Brave new dystopia

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Brave New World Finn Dean

Here’s a superb image from Finn Dean, the winner of this year’s Book Illustration Competition. His designs will be published as The Folio Society’s edition of Brave New World in September.

It’s fascinating to look at the future from the thirties and forties, and see how emotional detachment is a key feature. While Brave New World and 1984 are always in the searchlight, Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome is overlooked. I found it a year or two ago on a Waterstone’s ‘staff recommend’ shelf, and it’s great – particularly interesting as a vision of the future in a rural setting. The back cover quotes a Guardian review which describes ‘a horrified and darkly comic response to the appeal of totalitarianism, a mixture of Orwellian satire, rural sentimentality and Kafkaesque nightmare’… I note that ‘rural’ equates with ‘sentimentality’ again.

It’s a really distinctive book: the insight and observation is shot with a mixture of League of Gentlemen humour (as in Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) and soap opera which makes its unsettling hold only stronger. The BBC adapted The Aerodrome in the early 1980s with Peter Firth, but the Monty Python-ish interpretation made too much light of the dark.

Aerodrome Rex Warner

After London: dreaming Wild England

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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.

Dorset in 1940

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This is one of a series of photography books by S W Colyer produced in the late 1930s and during the war, each featuring a different English landscape. They’re described as photogravure plates, so each image has quite a lot of depth and looks quite cinematic – a great insight into a time when it wasn’t felt necessary to daub our villages and lanes with fluorescent orange signage or paint the road yellow and green… though maybe I’ll concede that the tarmac comes in handy these days…

Survivors

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Photos taken on holiday around Aran Fawddwy in Wales.

The inside of the farm outbuilding looked like a scene from the last century, not ours – I didn’t see how a book that looked pre-war would still be sat there, as dry and clean as if it was on a kitchen table, twined with a piece of rope. It seemed too contrived to be true.

I also loved what I assumed was a chapel but I seem to remember they are something other on reading up. I poked my lens through a gap in the door, into darkness, and the camera picked up more signs of life not quite departed – the ancient bicycle in particular. This photo was grainy and smudgy so I put it into Photoshop to see if I could help it. Adding a cross-hatch filter revealed some great patterns around the blocked-up arched doorway and along the dado rail which couldn’t be seen before.

H E Bates and the paperback cover

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I love H E Bates. His short stories are perfect examples of drowsy, bee-filled summers or glowing winter afternoons, and full of bittersweet melancholia not unlike Hardy shorn of some melodrama. Incredibly prolific and versatile (which, along with The Darling Buds of May is probably a reason why he’s not allowed to be admitted as one of our literary greats), his stories often, and perhaps surprisingly, centre on outsiders, the downtrodden, the innocent, where circumstance is quicksand. You’re quite likely to find a patriarch crushing his wife’s lesbian idyll, or a husband humiliated by his gin-sodden wife finding release with the village lad she attempts to devour.

I imagine publishers were keen to exploit his sense of liberated, almost pagan sensuality that finds outlets amid the sourness in small English towns and villages (see The Sleepless Moon – illicit meetings by a disused mill, bare legs and – well, I imagine the first sketch was sent back with a request to ‘cover things up a bit’). As such, on some occasions his other paperback covers almost depicted that seventies male-fantasy, the ‘dolly-bird’. Dulcima is interesting here: Carol White, who appears on the cover, took the role of a downtrodden country girl in the 1970 film with John Mills. Known for Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, she was a respected dirty-realism actress who ironically wanted the Hollywood glitz instead, dying young in its failed pursuit. Despite attempts with the bed and the bath towel, due to her skill as an actress this film-still cover tells us something quite different: about hope and hopelessness, frustration and resignation.

It’s hard to describe the particular sensibility in these covers: they occupy a particular space of time from the late sixties into early seventies. These are interesting faces, enigmatic characters whose images have to tread a fine line in making sure they aren’t sending out Trojan horses to poison romantic fantasies. There is resignation to lamplit gloom in Glenda Jackson’s The Triple Echo; and the girl in the The Four Beauties is no-one’s fool – here is freedom, independence.

Apart from the odd one out of course. That’s A E Coppard marketed as shampoo. With a slug.