After London: dreaming Wild England

Standard

I was born in a small town not far from the New Forest. Now and again in the evenings, as a family, we would go and watch the deer from a viewing platform. It was like theatre, and we were in the dress circle, looking with binoculars at a sun-dappled herd lazing under a canopy of oak trees, or an antlered monarch stood on ceremony. There was also the Rufus Stone – a memorial to King William II, slain in 1100 while hunting.

Deerhead

A deer’s head made from plastic, circa 1970, made in France (oddly). There are four cow bells which go with it and a plastic beater for chiming. This was in our 1970s house until a bad taste purge sometime in 1981 in which it was replaced. I’ve since rescued it: for one thing, nothing died to make it, and he has a certain presence (as long as the bells stay in the attic).

I loved stories of Robin Hood, dreamed of living and waking among trees, and later devoured the wild landscapes covered in Roger Lancelyn Green’s stories of King Arthur. Winchester, home of Edward I’s recreated round table, seemed magical, and one summer I watched my brother’s girlfriend in a play at the Great Hall. It was inspired by Richard Jefferies’ book After London: Wild England, in which the country is ‘returned to nature’ by a great flood. In the final scene she took a white mouse from a small box, which ran over her hands as she spoke… the last living creature?

Wild England

On reading After London: Wild England, William Morris made these dark comments: “I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of civilisations: which I know now is doomed to destruction, probably before very long – what a joy it is to think of! And how it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world and real feelings and passions taking the place of our wretched hypocrises”.

Earlier, I had inherited Enid Blyton’s Country Walks with Uncle Merry from my brothers (I doubt Uncle Merry would pass many checks these days). One day a supply teacher entranced our class of six-year-olds with Edith Holden’s Country Diary. (Nothing was as fascinating as the beetle who had crawled into the pages and been reproduced in the facsimile.)

I took anything by BB (Denys Watkins Pitchford), author of Brendon Chase and Bill Badger. Otters were my favourite animal – Philip Wayre’s The River People was rarely left in the local library. As an eight-year-old member of his Otter Trust my heart stopped at the line in the newsletter: ‘It’s time to renew your subscription – don’t let the otters go hungry!’

In 1980, en route from the New Forest to Devon, through Tolpuddle and Dorchester, you could still imagine Thomas Hardy’s heart fluttering past the cottages, the window-frames layered with paint from his lifetime.

Whatever our experience of nature and landscape, it becomes part of us. It’s not something we might acknowledge until there are some years behind us. The realisation comes through a growing susceptibility to pain at seeing it fade and become unfamiliar. And it’s different for each generation; what is still beautiful to a 20-year-old today might be wrecked in the eyes of someone who knew it decades ago.

Some passing things might be rescued in the only way our age seems capable of doing – over-analysing, creating niches to attract like minds and consolidate exactly what it is we want to perpetuate: unaltered landscapes, timeworn buildings, to preserve an ancient thread over centuries and keep in check our ability to modify and obliterate within a few minutes.

Eldridge Hardy

A beer mat from 1980.

But we cannot picture ‘the countryside’ as existing outside the trends of our century. I’m typing this in a cottage with walls eighteen inches thick. You would barely hear a dog bark from next door, and yet I can hear incessant bombing from an Xbox, and when they’re not obliterating war-torn cities, it’s Formula 1 racing. There will be a huge hyper-real screen, the key point of interaction for the now and future, unless you disconnect, edit your life and put a shepherd in your garden like Marie Antoinette. I can, however, walk out on the moor and see the sheep, see the ponies, think of how many were recorded as neglected and emaciated earlier this year. It’s not so unlike urban life.

Since the Industrial Revolution our national consciousness has bred art and writing attempting to capture the essence of the countryside. Generally we’re told that this vision exists only in our imagination. It’s not long since there was derision in many quarters that the Olympics ceremony should draw on our ‘green and pleasant land’: how old-fashioned, how twee, how backward.

But perceptions are remoulded as the years pass.

Over the last decade a particular appreciation of the natural world has grown up: the fashionable face of nature-loving. Cooler record stores stock books from Caught by the River, music festivals are entwined with food and literary festivals… it is traditional non-corporate life as we might imagine it, restyled in a way palatable to lifestyle media. Fashion became obsessed with images of a stark, skeletal nature – animal heads, something dark in the forest. Chuck out your Beatrix Potter, to paraphrase Ikea.

