Friday, June 28, 2019


I have started the audiobook of Underland.  I listen to it underground, during my tube journeys to work, where claustrophobia comes from the crush of people rather than the confined space of the tunnels.  It is the first of Robert Macfarlane's books I have listened to and so far the reading is excellent and clear, although there is a point on my daily journey between Highbury and Kings Cross where the scream of the train is so loud that I have to reverse back a little way in order to move forward again.  The fifth chapter, 'Invisible Cities', is particularly resonant to anyone listening on the Underground, as it describes a weekend spent with urban explorers in the world beneath Paris.  At one point Rob is compelled to crawl through a crumbling tunnel which begins to rumble and shake with the passage of a train heading overhead to Montparnasse station.  It wasn't difficult to predict, as I did here a few years ago when Underland was a work in progress, that there would be some 'arduous activity' of this kind in the book.  But there are also rich seams of cultural history, like the pages devoted to Walter Benjamin (including his arduous final walk and memorial.)  And there's Italo Calvino of course: his 'Invisible City' of Eusapia had a copy of itself underground, a dead place that over time became more and more like the 'real city' above.  

Cities are increasingly vertical - it has been estimated that the infrastructure supporting urban life spans from 10,000m below sea level to 35,000 km above it.  But one day they will be gone. Then
'it is the invisible cities - the undercities - that will be preserved most cleanly, embedded as they already are within bedrock.  The above-ground structures we have built will collapse to form jumbled urban strata: medleys of concrete, brick and asphalt, glass compressed to a milky crystalline solid, steel dissolved to leave trace impressions of its presence.  Below ground, though, the subways and the sewerage systems, the catacombs and the quarry voids - these may preserve their integrity far into a post-human future.'
Listening to this, I imagined our tube train preserved intact within the fossil record, along with other machines and artifacts that have been abandoned or buried underground.  In an earlier chapter, Rob is told that potash mining machines are simply left when they come to the end of their lifespan.  In their caves they will gradually be covered in translucent halite, burial shrouds of salt.  Another striking Ballardian image occurs in 'Invisible Cities', when Rob remembers a trip he made to a slate mine with the writer and urban explorer Bradley Garrett.  There, in a great flooded chamber, a shaft of sunlight illuminates an avalanche of abandoned vehicles. The oldest cars were the furthest down - at its base, 'a blue Cortina estate was poised as perfectly as a glacial erratic atop the moraine, with a moss-green Triumph Herald both its pivot and its point of repose.'   

Guardian readers may recall a 2013 article Rob wrote about urban exploration, describing his first excursion with Bradley Garrett.  Some of this material reappears in Underland and encountering it again made me wonder about the tube journey I was taking - who else might have passed through those tunnels during the night?  Towards the end of his 'place-hacking' day in London, Rob was worried he might miss his half-midnight train from King's Cross.
'"We'll get you there," replied Garrett. "In fact, if you want we'll walk you north up the tunnels, and pop you out of a manhole just by the station." I liked the thought of taking the tube rather than the Tube back to King's Cross. But I pitied whoever sat next to me on the way home.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The wind that waves the pines

The Overstory (2018) is the novel about trees that was up for the Booker last year and has now won the Pulitzer Prize.  Clearly it is a very highly regarded novel but I have to admit I found it a slog to get through.  There is a lot of explanation of what we now know about trees and the Wood Wide Web which is very reminiscent of Peter Wohlleben, indeed one of the characters in the novel writes a book that sounds just like The Hidden Life of Trees (Powers has said this particular character is inspired by Suzanne Simard and Diana Beresford-Kroeger).  As for the story itself - I agree with Benjamin Markovits that 'the ordinary diversity that tends to shape plot on a human scale doesn’t get much of a look-in'.  There is an article by Sam Jordison that does a good job of describing the reasons why the novel didn't work for me ('if The Overstory really is one of the best books of the year, then the novel is dying even faster than the forests.')  However, you may well disagree - Powers clearly has lots of admirers - and my purpose on this blog is not really to give positive or negative reviews. 

