These are the notes for a talk I gave at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival 2015, as part of my involvement writing for the website Unofficial Britain. The other speakers were David Southwell, Gareth E. Rees and Tina Richardson. The full audio of the event can be listened to here.
I think you can build a persuasive argument that the big boom in what we can call ‘place writing’ be it urban, rural or ‘edgelands’ writing - taking in what we can call psychogeography, deep topography, landscape and nature writing – is in part a reaction to the blandness of modern consumer culture, the ongoing destruction of Britain’s dwindling natural spaces, the loss of biodiversity, overcrowding and the effects of late capitalism and globalisation.
Put simply, life in a country where every town, city and person seems superficially the same can be boring.
It has struck me that people don’t really want homogeneity, however comforting it may be; I think this is backed up by the wealth of literature, film, music, art and theatre trying to engage with this slippery notion of 'place'.
There’s a few things that always work their way into my stuff, being the short fiction or the non-fiction – which I’ll give the voguish term of creative non-fiction (which basically means you have to do less research than an academic and can get away with making links that possibly only exist inside your own head).
I’m interested in London writing of course, but also lately I’ve been writing a lot about the parts of north east Kent where I grew up. It’s been useful to return to an area I thought I knew with a different perspective – I used to find it deathly boring – and look at it with fresh eyes.
I suppose I got slightly bored with London writing for a while. There’s an awful lot of it, sometimes overshadowing the rest of the country.
The more you start to look at an area, even one you think you know pretty well, it becomes a stranger and more exciting place. In fact, the more you know, you start to realise how little you actually know about a place. Digging up all the weird little stories becomes quite addictive. The more you look, the more you find.
That more traditional authorial stance where the writer is somehow not really a part of the things they are describing is something I’m not massively interested in, and have found it much more personally satisfying to write from a more subjective stance; and also writing about those times when the intended outcome of the trip goes spectacularly wrong. Incidentally, a number of times when the weather or stranger things have conspired against me is when I’m out on one of these walks with Gareth [Rees], as you’ve heard [referencing our 'Rye's Valhalla' piece]. It happened again, but worse, in Dungeness quite recently.
It doesn’t always go wrong of course; getting out there with a vague plan but a notion of allowing the unexpected in can reap big rewards. This is from a piece called ‘The Fifth Continent’, coming out this month in Elsewhere Journal, about one of the trips I’ve taken onto the Romney Marsh (on the borders between Kent and Sussex) and trying to find something unusual I’d read about in a dodgy looking book called Kent’s Strangest Tales. So this is a good example of the Kent writing I’m doing and of when a plan comes together:
After negotiating clay-sticky fields, checking locations on Google maps and praying the weather would hold out, we found our way from Appledore to Stone. Stopped in a pub to warm up and refuel with a pint of ale and a bag of crisps. A group of smartly dressed and well-to-do folk dined in a corner. I wondered what it would be like to live out here.
We pushed on to Stone in Oxney. Entering the village, a circular wrought metal sign welcomed us. Had I got the name of the place wrong? Around the silhouette of the bull-god danced a roster of the area’s animal life; a burbling curlew, a dancing hare, swaying bulrushes, a thick-fleeced sheep, a marsh frog and a stern heron. Above them the legend, STONE CUM EBONY. And below the bull-god’s feet, ‘Isle of Oxney’.
An island of the past, silted and joined to the mainland against its will. I had no idea what ‘ebony’ was referring to. Like Appledore, the place was silent and deserted. We headed uphill to the village church and our true destination. In the church was the thing that gave this village its name; why the dancing animals circled the stoic figure of the bull-god. As we approached, colossal sproutings of mushroom and fungi erupted from the grass, alien looking clusters beautiful in the damp.
. . . in the back of the church, we found what we had come looking for. The altar of Mithras, a bull carved into stone and still discernible, remnant of Roman pre-Christianity right here on the Romney Marsh, on the island that is no longer an island.
I looked around the room where this piece of real history sat, something that could (should?) have been in the British Museum, some museum at least. Stacked against it was a sign for some village fete, and around this Mithraic altar was a woollen fleece lying on the floor, a few broken candle holders, and other bits of assorted crap. It resembled the shed at my mother’s where she throws all the stuff she doesn’t know what to do with but cannot bear to throw away.
I read the sign and found I’d been misinformed; or misunderstood, replaced the reality with a fiction I found more pleasing. Mithras was not a bull-god, but the Persian god of light and truth who engaged in battle with a bull released at the beginning of time. Bulls were sacrificed on this altar. I imagined treacle-thick blood pooling in the shallow depression at the altar’s apex, cowled worshippers chanting in Latin or Farsi, a shrieking animal bleeding-out somewhere in the Romney Marsh.
The stone ended up in this Church, somehow, at some point in history after serving time as a humble horse block at The Ferry Inn, where only an hour before we’d sat sipping ale. Rarely visited, used as something to lean the bric-a-brac against.
I hoped it would never be taken to a museum. Already I had an idea for a story.
Later on at home, reading the fractured information about the altar on out-of-date websites, some claimed it was not Mithraic at all, but a shrine to the Ancient Egyptian bull-god Apis. Maybe I should have trusted my initial instincts.
