Friday, 24 June 2011

The Writing Paper on the Shore

I'm currently reading Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, after having it recommended by any number of people. It's very unwise to comment on a book you're only halfway through, but I wanted to explain out loud to myself something that's been puzzling me. The thing is, I'm finding it a very annoying book.

At first, I didn't notice my annoyance. What I did notice, is that Mr. Macfarlane is a talented writer, with a gift for an unusual turn of phrase. He notices things, and finds witty and memorable ways of expressing them.
Then it started to snow -- light flakes ticking down through the air, settling on every upturned surface. A flake fell on the dark cloth of my jacket, and melted into it, like a ghost passing through a wall.
Perfect -- who hasn't seen that, but who ever thought of such a nice way of expressing it?

But what I then started to notice was that it was precisely these nice turns of phrase that were annoying me. There were so many of them, and they were interrupting the flow of my reading by constantly attracting attention to themselves. Also, too many of them either didn't stand up to scrutiny, or contributed nothing to the business at hand.

Consider that extract above. Ticking snow? It sounds alright, but is that "ticking" as in the quiet, regular noise made by a watch, or as in the jerky, down-and-up movement of a tickmark? Do light flakes of snow ever actually do either of those things? Not that I've noticed, though the suggestion of the inaudible noise of thousands of light impacts might work, I suppose. But perhaps not so much if you're also going to wonder, a few paragraphs later, "how so much motion could provoke so little sound".

And what about that ghost? Beyond being a striking visual image, what actual literary work is that comparison doing? Are we being primed for an encounter with the uncanny, or some other kind of vanishing trick? No. Unless going to sleep in an improvised shelter in a deep wood is either of those things. It is merely something shiny mined out of a writer's notebook.

This clever but purposeless noticing of similarities seems to be an end, for Macfarlane, not any sort of means. At a loch shore he sees "foam, the creamy colour of writing paper"; but this is presumably not foam with the smooth texture or flexibility or thinness or any other property of writing paper. It's true, that scummy foam that gathers on shorelines has a very particular colour, but why compare it to writing paper? As it happens, the colour "blue" is my immediate association with writing paper, but that may say more about me than beach foam.

Walking over some pitted rock, he notices that "in the bottom of each hole was a pebble or rock that fitted the hole snugly, like the head of a countersunk screw". And? Hmm, perhaps if you were to unscrew them, Scotland would fall off the earth? No? What then? You start to feel like a sulky teenager out for a walk with a parent determined to share with you every little associative aper├žu that floats through their mind. You want to reply, "So what? I didn't want to come here anyway. I'm cold and wet. Please shut up!".

But, he can also be concise and purposeful. Sheltering from a storm on Coruisk in the Scottish Highlands, he writes, "The darkness beyond the glass was absolute and featureless. Except for the noises of the wind and rain, our hut might have been hurtling through deep space". Nothing pointless about that.

When I was a student, the most useful piece of advice I received -- after handing in yet another essay spinning theories and conjectural connections out of some author's work -- was this: "This is all fascinating, and quite possibly true. But you have given no indication that any literary means were used to achieve it". That made me think, I can tell you. The reverse is also true. That is, if you want to use "fine writing" as your medium, you need to use literary means to achieve your ends. "Look, isn't this like that?" or "Listen, I'm doing proper writing!" are just the start.

Perhaps I expect too much. Perhaps this book is just another victim of the decline of the in-house publisher's editor. So I'll reserve judgement until I've walked a few more miles in his shoes. That's assuming I can rein in my irritation at being required, every ten yards, to stop and admire the contents of his Moleskine notebook.


Dave Leeke said...

Oh gosh, sorry you feel like that, Mike. I've always recommended it as I thought it was a great thought-provoking book.

I like his premise that, "It (a road atlas) encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world." He goes on to explore the country in a way that most of us can only dream about.

I like his prose - I like people that can actually write in a descriptive way. He's currently the nearest thing to a maverick spirit like Roger Deakin, so let's allow him to pontificate.

The word verification seems to be "ovencent" - only one letter missing there. Very evocative.

Mike C. said...


There's no doubt he's an interesting guy with interesting things to say. But ... he overwrites to no purpose too often, and I find that annoying. True, this is a vice of "nature writers", and at times it's really not so very far from "feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole"...

A decent editor could have really shaped and improved this book -- did you notice he gives two completely different etymologies for the word "wild", for example? (that's so far -- I'm only halfway). You can't simply not mention the first one if you go on to offer a second in a later chapter -- an editor should have picked that up.


Martin H. said...

Just read a reader's review, "...self-consciously "beautifully written" in that creative-writing-school, hothouse-lexis sort of way. But is there any real connection here, any passion and experiential richness?"

Evidently, you're not alone.

Mike C. said...


Not alone, but in a minority (which, if I think about it, is the way I like it).

A lot of writing these days seems stuck at primary school level -- where the teacher gives us a gold star for writing that makes sensitive connections between things, on the basis of shape, colour, etc.

OK, I might think that the moon tonight does kinda look like a toenail cutting on a dark velvet curtain, but to put that image in my reader's mind I'd want to think it through.

Am I saying I think the moon is like a bit of bodily detritus that's ended up in an unusual place? Or that maybe that's just the way I feel about it tonight? Or maybe I just thought it was a neat comparison (a sure-fire Gold Star), wrote it into my notebook, and thought it would be a shame to waste it -- hey, why not use it now?

