Thursday, 16 April 2015

Catch Me Daddy - Moorland Gothic

Catch Me Daddy is the rough-edged but searingly memorable debut feature film from music video director Daniel Wolfe, name-checked in Robert Macfarlane's recent Guardian article on The eeriness of the English countryside. In common with other recent hard-hitting 'Brit-grit' films most of the characters are played by non-professional actors, a lineage established by Ken Loach and perhaps an antidote to the high-end thesping of much British input into contemporary cinematic culture.

The naturalistic performances certainly give the work authentic impact, as does the spare and economical dialogue - a mixture of sub-titled Urdu and sometimes abstruse Yorkshire and Scottish accented English. There is also an interesting motif running through the film of narcotic stupefaction: every character has their own constantly consumed opiate, whether that be cannabis, tobacco, cocaine, gin, prescription drugs, high sugar fizzy drinks or a mixture thereof. 

As you may gather, this is a film for which 'not for the faint hearted' is an apt description. In this respect there is a sense of slightly one-dimensional grimness. The remorseless pursuit that is the central narrative has seen the film dubbed a 'Yorkshire Western' but it lacks the light and shade of, say, Shane Meadow's East Midland's revenge-noir Dead Man's Shoes.

What I found most arresting in viewing the film was its acute sense of place. This particularity ensures that it will resonate with anyone familiar with the bleak beauty of the moorlands that encircle the West Yorkshire conurbation of Leeds-Bradford and its satellite (ex) mill towns like a ready made folk-horror film set. The peaty heights of Calderdale and the Dark Peak easily inspire dread and are at once both closely juxtaposed to the towns and cities that their fast-flowing waters created but also in possession of a forbidding otherness that belies their location a few minutes and miles from urban centres. In a post on the nearby Worth valley, I expanded on the regional genius loci: "Its a landscape in which dispersed farmsteads, miles of dry stone walling and pack-horse tracks across the high heather moors share space and time with woollen mill towns and villages battered by the elements and economic decline, and narrow valley floors often crowded with two centuries of communications networks: canal, railway and road".

As essayed in William Atkin's book The Moor (2014), these landscapes have borne witness to dark crimes, uprisings and lawlessness. With these stories and with this character, they have also darkened the topographical exactitude of the writings of the Bronte sisters, of Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage. This specificity of location brings to mind Pawel Pawlikowski's 2004 film My Summer of Love, which also utilises the South Pennines uplands as the setting for an - ultimately doomed - sense of freedom and fleeting enchantment for its young lead characters. Both films have refreshingly strong female leads; an all-too-rare trait shared with West Yorkshire-based Benjamin Myers novel Beastings (2014) which centres on the pursuit of a young women and a baby by a psychotic priest and a mercenary, dead-eyed poacher across the Lakeland fells.   

With a finale that is left tantalisingly open and unfinished, yet without compromise or cop-out, Catch Me Daddy packs a punch. It also admirably underscores the reality of inter-racial and inter-cultural interactions - whether positive, everyday mundane or more malevolent - that gives a lie to the rhetoric of irrevocably divided communities in Northern towns and cities.    

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Sad Road to the Sea: Walking a forgotten branchline by Jack Cooke

A guest post from Jack Cooke on the storied melancholia of walking a forgotten East Anglian branchline. 

No one departs, no one arrives
From Selby to Goole, from St Erth to St Ives.
They've all passed out of our lives
On the Slow Train, on the Slow Train.
(Flanders & Swann)

Ducking in behind the pawnbrokers on Saxmundham High Street the footpath leads north, following a sheltering embankment of cow parsley and crisp packets. After a few hundred feet and glimpses of neat allotments, I emerge alongside rails, picking up speed like a train pulling free of the town. Ahead of me, the track splits, the Lowestoft service passing on up the coast. How many of its passengers ever spot a sister track, half-hidden behind gravel sacks and wire? This forgotten line curves gently away to the east, disappearing into the hedgerows. I cross the rails, a necessary trespass to follow the old route to the sea.

Board a train anywhere in mainland Britain tomorrow and you have roughly eleven thousand miles of track ahead of you. You can coast along steels to every city, a thousand towns and even the odd village. Yet if you yearn to travel by rail into the small corners of the British countryside, you have missed your train by a margin of fifty years or more.

