The Living Land


Reading Robert McFarlane’s Landscape left me with a list of titles noted for future investigation (which is I think one of the main points of his book). In looking for books to read on the loose subject of landscape I’m hoping for authors (from any age) who will prompt me to look at the land in different ways. Every year I walk the same set of cliffs in North Cornwall, for example, but every year they look different, partly because of the passing of the years but mainly because I’ve read some more since my last visit and having read some more look a little differently at the rocks, the plants and the sea. Not being a writer I can’t really put into words what I see, but there’s a deep joy in finding writers who can, and who can bring me to see differently.

Which brings me to Jacquetta Hawkes and her book A Land, published in 1951. For many, this will be an established classic that they’ve read and re-read, for me it’s a new discovery. When Collins published a new edition there was an excellent discussion of it in The Guardian by (who else) Robert McFarlane that’s well worth reading. He also contributes the introduction to the new edition and it’s an expanded version of that which made its way into ‘Landscape’.

In essence A Land is a kind of prose poem, a recounting of a dream of the creation of the British Isles. Hawkes describes it as ‘a memoir’ and that’s a clever description, because while it follows a historical trajectory it’s not a history, and while it provides much geological detail it’s not a textbook, and while it talks about the development of human society it’s not anthropology or sociology in any conventional sense. What it is, is a meditation on how the land came to be the way it is, and how we came to be the way we are. Hawkes describes the geological formation of the British Isles in an accessible way and then overlays the development of our society in terms of its impact on the land. Once we get to the Industrial Revolution onwards it’s not, as you might expect, a pretty picture. Having said that, Hawkes locates the shift from working with the landscape to breaking through it somewhere around the arrival of the Romans and their straight roads, which are contrasted with the original green lanes that wind through the contours of the landscape.

Hawkes also describes the shift from the use of local building materials to their transport across the country and the attendant breaking of the connection between the local landscape and human settlement. Hawkes was writing in 1951 and I can’t help seeing the extension of her description rolling forward sixty years and covering the building of houses in places that traditional builders would have avoided and other practices of today that mark our shift from working with the landscape to imposing ourselves on it and dealing with any implications by yet more interventions such as flood defences and so on. Having said that, climate change is also threatening ancient settlements where the builders were in harmony with the elements once, but not any more. Hawkes however would no doubt say that seeing change as a natural process our ancestors would have simply moved to safer ground rather than trying to hold back the tide (so to speak). The world, of course, isn’t that simple any more, and today A Land reads in part as a lament for that fact.

Hawkes describes a point of balance between humans and the land and then shows us passing through it and pushing on into the age of concrete and the covering of our fields and hillsides with industry, pollution and waste. It’s a depressing picture at the end of an uplifting meditation on the forming, folding and eroding of the rocks that make up our country and it’s Hawkes’ wonder at this process and the picture of her lying in her garden in London feeling the living earth stretching out around her that I want to hold on to after reading this book. The science may no longer be current and society may be very different now (although that just makes Hawkes look prophetic) but the beauty of the prose and the magic of her vision of a living land make this an absolute classic and a must for anyone who wants to see the country through fresh eyes.


Telling it like it might have been…


I’m not sure why Thomas Mallon‘s work isn’t better known the the UK. His books don’t have British editions although they’re published by Random House and are of course easily available via online bookshops. Maybe his subjects, American politics and small town American life, don’t strike a chord here. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because Mallon is a great writer.

I’m currently on my third Mallon book, Dewey Defeats Truman (and no, it’s not an alternative reality, Dewey loses in the book too, it’s a reference to the conviction of pretty much everyone in 1948 that Dewey was going to win and to possibly the world’s most famous incorrect newspaper headline). The book tells the story of the inhabitants of Dewey’s home town of Owosso, Michigan, during the 1948 Presidential election as they plan for his inevitable victory and the prosperity that will come to them as a result. Well, some of them. At least one of them is hoping an old secret won’t be revealed. But I won’t spoil the plot for you. Mallon weaves his fictional plot around the real events of the election and gives us the hopes, fears and loves of the townspeople. It’s gentle and affectionate and beautifully written.

My first Mallon book was Watergate, in which he fictionalises the events leading up to Nixon’s resignation. Most of the characters are real but he invents one or two figures to help drive the narrative. But on the whole he doesn’t need to make people and events up, the real thing was stranger than fiction. The key figure in the book is Pat Nixon, Nixon’s wife, and Mallon truly brings her to life as she watches her husband fall and holds on to her own personal tragedies.

