As I was walking up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today, oh how I wish he’d go away.
So run the first lines of William Hugh Mearns’ 1899 poem, later published as “Antigonish”. It’s a charming nonsense rhyme, one that’s been rolling around in my head since childhood. I’m not sure how it’s meant to be taken. A bit of nonsense? A bit of fun to get the imagination rolling? Or is there more to it? At the risk of overanalysing – which isn’t like me – the rhyme can provoke some serious thinking if you let it.
It’s reminiscent of a Zen Koan – one of those inscrutable meditative walnuts you can only crack by disengaging your normal, rational thought processes. So, let’s see: you meet this guy who isn’t there; you meet him again at another time, in the same place, but he’s not there again either, and even though he’s definitely not there, you’re so fed up with him hanging around you wish he’d go away.
It doesn’t make sense of course, unless you can accept the existence of an imaginary man.
Let’s analyse that word for a moment. He’s not really there, not literally. Nor is he a drug, nor a psychotically, induced hallucination. So, you don’t actually see the man with anything other than your inner eye. He’s a mental image, an imaginary man triggered into being by something in your head, but with sufficient force to arouse your emotions. Why else would you want him to go away if his habitual presence wasn’t irritating you? He doesn’t exist but he effects your life, the way you think, and the way you feel.
Now this I understand.
I’ve been seeing my own imaginary person recently. I wasn’t walking up the stair, but across a meadow at dusk. It wasn’t a man either, but a woman, wild haired – a crazy mix of straw and dreadlocks, and bits of ribbon. Her clothing was nineteenth century – country tweeds, but with a ripped and ragged new-age traveller, hippy-chic look about them. All told she was like a tripped-out Beatrix Potter. I wasn’t irritated by her presence – quite the opposite. I was very pleased to see her, and rather than go away, I’m hoping she’ll stick around for a while. I was just surprised, that’s all; I’d begun to think my imagination had fallen asleep.
I’d actually gone out that day to snarl and shake my walking stick at a couple of giant wind turbines that have popped up on my patch in recent weeks. I was lamenting the fact that even the limited potential for romantic enlightenment that my local West Lancashire landscape possesses was now truly blasted with the appearance of these damned whirligigs, sticking like poisoned arrows out of the soft flesh of the earth. The last thing I was expecting in their fickering shadow, with the sound of their grinding gears drowning out even the wind, was a romantic encounter.
Let’s not forget we’re talking about an imaginary entity here, not flesh and blood, nor was it an hallucination, nor even a ghost or a spirit – though perhaps those latter two definitions come the closest to describing it. Michael Graeme is also a happily married man, so we’re obviously talking about a different kind of romance here – one that won’t land him in the divorce courts (hopefully). This woman exists only as an imaginary creation, yet she possesses a life-like autonomy. I can summon her image at will, just as any of us can summon up the image of a real person who is known to us but, like a real person, I cannot summon up her presence. Her actual presence – or the very real sense of it – is goverened by more mysterious processes – a mixture of unconscious psychology, and geography. I have to be in the right place, both physically, and mentally before her psychical existence becomes a part of my personal reality.
Her name’s Squirrel, and the last time I saw her she was sitting atop a solar-powered canal boat called the Mattie Rat – another imaginary creation – in my story “the Magician of Monkton Pier“. This was a couple of years ago. I was never really happy with that story, nor the title, to be honest. The magical parts seemed too fantastic, too farcical to be swallowed – even tongue in cheek. I don’t think Squirrel liked it either, and maybe that’s why she’s haunting me now. The story was useful as a vehicle for introducing her into my consciousness which, in the narrative sense, was personified by the owner and navigator of that boat, a guy called Joshua. I haven’t followed it up though, and I think Squirrel’s giving me a gentle reminder that we have unfinished business.
My personal version of Mearns’ ditty might run as follows then:
As I walked through meadows fair, I met a woman who wasn’t there. She wasn’t there again today. If she could speak, what would she say?