So as well as walking through and mud and writing about it, I’m also a big bird enthusiast. It was something I’d loved when I was young and that I’ve come back to in recent years. Here I found another way to connect with places and the things that live within it, and a good antidote to bland high-street Britain; I think there’s a power in being able to name the various different bird species – and of course this applies to lots of other things, plants, insects, whatever – because when you can do that, the world suddenly becomes much more complex and diverse. It’s no longer just ‘tree’ or ‘duck’, and the world becomes more exciting. It’s also a good excuse to get outdoors. There's a quote from one of my very favourite books, The Peregrine by JA Baker, that helps sum up some of my feelings towards birds and birdwatching:
Before it is too late, I have tried to recapture the extraordinary beauty of this bird and to convey the wonder of the land he lived in, a land to me as profuse and glorious as Africa. It is a dying world, like Mars, but glowing still
So my most recent piece I’d done for Unofficial Britain, called ‘Specifics’, is about trying to spot 60 species in a day with my dad in three favourite locations in Kent – Reculver, Stodmarsh and the Oare marshes near Faversham (if you saw Southcliffe you'll know it. . . ). This was a piece trying to explain why I do such a mockable thing, and how it ties in with a rich history of landscape and nature writing in the UK, and how I feel that it’s a good way of combating some of the problems I’ve mentioned:
I have to hand it my old man; he knows his shit.
We reach a small wooden bridge straddling a murky green pool covered in fallen blossom, darting insects and other detritus. Table mushrooms jut out of one of the trees, like the handholds on climbing walls.
‘If we wait here for ten minutes or so we’ll see, I guarantee, a treecreeper.’
About eight minutes go by in which I swig water and smoke a cigarette. I listen to the warblers in the trees. We’ve heard nightingales, here, today.
Then a tell-tale flash of white, something moving like it’s a stop motion approximation of a bird, jerkily twitching up a nearby tree.
‘You see. A treecreeper’.
I grab the binoculars slung around my neck. The old skills are rusty but hard to lose and I find the bird through the lens in a few seconds. I’ve seen treecreepers before, and I know they’re common. So why am I here? For some people I’m aware the question would be: what is the point?
It boils down to specifics. We’re on the Stodmarsh RSPB reserve outside of Canterbury in the Kent countryside. I’ve been here many, many times over the course of my life. It’s not new. Like any place important to the individual, it ends up taking on a semi-mythologised status. There’s the real, living breathing Stodmarsh that I stand in now, and the Stodmarsh in my head, where all I ever saw or experienced here exists in one idealised afternoon, where am I simultaneously child, teenager and adult. There’s a Stodmarsh of the mind, my mind, and it’s a different place to where I stand.
The towns and the city, Canterbury, near here, can de depressing in their homogeneity. There’s something in knowing that here, in this exact spot by the murky pool, in this exact reserve in this part of a small country, on that exact tree, we will see a treecreeper. This is knowledge that cannot really be bought, brings no financial reward. Is, in a way, useless. And there’s the appeal. I can’t do this everywhere and I have to make the effort to be pointless.
We’ve set ourselves a challenge for the day, to observe 60 or more species, driving around Kent from Reculver to Stodmarsh, from Stodmarsh to Oare, from there via Blean Woods if we have time and inclination.
In the reeds and branches are grasshopper, reed, Chetti’s warblers. I get a perfect view of a whitethroat. Great crested grebes are resplendent out on the open water. I know somewhere here are bittern, though I’ve never seen one. On the chalk board information sign that greeted us in Stodmarsh carpark, where visitors can scrawl their sightings, was the odd poetry of BITTERN BOOMING.
But the bird I really came to see, the reason I always return to these marshlands, is the marsh harrier.
I see a pair soon after we pull up. Their crazy and beautiful mating dance, like locked circus performers pirouetting down into the reeds. You can’t see them in many places, these majestic birds of prey. I have to come here. It’s a chance to spend some genuine time with family. It’s all about the specifics.
Our third port of call for the day is the Oare Marshes near Faversham. Another reserve, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust, flat and with the touch of the post-apocalypse to it. Boats rusted and looking unloved float on the waters. Pylon legions stretch into the sky as swifts and swallows, back for the summer, swoop and dart among the wires, catching insects. The first I have seen this year.
Here waders are in heavy numbers and I try to photograph a flock of bar-tailed godwits landing on a tiny island. Redshank fly by. Gadwall, pintail and tufted duck sit on a sandbank. But more striking than anything are the avocets, feeding on the mudflats; a bird I haven’t seen in the flesh for many years, mascot of the RSPB itself, symbolic of the bird protection movement. Striking black and white, bill like a curlew reversed, a bird made extinct in the 19th century, brought back just after World War Two. Icon of all that this means.
Things like this make it all worth it, and the joy of just looking, being where I am in this specific place at this time of year, watching a bird that represents a little bit of hope, and spending what they used to call ‘quality time’ with my father. It is a way to combat the forces of stifling blandness seeping into contemporary British life; the simplest act of resistance and renewal.