Letter from Dartmoor

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Have you ever felt so remote from someone that you see in an instant them in the bed and you sitting over in the old armchair, your arms drenched in blood and moonlight? Well have you? Perhaps they are talking to you right now - or maybe they have stopped altogether. There are bells at tea-time, and a dark patch in the wood.

We woke late that evening and it was all misty, drifting like tissue beneath the streetlamps. Little shreds and thick flossed whorls. I started the car and the outside went scrolling by. She was casting futures in the mist, and wondering if anything wasn't an application of techniques. On Thursday we went to see six whirling dervishes whirl.

It was on Thursday at six that we saw the double-bill of Mayer-Murnau films from the 1920s. Sunrise takes place between a wood and a sea. There is a charming passage of land - the harbour, the village, rambling farms to the steep of the hills. A woman from the city has been here three weeks and more. Why does she stay? Why does she linger like the smoke from her French black tobacco among our rooms and landings? Euclidian sails pass across brilliant screens of water. She whistles at her lover's window in the dark and he goes to her. His wife cries into her soup.

As you see images they print to the back of your mind and fade, as though dropping into viscous liquid or a chemical bath. There is a flash and a fallaway, an afterimage. If you pile a new image on quickly your mind will edit them together, and the afterimage is sustained over whatever happened inbetween. Nobody realised this until the 1820s. In 1834 William Horner built the first zoetrope - a drum with slits cut into the metal and a cartoon strip pasted to the inside. You spin the drum and see a figure dancing on his spot, even though everything is in motion and what passes before your eye is as much frame as slit. Your mind is cutting together the afterimages that agree, and discarding anything witnessed inbetween. It just goes whirling away.

So the adulterous farmer and the woman from the city meet among bulrushes with the moon behind them. Sell your farm come to the city. Wicked dazzles of light, furious legs, red tongues of carpet whirl away tell me you're mine while counterrotating wheels rush towards us. Strange attractors, spinning jennies, drown your wife peels of mouths laugh over writhing neons. A reflected face warps nastily into the hole of a horn. Octopied limbs, smears, rain, fruit. Sell your farm drown your wife come to the city. Come with me to the city. She wiggles ecstactically before the dream diorama, churning mud and bulrushes beneath her feet. She is wild in vision. He looks up at her, nervous as Orpheus, and wonders if he knows what he is committing. She is so foreign, so physically close ...

We were in Moretonhampstead when I saw myself sitting in the old armchair. We were in a cottage we'd rented with a old wood stove on which I'd burnt all five fingers of my right hand by using them to test how things were hotting up. The local publican believed we were guidebook spies because Hannah had been writing in her notebook over a game of darts. She limped on account of an injured ankle. I batted about because of my hand. Quite the travelling carnival. But Dartmoor is a killer I went often in childhood and it scorched my heart even then. The heights are so rockbarren. They couldn't care less.

Horner originally wanted to call it a Daedeloscope, casting himself as the old artificer of labyrinths and waxed wings. But zoetrope did better: it means literally turning life. Give it a whirl and watch him dance! You won't even see the mechanism! Something similar is happening with our memories - a process of editing together afterimages, comprehending a reality. Our minds are obsessively making sense. Occasionally people go through cuttings left on the floor to demonstrate something usually either poetic or cruel. It's a repository, for particulars, for atrocities.

She is so physically close.

The second of the Mayer-Murnaus was called Der Letzte Mann. It concerns a hotel porter played by Emil Jannings who really acts his heart out in the role. Now some actors get away with behaving just like how anybody would but Jannings was really acting. You could see him at it. At times he looked so huge and puffed and weak I'd have bet he'd act himself right into a heart attack. He was like a merringue in an overcoat. It was wonderful.

The story goes he is demoted from hotel porterdom on account of his great age. We have seen him struggle a little with the larger cases and waddle somewhat in the rain. Stripped of the proud tunic of his former post he is relegated to lavatory attendant (the previous and even more ancient employee is removed to a crumblies home), and with only a linen jacket he sinks in the gloom of his lot. The elaborate majesty with which he once greeted guests is gone. He becomes embroiled in feeble enterprises to deceive his neighbours, while they pass rumours mouth to ear about the courtyard of his lodgings. He has at one point an intoxicated hallucination of himself standing before revolving doors sixty feet in height. Within the lobby is absolute white. Using only one hand he hoists aloft a gargantuan trunk and the crowds cheer and coo.