From the moment the first steam engine berthed in the 19th century, British railways spread fast across the length and breadth of the islands. At its peak the system extended over twenty-three thousand miles of rail, hundreds of branch lines diverting from the main trunks and journeying into lonely valleys and onto isolated headlands. As the network expanded it became increasingly eccentric, with different operating systems and burgeoning costs. With the rise of the roads after the First World War, traffic from many of the smaller tracks found other means and some branch lines ground to a halt. Following nationalisation in 1948 this programme of closure accelerated but, by the 1960s, the warp and weft of the network was still haemorrhaging over three hundred thousand pounds a day.

In the midst of this deepening crisis, two opposing forces came head-to-head on the spider-web of British rail. The infamous Dr Beeching, rationalist and man of science, newly appointed Chairman of the British Transport Commission, and John Betjeman, romantic and man of letters, soon to be appointed Poet Laureate. These men were emblematic of polarised attitudes, on one side the desire to modernise Britain’s sprawling rail network and cut its crippling deficits, and on the other a passion for preservation, for conserving a rural and industrial past and the communities served by the branchlines. The ‘Beeching Axe’ was victorious. Link-by-link most of the remaining tracks were torn up or cut off; they became fading constellations in a universe of shrinking steel.  

Trains that end in the sea have always had a peculiar romance. As the ground falls away to the coast, the traveller seems to pick up speed, accelerating to meet land’s edge. For one hundred years and six, a small railway branch on the East Suffolk coast serviced fish, coal and passengers. Leaving the Lowestoft line it looped away from a junction, breaking for the sea on a long descent through small towns; Leiston, Thorpeness and finally to the shore at Aldeburgh.

Today, it is a half-track, four miles of rail and four more of farmland. The dawning of the nuclear age has saved the first section as far as Leiston. The A, B, and coming C of Britain’s nuclear power complex at Sizewell beach provides enough traffic, construction and radioactive waste, to keep the steels in place. Beyond, the old track is marked only by its absence. There is little evidence left of the thousands of tonnes of fish sacks or coal stacks, or the people who used the line.

I wanted to recapture the views of fifty years long gone, to come to the sea as a tourist might have done half-a-century ago, not funnelled up a tarmac corridor but flying over the flatland. By following the line from beginning to end, along the repossessed nuclear railway and then on, to the traces etched in crag path and clearing, I hoped to rediscover a lost perspective on familiar country. I wanted to conjure, just for one day, the steaming splendour of ‘The Eastern Belle’, ‘The East Anglian’, and other trains that once took this track, loaded with ice-cream anticipation, sea visions and thoughts of escape.

Turning off down the branch line, the track is well ordered. New Magnox rivets secure the sleepers and steel and, once a year, a ‘weed-killer’ engine comes shunting up these rails, lacing the embankment in a chemical cocoon, keeping the passage clear for nuclear flasks passing in the night. In photographs these toxic containers look just like the classic cash boxes of great Hollywood heist movies; treasure chest-shaped and lying in state on single carriages. Their innocent form cloaks a dead weight of fifty tonnes, steel casing and lead linings housing radioactive waste in transit. I try to imagine the flasks passing me on the track, mistaken for holy relics washed up by the sea; a funeral procession on its way up the line to some inland place of rest.

The track is sloping toward the seaward horizon now. Elated calls of mating birds blend with the distant curses of lone farmers, spring bringing sex for one and toil for the other. I am walking in the long shadow of Good Friday, though the parish churches I glimpse from the embankment will be observing it in small, solemn congregations barely filling single pews, much like the last passengers on this branch line nearly fifty years ago.

My legs were not manufactured for this gauge of railway. Just too short to bridge sleepers with a single stride, I fall between the cracks, boots scudding on the aggregate and clipping alternate ties. After a mile of this halting pace, I catch a rotten sleeper and fall headlong with hands outstretched. I make to rise, looking back between my legs and ahead, embarrassed by my mistake. Then I remember where I am, exposed but alone, and settle back onto the railroad, balancing my head on the warming noon steel.

There is a strange magnetism attached to walking a railway. Just as a train is bound to the limits of the line, after an hour walking between the rails I feel locked in and unable to deviate. A pedestrian on rails is melded in my mind with ideas of the American West; frontier towns, steel-driving men, endless horizons. As I press on down the old branch line the comparisons with springtime Suffolk do not seem so remote. The sporadic shotgun cases of farmers and poachers lie alongside the bones of predated rabbits in the track bed. On either side spreads flat desert with patchy trees and silent tractors, loose metal sounding in the wind. The pancake of coastal East Anglia becomes twinned with territories in Wyoming or Utah, all ‘big sky country’. On old ordnance maps, used when this line still carried passengers, some of these fields bear the same colouring as Saharan sand.