The Nixons carry over into Mallon’s latest book, Finale, which picks up the Reagan years, principally Iran Contra and the Reykjavik summit. Mallon makes Nixon the eminence grise, sending messages via intermediaries to various key figures in Reagan’s administration. As with Pat Nixon in Watergate, Nancy Reagan is a key player in Finale, as she copes with her growing realisation of Reagan’s impending descent into dementia and organises his life with the help of astrology. Finale also brings back some characters from Dewey Defeats Truman and shows us where they’ve reached at the other end of their lives.

For anyone with even a passing interest in American history and politics, Mallon’s books are a fascinating fictional view of key events from the recent past. He writes elegant prose and tells a good story. His portrayal of the main historical figures make you wish that they really had been like that while leaving you with the suspicion that, as with all fiction, the reality was somehow less inspiring. Except in the case of Watergate perhaps.

As well as not being in print in the UK, Mallon’s books are for some reason not available in many e-book formats either. Don’t let that put you off – order them from the online bookshop of your choice, sit back and enjoy.


Coming soon (update)… The Vespas Blog Tour: Ailsa Craig Island Discs


So here’s the deal. To celebrate the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas we’ve stranded our author, David F Ross, on Ailsa Craig, with nothing but basic rations, a copy of the works of Burns and the Evening Times Wee Red Book for 1984, eight records and a luxury item of his choice. Now we’re going to ask him a few questions.

Trust me, the answers are going to be worth reading. As for the record choices, from the man who created Max Mojo, expect some great sounds…

Watch this space on 9 March…

Of making many books…


Robert McFarlane is an author that I was bound to get to fairly rapidly when I started reading books about landscape (see previous posts). Whether I was right to start with his latest, Landmarks, or not, remains to be seen. It was a fascinating read in many ways, but perhaps didn’t quite live up to the blurb (and while he writes very well, I’m not sure I’m going with the John Banville quote on the cover that says his prose style will make novelists ‘burn with envy’. Then again, Banville’s a novelist, and I’m not.).

This is probably more about my expectations than McFarlane’s book, which once I’d settled into it did introduce me to a group of key nature writers and encourage me to explore them, especially Jacquetta Hawkes, Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin and J.A Baker, as well as reintroducing me to old favourites Richard Jefferies and Henry Williamson. These are the ‘landmarks’ of the book’s title, and that I suppose was my problem, as I was expecting a book about the land itself, rather than a guide to other books about the land. On that level it works brilliantly, but I kept wanting McFarlane to stay with whatever he was looking at (the Cairngorms, birds of prey, waterways and so on) for a bit longer and give me some more of his own insights. This, I think, is unfair of me. This is essentially a book of essays on McFarlane’s key influences, and that’s a role it fulfils very well.

A major component of the book is the glossaries. These are collections of words relating to landscape collated by McFarlane on his travels and from submissions by acquaintances. They’re loosely grouped by topic area and are not in any way systematic. While McFarlane makes no bones about that, it caused a bit of a problem for me. Each word has a brief explanation but they’re essentially without context. Some are regional or dialect and some are different languages but there’s no sense of etymology or of how they might be used in speech. For example, he lists the Cornish root word mena (a hill or high point) which I’m certainly aware of being used in place-names, such as Menabilly (the home of Daphne du Maurier). But as a child in Cornwall I never heard anyone say they were off for a walk ‘up the mena’. Maybe that’s just because it wasn’t used in my part of Cornwall, but my point is that the glossary doesn’t help me with where and how it might be used. Again, perhaps I’m being unfair here as a detailed etymology is clearly not the purpose of the book, but it left me feeling slightly cheated. Where John R. Stilgoe leads us gently through the development of landscape words and terms, McFarlane throws them at us and leaves us to make of them what we will.

I enjoyed this book. But it leaves me with a strangely incomplete feeling. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps I should just get out there and complete the story myself by reading the landmark authors, experiencing the places and hearing the words for myself. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I’ll also find more of what I’m looking for in McFarlane’s other books. Reading this one has certainly left me keen to read more of his work. It’s just that this one, for me, is a bit of curate’s egg. For balance though, you should read the review of a proper critic, Horatio Clare, who loved it.

