Thursday, February 24, 2011

The bracing glories of our clouds

I have enjoyed reading Romantic Moderns, which has much to say about the revival of interest in the English landscape before and during the war.  Alexandra Harris acknowledges her debt to Kitty Hauser, whose Shadow Sites: Photography, Archaeology and the British Landscape, 1927-1955 begins with a discussion of the 'topophilia' characteristic of writers and artists in this period.  In 1947 Auden defined this topophilia as having 'little in common with nature love.  Wild or unhumanized nature holds no charms for the average topophil because it is lacking in history' (cf. Sebald vs. Mabey in my recent 'After Nature' post).  What unites 'topophils', Hauser writes, 'is an interest, sometimes amounting to an obsession, with local landscapes marked by time, places where the past is tangible.  For some, such as Betjeman, John Piper and Geoffrey Grigson, this topophilia - as Auden suggests - is eclectic, including medieval churches, Gothic and mock Gothic architecture, Regency terraces and ancient sites.  Some topophils of this generation, such as Paul Nash with his fascination with the genius loci, made atmospheric prehistoric landscapes a particular focus. Others, like painter Graham Sutherland, were attracted to scarred nature and geological vistas.  In the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot looked for redemption and history in an English village: 'History is now and England'.  And with an eye to continental Surrealism, photographers and film makers including Bill Brandt, Humphrey Jennings, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger found in pockets of the British landscape curious and moody survivals from the past.' 

All of these writers and artists feature in Romantic Moderns, along with others less directly concerned with landscape but whose work looked nostalgically at a fast vanishing world of country houses and village traditions.  The Bright Young Things, for example - Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, the Sitwells -  whose work has never appealed much to me, are discussed alongside Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden in an interesting chapter on the 1930s Georgian Revival.  Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian, praises the book's 'tactful generosity towards people and places, sights and sounds, that have tended to get written off as embarrassing or just plain wrong. Never has this seemed more important than now, as we work through our own complicated millennial feelings about the romance of the past. Thanks to Harris it no longer seems entirely shaming to admit to a secret Cath Kidston habit. Taking tea in the stable block of a National Trust property becomes a dignified activity, rather than something to pretend to find a chore.'

I'm no stranger to National Trust tea shops but have always been constrained in where I could go by not owning a car.  Motorists of the 1930s were encouraged to discover the landscape of Britian by the posters for Shell-Mex designed by artists like Vanessa Bell, Graham Sutherland and Frank Dobson (whose depiction of the Cerne Abbas giant is reproduced in Romantic Moderns - the giant's most famous feature is obscured by the shadow of a strategically placed cloud).  In 1934 Cyril Connolly titled his review of an exhibition of Shell-Mex commissioned artwork 'The New Medici'.  He observed that it was 'not the awe-inspiring or exceptional which now seems important, but what is most cheerful and genuine in our countryside - England is merry again - farewell romantic caves and peaks, welcome the bracing glories of our clouds, the cirrus and the cumulus, the cold pastoral of the chalk.'  The Shell County Guides that John Betjamen commissioned also looked beyond the obvious - a fact typified by John Piper's Oxon which deliberately excluded the city of Oxford.  As Alexandra Harris says, 'Piper's Oxfordshire is not a land of touristic sensation.  Old England is allowed to be almost a modern lived-in country.  A photograph of clustered advertisements which would have troubled purist preservationists is captioned 'a tree of knowledge', and an oval photograph with faded edges evokes nostalgia only to affront it with a big sign advertising a 'super cinema.''  It almost sounds like a journey through Oxfordshire's edgelands, prompting the thought that we could have a new series of county guides for the psychogeographically inclined pedestrian, written by Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein, Patrick Keiller and so on.

