Friday, July 13, 2012

Untrue Island

"We really have to listen..."  Alice Oswald was talking on Tuesday evening about the need to get away from "a gentlemanly way of viewing the world" and experience landscape free from nostalgia and picturesque convention.  She thinks we concern ourselves too much with mapping and naming, that sometimes it is better just to observe.  Of course many nature writers have been written about the need to preserve and revitalise the language of landscape - I mentioned here recently, for example, the Home Ground project and Robert Macfarlane's essay 'A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook' - and Oswald does not doubt the value of a rich vocabulary for nature.  But she cautions against the tendency to see this as simply another field for the aquisition of knowledge.  Poetry, she said, is a kind of music in which silences are essential: "language must have its opposite next to it."  The form of the landscape can shape the structure and syntax of a poem, and at the same time poetry itself needs to leave some space for the world beyond.

On Location: Writers, Sounds and Places was an event organised as part of the Writing Britain exhibition, in collaboration with The Guardian and In the Dark.  In addition to Alice Oswald, it featured Rachel Lichtenstein, who we last encountered here sailing down the Thames estuary, Madeleine Bunting, who wrote the biography of an English acre in The Plot, and the 'writer and mythographer' (and, I'm tempted to add, 'national treasure') Marina Warner.  It was great to have an all-woman panel as some nature writing events I've seen advertised seem rather male dominated.  At one point Rachel Lichtenstein was asked how she'd broken into the 'all-male psychogeographers club', reminding me of a recent Matthew Sweet remark that psychogeographers tend to be 'literary men in desperate search for a respectable excuse to escape their childcare responsibilities at the weekend.'  Alice Oswald spoke positively about her domestic ties and of her mental and physical immersion in the tidal landscape of Devon.  She reminded me of an occasion when Robert Macfarlane, questioned about the greater challenge for women in 'wild' places, pointed to the example of Nan Shepherd, who slept out so as to be woken 'by the sharp press of a robin's claw upon her bare arm or the snuffle of a grazing deer.'

Robert Macfarlane's short film on Orford Ness, embedded above, was shown as part of the On Location event.  He has been working there on a commission, Untrue Island, with bass player Arnie Somogyi and has written about being given 'access to off-limits areas into which I'd long wished to pry: flooded and collapsing laboratories, abandoned control rooms. We came to know the site and its resonant place-names off by heart: Cobra Mist, Lab Three, the New Armoury, the Bomb Ballistics Building.'  Ever since reading The Rings of Saturn I've wanted to visit Orford Ness, drawn by the idea of those enigmatic ruins, which are fast becoming a kind of Tintern Abbey for the post-industrial Romantic (the closest I've managed to get is the distant glimpse you can see below).  Those making the trip to the Ness this month for a perfomance of Untrue Island will be 'ferried over the Ore, and then walk for a mile through the site – past sculptures by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson – to reach the New Armoury. The piece is an hour in length, consisting of part improvised jazz and part pre-composed music, the text part-spoken and part-sung, all by Arnie and his fellow musicians. But because the Armoury is open to the weather – doorless at both of its vast and ruined ends – the other performer will, of course, be the Ness itself.'

[As a postscript I should mention that Madeleine Bunting has interviewed Robert Macfarlane at Orford Ness for the first in a series of Guardian podcasts on Landscape and Literature.  In the second she walks the streets of Whitechapel with Rachel Lichtenstein.  A third, not yet available as I write this, will feature Alice Oswald.]

1 comment:

Plinius said...

The Alice Oswald podcast is now available and you can also read an article about her by Madeleine Bunting here.