Mud On the Road

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Because The Woods

     I roam alone with our dogs up hill and down vale and through a lot of boggy fields.  Recently a friend asked me, ‘Don’t you ever get scared wandering around the countryside by yourself?’ She lives in Hackney by the way.
   ‘No,’ I replied, airily, ‘I’m terribly brave.’

   Until that is, I enter a wood.
"Little Red Riding Hood" illustration by Divica Landrová, 1959. Taschen, 2011.
   There’s a small local wood where we go quite often and, yesterday I went with the dogs but without Shedley Mode. I’d only been there five minutes when I got severely spooked. It was the cry that did it.  A single, guttural sound, tailing off into a lament. Not quite animal, less than human. Instantly the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. My heart started to thump, my breathing accelerated faster than Lewis Hamilton coming out of a bend.

     Normally I rather like being scared.
I like fast cars and thrillers and birthday presents and checking my bank account online. I can take quite a lot of artificially induced terror - as long as it’s happening at one remove and preferably on a TV or cinema screen or the pages of a novel. As long as I’m in a safe place - hidden behind a cushion on the sofa or tucked up warm and dry in bed.

   When you’re small you’re not quite so keen on being frightened but young children, I’ve noticed, have an admirable strategy for overcoming the monster - they kind of flatten him into submission through repetition. They will watch the movie or demand the story be read, over and over and over again until they’ve nailed the scary  bits. Then, when they feel they have achieved supreme mastery over the granny guzzling wolf or that really mean shark in Finding Nemo, they move on, like Ranulph Fiennes, in search of the next conquest.  

   I know this for a fact  because, in a far-off land, a  long time ago, I had the delightful job of reading to a class of four years olds.

   One day I happened to select  Chicken Licken and was alarmed to find that, just as their mummies and daddies were arriving to take them home, the children dissolved into several stages of distress, Foxy Loxy having just polished off Chicken Licken with what can only be described as finger lickin’ relish.

   The next day I went for something jolly, only to find it was vetoed by the entire class who rose as one and clamoured for Chicken Licken and became so militant and loud I was forced to back down. Their demands having been met, they settled down,  sucking thumbs and clutching teddies, readying themselves for the unhappy ending.

     I began to think my own sky had fallen in as, every day for a week, I was press -ganged  into reading Chicken Licken. I soon realised however, that the children were learning the book by heart,  anticipating the drama, positively savouring the moment when they could all get  upset all over again and and weep and wail and gnash their little milk teeth.

   By the time Friday arrived, I was reading to their parents as well: they had got there early for the spectacle. Now the sorrow that greeted poor Chicken Licken’s demise was bordering on the euphoric. By Monday it was over and we started on Cinderella.


When it comes to story telling, the Grand Masters of Scary are the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and 2012 happens to mark the two hundred year anniversary of  the first publication of their tales, an anniversary which has sparked a big cultural knees-up.

  A highlight amid the hoopla, is a gorgeous collection and retelling of the stories,  The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Noel Daniel and produced by visual arts publishers Taschen.

   The book features an exquisite illustration for The Little Red Riding Hood,  by Czech illustrator Divica Landrová in which the little girl is shown, all blithe and merry, setting off into the dark fretwork of trees,entirely innocent of what lies ahead.

    ‘No. Stop!’ You want to shout. ‘Go back. Send a grown man with a gun, let him take apples to your granny. Send in a platoon with helicopter cover.’

   The picture is black and white and grey except for the child's bright red cap. Steven Spielberg might have had it in mind when he was making Schindler's List and opted  to pick out, in blood red, the coat of a small girl in the scene of the massacre in the Kraków ghetto.

   The  Brothers Grimm mined ancient folklore for their tales of enchantment and bewitchery,  much of which  was rooted in the woods which once covered Europe.

   The woods provided shelter, fuel, medicines, game for hunters, grazing for pigs and wild fruits and mushrooms for foraging types, but they were also the source of superstition, feared as place of mystery and magic. Everyone knew that, in the deep heart of the woods, supernatural forces held sway. As well as the occasional boar herd and Goldilocks’ angry bears.

    In the woods it was always dark no matter the time of day. Wild, perhaps diabolical  beasts roamed there.  Even the boldest Prince or huntsman in pursuit of his prey might, hidden from the sight of sun or stars by which to navigate, become disorientated in the labyrinth of trees; become lost and hungry; might be beguiled by a fiendish hag who, in the guise of a maiden, lures him with a tempting berry, the bitter juice of which then wracks his body and twists his mind.