I come off the line on the outskirts of Leiston, next to the town cemetery. I have avoided the thousand pound trespass fine with no more than a hostile look from an old woman at one of the crossing cottages. I wonder if she has made a phone call and the British Transport Police block the next crossing, lazy blue sirens spinning on the verge. In my experience, there’s never been such a good way to meet people as trespassing on their property. You’ve immediately given them the high ground, which makes them a lot more sociable. You can then proceed to roll over like a dog. Everyone loves dogs.

Eating the remainder of my lunch, pulverised pork pie and sweet tea, I look back at the blank hedge behind me with no sign of the railway hiding under its blackthorn ridge. Like the Suez Canal, it takes a moving object to make you aware of what lies concealed in this landscape. The blackthorns form a ha-ha, hiding the margin into the next field and history in their shadow.

In 1872 an iron safe was installed in the Leiston ticket office. The volume of trade and passengers on the line had reached such levels that the Station Master regularly found fifty pounds worth of fares burning through his pocket at nightfall. In contemporary cash, that’s nigh on a grand. As I enter Leiston’s suburbs, walking in the shade of post-war housing estates, I try to conjure a cantering 19th century villain, shotgun under arm, cresting the rise ahead of me and bent on the day’s takings.

Beyond Leiston, I come to Crown Farm siding, where radioactive waste leaves the coast for its long journey North for reprocessing. In a gap at the end of the street, the titanic globe of Sizewell B sits, half-buried in its seaside bunker of sand and shingle. An elderly man, shuffling out of the adjacent Sizewell Social Club, looks at me suspiciously. “Yer awright boi?” he says, fag in mouth. Here men come to play pool and poker in the lee of the reactors, successive phases of British power sculpted by father and son. I give a thumbs up and scuttle off into the undergrowth behind the loading bays. There are no nuclear flasks lying upended in the scrub.

Past the bays and winches and the rails end abruptly, a sharp transition from steel to sand. Only rabbits use this railroad now, the old grooves providing perfect speedways for bunnies going about business. The ghost of the track remains in the landscape; rows of gorse bushes clinging to an unseen ridge; gate posts facing each other across fenceless margins.

Clouds gather and a light rain falls on a group of cabbage pickers, working under pylons in the field beside the track. Watching their progress I am surprised to turn forward again and find myself on a long, narrow lawn, running straight for two hundred feet toward a small bungalow. I pause outside, wanting to go in and compliment the owners on their well-mown piece of railway history.  Beyond the bungalow, abandoned in a small grove is Thorpeness Halt, the penultimate stop on my journey. I find the platform buried in brambles. Ambitious trees have rooted themselves in its spilt lip and tall thistles are the only travellers, swaying as they wait for a train that will never come again. Somewhere beyond the weeds is the Meare at Thorpeness, the resort vision of John Barrie, and behind that the town and the sea washing its back. I kneel on the ruined platform, bewitched by the mummified air surrounding a station that no longer exists as a mark on the map. If you take express trains across Britain there is a degree of comfort as you speed past tantalising, half-glimpsed stations, that you might one day alight there. The only way to return to Thorpeness Halt is on foot.

Continuing on down the last seaside miles to Aldeburgh, something drifts across the path behind me, dry leaves and dust. All the absent elements of the old railway, the steels, the broken ties, the shifting rock of the embankment, reassemble in my head. The wind through the firs that line the path starts to gather strength and then subsides, like the memory of an engine that won’t start anymore. Is this the first whispers of a ghost train soon to come steaming around the weeds and deadwood? I conjure a gleaming Pullman bearing down on the dog-walkers, bird-watchers and cyclists, all trespassing on its route.
I arrive at the end of the line at nineteen minutes past four in the afternoon – a late-running service. A journey that once would have taken twenty-two windswept minutes has lasted five hours on foot and the sun is already low in the west. What it must have been like, to come rolling in at dusk with ducks skimming off the marsh and the lightships slowly flickering to life out at sea. On the promenade a wind whisks salt rain over the houses and clouds bunch overhead. The advent of a storm is imminent, but even under dark skies The Railway Inn at the ruined end of the line is full; beer and chips spilling out onto the street once home to the terminus. That business should be so good makes me wonder, did Dr Beeching destroy a sleeping fortune?

