Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Lark Ascending

A couple of days ago I read in The Guardian that 'police have warned young people not to attend illegal raves this weekend, promising a tougher approach after two “quarantine raves” attracted 6,000 people last Saturday.'  It made me think of the final chapters of Richard King's book The Lark Ascending which discuss the outdoor rave scene's emergence thirty years ago, followed by opposition that led to the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill.  Jeremy Deller told a similar story last year in Everybody in the Place (although the participation of children in his film meant he left out some of the drug history).  King describes an early rave organised by Cymon Eckel and the Boys Own network which culminated in dawn breaking over a misty Sussex reservoir.  One of them would later describe seeing 'a flock of geese descend from the sky to make a perfect landing at the water's edge.
And here in the early hours of a perfect English summer's day, five hundred people sitting, or collapsed, on hay bales, grew energised by the dawn and looked out onto the water of Weir Wood Reservoir that borders Ashdown Forest, the location that inspired A. A. Milne's '100 Aker Wood', and the haven Eckel and his friends had created was experienced by all those present as their private Acid House Pooh Corner.'

Last year I saw Richard King give an interesting talk on his book at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  He began with his view that the popularity of Ralph Vaughan Williams' composition comes from the way it conveys musically a sense of freedom and at the same time connectedness to an unspecified British landscape.  The full subtitle of The Lark Ascending on my paperback edition is 'People, Music and Landscape in Twentieth Century Britain', making clear that this is not merely a study of music inspired by nature.  In fact there is little in the book about music written to convey a spirit of place - from Vaughan Williams he skips over British landscape composers like Ireland, Bax and Finzi, moving instead to Ewan MacColl's 'The Manchester Rambler' (in a discussion of the Kinder Scout trespass) and then forward to Stan Tracey's jazz suite inspired by Under Milk Wood.  Later chapters discuss the music of Donovan, Gavin Bryars, Kate Bush, Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Ultramarine.  It got me listening anew to some of this on Spotify, though I have to admit I find the late sixties Donovan albums pretty hard going...

The book ends in the 1990s, although there is a brief epilogue featuring Rob St John (it mentions Surface Tension, a piece of music I described here five years ago).  In the new century, issues of ownership and access to land have become ever more complicated, and now the age of coronavirus has raised a whole new set of questions.  The idea of assembling at a rave by a Sussex reservoir this summer would come up against ethical choices around social distancing, pitting hedonism and personal freedom against the interests of the more vulnerable in society.  It is however still possible to go for a ramble, and so, given the reference to Manchester in that piece about an illegal rave, I'll end here with the closing lines of Ewan MacColl's song:
So I'll walk where I will over mountain and hill
And I'll lie where the bracken is deep
I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains
Where the grey rocks lie ragged and steep
I've seen the white hare in the gullies
And the curlew fly high overhead
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead
-    'The Manchester Rambler', 1932

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Vale of Tears

Literature and Nature in the English Renaissance: An Ecocritical Anthology edited by Todd Andrew Borlik was published last year and so far has a solitary one star review on Amazon.  "Frankly, if a book of out-of-copyright texts is THAT expensive, you may as well download the contents list to Kindle and go and find the texts yourself. Absurd pricing."  At £84, it is certainly out of reach of my pocket, but as this reviewer notes, the contents list is freely available.  Here are two sections:

In this post I wanted to highlight the first text above, Robert Southwell's poem 'A Vale of Tears'.  Here are its first four stanzas:
A vale there is, enwrapt with dreadful shades,
     Which thick of mourning pines shrouds from the sun,
Where hanging cliffs yield short and dumpish glades,
     And snowy flood with broken streams doth run.

Where eye-room is from rock to cloudy sky,
     From thence to dales with stony ruins strew'd,
Then to the crushèd water's frothy fry,
     Which tumbleth from the tops where snow is thaw'd.

Where ears of other sound can have no choice,
     But various blust'ring of the stubborn wind
In trees, in caves, in straits with divers noise;
     Which now doth hiss, now howl, now roar by kind.

Where waters wrestle with encount'ring stones,
     That break their streams, and turn them into foam,
The hollow clouds full fraught with thund'ring groans,
     With hideous thumps discharge their pregnant womb.
It is certainly a pretty bleak-sounding place, where pleasant landscape features we associate with pastoral poetry provide no comfort ('crystal springs crept out of secret vein, / Straight find some envious hole that hides their grace').  Surrounded by all this, the mind turns inward and dwells on sin and the need for repentance. 'Come, deep remorse,' the poet concludes, 'possess my sinful breast; / Delights, adieu!  I harbour'd you too long.'

