Tas Valley Way, Hereward Way, Fens River Way (Norwich to Cambridge)

I have just tried to draw a rough diagram of my Norwich-Cambridge walk on the back of my notebook. The first looks like a child’s line drawing of a sea monster; the second, when I added in a few forgotten sections, looks more like a river pinned to a city skyline. Over a period of three days I walked, ate, and slept – but before I slept, I would wind down and write, trying to track the heat of the day, until the muscles in my arms told me to lie down. The following is an alternative map of those experiences.

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Fairly sure I had sunstroke or heat exhaustion yesterday. The last few map rectangles seemed to last the equivalent amount of time to every other full page I had crossed during the day. I suppose most other sections crossed the short length of the rectangle, but I had not particularly noticed the raised contours of the folds until this point. If I had not booked the campsite, I would’ve pitched in some field five miles away, at least, if not more. Expectation, even the vague expectation of a stranger, pushed me along in those final hours, and I expect it to do so again before this journey is over.

My shoulders were more painful than they have even been, and I could feel a strong mix of unspecific emotion spinning round somewhere near my stomach. I had an exhausted delerium – putting five times the amount of water into powdered soup – before I steadied myself with mugs of that heavily watered down broth and cous-cous. I had eaten more than I expected during the day, so I stocked up on apples and boiled some of the farm eggs. What a contrast to the beginning of the day, where I walked through a field of young peas, eating pods and shoots and all as I made my way across; soon after that, half a field of spring onions and, for dessert, strawberries. I remember thinking that I had weighed myself down too much with packaged food, when there was to be this obvious bounty for the field walker. Expectations, speed, food, water, and distance all change so rapidly.

I have also bought another water bottle. I think I may have become quite seriously dehydrated if not for some well timed fresh water streams. Also – should’ve brought a hat.

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Bruce Chatwin said that Prague was so quiet that you could hear the snowflakes settle. This morning I heard the dew forming and welling on the outside of the tent.

The big day today. Although I can’t see how it can be any bigger than yesterday. I steel myself by saying that I walked further than I thought yesterday, and that I can take more breaks today and walk further into the evening – no one is waiting for me today. Yesterday I walked solidly from 9am-8pm, with two fifteen minute breaks, so I don’t know how much later I will be able to walk. It will be 9.30am by the time I pack the tent up, so I should get going.

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I didn’t expect the mood swings that – I assume – are the consequence of the build up of exhaustion from one day to the next. I am not used to still being tired from the previous day’s activities, even the labour-intensive days on the garden design in Acle, working with railway sleepers in the field. This is different. I think that sleep will help it, and then when that fails I think an energy-rich breakfast will help it; or water; or sugar. It is not pain so much as a heightened consciousness of every tug and footstep. Today, every map square takes longer.

I feel it in my stomach. Most of the time it is anxiety, and then others it is steady euphoria, or else a deadening melancholy. But this doesn’t always matter – the mental rhythms have their physical equivalent. Sometimes the body just carries you, legs moving steadily forward, covering ground almost in a daze of weight and muscle. The interesting thing is that these physical progressions do not necessarily correspond to the emotional patterns – it is not happier-faster or even happier-steadier. I have noticed that sometimes I move furthest and steadiest when thinking the bleakest thoughts. Sometimes the opposite is true.

Right now, I am melancholy and desperate. I have made good ground, but this seems so unimportant. I walk past cars for sale and think that I will buy them, two hundred and rusty, and get there on the main road, today, just to be done with it. I feel lonely; I know this to be a pattern: whenever I build up a need for the solitary existence I associate (falsely) with childhood, loneliness creeps up on me much sooner than I would ever expect – within two days, three days. Right now, I long to see a familiar face. But I know that if I did I would collapse into their arms and give up there and then. So, loneliness has its own dire advantages and unwelcome agencies.

I know that my current morale isn’t good for walking, or enjoying the walk, or using energy efficiently. Or anything. I am nearing the Fens. I am scared of the Fens. Or, I am scared of the map of the Fens. So it goes.

