The World My Wilderness Revisited

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Savagery waited so close on the margins of life; one day it would engulf all…

Wilderness Revisited

The World My Wilderness isn’t the book I was expecting now I’ve read it. We’re told this is Barbary’s story: a girl transposed to post-war London from a life shared with her mother’s villa in Southern France and bands of French resistance fighters. In England she lives with her father (a well-known lawyer), attends the Slade school, but spends most of her time in the ruins around St Paul’s.

There’s something about the urban wilderness scenes with Barbary and her stepbrother I find quite sketchy and detached: like Ealing film reels filed among the substance of her mother’s story.

Helen is widowed after the death of her second husband. She paints, drifts, gambles, plays chess with an abbé, and is working on a fraudulent collection of 12th century poetry while maintaining a sex life. “The days slide by like fruit dropping from a tree,” she tells her grown-up son. Helen echoes the well-worn theory that du Maurier’s Rebecca is the modern woman repressed and demonised by much of the 20th century; we even have her ex-husband remarried to a nice uncomplicated girl in a tweed suit.

Hitchcock Rebecca poster

Helen’s son Richie is “one of those returning warriors whose hang-over was not toughness, but an ardent and delighted reaction towards the exquisite niceties of civilisation. He liked luxury… mulled claret drunk in decorative rooms lit by tall candles, the sparkle and glitter of good talk and good glass, the savour of delicate food”.

He and his friends would be less happy “without the sense of there being massed against them a philistine, vocal army, terrible with slogans, illiterate cries and destructive levelling aims”.

Perhaps this is Brideshead Revisited syndrome, still reaching far into British culture today. It’s seductive and alluring, as novelist after film-maker rehashes the outsider on the fringe of this world, lusting after Arcadia, days of fine wine and strawberries by ancient fountains.

Years after it was plastered over by Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, it’s as alive as ever. The early 2010s has seen fashion chase a pre-war English idyll, dreams which unite even some Guardian and Telegraph readers. (It’s fascinating that new generations of the anciently well-heeled are now ‘artisans’, dressed as 1930s farm labourers, while marketing teams talk of ‘heritage lifestyle’ and package Sebastian Flyte fashions for Debenhams.)

Rose Macauley

Rose Macaulay… or a young Hugh Grant.

Macaulay uses Richie and his frontline experiences to verbalise some intense cries of pain at what the modern era could mean. It’s not necessarily the author’s voice here, but she stares direct and unwavering into the abyss for an incredible and almost biblical passage, unleashed and at odds with the tame synopsis the novel is given:

“Richie, himself trapped into barbarism for three long, unbelievable years, shrank back from it, reacted towards gentleness, towards bland tolerance, towards an excessive civility. The rich elegances of life, now so little probable, the fine decoration, the exquisite glow of colour and grace and structure, the beauty that wealth and knowledge can bring, the ivory tower of aristocratic culture, that war and peace had undermined, had set tottering, had all but brought down with a crash, to replace by pre-fabs for the multitude, by a thin, weak tainted mass culture – it was towards these obsolescent things that Richie nostalgically turned, pursuing their light retreating steps as one chases beloved ghosts. In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors, of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some continuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered or lost shape in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner – during all this frightening evanescence and dissolution the historic churches kept their improbable, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.”

Blake

William Blake: Rose Thou Art Sick

“No civilisation lasted more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what it would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on. We haven’t finished, Richie protested; we have scarcely begun, give us a little more time for beauty… but beauty vanishes, beauty passes, and he saw only her receding back, menaced and to die.”

At the heart of The World My Wilderness is the fear that effects of war and ‘the century of the common man’ will destroy art and beauty. The privileged classes are making sense of a new world where they might not fit. The life of Helen’s daughter Barbary is outside their circle and so viewed as ‘uncivilised’ – even her name suggests barbarism.

But if art is a part of civilisation (which is a theme that appears in the novel) then Barbary carries it with her wherever she goes. The London she paints is post-apocalyptic, but it has not derailed from its past and the train will call at the same stations of the class system forever more. Barbary’s will not.

It’s a book that could work from many perspectives, from the reactionary bigot to If…-style revolutionary. When first published, the conventional view might have called Helen lazy and immoral, but she emerges as the compass of the novel. Her time has come, and her daughter is surely a proto-beatnik. They’re carrying art and beauty into the future while convention withers, but whether the art and beauty is for all is another question…

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January, July, invisible artlessness

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One of my Christmas presents was Miranda July’s book It Chooses You. Sometime last year I saw her second movie The Future (which you really need to see before reading the book, which is about the creative process in writing the screenplay, but to save time here’s the trailer at the risk of patronising everyone who saw it three years ago).