    In 1812 when Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm first published their fairy stories they did so in the full beam of The Enlightenment. Thomas Paine's attack on the orthodoxies of Christianity, The Age of Reason, had recently been published. Napoleon's brief empire was on the wane. Locomotive Engines were only 15 years down the line and with them the Industrial Revolution which would lay waste to great tracts of forest from the Welsh Valleys all the way to Siberia.

     Electricity, cinema, telephone, they were all just decades away. Now it's hard to get lost. We complain loudly that there are no wild places left.

     Perhaps it's because we live in an age where everything is seemingly  understood and can be measured and reasoned and explained, where we are only ever a mobile phone call away from help, a helicopter ride to safety, where we are globally connected and tracked and our every whim and fancy is discoverable, that the unknown and the mysterious retain their appeal. Why our current heroes and villains are still rooted in the supernatural, are still wizards and vampires and spirits. From Harry Potter’s adventures to Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, to the Twilight franchise and all the way back to Snow White, recently reincarnated in  Mirror, Mirror: The Untold Adventures of Snow White and Snow White and The Huntsman.

     Besides all of which, woods can just be plain scary places in which to be alone.

     And why, even on a short dog walk like yesterday’s, in the wood  near home, I feel suddenly wary. I am ultra alert.  Stepping from the ordinary blank space of daylight  into that shadowy dense place is  like crossing a threshold into another realm. But this wood is not even a proper wood. It would  scarcely amount to a copse. It's a really a big thicket, a mess of sprouted saplings, nettles and briars,  a strip of secondary woodland barely quarter of a mile wide.

     One minute I'm blithe as Red Riding Hood, crunching through the leaves,  noting the dappled light, the soft pitter-patter of raindrops,  marvelling at how sheltered it is under the canopy, how even the sound of three dogs crashing about is muted and  hushed.

   Then comes that odd plaintive cry.

   The dogs have gone off to investigate an interesting smell. I am properly alone.

   In the quiet, after the cry, the single loud crack of a twig sounds ominous.  The further snapping of twigs sounds furtive;  sounds, I think, like the  weight of a large, ungainly man, shifted from one  hobnailed boot to another.

     I become fixated with the idea that, apart from the woodland creatures and million or so earwigs, someone is close by, someone is watching me.

     For heaven's sake, I tell myself, you can almost see wheat fields to the left and, to the right, only 300 yards or so away, is a lane down which a car or tractor will pass any moment. This is NOT a scary place.

     Then why do I feel like I'm in my own sequel to The Blair Witch Project?

     Suddenly, all around, instead of what, moments ago, was casual detritus, part of the general woody fermentation,  I see clues of wrong doing and misdemeanour.

     Was that singed bit of rope there yesterday? Is that heap of charcoal still warm to the touch? We’re used to seeing those rusting oil drums mounted on plinths by the pathway? But, actually, what are they really for?

     In the modern world it's not the absence of humans but the signs of man's anonymous presence that make the woods scary. The spent cartridge, the mashed beer can, the cigarette butts queerly piled. The kind of signs that say men were here recently and they were up to no good and Might Yet Be Lurking.

     Images of a young, wide-eyed Mia Farrow flit crazily across my mind. She's stumbling through the trees, propelled by fear, by blind panic, her pursuer gaining on her with every step.

     Yup, if the woods are still scary, I blame the directors of those horror films in which the woods are populated not with sprites and phantoms and goblins,  but stalk and slash and all too human bogey-men who, since the late sixties, have chased scantily-clad, doomed females through the knotty trees, with the camera assiduously affording us the stalker's point of view.

     Back in the wood I whistle tremulously for the dogs and am relieved to hear them come bounding back. I reach for my phone to reassure myself the world is a but loud heart thump away. Which is when I realise I’ve got no signal.

   Despite there being a road on one side and a wide field on the other, I’ve got no signal. And it occurs to me that even here in this puny thicket, so close to human habitation and life, so very close to Stockbridge and home, no-one will hear me no matter how loud I scream.

"Little Red Riding Hood" illustration by Divica Landrová, 1959. Taschen, 2011.
"Little Red Riding Hood" illustration by Divica Landrová, 1959. Published by Taschen, 2011.
The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Noel Daniel, published by Taschen, 2011.
The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, edited by Noel Daniel, published by Taschen, 2011.


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