Posts Tagged ‘pastoral’

Come to the Feast

May 21, 2012

The Prospect of Happiness – paperwork by Liz Mathews

This beautiful work (with text from my book The Principle of Camouflage) is on show at Liz Mathews’ current solo exhibition light wells in Kentish Town, north London. (It’s also the banner image for the Thames Festival facebook page…)

There’s another large work in the show, Spring, which also sets text from my book, and I’m very proud that my words have contributed to a truly inspiring show.

Spring (detail)  – artist’s book by Liz Mathews

The Thames is the motif for us in London this summer; Liz Mathews’ monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is on show in Writing Britain, the British Library’s major exhibition for the London 2012 Festival.  It is wonderful opportunity to see this very large work opened up to almost its full 17 metre length, and it is an impressive sight.

We went to the opening last week, a glamorous occasion ably described by the curator Jamie Andrews on his blog, of which I will merely say that we enjoyed everything among the great and glorious of the literary world – the folk rendition of Jerusalem, the cider, the idea of the smoked eel canapes…

The exhibition itself is a real joy to any writer or reader with a love of literature which invokes the spirit of place.  It avoids the pitfalls of concentrating too exclusively on pastoral or urban by having a variety of themes, as the subtitle puts it, from Wastelands to Wonderlands, and a combination of elements that couldn’t be missed out – John Clare, Virginia Woolf – with unexpected treasures like Kathleen Raine’s diary.

One of my favourite discoveries was Bernard Kops’ poem about a now-defunct library, Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.  He reads it in a video at the show which has visitors in pleasurable tears (whereas I saw at least one person laughing at Ezra Pound’s rendition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer, accompanied on kettledrum…):

‘Welcome young poet, in here you are free

to follow your star to where you should be.

The door of the library was the door into me

And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”

Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.’

Even in a big exhibition like this, there isn’t room for everything everyone would like to see; the land-, city- and seascapes of Britain have been so crucial to the sense of ourselves as indivduals in a place defined by our literature. The writing represented here, in all its diversity, has a common ground in the way it maps the inner landscapes of the psyche even as it explores the human place in the physical terrain.

The importance for us of word linked to place is acknowledged by the Pin-a-Tale on the literary map feature, where people can nominate their own ur-texts for specific areas; the map already bristles with red flags.  A champion of my work has contributed The Principle of Camouflage, together with this beautiful photograph of Crambo’s beach.

Sea from the dunes – photograph by Liz Mathews (1993)

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No temple but the wood

March 14, 2011

Magnolia – photograph by Liz Mathews

London is a green city. Indeed, parts of it are now classified as an ‘urban forest’.  The combination of parks, street trees and many gardens (including roof-gardens) makes it one of the greenest of all ancient cities.  Most Londoners meet a tree or two every day, many of us are lucky enough to see dozens of them out of the windows.  As David Constantine puts it in his poem Birdsong:

We think our common road a choir of trees.

There are tree-cultish books, not aimed at much-derided tree-huggers, directing people to the remarkable trees of various areas.  Everyone has their own favourites; the giant planes of Brunswick Square, which survived the wartime destruction of most of the surrounding buildings (perhaps protected by the charm of Handel’s aria composed in their praise); the magnolias on St. Mary-le-Strand’s precarious island mid-Aldwych; the parade of blossom on one ordinary residential street or the elegant chestnut avenue along another.

Trees don’t live forever, and they need some looking after.  Councils also have to protect them from the philistines who are afraid of trees and see them only as nuisances that make shade, block gutters, shelter birds – which are also perceived as nuisances – raise their roots and have a sinister urge to crush or poison people unless they are felled or poisoned first.  (Perhaps this is the last remnant of an early anti-pagan representation of sacred trees as harbouring malign deities?)

Pro-tree neighbours periodically have to link hands around a threatened tree to protect it from illegal destruction, but this support is sometimes taken to extremes; our local tree-surgeon told me that he’s often abused as a ‘murderer’ by wrathful passers-by if he has to fell a rotten or dangerous tree.  But the worst threat is still building.  Eighty years ago, Charlotte Mew wrote her searing lament The Trees are Down – so not much changes.

