While Driving West

Just a short story. It’s a story about finding a different world, when only a week before, there wasn’t even a hint of any relief.

The second or third time I got really cheesed-off with the music business, I decided not to vent the extreme spleen I felt on either my then current management or upon the record company, EMI, because I felt that I’d already worn those particular lines fairly thin. I was of course the same round pin trying to fit myself into the same square holes that still exist today. I wasn’t so much round, perhaps, as of varying and unpredictable shapes, but that’s a boring old story. And too long a diversion.

Anyway, I was cheesed. And, spur of the moment, I just got into the car. Driving west into the sunset at a fast rate of knots, I just went. I didn’t have the slightest idea about where I was going. I just wanted to get away. Soon enough there was dust behind me, and I felt free. I was angry. There’d been a few scenes after ‘Flat Baroque And Berserk’, and I knew that I wanted to do something very different. I was searching for sparks in myself that would set the work apart. ‘Flat Baroque’ had been a muted success, and I was being asked to come up with more of the same. But more of the same wasn’t happening; I’d moved on. Stormcock was on the way. And so was I. I can remember tearing down the old A4, which was quite winding, and good to drive at speed along because it kept you 100% alert. Which only heightened the state of consciousness I imagined I was achieving.

As I got further west I began to slow down. I’d backed it off from the 100 mph I’d started at and it had got down to a sedate 80. I’d started in London, and, after a few hours, I was in Wales.. and the pace began to drop even further. I can remember almost sauntering through Bridgend in traffic. Shortly after that my temper had diffused enough for me to be able to start to think about other things. Other things entirely. One of the first of these was, ‘where am I going?’. I can remember that the first time I thought it, the answer came without thinking, almost as a part of the question. ‘West’, was the immediate response.

For a long time I didn’t make any other distinction, but as I reached Port Talbot, I began to realise that I’d be running out of road quite soon. That day, in fact… Port Talbot smelt like a giant egg fart in those days. ‘Hydrogen Sulphide’, I thought, and drove on. I wondered what it would be like to live in a permanent giant egg fart. ‘Quite homely.. probably..’ but where was I going? Nuances of the temper returned, and I continued to put my foot down in bursts. Suddenly, I was driving down into the Pembroke peninsular. Things were getting strangely small and local.. I stopped for fuel.. and there was another language. And land was running out. The roads weren’t allowing the foot to work with it’s previous abandon.. and there was more to look at. To try to understand.

Then I began to see signs for a ferry. At first it was just another road sign, but then it began to appeal to me. ‘No’, I thought, ‘I’ll just drive to the coast and sleep’. I think I got to somewhere called Little Haven, which sounded better than it was, I seem to remember. It might have changed since. It was now night time. I got out of the car where there was a bit of beach, rolled a joint, and tried to put my life behind me. I sat and listened to the water for a while, then I went back to the car and got into the back seat. I didn’t sleep much. There was no blanket and it was quite cold. It was July.

Morning broke and I attempted to pretend that I could still catch a bit of shuteye if I concentrated. Which of course was exactly the wrong way to go about it. I guess that it was more like, ‘if I lie here long enough, places to eat will be open and besides, if I’ve got my eyes closed I can try to ignore both the fact that it’s morning and that I’m probably going to be spotted by a few people. That didn’t work for long before I found myself driving east again. I didn’t have a licence in those days. I’d been talking my way out of most events on the road. Which was more than possible in those days. A couple of years after that you could no longer get away with, “Sorry, I don’t seem to have it on me, it must be at home”… because the cops started to require you to turn up at your local station with it by some absolute date. (I drove without a licence for 7 years. I was finally forced to get one in 1976).

Anyway, I soon told myself that I didn’t want to be doing this.. going back.. and the anger returned. Suddenly there was a small ferry sign off to the right.. and I’d already turned. There was going to be no quick cure for me. It wasn’t going to be that easy. I was forcing myself to do something else, again, and I had the upper hand. I found myself asking questions at the dock in Pembroke, and within a couple of hours I was on a ferry to Ireland, car and all. No passport, no ID, just me, and a 1959 sand and sable Bentley S type which had seen better days, particularly prior to it’s current ownership.