I am mentioning The Overstory here because it deals in a sustained way with trees and forests, although I wouldn't say it has any particularly memorable descriptions of landscape.  I am therefore going to veer off and talk about a poem by Wang Wei that plays an important part in the book. One of the main characters learns that her father, a Chinese immigrant, has committed suicide.  He
'puts a Smith & Wesson 686 with hardwood grips up to his temple and spreads the workings of his infinite being across the flagstones of the backyard. He leaves no note except a calligraphic copy of Wang Wei’s twelve-hundred-year-old poem left unfurled on parchment across the desk in his study:
An old man,
I want only peace.
The things of this world
mean nothing.
I know no good way
to live and I can’t
stop getting lost in my
thoughts, my ancient forests.
The wind that waves the pines
loosens my belt.
The mountain moon lights me
as I play my lute.
You ask: how does a man rise or fall in this life?
The fisherman’s song flows deep under the river.'                                                                 (p51)
This poem, 'Answering Magistrate Zhang', can be found translated in many anthologies.  Most of them note that the last line is an allusion to an ancient poem 'Yu fu' ('The Fisherman'), one of The Songs of the South. 'The Fisherman' concerns the banishment of poet Qu Yuan (4th century BCE), which I wrote about here last year. Wandering by a river bank, he encounters a fisherman who tells him that it is wise not to be chained to material circumstances, but move as the world moves.  Qu Yuan wishes to hold himself aloof and pure rather than submit 'to the dirt of others'.  But the fisherman advises him to adapt to the times.  He paddles off, singing as he goes that when the river's waters are clear he can wash his hat-strings in them, and when they are muddy he can wash his feet.  The same song also appears in the Mencius, where the philosopher asks how to deal with a man who is inhumane, and who delights in the things that could lead to his destruction.  It can certainly feel sometimes as if we are dealing with such people in these times, and living in a world where mud is clouding the river waters...

Qu Yuan and the Fisherman
From 'Scenes from the Chu Ci poem Yu Fu' by Bai Yunli 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Chanctonbury Rings

"Time had gone soft at the crossroads..." 

So begins Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper's spoken word album, based on his recent book, The Old Weird Albion.  I have written before here about his reading voice, its American accent sounding 'neutrally classless, not immediately identifiable either with those who live and work on the land or those who own, walk over and contemplate it.'  An acknowledged influence on Chanctonbury Rings is 'the lost era of  poetry and music albums, like David Cain and Radiophonic Workshop's The Seasons', a strange record I discussed here a while back.  The narrator of The Seasons was poet Ronald Duncan, whose eerie delivery is partly what makes the record so unusual - 'when not aggressively melancholy, the register is madly affirmative'.  There is one track on Chanctonbury Rings on which Justin sounds urgent a little unhinged, like Captain Beefheart reading The Peregrine, but mostly his voice is so appealing that it draws you in and holds you, changing pace and emphasis according to whether he is remembering a walk or dramatising an uncanny experience.  The record ends not with words but with music, the story having concluded with a recollection of descending the hillside and seeing that 'the calendar had turned. It was summer.’

The music for Chanctonbury Rings was created by Sharron Kraus, who collaborated with Justin on readings when The Old Weird Albion appeared, and Jim Jupp, whose Belbury Poly project I first mentioned here more than twelve years ago.  An article this week on Caught by the River describes some examples: 
'The hallowed chords on ‘Layers’ and ‘Wanderer’ come from an open-tuned dulcimer, wherein Kraus strikes the instrument’s body like someone rapping a coffin lid.  Ghostly exhales and buzzy drones on ‘Breath’ were created by Kraus layering bamboo flute, vocal noises and percussion, with Jupp adding extra elements. The close-mic’d crackling from a box of dried leaves adds a hair-raising creepiness. ‘Bonny Breast Knot’ then conjures an impish galliard that high steps into a full country dance [...] Jupp describes the microKORG used by Kraus as a ‘wonderful and massively underrated little synth’. It conjures bestial riffs on ‘The Devil And St. Dunstan’ where Jupp adds Mellotron and tape echo feedback.'
I particularly like this track, 'The Devil and St. Dunstan', which tells the story behind Devil's Dyke, an extraordinary dry valley near the house where I grew up.

