Drifting away in the current

To the River

Cuckmere Haven by Eric Ravilious

Chalk Paths by by Eric Ravilious

Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:

In To the River, Olivia Laing walks the River Ouse in Sussex from its source to the sea, mediating on its flora, fauna, mythology, history and literary associations along the way. Chief among the latter is Virginia Woolf, who lived near the river, walked by the river, wrote about the river, and died in the river. Laing's text meanders like the Ouse itself, but keeps bending back to Woolf and her work, and while every part of the book is engrossing her writing on Woolf is particularly captivating and insightful. (There is also very good chapter on Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows...but I digress.)

In the book's introductory chapter Laing notes:

"That spring I was reading Woolf obsessively, for she shared my preoccupation with water and its metaphors.Virginia Woolf has gained a reputation as a doleful writer, a bloodless neurasthenic, or again as a spiteful, rarefied creature, the doyenne of airless Bloomsbury chat. I suspect the people who hold this view of not having read her diaries, for they are filled with humour and an infectious love for the natural world.

"Virginia first came to the Ouse in 1912, renting a house set high above the marshes. She spent the first night of her marriage to Leonard Woolf there and later stayed at the house to recover from her third in a succession of serious breakdowns. In 1919, sane again, she switched to the other side of the river, buying a cold bluish cottage beneath Rodmell's church tower. It was very primitive when they first arrived, with no hot water and a dank earth closet furnished with a cane chair above a bucket. But Leonard and Virginia both loved Monks House, and its peace and isolation proved conducive to work. Much of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts was written there, along with hundreds of reviews, short stories and essays.

Shepher's Cottage Firle by Eric Ravilious

"She was acutely sensitive to landscape, and her impressions of this chalky, watery valley pervade her work. Her solitary, often daily, excursions seemed to have formed an essential part of the writing process. During the Asham breakdown, when she was banned from the over-stimulations of either walking or writing, she confided longingly to her diary:

"'What I wouldn't give to be coming through Firle woods, the brain laid up in sweet lavendar, so sane & cool, & ripe for the morrow's task. How I should notice everything, the phrase for it coming the moment after & fitting like a glove; & then on the dusty road, as I ground my pedals, so my story would begin telling itself; & then the sun would be done, & home, & some bout of poetry after dinner, half read, half lived, as if the flesh were dissolved & through it the flowers burst red & white.'

" 'As if the flesh where dissolved' is a characteristic phrase. Woolf's metaphors for the process of writing, for entering the dream world in which she thrived, are fluid: she writes of plunging, flooding, going under, being submerged. This desire to enter the depths is what drew me to her, for though she eventually foundered, for a time it seemed she possessed, like some freedivers, a gift for descending beneath the surface of the world."

Windmill by by Eric Ravilious

Laing begins her long walk at the source of the Ouse, near the village of Slaugham. 

"I'd looked at this square of the High Weald on maps for months, tracing the blue lines as they tangled through the hedges, plaiting eastward into a wavering stream. I thought I knew exactly where the water started, but I had not bargained for the summer's swift uprush of growth. At the edge of the field there was a hawthorn hedge and beside it, where I thought the stream would be, was a waist-high wall of nettles and hemlock water dropwort, its poisonous white umbels tilted to the sky. It was impossible to tell whether the water was flowing or whether the ditch was dry, its moisture sucked into the drunken green. I hovered for a minute, havering. It was a Sunday, hardly a car passing. Unless they were watching with binoculars from East End Farm there was no one to see me slip illegally across the field to where the river was marked to start. To hell with it, I thought, and ducked the fence.

Wilmington Giant by Eric Ravilious

"The choked ditch led to a copse of hazel and stunted oak. Here the trees had shaded out the nettles and the stream could be seen, a brown whisper, hoof-stippled, that petered out at the wood's far edge. There was no spring. The water didn't bubble from the ground, rust-tinted, as I have seen it do at Balcombe, ten miles east of here. The source sounded a grand name for this clammy runnel, carrying the runoff from the last field before the catchment shifted toward the Adur. It was nothing more than the furthest tributary from the river's end, its longest arm, a half-arbitrary way of mapping what is a constant movement of water through air and earth and sea.

"It's not always possible to plot where something starts. If I went down on my knees amid the fallen leaves, I would not find the exact spot where the Ouse began, where a trickle of rain gathered sufficient momentum to make it to the coast. This muddy, muddled birth seemed pleasingly appropriate considering the origins of the river's name. There are many Ouses in England, and consequently much debate about the word. The source is generally supposed to be usa, the Celtic word for water, but I favoured the argument, this being a region of Anglo-Saxon settlement, that it was drawn from the Saxon word wāse, from which derives also our word ooze, meaning soft mud or slime; earth so wet as to flow gently. Listen: oooze. It trickles along almost silently, sucking at your shoes. An ooze is a marsh or swampy ground, and to ooze is to dribble or slither. I liked the slippery way it caught at both earth's facility for holding water and water's knack for working through soil: a flexive, doubling word. You could hear the river in it, ooozing up through the Weald and snaking its way down valleys to where it once formed a lethal marsh."

Floods at Lewes by Eric Ravilious

As Laing follows the thickening stream, then the river proper, from the High Weald to the Low, through the South Downs to the coast at Newhaven, she reflects on the land's long history, on writers from Shakespeare to Iris Murdoch, and on the crisis in her own life that propelled her onto her journey. She weaves many stories together, but it is Woolf's, most of all, that pulls her on. 

It pulled me on too. I loved To the River, and didn't want it to end.

Lighthouse at Beachy Head by Eric Ravilious

The art today is by the great English painter, designer, illustrator, and wood-engraver Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). He grew up in Sussex, and is now best known for his luminous paintings of the South Downs, but he also found inspiration in urban London, rural Essex, and other corners of England, Wales, and Scotland. Ravilious studied at the Eastbourne School of Art and the Royal Collage of Art, and went on to teach at both of these schools. He married fellow-artist Tirzah Garwood, and the couple raised three children (one of whom was the Devon-based photographer James Ravilious).

Ravilious served as an official War Artist during World War II, chronicling the war at home and abroad. He died while doing this work on an RAF mission in Iceland. His body was never recovered. 

Please visit the Eric Ravilious site to learn more about the artist, and to see more of his work.

Westbury Horse by Eric Ravilious

To the River