Fields of Experience: Reading the Thwaites Wainwright Prize

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize

I wrote in my last post about reading the Thwaites Wainwright Shortlist as a way to further my understanding and engagement with landscape and the environment. (Not to mention the opportunity to read some very good writing). It’s going to take me a little while: This is resolutely unrushable writing in both form and content. Except, perhaps, for Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk which is a tumbling, headlong dive into grief, reconciliation, and the nature of wildness and the bond between human and animal. It contains some of the finest writing I’ve come across in quite a while. It’s won everything else, but I wouldn’t bet against it come the ceremony.

I wrote in my last post about naming, acquaintance, and experience: fitting, then, that I should start John Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, a book packed with latin and local names for the grasses, flowers, trees, birds, moles, rodents, bats, beetles, earthworms, and more which populate a Herefordshire field throughout the year. For example, in Lower Meadow one might find “of grasses alone, timothy, meadow fescue, cock’s foot, meadow foxtail, woodrush, sweet vernal, tufted hair-grass, crested dog’s tail and meadow grass.”  This way of looking, to echo John Berger, married as it is with a streak of hard-nosed romanticism, emerges from a farmer’s engagement with the land. As Lewis-Stempel writes, “There is nothing like working the land for growing and reaping lines of prose.”

What is so striking about Meadowland is the concentration of experience and knowledge poured into a single field and recorded over the course of the year. Lewis-Stempel emphasises from the outset that his is a record of a kind of affective experience (“I can only tell you how it felt. How it was to work and watch a field and be connected to everything that was in it, and ever had been”): something which can generate some remarkable moments enmeshed in the life of the meadow as well as the occasional platitude and odd turn of phrase as the writer overreaches in the search for expression.

Yet, if one candidate for beauty is what Monroe Beardsley called “unity in diversity”, then Meadowland succeeds admirably in capturing the variety within the web of the meadow, even as the grasses are strewn with dew-lapped webs of another kind. Lewis-Stempel doesn’t shy away from the death which pervades the landscape: there is a particularly unpleasant squashed baby sugar mouse incident and the writer walks out gun in hand more than once. But from the print of that mouse-breaking cow’s hoof is born a microclimate which supports specialised fauna: as an intimate portrait of a rich and potentially threatened rural space Meadowland succeeds admirably.

The moor ahead of me was a foaming, surging mass, a sponge squeezing itself, a waterlogged lung. I could feel its spume coming down on me, hear its roar.

Next up for me is William Atkins’s The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature which tracks the moorland of mainland Britain from the Southwest to the Northeast through history, fiction, and the author’s journey. Thus far, Atkin’s writing is very impressive indeed. At a recent Faber Social Robert Macfarlane discussed the problem of moving from qualia–or the texture of conscious experience–to style, to a form of expression that conveys something of our phenomenology. Atkins succeeds, I think, in evoking not just the sensory experience, but what–if we were that way inclined and aiming for pretension–we might call the “semantic cloud” of experience: the images, allusions, and atmosphere that we supply in our engagement with our surroundings. (There is a Sebaldian influence hovering in the background, emphasised by the occasional telescoping of time.) Atkins populates this cloud with moors murders, hopeless Victorian schemes to tame the landscape, Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, and the “black pits” of R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone. It’s working for me so far.

The mist, secretly, had become fog, a deadening vapour that surged with the wind and seemed a presence as constant and primary as the peat underfoot. It was water with a rinsing of soap, an occlusion rather than a blinding. My cough sounded like an animal’s — in these conditions a noise lasts no longer than its cause.

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

The Thwaites Wainwright Prize Shortlist

I’m fortunate to be able to run a competition to win a set of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize shortlist. Why should you read these books? I asked the judges what draws them to the kind of writing the prize seeks to promote, why its valuable, and what they are looking for when judging submissions. More to come in my report on the ceremony, but here are the thoughts of two of the jury.

Chair of judges, Dame Fiona Reynolds

I can never get enough of nature writing. I love the way I am drawn, irresistibly, into the place or the subject of the author’s passion, inspired by the craft of writing and the quality of observation.

Fergus Collins, judge and editor of BBC Countryfile magazine

As a country boy living in London and then Bristol, I found the words of great nature writers such as Richard Jefferies or Ian Niall a wonderful escape from endless tube journeys and concrete skylines. They inspired me to be more observant about my wild neighbours even in the depths of the city. But as well as conjuring atmosphere and magical encounters, such exceptional writing should sometimes be as challenging and discomforting as the natural world so often is – and of which the reader is a part.

To enter the competition just leave a comment below, being sure to include an email address. The winner of the Thwaites Wainwright Prize is announced on the evening of Wednesday 22nd April. I will accept entries for the shortlist competition until midnight on Friday 24th April. I’m afraid that I can only accept UK entries. The winner will be chosen using a random number generator.

The competition is closed and a winner has been selected.

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‘Take me north’ Orkney – Amy Sackville

Orkney

 She was my most gifted student, and now she is my wife.

‘Take me north’, she says, to Orkney and the sea. The sixty-year old academic and his elfin twenty-something wife, the professor and his student, travelling to the hyperborean, timeless archipelago: ‘Where the waves rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars.’  Once on their island they occupy a cottage above the beach, from which she can emerge each day to contemplate the sea, before her dreams are filled with grasping waves and drowning. The Professor watches her from a window, framed against sea, beach, and sky:  ‘Just as she is – luminous, obscure. There she stands.’ He is writing ‘a book of enchantment’, of strange, terrible, otherworldly, doomed women; of myth and poetry, of dreaming and folk-tales; of Keats, Tennyson, and Coleridge, Lamia, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, The Lady of Shalott, Vivien, Melusine, Undine, and the folk of the ocean. Sackville has written her own rich and rhythmic book of enchantment, a book possessed and of possession, sharing themes with A.S. Byatt, although stylistically the novelists are worlds apart.

