This is a transcript of the talk I gave at Calderstones Mansion, Liverpool, at the Spirits of Place symposium on April 2nd, 2016.
I’m going to begin with a quote from someone who I think is relevant to this idea I am talking about. It’s from Penny Rimbaud, of the anarcho-punk band Crass, talking about his friend Wally Hope in the autobiography Shibboleth: My Revolting Life. Wally Hope was a guy whom he helped set up the free festival movement in the 1970s, and Penny is describing why Wally elected to return to the UK after a long period of travelling:
‘Perhaps it was his love of the mythical past, King Arthur and his knights, that brought him back. Or perhaps he felt as I did, that real change could only be affected in the place that you most understood: home’
It’s a quote that’s always stayed with me over the years.
The definition of a shibboleth is this: a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.
I was thinking about how I could make this talk relevant to where I’m speaking. I racked my brains for a while – what could a Londoner, originally from Kent, possibly have to say about Liverpool?
The answer was actually very simple.
Around 2003, my then-girlfriend recommended I read a book called Kelly + Victor by the Liverpool author Niall Griffiths. It’s a raging, sexually-extreme and demotic novel set in Liverpool at the turn of the millennium, with a great sense of the city as this palpable presence, as a character in its own right. There’s a great section set in the natural history museum, the characters hungover and coming down just staring at the massive skeleton of an Irish Elk..
That book set me on the path I am on now. Studying literature at a school, and then in the university system, I believed that what we called literature was a rarefied thing; or if not that, from faraway and exotic places like Paris or New York.
Reading Niall Griffiths changed all that. If Kelly + Victor had me hooked, then it was Grits (his’ debut) that knocked me for six. It’s a novel I return to again and again – it’s one of the key literary keystones in my life.
What was important about reading Grits was that it completely changed how I saw what literature and place writing could be. It was contemporary but with a keen sense of not only history, folklore, underground subcultures, but deep, geological time. This was writing about people from the margins – punks, ravers, hippies, addicts - not the Hampstead middle classes or the university elites. More importantly it was not written by one of those people.
There is even a fictional publication that divides the various character’s narratives in the book, called A Personal Guide to West Wales. The extracts from this non-existent book are pure psychogeography. It was my first real exposure to that kind of writing.
I learned that it was possible to write about the very real effect of the British landscape on the individual. It was possible to write genuinely about people struggling with booze and substance addiction, members of Britain’s various sub-cultural tribes, about folk, rave and punk cultures, with anger, beauty and grace. Not only was it possible, but you could do it in the most gorgeous lyrical prose and vulgar demotic language at the same time. My interests could be turned into something real and they did mean something. They could be literature.
In my late teens/ early twenties I found my way to a whole world of underground and sometimes visionary British music. I found Crass and Conflict, the Subhumans, Culture Shock, Radical Dance Faction, Zounds, The Mob, Oi Polloi, that whole swathe of British anarcho punk that still amazes me even existed. I learned about free festivals, the new age traveller movement, the Battle of the Beanfield, the anti-road protests of the 1990s, the Dongas tribe, Earth First, the ALF, Barry Horne, squatting, vegetarianism, veganism, anti-fascism, anarchist bookfairs, Reclaim the Streets, Red Action, zine culture, and most importantly, the DIY ethos.
I found the books on this later, expanding this knowledge massively (I'd recommend tracking down George McKay’s Senseless acts of Beauty and DIY Culture).
It might be trite to say that at an essential level, punk in its many forms is a form of folk music; a way of recording a history and aspects of culture that may well be invisible or otherwise forgotten.
I discovered an entire history on my doorstep, an alternate history that perhaps I had seen snatches of, but wanted desperately to know more about.
Let’s rewind a little bit. I was lucky, viewing it in retrospect, having a dad who felt it important to get outdoors, was a keen birdwatcher, had an interest in Celts and Saxons, Vikings and Romans. Perhaps I was even lucky that my parents were separated and so there was more impetus to do something with me and my brother, to take trips, go and explore.
