Earlier this year, when the weather was warmer, I walked up a hill which is just a 20 minute drive away but takes me up and out of streets and into heather and vistas. As soon as you start climbing away from cars and people, you can let yourself think that mystical stuff is possible.
As usual, there were several pauses on the way up because it’s steep in places and, with only trees around, you just stand there and you’re just open to whatever jumps into your head. This time, one of those whatevers was a bloke called Simon de Montfort. We spent a year in
a while back, in the South West, the Languedoc
region, and that’s where Simon indulged his fancies, one of which struck me
particularly forcibly. He was leader of crusaders who were laying siege to
Béziers, where a sect called the Cathars were holed up with some Catholic
sympathisers. (This was back in the 13th century.) One of the
charming things he did to try to persuade them to give up was to gouge out the
eyes of a hundred prisoners, cut off their lips and noses and send them back
into the town. A special little refinement was that he let the one at the front
keep one of his eyes so that he could see to lead them back. How people can
treat their fellow humans in such ways is beyond my imagining – and the fact
that similar things are still happening in the ‘civilised’ as well as the less
civilised world makes you wonder whether evolution has somehow stopped.
Why I remembered that on a sunny Scottish hill I have no idea. So I carried on walking, thanking whoever had set the granite blocks in place at some points along the track to make it easier to climb. A little aside then made me start wondering whether I could use these carefully arranged blocks, and even the path itself, as a metaphor. It’s an obvious one but maybe I could distort it, undermine its obviousness. Maybe it wouldn’t be a symbol of our taming of nature or our determination to go somewhere, but a scar which would heal when we’ve gone. Maybe it would disappear behind me as I walked on, just as my past was. More than all that, though, I was wondering why I hadn’t remembered to bring any chocolate with me.
Then came the stump – dead, whitened wood, beside the path. A tree that had stepped aside for a rest and just snapped off and rotted away, except for the twisted bole and useless roots. It was like Sartre’s tree root in La Nausée, grotesque, challenging, excrescent. It was also a good excuse to have another pause and pretend I was thinking deep thoughts rather than taking deep breaths.
And it was just past that stump that the dog appeared. No barking or snuffling, no crackling twigs to announce it. I turned a bend and there it was, sitting on the path. The most mongrel of mongrels. Scruffy, yellowish, bits of fur missing, and a face that would never make it onto a puppy calendar. I put my hand out to it but it backed away. Not fearful, just private somehow. And it followed me to the top. And I know that some of you will lose any vestiges of respect you may have had for me at what I did next, but I started to get fed up with it. I’d come here to be on my own and this cur was interfering with that wish. So I shooed it away.
For a while, it stood some way off, then a final rush and a shout from me and it ran off on its stubby little legs. It set me thinking of the dog in Byron’s poem Darkness. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. Nasty, scary stuff – the black Romanticism, not the troubadours, minstrels and princesses stuff.
This is getting too long so I’ll just say that later that evening, just before I went to bed, I went out to lock the garage door and the dog was there, sitting on the other side of the road. Remember, the hill where I saw him is maybe 16 miles from where I live. But there he was, squat in the darkness, looking at me.
In fact, I’ve borrowed the last bit about the dog. But what did it mean?