CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Exhibit A in my campaign to save the heath—for now by having it declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest—is a slim hardback stolen from a local dealer in rare and unusual books. Public School Verse 1921–1922: An Anthology. With an introduction by England’s then Poet Laureate, rejecting the idea that poetry is better left “to more effeminate races than our own,” and building up the contributors as budding versifiers likely soon to become more widely celebrated.
That none did only accentuates the volume’s poignancy. It smells of filing into chapel in the rain, of Latin cribs, and sneaking into the war memorial to smoke a pipe. The verses gush with nostalgia and exoticism—the poet longingly beholds women he is too young or too genteel to approach. Many of the poems allude to Nubian slaves, although sometimes, closer to home, the woman is a gypsy or wood nymph. Reference is made to embers and ruins. The most obvious influences are Swinburne, Housman, and Flecker. Tennyson is present like the rumble of an enchanted ocean, too distant to find one’s way back to. These boys long to escape the Gothic prisons of their schools to conquer mysterious outposts. Lordly in their sweeping inexactitude, they cast allusions to declining civilizations other than their own—Phoenicia, Tyrinthia, Nineveh. Think of the rivalry to get in this anthology, the delight at seeing it displayed in a bookstore in the right part of London—I see the boys at their initial-filigreed desks swotting over their overwrought lines.
L. E. Horrocks, the only contributor from my old school, Ragweald, would be sent for psychiatric evaluation nowadays. His poem “The Unbidden” reads in its entirety—
Witnessed by my inner eye,The editors probably took Horrocks to be dealing metaphorically with the social after-effects of the Great War—a flogging was the punishment for setting foot on the heath in his day, as in mine six decades later, so Horrocks would have had reason to encourage any nonliteral interpretation—but he’s describing an actually witnessed infestation of singing insects.
Cf. Exhibit B, an LP I bought at a car-boot sale on the edge of the heath. The Moggles and friends, live on Ragweald Heath, Saturday, July 15, 1968, coincidentally the day I was born. Many support bands play, none identified, and the Moggles don’t come on until the second side of the album. Throughout, someone spasmodically bangs a cowbell near a mic, and a penny whistle is also involved. This must have been a mesmerizing show to attend when rural Cheshire still felt remote, and the use of abrasive fuzz guitar to accompany folk-style tunes was still novel.
Most interesting however is the sonic underlay of insect noise—a mic was placed at some distance from the stage to capture their rattling, along with the trilling blackbirds and larks presumably feeding on them—nature sounds which sometimes seem to be synchronizing with the guitarists, their pulsating wash the very fabric of a summer night. Time seems arrested and the music becomes the still center of a seething planet. There are moments between tracks where their rasping swoosh triggers something like the primal terror L. E. Horrocks aimed to evoke in “The Unbidden.”
No entomologist I played this recording to was able to identify the species responsible, but after covering “John Barleycorn” and “Blowing in the Wind,” Danny Moggle distinctly says the words, “These purple hoppers are a trip, yeah?” to applause and laughter.
There are no purple invertebrates in the UK. An attendee of the concert I managed to track down remembers seeing vermilion cicada-like creatures, but has always assumed these were a side effect of the now-banned antidepressants he was on. The lyrics of the next track, “Flameout,” are crooned by Moggle himself, his vocal style stranded somewhere between that of Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt, sometimes mellow, sometimes harsh, oscillating in volume as he sways on his feet before the mic—
I soar with the seasonsThe words reportedly came to him in a trance. The cover of the album is a photograph of the band standing on the heath wearing donkey jackets. In the foreground is what might be an out-of-focus chewing-gum wrapper or else the only extant photograph of …
Let me back up. You may know that the US has a cicada species that spawns every thirteen years, and another that recurs every seventeen years. If Horrocks witnessed an infestation in 1921 of a species that returned in 1968 to accompany the Moggles, that gives us forty-seven—another prime number—as my discovered creature’s life cycle, leading me to prophesy a reemergence of the unbidden species on Ragweald Heath in 2015.
The snag, naturally, is that the heath is scheduled to be bulldozed early that year to build a supermarket.
Exhibit C, I found while wandering the heath, removing KEEP OUT signs and pouring sand into the tanks of bulldozers. I call him Todd.
No entomologist I have shown him to believes I found him here. They all believe he is from far away, and warn me it is illegal to smuggle exotic insects into the UK. None could advise me on what to feed him. None believed my claim to have deduced from cultural-historical evidence alone the existence of a grasshopper species, indigenous to a small part of Cheshire, whose eggs lie dormant for forty-seven years, its long life cycle and restricted habitat serving to explain why it has not formerly been identified.
The travelers who camp on the heath are equally unpersuaded. The regulars at the Wheatsheaf look away, muttering that the supermarket will bring jobs. Is it because at school you weren’t allowed on the heath, one asked me, that now you practically live there?
Compare Todd to the carvings added to the exterior of the local church during the restoration of 1874—popularly supposed to represent a plague of locusts—and draw your own conclusions. The vicar thinks I see insects everywhere because antidepressants have leached into the water supply.
But I have seen only one of Todd’s kind. He is purple and, lithe of limb, had a way of trembling that was all his own.
He died yesterday. His swansong is now my ringtone —
Rrrrrkth rkt rkt rrrrrrrrhtk rnkth
We love the things we love for their individuality, another way of saying their persecutedness. Having hatched a year early by mistake, Todd had nothing to mate with. Should you call me, his amplified cry will resonate down to his kindred who swell beneath this drear heath, one-time haunt of madmen and robbers, dreaming it’s time to wake up and erupt from the clotting darkness to shed their nymphal skins and indulge in some weeks of bacchanalia.
Todd’s hind legs are like drumsticks. His front legs are like beansprouts, his antennae like safety matches. His eyes are like wild helixes, his thorax like a legume. As long as he moved, all his moves were purposeful. It would help my case, clearly, if I could unearth some reference to his species in 1827, but the best I have so far is a published sermon by the then vicar of Raforth, comparing grasshoppers unfavorably to ants, in which he calls the grasshopper “a scarlet harlot.”
If you drop everything and hurry to the heath, you may be in time to see the emergence of Todd’s brethren. This could spearhead a change in our attitude to the environment, in our understanding of time, in our capacity to cope with uncertainty. New cultural subtraditions may promulgate that combine the pleasures of wisdom with those of folly, the delirium of the remote with the awe-inspiringness of the close at hand, the personal growth that comes from suffering with the illusion of survivorhood sparked by its temporary absence. We will hold poetry readings and jam sessions, there will be sexual and political and theological revolutions, and that’s just for starters. Just as grasshoppers become locusts when crowded together—when there are enough of them, spikes in their serotonin levels trigger physical and behavioral changes—so the mob that come after Todd may cease, as they jostle with each other, to resemble him. I too may morph once I have enough followers, or so I tell the regulars at the Wheatsheaf, the congregation leaving the church, the winos on the heath. We need only to prevent the hoppers’ habitat being destroyed for another year or so … I listen for the soil to start popping … The sky over the heath is like a tastefully done apocalypse poster, and the snoring of the winos like the rumbling of that lost Tennysonian ocean.
Allow me to rest my case.
James Warner is still searching for that sweet spot between literary and genre. His novel All Her Father’s Guns was a San Francisco Public Library reading list selection. His short stories have appeared most recently in Mid-American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Literarian.