‘Great’, I thought, I’m actually going somewhere else. Somewhere else entirely. And I’m driving there. And no one will know where I am. And I won’t be able to drive back in a few hours.. The sea was in my hair, and I was off again into such extended childhood as I was still able to rescue. In the three hours that it had taken to get to Rosslare, I’d become wired in a totally different way than the one in which I’d started the journey the previous day. I’d turned myself into the bowsprit. The waves parted on either side of my wooden wings… well, steel wings. I was Poseidon incarnate… well, with the help of some balsamic advancement… perhaps. Classic.

I got off the boat in this state before I realised that I’d suddenly acquired several disadvantages. I had very long hair. I was in a foreign country. Factions of my people been invading these poor people for 800 years, I was five foot seven inches tall, there was only one of me, It was debatable as to whether I was in my right mind… and the car was totally out of place. The situation was eccentric, and I had to go along with it. I’d gone from underground revolutionary motherfucker, to king, to sensitive poet type inside the space of four hours. The changes were interesting. I made my way further west with a different vigour. The people and their attitude to me made me more immediately polite. They were looking at me like a curio, but I realised that it was a curio they’d seen before, and probably even among themselves. I was stuck in all the garb of a foreign class statement. I was utterly irrelevant. And shouting it from the rooftops in cinemascope.. without even saying a word.

I passed mountains. It reminded me of the Lake District in England. It was beautiful. I rushed onward.. west.. Somewhere, deep down inside, I was still really angry, but it was a distant anger now that surfaced only occasionally, and after a while I seemed to equate it with some residual childhood mechanism that I wanted to disown.. for the moment. Perhaps the consolationary solipsism I’d read about and befriended in my previous youth. Something I could discount. I still had no idea of where I was going to. I bought myself a blanket from a petrol station. It was a plaid affair, and the heaviest one in the shop.. out of a choice of two.

I wondered whether there was another boat on the west coast: maybe to the USA.. or somewhere else. But that was only because I wanted to continue to drive, to go, to ride whatever wind was in front of me. I can’t remember where I stayed that night, but it was with my new blanket on the back seat. I came through towns. Some of them I can remember. Like Youghal, (pronounced Yawl), which had kind of thirties type ‘come to the seaside’ art deco railway pictures of idealistic life by the holiday sea in Ireland. Obviously for Irish consumption, and thirty years out of date, but wonderful period pieces.

In the morning I struggled through Cork, which was the biggest place I’d come across for a couple of days. I had a pint of Guinness at lunchtime in a hotel/pub called The Grosvenor Inn, I think, in the middle of town. I didn’t know where I was. I went down to the river, parked up, and watched the water sparkle in the sun. It was a long moment. I soon needed to move on. The right foot was in command. I headed out of Cork along the Western Road. I can remember trying to slow myself into a more acceptable state.. one which was more in keeping with my new status as an ignorant foreigner.. and it was working.

I’d got myself a map, and as I went off into the dust, it seemed to me that Bantry was not only known to me from some previous literature, but also seemed to be the biggest place on the map in the west. When I got there the sea was incredibly blue, and deep, which seemed to bring out more of the restless in me. I needed to get to as far as I could go. I looked at the map again and I thought that the best place that I could go would be somewhere called Baltimore. That really was at the end. Or so I thought. There was no going sideways in any direction from Baltimore. Leastways, not on the map. There I would be stuck. The only place for me then would be back. I needed to put the ‘back’ option out of my mind. Filter it for as long as I could. Baltimore was wonderful in those days. There were a few shops along the only bit of beach in what is actually a small harbour town that were just corrugated iron lock-ups. And they sold ships stuff. It was all quite arcane; and rural seaside. Actually, it was a brilliant place. It had all the feel of not having changed for much longer than an age. I felt alien, but at home. I needed a place to sleep, and I found myself driving out.. but I knew that I didn’t really want to. I’d found somewhere.