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Thetford is a place I know, in parts, and it was comforting to see somewhere I have been before. I don’t remember the last time I was there, but sections stand out to me, curves of the path or trenches or clearing, visual memories unconnected to specific times or feelings other than a kind of assured deja-vu. Having said that, I have experienced the same thing in other fields and pathways which I have completely misplaced – walking across one public footpath which ran through a kind of privately owned woodland, I was so sure it was the same acre of grass and trees that I spent one summer mowing, strimming and tidying fallen leaves from. I had to stop and really work out my bearings when I saw an ancient oak, surrounded by a lawn of spiral-mown grass and a single young apple tree. I remember circling that tree on the mower at full speed, swerving at the last minute to get as close to the apple tree as possible.

But that was miles and years away. I see a tree, a field, a forest, a lake; I make them into houses, schools, flats, swimming pools. I give them the same modern uniform design.

Especially here, in the Fens. The fens are boring as shit. Fields and fields – different shapes, sizes, some are growing vegetables, some have animals, but essentially – all the same. There are no goals on the Fens. Nothing to aim at, walking. It feels the same as the end of the first day. I am glad when my path moves onto B-roads; although I am not sure why the endless repetition of cats eyes and tarmac is a more appealing repetition. Maybe its the familiarity again. I have to camp on the fens, but I will be glad when they are behind me. I am also glad that something as simple as boiled sweets gives me happiness and the final push, the tent peg push. But not yet. Not yet.

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The Fens and Noise Music

A distraction.

When I packed my bag I included a CD player and a hold of CDs. I suppose I thought about this a bit, asking whether it was the Right Thing To Be Doing, but I didn’t feel guilty about it then, and I don’t now. Of course there is a case for listening to nothing but the air – I have done this a lot over the past two days, and I will do it on the last day, too. But I have also listened to a lot of music. There are some times when I am too tired to listen to music, or too distracted; there are times when I want to be distracted, or I want to push myself on with a rhythm or lose a trudging hour in an album. Other times, I want to hear nothing but the footsteps of water over rocks, or the swells in long grass.

Sometimes, what we think of as natural sound is blurred by our experience, context, and position. Out here, I am as likely to hear a tractor as I am to hear birdsong; but these noises are integrated into my image of the ‘pastoral’ on a similar level – I nearly always think of a tractor as linked to the countryside rather than to the industrialisation of the countryside, for example. Intensive farming looks much worse from the wider perspective. From the ground, and from the point of view of someone who has never really known anything but intensive farming, the fields just look bigger and more boring, or more uniform. The sounds are ultimately connected with farming itself rather than the effect of late capitalism on agricultural practice.

I concocted this experiment when I transitioned between a long stretch of walking across farms and fields to walking down a largish B-road, which wound around blind corners and spiked off in the direction of houses and schools and towns at regular intervals. As I followed the hedgerow I heard the not uncommon sound of a car, some distance off, screaming around one of the corners of this road. As I usually did on hearing this type of noise I moved as far up on the bank as possible and always to the side of the road from which I could be seen from the furthest distance. I kept on walking in this way, and kept hearing the car get closer, but I soon started to think that this road must be increasingly twisted and must snake out further and further, like a meander in a river, because every time it accelerated it got louder and quieter, and then accelerated again, and I was sure it would catch me off-guard at any moment. Further along I heard thunder. One of the things I had not really prepared for was rain, and I think my bag had a cover hidden in a pouch underneath, but my shoes were not waterproof from above. My skin was hot from two days of constant sun, but it could get very cold very soon if exposed to a few hours of rain. I didn’t panic, but the ball in my stomach certainly turned to anxiety.

Neither the car or the rain arrived. When I’m confused, I suppose I also get disorientated, and I looked at my map. Past the forest on my right was the Snetterton Circuit and to my left lay the train track from Attleborough to Thetford. My fast cars were driven around meanders, certainly – but separate and safe from my tarmac river. My immanent raindrops were iron over sleepers.