The scratched plastic of the shelter spots with rain as I wait for a bus back to the working rails and the city. My thoughts turn to the future on this stretch of coast. When East Anglia sinks into the mud of the North Sea, what will become of this small embankment; a barely-visible lip, breaking the incoming tides that flood the land around it? Perhaps in another hundred years people will swim across these fields, long since underwater. Looking down through clouded masks they may glimpse a strange line of aggregate, fading slowly into the silt. Who amongst them will recognise the golden age of rail, lost beneath the sea?

You can find out about more of Jack's writing projects on his website.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Kei Miller - The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion

A new collection by Jamaican poet Kei Miller; a dialogue between a map-maker, seeker of rational order and cartographical truth, and a rastaman, for whom the landscape, its names and landmarks weigh heavy with history, sufferation and spiritual hope.

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (extract)

The cartographer:
... My job is to untangle the tangled,
to unworry the concerned ...

The rastaman:
... the mapmaker's work is to make visible
that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquest of pirates, like borders,
like the viral spread of governments.

The cartographer:
... No - what I do is science. I show
the earth as it is, without bias ...
... I aim to show the full
of a place in just a glance.

The rastaman:
... draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw you a map of what you never see
and guess me who's map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?

What the Mapmaker Ought to Know

On this island things fidget.
Even history.
The landscape does not sit
as if behind an easel
holding pose
waiting on
to pencil
its lines, compose
its best features
or unruly contours.
Landmarks shift,
become unfixed
by earthquake
by landslide
by utter spite.
Whole places will slip
out from your grip.

Miller, K, 2014. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Carcanet.


Burning Spear - Slavery Days:

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Light the paths you want to roam

Well I'm going

Back to the country

Up on the mountains

Up on the rising side

(Street Song - Thirteenth Floor Elevators)

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake

I've recently watched A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, Jeroen Berkvens' 2002 documentary that I came across via the Dangerous Minds web site. Like his music its gentle and melancholic, with contributions from his family, friends and fellow musicians. One key voice is Joe Boyd, who produced all three of Drake's albums, the meagre sales of which on release surely contributed to his untimely death at the age of 26. In his memoir of the folk-rock scene of the late 60s and 70s, White Bicycles, Boyd asks: "As the sixties drew to a close, who would have predicted that the end of the millennium would see Nick's music so much more prominent than that of the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, John Martyn or Sandy Denny?"    

I was particularly taken by the opening aerial footage of the countryside around his home village of Tanworth-in-Arden. For some reason it had not occurred to me before that this was only a few miles westwards across Warwickshire from Kenilworth, the town where I spent my childhood. Warwickshire is one of those Midland England counties that its easy to overlook: overawed and torn asunder by Birmingham and Coventry at its northern edge, in the shadow of Costwoldian Arcadia to the south. But linger along its tree lined lanes, forded streams, stout middling sort farmsteads and undulating fieldscapes and Warwickshire is quietly memorable and substantial, much like Nick Drake's music. This is, after all, the Forest of Arden of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Here is the full 48 minute film to enjoy:

Rob Young articulates well why Drake has such a hold on those of us (legion now, sadly pitifully few when he was alive) who find his music a particular touchstone for English pastoral melancholia in his treatise on Albion's soundscape, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music:
"A former friend and musical partner, Ross Grainger, described Drake as a 'modern pagan' long after his death, recalling conversations about Gaia theory, Stonehenge, ley lines and supernatural forces. Drake's songs may be full of natural images - rain, sun, moon, sky, ocean, sand, trees, roses, thorns etc. - but nature was no panacea either. For Drake, human fate was linked to the relentless round of the seasons - summer bliss must shade into autumnal age and regret; then comes the killing winter. His songs trace eternal cycles, natural revolutions, the turning of the year and the seasons, but with an awareness that repetitive motion can become a treadmill."  

At some stage, when I have managed to justify the outlay as necessary cultural enrichment, I hope to buy a copy of Nick Drake: Remembered For a While, the recently published Drake compendium and artifact. Andrew Ray provides a good flavour of the book on the Some Landscapes blog.