And I’d say I was lucky growing up in the part of Kent that I did, freighted as it is with history. But all of the United Kingdom is like that – look where we are now - choked with ghosts and heavy with memory. Stop anywhere and you rest among the remains of lives that passed before.
So I could be talking about almost anywhere in the UK when I talk about the ancient places, crumbling ruins, medieval pubs and half-remembered stories that have fed into this idea called ‘landscape punk’.
In the local area surrounding where I grew up (Whitstable, Kent), we had easy access to the Roman ruins at Richborough castle, to Reculver towers with its stories of grisly infant sacrifice and the Roman walls built into the very fabric of the city of Canterbury. There was the Viking ship at Pegwell Bay. There was Canterbury cathedral, where you can stand on the spot where Thomas Becket had his head sliced open by Norman knights, then go stare at the armour of the Black Prince. There are the graves of Huguenots dotted all over the city
Between Whitstable and Faversham are the haunted marshes of the hollow shore, where illegal raves take place and the wind howls over The Swale from Sheppey. In Whitstable itself, I can remember Peter Cushing traversing the town on his bicycle before his death in 1994.
In Dover there is the imposing Norman castle, the kittiwakes and fulmars, the ferry port.
In the 90s Dover had an interactive museum, the White Cliffs Experience, that was possibly crap but that I thought wonderful. The waxworks of three spiky-haired Celtic warriors, skins patterned with blue whorls and awaiting Julius Caesar’s arrival, are seared vividly in me; so is the (now I realise spurious) diorama depicting the diabolical and bloody rituals of the druids. There were sections set during Blitz-era Dover, the sirens screaming and imitation smoke obscuring the view.
That sense of layers, of history so dense it became intimidating to pick apart, was drilled into me. The sense that there might be just be more to life, to reality, than our individual experience. So novels like Grits and Kelly + Victor, all that music and underground culture and the landscapes I already knew, all began to link together.
I’m interested in what is important, not what is fashionable. Sometimes those two things are one and the same – right now there’s a current vogue for landscape writing and psychogeography, and a renaissance in what we can call weird fiction. These two areas of literature happen to be the ones that thrill me the most, which I choose to write in and inhabit.
Like I’ve said, I became fascinated with how all of these different strands of interest – landscape, literature, folklore, underground UK culture – might start to work together. It’s what has formed into the approach we call landscape punk.
There is, however, something problematic about engagement with the specifics of place, and the cultures that exist there. Occasional, jokey, accusations of a kind of ‘hippy nationalism’. I’ve been accused of it myself and heard it levelled at other writers and artists working in a similar field.
This interest in the specifics of place can be construed as inward looking, the negative aspect of an island mentality, hostile to the outside world and, dare I say it, conservative.
This is not what I want. It is precisely the collision of cultures, and the layers they create, that makes the country I find myself in so fascinating. I claim no more right than anyone to the place where we all live.
I want to make sure that the stories I think are important do not get lost; I hope others feel the same, though the stories they consider significant I may be unaware of. This is about a plurality of voices.
In the realm of currently fashionable landscape writing we can see, perhaps, an element of superiority in what I think Kathleen Jamie called ‘the Lone White Male’ authors, whose books sell very well. They are from an unfortunately recognisable type, of class, very English, like some updated version of the Edwardian topographical writer. Possessed of a knowledge that outstrips our own, and with the time to undertake these wonderful walking trips and epic home-grown adventures, they report back to us, stuck at work behind our computer screens, weighed down by the dull demands of everyday life. I think this is a problem.
I’m not claiming to be especially hard done by, but I do have a problem with only the Cambridge fellow being the defining voice of these aspects of place, landscape and culture, that we all clearly hold so dear. The question is, are some experiences more valid than others?
This isn’t an attempt at iconoclasm. Look at my bookshelf and you’ll find books – and good books at that – by the usual suspects; Robert MacFarlane, Mark Cocker, Roger Deakin.
