Tonight, we enjoy the special beauties of a rainy town in central England as darkness begins to fall, listen to Thomas Merton on city rain, and spend awhile at a window seat in a small café and create for while our own version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.
26th November, Saturday
"Sometimes, all it takes
To make a day full
Is to have breakfast in a half-empty
cafe filled with chandeliers
And crescent moons
With someone you love
As a watery sun
Climbs into the morning sky.”
Edward Hopper's (1942) 'Nighthawks'
Oil on canvas
Source: Wikipedia (fair use)
In this episode I refer to Edward Hopper’s (1942) painting Nighthawks and Thomas Merton’s (1966) essay ‘Rain and the Rhinoceros’ from his book Raids on the Unspeakable published by New Directions. An open access copy of it can be found here: Piefurcation: Rain and the Rhinoceros by Thomas Merton.
Recording ambient cafe sounds at York's cafe Stratford upon Avon (24.11.22)
The sounds for this episode were recorded on Henley Street and York’s Café, Stratford upon Avon on 24th November 2022.
For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters
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In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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26th November, Saturday
"Sometimes, all it takes
To make a day full
Is to have breakfast in a half-empty
cafe filled with chandeliers
And crescent moons
With someone you love
As a watery sun
Climbs into the morning sky.
Clouds have chased the stars away and nets of rain sweep across the canal buffeting us on our mooring. It hisses down the cabin roof and the alders bow and roar. It's a wild night. The kind of night to refill the kettle and to tuck up beside the stove. This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting to you - wherever you are. There's a warm welcome for you here. Come inside, shake off the wet coat, make yourself comfortable. It's great to see you, I am so glad you have come.
The march of the Atlantic fronts has continued this week, though the overall temperatures have dropped to around the average [although it is quite mild again tonight]. Each day, the skyline takes on a more wintery aspect. The hawthorns, in particular, create wild witchlike shapes, hunched and spiky – hag-haired and gloriously indomitable. Those places that provided a haven of shade during the heat of summer are now bare and the towpath is slick with leaves – particularly ash. Some of the alders and oaks still hold a showing of leaves – albeit increasingly sparse. However, enough still to hide the finches and sparrows.
There’s certainly a feeling of slowing down here. Less movement. The last few weeks has been more about grabbing the nice days to get out for one last time. But now, the waters are becoming a little quieter. Here. We’ve been trying to get all those jobs done before the weather turns. Preparing for winter. That sense of hunkering down; nesting. It’s one of the things that I appreciate most about boat-life – this sense of close proximity to the seasonal shifts and the elements. Biologically, our bodies are adapted to hunker down through the winters. Recent research even suggests that early humans hibernated. Perhaps that might be a reason why I seem to sleep longer during the winters. It is more noticeable since we moved aboard. The daily schedules of our lives seem to follow and blend more closely with the ebbing daylight. Consequently, it seems to fit better. There isn’t the feel of swimming against the current, of flattening the seasonal contours. I am grateful for the longer, darker nights. The times when the weather stops ‘play’ and makes me pause, alter plans, sit, read. Although, at the moment, there has not been too much opportunity of just sitting and reading!
A couple of red kites have been around – they are quite common. However, as usual, their presence kicks up a storm of corvid protest. Magpies scolding. Rooks and crows in acrobatic aerial jousts. The mallards are busy. Last week, just before daylight, two lifted off the water. Almost vertically. A rain of crystal water droplets. Then three took to the air. The two more. All beating a southwest flight path. Three more and then a group of five. A few quacks, but many snorts and chunters. A couple more took to wing and then, with a flurry of water spume and quacks, the rest took to the air – including the white one. There is something impressive and awe-inspiring about ducks in flight. It's not the prodigal, rakish, acrobatics of the corvids, or the shimmering precision of the gulls, or even the breath-taking soaring skills of the raptors. It is perfectly pragmatic, as if not one feather is needlessly or wastefully used. There is a beautiful precision about the way they use the air. Beauty in form and function.
Talking of flying, the other day I watched the cygnet trying out his wings. Thrashing down an open stretch of water in a flurry of white water and crashing wings. It was more a running paddle, feet churning the canal like the old-style paddle steamers, but it is an important skill to gain and a good first step. His body lifted slightly, and there is clear power in his wings. He scooted to a halt just before the bank. Wings still outstretched, primaries feeling the air. He shook, settled down. His parents were nearby. Mum swam over and they foraged at the bankside together for a while. Earlier in the day, I had watched a lone swan fly overhead and wondered if it was Cyril (their offspring from last year). Soon one more juvenile will be mastering the air.
