Swadlincote ...the day I began to age.
Throughout puberty and adolescence I was subject to visitations of what I came to think of as "the sacred shiver". It was a momentary sense of wonder, revelation and awe, indescribably delicious but fugitive. It lasted for about a second and was gone ...before it could be grasped, or savoured, or understood. It vanished almost overnight; it was still present, whole and complete, in December 1969, but by January 1970 there was already a slight sense of something missing. I was in the middle of my 19th year.
This is one of the grand climacterics of life ... the age at which the body completes its growth and reaches the high-water mark of its vitality and strength. From this point the process of ageing begins. The decline is slow at first but inexorable. The brain begins to shed its cells ...eventually millions every day, so that by the time you get to 60 it has lost a quarter of its weight. It seems eminently plausible to me that this physiological event should have its psychological counterpart, and years later I wondered whether this sudden loss of intense experience corresponded to the moment my physical decline began.
In my case the odd thing was that this fleeting experience of the divine came most often in places like this ...rather than in the presence of mountains, sunsets or star-lit nights. Why this should be I have never quite understood, although I am sure it must be connected with social inadequacy. Feeling myself to be ignored by the world, I had a kind of fellow-feeling towards these unregarded places.
"Beauty" is probably not quite the right word to use of places like Swadlincote, which normal, well-adjusted people consider downright ugly. A familiar sensation to me throughout life has been the pang of dread I experience upon opening my daily newspaper and coming across a reader's letter complaining that some such place is an "eyesore" and that the Council should "tidy it up" or "do something about it". For me these places have a strange pathos. Suspended in a netherworld. They are neither town nor country and the objects in the landscape seem poised between utility and disuse. Does someone still come to those shattered henhouses, rattling a pail of chickenfeed? What are those sheds and old van bodies used for, if anything? Does some trade still go on in the workshop at the foot of that unsmoking chimney? Are those cars abandoned, or will they one day take to the road again? Does anyone own the pony in that nibbled, hoof-trampled bit of field?
The photograph was taken on Saturday 3rd January 1970 ...at just about the turning point I mentioned above. In fact this was the first day I noticed the effect. It was an enjoyable day, but there was none of the holy, numinous fervour I had felt on visits to Lancashire a few weeks earlier. Now I did not feel it, and that was all there was ...the feeling of not feeling it. The new decade was three days old, but I already knew it was different. It was a new decade for me too, for I would turn twenty later in the year. Youth was over and everything led to the grave from now on.