There are so many good books around at the moment. Will Eaves’ Murmur, obviously, which won the Wellcome prize a few days ago, a triumph not just for the author but for Charles Boyle’s CBEditions, one of the smallest publishers in Britain. The Dollmaker by Nina Allen, reviewed here. Sandra Newman’s glitteringly imaginative time story, The Heavens. Coming soon: Homing, by Jon Day, a calm, artful meditation on home and returning, navigation and orientation, which, in addition, will leave you knowing everything you always wanted to know about the Columbidae; Will Wiles’s rebarbative Plume (also, in a sense, bird-oriented); Helen Mort’s Black Car Burning, also, in a sense, about home, as the place you structure out of the things you do; and Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, her debut collection.
Then there’s the Underland, which opened its maw this week.
Every time he writes, Robert Macfarlane performs several extraordinarily deft acts of focus, by which he interleaves layer upon layer of landscape and mindscape. At the same time he never fails to give you the sense that the book you are reading has self-assembled from its own imaginary, which is in turn composted and churned from the substance of the world and his relations with it. Even if he only thought about things, and wrote them down, Macfarlane would be a significant, persuasive writer—he has perfect control of the skill, or art, or quality of mind Brian Dillon described in Essaysim. But Macfarlane has been there too, and looked, and this is what he saw; and this is what he did; and this is what emerged from the experience. This is what it means to be a contemporary landscape writer. Macfarlane made the book, you understand, with its cunning millefeuille of themes and imagery, deep human history, cycles of politics, poetry and myth: but you also understand that it developed under its own impetus, out of the deep relations of the things of the world. Or, in the case of Underland, the things under the world: from its deep time geological underpinnings, up through layer after labyrinthine layer of cultural and economic connection, to the shallow scabrous subsurface litter of the things we know and are trying to forget—the things our species is trying to hide and hide from—the things we’re burying as we bury ourselves alive.
“While writing Underland,” he said in the Guardian recently, “I have come to think of claustrophobia as one of the distinctive experiences of the Anthropocene: a sense of time and space running out; of being in the grip of Earth forces triggered by human actions but exceeding human control…” Underland takes us inside that experience, and is a genuinely frightening catabasis as a result. But Macfarlane keeps singing to the end and gets us back into the light.
After that, the great dark charcoal-coppices drew her in: Bosle, Swiney and Leasow; Factory, Workhouse and Suicide. These old woods, draped over the mess the 18th Century made, were warmer than the exposed dip slope; their labyrinthine topography of track and knoll, prolapsed limekiln and pennystone spoil hill, sprawled away silent and dark to the edge of the Gorge, where every winter on the scarp one more beech tree levered itself out of the mud and leant tiredly into the catch of its nearest neighbour. Across the grain, syke to syke, Victoria’s progress–if that’s what it could be called–was by short steep uphill struggle leading inevitably to a kind of exhausted, cautious slither down the other side. Her arms windmilled. She was lost. She did not feel entirely in charge of herself. Eight deer ran past her from nowhere, down a narrow salient between two overgrown rock quarries. All she could do was watch as they flickered away, in and out of the trees, pale in the moonlight, on some business of their own. Enchanted yet anxious, a London woman in a lot of mud, she wandered about all night until the sinister half-light at the hour before dawn brought her to the edge of the woods again; from which she looked out this way and that.
Every shop on a stock brick corner seen from a bus in south London. You think: I’ve been here, haven’t I? At some time in the past, you think, you’ve been there. Well maybe you have, maybe you haven’t, because all those stock brick corners look the same. Every train running across the grain of shallow wooded valleys, trailing its brand new landscape through the old cuttings. Grass like astroturf, stiff model trees in a fringe where the view opens on to a motorway but you never seem to see a house. The land drops away on the left. That narrow ride cuts off at an angle through the woods; at night the distances are always hung with lights. Every quarry, every cliff. Every forestry track in deep Snowdonia exhaling mist, every junction between the seafront and a steep little lapboard terrace in every seaside town: every green lane anywhere in the rain. Maybe you’ve been there, maybe you haven’t.
Maybe you were here. Maybe you weren’t.
Hanwell Bridge to Wharncliffe Viaduct: suburban gardens, each with its decking, its wooden viewing bench, its toy mooring stage. At some point not long ago the river, suffering some sort of flux, the fluid equivalent of a seizure or convulsion, has swept down from the north, exfoliating its banks to grey mud, carrying away the garden-centre fences, the clumps of bamboo and exotic grasses, leaving instead a detritus of broken branches, blanched and ancient looking, tangled together with plastic carrier bags, broken toys and bits of garden architecture from the houses upstream. It has washed away a pebble path here, a nice if flimsy little gazebo there. Suburbia, which previously ran all the way down to the petrol coloured water, now ends ten feet further inland, ceding itself to a mud flat. We follow the river through Brent Lodge zoo and maze, past Hanwell Cricket Club with its views of St Andrews Tower, Ealing, to the point where it crosses Brent Valley Golf Course. There, I write by accident,“Gold Course”; and, extending that immediately to “Gold Coast”, arrive at the concept “Hanwell Gold Coast”. Hanwell Gold Coast, shabbier than some. Everywhere it slows, the stream is pasted with the usual milky brown curd; every large obstacle has a stationary stern eddy filled with beer cans and plastic bottles; and a smaller one at the bow.
A couple of paragraphs from the construction site, just because I like you–
Victoria emailed Short.