They are cutting down the great plane trees at the end of the gardens…

It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade today;

These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:

When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away

Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.

It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;

Half of my life has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,

In the March wind, the May breeze,

In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.

There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;

They must have heard the sparrows flying,

And the small creeping creatures in the earth when they were lying –

But I, all day I heard an angel crying:

‘Hurt not the trees.’

As this poem makes so clear, trees are free, for everyone; their beauty makes a place which people feel is home.

The pastoral ideal of a sylvan grove has a long pedigree in English, and its transfer to the urban environment seems an essential element of its 21stC survival. (These trees shall be my books…) In this romantic spirit, I was pleased to encounter our local ‘urban forester’, an Ent-like tree-keeper, I imagined, a contemporary wood-warden.  But, having been in contact with him, I’m less thrilled to discover that in Islington, hitherto one of the greenest boroughs, tree-planting – like everything else – will be cut in future. So, although the two missing trees from our street-corner spinney may yet be replaced, because residents have asked for them, such re-planting won’t happen again.

Just as government-owned rural ancient woodland will vanish when it’s sold off, so the urban forest will inevitably shrink, if the trees are not cared for or re-planted.  According to the Ents, the benefits of city trees include (but are not limited to) the fact that they: filter airborne dust and pollution, increase air quality, absorb traffic noise, reduce temperature extremes, generate breezes, provide shade, increase privacy, give food and nesting sites for birds and insects, improve quality of life, reduce stress, give proven psychological and health benefits, increase local property values [!], help prevent flooding.

So, if we want to continue being able to live in a green city, we must protect our trees even more carefully than we do already.  This piecemeal destruction of ‘forests’ close to home is yet another unnecessary imposition, presented as inevitable among far worse cuts, just a very minor item on the agenda.  But, as Philip Pullman made clear in his superb lyrical speech against library closures, these false dichotomies and competitions for funds are merely a tactic of ‘divide and rule’; there is no need to choose between such extremes.  It’s just another small, important, thing to add to the list of unacceptable losses against which we will be protesting at the demonstration on March 26th.

A local habitation and a name…

February 3, 2011

Local winter – photograph by Liz Mathews

London may be, as Chesterton said, a collection of submerged villages, but to the inhabitants they are not even fully submerged.  People’s attachment to ‘their’ street may be just as tenacious and appreciative as the attachment of a smallholder to his particular fields… The instinctive allegiance… to a natural habitat, (large trees, hills, streams etc) urban man transfers to man-made landmarks, but the essential nature of that allegiance remains the same.

These words about the local loyalties many people feel for their home ground are from The Fields Beneath, Gillian Tindall’s marvellous ‘history of one London village’.  As the title suggests, she takes a representative urban area and – with a brilliant combination of meticulous research and strong historical imagination – traces its development from grassland to paved street.  This is particularly fascinating to me as the place she maps in such detail (Kentish Town in north London) is local, but the book has a far wider application.

Since it was first published in 1977, many of the ideas Tindall advanced on the importance of their environment for all people (‘places, objects, views – other supports for the human psyche’) have become more accepted.  A revised edition in 2005 expressed relief that much of the demolition threatened at that time didn’t take place, that our ancestors would still feel at home here after all – which must be partly thanks to this book, with its insistence on William Morris’s dictum ‘We are only trustees for those who come after us’.

As befits so eminent an historian, Gillian Tindall differentiates clearly between the verifiable facts, and the myths – of which there are many.  There are unsolved mysteries (where exactly was the Gospel Oak?) and revenant rumours (every damp cellar was once hailed as the lost Fleet River rising), which are explored and explained.  Now, the many inhabitants who have read this much-loved book know exactly where the river runs beneath their feet, feel a pastoral nostalgia  for groves or dairy farms recalled only in street names.  Curves of streets suggest a brook’s meander, abrupt angles mark ancient field-boundaries, old trees in gardens are survivors from orchards, there are even hedgerows remaining from our rural past.