In the 2010 preface to David Pinner’s Ritual, the book which inspired the 1971 pagan film classic The Wicker Man, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley writes:

“It is easy to take nature for granted in the 21st century, to see it as tamed by an increasingly urbanised world. We grow plants in pots and perch them on sills, herbs thrive on our balconies, parks and gardens are open air nail bars of plucked hedges and manicured rose bushes. But a trip to the countryside can soon remind you who’s boss, and of how small you are in the scheme of things, as soon as your jumper gets caught by a thorn or your bare leg grazes a thistle. The further west of London you go, the more this seems to be the case. It isn’t that the countryside there is any wilder than in other parts of Britain, just less known, and it becomes less and less familiar until its otherness dwarfs you. People don’t take nature for granted here. Here be monsters… behind the photogenic wildlife skirting the unseen bogs of the New Forest; ultimately, on Dartmoor.”

Whether this rings true depends on your circumstance, but it captures a moment, a place where the new godhead is Robert Macfarlane, who took the authenticity of Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas et al and washed away sentiment.

Caught by the River

One of Stanley Donwood’s beautiful ‘holloway’ illustrations which appear in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book.

This is all far from a knitted, unfashionable image of walking holidays in the countryside. But at the turn of this century, the nearest the lifestyle media might come to indulging such pursuits was a photo of Alison Steadman as Candice-Marie in Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May.

Of course, that quiet, ancient thread was always there and had never faded: the small publisher reissuing work by BB; people like Jack Hargreaves (as a child, he was a regular at 7pm most evenings on Southern TV – an elderly chap in a garden shed intoning about country pursuits with all the manner of a leisurely mull over beer in his village pub); the bench thoughtfully positioned in the unfashionably-termed ‘beauty spots’ on some unsung track – Frank loved this view and this seat was put here by his wife; the plethora of ornaments featuring wild animals in immaculately-crafted detail, endless prints of badgers, foxes or kingfishers in faux-gilt frames; Watership Down; Alan Titchmarsh enthusing about something or other… the solid dark green livery of the National Trust, set in stone and as yet uninterpreted; unflattering waterproofs before a testosterone-fuelled industry kicked in, now entreating us to ‘take all nature can throw at you and throw it back’.

Our new century is growing up but are we still living by illusions? Is our search for wild nature, the individual and the independent any different to the 1930s retreat to Olde England in the face of modernity? We like to think so. Perhaps we’re just the same as any age, hankering after Utopia, but won’t admit it.

Let’s be cynical for a while.

You can no longer drive through England and pass rows of cottages that would be familiar to their generations of owners, sun-faded with wrinkled render, mossy roofs and watery window panes. Well, you can, now and again, but it will be so beautifully preserved and Farrow-and-Ball’d that it’s a stage set without a cast. Yet the metal-embossed road sign at the cross-roads is at ease and true, a little rusted. Stand in the village square and choose your century. Not so long ago, it seemed we would always be able to come here and reconnect.

Tempted by practical comforts, low maintenance and rewards for environmental friendliness (or beaten by blanket-bombing marketing) the buildings in our villages and towns have been given make-overs with flawless float-glass double-glazing, immaculate shadowless render and plastic doors holding just an echo of beaded moulding to remind us what a timber door looked like. Shop signs are sheets of plastic screwed to the wall with the freedom of any font, any colour and any clipart the software allows. The signpost at the crossroads has Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s carefully-constructed Transport font condensed and squashed to fit the space on the standardised reflective board. This is life lived with care for immediate practical needs, even survival. These villages will not age gently and fade into the landscape anymore, or admit eccentricities, but they are no less authentic than the badger in his sett.

Exmoor

It’s OK, they’re part of a stuffed display, but this is confusing for dogs.

Preserved cottages are more often empty, the 19th century hovel a 21st century luxury from coffee table books. In off-track villages they’re part of the idyll, reassuring visitors that somewhere things are running in computer safe-mode, waiting for a some-day-soon.

They are stage sets, and outside showtime life is still reduced to the comforting essentials: no shop, no pub, no jobs, refuelling with coal or damp wood on the hour to keep a radiator working, no salt or grit for frozen roads, no privacy.