There is something altogether intoxicating about a rainswept town in the middle of England as the light is failing and night pools in the east. The puddles that are gathering on the pavements that shine warm with shop-light and clatter and slap to the feet of those scurrying passed. The way, water gurgles and ripples along the curb-side, hopped over by adults, gleefully splashed by children. Racing gutter-wards, black rivulets, flicking flecks of sparkling light off its oily back like the ducks do back home. The street litter, slick and beaten, washed down to the gutters and the gratings over the waterways of the underworld. Tyres hiss. People hunch into the fists of rain thrown at them. Umbrellas, fence, parry, rattle and whip. A pigeon sobs from a roof top. A man, face haloed by his mobile, surges passed. The pavement glossy with a sheen of colours that pool and streak. A mute traffic light bleeds red, amber, green – as if it is melting – the very light has turned to water.
And now, here, by the entrance to Cook’s Alley off Henley Street, the copper eagle perching astride the weather vane on the Cathedral cupola of Barclays Bank with its cherubic rainwater spout swings to the South West.
A cold wind prowls and wolfs along Wood Street, biting and chivvying up the blind alleyways between the shop-lit window panes and mothers coaxing their laden buggies home. It snarls and slopes around the courtyards that weep orange and platinum and scarlet and gold onto the swimming paving slabs. A couple stand to admire the pastries in the window of a bakery and tearoom. She points at a cake stand and laughs. He gives her a quick peck on the forehead and leaves smiling. “Enjoy,” he shouts back. “I will!” she replies. A door clangs shut. A little figure, coat lifted over her head, scurries into the gloaming. Only you, me and the naked ornamental cherry see her or hear the sharp click of her heels on wet pavement.
There is something about a town in the rain in the dark with its fairground flare of lights. There’s a café that I pass on my way into work. These mornings it is still dark. The café sits on a corner, A huge clock above the door gives it a 1920-30s – almost Art Deco feel. It is called the Clock Café. These mornings, the windows glow with welcome, as cars and pedestrians hurry on their busy ways and the busy junction cycles from red to amber, to green. It looks inviting. In my head, I have sat at its tables looking out of those windows - steam curling up from the half-drunk cup of coffee between my hands. Outside, the rain streams down the steamed-up window panes. Outside it is always raining.
I can remember falling in love with the special beauty of a rainy town at night when I was a young man and I had a heart that ached for life and love and desire, but I was still too young to be able to tell them apart. And I was yet to come to terms with the terrors of beauty. A group of us would go to an old diner, called – I think – Poppins, on the Marlowes in Hemel Hempstead. Even then, it had an old school feel to it. MacDonalds had opened up further down the road with its primary colours and vibrancy and strange feeling of anonymity and conveyor belt bonhomie. Poppins with its ranks of red leatherette dinettes and plastic tomato ketchup dispensers in the shape of tomatoes, felt as old fashioned as Jailhouse rock and Bill Hailey. It was usually empty. We’d slip into the seats and paw at the plasti-card menus, and the light of this little beacon of welcome would spill out through the large plate glass windows onto the pavement outside and the brave new worlds that were beckoning to me in all their ferocious and uncertain glory. We would sit and talk and josh each other over cups of coffee and tea at tables covered in oilcloth covers, gritty with the granules of invariably spilt sugar. And in the breadth of just one sentence, conversations would leapfrog haphazardly from blisteringly intense to blindingly inane. We went there when it was too cold or too wet or too dark to sit on the precipitous slopes of Roughdown Common and watch the lights of Hemel come on as the sky grew dark. We went there to waste time and we wasted it well. I will never begrudge the loss of those hours. Wasted time is never really wasted in youth.
And all the time, outside, the world passed us by. This was before pedestrianisation, when the Marlowes was still a through road and relatively busy. It was the closest I have ever been to being in the Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks. I could not conceive of anything more romantic than this. In the rain, the dark town shone with light, brake lights glowed red, shop fronts and signs swam, smeared and smudged, across the pavements and its shallow sheen of puddles. This was something more than magical, this was almost epiphanic – pointing to heights and depths to the realities we share; the mirum within the prosaic. If I had heard about John Moriarty’s ‘silver branch seeing’, I would have been able to say, ‘Yes, John, in all this, it is possible to see wonder among the ugliness and cruelty.
It was many, many years later, that I would come across the strangely haunting writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who hankered after the life of a hermit in a forest cabin, but whose writings brought him international renown. He wrote a lot about rain. He appreciated its beauty, its gift. For the most part Merton wrote about rain as he encountered it either at his hermitage or withing the main monastery. However, there is a section in his essay ‘Rain and the Rhinoceros’ from his book Raids on the Unspeakable (1964) in which he discusses the effect of rain in an urban city.
Perhaps he - and I – are being a little too sanctimoniously condemnatory here (though Merton’s broader salvo in his essay, I think, is well aimed). Both of us, sitting up here in the hermitages of our minds, pointing a patronising finger at the those we consider to be less enlightened. Surely not everyone… not everyone on this wet, bustling town street in the middle of England as the darkness begins to fall, is unaware, is as untouched by the beauty, the thrill of the elemental, brought to them in the heart of England by sweeping South Westerly winds that have been whipped from the rolling Atlantic seascapes, as he – or maybe I am tempted to suggest? Surely there are those, even here, now, turning the corner from Wood Street who are struck backwards by how much “the streets shine beautifully”? Surely there are those that, looking down at the wet flagstones at their feet, feel that jolt of noetic recognition that they too “are walking on stars and water”?