Romantic Moderns won the Guardian First Book Award and Alexandra Harris can be seen talking about it on the Guardian website.  Thames and Hudson have now signed her up for two more books - a short biography of Virginia Woolf and another one, The Weather Glass, which I am looking forward to as it will apparently 'explore the British preoccupation with the weather, from Beowulf onwards'.  In Romantic Moderns these interests come together in a chapter called 'The Weather Forecast', where there is a discussion of Woolf's unfinished history of literature, 'Reading at Random'.  She makes this sound fascinating: it was to be a book 'shaped by views from windows and stretches of country ... a passionate exercise in literary geography.'  Harris argues that the twentieth century threatened to alienate people from the weather, as Modernist art looked beyond the incidentals of atmosphere to uncover clear cut shapes and colours.  She contrasts this with the rain-filled lithographs of her book's other main protagonist, John Piper (of whose drawings of Windsor George VI said, "You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr. Piper").  Working outside, Piper 'loved the odd splashes that arrived unexpectedly in his paintings.'  These blots have the effect of confirming 'the allegiance between art and the world beyond the painting.  And, like the sand found in a half-read book, they are the souvenirs of a time and place, nature's signature added next to that of the artist.'

Saturday, February 19, 2011


I have been tipped off (thanks Hayden) to the rather surprising appearance on Thursday's Newsnight of a piece about Nick Papadimitriou and the deep topography of London's Edgelands.  You can watch it here until Thursday 24 February. You can also see it on the blog dedicated to John Rogers’ film The London Perambulator, which appears to have inspired the Newsnight feature. The London Perambulator 'looks at the city we deny and the future city that awaits us. Leading London writers and cultural commentators Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Russell Brand explore the importance of the liminal spaces at the city’s fringe, its Edgelands, through the work of enigmatic and downright eccentric writer and researcher Nick Papadimitriou - a man whose life is dedicated to exploring and archiving areas beyond the permitted territories of the high street, the retail park, the suburban walkways.'

Yes, Russell Brand (who now gets his second mention on this blog) is an admirer of the way Papadimitriou  'sees magic in everything'.  He says 'it takes an interesting mind to look at, like, sort of say, oh I saw this power station in Middlesex and, like, thinks it's Kubla Khan.' Some further insights are provided by Iain Sinclair, who puts Papadimitriou in the 'very British tradition' of topographical literature, engaging 'in a really heavy duty way with a single piece of landscape and digging into it'.  Sinclair goes on to say that this kind of writing 'doesn't come with French philosophical baggage' - cue footage of the Situationists, which leads on to some discussion of J.G. Ballard and then Richard Mabey, interviewed saying that terms like 'psychogeography' and 'deep topography' are merely confusing verbal jargon.  We get to see Mabey both as he is now and in the documentary based on his 1973 book The Unofficial Countryside.  Looking through binoculars at the overlooked wild nature in outer London's industrial landscape, he looks like a long-haired version of Robert Macfarlane in The Wild Places of Essex (see my previous post).  It would be great to see this programme re-broadcast; The Unofficial Countryside itself has been republished recently with a new foreword by Iain Sinclair.  In a re-reading of it for The Guardian, Sinclair refers to Nick Papadimitriou as 'a solid invisible, tramping and haunting Mabey's familiar turf, the Colne valley: the canals, reservoirs and sewage farms of the Watford-to-Heathrow corridor.'

Scarp from fugueur on Vimeo.

The Newsnight feature mentions a 'lucrative contract' for Nick Papadimitriou's forthcoming book, Scarp.  This will be an investigation of the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire Escarpment, which he says has been overlooked in landscape literature compared to the more famous escarpments of the Downs and Chilterns.  This book also features in Episode 3 of Ventures and Adventures in Topography, a series of broadcasts John Rogers and Nick Papadimitriou have been making for Resonance FM which looks 'at the rich tradition of early 20th century topographical walking guides to London and the South East and explores what use they might be to us today. Each episode takes a trip through the pages of a different book as if we are embarking on a wayward topographical ramble, and includes contemporary field reports from walks in the areas described in these classic texts.'  You can download these as podcasts (and while you're at it, you might also be interested in Resonance FM's  Edible Landscape field recording podcasts.) Their walks take them to Brent Cross Shopping Centre (prompting a reading from The Arcades Project), the buried and forgotten Philly Brook in Leytonstone, the lost pleasure gardens of Finsbury and Pentonville and the Southern Outfall Sewer: 'guided by The Lure and Lore of London’s River by A.G. Linney (1920′s) they perambulate the raised path that follows the final journey of south London’s sewage to its terminus at the sewage colony at Cross Ness Point, ‘the place where all things end’'.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