I bought myself some soda bread and some margarine and a bottle of Guinness. It was already pretty late in the day, and I decided to try to find myself a deserted beach. The search got a bit crazy because I’d no idea where I was. I was going up one road after another towards the sea without any luck. Somehow I managed to find a small jetty. There was no beach, but there was about five feet of water below where the jetty went into the sea. It was a mini harbour. I managed to park the car at the top of the jetty, sideways on.. The sun was behind that last bit of cloud which often makes itself known just as sunset occurs. It was a hazy evening. It had been a hazy day. I went to sleep on a slight slope, with my head on the upward side. I cracked the window slightly; and slept like the proverbial log.

In the morning it was stuffy in the car. The sun was already coming in through the windscreen, and the light had woken me. I sat for a long time with all the windows in the car open and a gentle warm sea breeze around me. I was managing whole moments of peace. I was still. The sky was blue and I drifted to the spectrum being played out on the rippling of the fairly placid water. Everything was blue. At about 10:30am I got out of the car and went to sit on the jetty. After about five minutes of staring into the sky and the water, I became aware of the fact that the water seemed to be moving. I came out of the dream realising that I’d seen something real, and focused on the water. After a few seconds of visual adjustment I realised that I was looking at a shoal of fish. I was wonderstruck.. and overcome by the anorak in me to know what they were. After a few seconds I’d identified them as Mackerel. What a fantastic sight. Hundreds, if not thousands of them. The water was alive.

I found myself standing up with a smile. The deep smile of providence. I could see breakfast.. and dinner.. all I had to do was to get it out of the water. I went back to Baltimore to buy the the tackle. I needed a rod and a spinner.. but there was nothing to be found in Baltimore, and I was advised that the nearest place I could get such exotic stuff was somewhere called Skibereen. I asked where Skibereen was. It was about fifteen miles away.. and I didn’t know anything about it. I got back to the car and had a look at the map.. Breakfast was disappearing. Skibereen was quite near, and I soon found what I wanted.

I decided that I didn’t need a rod. All I needed was a line and a spinner. I only realised this when I saw 20 or 50 yards of line wound around a piece of card. Why buy a rod I wasn’t going to use for more than a couple of days. I selected the spinner from four or five on view. I then found myself a frying pan, a carton of orange juice, a bucket, some starter firewood and a box of matches. I’d taken good note of where I’d come from and I headed back. There was no time to spare. The first thing I did when I got out of the car was to tie the line to the spinner.. without even looking into the water. I wound myself ten yards of line off the card, edged my way dow the jetty, stood on the card, and threw the spinner as far as I could into the water. Quickly I pulled it back into myself.

I’d only done this a couple of times when I got a bite; and pulled a fish out. I killed it on the jetty and filled the bucket with water. I located a small impression in the grass next to the car in which to place the bucket so that it couldn’t fall and went back to the jetty with the line. Within twenty minutes I’d got three fish. Lunch was calling me.. or dinner, as we used to call a meal taken at that time of day. I got the fire together on the top of the jetty and fried the dead one in the margarine. It was delicious. I’ve always thought that if mackerel wasn’t so plentiful it would be considered a delicacy. It made me want another.

The other two were in the bucket, and alive. I can remember my dad keeping a cod alive for days with it’s head in a bucket in the coalshed. There were no freezers in those days. Eventually I seem to remember that we thought it was cruel. It got eaten anyway. Probably the day after it died.. I fried and ate another fish.. with some soda bread. I then decided that I needed another fish and I put the spinner in again. This time it took longer to catch the fish. There was obviously a change going on down there. Whether it was tide or the hour, there weren’t as many. I had two fish in a bucket, the sun was blazing, I’d eaten like a king and it was time. I rustled up the pen and the notepad and I was soon back into another familiar position. The hours mounted. I chewed on a bit more soda bread, drank some orange juice, checked the fish, put them further into the shade of the car and immersed myself further into the greater poem of life on a sunny beach.

I can’t remember what I was writing, perhaps it was ‘Hors D’Oeuvres’, but the notepad doesn’t survive as any kind of momento of that particular day. But the time that I spent by the water that day gave me something beautiful and intangible that I still carry around with me today. It was some kind of defining moment. In a life time, there are probably hundreds of them, but probably only forty or fifty that replay with such extreme pleasure or pain that they literally become a part of your make-up. This was one of those.