In the meantime, here's a mystical, bosky version of The Cello Song, recorded for the John Peel 'Night Ride' session in August 1969, in which to bask and be transported to the Forest of Arden at dusk, in the company of Orlando and Rosalind, Corin and Silvius:

Monday, 16 February 2015

Towards a new landscape aesthetic

"There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts.  ... my body has to be on the move to set my mind going ... to free my spirit, to lend a greater boldness to my thinking, to throw me, so to speak, into the vastness of things." Jean-Jacques Rousseau  
If I was to sketch out a day spent engaging with landscape and place to realise a wide range of phenomenological experiences and responses of mind, body and spirit - maximum topography - how would it look? Well, in the spirit of Rousseau, it would be an excursion on foot of course (if lacking the epicness of Werner Herzog's trek from Munich to Paris as chronicled in Of Walking in Ice, the ethos of letting oneself drift, 'a falling forward becomes a Walk', would be the same). But not just any walk, variety and unpredictability would be the key. So maybe it would commence in an urban setting; the grittier the better, with the right mix of post-industrial decay and renewal and diverse architectural styles, juxtaposed with a sheen of surface functional banality to expertly peel back, revealing the layered temporal stories behind the bland facade. A detour would be made into a stalwart and defiantly Amazon-baiting second-hand bookshop with a capacious 'topography' section and a number of musty volumes purchased, something antiquarian, something to saviour from the 60's or 70's and a long lost nature writing classic. City would morph into country as suburb, urban green space and anarchic edgeland are navigated - both a route-march along a harsh, litter-strewn and anti-pedestrian roadside and a meander through an oasis of unexpectedly lush and mysterious greenery would feature in this liminal, transitional phase.

As the countryside authentica is reached, guidebook spoon feeding would be disdained in favour of more spontaneous route-finding, perhaps using an antique Ordnance Survey map and attempting to trace nineteenth century topography on the ground. Along the way some reminders of harsh rural realities would no doubt be observed: a sighting of baseball-capped men digging for badgers, improbable fly-tipping, maybe a suspicion of dogging. But a number of viscerally profound moments would also be experienced. Catching the eye of a fox or deer and joining in a lingering stock-still stare. Sensing lives lived and gone whilst rooting around a ruined farmstead or water mill, where unidentifiable rusted ironware or the colours of a cracked tile become refracted relict reminders of the past. A feeling of magic in the air as wind and light switch and shift, changing the mood of the tree- and field-scape. As the gloaming hour approaches and fatigue sets in, having clambered up a rocky stream-bed and scrambled through holloway undergrowth in Rogue Male style, a hill-top clearing would be chanced upon with views over several counties as shadows lengthen across endless fields, as pylons and rail lines and infrastructure become magical objects of gaze. A good place for a night's wild camp. Sleep would be fitful, muffled nocturnal (spectral?) sounds invading thoughts of the day's encounters, accompanied by a soundtrack of wyrd-folk, pastoral electronica and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and readings from Reliquiae (a journal of old and new work spanning landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism). 

During the walk ambulatory clear-headedness would provide space for musing on a range of landscape-related topics whilst the miles were clocked-up: the links between the Parliamentary enclosure of common land and present day urban-rural division, how is an innate knowledge of fungi and wild flowers achieved, would Edward Thomas have favoured Nick Drake or the Incredible String Band, and such like. Along the way observations, smart phone photographs of arresting or unusual features and vistas and appropriate quotes from the landscape canon would be tweeted to an eclectic and discerning band of followers; observations and visual representations of the day to be later blogged or instagramed and debated on-line, perhaps included in a talk at a left-field festival, conference or pub social, or even forming part of the content of a crowd-funded book.

What would this mash-up journey into landscape immersion represent? Would it just be the ploughing of a mildly eccentric lone furrow? Creating an irrelevant line made by walking in the spirit of Richard Long, ephemeral self-indulgence whilst the real heft of landscape discourse and reality swells elsewhere: local campaigners mobilising against unbidden corporate uniformity or statist grand plans; photogenic academics revealing the results of their research through television series and tie-in book; exciting plans underway for the return of the wolf and rewilding nirvana; hip new ruralista's setting up boutique bunkhouses, offering foraging before breakfast, coasteering followed by artisan bread, craft ale and star gazing. Would this be just another example of a wannabe Self or Sinclair, strong on effort and perspiration but lacking their esoteric vocabulary or ecstatic sneer?

Or is there something in the wind, a fresh approach that this imaginary excursion partly encapsulates and, in fact, also links the other activities cited above. Perhaps not new ideas or concepts (the basics were all birthed in ancient Greece or long before), nothing that could be labelled a movement or a philosophy (the times are too post-modern for anything so quaint); but maybe an emerging coalescing - an alliance - of varied ways of thinking about, of looking at, of experiencing our spatial surroundings; their past, present and future. An antidote to the narrow focus that has often been the Achilles heel of much landscape discourse, characterised by a lack of cross-fertilisation between different disciplines and areas of interest (and often the absence of a feel for the range of emotions that being out in a landscape triggers). An echo of the view of Christopher Milne, searching for a personal philosophy and to find his own path away from his famous father’s shadow as outlined in The Hollow on the Hill, taking a lead from Richard Jefferies who “could be on one occasion the naturalist, observing and recording, and on another occasion the philosopher-poet, sensing and dreaming. One does indeed need to be both, for the one complements and enhances the other”. 