After Nature

We made our way to Suffolk last weekend for the third manifestation of the Re-Enchantment project, dedicated to W.G. Sebald and landscape.  The events at Snape Maltings began on Friday with the premiere of Grant Gee's film Patience (After Sebald), which retraces the walk taken by the narrator of The Rings of Saturn and examines the book through the responses of artists and writers like Iain Sinclair, Tacita Dean and Adam Phillips.  Saturday's symposium opened with Stephen Watt's poem, 'For My Friend, Max Sebald', and gave a platform to various writers on place: Rachel Lichtenstein, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Alexandra Harris and Dan Gretton. Although each discussed their own work rather than Sebald's, their contributions provided a context for thinking about Sebald and landscape, picked up in the round table discussion that ended the afternoon.  The talks were all stimulating and enjoyable but did leave me wanting to get back to Sebald's writing, so it was a pleasure to end the day with a Patti Smith concert in which she performed sections of Sebald's poem After Nature. The more committed Sebaldians stayed on for some guided walks to Orford Ness on Sunday, but we decided to head home - put off by the prospect of the fierce winter wind blowing in off the German Ocean.

The temptation to walk in Sebald's footsteps is strong (as I have mentioned in an earlier post about Sebald), but several contributors to Grant Gee's film remark on the futility of this endeavour.  In an interview with The Guardian Gee describes Robert Macfarlane's attempt to retrace Sebald's walk. '"He arrived in Lowestoft," laughs Gee, "and saw everybody was happy, that the weather was lovely, and then he went and had a swim in the sea. He realised he was having too much fun – that what he was doing was unSebaldian – so he packed it in after two days."'  Gee filmed the locations in grainy black and white, like Sebald's embedded images, giving us the sense of a landscape refracted through the memory of the narrator (voiced by Jonathan Pryce).  The film is unobtrusively soundtracked by The Caretaker (James Kirby), whose music has often dwelt on memory and amnesia.  It is an essay film rather than a conventional documentary, so we do not get to hear about Sebald from people who were close to him, or hear the views of a succession of literary critics - the emphasis is on Sebald's artistic legacy and influence.  His humorous side comes through too - fans of the Lowestoft fish-eating incident will be pleased to see this 'sorry wreck' of a meal makes a brief appearance.  Gee also managed to persuade two actors to lie on the beach at Covehithe and recreate the sight that so disturbed the narrator, looking down from the cliff at a couple resembling 'some great mollusc washed ashore', her legs spreadeagled, his feet twitching 'like those of one just hanged'.

 Robert Macfarlane introduces The Wild Places of Essex

After the screening Grant Gee was interviewed by Robert Macfarlane whose own recent film The Wild Places of Essex was shown as part of Saturday's programme.  This was made for the BBC's Natural World series and in complete contrast to Patience (After Sebald) it was shot in high definition colour.  The camera lingers on bluebells and badgers in the woods near Billericay, deer leaping somewhere in Epping Forest and seals stained rusty orange by the iron in the Thames estuary.  However, Macfarlane, like Sebald, was also making a literary journey, and we see him reflecting on the nature of wildness and the way industry and nature conflict and interact.  It made me want to visit Rainham Marshes, and even Jaywick, where crumbling streets are named after coastal plants that have long since disappeared (I thought of the poems in H.D.'s Sea Garden).  Essex also featured in Rachel Lichtenstein's talk, which drew on her books Rodinsky's Room (1999) and On Brick Lane (2007) and illustrated the way history has shaped the inhabitants of these places.  Like Sebald, she has listened to the accounts of people marooned by time or who hold memories of worlds that have disappeared forever.  Another Sebaldian character, Fred Zentner, emigrant and bookshop owner, is the subject of a Grant Gee short film, seen packing up to leave after forty years selling specialist cinema books.  Among the other short Gee films shown in Snape I was particularly struck by The Western Lands and have included an extract below because of its landscape subject.