“It’s very English Heritage up here. I expect I’ve told you that before.” As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths, signposted at the will of competing conservation bodies, went off busily in all directions, running precipitately into one another, stumbling over brand new stiles, toppling into an overgrown quarry and out the other side. “They’re offering access. They’re offering so much access you don’t know where to go for the best.”
In fact, she often ended up beside the pool where she had watched Pearl bathe, and stood there wondering how she could make herself go in. She took off her sandals. She took off some of her clothes then, believing she had heard someone call their dog in the next field along, quickly put them back on again. She was puzzled by herself. On the surface, something seemed to splash and turn lazily; below it, the yellow flowers still lay preserved. They maintained their leaves, and a brittle look, and except for their curious habitat they were quite ordinary. On the way back she heard church bells. The day already had a waxy look, as if some very modern coating had been applied to it at half past seven that morning.
At home she sorted her mother’s things: small framed prints slotted as tightly as old vinyl into cardboard boxes, top edges furred with dust; an ashtray with horses on it; seashells in a jar. This to go, that to stay. Nothing she could place securely in her childhood, or in some later house.
Among the prints she discovered a Felix Kelly capriccio, about eighteen inches on a side. It was already framed. Victorian chimneys confronted self-satisfied Jacobean architecture across a placid lake; trees leaned out from wanly-lit surrounding heights. In the background, Wales had somehow been brought too close to Shropshire. She wiped the glass, knocked a nail into new plaster; stood back to look and saw, predictably, her own reflection. “Why does that always happen?” she wrote to Short. And: “I don’t expect you to have time to answer, between the demands of the gig economy and the heady bustle of metropolitan life. Well, here it’s been raining since 1301.”
Storms had in fact swept up from Powys for a week: after each one, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops, while refreshed jackdaws conducted their meetings in the invisible boardroom between the roofs. It was still summer but it didn’t quite feel like it.
“I don’t know what to think about Pearl,” she admitted suddenly, as if Short was in the room and was someone she could talk to.
When I was an obsessive climber, Shropshire was just a corridor you went down to get to Wales. You turned right or left at Birmingham, depending whether you’d come north or south. The effect of blinkering yourself in that way is that you accidentally save up unexplored territories. By 2005, whole areas of the country were overwhelming me with the sudden, pure clarity you feel in childhood and adolescence–nostalgia for landscapes you’ve yet to investigate, places you’ve yet to know. Shropshire, the South Downs, the Rhinogs: the world seemed new again, but now it was set up perfectly for an old head. I was certain I could make something out of this feeling, but publishing–which would rather you didn’t find things new again, for fear you might wander off on the wrong track–got in the way and since then writing has been a process of struggling back to a lost start point, through a substance a bit like glue.
I’m old enough to remember things that happened around 1949, although they are mostly about the weather & building sites. I don’t seem to remember myself at that age, only the things I looked at. Puddles. Careful stacks of materials. Sacks of sand. I don’t have a narrative of those places or of myself in relation to them; I’m careful not to retrofit them with one. They weren’t in cities, or even, really, in towns. They weren’t bomb sites. I wasn’t drawn to them, I already lived there. They were brand new greenbelt housing estates in Staffordshire or Warwickshire, on the perimeters of which the builders were still at work. They weren’t sites of fantasy or escape. The objects in them were fascinating because they were the objects of those places. Or they were intrinsically interesting, on a day-to-day basis, because of some quality, such as being transparent. Or frozen. Or yellow. Or having moved since I last saw them.
When we meet him, Buckmaster has been living in an old barn for a year and some months. He arrived “shoeless, over the moor from the east”. Since then he’s cleaned, repaired, caulked the gaps with anything he could find. He’s made it his own. His intention is “To be open, to be in fear, to be aching with nothingness”. This, he says, is the only life. Nevertheless, he’s not sleeping much. He dreams of a hare with human eyes. Awake, he’s hallucinating. There are patterns on the moor; and when the tourists go home at night, “All the centuries drop away, and I am in the presence of something that does not know time.” Something is coming towards him, he doesn’t know what.
I’ve got two slots at Edge Lit in July, it seems. For the GoH “speech” I’ll read a new story & maybe answer questions about the forthcoming short story collection & the novel in progress. For the other one, an item on writing landscape, I’ll probably do something like this–
Landscape in fiction is never just background, or you’re wasting your opportunities. Let the landscape do as much of the work of informing the reader of your intentions as possible. Entangle your ideas & meanings with the setting. Fold them into one another.
Empty Space: the Funene Golden Hour, a landscape derived from photography of the Namib coast. Ad-image pseudo-sublime. What is the difference between awe & oh wow? The reification of an aesthetic judgement, a play on the use of the term “landscape porn”. Woven into the trilogy’s general position on neoLiberal postindustrial spectacle–the transformation of real sites into sites of public art, ie leisure heritage.
Climbers: “The moment you step into a landscape it becomes another one.” But also, the gritsone edges as a kinaesthetic abacus on which you “tell” your life. To what degree–& in how many lives–has Stanage served that purpose–emotional touchstone or pivot, hermitage, site of psycho-addiction sought out at points in your life, abandoned at others–but also the sense that the gritstone landscape can in some unforgiving way abandon you & you may never be allowed to go back…
Come prepared to ask: What’s the difference, then, between a real landscape & a fictional one? & its various obvious corollaries.