual arena where ‘supporters’ or rival gangs of thugs are constrained behind moats and high wire fences, as in the days of chivalry when maidens were locked away in towers. The hot whiffling puppies run amuck after the game, and the great mindless commonality go in outright fear of them. But you know a nation is finished anyway when it produces postage stamps such as that with image of your dyspeptic Sovereign affixed to this carta.

However, Spring must pull us round again. This muck cannot endure forever. Didn’t I hear the children scream ‘Yellow!’ almost a month ago? Feathered songsters will soon be on the job. Weather will be dull but extraordinarily mild, with grass sprouting out of season, honeysuckle bursting prodigiously, awaiting another nip of frost to kill it. Geese honking whilst assaulting the wet uplands with soft grey shit, appropriate emblem for a whoreson year not unfree of general adversity, no by God. Keep thy head well covered.

I rarely venture down below except for absolute necessities such as Scotch and tobacco, carbon papers. From my bedroom I survey the rolling fells, a name I’ve always liked, the fells, where today a gruesomely active crow, very black against the virgin snow, feeds on the eyes of a dead sheep, only the stricken head emerging ghostlike from the drifts. The immediate ambience is now mercifully rid of the sound of polite handclapping followed by communal gusts of infectious laughter, for I have persuaded the obliging landlady to remove the offending Box. The times are even worse than those envisaged by Orwell who admittedly was ill; and we still have some way to go.

‘I still value human life, in spite of everything,’ I overheard a sagacious Parsnip say in a frightfully Punjabby Wallahy voice from a Lounge Bar I just happened to stumble into a week or so ago. What kind of life had this wag in mind do you suppose? The Gulf Oil man in natty blue company overalls spoke knowingly of pressures and borings to a Hotel Commissionaire who displayed all that starched and bluff rigidity that told of previous Army training.

Mad scientists, said the Gulf Oil man, drilling through a lost undersea world beneath the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, had come upon life forms and fossils dating back fourteen million years, and were attempting to discover what kind of creatures could have evolved in waters which had not seen sunlight for more than ten thousand years, with water temperature hovering just above freezing. Wilkinson’s blades for a close easy shave.

Meanwhile the long injurious winter is showing no sign of ending, releasing its iron grip. I live just on the snowline, now general, in a peeling Late Victorian mansion that might still appeal to Charles Adams, wrapped up in blankets before a coal-fire in a house wanting repairs in all essentials, staring into the birchtree in the garden, in it some birds which I attempt to identify through opera glasses bought twenty years ago in Canal Street for one dollar, when life was still possible there. Doors hang on their hinges by the skin of their teeth and the lot is mortgaged to the hit. I snowshoe over the white fells to a rude bar patronised by those hardy souls who walk the Pennine way, ending up in a far-off Escotia amid the hoarfrost. Below in the haunt of Skinheads and Punks, thick and squat or leery and lank, truculence and insolence inextricably mixed, you have coalsmog in the plundered glass-walled valley where the heart shrinks as the stench freezes the mind, converts it into authentic minerals. Some lost soul plays grim Baptist hymns on an old diseased church organ in a deserted church in Coke-on-Ende into which I happened to stagger, looking for grace but found only dark choir stalls, mildewed prayer books, a booming organ, the odours of bygone piety and lost congregations, the wind moaning through the leaded windows, and a redheaded lunatic in a chalky black smock pedalling away for dear life, head down as if passing into a head-wind, drawing almighty wheezes from the antiquated pipes. I crept out, ashamed of what I had seen, as far as I can now recall.

The Venerable Bede of Jarrow did not hold overmuch with birthdays and suchlike frippery; what mattered more to him was the day of a man’s death and the passage into everlasting life. So, Glückwünsche und Mähs (Goat), as I believe yours falls about now and raise a brimming beaker in your direction. All the very best, friend. Stay well. Gather thyself unto the old things.

We live in squeamish times.