NINETEENTH OF MAY
I have never walked on top of a cliff. Never been so perilously close to the edge where the drop is an invitation to jump. The sea is green. In Wales, my friend the poet Mererid Hopwood told me they have no word for blue. I now see why, even though I am not in Wales. I am in Dover, walking on top of the white cliffs that I saw last summer receding like a dream through the thick glass windows of the P&O ferry from Dover to Calais. I had filmed them for my father, in whose mind (and mine) the white cliffs of Dover have always been linked with Matthew Arnold, and not with the song I have been hearing on the radio this summer: ‘Dover Beach’ aloud, from Selected Poems of Matthew Arnold, a 1912 edition bought from the Oxfam bookstore on High Street, in Canterbury. A beautiful little blue book, hardbound, with fine butter-paper fly-leaf and an inscription in faded ink, November 1920, above it a name I cannot decipher, though it could be Irish, or Scots, in ink that was once black, and is now brown. A book bought for this journey, so we could read, at the Dover end of our crossing, this poem, and at the Calais end, the other, ‘Calais Sands’ with which I have no relationship, but which my friend brings to my notice, to my glee, how appropriate and daft this is, to be equipped so perfectly with poetry for this journey from one port to another. But now, now, now, under my feet those cliffs that had seemed unattainable last summer. I am trampling on them, rambling on them. There are miles of grass, four miles, along this track, rutted with many feet. Some of the grass comes up to my knee, brushes my thigh. There are ears to some of the stalks, in my ignorance I want to call them bulrush, wheat, corn, knowing they are wrong, but needing names to cling to, any straw I can clutch at, in order to avoid being carried away, and not just by the wind, which is strong, and tugs, not just by the drop which is sheer, and tugs, too. The soles of my shoes are white with chalk. I never knew things grew on chalk. Wild flowers, leaves like cabbage, strong yellow flowers that remind me of gorse but are not, another failure of recognition. Acres of what I now see could be crop, rustling like silk. Barley? Maybe. The silence is good. I have no need to ask. From time to time I stop, and hunker down, so I can see the curve of the cliff I have just left behind, see it closely, watch the smooth whiteness of this section, with a hole gouged in it, nest perhaps to a sea bird, a clean white section on which one yellow flower, no different from the others along the path but unutterably moving because it is where I cannot be, over the edge of the cliff, unfazed by wind and too much sun, beautiful. As I watch, a white gull swoops by. This is the first time I am above the white gulls I have been watching all summer, outside my window, on the campus on the hill that already feels so far away, and I am seized with exhilaration. I love the white gulls, even their ugly screeches, they remind me of what it means to love something alien for the first time, alone, in another country, watching something happen between people, watching place inhabit people like a secret amour. When I returned from that first journey away I was sleepless. ‘Nocturne’, I wrote. I mourned place, person, animal, thing. The sounds of the port recede. There is nothing here, but a brilliant awareness of the moment. Up near the little lighthouse, adult women are hanging on to the strings of impatient, elegant kites. I sit on the grass, legs aching with pleasure. I am afraid of lying down like my friends, because then I may feel the earth spinning below me, and not know if I will be held in place, something about the length of my body stretched along the length of grass on top of the white cliffs of Dover frightens me, as if here gravity will cease to function and mirth dislodge me, unbearable lightness float me away over the sea, Europe’s busiest crossing, and yet how placid it is now, empty but for two motionless sailboats, their perfect sails like shark-fins slicing through the water. In a while we will rise and walk over the other side, down to St Margaret’s Bay, down to where Noel Coward’s house still stands, strangely ship-like, down to Grasshopper ale, strong and brown in a glass for manly hands, down to lamb meatballs and mozzarella and pear juice, down to the little museum where the radio never stops playing its period music, where Coward’s paintings are, and a book case of his friend’s books, Casino Royale, Goldfinger, Ian Fleming visited, so did Katherine Hepburn, the light was good, but his wife tired of the seaweed and the chalk, she needed the city, they moved away, Fleming was buried in Canterbury, if only I had this information before, what would I have done with it but perhaps, morbid visitant, visit the grave? You can wear the costume of a soldier, you can sit on the bed in the billet, a billowing black cloth with a candle inside, you can read about the Dead-End kids who refused to be evacuated to Wales and hung around the streets of Dover in little gangs. You can sit at the little desk, regard the medals. Brief Encounter. The only screenplay by Coward that enters my mind. Later, we will leave the music, the museum, the manicured houses, the millionaires, and walk back, through a green forgotten path, past the horses, strong and wiry, crunching the grass, leaning over wire to rip the grass out with powerful precise movements, the sound of tearing and crunching so loud in the evening quiet, as if his teeth were shears, the sudden bicyclist, and the sounds of the port returning, announcements over megaphone, garbled except for those who know what to listen for. Still later, I will remember, as if I had ever forgotten, Rilke’s poem, ‘exposed on the cliffs of the heart’, and I will need to hear it again, and again.
But watching the cliffs, their long white length unfolding, falling away, outside the purview of the window I am bound by, the mild irritation of diners talking, oblivious of the sanctity of this moment for me and for my father, whom I am filming this for, I had been seized, yes, by sentiment. A few minutes later, my friend and I had gone up to the deck, and in the bitter cold wind, under that blazing summer sun, I had read