And then a plane overhead. A rush, an anxious painful rush, and then the silence between intermittently late trains and the drowned hum of the Circuit. What am I missing, here, that I would not gain from some Tony Conrad piece? I suppose this is the point of abstract minimalism – to disorientate the listener into questions about music and sound and noise; actually, to question agency, I think. To wonder what the worth of art is itself, when these noises and meditations can be achieved by the chance aspect that the New York school championed and the integral serialists and twelve toners abhorred. It is not difficult to think of noise in terms of nihilism, but the true nihilism of noise is in this question of the role of chance, and the potential nothingness of the creator-performer. This works on either side: if Cage works with accidents and chance, then what is Cage as an artist? Or: if the serialists employ strict mathematical parameters to create symphonies, how is the composer any different from a computer? The quick answer on both sides is that they are conceptualists. But this is hardly comforting. As if an aural equivalent of Luc Delahaye’s L’Autre, the subject and object are reduced to an absence. Nothing more.

I listen to noise music for different reasons. First and foremost and always the most important is the fact that I love it, and I am constantly interested in it in a way that is either completely visceral or indescribable; I am connected to the music itself above any thought around the music…although the ‘thinking’ aspect is always entangled with the enjoyment, whether with music or writing or film or photography or painting. So I suppose one of the things I love about noise music, or one of the things I project onto noise is the fact that it is so ready, so mailable for questioning. The thing is built to be provocative, whether academically or aurally/physically.

Today, I am little more than an absence on the Fens, and the Fens are effectively an absence of – what? Something, to everyone’s mind; the Fens incite madness, or loss, or forgetting. This image is formed as much from a collective set of connotations as it is by literature. Perhaps because they are flat, but I think it’s more to do with the thing I noticed earlier: their size, on a map, is intimidating in its huge white grid; in reality, it is quite boring. A disappointing limbo. But boredom is not without its dangers. So here I am, an absence within an absence, soon to be filled with noise.

I listened to two things. The first while walking, the second while standing and then sitting down. The first is an album by the sound recordist Chris Watson called Weather Report. This is a record separate from abrasive noise, one that would be more commonly described as ambient; in another place, I would argue that these genres or labels amount ideologically to very similar ends. But this is not the time for that discussion. I start with the first track, Ol-Oolo-lo, which is 14 hours of field recordings from Africa mixed and condensed into 18 minutes. There are ‘African’ sounds here – exotic bird calls, lions – but the piece is almost entirely concerned with the weather. Quintessentially sunny sounds give way to a thunderstorm and ease back again with no sign of a crossfade or cut; the weather is expertly, invisibly merged. It sounds like fourteen hours.

The most striking thing initially, walking across the Fens, is the surreal remove that this music inhabits against the landscape. It begins with cow bells; there are cows around me, certainly, but none with bells that I have seen so far. There are birds, but none so loud and close as from the recording. The only thing equally as ubiquitous are the grasshoppers. Then there is a lion’s roar – the closest I have come to this is a silent, stalking fox, for whom I was the accidental aggressor, unintentionally sneaking up on him and sending him fleeing into the long grass.

Already the similarity and essential differences of the music make me think of nothing more than the sounds and experiences of this trip, triggering memories in a very strange way – they are triggered as much by opposites (roaring lion, silent fox) as by an exact smell or noise or event. Have I ever experienced memory in this way before? The most unsettling of these contrasts is the thunderstorm. Before setting out on this walk, I broke my usual rule and checked the weather forecast. Cloud with sunny patches, it said, for three days. That may have been the perfect forecast…but one of the reasons I never look at the weather is because I superstitiously believe (completely irrationally) that observing a weather forecast provokes Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Consequently (coincidentally…) the weather has been unrelentingly sunny, without cloudy patches. This makes walking between 11am and about 3pm difficult and very slow, very draining.

Hence the recorded thunderstorm strikes me forcibly as a mirage – a knowing, malevolent mirage. I am putting the blame on the music, or the composer, here; but it was my own fault, the listener’s fault – I knew there was rain on this record. I thought I chose it because I was interested in the affect of the whole aural atmospheric montage, but perhaps I willed a kind of morale-improving synesthesia with the sound of rain and its absence: ‘I am refreshed and quenched, but I am not uncomfortably wet’. Well, whatever conscious or subconscious reason I had originally, it now seems to be a purely self-destructive act on my part. Curiously enough (whether its because I’m enjoying the music itself or thinking about the music), this just makes me amused with myself rather than disturbed. In the end, this opening track and the second – The Lapaich, an 18 minute condensation of September to December in the Scottish Highlands – act more as a ‘point, counter-point’ to my journey rather than anything forcibly Other. Every sound too exotic to (or impossible in) the Fens is balanced by a universal, relatable sound. The second track starts with trudging footsteps; even the bizarre ‘singing’ of the ice floes in the final track Vatnajökull remind me of nothing more than the flat sheet of wind humming over the top of my open water bottle, changing pitch after each sip.