If there is the prospect here of a new aesthetic approach to landscape, then its worth pondering what components, however tangentially, combine to provide its origins, form and quintessence; to trace the foci and ley-line linkages (and talking of the ley, Alfred Watkin's The Old Straight Track (1925) is an example of what we are getting at here. The central ley lines theory of the book is eccentric, discredited, farcical - but that's not the point. As Robert Macfarlane's introduction to the 2014 edition unfurls "... the ley vision - with its mixture of mysticism, archaeology and sleuthing - re-enchanted the English landscape, investing it with fresh depth and detail, prompting new ways of looking and new reasons to walk").

“With this stone and this grass, with this red earth, this place was received and made and remade. Its generations are distinct but all suddenly present.” Raymond Williams
Interestingly, to discover this new vista it is necessary to go back, back to multiple pasts. Landscape as a mirror for reflecting on humanity's relationship with and manipulation of the natural world has deep antecedents; and its the mingling of these temporal layers of envisioning that is of interest here. The late 1960's and early 1970's seem to be a particular touchstone, a launching off point for a more eclectic approach to landscape; and not, I think, just thought of as such because I was born in the midst of this period and have nostalgia pangs for a time that never was as golden as it seems from this distance (my earliest memories of sitting in sunlit meadows are untroubled by the realities of Enoch Powell and industrial strife). Of course, this was a time of seismic societal change in culture, politics and economics, in the way people lived. And contemporary representations and responses to landscape and sense of place reflected this, though at the time without any conscious esprit de corps or awareness of common threads or interest. 

By way of illustration a seemingly amorphous and random collection of landscape aesthetics from the period might include: the sense and scenes of a decaying industrial infrastructure central to films such as Get Carter (1971) and Kes (1969); John Betjeman's televised elegies, in the teeth of the march of modernity, to disappearing or seemingly threatened features of England's architecture and landscape, typified by A Bird's Eye View (1964-1969) and Metro-land (1973); a triptych of cult folk-horror films, reinterpreting themes of a rural pagan past: Witchfinder General (1968), Blood On Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973); an empathetic, ecologically aware, less sentimental and more anthropomorphic engagement with nature as exemplified by the writings of Richard Mabey and J.A. Baker's book The Peregrine (1967); a new and more accessible discipline of landscape archaeology emerging from its high academia landscape history and historical geography roots, with practitioners such as Mick Aston and Christopher Taylor keen to range between study and field; the pastoral folk rock and psych-folk stylings of the likes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Incredible String Band, Waterson-Carthy, Shirley Collins and Vashti Bunyan; and, of course, foregrounded at this time was a general back to the land, 'good life' strand of counter-cultural hippiedom. All are examples of reinterpretation or reappropriation of the past in a time of great change, sometimes in a somewhat reactionary or idealistic way, often breaking new ground.

It is perhaps only with the passing of time that the paths between these varied perspectives can be navigated and identified as a loose network; a pattern that can be plotted and pieced to provide some kind of cohesive narrative. And a rich seam revealed at the heart of this new landscape vision is the heuristic weirdness just below the surface of even everyday and seemingly tamed terrain - Deep England (and Deep Wales, Deep Ireland, Deep Scotland, and, well, Deep anywhere). Back to the 70's polestar and two cultural artifacts, from many examples, serve to illustrate. The 1974 BBC Play For Today Penda's Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, is now much exalted, talked and written about; remarkably so given that it is not available on DVD and so rarely seen. A British Film Institute release with comprehensive and thoughtful accompanying booklet has become de rigueur for such treasures and will surely come. In the meantime impatience has been salved by the publication of a pamphlet, The Edge is Where the Centre Is, marking a rare screening of the film in 2014 on the anniversary of the death of the Ango-Saxon King Penda in AD 655. Found within is a synopsis of the story by Rudkin himself, which could serve to represent and encapsulate many of the themes essayed here:
"In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, a clergyman's son, in his last days at school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away - his parentage, his nationality, his sexuality, his conventional patriotism and faith...
Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills, he has encounters with an angel, and with a demon, with the ghost of Elgar, the crucified Jesus, and with Penda, England's last pagan king. In the final image, he turns away from his idealised landscape, to go into a world and adulthood with a value-system more anarchistic now, and readier to integrate the contradictions of experience."
David Gladwell's film, Requiem For A Village (1975) has received the BFI treatment. As with Penda's Fen, and with echoes of William Blake and William Morris, Requiem is a meditation on societal change in the countryside that combines, in Rob Young's words, "the contradictions of an English radical tradition in which opposition to the encroachment of 'the scrape' (ie capitalistic development) is instinctively aligned with a more conservative will to preservation" with "an attempt ... to show the coexistence of all things in time". The images in the film of the bodies of villagers from previous generations rising from the grave, reawakening the village past, are a reminder of the supernatural and hauntological undercurrents that have always effected perceptions of the landscape: "we had eyes for phantoms then". A theme also taken up at the time in television productions such as The Owl Service (1969), based on Alan Garner's influential book of the same name, Robin Red Breast (1970) and Children of the Stones (1977).

