Thursday, August 30, 2007

The wildness of the gryke

Following on from my previous posting, I see the new Robert Macfarlane book is now out: there was a review by Andrew Motion in The Guardian last weekend. I was interested in what he has to say about one episode in Macfarlane’s search for wild landscapes, accompanied by the late Roger Deakin. ‘As they lie face down on the limestone Burren, peering into a gryke (a fissure) in the surface, Deakin points out that what they can see below them is just as "beautiful and complex ... as any glen or bay or peak. Miniature, yes, but fabulously wild". As Macfarlane broods on this, he recovers some of the optimism about his subject that had been challenged on the high peaks. "Down in the gryke ... I had seen another wildness at work: an exuberant vegetable life, lusty, chaotic and vigorous. There was a difference of time-scheme between these kinds of wildness, too. My sense of a landscape's wildness had always been affected by the gravitational pull of its geological past - by the unstillable reverberations of its earlier makings by ice and fire. The wildness of the gryke, though, was to do with nowness, with process. It existed in a constant and fecund present."

Coincidentally, the very next day I was myself looking into grykes on the limestone pavement at Malham Cove. We had the place almost to ourselves in the early evening as the sun cast long shadows (see my photograph below). It’s true that there are miniature worlds in these fissures, although you can’t help noticing the odd bottle or sweet wrapper too.

Limestone pavement, Malham Cove

Back in Skipton I discussed with my friend who the ideal poet of limestone landscapes would be and he suggested Auden, thinking of ‘In Praise of Limestone’ (1948) which talks about ‘the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones, are consistently homesick for.’ Peter Davidson, in his book The Idea of North starts his list of features that make up the Audenesque landscape: ‘Limestone moors, high fields enclosed by stone walls, lonely pubs, upland farms, isolated junction stations...’ The poet Blake Morrison, reminiscing about his childhood, has written of Malham Cove and the Dales: ‘What I love is the dry stone walls, the sheep, the limestone that inspired WH Auden's poems. It's not a straightforward love. I've made my life elsewhere, but the Dales will always be the source of my imagination.’

Sunday, August 19, 2007


There is a new journal with a landscape theme, Archipelago (not to be confused with the on-line journal Archipelago which has just published its final issue). I sent off for the first one and was a bit disappointed with first impressions – the contributors list looks a bit Oxbridge, the design and cover are rather uninspired, the editor quotes Simone Weill on the renewal of our devastated ‘earthly globe’ and then talks about casting his net to land a ‘rich haul of contributions.’ However, there is some excellent writing within, linked by an elemental concern for rocks, mountains, wood, rivers and shorelines. An interest in the periphery and those parts of the ‘archipelago’ close to the sea is evident in selections of poetry from Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The last poem in the journal envisages London under water.

For me the most enjoyable piece was an extract from the forthcoming Robert Macfarlane book on wild places. On this evidence the new book looks like being as entertaining as the last one, Mountains of the Mind, where even the most familiar episodes in the cultural history of landscape felt fresh and well told.  When he is describing his own climbing or (in this extract) swimming, his engaging and poetic prose disarms any irritation you might feel at reading about feats of physical bravery. Here, for example, having discussed the poet-monks of Celtic Christianity, he moves on to describe his impressions of the landscape from a boat moored a hundred metres off shore. ‘I dived in. Blue shock. The cold running into me like a dye. I surfaced, gasping and began to swim towards the cliffs at the eastern side of the bay. I could feel the insistent draw of the current, sliding me out to the west, back towards Enlli... A large lustrous wave surged me between two rocks, and as I put a hand out to stop myself from being barged against them, I felt barnacles tear at my fingers...’ You don’t get to see Simon Schama diving into the sea like this... surely we’ll be seeing Robert Macfarlane presenting a TV series on Britain’s wild places before long?

