Intoxicating natural beauty, with real live toxics

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The Independent Online
IT'S MY 20th anniversary next year: the marriage of a southerner - or 'Southron', as Basil Bunting called us - to that debatable land and rocky outcrop called Cumbria, which gives allegiance to England but which probably has as much in common with the Orkneys, or with Crete, as with the Home Counties.

Chance fetched me up here in 1975, a lectureship with Newcastle University's Extramural Department, spreading sweetness and light among those impulse buyers who turn to literature for a stirring night out.

I thought I'd be here two or three years, max. But a couple of decades on I seem to be rooted to the spot, watching the sun set over the Solway rather than the Solent and New Forest of my childhood, adopting both the economical lingo ('Cat wants out'; 'Missed it be a foot and a field') and the cheerful stoicism of the locals, for many of whom London is about as real as Kuala Lumpur.

What makes Cumbria tick? And why am I still here? The brief answer to the first question is: tourism in central 'Lakeland' and the washing of the world's dirty nuclear linen at Sellafield, plus a smattering of industry and a lot of small subsidised farms. The longer answer has to do with time out of mind, the extended family, and a local patriotism fiercer than Islamic fundamentalism.

This last is no hyperbole. If you want to know what happens to all those old bred-in-the-bone beliefs that have gone missing in Islington, and in the southern shires since Suez, try any pub north of Preston or Scotch Corner. From one angle it freezes your blood, from another it cheers you up no end. These are the 'folk' whose allegiances are tribal first and last.

You could play at Peter Mayle among them, or cast a Cold Comfort Farm, or write a Blue Book anatomising their love of a 'crack' and sticky toffee pudding, but such exercises would barely scratch the surface of their lives. They have roots and branches the way Job had doubts and boils, the way modern poets have understatement and prepositions. Offcomers are tolerated but seen as careerists, time-sharers and amateur anthropologists in search of a hobby, chattering about what's really real.

There are multiple ironies in the way the place earns its living. It's meant to be a rugged Wordsworthian idyll, free of the 'sordid taint of industry' (as Wm dubbed it), a uniquely uplifting environment where the world is not allowed to be too much with us. In reality the dream is ceaselessly merchandised, the hills echo to the sound of cash registers. Hotels, B&Bs, hostels, adventure trails, hang-gliding, para-gliding, canoeing, pony-trekking, mountain- biking, rock-climbing, sailing, fishing, diving, camping, poeticising, moto-crossing, water-skiing, back- packing - there's a deal for your every desire, at a price.

Everyone cashes in on the cash crop, from the Bonningtons and Brashers and Braggs to, I'm ashamed to say, me. I once edited a book called The New Lake Poets. It began as a joke but the publisher liked it - good for sales - and it stuck. The Wordsworth Trust processes tens of thousands of visitors a year at Grasmere, and so does the Beatrix Potter bonanza. If either of them were to come back they'd drop dead with disgust.

And then there's British Nuclear Fuels, far and away the largest employer in the county, which puts wages in the hands of thousands and radioactive waste in the Irish Sea; and maybe or maybe not contributes to the incidence of leukaemia among local schoolchildren. There's a nice moral issue for you. Survival at a price, or a Friend of the Earth on permanent dole?

We have other dirty factories up here too, and chemical dumps that they don't want in Middlesex thank you very much, even though they're safer than safe. So real live toxics are added to the intoxicating image of an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and PR men hired to blow their trumpets from the steep, crying up the one and burying the other in 50 fathoms of dubious statistics.

I've sometimes thought BNFL would make a good subject for an epic poem, if only I had the physics and the patience to put in the necessary research. It's huge, one of the modern wonders of Britain. Viewed from the hills above Beckermet at night it looks like a giant space station out of some Spielberg or Kubrick spectacular. My friend John Murray beat me to it and got some of this amazing copy into his novel Radio Activity, which ought to be on this year's Booker shortlist, but isn't.

So what am I doing here? Why haven't I fled to a clean well-lighted place where I can find a Waterstone's, a Sainsbury's, a South Place Ethical Society and Haagen- Dazs ice-cream? What did Wordsworth have that I might possibly want or emulate? I'll tell you. He had 'visionary dreariness', the stuff that begins at your back door and extends into time and space. He had a hunger for what is sacred and sustaining: 'fostered alike by beauty and by fear.' He was so obtuse and unfashionable as to suppose that Dr Johnson's terror of finding himself alone in the small hours was more eloquent than his table talk. He was so far gone in prejudice that he thought irony and satire inferior to the precious life blood of a master spirit such as Milton or the anonymous authors of the Border Ballads.

Sophisticates have always poked fun at Wordsworth, from Byron to Peter Porter. And there's plenty of ammunition.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can'.

'Vernal' gives the game away, and the namby-pamby movement of diction and verse. But you can't say that of the Lucy poems and a hundred other great things in which inner and outer space are triumphantly limned. There were, famously, two voices at work in this poet, and it's more fun to seize on the 'old half-witted sheep' than it is to attend to the alps of his mind.

Ridicule is never far away from prophecy and poetry. When the present Poet Laureate attempts to say something about the 20th-century matter of Britain, he is jeered at even for trying, never mind the result. Soul-searching is well and good for the Irish and other quaint pastoralists, or Les Murray out in the Antipodes, merely absurd in the land of breakfast TV and Norman Tebbit.

But the great Romantics seized hold of a bone we haven't let go of, however much we may deplore and deconstruct their excesses. We drown in 'information' and starve for lack of substance. I reckon there's more chance of getting at the marrow of things, and of me, out here in the sticks than down there in the sodium glow of civilisation.

Civilisation is portable, Cumbria isn't. Tourism is a froth that blows away the minute you leave the adventure trail and walk up off over the nearest fell. Nature isn't the slightest bit cosy or technicoloured and yet 'There lives the dearest freshness deep down things' as G M Hopkins, another obstinate nutter and seeker after truth, declared. I live here in order to stay sane, and go on disputing with the seven devils of disbelief.