Monday, September 22, 2008

The Living Mountain

It's not often the Re-readings features in Saturday's Guardian Review have me running to the bookshop. However Robert Macfarlane's piece on Nan Shepherd's 'The Living Mountain' did. She's a classic Scottish woman writer I'm embarrassed not to have read before. As Macfarlane says, 'Most works of mountain literature are written by men, and most male mountaineers are focused on the goal of the summit. Shepherd, however, goes into the Cairngorms aimlessly, "merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him". '

The trip to the bookshop was a disappointment. 'Out of print', they said. I wasn't the first there asking for it, so hopefully Canongate might get the message. Luckily my local library came up trumps and I've now had it in my hands for a couple of hours of absorption.

It made me want to dedicate the rest of my life to tramping with no particular trajectory over one area of land that I could get to know in the way she knew the Cairngorms. The writing reflects this great intimacy, as she says: 'I have discovered my mountain - its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances. Year by year, I have grown in familiarity with them all.' Her own senses and body are very present in the writing - and all is discovered through the medium of walking, '...the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the 'still centre' of being.... Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent.'

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The New Nature Writing

Granta Magazine's issue 102 is dedicated to nature writing and makes a case for a shift - towards narratives, towards the presence of humans, the presence of the writer in the story.

There's certainly some wonderful writing in there. Kathleen Jamie's 'it's not all primroses and dolphins' nature-essay looks at the human body and its sick cells under a microscope and finds vast landscapes. Paul Farley and Niall Griffiths return to the estate on the edge of Liverpool where they both grew up, go on a sort of ghost-walk through memory, chart change and edge into what are the white pages in the A-Z - the almost rural, almost urban - where they went nesting. Having just spent a lot of time with Barry Hines' 1968 novel, 'Kestrel For Knave', for a BBC abridgment, this gave me a particular tug - that urban/rural borderland was the one solace in the lad, Billy Casper's life, and was powerfully evoked in this piece. There's Robert Macfarlane tracing a human ghost species in Norfolk; a wonderful short story by a woman called Lydia Peele I've never heard of; and Philip Marsden uncovers the life of a little known Victorian artist and archaeologist, J. T. Blight who stomped around recording things in the haunting landscape and chamber tombs of West Penwith until sent to an asylum at the age of 35.

It's a very rich collection. But two things make me uneasy. Firstly, where are the women? Two out of eighteen. Where are Valerie Gillies and Jay Griffiths? The broad and inclusive notion of nature writing that contributors have offered surely would embrace many more women writers, especially if fiction is to be included. There seems something oddly old-fashioned and anachronistic in this idea of the nature-writer as man.

But this brings me to my other uneasiness. In what sense is this 'nature writing' anyway? Isn't it just 'writing' that might appear in anthologies of work collected in the name of half a dozen different themes? At the Edinburgh Book Festival event in support of the publication, the contributors present were keen to point out that they saw their writing more as reflecting a new perception of the place of nature in our lives, and ourselves as nature. I would hesitate to call what I do by this name, although nature, and a keen observation of it, is often part of it. Perhaps I'm just not happy with narrow attempts at definition, feel it as a kind of boxing-in.

But a recommended read, nonetheless.

Monday, September 8, 2008

my shadow on a beach run

Street Haunting

image from 'urban tapestries' - a research project by Proboscis

I turn from the Alps now to the old town of Edinburgh. I have wondered if being the daughter of a great Victorian alpinist helped make Virginia Woolf a writer. Presumably walking was part of family life, and might have got her observing, speculating at the people and places she saw, thus allowing her imagination to roam beyond her feet. In her 1927 essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure, it is clear that her aimless walks in the urban environment, the anonymity of walking amongst strangers, was her great adventure. ‘How could I think mountains and climbing romantic?’ she once said. ‘Wasn’t I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery, and a raised map of the Alps showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course London and the marshes are the places I like best.’

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff is another ‘street-haunter’ and her audio walks are eerie evocations based on observations in real places laced with teasing fragments of narrative and memory. Cardiff uses binaural recording techniques that envelop you in sound - a sudden whisper in your ear, or the distant sound of feet running ahead. Her beguiling voice leads you – intimate and authoritative - and has you collaborating, as you walk, in reconstructing the ‘story’. Her installations with George Bures Miller, exhibiting at the Fruitmarket Gallery until the end of September use sound and narrative in a similar way, but it is the walks that myself and sound artist Jules Rawlinson will focus on as starting point for the workshop we’re leading for the next two Saturdays.

One of our principal resources for the workshop is the immediate area of the old town around the Fruitmarket (and of course the legs of our participants to move them around it with sound recorders). Three levels nest one above the other over the same coordinate – North Bridge, Market Street, and the esplanade of Waverley Station. Dark and shade. Underland and overland. Parallel worlds associated to different journey-purposes. The odd geography is linked by dark passages and stairways, rich in suggestion, and in sound. They are liminal places where you might pass from one imagined state to another.

In Woolf’s essay she sees streams of walking commuters as if they’re wrapped in some narcotic dream, imagining themselves to be great cricketers or famous actresses before the enchantment is broken by being ‘slung in long rattling trains’ and embraced once again in the conforming influence of their homes. I commuted for five years between Stirling and Edinburgh, walking from Waverley station for five minutes to an old town office, losing the hooted train announcements for the sound of tyres on cobbles, and the echo of a dark passage before the clang of the bell on the office door as I opened it, arriving into my non-dream, office self.

The possibilities for my own work in this environment are exciting, having spent so much time walking the rural. The anonymity of walking amongst strangers and finding mystery in every face has long fuelled my short fiction writing. But I’m also curious about the forms in which we leave marks and traces as we move in criss-cross pathways about a city, in an environment of stone and tarmac which refuses to take impressions. There are many avenues. The real and the imagined; the line of a walk coupled to a non-linear story; or as Rebecca Solnit puts it, 'the magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany'.