Tuesday 30 May 2023

White Chalk

It's coming up for three years since I returned to these Blighted Isles from Vietnam, and those memories not tied to the faces of those I love start to fade. I speak specifically of dense forest clinging to steep hills, coracles bobbing up and down on the East Sea, heavy hot rain exploding from black skies... all these things, once so visceral, have transformed into something Other. They turn into words and pictures and reproductions... facsimiles—or memories of memories, like an anecdote related by someone else.

Instead I am here, again, well-and-truly embedded in the land of my birth: hollow man without a landscape of his own, brittle bones without marrow, bemoaning this self-imposed fate. Happy, of course, in the warm embrace of the family I love, but when alone I feel afraid. I'm afraid of death and loneliness in a manner that is quite alien, and so seek to confront it in new landscapes. 

I swim in cold seas and swallow saline tides, letting my white body wash across sharp shingle shores... and shiver.    

Up hills I run, until I can look out across cities... or else, uppercut Orion.

Through forests of dead trees—dutched elms and died-back ash—I pant, scrabbling on all fours pursued by ghosts of a forgotten age, terrified but exhilarated 

...and I think of a girl, because I'm unoriginal like that.

Above image: forensic reconstruction of the 5600 year-old remains of a Neolithic woman


There's an exhibition in Brighton Museum containing skeletons of former residents alongside their facial reconstructions by forensic artists. It's curious how reframing this sentence with no reference to the deep past renders it morbid: this would be ghoulish had they died last week, but because we are separated from their stories by generations it is acceptable to gawk at their bones behind glass: Exotic Foreigners from that Other country, the past.

It is likely that "Whitehawk woman" died in her 20s, possibly during childbirth: buried alongside her remains were those of an infant. They are displayed as they were found, with the infants head resting against her thigh bone. Some archeo-anthropologists conjecture that the size of the infant compared to the woman suggests it died some time after its birth, maybe even weeks, but this fact does little to mollify the pathetic sight.

It is impossible not to construct a life for this pair—immortalised now so long after their short lives apparently ended. The mystery deepens when it emerges, apparently through bone marrow analysis, that her origins were over 500 miles away, in the territory presently constituting the Welsh border. Was she invited to the chalk downs of Whitehawk Hill, or did she arrive unannounced? A bride? A Princess? An ordinary woman afforded special burial due to the circumstances of her death?

Hollingbury Hill Fort

I tread the perimeter of hill fort as the sun slides slowly into view. The earthwork ramparts are supposed to have  been piled up at some point in the iron age, but it feels like a logical place for earlier human settlement. I sometimes run here at night, ghosts whispering in my ears as I try not to slip and shred my knees in the flint protruding from the chalky-mud.

From here one can peer across the valley carved by the Winterbourne River, now culverted by Victorian engineers beneath the Lewes Road, and just make out Whitehawk Hill looming on the other side. Imagine the pariahs here, plotting to free the imprisoned woman, whom they believe to be held against her will.

Ham Hill

146 miles away is another hill fort, in the county of Somerset but close to the Dorset border. Millennia after Whitehawk Woman's burial, the parents of Polly Jean Harvey set up their quarrying business. Their daughter would grow up to find international fame as the singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, her music and lyrics sometimes hinting at her west country origins, at other times explicitly evangelising its magnificence.

I think of the song White Chalk when I wander over the downs: though the landscapes of Sussex and Dorset differ, they are stalked by the same ghosts:

White chalk hills are all I've known
White chalk hills will rot my bones
White chalk sticking to my shoes
White chalk playing as a child with you
White chalk south against time
White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme
I walk the valleys by the Cerne
On a path cut 1500 years ago
And I know
These chalk hills will rot my bones
Dorset's cliffs meet at the sea
Where I walked our unborn child in me
White chalk gorse-scattered land
Scratch my palms
There's blood on my hands

White Chalk

The 2008 album White Chalk was widely interpreted as gothic (though maybe with a small "g", if that translates) for its ethereal vocals, haunting piano and lyrical themes embracing love, loss and bargaining with the dead. But while the neo-gothic elements were further reinforced by Harvey's aesthetic at the time (Victorian gothic), I felt there was a dialogue occurring here with something more ancient.

This is maybe most explicit in the opening track The Devil: a pre-Christian entity with whom the song's protagonist is demanding immediate audience. There's an element of irony at play between the sweeping grandiosity of the arrangement, especially at the chorus, and the naïve demands of a young girl: come! Come! Come here at once! Come! On a night with no moon...

I don't think of puritan minds wandering out onto chalk downs to consort with Satan when I hear this song: I see a procession of torchlight across the hilltops, carrying a primeval Persephone over the downs to arrest the advance of winter, an offering of a bride to an insatiable hunger.

The Downs

The tropical heat of central Vietnam's hill forests, its coastal lagoons and flat wet rice fields crept in between the lines of Pariah and lingered, sometimes silently but their presence always felt. While that geography still clung to me, it was easy to write. Playing in the shingle-box of southern England. I even churned out posts about the land to which I'd returned, casually and only half-meant, as though my homeland was fit only for demonstrations of process:  

But here I am, and I am starting to understand England a little better. Maybe even call it home: it was, after all, where I was born and where i spent my formative years. So with this post allow me to mark my return to the Blighted Isles with this response... and a re-evaluation.

One for the slush-pile, but marked with a flag: I present White Chalk, a Shingle-Box, and move on to finishing Atop the Wailing Dunes.


  1. I agree, as for me it is a very touching text.

  2. Agreed with Max & Kyana - wonderful writing. Had similar experience with the great green north a couple weeks back - dogwhistle alert - connecting with my homeland. Chopping wood, canoeing, cooking over an open fire, lying awake in fear of the lightless night.

  3. Returning in style! There's a power in spatially-driven reconsiderings (reconfigurings?) of home - I only started to get a handle on my own fucked up relationship with American-ness when I spent a year in the Old Country. The mention of fear is a little funny, bc there's a bit from Camus' Lyrical and Critical Essays that came up in an article I was reading a day or two ago which now feels oddly resonant: “… what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down a kind of inner structure we have. One can no longer cheat—hide behind the hours spent at the office… which protect us so well from the pain of being alone… Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks, we are completely on the surface of ourselves.”

    It really is a gorgeous post.