Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Word Hoard

I am very grateful to my friend and former colleague Kym for the gift of this brilliant book. Robert Macfarlane is one of those sickeningly talented renaissance men, who can, in his case, maintain a high-profile academic career at Cambridge, and produce a series of startlingly original books, while filling in his spare time with such activities as writing opera librettos, making TV documentaries and chairing the Booker Prize committee. Not that I'm envious, you understand.

Landmarks  is an unusual book, in that its avowed subject is the examination of the language we use to describe landscape, but it is about as far from a dry academic tome as you are likely to get. Macfarlane combines his interest in the countryside, and the way in which writers have represented it, with a fascinating exploration of the evocative language, often dialect, used to describe particular conditions. He adopts an innovative format to present his ideas: the book is divided into chapters which focus on some of his favourite nature writers, and examine both their work and the landscapes in which they are situated; then, after each chapter, is a glossary themed around a particular aspect of nature - Flatlands, Uplands, Waterlands and so on. The glossaries are eclectic, with items drawn not just from the writers he considers, but from the folk tradition and from literature.

The great landscape writers under consideration here are not the obvious ones, or at least, not to me. Indeed, some of them were completely new names as far as I was concerned. One such is Nan Shepherd, whose book about her life in the Cairngorms. The Living Mountain, was written in the forties, but not published until 1977, a few years before her death. Shepherd seems to be one of those fiercely independent women of the late Victorian era - she was born in 1893 - who forged their own life, irrespective of society's expectations. She was, I learn, a writer of modernist fiction - but not one who figures in any of the standard accounts with which I'm familiar - whose novels are clearly autobiographical and might, on first glance, bear some comparison with Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage sequence.

(Image: By Graham Lewis (The Cairngorms) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

But it is her nature writing that attracts Macfarlane's attention here. In this early chapter, he establishes a principle which holds both for the writers he discusses, and his own work: the importance of precision. In their different ways, all of the writers Macfarlane presents exemplify that principle in their work - they observe the world around them in minute detail, and are sensitive to tiny changes in its fabric. It's all about attention - Macfarlane and the others attend to the landscapes they encounter, and reflect on significances that would escape the casual observer. I was reminded more than once when reading this book of Sherlock Holmes's terse comment: "You see, Watson, but you do not observe." Macfarlane and his heroes are the Holmeses of nature writing, and we are the Watsons. Macfarlane recounts a moment on a climb in the mountains where he is reminded of a passage in Shepherd's book where she describes the sound of moving water:

One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes - the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn one may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.

Macfarlane goes on to show the same kind of attention to detail he sees in Shepherd, and weaves a personal story of his own encounters with the Cairngorms around an astute and sympathetic account of Shepherd's writing. 

Other writers on show here include the curious figure of J.A. Baker, whose book The Peregrine I read, I now realise, just after it was published in 1967.  Baker, an amateur, and disabled, pursued the peregrines he saw hovering over the Essex marshes with a determination bordering on the obsessive. His book, which distilled a decade's worth of observations into a year in the life of the bird, is almost his only monument. Macfarlane writes about the newly opened archive of Baker material at Essex university, and speculates on the nature of the man revealed in the journals kept there. 

Other writers considered by Macfarlane include the unexpected (Jacquetta Hawkes) and the obscure (Richard Skelton) but each more than justifies their place as their contribution to the rich language of landscape is explored. I was intrigued to be introduced to these writers, and delighted that Macfarlane has also added a bibliography of relevant works to follow up on. The TBR pile grows again...

The glossaries are a separate joy in this book. It's good to be reminded of the inventiveness of Hopkins (endragoned - a raging sea) , but even better to discover some of the evocative words for landscape collected by Macfarlane from a variety of sources. He tends to favour some geographical areas over others - lots from Shetland, none from Orkney, lots of Celtic - Cornish, Breton, Welsh, Gaelic - but not much from the eastern side of England, though there are a few glorious words from the north-east miners' Pitmatical slang dialect (canch: the stone above or below the seam that has to be removed to get at the coal) and from more exotic sources, such as the Anglo-Romani word for Yarmouth, matchkani gav, literally "fish-village."

At the end of the book, Macfarlane reveals that he has been contacted by a scholar who had been working for fifteen years on a global glossary of landscape words. The scope of this enterprise can be imagined when one considers that “B” section alone, beginning with ba the Akkadian for water, of the Topoglossary comes to 343 pages. So - lots more to be done, and read and recorded. This jewel of a book is one I'll return to, I'm sure, and it's opened up a treasure trove of further reading, which will take some time to compass.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ezra Pound: the final volume

My review of A.David Moody's final volume in his massive Ezra Pound biography is now up at Shiny New Books.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hubba Hubba!