Once this terrain has been surveyed and mapped, other features and relics that provide signal traces, from before and since, can be unearthed, excavated and added; the layers enriching the sense of commonality and communion. Who would be the historical Arch-Druids that have formulated this stratigraphy? An irrelgular yet inspiring collection of mystic topographers, antiquarians, Utopians, visionary poets, folklorists, landscape historians and archaeologists, and proto-psychogeographers; often linked by their divergence from accepted norms and doctrines. 

Musing on landscape is as old as humanity - countless un-named, unknown shamen and sears must have held their tribes in thrall with vivid stories and imagery inspired by the flora, fauna and topography of their surroundings long before even Vergil and the Classical poets came on the scene with their flourishing tales of magick, milieu and mind: "Happy too the man who knows the gods of the country, Pan, and old Silvanus, and the sister Nymphs". Through dark days and into the Renaissance the flame was carried by the likes of John Leland, driven to madness by his topographical quest; Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers of St George's Hill, their doomed attempt to establish a 'Common Treasury' of land for all; and Sir Richard Colt Hoar and the empirical antiquaries "speaking from facts not theory", birthing archaeology whilst pillaging barrow and chapel.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

'And far away a mountain zone ...'

"And far away a mountain zone,
A cold white waste of snow-drifts lies"
Speak of the North, Charlotte Bronte

The new year's first encounter with a snowscape, and its the exceptional array of colour that fixes in the memory: the white and grey shades of the snow and sky a counterpoint to the tawny russet and sodden green of the hillsides. The winter sun seems to bring urgency to its brief displays and, filtered through cirrus and mist, its light pulls the life up out of a landscape that could otherwise appear drab and dormant at this time of year. 

Here in the Black Mountains the snow line is above about 300 metres; thick, dominant and drifting on the tops and slopes facing north and west into the weather front, more fleeting and peripheral on more sheltered ground. Long views become visions of coalescence: if not exactly the Antarctic vastness of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, there is the same "tendency of snowy earth and sky to merge into one mystical opalescent void with no visible horizon to mark the junction of the two".   

Up on the Pen Allt Mawr ridge, in Edward Thomas' 'great silence of snow', the whiteness is satisfyingly deep and proper; every footstep crunching in line with our childlike expectation of how snow should be, innocent of slush and dirt and imminent waning.

One of the many joys of a landscape visited by snow is the shape-shifting quality it can bring to familiar features.

The stone of a usually welcoming summit shelter, now a threatening ice-bound realm.  

A fallen tree cloaked in snow, with strangely human lines; from the mind of Andy Goldsworthy.

A trig point looming out of the cloud becomes a thing of ghostly sentinel reassurance amidst the enveloping whiteness.
Though walking in wintry conditions requires care and knowledge, in the words of R.S. Thomas snow feels no pity, it can also be a welcoming host; on heather uplands the thin dotted green or black path lines on the map become gleaming white high ways on the ground, illuminating the route ahead. This snowy benevolence enhanced by the boot tracks that give confidence of the right path taken (assuming a lost soul is not being followed). On this occasion the hard stamped marks of a fell runner anticipated my route, the same circuit completed in reverse.