Trees above Devil's Dyke
Photographed by me in 2015

Today, the summer solstice, is the official launch date of Chanctonbury Rings.  According to a site devoted to Sussex archaeology and folklore, 'you can see the fairies dancing in the Ring on Midsummer Eve as well as UFO's flying overhead.'  It is also one of the special days when the Devil can be summoned by walking widdershins seven times round the ring.  I'll end here with a quote about this uncanny landscape from an interview Justin did with Gary Budden at the Learned Pig.

'Chanctonbury is one of the highest points in the downs, so it was always going to be important. In the Iron Age, all of the settlements were at the top of the downs; today they’re at the bottom. Chanctonbury will probably still be there when Brighton and Shoreham are under the ocean.  But beyond that, I do think that there are thin places. It’s a special place. I didn’t know anything about it the first time I went up there, and I have truly visceral memories of that first moment. I’ve never slept up there, but everyone I know who has has said they wouldn’t do it again. If you go up there, you can feel that there’s something special – and we can’t say exactly what it is.'

Sunday, June 16, 2019


Colin Sackett has kindly sent me a copy of Printed Landscapes, an anthology drawing on his earlier books, some of which (like River Axe Crossings and The True Line) have featured on this blog previously. Its cover, as you can see, is plain Manila - no picturesque views here.  In a set of notes, positioned near the middle of the book rather than at the end, he says of this body of work, published since the early 1990s, that
the subjects are commonly about geography, its interpretation and abstraction on the printed page. The locations are often places of familiarity and association, from across southern England, while the book has to do with making connections between its modalities. As with places, or types of places – its subject as such – the reading is intendedly multi-directional.
A few examples can be seen on Colin's website - I've reproduced below an image from 'Geeooggrraapphhy', which comprises overprintings of four maps from London's Country, By Road, Steam and Fieldpath, a guidebook from 1923.  Another work inspired by an old book, The Coast of England and Wales in Pictures (1960), quotes test from the 167 picture captions that describe the coast.  I was pleased to see plenty of cliffs in this - it reminded me of a collage of words to describe the Ligurian coast that I made once here, using words from the poems of Eugenio Montale’s poems in Ossi di Seppia.  W. G. Hoskins, L. Dudley Stamp and Geoffrey Hutchings are all re-purposed in Printed landscape to draw attention to the ways in which places are framed and studied.  In 'Directory' some entries for 'Farmers' from the 1998 Yellow Pages are given, followed by aerial views of farms with their phone numbers.  It made we wonder whether telephone directories are still a thing or have they finally disappeared?  And also of that famous J. G. Ballard quote, that the Los Angeles Yellow Pages was "richer in human incident than all the novels of Balzac". 

Abinger, Albury, Gomshall, Merrow Downs, Shere, Wotton.

One of the entries I particularly like is 'Collection', which reproduces card labels that used to come with bunches of watercress (a shame they couldn't be reproduced in colour).  'Each label,' Colin writes, 'tethered the cress to a typical and identifiable landscape: a clay and chalk valley with water from a spring, or raised from boreholes, channelled to flow gently across wide beds of seeded concrete and gravel.  Seen from above, these planned rectilinear forms impose upon and contrast with the undulating topography on the ground.'  Living in London I don't often think about where watercress grows before it makes it into a salad.  I most associate it with the old Irish story of The Madness of Sweeney (Buile Shuibhne), an outcast who lives on a diet of little else.  Of course watercress labels no longer exist, as we buy the product from supermarkets sealed in plastic.  This collection of 'printed landscapes' has therefore become an archive of signs that remain 'fixed to the activity and geography of their time'.