Robert Southwell was a Jesuit Catholic martyr: canonised in 1970; hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1595.  A recent profile of him in The Tablet describes his training in France and Rome and return to England in 1586 to undertake clandestine missionary work.
'Southwell’s literature infiltrated the Catholic country houses of England. Though he was a priest without a pulpit and an outlaw, Southwell hoped that word of a Catholic revival would disseminate through the secret printing presses to the peasantry, yeomanry, and lesser gentry. [...] His great poem “A vale of teares”, issued in the year of his death, likens England’s perceived fallen state under Elizabeth I to a “dumpish” (melancholy) wasteland, “Where nothing seemed wronge yet nothing right”. In the absence of a settled spiritual solution to England’s break from Rome, the poem offered Catholics a negative solace.'    
In a 2018 article, Gary Bouchard cites critics who have explained the poem in terms of a prescribed Ignatian penitential framework or in psychological terms as a 'therapeutic scene'.  His own view is that it can be read as an anti-pastoral, contrasting it specifically with Spenser's 'The Shepheard's Calender' (1579).  But he also notes that some of the language and imagery is proto-Romantic - a landscape one could imagine 'Victor Frankenstein and his creature passing through'.  Southwell had crossed the Alps via the St. Gotthard Pass on his journey to Rome in 1578 and would have seen sights that later writers and artists would come to admire for their sublimity.

J. M. W. Turner, A Ravine in the Pass of St Gotthard, 1802 
Source: Tate

I will close here with one more stanza from the poem:
The pines thick set, high grown and ever green,
     Still clothe the place with sad and mourning veil;
Here gaping cliff, there mossy plain is seen,
     Here hope doth spring, and there again doth quail.
Reading Robert Southwell's poem prompts the obvious thought that in these dark times - of climate crisis, global pandemic, economic hardship and racist brutality - it is hard not to feel that we are all walking through a vale of tears.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Wrapped Coast

The passing of Christo has prompted various articles and obituaries - I have included some links below.  The Guardian published one about Wrapped Coast (1969), where Christo and Jeanne-Claude used 90,000 square meters of erosion-control fabric and 56 kilometres of polypropylene rope to transform a craggy shoreline south of Sydney into something that more closely resembled a chalk cliffscape.  I wrote about this work in my book about chalk cliffs, Frozen AirWrapped Coast had its own unique qualities, moving with the wind, creating a cliff surface in constant motion, but it also obscured and smoothed over the irregularities of real earth and rock. Something like this happens when we view cliffs at a distance, as a landscape composed of shapes and simple colours. I wondered how this fake coastal feature might have changed people’s experiences of being there.
For some it must have de-familiarised a place they had known for years. Perhaps in covering over the natural backdrop to their experiences it brought old memories back into focus. For others, with no prior knowledge of that coastline, the reality of the landscape could only be imagined, hidden under a vast dust sheet. 

Screenshot from the Kaldor Public Art Project film (below) of Wrapped Coast, 1969

The Guardian article quotes Australian collector John Kaldor, who released a statement following Christo’s death. “It wasn’t an easy task to find a coastline close to Sydney and get permission to wrap it,” Kaldor recalled. “The reaction was mostly disbelief and ridicule.”  One of the volunteers who helped assemble it, Ian Milliss, recalled how the artists seemed very glamorous. 
"They would fight all the time but she was the organiser. There was a very clear division of labour: he was up in the studio putting it all together in his mind, but she made sure everything happened on the ground.”
“Little Bay wasn’t just a beautiful object in the landscape. It was a total work. You looked at it like you look at the pyramids, as a huge piece of embodied labour and organisation. To me that was the thing that was most impressive about it – more than the scale of it, more than the beauty.”

Some additional Christo links:

Obituaries: The Guardian, Dezeen, BBC, LA Times, Vogue.

Christo's relationship with landscape and nature is not straightforward - Running Fence, the 44.5 mile-long white nylon fence they stretched across California in the mid-70s, required a 450-page environmental impact report.  I wasn't surprised to find a short notice of his death in Plastics News...

Here are three more appreciations.
  • Lynne Hershman Leeson: 'I worked in the office for the two weeks while Running Fence remained on view. (Meanwhile, Jeanne-Claude operated the secret decoy unit—something she learned from her father, who was a general in the French army, so that no one would interrupt her work.) On the very last day the work was up, I took a helicopter ride over the landscape. Only from that distance could I see its entire expanse. It was breathtaking.'
  • Adrian Searle:  'Surrounding a group of small islands near Miami with floating pink fabric in 1983, and extending floating, interconnecting piers or pontoons covered in yellow fabric across a huge Italian lake in 2016, the artists transformed these places, albeit briefly, into a kind of gorgeous abstraction.'
  • Jerry Saltz: 'Today, the week of his death, amidst the extended three and a half years of this terrible long American night, I wish we could enlist them to wrap the White House in black fabric shroud, a hyper-lucid mummified metaphor for the ghost ship of current pain and racism. Instead we can only mourn them, as we grieve for ourselves.'