Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Way of Being in the World

Last Sunday I managed to get to the last day of the Balham Literary Festival, A Way of Being in the World, which was entirely devoted to questions of landscape and place, nature and the city. The first session, 'Running Riot In The Urban Landscape', focused on the disappearance of public space and ways to reclaim the streets.  It featured academic/urban explorer Bradley Garrett, guerilla gardener Richard Reynolds and poet Inua Ellams who leads nocturnal cultural walks through cities.  Their contributions raised fascinating questions about the effectiveness of such practices in exposing and challenging the power structures of the city.  Guerilla gardening, for example, may have roots in the history of land struggles but today in Western cities it can, in a small way, help along gentrification and the withdrawal of local government from their responsibility to maintain the built environment.  It was heartening though to hear that one London traffic roundabout persists as an island of lavender a decade after Richard first gave it a makeover.

In the Q&A afterwards Richard's mother, sitting in a kind of throne by the stage, recounted an anecdote about his rebellious streak at boarding school.  It made me think of those precursors of the urban explorers that Brad had referred to earlier, the Night Climbers of Cambridge, students who scaled the city's buildings with a joie de vivre and confidence that seems connected to their position of social privilege.  As Sam Jordison wrote in a Guardian article when the original 1937 book documenting their activities was reissued, 'just as it's possible to suggest that those currently seeking highs on city rooftops are reacting against their cotton-wool upbringings, so Whipplesnaith's stories of death-defying derring-do in Cambridge say a lot about those whose parents had lost so much in the first world war but who themselves were (for now) bereft of action and significance.'

There followed two sessions featuring Cambridge academic and climber Robert Macfarlane.  In the first he was joined by China Miéville who had delivered a new lecture on the eerie and the picturesque the day before (it has just been reprinted in The Guardian). They were discussing one of many recent landscape-related books I've not yet read (for reasons partly explained in my previous post): Nina Lyon's Uprooted: On the Trail of the Green Man.  The origins and meanings of the Green Man are impossible to trace - what is of interest is how this symbol has repeatedly surfaced in the culture.  Is its current popularity an extension of the urge to identify with animals, China Miéville asked, and would we soon be seeing hipsters in vegetable masks?  Is it a symptom of the urge to aggrandise and domesticate nature by those unable to afford to live in cities but unwilling to live too far away from them?  Is there a connection, Robert Macfarlane wondered, with new ideas about the ecology of forests (the wood wide web) and speculations on the non-human by contemporary philosophers like Jane Bennett?  Ideas in his session sprouted like foliage from the mouth of the Green Man, including China Miéville's notion that the leaves are actually disappearing into his mouth: nature inexorably being swallowed up. 

The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley's debut novel, was discussed with Robert Macfarlane in connection with the recent upsurge of interest in folk horror, uncanny sites and haunted landscapes. In the course of the talk we learnt that the book is potentially the first of several novels to be set on the Lancashire coast, a place that has not featured much previously in literature.  A film is now being put together by Andrew Macdonald, producer of Danny Boyle's films and the recent version of Far from the Madding Crowd.  Again I've not read this book myself; The Guardian's review pointed out some flaws but said that 'Hurley’s lyrical grip on his landscape is flawlessly bleak'.  The Telegraph review was extremely positive and again cited the treatment of landscape in descriptions like this: 
'Day after day, the rain swept in off the sea in huge, vaporous curtains that licked Coldbarrow from view and then moved inland to drench the cattle fields. The beach turned to brown sludge and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed.'

Fortified with an excellent pint, courtesy of Richly Evocative's Matt, I was ready for the Festival's final session 'And where next?', which sought to cover globalism, the growth of cities and the anthropocene.  Science journalists Gaia Vince and Fred Pearce were joined by Owen Hatherley, who I always find interesting - I had seen him only a week before at our local Stoke Newington Literary Festival, talking about London with Rowan Moore (they gave it to Heatherwick and the London Garden Bridge with both barrels).  This session also had thematic links to another fascinating talk I had gone to in Stokey - Becky Hogge and Ken Worpole discussing utopias - and to a Radio 4 programme Ken alerted me to afterwards, highlighting the Silicon Valley dream of establishing communities floating entirely free of  the state.

In the Balham discussion Owen Hatherley criticised the rise of favela chic: the way architects undervalue the boring virtues of planning and celebrate the vibrancy of ungoverned urbanisation in the global south.  It took me back to a talk I attended at the ICA about fifteen years ago by Rem Koolhaas, enthusing about his recent work in Lagos.  In an interview last year Koolhaas recalled the way Lagos, a city from which the state had withdrawn, 'mobilised an incredibly beautiful, almost utopian landscape of independence and agency'.  Owen would rather have well-designed urban environments with relatively affordable housing like Vienna.  He lamented the decline of Stockholm where the benefits of social democracy appear to have been jettisoned out of an almost Ballardian sense of boredom.  I will get to see Stockholm myself shortly as we've booked a week there this summer, followed by a week on an island in the Baltic where I may actually have time to catch up on some of the books I've been hearing about recently...

1 comment:

Mike C. said...

Although the underlying case -- that we have "remade" the planet, and not done a terribly good job of it -- is inarguable, I find a lot of the anti-human pessimism that the "anthropocene" proposition attracts to itself very disheartening (the world will be better when we've gone, etc).

The interest in the "English eerie" is a bit of a 70s re-run, I think, though with any luck this time it won't lead to a further wave of wicca, crystals, earth energy, etc. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, there is no there there (though plenty of publishing opportunities, it's true)...