Decimated, the last of generations remain knowing they cannot make a living from the land like their fathers and mothers and yet struggle on. It’s in their skin and has been there since birth, every nuance of weather, every flutter of wing. Those dependent on the countryside know it as the rabbit knows the fox or the sparrow knows the hawk. This is becoming nature, where survival is king.

Are the rest of us able to say we really know the countryside? Or are we indulging the luxury of being able to consider a longing for nature’s otherness, a reminder that we are part of something truly beyond humankind’s control, the pull of the primeval? We might infuse our responses with modernity, a scrabble for authenticity: ultimately, it’s a privilege to be able to do so. We are looking to ideals, a pursuit of beauty, the antidote to over-sophistication, a dream of Utopia, a return to Eden.

No matter whether we express this with a well-placed bench, a faded print or bestselling literature, it’s an illusion that belongs to us all.

About these ads

39 thoughts on “After London: dreaming Wild England

  1. Thank you – really enjoying your posts. I’m fascinated by the codes that emerge in any ‘movement’ like this. I think I was really motivated by the sense of an esoteric cult, suggesting there are types of engagement with the natural world which are more ‘valid’ than others.

  2. Great post on a subject dear to me – so many things to respond to here I will have to come back to it! I have just been rereading After London, but would never have imagined there had been a play done of it – amazing!

    • The play was actually an improvisation – the programme says the students took a month of their summer holidays and worked on a script which was then rehearsed. There are notes about Shakespeare’s England – contrasting the flowering of arts in Elizabeth’s reign with suffering in everyday life, and how ‘in every year of Shakespeare’s lifetime, England was at war’, with 1585 as the year of Halley’s Comet, a harbinger of evil, linking that to Civil War, Plague and Great Fire. They used Jefferies’ apocalyptic flood to imagine a society regressed to its primitive state, with the Morris quote. Sounds quite a heady brew! I remember being really drawn to the title ‘After London: Wild England’, and talk of Kate Bush’s Lionheart too (hence the cover illustration I suppose). I only remember the scene with the mouse, but I found the book a few years later determined to follow it all up!

  3. So much delight! The Nuts in May reference had me laughing. I think you are right there is a cyclical quality. The wild of Country Living is at odds with the real tooth and claw of wilderness. Perhaps this conflict is part of the recent resurgence in writing as we fumble towards a more considered place? Great stuff!

    • Thanks, great you enjoyed it. I was worried it might come across as purely curmudgeonly! It’s just good that there are all these perspectives. We could do with valuing all parts of the natural world when even the humble cultivated garden is under threat…

  4. Absolutely *wonderful* post… A many-faceted gem, filled with so much that strikes chords. I’ve read it several times now, over a period of some days, setting my cogs whirring, gearing myself up to finding the words to capture my response. Concentration lately has been difficult – lots happening!

    Love all the memory reflections on otters and B.B., Robin Hood, King Arthur, Richard Jefferies, Jack Hargreaves (I have fond memories of ‘Out of Town’)… Love too the warm memories of Edith Holden’s country diary. My own copy is dear to my heart – it was from its pages that I learnt all the names of the wildflowers I was discovering on walks with my dog when I was a kid…

    It seems like both a new development, and never-ending cycle, of relationship to ‘the countryside’ that we have now. It’s a strange one for me because I love nature writing – and its long, long age-old tradition. How can we humans not write about nature after all. We are nature. And nature is our world. But, despite my love of writing by Robert Macfarlane and Co., I find myself feeling perplexed and slightly alienated by the fashionable tide that has ridden a perception of ‘new nature writing.’ What’s new about it, I ask myself. I remember feeling slightly alarmed, when in Waterstones, I saw a sign that read ‘Nature Writing – the new Rock and Roll!’ It’s fabulous that so many people are seeking it out – but I grew up reading Richard Mabey, Chris Ferris and other very naturalist-based writers in the early 80s – and it sometimes feels as if their hard-won wisdoms no longer count. Sometimes it seems as if it’s all psychogeography and deep topography now. I can’t help it – I don’t like such jargon. But that’s just me; I never have liked terminology taking over from real-world expression (never liked it in my literary criticism studies either). To me, it seems to ring fence something – to put what should be central to all at a distance, and claim it for a certain group of people…

    But it’s all so complex; always, as ever, so much to consider and explore… positives bound up with the negatives. The ever shifting authenticity of ‘now’. And what’s new also essentially tapped into what’s always been, and will ever be – as well as what’s lost. Loved the journey of thought your beautiful exploration of this issue’s heartlands and hinterlands took us on…

    • Thanks so much for the thoughts on this – I was thinking I might be a little bit of a Webster-ish malcontent here, so really appreciate the picking up and following of the threads (as ever!)