Friday, August 17, 2007


The Daily Telegraph drama critic Clement Scott started visiting the Norfolk coast in the 1880s. There, as Richard Mabey relates it in Flora Britannica, he 'had fallen in love not just with the local miller's daughter, Louise Jermy, but with the sight of waves of scarlet blossoms in fields and lonely churchyards, sweeping down to the very edge of the cliffs, and set against the sparkle of the North Sea in high summer. He began to write ecstatic columns about Poppy-land in August 1883, and started a fad that brought thousands of visitors to the little railway villages on what the Great Eastern Railway rapidly renamed 'The Poppy Line'.' The inevitable denouement of this story was Scott's own dissatisfaction with the result of his writing - the pristine landscape spoiled by tourism. And then of course fashions changed, the poppy took on a different meaning, and 'Poppyland' got forgotten to the extent that someone could say here last year that "nobody knows whether poppy fields can still be found in 'Poppyland'".

There is an interesting piece on 'The Poppyland Poets' here, including a description of Swinburne's interest in the area: 'Swinburne revealed that he disliked "esplanady" places like Cromer, preferring those isolated, unspoilt areas of the coast. His appreciation of the peace and beauty of Poppyland is evident in the following extract from the poem The Haven...

... East and North a waste of waters, south and west
Lonelier lands than dreams in sleep would feign to be,
When the soul goes forth on travel, and is prest
Round and compassed in with clouds that flash and flee.
Dells without a streamlet, downs without a tree,
Cirques of hollow cliff that crumble, give their guest
Little hope, till hard at hand he pause, to see
Where the small town smiles, a warm still sea-side nest,
On a country road...'

Friday, August 10, 2007

Venice, looking across the lagoon at sunset

J.M.W. Turner, Venice: Looking across the Lagoon at Sunset, 1840
Source: Tate, Creative Commons

Tate Britain's exhibition Hockney on Turner Watercolours is full of beautiful paintings, but is slightly irritating for a couple of reasons. One is the role of Hockney himself, which seems to have extended no further than picking out a few of Turner's most 'abstract' unfinished works for one of the rooms, and lending his name to the exhibition (which, I should point out, is free). The other is the excessive emphasis put on The Blue Rigi c1841–2, "Turner's magnificent work which was recently acquired by Tate with the help of the most successful public appeal ever organised by The Art Fund." But it is worth going if only for a row of three Venetian watercolours from 1840: Venice, looking across the lagoon at sunset with its Hodgkin like combination of see green lagoon, misty orange sky and a solitary band of purple cloud; The Punta della Dogana at Sunset, in delicate yellow and pale purple; and Fishermen in the Lagoon, Moonlight, painted in a range of blues and representing a simple scene of Venetian life, rather than one of the famous viewpoints.

J.M.W. Turner, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, c. 1841-42
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There are some new David Hockney oil paintings of 'The East Yorkshire Landscape' on show with the exhibition. They are a bit of a shock after Turner: lurid colours, crudely drawn tree trunks, disconcerting perspectives. It is hard to know what he's getting at. All it says here, is that Hockney "drives to his chosen destination and sets up his tools. Then he sits for a couple of hours looking at the landscape, absorbing the view, before picking up a paintbrush. This quiet but intent observation is followed by feverish activity to capture the essence of what he sees. Hockney conveys the land and light in electric colour, bringing to the canvases his love of place, freshly observed and infused by decades of experience and the memories that it conjures of childhood days." Ah... which I suppose only goes to show that a press release is not the place to look for incisive commentary. These paintings seem like a strange way to celebrate 'love of place', but I suspect I may not be on Hockney's wavelength.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Bandusian spring

O fons Bandusiae, splendidior uitro,
dulci digne mero non sine floribus,
cras donaberis haedo,
cui frons turgida cornibus...
- Horace, Ode 3.13
Landscape poetry often evokes the sounds of nature and it would be interesting to take a subject like rivers and survey the ways words have been used to convey the different forms a river can take, from spring to sea. Modern writers like Ezra Pound, Louis Zukofsky and Basil Bunting have considered sound and musicality central to poetry, even to the extent that an audience can take pleasure from verse in another language when they do not understand the meaning of the words. Bunting once said ‘... all my life, since I was a youngster, I wanted to do the ‘O fons bandusaie’ and I can’t even get the first line. Like nearly all the great poets, Horace depended on sound and the ‘O fons Bandusiae creates throughout, but especially in the first lines, the actual sound of the running water of a stream. You might be able to create a spring in English, perhaps if you were skilful and able, but it wouldn’t bear any resemblance, however unique, to Horace’s sounds’ (quoted in Victoria Forde’s Basil Bunting).