We are driving in the car again, through the mist in the night of Moretonhampstead. Everything holds very still. The postbox and upstands of iron gutters sweat Hannah is knitting we find the road again and the town sinks away behind us, as though into viscous liquid, or a chemical bath. Hedges on either side of a disconsolate minimum. Four miles on and all alone is an amazing bus stop, complete with seats, shelter and to-the-moment information skimming across a board of little red lights. There is nothing else in all directions. This is a P70 stop *** Please do not litter the surrounding area *** Rabble Rousers will be prosecuted *** Come with me to the city ...

The farmer elects to drown his wife. He will take her out and capsize the boat, saving himself with a float of cinched rushes. A ghost of the wicked woman comes to enwreath him, half siren half Eumenide, but when the moment comes his wife looks up so pathetically .... Please. Please don't. How can he kill her? Instead he rows furiously to the nearest shore. As soon as the stern runs in she leaps and flees - he chases after - and they come running to an inexplicable train stop in the middle of the wood. The final carriage is just pulling out. She mounts with him close behind, and so the would be victim and murderer stand beside each other, holding onto the rail. Clickety clack.

So you give your mind a whirl and see if enough images from the past agree for you to run them together and make a picture. Zoe from the Greek meaning life. Whirling dervishes wear a tall wool fez to be a tombstone over their earthly desires.

And so carried by train to the city

The moor I learn to my intimate distress is maintained by a process known as swaling. I had always believed it was too windburnt for anything to grow but it is in fact the National Trust who lay periodic fires and keep everything so ravaged and wild-looking. They're a very cheeky lot. Scatter the odd bone. Beat the heather into eldritch ransacked shapes. Sell pamphlets and bottles of dandelion wine. Build ecohuts. In five years time it's all too late there's nothing left to desecrate it's rice and tax and road and brine and water. Look at those rainyday eyes.

And so carried by train to the city the farmer and his wife refind, in stages, their former love. There is the church where they were married, the halls where once they danced, a fair, a vow, an incident involving a small pig ... the rest is whirling by ...

By the time we got back to the cottage we were both very tired. Hannah I believe went straight to bed,

The wonderful thing about the whirling dervishes is the little human inconsistencies. They are all singing I am neither here nor there, neither east nor west, whirling and whirling, not from Eden or Rizwan or body or soul, and whirling; but one of them is a little too fat to be a dervish. Another is rather tottery on his pegs. The handsome one with a dark beard is an absolute fiend though he makes five turns to fatty's two.

but I stayed up and sat for a while in an old armchair,

If you try to follow them with your eyes you become dizzy but the trick is just to let them whirl. It's a form of deluctation. They have one hand raised so the grace rains in and the other down to let it pass on out, and if you watch right you'll see all six spinning at once, like lightning rods or bodies in orbit. You see them falling in and out of phase with each other, and then a single phase to the whole system. It’s a process of suspending images until your mind weaves them together and takes a chance on sense. It’ll happens all by itself.

and felt strangely remote.

The porter has a triumphant end. He is set to be left degenerating against the tiled walls of his toilet when the first screen title of the film appears:


We then see a newspaper article explaining how an eccentric heirless Mexican millionaire has bequeathed a fortune to the lavatory attendant of a swank hotel, as it was in this place, at that task, in those arms, that he drew his terminal breath. The newspaper is being read with great mirth about the hotel dining room, into which our hero now enters in fine coat and excellent fettle, and embarks upon an manificent session of eating. All seven of blue Shiva's arms could not have held sufficient spoons.

The farmer couple do not so well. Having looped love back to where they were before, and excised the affair and the morning's attempted murder, they return in bliss to their boat. The little sail home is to be a second honey-moon, only it is not to be. A storm overtakes them and what the farmer had once thought to do for himself the sea now does for him. The boat goes over: he struggles back to a rock, and she drifts out into the arms of the moon.

And if you're sat there you watch them pass, whirling and whirling. Illusions of continuity. You thought you saw your arms all drenched. Zoetrope from the Greek. Selecting those images that agree and hoisting them up - maintaining a picture, and a sense of balance.

Adrian Hornsby

6 May 2004