But this is why we are here in a rainy town as the daylight begins to fail. Perhaps, too, this is why I am always drawn to coffeeshops, more so than even pubs or tea rooms, particularly on cold rainy days like this; because of Poppins and Nighthawks, and that time when my life was beginning to emerge. A coffee shop like this, with a perching window seat and the bubble of voices, and clatter of cutlery, and the smell of coffee and baking, and the same ferocious, uncertain world, passes by in the dripping gloaming.
Here the atmosphere is thick with roasted coffee. Snatched words of conversation.
“Nice lot of hair.”
"He started school this year. It's frightening how time goes by, isn't it?"
“At least one of the needles goes round.”
“All good, yeah, thanks.”
Across the room is man with a ponytail hunched over a lap top. A pair of sunglasses lie, incongruously, beside an empty egg-cup sized espresso cup. His fingers dervishly dance across the key board in a frenzy of movement followed by long periods of intense stillness. He watches the screen as a heron watches the sluggish movements of the canal waters.
Outside a man comes up to the window. His hands are stuffed deeply into his pockets as he studies the menu. He has, what strikes me as, a kind face. The sort of face that you would gravitate towards if you were lost and alone at a cocktail party. He moves off, joining the stream of passers-by.
The shop fronts spill warm light onto the ringing pavement slabs. Coats and Macintoshes flap and fluster, as ragged as the wings of falling angels in this rakish jackdaw of a wind.
A couple passed. Her hand in her partners coat pocket. They walk in perfect step. Her coat is buttoned up to her chin, the way Donna used to button up her coat on that winter we first met. Her partner looks across at her and smiles.
I sip my coffee to make it last. This is not Nighthawks, but it is a place of warmth in a cold world. A place of light in a darkening world.
A small flock of pigeons wheel in the snatch of sky between buildings. But most of the roof tops and ledges are fitted with anti-pigeon spikes. Pigeons are not rare or endangered enough for us to care about them yet. We prefer our wildlife rare.
A young woman pushing a buggy with one hand negotiates a rooks nest of tables and chairs. Her thumb of the other hand traces unseen messages across the face of her mobile phone.
And now, an elderly couple cross the busy street. Both dapper. He sports a trilby and tartan scarf cravat-style. With one hand gently rest on her back, he shepherds her through the passing traffic. They have the relaxed poise and finesse of ballroom dancers – as if they have always danced their way through the busy traffic of their lives like this.
They enter the café, brushing off the dampness and claws of the wind as they come.
‘The usual?’ He asks.
Her face, like a startled wren, softens and breaks into a smile.
He takes off his trilby. A fringe of hair falls in a monkish crescent around the baldness of his head. His eyes sparkle. He could be Alistair Sim and she could be an elderly Mary Poppins. I suppose Mary Poppins eventually grew old – or is she like Peter Pan, forever trapped within the body of Julie Andrews; prim in her flirtatious spinsterliness?
Outside, two men walk passed. They pause to look through the window – careful to avoid catching my eye. The older one says something. They look at the menu. He is wearing a checked sports jacket – the sort that when I was young, I thought I’d wear when I grew up. But even the scarf knotted thickly around his throat cannot stop me feeling cold at the sight of him. They move away, and I watch them weave their way through the crowds into the gloom. The older one reaches his hand downwards where it brushes the younger one’s hand. Tenderly, the younger one folds his hand around it. And then they are gone.
On the opposite side of the road, a man with a walking stick and a neat holdall bends into the wind. His thinning white hair flails behind him like wisping spindrift. He breathes hard, pushing out his red cheeks. He passes a youth coming in the opposite direction who pauses outside the art gallery, gilded with shining frames and white light. He lights a cigarette, cupping his hands around his lighter. He has a baseball hat on back to front. Have I slipped back in time to the 90s? No, it is just that cold wet streets in the dark November rain also hold their own store of eternities. For, if you look closely, as you pass by a small café afloat on a pavement puddled with raindrops and jewels, in the window, you will see a spidery young man, with a mop of hair, large ears and a self-conscious nose with a heart too full of dreams to carry, looking out. If he catches your eye, don’t worry, he means you no harm. It is just that, in a very small way, his life is beginning to make just a little more sense. Nighthawks has always been more than a painting. He has found warmth in a cold world; a little light in a darkening world, and beauty amongst the ugliness. And that, in this complicated world, there are times when we do “walk on stars and water.”
May your life be warmed and enriched by the stories that surround you.
This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very restful, peaceful night. Good night.