I don’t want to say it’s quirky, probably my most disliked label of the moment, but it is. I fell for this film with the kind of gratefulness with which I used to read Douglas Coupland in my twenties. There’s a scene in one of his books where in the middle of the hyperreal, over-familiar rituals of a plastic Christmas, a character fills a room with candles to restore some meaning. And that’s what I get from Miranda July: total immersion in ‘now’ to find feeling or at least something real. Somewhere in the weight of cynicism we give ourselves from mining for plain fact and unvarnished honesty there’s something life-affirming, if you stick at it long enough.

The book focuses on a project that July followed while stuck in the creative process: she phoned up a dozen or so people advertising items in the free PennySaver paper and taped their (life) story. It’s sometimes Mike Leigh uncomfortable but always honest and big enough to be revealing of subjects and author.

Idling around in the days after Christmas I watched a couple of programmes on YouTube – I started with a documentary about artist Kit Williams of Masquerade fame (it’s a hare thing). He made the comment that anyone creating was generally drawing on the years when everything was new, first experiences, and attempting to capture ‘those strong and clear impressions’. (I also loved his existence outside the art world. How awkward and husk-like was the critic who appeared, to present the dull accepted view of his, to them, old-fashioned saying-nothing art.)

I don’t know if it was the creation theme or a need to explore how I remember wildlife was depicted in the late seventies, but I went from here to Watership Down. I wanted the mystical sequences, rabbits as wild creatures, psychedelic sun explosions and brooding black rabbits. I hadn’t seen these outside of stills for decades, and they were wonderful.

And then I caught sight of Follyfoot, a TV series from 1971 from a book by Monica Dickens. I’d never seen this before (I was one at the time) but had caught the oddly-conceived contrapuntal jazz vocalising of the theme tune before. The programme titles attracted – the stark lightning tree echoed the swirling destruction scenes of Watership Down, so I went there.

Follyfoot titles

Follyfoot

It’s a simple programme, sometimes thin – and puts larkish opening titles at odds with both the moody title artwork above and the easy-listening dervishness of the theme tune. But in among the general horsiness it caught my imagination: the Yorkshire landscape was uncontrived, uncreated. The homes were those of people who didn’t bother to change furniture or lifestyle or constantly aspire to renew.

Directors like Michael Apted or Stephen Frears worked on it, and great character actors like Margery Mason, who crops up fractious as ever as a struggling Yorkshire widow. It has a social conscience, championing a miner’s strike, and if it’s moralising then the general message is that bigots are rubbish.

Scenes in local towns show endless individual shops, commonplace coming and going, and it looks artless. Follyfoot was not self-conscious, it did not measure itself against cynicism. Can we still be artless?

I took something from all this, one of those Zen-like little moments of being that come up now and again, despite the intrusion of my own cynicism wanting to belittle it. And it connected when I found these passages in Miranda July’s book.

It Chooses You

“I clicked through all the pictures Brigitte had taken so far [July takes a photographer out to each interview]. What was I looking for? I supposed I was looking for calendars. More pictures of calendars. And there they were. Everyone had them, and they were all hardworking calendars. They seemed weirdly compulsive for a moment, as if I’d stumbled on a group of calendar fanatics, and then I remembered that we all used to have these until very, very recently. We all laid our intricately handwritten lives across the grid and then put it on the wall for everyone to see. For a split second I could feel the way things were, the way time itself used to feel, before computers.

“Trying to see things that are invisible but nearby has always been alluring to me. It feels like a real cause, something to fight for, and yet so abstract that the fight has to be similarly subtle.”

And then this… (on asking each interviewee if they have a computer).

“I began to feel that I was asking the question just to remind myself that I was in a place where computers didn’t really matter, just to prompt my appreciation for this. As if I feared that the scope of what I could feel and imagine was being quietly limited by the world within a world, the internet. […]

The web seemed so inherently endless it didn’t occur to me what wasn’t there. […]

Most of life is offline, and I think it always will be; eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it’s not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things: they aren’t always easy and they take so much time. In twenty years I’d be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember they mattered.”

I’m not saying these words led me to think ‘life with internet = bad’; it’s the opposite. Without it I’d never have been able to follow those small viewing moments after Christmas on a whim that segued so perfectly.

But they did make me see the internet as a symbol of distraction leading to absorption. Not into a nostalgia of cultural leftovers either, but in the sense of being dragged into the undertow of the homogenous sludge the media and advertising tells us we are: a babbling and chattering supposed ‘now’.

Moorland path

There are invisible, unfashionable, unremarkable things too: life going on as it has for centuries, not constantly wallpapered at every opportunity. Here at my desk the chatter is invisible but it is buzzing in the wireless communications and the aerials outside.

But beyond the window there’s a wild moor, and it will still be wild, and oblivious of the chatter in the airwaves through the coming spring, the summer, and next Christmas. The future.