Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Ground of the Sea: Sinclair, Scovell and nature writing

During a summer in which we holidayed in different parts of Wales - on Anglesey, in a cold but dry week spent on beaches and checking out standing stones and ancient burial sites, and then a wet week in Ceredigion - I was invited to participate in an upcoming evening of talks and films to celebrate the work of Adam Scovell. it's in Oxford on the 24th of October, and is called 'Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the English Eerie'. I'm excited by this, as it should be  a fascinating event, with different speakers, a showing of some of Adam's films, poetry readings and a performance by Sharron Kraus. I'm going to be talking a bit about Alan Garner, in relation to Adam's film homage. At a previous conference, the Alchemical Landscape conference in Cambridge in March, I talked about Garner's later book Thursbitch and how it presented topographies of land and sky in relation to each other. This time, I'm going to be talking about a less well-known Garner text, a short tv play broadcast in 1980 called 'To Kill A King'. It has much of the Garner idiom compressed into a short vignette in which a blocked writer struggles with his muse, and it's shot in the landscape around Garner's own house, with railway line and Jodrell Bank radio telescope highly visible. I'll post the talk up here in due course.

In the meantime, summer reading has - when not bound up with the necessities of academic publications - tended towards writing on landscape. In my last blog post I wrote about Iain Sinclair's London Overground, which documents a days's walk taken around the 'Ginger Line' with Andrew Kötting, who now seems to be a preferred Sinclair companion/ provocateur/ foil. His other text of 2015, Black Apples of Gower, published by Little Toller (as is the reprint of Richard Mabey's The Unofficial Countryside, another summer read), returns more to the familial and personal ground in a text like Edge of the Orison (2005) and his companion is Sinclair's wife Anna. This feels right both for the kind of book this is, and the the territory being covered. It's interesting that Sinclair returns to his childhood on the Gower in the same year in which his film collaboration with Kötting, By Ourselves, which itself returns to the ground of Edge of the Orison: John Clare's 'Journey Out of Essex', in which he escaped from the asylum in which he had been placed and walked back to his home village in Northamptonshire. Northampton has strong familial connections for Anna, and there's a very interesting turn towards personal and family history in that book which I found very engaging, even refreshing.

As Sinclair says in a long interview with John Rogers about London Overground and Black Apples of Gower, they're quite different books, written in slightly variant styles. London Overground is pacy, zooming along with Sinclair and Kötting around the circuit, flashing with the kind of cultural associations and connections to occluded histories that is a Sinclair staple, but as I noted in my previous post, it's not Sinclair's own ground, 'Sinclair's London'. He often confesses his relation to bits of the South and West of the city is fleeting or tenuous. Black Apples is rather more meditative, and is a kind of deep reflection on his childhood, his formative relationship with the landscape of the Gower, and his meeting with Vernon Watkins (which encourages a kind of ethos of openness with regard to other, particularly neophyte, writers and artists). I liked Black Apples a lot, and think it's a more weighty and interesting book than London Overground.

As Adam Scovell has recently collaborated with Robert Macfarlane on a short film of Holloway, I picked up a copy at our local independent bookshop in Oswestry. Holloway is a short but fascinating book, much more oblique than The Wild Places or The Old Ways, and for me, much the better for it. And I noted with interest that the film of Holloway has a different script: it doesn't stage the book, instead becoming a visual and aural meditation on it. I'm rather ambivalent about Macfarlane's work myself; while Mark Cocker's New Statesman critique of Macfarlane and the 'new nature writing' mode was something of a takedown (and received a strong rebuttal from Macfarlane himself), I think the point made by David Craig in the current edition of the LRB, in which he reviews Macfarlane's Landmarks, is correct: where writers such as Richard Maybe or Mark Cocker 'stay with a region or species for long enough to sink into it and pass, as nearly as can be, inside it, he [Macfarlane] veers from one writer or locale to another. ... The necessity for Macfarlane is finding words to express the experience of nature.' Although Craig says 'it depends on how deep you want to go', the implication is of course that Macfarlane's work doesn't go deep enough.

I re-read 'Silt' (about the Broomway, a shoreline track off Foulness Island in Essex that's fairly close to where I grew up) and feel that Craig has a point. It's very well written, has a rather lyrical quality, and it makes you see and feel the place. But Macfarlane is only visiting: in some ways, it's like very high-class travel writing. That has it's own pleasures, certainly. Macfarlane's work certainly doesn't pretend to be anything other than it is, a visitor's perspective, almost a connoisseur's; and Craig's own language - the verb 'pass' is very revealing, as in 'pass for local' - arouses my suspicions about the 'depth' of other writers who 'stay'. What we should have is more writing by those who live in these particular places: what do Foulness dwellers think of it? I've just picked up the collection Est: Collected Reports from East Anglia, published by Dunlin Press, and I'm hoping that sense of rootedness in the local is what I'll find there. First delvings look promising.

That's what attracts me to Sinclair and to Garner, I suppose. Their work is very strongly associated with a territory, a ground, re-visited and re-worked over and over again. (This is why London Overground isn't such a revealing book, in many ways, as Black Apples of Gower.) As an incomer to Wales, I'm still a visitor, though I've lived here for 15 years now. Going to Anglesey or the Ceredigion coast isn't a return to home ground, but I've realised that the sea and the coast, having grown up in Thames-side Essex, has a symbolic pull for me that the mountains of North Wales don't have. The sound, the smells, of sea and estuary mud, as well as the shifting blue/grey/green/brown of deep water, says something to me. Much as I love the valley where we live, and I'm fascinated by its history, Triton always comes knocking on my door.

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