And, in this far away mountain zone, how does it feel? It feels like I don't ever want to come down.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Sharron Kraus - Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails

Cold and damp January days require an appropriately melancholic soundtrack and I've recently been enjoying Pilgrim Chants & Pastoral Trails by a new find, Sharron Kraus. Sparse and, dare I say, ethereal, the album is inspired by the landscape of the Elan Valley in Mid-Wales, a place to which Kraus regularly returns and feels a longing for whenever she is away: hence the naming of the first track, Hiraeth, the beautiful Welsh word for the call of the land. Of recording the album in the valley, Kraus states that "I feel like I've travelled back in time - into my own memories and into the past - or into a land of faery". The titles of the other tracks, some including field recordings of birds, streams, waterfalls, wind and rain, continue this sense of place and memory:

Cadair Idris
Candlemas Moon
Winding Road
Dark Pool
Y Fari Lwyd

According to Kraus' web site, "As well as drawing on the folk traditions of England and Appalachia, her music is influenced by gothic literature, surrealism, myth and magick". Alongside another current folk favourite similarly inspired by the landscape and folklore of rural, upland Wales, Tincian by 9Bach, this sounds good to me. I look forward to discovering more of these sounds - of dulcimer, drone, recorder and harp - with echoes of the American psych-folk of the likes of Espers and Richard Skelton's and Autumn Richardson's landscape-inspired music, words and imagery.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Dig: a bleak midwinter read

No end of year list this. Just a short recommendation of a short, stark and arresting novel: a bleak midwinter read.

The Dig is Cynan Jones' fourth book, but the first that I have found. It is the story of two men who's lives are ingrained in the cold, sodden fields of the hill country of mid Wales; one a recently bereaved sheep farmer, the other a single-minded badger-baiter. The language and tone of the narrative is sparse and bleak and matter of fact, reflecting the landscape in which the two protagonists edge towards their, seemingly inexorable, fated confluence.

It is clear where most reader's sympathies will lie: with Daniel, the farmer bringing new life at lambing time, sleep-walking through the long hours occupied by memories of his dead wife, rather than the un-named big man with his dogs and his barbarous occupation. But this is an unsentimental picture of rural life and both men are of the land; making a living through their knowledge and understanding of the animals they share their days with. Indeed they are both in some way trapped in their existence in the fields. Of the big man we are told: "He was too much of an instrument to change what he did".

The writing of Cynan Jones has been compared to the visceral narrations of landscape, of nature that characterise the work of Ted Hughes and Cormac McCarthy. I was also reminded of God's Own Country by Ross Raisin, rooted in the North York Moors and the words of its upland anti-hero narrator. The cadence of the writing, seemingly awkward at first, draws the reader into the landscape, pulls you away from the passive gaze of an outsider. 

Reading the book reminded me of two of my own observations from earlier in the year; brief glimpsings that unsettled, and have stayed with me. The first was on a local walk, during a cold and glowering late winter morning. Resting at a field gate affording a fine wide-screen view, I was drawn to the sound of dogs and men closer to hand. Down-slope at the fields edge (the field in these photographs) I surveyed a pick-up truck, its occupants digging in the bank running along the boundary, accompanied by insistent barks. I did not linger, was not seen. But I had seen them and wondered what their labours were in this lonely spot. Perhaps renewing a fence or clearing scrub? This was not the view I came away with though. There was something malevolent in the air. Had I happened across badger-baiters? was the question that nagged for the rest of the day.
A contrasting day and location in the summer: waiting at a rural level crossing in the Aire Valley, North Yorkshire and the only people disembarking into the sunshine from the two carriage diesel unit are a rag tag band of teenage boys; track-suited hyperactivity - lads from the estates of Keighley or Bingley or Bradford, maybe Leeds I surmised. As we waited on opposite sides of the crossing gates their exuberance was a striking counterpoint to the reticent village halt that had just accepted them. Equally frantic dogs accompanied the boys, one of whom carried a wooden box in which his ferrets lurked. As the gates lifted the gang unhesitatingly and knowingly climbed the nearest four bar and raced across the large field adjacent to the station, their released dogs filling its space. Space that minutes earlier had been the benevolent preserve of their prey, gambolling rabbits. I carried on my way as a passing local resident dialled the number of the field's owner.

The Dig gives voice to such encounters at the sharp end of rural life. The story dissects our cosy view of the countryside to reveal the unbidden and often unspoken darkness that lurks at every gate post, in every copse, atop every hill. A reminder that harsh, hard lives and deeds bleed into the landscape still.

Friday, 12 December 2014

I see winter coming in

A December walk from my East Bristol city-suburb front door, through the green places of Fishponds, Frenchay and Stapleton. The images speak of Emily Dickinson's words: 'there's a certain slant of light, winter afternoons', and I see winter coming in.