Friday, December 17, 2010

The lanes and fields of Gloucestershire

In talking to others about Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, I have found that those put off by the book's premise, and the accounts of climbing trees and freezing on mountain tops, have nevertheless enjoyed some of its digressions about writers and naturalists.  A section on Ivor Gurney, for example, in Macfarlane's chapter 'Forest', could stand alone as a fascinating short essay.  It charts Gurney's engagement with landscape from pre-war Gloucestershire, to the 'anti-landscape' of Ypres.  Then, back in England, having been shot, gassed and invalided out of the army, Gurney returned to the countryside, taking long walks, often and night, whilst writing and composing prolifically.  But by 1922 he was behaving increasingly oddly and his 'mental state, always precarious, tilted into unbalance...'

There is a poignant description of the visits Edward Thomas's widow Helen made in the late twenties to see Gurney at the mental asylum in Dartford. By that stage 'his madness was so acute that he was able to communicate only briefly with her, and showed little interest in her presence or her association with Edward.  The next time she travelled to Dartford, however, Helen took with her one of her husband's Ordnance Survey maps of the Gloucestershire landscape through which both Thomas and Gurney had walked.'  They knelt by the bed and traced out the old routes.  As Helen recalled, Gurney "trod, in a way we who are sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he knew and loved so well ... He had Edward as his companion in this strange perambulaiton ... I became for a while the element which brought Edward back to life for him and the country where the two could wander together."

1 comment:

Oxfordliz said...

This is a new way of thinking about the Dymock area landscape for me, years after their better-known era just pre-1st World War. I know Gurney is becoming better known - a session last year at the National Portrait gallery was popular especially the Thomas poems he set to music.