This book has done more than any other to give this community a strong sense of locality and history rooted in the landscape, that common ground which remains so noticeable in these hilly streets.  It has even explained the richness of the soil, which grows such lush shrubs in these city gardens; ‘tough, sticky London clay studded like a currant cake with the fragments of other lives’.  Pevsner’s London 4: North covers the architectural riches, others list the ley lines, Roman roads, Boadicea’s barrow (on Parliament Hill, of course, not platform 10 of King’s Cross Station) and more, but none have quite this taste of the territory.

Famous residents pass through; Mary Shelley watches Byron’s funeral procession make its way through the rain towards Highgate Hill (she thought the place ‘an odious swamp’); Nelson plants apple trees in his uncle’s town garden; Thomas Hardy is distressed by participating in the clearance of a churchyard for the new railway.  But the less well-known, the ordinary residents, are the focus; piano-builders, railway-workers, music-teachers and engravers, many servants. In the fascinating minutiae of their lives are reflected the place’s fluctuating fortunes, from a rural retreat of clean air to a smog-polluted slum, only reprieved late in the 20thC.

For this sort of detailed, local social history the census records are a major source, providing an unrivalled picture of the area’s composition at fixed moments in time.  No-one who has any interest in the past, or values the ability of those who come after us to understand our own time, can ever have felt any doubt about the historical importance of the census.  But things in 2011 aren’t quite as they were; as many people from the Green Party to The Guardian have been saying.  This year the information will be gathered by an American company, Lockheed Martin, the arms and aircraft manufacturer specialising in ‘information gathering’ in the sense of interrogation at Guantanamo.

One of the implications of this is that as an American company, any data they hold can be legally demanded by an agency of the American government, so that the essential concept of the confidentiality of the census is seriously undermined.  Another is that an enormous sum of tax-payers’ money has been paid out to a non-British firm, which seems an odd decision especially now. And, why to a firm deeply incriminated in arms dealing, which many financial organisations – not only ‘ethical’ funds like the Co-op Bank – are expected by their customers to avoid?

This all seems a long way from reading an exemplary local history which typifies the history of many other districts, or the celebrating the research opportunities of the 1911 census. But one of the worst things about this different 2011 census is that it will make all such future exercises in truth-telling and finding far more difficult, since there are obviously going to be many more people than usual who are reluctant to provide answers.  Aside from those communities who have traditionally been hard to persuade to co-operate (because of their suspicions of the use to which their confidential information might be put, and who will have access to it) now there will be many others who feel the same doubts. And the results may not be at all the same in a hundred years.

Nightingales in Berkeley Square

September 6, 2010

Bees in the lavender – photograph by Liz Mathews

With the odd synchronicity that so often happens after encountering something new, when that same scrap of life reappears everywhere, this week has been plagued by the nightingale.  I was reading Scrapbook for the 1920’s by Leslie Baily (background research, and an entertaining picture of the period).  There I came across the story of Beatrice Harrison, the cellist who played duets with the nightingale in her garden, broadcast for the first time in 1924 in one of the great success stories of early radio.  She recalled that although the bird didn’t join in until nearly midnight, ‘I don’t think he ever sang more gloriously’.  Over fifty thousand of those who listened in wrote to thank her.

(In these early days of ‘outside broadcasting’, it was a bold move to try and catch something as unpredictable as birdsong live, but it was possible to break in to the late night dance music programme – also live, The Savoy Orpheans – whenever the bird began to sing.  This encapsulates the odd mixture of stiff formality and lax lawlessness which seems to characterise the Twenties.)

The experiment was repeated for the next twelve years, and there’s a marvellous picture of her and an excerpt of the musical nightingale on the BBC website.

The day after reading this, I happened to hear a programme in the Proms interval all about nightingales, where Beatrice Harrison made her appearance, and we heard her nightingale again.  Then, there was an even more extraordinary recording.  In 1942, the nightingale was due to be broadcast, and sang as ever, but the programme didn’t go out live because there was an unexpected element in the mix – the steady rumble of bomber planes going overhead in wave after wave.  Instead, the sound engineer recorded it, as a potent evocation of that surreal moment.  Listening to it, as Richard Mabey said, it was impossible not to hear the bird’s voice singing ‘Choose life!’.  (Just as Virginia Woolf’s birds sing ‘Vita!’)