I spent three days by that jetty. It was obviously not in regular use. The moss was thick on it and I had to watch where I trod. There wasn’t a real danger of going into the sea because the gradient would have been less than twenty degrees, but I preserved an awareness. Slippy stone and deep water. Not the safest combination.

I bought myself some more soda bread and some tomatoes on the third day, and caught another three fish. I thought for a long time that I wasn’t going to get any more because they just weren’t there, but then they came in on the tide. It was therapeutic watching the tide very slowly reclaiming more of the jetty. The days had passed lazily, but too quickly. Towards the end of the third day the weather began to break, and I knew I had to move on. I cleaned the pan with grass and threw it into the the boot. Baltimore was ingrained in a memory I will take to my grave with frequent recall.

I drove up to Clare, but all I can remember of that was a visit to a teahouse run by two elderly ladies. It seemed very English to me, but they were straight from polite old world Ireland, and I enjoyed listening to gentle tones coming from another century. I can also remember the weather up there, which had turned very overcast, and quite damp. None the less, it had a beauty all it’s own. I came back to the UK through Holyhead, and I drove back down to London along the old A5. That’s all I can remember, except that I felt hugely better than I’d felt a couple of weeks before, and the feeling stayed with me for a very long time. In fact, it’s never gone away.

I kept the line and spinner for years, but it got lost or left in one of the many upheavals since. The Bentley is still alive! It’s still owned by John Fenwick, who was a friend in those days. I think I sold it to him for a couple of hundred. I’d bought it from Paddy Jones for £600 with the express intention of driving a car at 100mph on the first day I ever drove a car. I succeeded. I was young and foolish. That journey ended up at John O’Groats, but that’s a different story.

When I finally owned up to the fact that I had very little connection with either the music business or the kinds of practices that were going on in it, I became an economic migrant. I had to. I was being marginalised by the fashion and age industries and squeezed by a tax burden that I considered unfair and was no longer content to try to avoid. The likelihood of getting an arts grant was zero, and besides, I thought that part of my own self-esteem was built on fighting for independence, not for arts grants. It was 1989. There were only two choices of destination. New Zealand.. or Ireland. Ireland won because I knew that I could live in the exotic far west occident, where part of my heart had been for twenty years; and still quite easily commute to see all my folks at least once a year.

Cork Airport is about forty five minutes away from where I live. So that if I get a flight at midday, I can be in Heathrow or Stansted an hour later, and walking down Charing Cross Road an hour after that. In other words, three hours from being in my own house to playing a guitar at the back of Hanks in Denmark Street. You can’t even do that from Hertfordshire. When we’ve got gear, we often use the Swansea-Cork ferry, which is ten hours port to port. If it’s the night one, you get to sleep in your cabin or in a recliner… or just where you can find room with your sleeping bag, which only costs in boneware. In the daytime you either get to see nothing, because it’s raining, or mirky and mysterious, or you get to go out on deck and experience the whoosh of the sky and the sea.

West Cork has changed since I first knew it. All kinds of things have happened. The Celtic Tiger brought the euro back in its paws one day, and things got much more expensive the day after. When I first moved to the region, ‘Clon’, as we call Clonakilty, was a sleepy little grey town which smelt of coal fires in the Winter. The grey was broken here and there with a few coloured shop-fronts. In about 1993 there was, in the paraphrased words of Paul Davison, a virtual explosion in the paint factory, which is great when you’re half cut, but a visual liability if you’ve then got to go into town the following day. There’s much more of a vibe in the town these days, some kind of fast forward mode, but the moment you step into the country outside, the real action starts. You can go through all four seasons in a day, and you often do. The Atlantic has it’s mood swings. And you have to love most of them.

I still go out to Baltimore. I haven’t been able to locate that jetty since then, but I did leave a gap of twenty years. Some calm day I’ll get someone with a small boat to take me round the coast. There’s much more down here…. so many places.. and loads of good craic. It’s brilliant fun. Talk to you soonish.

Copyright 2004 Roy Harper

One thought on “While Driving West

Comments are closed.