But what I have never got, so far, from these works was a sense of the world I really live in, the person I am and the people I know. If I think of birdwatching, it’s not just lyrical and breathy recollections of a nature somehow removed from man. No, for me, it’s eating damp sandwiches in an RSPB car-park as rain pummels the van roof. It’s the smell of my father’s cigarettes. It’s remembering Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan on the Really Wild Show. It’s the occasional boredom, the getting lost, the no-shows - it’s as much the times when things go wrong. Surely the imperfections in our knowledge, and our human foibles, can be a part of the recorded experience of place.
When I think of woods and marshes and fields, I don’t just think of me alone, a modern frontiersman, mapping the territory for readers back home. I think of raves, of folk songs, of punk gigs, of dodgy drinking, edgy sex and a dancer’s dilated pupils as the sun comes up.
I am much more interested in those writers who stand outside established academic or literary traditions who engage with landscape and place.
Writers who are not simply the Lone White Male. JA Baker (The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer), Laura Oldfield Ford (Savage Messiah), Kathleen Jamie (Sightlines, Findings), the novels of Ron Berry and the Hellblazer narratives of comic book writers like Jamie Delano and Paul Jenkins.
Is this inverse snobbery on my part? Am I not just a hypocrite? I am white, male, English. But I hope I’m aware of how I fit into things, and I want a culture that does not simply look to those who come to writing through the established and acceptable channels. I hope that through the work we have done at Influx Press, my own writing and through the forthcoming landscape punk projects I’m working on with David, I am doing something that at least tries to change the score.
The Britain I’m interested in is not one of suburban mortgages and trips to Ikea; it is not fox-hunting, grouse shooting, arcane Oxbridge rituals and unearned privilege; it is not the footy, or cricket, or rugby.
The country I talk about, write about, that I set my fictions in, is a country that contains magic and wonder. Where every hedge, building, road and monument contains a story, innate and localised. Where ghosts spring from every inch of soil.
It is an old place, a palimpsest of cultures, a place where I can navigate a motorway on Bluebell Hill in my home county of Kent to find standing stones five thousand years old overlooking the North Downs, and when I look closer, see the scratched graffiti of Victorians etched in the rock.
It is a place of outdoor raves and sweaty squat parties, of crashing waves breaking against sheer cliffs, a place where I watch guillemots on their loomeries and dodge the attentions of diving terns. It is a country where I want the remains of buried giants to be found below the soil, where faery mounds do exist and spectres haunt the marshes. It is a place where I can find an altar to the Persian god Mithras at the back of a deserted church on the Romney Marsh (true, by the way).
It is a strange place. It’s a culture that, befitting somewhere so old and haunted, has produced a rich tradition of the weird and ghostly; Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, MR James, Robert Aickman, Ramsey Campbell. Though perhaps again I’m a hypocrite; no one could ever suggest Aickman or James ever coming from a world other than that of the intellectual elites.
But that strange country, a place I see in the work of so many writers, filmmakers and artists is the one I consider home.
The soundtrack to this country are the punk songs I love. It’s the continuing strain of weird folk music, of Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Anne Briggs, Firepit Collective and so many more.
It’s a country seen in the films of Andrew Kotting, Patrick Keiller, Derek Jarman, in the TV work of Nigel Kneale and the BBC Christmas ghost stories, and in the horror-masquerading–as-comedy The League of Gentlemen.
It is a country where I can read C.L. Nolan and visit Starfall Common.
I am interested in the cultures of Britain. Not the culture fed to me, not the culture I was always told I should like and aspire to. What I am saying here will be relevant to any other country; this just happens to be mine. And, unfortunately, here we have a social structure that lends some more access and privilege to these landscapes and places we all love. This is something that needs to be challenged.
Let’s call it the Albionic strand in the British consciousness, that parallel history that has always been there. This is what I am exploring; this sense of historical depth, the specific histories of the subcultures I’ve been a part of, the deep and complex array of literature, music and art, and the landscape itself, all can combine into something very special.
I am interested in things considered unimportant, outmoded and unfashionable – in shibboleths.