Friday 18 May 2012

Review of Writing Britain: from Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition

South Pennines landscape by Fay Godwin (from Remains of Elmet, her collaboration with Ted Hughes featured in the exhibition)

Interesting post from Diane Hale on the current British Library exhibition - Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderland; looks well worth a visit:

From William Blake to the 21st-century suburban hinterlands of J G Ballard, Writing Britain examines how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works. It will allow visitors to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the works’ creation, shedding new light on how they speak to the country today.

Monday 14 May 2012

Westcoasting - A guest post from Eve MacFarlane

Westcoasting in Knoydart, Lochaber

A year ago almost to the day, I left my urban ways behind and moved to the west coast of Scotland. After years of living in England and abroad, I decided it was time to return to the place that felt like home. My family headed south when I was eleven, but the west coast remained my touchstone. Wherever I was in the world, I could close my eyes, unzip the tent and step out onto the summer-dry machair – just me, the silence, the view and a sheep or two. It reminded me of where I came from. It also reminded me of what life could be about. 

One day I overheard my dad’s old climbing pal say something like: ‘Ach, I’ve no seen Rab for a few weeks. He’s been aff westcoasting.’ Meaning that Rab had emptied his pockets of money and, with just a sleeping bag, a knife, a stove, a fishing rod and a few tins of sardines, headed west to walk, sleep out, catch trout, scramble up hills and wash in burns. Westcoasting. I love this term, this idea. It speaks to me of simplicity and adventure, of moonlit foraging, beach fires and starry nights. It’s inspired by the landscape of the west coast – the sheer space, the opportunity to get lost, the bountiful sea, the mountain springs – as well as the people who carved out a life here. Look at any hillside in the evening, when the twilight picks out the detail, and you’ll see the signs – the ridges and furrows of run rig farming, an old sheep enclosure, the remains of a stone cottage. The land tells the story not of a pristine wilderness, but of people drawing life from this harsh environment. 

A year on and I’ve carved a life out here too, guided by my own take on westcoasting. I’ve pared my life back. I’ve lived closer to the seasons. I’ve explored the wild places. I’ve forced myself to endure a bit of discomfort and been rewarded for it. A night spent on the beach wasn’t the cosiest, but it gave me shooting stars and otters swimming in the pink-tinged sea at sunrise. There have, of course, been challenges. The winter was long, dark and shaped by the weather. You can see why people might turn to the drink. But I’ve never regretted the move. Every morning I look through the little square window in my kitchen across the loch to the hills beyond and I’m filled with something I can’t put into words. This raw, rugged, beautiful landscape moves me like no other.  

Find out more about Eve's westcoasting life by visiting her blog.

Friday 4 May 2012

War propaganda films on landscape themes

Came across these short films, part of the British Film Council Film Collection, extolling the glories of the English (or rather British) countryside and related subjects in glorious Technicolour: 

The People's Land

The Gardens of England

Book review: Urban Wildscapes

Since Richard Mabey first published his, at the time, groundbreaking The Unofficial Countryside in 1973 many of the scruffy, neglected and wild enclaves of the natural and semi-natural in urban areas and edgelands have been transformed. This has sometimes been in the name of formalising and improving natural recolonisation of redundant industrial infrastructure, to enable reconnection for urbanised populations: disused quarries, slag heaps and factory space turned into nature reserves and country parks; or simply to tidy up, landscape and make 'safe' informal public spaces. Many other marginalised open areas have, often without much public discourse or protest, been washed away in the great tide of urban renewal and development seen in recent decades, replaced by retail parks, park and ride schemes, new roads, business parks and other trappings of car and retail based materialism that are much-used but little loved and have a curious (and depressing) lack of identity or relationship with their surrounding environs.    

Somewhat paradoxically - or maybe in reaction to - this relative decline in the actuality of informal areas of wildness in our towns and cities, the flowering of 'new nature' writing in recent years has included a vigorous and tenacious off-shoot focusing on such places. The prime example being Edgelands: Journeys into England's true wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, an updated and, dare I say it, postmodern tramp across the territory covered by Mabey, taking its lead from Marion Shoard's influential 1992 essay, Edgelands.   

The left-field pathways of the psychogeographical fraternity are also a touch-stone for wildscape analysis; Iain Sinclair, one of the disciplines reluctant figureheads, has heralded Mabey's work as the 'unacknowledged pivot between the new nature writers and those others, of a grungier dispensation, who are randomly (and misleadingly) herded together as 'psychogeographers''.  

Into the dense undergrowth of this environment, given vigour by both light and shade, comes a new book from Routledge entitled Urban Wildscapes, edited by Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan and proclaiming itself to be 'one of the first edited collections of writings about urban 'wilderness' landscapes'. The ideas put forward in the book stem from a conference organised by the Department of Landscape at the University of Sheffield in 2007.