For reasons over which we will draw a discreet veil, our soundtrack on a recent long drive was a CD of early Perry Como songs. The opening track, called 'Dig You Later' was a topical song of 1945, in which Perry and a vocal group, The Satisfiers, sing a lyric which tries to shoehorn as much 'hip' slang as possible into three minutes. What is also does, and this made me almost swerve into oncoming traffic, is celebrate the recent end of the war with some hilarious lines about the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. It's mighty smoky over Tokyo, indeed. Have a listen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

London Rain

My review of this book appeared here recently. I've now amended it slightly for publication on Shiny New Books. You will find it here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ezra Pound: The Epic Years

My latest review at the excellent Shiny New Books is now up. Go here for my thoughts on the latest volume of A David Moody's magnum opus on old Stetson.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


It used to be that 'showing respect' was something children were supposed to do to adults, or farm tenants to the inhabitants of the big house. In recent times, it's become a catch-all phrase beloved of gangsters, sportsmen and bullies. Not 'showing respect' can mean anything from looking at someone in a bar in a way someone else finds offensive ("you looking at my bird?") to a football team assuming it can beat some inferior lower-division outfit in the cup. The change in use probably stems from the "Godfather" films, where not showing respect results in sudden death.

So the phrase has really lost any meaning it might once have carried.It's difficult to overcome something like this:

Even so, I think it reaches a new nadir in the usage I observed today on the back of a DHL van:

Leaving aside the redundant inverted commas, how, exactly, is one supposed to drive with respect? Perhaps the courier could doff his DHL cap every time someone overtook. Or seek out funeral processions to drive slowly behind. I don't know - and like all these "how's my driving?"-type notices, it's inconceivable that anyone would ever actually phone the number. Although now, I'm tempted. "Your courier didn't show me no respect. I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse." And hang up... Pity there's only an email address.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Maxine Peake's Hamlet at the Royal Exchange

Man and boy, I've seen a lot of Hamlets, and I've taught the play more times than I can remember. So I know it very well, probably as well as I know any work of art. What to expect then, from Maxine Peake's Hamlet, given at the Royal Exchange this autumn? That la Peake is a consummate actor with range and depth is a given. But could she scale this Everest of a part, especially playing against her gender in an over-three-hour largely uncut version of the text? Of course she could.

This production boldly offers two and a bit hours of intense action before the interval. As we wandered out, a little dazed, for a breather, I was thinking that this was easily the most gripping Hamlet  I had ever seen, and then realised that, actually, this was the most gripping piece of theatre I had ever seen, full stop. Peake is magnificent from her first encounter with the ghost to "the rest is silence." The energy and the intensity never let up for a moment, and, surrounded by a talented cast, Peake made you forget that she was a woman almost from the moment she appeared, in a Mao suit and a white shirt that remained her costume throughout.

The production, as does every play at the Exchange, made the most of that extraordinary theatrical space. The intimacy of the Exchange was very much to the advantage of this version of the play, in which the personal anguish of Hamlet and the other characters touched by the domino effect of Claudius's treachery, was the central, relentless, focus. The Fortinbras political plot was jettisoned, leaving the end of the duel scene as the final moment, and bringing to a close the intense examination of guilt and innocence, action and inaction, morality and corruption.

The production is in modern dress - the watchmen at the beginning are in hi-vis jackets and carry torches. Claudius is in a business suit, and Horatio looks like a philosophy lecturer. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are punks, all ripped tee-shirts, tattoos and piercings. The casting of the central role is not the only gender change: Polonius becomes Polonia, Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz?) is a woman and the Player King is played brilliantly by Claire Benedict, who is also Marcella, not Marcello. It's a tribute to the power of the production that none of this detracts from the impact of the play at all. The decision to use most of Shakespeare's text means that Hamlet's growing frustration at his own indecision is fully explored, and this ratchets up the intensity to almost unbearable levels. Peake handles the soliloquies well, without any of the anxiety that such well-known speeches might be expected to engender, breathing new life into "Oh that this too solid flesh would melt" and indeed "To be or not to be."

The supporting cast are almost uniformly excellent. John Shrapnel's Claudius conveys the "smiling, damned villain" perfectly. He is the reasonable, decent, CEO of the state on the surface, smiling on all, and only revealing his vulnerability in the prayer scene. He also plays, in a bold move, the Ghost - well, they are brothers - and distinguishes Hamlet senior from Claudius subtly. Thomas Arnold, who has a look of the young Ken Branagh, played Horatio sensitively, and spoke very clearly, a trait not entirely achieved by Katie West's Ophelia, whose words were sometimes garbled as the madness took hold. But Maxine was the cynosure of all eyes as she dominated the stage in a bravura display of energy and intensity, the like of which I have never seen. Brava!