Morton Feldman once said that ‘sound is all our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.’ He elaborates the difference, observing noise as ‘those moments when one loses control, and sound (like crystals) forms its own planes, and with a thrust, there is no sound, no tone, no sentiment, nothing left but the significance of our first breath…this impression that the music is writing about mankind rather than being composed.’

There is a descriptor for noise that is often used in reviews or conversations, where noise music – the sounds, the music itself – is called intelligent. ‘John Wiese,’ we might say, ‘makes intelligent noise.’ The difference between saying that ‘John Wiese conveys his intelligence in the music’ or that ‘John Wiese has a compelling conceptual framework around the creation of this record’ is a slight but important distinction. The interesting thing for me is that this descriptor seems to make complete sense – it feels like the right word to use, without pretense. Previously I have thought about this and concluded that I most often call the spare, calculating noise that Wiese and someone like Jason Crumer makes is something I would call intelligent noise, and so I’ve attributed it to releases that use silence and an absence of noise as much as they use noise itself in equally effective ways. Like darkness in horror films. I think Feldman’s above description gets closest to the real reason, though, for the same telling reason that I read back over the last paragraph and see that I describe this noise as ‘calculating’ noise rather than ‘calculated’: he suggests that the noise creates itself, and is writing our history, our experience in its own language. The noise thinks, thinks within its own parameters, squeezes answers through the aural gaps in our understanding. I suppose that sounds superfluous; Feldman is more suggestive, and closer to the ambiguity of how noise exists.

The second album I listened to was not a minimalist or intelligent noise and, again, might not be called noise so much as drone – but to a reader who doesn’t listen to any of this, I’m sure I am splitting unnecessary hairs.

One more word of justification. Noise music is either constricting or all-encompassing, in that it seems to condense space around you or open it wide. I listened to a lot of noise when I was slowly writing the most difficult parts of my dissertation, and this was how I knew it for a long time, as a kind of helpful constrictor, a catalyst for focus. I started to feel as if I was just using it as a purpose, when I happened upon an article that talked about listening to noise within a fluxus framework. The only thing about fluxus that I really remember is Yoko Ono’s chess board, where all the pieces are white: at the beginning of the game, you know who your pieces are, but soon after you lose track and any kind of battle becomes futile, becomes a collaboration, turning chess into a kind of aesthetic modular feng shui. Refering this to music, the closest comparison I can make is John Cage’s 4’33”, which is how I came to apply the reference to noise music: opening up the recording, listening to it outside, listening to it quietly and letting the city and its mechanical and human voices interject where the music allows it. The creation of an ever changing performance. These insular sounds, the sounds of winter and a back bent over a computer keyboard, became their opposite. I remember listening to Deterioration Yellow Swans, walking through a graveyard on the way to university in the height of summer, and discovering an entirely new mood for drone music. Dappled shade, harmonic oscillators, blackberries and birdsong! Who knew? Who knew.

I say it’s a distraction, and I am typing this up from notes – sometimes whole sentences when I stopped and wrote the things that arrived complete, and sometimes from drawings or single words on a line; I remembered some of the quotes, but just made references to others. A lot of that second day is a blur apart from these notes and the expectation of the experience, which is why it takes up so much room on the page, here, in what started off as a walking journal. The notes from listening to Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet are visual, along with the memory – not aural. Thinking about the album title, this could easily be Hecker’s own intention while creating the music.