The full text of Horace’s poem can be seen here along with various translations (including one by William Ewart Gladstone!) There are also a couple of paragraphs from Norman Douglas’s Old Calabria - he spends a chapter looking for the Bandusian spring. Gilbert Highet, whose visit to the springs of Clitumnus, I’ve mentioned here before, also went looking for the site of the poem. ‘We came to a slope, from which rushes a stream of clear water, absolutely clear and transparent, and – even in July, under the burning Dog-star – deliciously cold... This little place, because of Horace’s eloquence, became one of the ideal spots in the imagination of thousands of readers. It is not wildly romantic: not a savage place, holy and enchanted, beset by demoniac presences; nor even hallowed by the memory of a thirsty hero or a benign nymph or a saintly hermit. It is merely a spring, quiet and beautiful.’

Friday, August 03, 2007

Red Desert

Well it seems only right that after a posting on Ingmar Bergman I now do one on Michelangelo Antonioni, who also died this week. I’ve mentioned here before Antonioni’s use of a rocky island landscape in L’avenntura – a rather different kind of island to the ones in Bergman’s films, but no less important to the film. When I saw L’avenntura it was in a double bill with Red Desert – a film as memorable for its strange colours and industrial landscapes as for its disturbing portrayal of mental illness (through Monica Vitti’s character Giuliana). As Michael Gandy says in an essay ‘Landscapes of deliquescence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert’, the modern landscape in this film becomes ‘a source of profound mental anguish as if every feature has become transmuted into a threatening presence within Giuliana’s fragile psyche.’

Michael Gandy quotes a 1964 Sight and Sound article in which Michele Manceaux describes Antonioni’s choice of Ravenna ‘for its smoky factories, its oil derricks, its steel pylons. After the war, the pinewoods stretched down to the sea and the town had thirty thousand inhabitants. Today the silos and oil refineries have killed off the trees. Oil has been found here, artificial islands have been built; and there are a hundred and forty thousand inhabitants.’ Manceaux interviewed Antonioni, who said ‘I don’t say that there ought to be a return to nature, that industrialization is wrong. I even find something very beautiful in this mastery of man over matter. To me, these pipes and girders seem just as moving as the trees. Of course it’s horrifying to think that birds which fly through these fumes are going to fall dead, that the gas makes it impossible to grow anything for miles around. But every age, after all, has called for its sacrifices, and it’s out of these that something else has grown.’
Gandy situates Red Desert within a history of Italian cinema’s engagement with landscape. This began with an interest in the ‘authentic’ Italian landscape during the fascist period. ‘The development of neo-realism in the 1940s ... marked a political reappropriation of the cultural depiction of landscape that displaced the nationalist sentiments of the fascist era with a neo-Marxian emphasis on landscape as a focus of social and political struggle... Yet, in the cinema of Antonioni, the depiction of landscape moves beyond the physicality of space as a locus for action towards an engagement with the aesthetic effects of landscape on the psychological state of his protagonists. The cinematic landscape becomes the dramatic setting for an exploration of the experience of modernity.’
Red Desert is an interesting film but I’d agree with Gary Morris that there are downsides: ‘the pacing is indeed murderous, with scenes allowed to linger past their dramatic point (which no doubt is the point). For some, Giuliana’s constant state of existential despair and wild ramblings will grate rather than elicit sympathy. There’s a diverting "orgy sequence," but only Antonioni could shoot an orgy in which nobody has sex.’ Red Desert is not a film I want to go back and re-watch, unlike Antonioni’s next film, Blow-Up (1966), which has so many great scenes. In Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory he describes visiting Maryon Park, location for the possible murder in Blow-Up. The park ‘plays directly into the film, into the very specific sound of wind in the trees.’ ‘You can still find the flakes of dark green paint with which the production designer Assheton Gordon "dressed" the wooden fence. He recomposed the setting so that it could look more like itself.’ I don’t think I actually believe you can still find paint (this sounds like the Patrick Heron story about finding traces of Matisse’s paint) but one day I’m sure I’ll make the pilgrimage to Woolwich just to check.