I don't want to beat up Macfarlane over this (as if he cared) as he's clearly got things to say and far from the worst offender. But it's what I happen to be reading, and I can't help the comparison with true classics of such writing like Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek".

And I wouldn't mind so much if Macfarlane wasn't an English lecturer at Cambridge, who has published in such areas as "plagiarism and originality in 19th c. literature" i.e. he should know better.


Adam Long said...


I remember really looking forward to reading this book - there was a great excerpt in the Guardian magazine, and the subject matter is close to my heart - but had a very similar experience to yours. A friend gave up halfway through for the same reasons.

You get this sense that sat at his Cambridge desk he is desperate to be a great nature writer, but what an inconvenience it is to have to go out to get material. And when he does, as you say, he has to stop every ten yards to write it all down.

There is a further irritation for anyone with some basic geology - he drops a couple of real clangers, such as confusing gritstone with moraine, and has an annoying habit of using precise geological terms entirely wrongly. Whether he is attempting to use them as adjectives I don't know, but they don't work if you do know the meaning and are presumably impenetrable to everyone else. Perhaps an excuse to stick in and long word and appear learned?

I've since read the book again and forewarned, it is a little easier to enjoy the good writing that is there second time round. But it still annoyed me intensely when he won the Boardman Tasker award for mountaineering writing.


struan said...

Landscape as something to visit. All the while patting yourself on the back for being so sensitive and attuned. I usually sulk at the usual British distain for cleverness, but not in this case.

What baffles me about MacFarlane, and similar writers, is that they are *still* banging on about untamed wildness and the intrinsic superiority of nature. In Scotland. And, if I remember rightly, Norfolk. Norfolk? Wild?

Actually, it doesn't baffle me, it interests me. But I don't want to be one of that crowd.

Mike C. said...

Adam and Struan,

You may both heartened to know that he got a thorough kicking from the mountaineering community after his first book. Perhaps he thought the Armchair Rambler's Association would be less harsh.

"Norfolk? Wild?" Well you should try Norwich city centre after the Canaries have lost yet again. And that Delia can turn quite nasty after a bit too much cooking sherry.


struan said...

It was while still an active mountaineer that I first faced an immensely powerful conventional wisdom telling me what I should think and feel. These days they tell me what I should see. Ugh.

This is 'interesting':

The institutions which run the project area (wildlife trusts, community forests etc) are up to date with modern ecology and landscape management, and its internal contradictions. They also are fully aware that people are essential - and welcome - forming force in the landscape.

The photographers are all Fotherington-Thomassing about as if N.W. Scotland were Yellowstone or the Siberian tundra. If you stand where that lovely snow photo was taken in summer you can't miss the deer fences, the runrig, the bright spots of the old limed fields, and the extensive stands of planted birch trees. All of which I think are good and right and visually interesting. But not Nature.

Mike C. said...


It's clear the new wisdom is now that nearly all landscapes are "man made" -- that "Unnatural Histories" series on BBC 4 is making precisely that point about Yellowstone, Serengeti, and the Amazon.

I am less bothered by this than, as you put it, being told what to think, feel and see. Soon, the world will come with a soupy soundtrack ... (for some it clearly already does, given the number of oblivious earphone wearers I nearly run over ever day).


Tony_C said...

Don’t know if you read it, but a couple of years ago(?), the Guardian Review published established writers’ “top ten tips” for aspiring wordsmiths. One in particular which made me think, was (and I both summarise and paraphrase the author, whose name I forget): “ Whenever you write a passage of which you are particularly proud, strike it out immediately”

Mike C. said...


That "strike it out" quote is a good one. Good rule, too. It sounds like Elmore Leonard, but is actually Samuel Johnson!


Adam Long said...


'You may both heartened to know that he got a thorough kicking from the mountaineering community after his first book.'

Hmm, not quite. A lot of hot air on a forum about how Mountains of the mind totally ignored modern mountaineering. Which it did, but that's not really a criticism of the book, rather of what folk hoped it might have been. And I'm pretty sure the The Wild Places then got the Boardman Tasker award as an apology for overlooking Mountains... a couple of years earlier. Thankfully it seems to have been a blip and recent winners have been more in tune with the sprit of the award, and '09's winner Beyond the Mountain was a particularly good insight into modern mountaineering.

Having read a fair bit of this 'new nature writing' genre, the rule seems to be to avoid the writer-tourists and go for those who have a reason to be out there other than to emote into their Moleskine. Mark Cocker's Crow Country is my favourite of the recent ones.


Mike C. said...


Not even being close to being a mountaineer (I want to live!), I don't really know anything about this.

I know a few climbers (they make good drinking companions, and I enjoy stories about falling off cliffs) and I do know how climbers love their own mythology. I get the impression that Macfarlane transgressed several unwritten rules, and paid the price.

"Crow Country" sits in a pile, waiting to be read. I have just moved it up a notch.


struan said...

Crow Country is my favourite of the lot too.

It used to be that the armchair in armchair mountaineering was supporting the ample behinds of the readers. These days the writers seem to do their research indoors too. Fergus Fleming and Francis Spufford are two particularly egregious sinners.

I don't *think* I'm just being a grumpy old bugger. There has been a general dumbing down of non-fiction. Witness the way that popular science books like Longitude don't actually contain any information about the science - just a load of biographical interest stuff about the scientists.

Just to show I can give out rosettes too: David Craig and Jim Perrin are worth reading if you want to climb by proxy.