Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Not Known At This Address

Elter Water, August 2006

Last year around this time Cumbria Tourism (the body whose job it is to encourage and facilitate tourism in the Lake District) launched on an astonished world "The Wordsworth Rap", a reinterpretation of the poem "Daffodils" in an, ahem, urban style, accompanied by a video of someone dressed as a red squirrel named MC Nuts, doing vaguely urban things in front of a Lake District backdrop. Their website says:
"Wordsworth's Daffodils poem has remained unchanged for 200 years and to keep it alive for another two centuries, we wanted to engage the YouTube generation who want modern music and amusing video footage on the Web."
So worthy, and yet so wrong. So very wrong. Of course, to a tourist board, Wordsworth (or Shakespeare, or Hardy, or Jane Austen, or John Constable, or any household name) is just some famous person from around here. Writers and artists, people we have all heard of, provide a convenient brand: Bronte Country, Hardy's Wessex. Though it does give you pause for thought when you drive into Norfolk to be told you're entering Nelson's County. Say what?

The Hardknott Pass, August 2006

You can't blame them for milking it, and you can't blame them for targeting the cream tea and tea-towel crowd rather than sophisticates like you and me, although it does rankle when they impose a prissy gentility on artists whose claim to fame is precisely the challenge they posed to the sensibilities of their own time. Actually, for all its silliness, Cumbria Tourism were clearly coat-trailing by putting out that video, and they got the response they wanted from the likes of the Daily Telegraph ("Wordsworth turning in his grave", etc) who seem to have forgotten who and what Wordsworth once was. Of course, whatever he was, "culture" is what he has become, and to the Telegraph reader, "culture" demands piety.

Let's set aside any vision of coachloads of youngsters from inner London descending on Hawkshead and Grasmere in search of the "modern music and amusing video footage" they can't get at home, and let's assume that 95% of visitors to literary hotspots have neither read nor have any inclination to read any of the local superstar's books or poems. All they want is a nice cup of tea and a bit of Heritage, preferably in edible form. So the strange ones are you and me, lurking like shoplifters, waiting for the room to clear to experience the vibes. And the motivations behind literary and artistic tourism really are quite strange. What does anyone expect to find? A lost sonnet behind the radiator? A lingering whiff of Jane Austen's last pipe of tobacco?

In the Langdales, August 2006

The sad truth is that going back in time is impossible, even into your own past. Last year I drove past one of my own childhood homes, and -- guess what? -- I wasn't there. As Bruce Springsteen puts it in his song "My Father's House":

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch,
A woman I didn't recognize came and
spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"
After a couple of hundred years, the trail has gone cold, everyone is long dead, there's usually nothing to see except the usual heritage tat and what's left of the distracting view from the study window. If it's the work you're interested in, your local bookshop or library or art gallery is a better place to look than the artist's birthplace or workplace. Because the work only exists if you read it, listen to it, or look at it. And, of course, when you do that then it happens all over again in a new, contemporary way in your mind because, like it or not, you're alive in 2009 and Wordsworth isn't.

So the Cumbria people may have got it horribly wrong with their Wordsworth Rap, but perhaps they are looking in the right direction. Wordsworth doesn't live in Dove Cottage any more, and hasn't done for some time. No-one does: it's become a museum selling t-shirts and gingerbread, not a hotbed of radical creativity and unconventional relationships. And let's not do Wordsworth the dishonour of lumping him in uncritically with those "famous for being famous". Lest we forget:

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times--good Lord! I'd rather be

Quite unacquainted with the ABC
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

J.K. Stephen (1859-92)
And let's also not forget that Wordsworth and Co. virtually invented the combination of walking, wilderness and worthy musing that leads most of us literary tourists to put the boots in the back of the car. The true Wordsworth Experience is an elevated kind of souvenir hunting:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart

Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

Hard to believe this was once a new and controversial idea, expressed in new and controversial language. It's now the stuff of holiday advertising. There's no reason why its threadbare novelty should last another 200 years, unless we continue to find it useful, or find some way to reuse it.

So, never mind where we will find the next generation of Cumbrian tourists, where should we look for our contemporary Wordsworths? Well, is anyone's unconventional behaviour raising eyebrows? A hint of incest, some abandoned children, drug use? Is anyone finding the expressive legacy of the 20th century unbearably constraining, and inventing their own? Something so new it hurts? Is anyone being reported to the authorities as agents of an overseas enemy? Terrorists, even? If so, that's where I'd look. I probably wouldn't want to live next door to them, however.

Wastwater Screes, August 2006

But a squirrel? Why a squirrel?

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