Letters from Lancaster 1

Letter 1

I thought I would have written my first letter long ago. Instead I’ve been living as if in a nutrient-rich medium, steeping in it, moving around in it, soaking it in. Experiencing, remembering. Fifty-six years since I lived here. The place has changed, I have changed. And even my ‘fixed’ memories of then are subject to inaccurate remembering, and treacherous re-membering.

Yet still I want to map ‘now’ onto ‘then’, as if that is a place if not to end, then to begin.

Except, no, begin now. The river. I live by the river. The river is ever present, a few yards away, beyond a narrow patch of grass. It is a wide river. To the left is the bridge. To the right, the river sweeps in a wide curve round to The Customs House, The Quay, the tall stone warehouses, the source of Lancaster’s first wealth, the slave trade. And it is a big river. Because it is tidal, estuarine. A big tide range. In six hours and a few minutes the sea at the mouth of the river rises thirty feet. Five feet an hour. No wonder the cockle-pickers in the Bay got caught, stage coaches crossing the Sands were sometimes overwhelmed. A big river. It rises and falls less here, three miles from the sea. But still, having let down my plumb line, spinning slowly, from quayside to touch the oozy mud of low tide and measured its length, I find it is twenty feet from low water to the quayside that the highest tides overtop.

At night, when I wake between dreams, the first thing I do is go to the window and look out at the river. My one certainty. The bridge lights are shimmering fragments on its surface. Sometimes the river is low, running out in rippling ribbons fast between shining mudbanks and muddied stones. Sometimes it is around midpoint, surging tidally in. Once I caught it, full to the brim, placid as a pond, in the silence of deepest night, at the moment of its arrival at its highest point, a moment of suspension, like the catch in a breath, before, moon bidden, it began its long letting go, down to its low, the null point, the moment before the return. Immense forces. Huge masses of water moving. Being moved. Tides. The river is the Lune. Moon in French.

When I lived on Shaftesbury’s green hilltop, where often the skies were clear, the moon was visual. I would track its nightly progress across the sky, its fattening from spring-steel curve to silver shield disc, as each night it moved further from the sun, growing from thin cradle of the old moon each night brighter, fuller, until, its perfect self, it faced the sun in equipoise, face to face across the chasm of the sky. Here, in cloudy Lancaster, ‘the wettest city in England’, I hardly ever see the moon. Not enough, anyway, to register any pattern in its changes. It is in the river that I register it, in the effect of its power.

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