‘Sometimes I hear the story told in a voice that’s not my own’
– Chris Wood, ‘Spitfires’
‘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’
– Penny Rimbaud, Shibboleth: My Revolting Life
[Shibboleth: 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.]
There’s something problematic about this concept of landscape punk, of 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. I’ve heard it said about the excellent Folklore Thursday project (which looks at all aspects of the term 'folk', though being British based, the majority of things posted are, unsurprisingly, from Britain and Ireland). This interest in the specifics of place could be construed as inward looking, the negative aspect of an island mentality, hostile to the outside 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, that ‘whispering swarm’ as Michael Moorcock put it.
In the realm of currently fashionable landscape writing we can see, perhaps, an element of superiority in the Lone White Male authors, whose books sell 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, 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. This is a problem. I have a problem with only the Cambridge fellow being the defining voice of these aspects of place, landscape and culture, that I hold so dear. The question is, are some experiences more valid than others?
This is no 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. I have a copy of Rising Ground by Philip Marsden sitting on my bedside table, ready to go, and I’m sure I’ll like it.
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 Marlborough Reds. 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 experience.
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.
There was a moment in the recent series of This is England that seemed to encapsulate what I am talking about absolutely. The morning has come and the rave is over – the wrong rave it turns out, after they’d gotten lost. The hangover is kicking in and the comedown is imminent. The night has been horrible for some. Two of the characters looks at where they are, deep in picturesque English countryside.
‘If you asked someone who’d never been here to draw what England is like, they’d draw this.’ (I'm paraphrasing)
That mix of beauty, sadness, decadence and ineptitude – that I respond to.
I am much more interested in those writers who stand outside established academic or literary traditions who engage with the landscape. Writers who are not simply the Lone White Male. I read the stunning and luminous work of JA Baker (The Peregrine, The Hill of Summer), the angry punk-philosophy mashups ofLaura Oldfield Ford (Savage Messiah), the erudite and engaging essays of Kathleen Jamie (Sightlines, Findings), the language-busting novels of Ron Berry (Flame and Slag, So Long, Hector Bebb), and the ambitious, pagan-drenched Hellblazer narratives of Jamie Delano (‘The Fear Machine’) and I respond with a thrill.
Is this inverse snobbery on my part? Perhaps, but I feel it just the same. So am I not just a hypocrite? I am white, male, English. I went to university. After a long time of struggling, I have a half-decent job. I hope I am 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 know I have some unearned privilege, but I genuinely hope that through the work we have done at Influx Press, and through the forthcoming landscape punk projects, I am doing something that at least tries to change the score.
There’s a quote from a hero of mine, Penny Rimbaud, that begins this essay. It puts into words what I’m trying to say better than anything I can write here.
There’s a truth I’ve realised as I head into my thirties. There is only so much time to devote to one thing; I do not hold English or British culture as superior to any other. I try to take an interest in things outside of my own personal sphere. But is a culture that is mine, it is where I live, and it is a place I care about. I only feel qualified to talk about what I know, and what I know best is home. I hope that people all around the globe feel a similar way to whatever patch of ground they themselves consider to be theirs. I hope I am aware of the advantages I hold as a white male in England, but it can always be, and should be, challenged. I wish I had the time to devote to many things; but I don't, and this is something I want to commit to.
The England I am 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, it is a palimpsest of cultures, a place where I can navigate a motorway on Bluebell Hill 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 ancient 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 exist and spectres haunt the marshes. It is a place where I can find an altar to Mithras at the back of a deserted church on the Romney Marsh.
It is a strange place. It’s a culture that, befitting a place 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 Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, M John Harrison and Jim Crace, is the one I consider home. It is also home to the drug and booze soaked transcendence of Niall Griffiths, the rural violence and beauty of Cynan Jones and Ben Myers. It is the fantastical myth-soaked forests of Robert Holdstock. It is the London of Alexander Baron, Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock. It is the Britain of John Constantine in theHellblazer comics.
The soundtrack to this country are the punk songs I’ve mentioned (and will go on to talk about). It’s the continuing strain of strange folk, of Bert Jansch, Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Anne Briggs,FirepitCollective. It’s Drcarlsonalbion, Grasscut, The Waterboys, The Owl Service, and so many more. It's the feeling I get from Chris Wood's 'Albion':
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 this country. Not the culture fed to me, not the culture I was always told I should like and aspire to. So when I say I was rejecting the stuff that was fed to me as art, as literature, from the USA and France, I mean it in no nationalistic sense whatsoever. What I am saying here will be relevant to any other country; this just happens to be mine.
There is a truth that many people in England are ignorant of massively important parts of our shared culture. Let’s call it the Albionic strand in the English 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 to be found beyond the curriculum or Waterstones 3 for 2 tables, and the landscape itself, all can combine into something very special.
To put it bluntly, the world that is presented to me through the channels of modern capitalist Britain is a terrible one, with no sense of identity, passion, place, history or purpose. It is a country with amnesia, small minded, narcissistic and soulless. I don’t want it and I reject it. I am interested in things considered unimportant, outmoded and unfashionable – in shibboleths.
I will be looking at all these separate elements – music, literature, art, landscape and more - in much more detail, but it seemed important to stress the fact that this approach to place, culture and landscape is not exclusive. I claim no authority. This is what I am interested in, and this is my take on it, but it is just one take of many. I hope that this idea of landscape punk can be a method of engagement, never a set of rules.