  5. It’s a freshly pressed party! :-) :-)

    So lovely that we’ve both been freshly pressed – almost simultaneously!! Congratulations! This is such a wonderful post; so great that so many more people will get the chance to discover and enjoy ‘dreaming Wild England’ and all the other fabulous Whistles in the Wind brews…

    I’ve got the champagne on ice – special blog celebration vintage!

  6. Loved this piece.
    I’ve not read the book but I’ll have to keep my eye out for it.
    Having lived in a sprawl of a city these past years your writing made me yearn to go somewhere where I can smell fresh air and see untouched countryside again. Even more than I usually do!

  7. Your post makes me think of George Monbiot’s latest book Feral, which got an absolute slating in the Guardian. However, if you read Monbiot’s replies in the comments, you see that the book is much more interesting than the reviewer lets on: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/24/feral-searching-enchantment-monbiot-review. It’s on my reading list for sure. The first paragraph is all about London before human habitation.
    On a slightly unrelated point, there is some debate as to whether William Rufus was murdered. He wasn’t popular with the Norman nobles of the time because he wasn’t a rough and tough warlike maniac, as his father had been.

  8. For a homesick blogger living in the antipodes, this was meat and drink …
    And though i live in wild places here in NZ, my memories of Dorset during the war, and Yorkshire in the fifties, Warwickshire and Monmouthshire in the sixties, are so lavishlyly peopled – or should I say animaled with so much wild life and so much flora, which are hard to find in so many other places that I’ve lived in elsewhere in the world.
    The plastic world you describe is unknown to me, and it sounds very sad…
    I console myself with Larkrise at Candleford, Gilbert White at Selborne, so much of Hardy, and good friend Ronald Lockley’s books , whose research into rabbits Richard Adams pillaged for Watership Down…
    Thank you, a lovely lovely post, filled with snippets of history and literary references – fascinating and so satisfying, with so many layers of meaning…

    • It’s wonderful to read feedback like this and to know the post connected in this way… interestingly, I’ve heard lots about Yorkshire in the 50s from my parents and I also lived in Warwickshire. There are of course many, many beautiful places around, so don’t be sad! And as I say, our particular remembered visions are always the ones we want to see, it doesn’t mean everything’s ruined. And we’ll always have Thomas’s Wessex.

  9. I remember someone coming round to our house once and seeing my mother, then in her eighties, chopping kindling, and asking, ‘Does she know what she’s doing?’ Its weird in some ways, that a skill you are brought up with, should seem so esoteric to others.

  10. aspenlinmer

    Very insightful post. I love the connections to Robin Hood and King Arthur, two characters of legend that have always fascinated me, as well as the many historical connections. I think much of the reason we romanticize these past times and stories is because we live in the “plastic world” you describe and part of us longs for what was before.

    Thanks for sharing!

    ~Aspen

    • That’s interesting – the dislike of a ‘plastic world’ is probably much more deep-rooted than just a feel for how things look, it’s also knowing the materials around us can’t just return to earth in a natural way, like seeing the swathes of polished plastic swept up on shores.

      And yet most legends have an element of regeneration in them too, even if the utopia in them (Arthur’s round table, as an example) is elusive or doomed.

      • aspenlinmer

        That’s very true. Regeneration is a very common topic in legend and story…and it goes back for centuries.

        ~Aspen

  11. I don’t live in england and yet so much of what you talked about was somehow familiar. I have visited and I guess Australia was under the thumb, so to speak, for a long time and in fact for some it still is. So much of what australia is, has some of its roots in england. The ‘natural world’ here is so different and yet our perceptions of the relationships between nature and ourselves might be surprisingly similar. I really loved the picture from a year of antidotes. It spoke to me. Loved your post thank you : )) trees

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s