Far Away Is Close At Hand In Images Of Elsewhere
During the 1970s, when Oxford University was trying to educate me, I would occasionally get on the train and leave the spires behind to go to London for plays, exhibitions, and other diversions. As my train pulled into Paddington, I used to look out for a graffito on a wall that formed for me another landmark of the kind I wrote about in the previous post. In white capital letters a couple of feet high, the graffito read: ‘FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE’.
I had no idea who had written this on the wall, or why, or even what the words were supposed to mean. I imagined some poet, proud of a memorable line and reluctant to consign it to a poem in some ‘little magazine’ that was read only by the people who contributed to it, climbing up at Christmas when the area around the station was quiet, and getting to work with the emulsion paint. But however it got there, it was a landmark I looked out for each time I made the journey, until the wall was demolished in the early 1980s.
Around about 1984 I read a book called Notes From Overground, by ‘Tiresias’. This unlikely but enchanting volume is ‘a commuter’s notebook’, a record of the things the author (actually the poet Roger Green) saw on his daily journey from Oxford to London and back. If that sounds like an unlikely idea for an interesting book, Notes From Overground is actually full of haunting descriptions, literary allusions, and sharp aperçus. In it, lists of truck names turn into prose poems, overheard conversations hint at complex dramas, and unregarded trackside notices, factories, and the like get their few minutes in the sun. I learned from this book that the first six words of the line actually come from a poem, ‘Song of Contrariety’, by Robert Graves, but for years found out nothing more about the subject.
Then a while back I remembered the line again and Googled it. My search led me to the website of Ruth Padel, coincidentally another poet with Oxford connections, who told the rest of the story. Padel, as a Classics graduate student, had published in 1974 a scholarly article about Euripides and this article was called ‘Imagery of Elsewhere: Two Choral Odes of Euripides’. She had given a copy of the article to a classicist friend, Dave, and Dave and his brother Geoff had gone to Paddington on Christmas Eve 1974 and (without telling Ruth Padel anything about it) painted on the wall their mashing together of the words of Graves and Padel. And so the lines were seen by millions of travellers over the years, getting absorbed into Roger Green’s commuter’s notebook, into a song by Catatonia (in an adapted form: ‘Paradise is close at hand in images of elsewhere’), and into my consciousness.
‘FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE’ is a cobbled-together line that became a London landmark – or trackmark – for a few years and can mean different things to different people. But I can’t help thinking that it expresses something about the aspirations of this blog and of writing about place generally. I hope my images of elsewhere occasionally make the distant seem close at hand to my readers, wherever they may be.