Saturday, July 12, 2014


I have just finished the Jim Crace novel Harvest: 'Sometime in the pre-industrial period, an isolated and self-sufficient English village finds its common fields stolen for enclosure as collective agriculture yields to remotely-owned pasturage: "the sheaf is giving way to sheep."'  This summary of the story's background is from a review in the Independent, which praises Crace for his descriptive powers: 'No writer can match him for pin-sharp specificity in his rapt close-ups of rural life ... yet the village's unanchored quality matters hugely – even though the visiting map-maker "Mr Quill" seeks to sketch and shape it into a place ripe for reason, and for business.  Where are we, and when? Details of clothes, crops and rituals leave a centuries-wide window. But for all its timeless, folk-tale qualities, this village has a solid location. From Tudors to Victorians, land enclosure in England enacted, county-by-county and field-by-field, the "tragedy of the commons", as private interests claimed control of resources once responsibly shared by all.  In England's case, the sheep ate up the men – Thomas More's words in Utopia (1516). So Harvest takes place nowhere, and everywhere.'

In the clip above you can see Crace read a passage in which the book's narrator, Walter, tries to create a garden and finda that the land needs to be worked: 'it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it.  It has no time to listen to our song'.  There are many such moments that would interest readers of this blog. One of my favourite moments in the book is a description of the making of maps.  Walter is helping out by preparing and stretching vellum and is fascinated by the sketches that the man the villagers call Mr Quill has 'ennobled' with colour, 'just shapes and lines and colouring' with no lettering added as yet.  In the absence of language, they remind Walter of the natural patterns in nature.
'I've seen equally compound patterns, no less ineffable than these, when I've peeled back bark on dying trees, or torn away the papering on birches. I've seen them sketched by lichens on a standing stone, or designed by mosses in a quag, or lurking on the under-wing of butterflies.  I've found these ordinary abstracts in the least expected places hereabouts: I have only to lift a stone, or turn some fallen timber in the wood, or reverse a leaf.  The structures and the ornaments revealed are made purposeful simply by being found.'
Harvest had a lot of publicity last year because it was up for the Booker Prize.  In an interview in The Guardian Crace described the day his ideas all came together.  It began with a moment of inspiration at the Watford Gap (recognising the extent to which the English landscape is 'drenched in narrative'), continued with a visit to Tate Britain, where there was an early eighteenth century depiction of enclosure, and ended on the train home with a story in the paper about South American soya barons turning people off the land.  I would love to know what the 'watercolour' was that Crace saw in London - presumably it was the inspiration for Mr Quill's sketches.  The clip below shows an old map at one point but what Crace refers to sounds more impressive - it prompted him to wonder how it was possible to gain such a vantage point 'at a time when no one could get higher than a treetop or a steeple'.  Perhaps it was a painting I am now no longer able to recall that Patrick Keiller included in his Robinson Institute exhibition at Tate Britain (reported on here in March 2012 - Harvest apparently took just six months to write and appeared in February last year).  You can let me know in the comments if you know - as it is, I'm torn between thinking it is probably something obvious and the feeling that, like the village in Harvest, it may not be real at all.

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