That’s it with Squirrel, you see? She doesn’t speak. She’s either mute, or she’s taken a vow of silence in order to preserve her power. She doesn’t tell,… she shows. There’s something magical about her, something shamanic, something of the earth mother, and that’s a little worrying because we’re talking about the old world Roman deity, Diana here, and I’d thought She was a Goddess who only haunted the minds of adepts of certain sapphically inclined Wiccan covens.
In the three ages of womanhood, according to the new version of the “old religion”, Squirrel’s the sunny side of Crone – perhaps just the sort of creature to arouse a man of mature thoughts and middle years who isn’t still hampered by more maidenly projections. I mean we’re not talking a toothless, bent old hag here – just a woman past normal childbearing age. And we’re not talking about running off and making whoopee either. What we’re about is the meaning of life, and that means plotting a course back to the world soul.
My first thoughts were that Squirrel had come to cast her spells upon the whirligigs and have them catch fire, because practical magic is her thing and she pops up whenever the natural balance is disturbed. I don’t think that’s it, though. The landscape of Western Lancashire has been crafted by man for hundreds of years. You can’t look anywhere without seeing straight lines, be it in the run of a hedgerow, a ploughed furrow or a drainage ditch – man’s linear geometry is everywhere. And with the appearance of these wind turbine’s this evidence of man’s hand has gone three dimensional, even effecting the light, making the sun blink during the evening hours. In short there’s nothing left of original nature worth preserving here, so why worry about it?
Talk to me Squirrel. What does all of this mean? Well,… getting back to plotting my course, I’m hoping it means she’s come to show me at least a part of the way.
For a male writer of a romantic bent, all encounters with the muse are significant, and essentially spiritual. Their courtship and their metaphorical lovemaking advance him a little further along his inner path, and their resulting offspring: the words, the stories, the paintings, the poems,… these can be picked up by others looking for a spark of something universally recognisable in them. And all stories are, after all, the plagarisation of archaic myths, rising from the soul of the world, and all interested readers know a truth when they see it, even if they can’t explain it. The writer’s contribution to this love-match is his openness to inspiration, and his sincerity, also his ability to hold a pencil, or put his fingers over a keyboard. The rest comes from the muse.
Which brings us to the truth about women. A young man, enamoured of his rational faculties, yet also bursting with an inexpressible Romantic desire, might make the understandable mistake of bestowing such divinity on a mortal woman. Then, like John Ruskin on his wedding night, recoiling at the sight of his darling Effie’s all too human anatomy, he realises the awful truth: that women are human beings, and everything we feel about them is a mixture of instinct and projection. We must take care then not to seek the divine in them, or through our love-lives we will for ever run the risk of Byronic self-immolation – the risk being in direct proportion to the strength of our romantic sensibilities. Can a man successfully love more than one woman at the same time? Well, yes he can, and many do, so long as only one of those women is mortal, and the others divine. Anything else is just emotional suicide.
So, these whirligigs appear on the Plain of Western Lancashire, like arrows shot from Diana’s bow. They form giant markers in the mud and I’m drawn to them. And once I’ve done with all my huffing and puffing and my predictable nimby indignation, I realise that actually they’re quite beautiful. The sky no longer seems so vast it dwarfs the land, and makes you feel insignificant. The whirligigs connect heaven and earth and the landscape here, a place I wasn’t born to and one I’ve often felt alien in, becomes at once more intimate and knowable.
Is that what you were trying to tell me, Squirrel? Oh,.. never mind. Just take my arm and walk with me a while.
I’m sure it will come to me eventually.
This woman, who still was not there, runs her fingers through her hair. Gently then, she takes my arm. My bosom swells, my heart is warm.
Who says there’s no such thing as fairies? It’s just a question of knowing how to see them.
Regarding Diana’s Arrows – my own name for them, and not official in any way. There are two at present on Mawdesley Moss, I believe another one is planned, making three in total. My romantic sensibilities might be shattered if the three were to become twenty three.