Looking back, I think the day's main talking point was provided by Richard Mabey, who criticised Sebald's lack of respect for the Suffolk landscape in The Rings of Saturn. His particular concern was with Dunwich Heath, which the narrator found to be a 'melancholy region', forlorn above the sea.  Sebald writes of the prehistoric settlers who burned off the forests, saying the scene must have resembled those palls of smoke now visible above the jungles of Brazil and Borneo.  Mabey explained that it could not have happened - Suffolk's deciduous woods would not have burned in this way.  The criticism had added force as part of an ecocritical plea to see the natural world more clearly and resist the pathetic fallacy (Mabey's concerns reminded me that the Climategate controversy had centred on Sebald's University of East Anglia).  Does it matter?  Sebald ends his book with an explicitly unreliable anecdote, based on a passage in Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica 'that I can no longer find'.  He says that  in Holland 'it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.' Sebald's melancholy world view may have obscured the details of the landscape and people he encountered, but perhaps this helps us see the journey we are on more clearly.

Snape Maltings: landscape framed by
a hole in the Family of Man
(Barbara Hepworth) 

In defence of The Rings of Saturn, Robert Macfarlane asserted that there are many different ways of writing about a landscape.  Sebald's publishers found it hard to categorise Sebald's work, a unique mix of memoir, fiction, history, travel; similar confusions had surrounded Bruce Chatwin, whose books had nevertheless opened up new space for writers like Sebald.  Richard Mabey continued to question the need for 're-enchantment' and argued that we are still too conditioned to see landscapes as prospects, viewed through the eyes of a surveyor or landowner.  He would like more artists to follow John Clare, immersing themselves in the natural world and able to see the landscape from a non-human perspective.  Alexandra Harris (whose Romantic Moderns I'm currently enjoying) put in a word for the continuing importance of the framed view, which slows us down and directs our attention.  The neo-Romantics in her book depicted places that had been closely observed, but worked on by the imagination - like Suffolk in The Rings of Saturn.  Sebald sees things through the eyes of an artist rather than a naturalist and his books concern visions of landscapes, like Grünewald's in the Basel Crucifixion: 'behind a group of mourners / a landscape reaches so far into the depths / that our eyes cannot see its limits.'  The strange dark sky may seem unreal but may still have been painted 'after nature', inspired by memories of the eclipse of 1502, a 'catastrophic incursion / of darkness, the last trace of light / flickering from beyond.'

These lines were read by Patti Smith at the concert that evening, accompanied by her daughter Jesse on piano and Michael Campbell on xylophone, guitar and percussion.  Among the songs they performed were 'My Blakean Year', 'Ghost Dance', and 'Birdland', which she said had been composed in an associative way reminiscent of After Nature.  They encored with 'Because the Night', introduced as Sebald's "favourite Patti Smith song", the least reliable assertion of the day.  She read an unfinished poem written in tribute to Sebald, but it was her emotionally charged performance of texts from After Nature that made the greatest impression, filling the hall with Sebald's own verse.  Think of the way Patti Smith songs like 'Land', written as prose poetry, begin with gentle accompaniment, then take off, soaring faster and louder until finally getting resolved on a new note of calm. Sebald's poetry lent itself to this treatment, especially the closing lines of After Nature, which she read with gathering momentum until the last sentence, where the sun sets on a distant landscape. The poem describes a dream in which Sebald sees far below him his own house and 'the shadows falling / on the East Anglian landscape'.  He flies over the North Sea and the Rhine's alluvial plain, 'cities phosphorescent / on the river bank, / industry's glowing piles waiting / beneath the smoke trails...'  Time seems to stretch out and speed up and he finds himself looking into Altdorfer's great painting: Alexander's army, Darius 'in flight / towards the sickle moon' and finally, beyond them, 'the evening glow / and a city on the shore ... The Nile Delta can be made out, / the Sinai Peninsula, the Red Sea / and, still farther in the distance, / towering up in dwindling light, / the mountain ranges, / snow-covered and ice-bound, / of the strange, unexplored, / African continent.'

Albrecht Altdorfer, The Battle of Alexander at Issus (detail) 1529
Source: Wikimedia Commons