This was a reading from Richard Mabey’s new book The Barley Bird, which I haven’t yet read but certainly will, on the basis of this extract – although on the page it will be a shame to miss his brilliant reading of John Clare’s phonetic notation of the nightingale’s song, a weird poem in itself.  The observation that John Clare saw the nightingale as a fellow-poet is true, too.  Much bleaker is Mabey’s analysis that the bird is rapidly losing numbers in England (it only visits the south), probably because of fewer insects – a result of climate change.  Here was a resonance with the new commission in the Prom, Dark Pastoral by David Matthews, based on a theme by Vaughan Williams, beautiful but elegaic.

The loss of the nightingale is like the vanishing bees; something many people care about not only for practical reasons but because of its poetic, mythic status, the essence of everyday magic.  It’s rather moving what a cross-section of different kinds of people are trying to help the bees – links to some of them here.  One of the happy results of urban beekeeping is that we can now get such local honey in London – ours is made by a beekeeper a few streets away, proudly labelled ‘Tufnell Park honey’.

Earlier this year, among the bumble bees that still visit our lavender, I saw an unfamiliar sort, with black and white stripes on its body.  I was puzzled, until I discovered from the poet Alison Brackenbury’s blog (on a recent post called Bumbling along), that it’s a new bee here, Bombus hyphorum, its range recently expanded by global warming. She has a poem about the bees, too.

We may have no choice but to adapt to this shift in what we’ve known, but before we mourn the absolute loss of our particular bees or birds, we can try to support them, both by practical measures and by invoking their particular magic. In literature, the nightingales will sing forever in Berkeley Square, or Hampstead Heath, or John Clare’s Helpston; on the radio we can hear Beatrice Harrison’s cello partner, Vita Sackville-West’s chorus serenading Ethel Smythe, the bird outsinging the bombers. But we also need to hear them now, in our own time and place, birds alive as well as immortal.

Pastoral no more

April 28, 2010


Clear skies – photograph by Liz Mathews

Writing about the romance of finding the natural world in unexpected places, Kathleen Raine speculated that:

‘Paradise perhaps always retains the aspect of whatever images first reflected it back to us… a dispossessed unheeded beauty – the quarry, the urban park, London trees at night – an image of lost paradise, on the outskirts of the human and urban world.’

This poignant sense that she can only see the little that remains after the Fall, the remnants of some imagined paradise, sounds a strong echo now, when the loss of natural world seems no remote myth but a contemporary happening. The human condition, before, was always to feel a nostalgia for a pre-lapsarian lost Eden, a better place we once knew. Now, that loss lies in the future, literally, as well as the imagined past; as though a new enactment of the old story is taking place before an unwilling or indifferent audience.

Of course it’s still possible to find places where the heavenly beauty of the natural world survives; in the great happiness of those moments the rose seems without a thorn, mortality can be forgotten. (Though perhaps it’s always been closer to our human state to weep that the daffodils must haste away so soon, to stand in the showers of white blossom already blowing down, to feel part of that natural order of change.)

So much art, for so long, has mapped that ‘Garden’ of our inner landscape, or lamented the exile from it, as well as celebrating nature, or protesting against the various forms of devastation which have always threatened it. But now the pastoral is a protest against more urgent loss.

In a poem about the destruction of the environment, Raine couldn’t resist expressing an unquenchable optimism in the powers of the natural world:

And on this doomed decaying city rise
on the last days as on the first,
these marvels inexhaustible and boundless.

Accidentally discovered ‘dispossessed unheeded beauty’ is made all the more precious by its fragility. So we still snatch beauty where we can find it, not waiting only for the rare moments of absolute perfection. Often, the reward is a mixed blessing, rather like the images Raine observed; the magnolia tree flowering alone in a valley of tower blocks; the goldfinch perched on barbed wire. They express our contemporary situation with a strange exactitude.

In the exhilarating moment when the sky was empty of planes, silenced by the volcano, it was possible to imagine, briefly, what the world could be like if paradise wasn’t paved for a parking-lot, if we could once again think of its imperfections as only just less than heaven, rather than an impending loss of earth.