I remember writing. I gather words like wool from the crops. Not confusion, but something like it; my notes are foggier than with the Chris Watson record, and the whole thing is tied up with retrospect. The pages have become hypnagogic. I have a theory that repeated musical passages have the effect of distorting duration, in the way that some part of your brain replays the identical looped seconds of the record with the seconds of your internal clock. On top of this, any remaining measurement of time is set upon by long, sustained notes. Single tones are the blindfold, and loops are the spinning around, so that distance covered by walking is more closely equated with the parts of the record that progress and the parts which are a variation on a theme. Trudging along around the corners of songs rather than those annoying trenches at the edges of vegetable fields. Speaking of these trenches, I start to think about the titles of the songs in relation to land: there is a two part suite called ‘Whitecaps of White Noise’, which brings my perspective once again to the version of the Fens on the map, the great flat expanse rather than the micro viewpoint of the walker, where every cartographic line can be dissected, like Mandelbrot’s coastline. It’s not strictly synesthesia, but more like interference between the separate methods the human body uses to measure and record. In this almost-memory, the landscape bowed and flexed to the will of the music like the cities bent for the German expressionists, tilting and collapsing to the blueprints of feeling. In reality the landscape stayed the same. How, then, did I still walk that altered soil? Thinking back to fluxus, I assumed that the sound of the Fens would influence and remake the music, but the opposite happened, and now I have an image of the sound overtaking the lay of the land. Two more track titles I have noted: ‘Palimpsest I’ and ‘Palimpsest II’. The music didn’t change the ground, but has painted its harmony onto the surface. I gather words like notes caught in branches; the album speaks the valleys of the trodden hillock peaks. Which is the closest we’ll get to felicity.

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Heading back, on the train, I recognise some of the fields I walked through, and I recognise the train’s backwards relation to where I saw it come close and then peel away from the little Ouse and the Cam. I even see the pig field where I sat for lunch on the second day, a little on edge in case the tractors passing behind the hedge would turn into the same opening I walked through and sat near. Something I didn’t expect is that I find it difficult to look at this remembered land for more than a few seconds. I don’t know what is is. I look, and turn away, and look, and turn away.

I am aware of all those times I saw trains pass, or any form of transport, but mainly trains and bikes, and I can’t count how many times I said ‘fuck trains, fuck bikes’ in my head, with their effortless speed and absolute desirability at weak moments. Fuck trains. Getting on one at Cambridge, and now sitting on one, I am acutely aware of my own smell and the size of my bag and my broken, stumbling movements. Walking, I lurch; even sitting, writing, I can feel the awkwardness of my body in such close proximity to other bodies. Trains seem most attractive when they become exotic and luxurious again, but to actually sit on one in those furthest moments would feel so unlike luxury or comfort.

One thing positive about this train journey is that I feel connected to the actual land we are crossing in a way I have never before. Trains get us from A to B, but we rarely know what the between is, or where it is – if we were dropped off in the middle of the journey at the side of the tracks, the first thing would be an almost dyslexic incomprehension of the land and its bearings in relation to anything. Even at a minor station between A and B we are lost…but there, we will escape through logic and timetables and waiting in the right direction, and we will read and comprehend our way out. Train stations are often described as the non-places of a country, but the real non-places are the side of the tracks, the undefined air that we cut through with the nonchalance of velocity. When rail travel was first introduced, people were said to feel (and be) physically sick at the end of the journey – not, I would suggest, because of speed or rhythm or the bending of a carriage round corners, but because of the violent separation of space and time. Actually, not space and time, but space and space: from a speeding carriage we cannot count the clods of earth, we cannot measure the pace of strides with our heartbeat. These great accelerators paradoxically separate us from authentic travel. They take us places; we do not travel there, we are put there, dragged there through the limbo of the landscape, the farm houses and dry lakes and clearings that rupture through a solid geography like bubbles of boiling water, constantly destroyed and replaced by a near-enough replica.

So this is what I feel. I feel as I look out the window that I may recognise any area as specific and detailed; I see field, house, trees, field, trees, house, field, house; but sometimes I see field, trees, house, two dogs, trees, house, old swing set, cows, dying oak, the beginning of a fruit branch, the cow with the Cyprus-shaped markings, field, trees, strawberries, cabbage field, family, bonfire ashes. Is this the landscape of memory? I feel like I could jump out now and more or less know where I was, and how long it would take me to get somewhere else. Freud said that vertigo was not a dizziness or the fear of falling, but a fear of jumping – of throwing yourself off the edge, a fear of your own death drive. Maybe this is why, now, I don’t want to look out of the window – a horizontal vertigo, throwing myself out to see if I can work it out, and walk it.

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