To end on a good note though, without reading this book I might not have discovered the existence of The Pebbles on the Beach by Clarence Ellis, which is going with me on my next trip home to Cornwall…

Walking on water


Reading books about landscape seems mainly to generate a lot of references to new books that you then want to find and read. This is a good thing in every sense except the financial. The book I reviewed in the previous post, John R Stilgoe’s What is landscape? is no exception. In talking about the practice of the deep exploration of landscape Stilgoe references Donald Maxwell’s A Detective in Kent and thanks to the speed of the internet, I was able to acquire and read a copy as near to instantly as makes no difference.

Donald Maxwell published A Detective in Kent in 1929. It’s subtitle is ‘landscape clues to the discovery of lost seas’ and it is illustrated with his own sketches and maps. The book explores the evidence in the landscape for the seas around Thanet and the Romney Marsh in past times and how they gradually receded or were reclaimed as land by the inhabitants.

While being no expert I suspect that much of the methodology and the conclusions drawn from it have been superseded in the intervening century but that doesn’t invalidate the joy of reading this book. As with so many books from the first half of the twentieth century, the prose is from a more refined age and is elegant and plain, with an absence of complicated language and hyperbole. As with reading writers such as Chesterton and Conan Doyle, there is a simple pleasure to be had in the way Maxwell writes and also in the way that he leads the reader through his approach to assessing the landscape and reading the clues he finds there. The meaning of words and place names in particular is key to his conclusions as is the physical evidence he reads from the fields and hillsides.

The book also takes us back to England between the wars, a place which has disappeared for ever. Many of the rural areas Maxwell examines are decidedly less rural now although you can follow many of his landscape clues via the very modern medium of Google Earth. I also doubt that there is still a tollgate on the road from Tenterden to Rye that is ‘guarded by a gnome, who will open it got you for a modest sum’ (page 139).

Regardless of any contemporary opinions of Maxwell’s conclusions, he helps us look at landscape more deeply and with an eye to the way nature and man have shaped it, and he does this in a simple and elegant style which is also found in his illustrations. It’s also a reminder of a different age of publishing, when The Bodley Head produced a large range of fascinating books in a portable and well-made form. Well worth the few hours it takes to read, and the insight it gives. There are plenty of second-hand copies available online and I recommend the investment.

From going to and fro in the earth


It’s very, very hard to find any genuine wilderness, at least in the UK. That’s wilderness in the sense of being in a place that is completely untouched by humans. Not a wall, not a pathway, nothing. Which leaves the majority of the space around us being described as landscape. As John R. Stilgoe puts it in his remarkable book, What Is Landscape?, the noun ‘landscape’ ‘designates the surface of the earth people shaped and shape deliberately for permanent purposes’. So that’s pretty much all of it in one way or another.

Stilgoe’s book is fundamentally about how we name our landscape, and how in parallel with the development of our occupation and shaping of landscape the words we use to describe it have developed. The book is a meditation on words and what lies behind them. It is not, says Stilgoe, a field guide. He’s right about that. This is a book to read by a glowing fire before a good night’s sleep and an early start to get out an explore the landscape around you with Stilgoe’s advice on how to look at it fresh in your mind. Though you will also be tempted to rush off to the nearest second hand bookshop to see if you can acquire one of the many ancient dictionaries he recommends as the sources of his vocabulary of landscape. Modern dictionaries you see, with the exception of the OED (the full version, naturally) just don’t cope with the range and depth of landscape words that permeate the countryside but which are falling out of use.

As a sample, here is Stilgoe in his chapter on ‘Ways’ exploring some of the lineage of ‘wharf’:

Waterfront terminology rewards the closest possible study: once spelled qwerf (at least in Scotland and the north of England), ‘wharf’ is probably kin to key and quay and hawe, the last meaning in Old English an enclosure, especially a churchyard, and evolving through the Scottish and northern English heigh into hoe, a word enduring now only in place names, Plymouth Hoe perhaps being the best known, designating a turning-in spot. (Page 170)

Stilgoe takes us through the precise terms that have over the centuries been required by sailors and farmers among others to describe very precise landscape phenomena and looks in details at the reclaiming of land from the sea. The main impact of his book though is to give us a sense of how to look deep into our landscape rather than across it. To see the layers and the shapes and the history. The prose is elegant and measured and Stilgoe is a companion who is always ready with another fascinating piece of knowledge. The best compliment I can give this book is that it’s the first time I can remember finishing a book and wanting to re-read it immediately.

Books on landscape-related areas have become a bit of an industry, especially when taken together with psychogeography, with the inevitable variability of quality and insight. For me, What Is Landscape? has the distinction of being the place you should start from, with the added benefit that if it’s the only book on landscape you read, it will be enough.