I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful—a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.

(La Belle Dame Sans Merci)

This silver-haired, wild-eyed girl is running from the ‘unhaunted place’ of her childhood to an island freighted with myth, to the island of her father, a mysterious presence throughout, about whom the Professor can learn little other than that he left when she was very young, claimed, perhaps by the sea. Throughout this sea is clasping, grasping, sucking, in her dreams and when she finally enters the water, having conquered her fear in a macabre fashion. Those poems of enchantment, disappearance, a prefigured and figurative death, threaten dissolution in the hungry sea. Permeating the consciousness of Sackville’s characters is the Nineteenth Century femme fatale inherited from the Greeks and transformed by the tales of Selkie and Finmen, emerging from the cold sea to seduce and to claim their children, webbed toes and all.

‘O did you never lie upon the shore,

And watch the curl’d white of the coming wave

Glass’d in the slippery sand before it breaks?’

(Merlin, ‘Vivien’, Idylls of the King)

Sackville’s writing approaches prose-poetry as her sentences flow on through semi-colons, commas, and dashes: receding and returning, becoming stormy, languid, open and claustrophobic as the mood shifts with the sea, with a young woman’s yearning, and her husband’s imagination, incomprehension, impatience, and jealousy.

And then all at once, a crack appeared in the cloud, a sun at one corner of it like a god’s eye, casting a piercing lancet against the sky; and then one after another, rods of silver broke through to announce his presence. Like some awful ruthless salvation, the sun burned the edge of the cloud-bank magnesium white, and shone brilliant on the still-tended, cleansed world; the rock pools transformed into blinding mirrors and the sea, so lately needled to fury, was lulled and banded with whispering silver as it approached the shore, and there was the terrible argent fire of the cloud’s lining after the storm; and ‘Let’s go out!’ she said. ‘In the sunshine…’ As if extinction had not threatened only an hour before.

The language is that of the Professor, immersed in poetry, in the near-heraldic and mythic tone of Keats, perhaps more Tennyson: the argent and the lancet. It is this immersion in poetry and stories which he fears drew his wife to him: ‘Would you love me at all if it weren’t for poetry, for stories? Do you take it so lightly to be my wife?’ he thinks. The suspension of time in those myths matches the hyperborean setting of their honeymoon. Their disparate ages mean their time together is intensified by its necessary brevity: a fact the Professor considers constantly, is threatened by. He becomes jealous of the years he will miss. Yet as the poetry is stripped away, the tone becomes harsher, laden with a less Arcadian fear.

Behind Orkney lies the luminous poetry of the Orcadian George Mackay Brown, whose retirement age love for the young Kenna Crawford presages the Professor’s.  One of Sackville’s two epigraphs is a passage from a poem for Kenna, ‘Gossip in Hamnavoe: About a Girl’,

‘O, she’ll be back. That dear one

Is gold of our corn,

She’s Orkney rain and spindrift…’

Apart from the clear allusion to the island father, perhaps Sackville is suggesting that the relationship she explores in Orkney should have remained like that of Brown and Crawford: close, deep, a meeting rather than the ‘marriage of minds’ upon which the Professor insists at every false paternal turn.

‘Now she has found a way

From Edinburgh, back to the hills and seas

Of her people, and discovered

Seals on the shore, waiting …’

                (Kenna’s Return to Orkney)

The culminating passage also features a passage of Brown writing about Crawford: they hover ghost-like behind Sackville’s writing, emerging every now and again, as the doomed lovers and otherworldly women of the Professor’s work intrude upon his thought and conversation with his wife. Brown’s love of Kenna generated poetry, the Professors immersion appropriates it. That contrast suggests the final sadness may be the departure of poetry after eleven days in Orkney.

Sackville’s other epigraph is a quotation from Hélène Cixous: ‘…the portrait of a story attacked from all sides, that attacks itself and in the end gets away.’ As the island is battered by storm Orkney is subjected to attacks from myth, dream, poetry, memory, and desire, and ultimately dissolves into the breaking wave of the Professor’s fears. The loss of a mediating language and the death of his ‘undergraduate ardor’ leave the Professor speechless and ‘palely loitering’.

We have been telling each other the tale of our great romance, as I suppose all newlyweds do; refining the details, spinning it out, combing and weaving the threads of it.

The novelist and psychologist Charles Fernyhough has written of the working out of joint memories in relationships; how we author a shared narrative, part of the foundation and fabric of a marriage; and one of the first things to unravel when a relationship begins to falter, to hit the rocks. Their stories do not knit, the Professor impatient with ‘her nonsense about not wearing purple’ and who really kissed who first. ‘Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass/Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.’ (Lamia) The Professor is no god. Perhaps, it was never real – his voice quavers, quivers through the pages.  A lowering threat hovers behind every word and every wave. Brown knew this. Our Professor knew, but hoped.

Amy Sackville has written a rich and remarkable book, whose language and structure mirror the minds and surroundings of her central characters. It is a book about the enchantment of romance, the rhythms of marriage, and the tissues of language behind which lies either the substance of a shared life, or an empty space failed by Romance.

To have carved on the days of our vanity

A sun

A ship

A star

A cornstalk

Also a few marks

From an ancient forgotten time

A child may read

That not far from the stone

A well

Might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets –

Carve the runes

Then be content with silence.

(A Work For Poets – George Mackay Brown)

Orkney is out today (7/2/13) from Granta.

My thanks to Granta for this review copy.