Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Book Progress

I'm still working on the "England and Nowhere" book. It's already at a stage where it could more or less be declared finished, but I've decided not to rush things, as it would be nice to make it as close to a definitive summation of five years of work as possible and, after all, I have no-one to satisfy other than myself.

I do have other reasons to delay. Before Easter I sent out an early draft to various parties for comment, something I've not done before. I should at least wait to hear what they have to say. Sometimes only a fresh set of eyes can see the obvious problem or the hidden flaw. I have also asked a couple of "proper" publishers whether they'd be interested in the work, and will wait to hear from them before going down the usual self-publication route, but I am not holding my breath, this enquiry being what the grammarians call "a question expecting the answer no".

I suppose I might also float the set to a few galleries – there are currently 86 photographs in the book, and at least another 25 top candidates, which is a respectable exhibition – but, as I said to one of my previewers, it's hard to know whether publication or exhibition is the bigger ask, these days. It must be very nice, I think, to have the sort of established reputation where publishers and galleries are pestering you, instead of the other way round ("Oh, not the Tate again! They're worse than bloody Steidl!").

Having originally thought I'd make two 48-page books I then changed my mind, and have now settled on a conventional single volume. Obviously, this will be more expensive, but getting all six elements into one sequence – St. Catherine's Hill, the river Itchen, the water meadows, the viaduct, Twyford Down, and the M3 motorway – is much more interesting, and leads to a more balanced and nuanced presentation. Assuming nothing comes of my approaches to publishers, I will probably self-publish a special "limited" hardback edition, probably 21cm square and comparable in quality (and price) to last year's "Crow Country" book, plus a Blurb paperback, an e-book for the iPad and iPhone owners, and a PDF for the cheap seats.

For a while I was struggling to write a suitable foreword, but then remembered a blog post I had written some while ago, which made all the points I wanted to make better than anything else I had come up with. So I adapted that, and it now reads as follows (sorry if it seems a bit long):
This series of photographs of the landscape south-east of Winchester started around 2010, when I began regularly to visit Hockley Viaduct, St. Catherine's Hill, and Twyford Down.  The more I visited and photographed this threefold site, where ancient and modern histories are intimately packed together, the more I began to feel that it (and I) had something to say about the multilayered English landscape, and the way it is the expression of our contradictory human urges to venerate, to destroy, to improve, and to preserve.

This may best be explained obliquely, by a story.

A few years ago we had a North American visitor.  At one point the conversation came round, via cookery, to weights and measures, and the late unlamented imperial system with its 16 ounces to the pound, 14 pounds to the stone, 8 stones to the hundredweight, and 20 hundredweights to the ton.  Not to mention gills, pints, quarts and gallons, yards, chains, furlongs and miles, or pounds, shillings and pence.

Which reminded me of my mother, who used to work in a shoe-shop, and how she would bring home old coins for me from the till.  Before decimalisation, Victorian pennies were commonplace, worn smooth and black from their adventures, and every now and then there would be a Georgian "cartwheel" penny: a full ounce of copper minted in 1797, and legal tender until 1971.  Once, someone handed over a William III silver sixpence  -- dated 1696 and as exotic as a piece of eight -- in exchange for their court heels or slingbacks.

You had a real sense of the continuity of history, going down to the sweet-shop with an assortment of old metal chinking in your trouser pockets. Pounds, shillings and pence had a noble lineage that included fabled ancestors like the farthing, the groat, and the golden guinea.  But I don't think anyone missed them, once they were gone, and the simplicity of the new mental arithmetic meant our collective national brain could relax and take a permanent holiday from multiples of twelve and twenty.  But a thread was broken.

We think of the USA as a "young" country, with little history.  But, setting aside the monuments of the indigenous people, the oldest American places are now 100, 200, possibly even 300 years old.  I think most of us living in Britain would be hard-pressed to find a building within 50 miles older than that.  We live in a world of permanent makeover.  The block of flats where I spent my adolescence, built in 1950 and as solid as a nuclear bunker, has already been demolished, the site levelled, and built over again.  More broken threads.

Is this new?  The next day, I stood with our American visitor on top of St. Catherine's Hill above Winchester, and pointed out the landmarks, like a native guide.  The Iron Age fort, the Norman cathedral built on a Saxon site, the mediaeval hospital and plague pits, the undated Miz Maze -- possibly ancient, possibly some antiquarian's folly -- and the chalky tops where the detectorists find Roman coins and Saxon brooches.  I felt like Puck, the Oldest Old Thing in England.

But we were standing within earshot of the Twyford Down motorway cutting, where 5 acres of ancient downland and 50,000 years of history were bulldozed away in the 1990s, in order to smooth the path of traffic from Southampton to London.  Protestors camped out on Twyford Down in an attempt to halt the destruction of this landscape -- "heritage" to some, "sacred" to others -- and despite failing to stop the road became the focus of a new awareness of the ecological and archaeological price of progress.  Government and developers have to tread more carefully now.

But, in its day, the hillfort above the cutting must have been equally appalling.  Dug out by slave labour, an eyesore of chalk rubble and palisades, it was a place of domination and violence; mutilated human remains have been found in the ditches.  No doubt its construction violated immemorial holy springs and groves.  There will have been protests, brutally suppressed.  In their turn, venerable Saxon abbeys were demolished to raise the Norman cathedral -- more domination and brutality.  Later, slums were cleared to build housing estates, and ancient fields were ripped open, scattering flints and coins and Roman roof-tiles, to provide those estates with water and electricity.  Seen in context, the Twyford Down cutting, too, is our history, and no more outrageous or unnecessary than anything in the preceding four millennia.

Before the motorway, there were the railways.  Competing schemes to drive a line from London to Southampton resulted in two lines, one running immediately beside St. Catherine's Hill, that went no further south, and the winning mainline, further to the west.  The Hockley Viaduct -- one of the first poured concrete structures in the world -- was constructed in 1888 to link the two lines, but was abandoned in the 1960s.  It still stands, thirty-three brick-clad concrete arches going nowhere, stranded opposite the M3 in a water-meadow by the river Itchen.  The Itchen itself is not a natural waterway at this location: it was extensively canalised in the 18th century as the Itchen Navigation to transport goods from Southampton to Winchester.  The Hand of Man is everywhere, here.

   Trackway and Camp and City lost,
      Salt Marsh where now is corn;

   Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,

      And so was England born!

Puck's Song, from Puck of Pook's Hill, by Rudyard Kipling

To go forward you need to build, and to build you need to clear ground, whether it be a crumbling castle, a block of flats, or irrational weights and measures.  The idea that certain landscapes are inviolable and "sacred" is a belief we recognise in other cultures -- one thinks of Australia and Japan -- but which we regard with skepticism when it comes to our own island.  With good reason:  the 20th century invention of an ancestral, quasi-animistic relationship between the English and The English Land is shot through with political and religious elements that are very dubious indeed.  All ancient paths, ley-lines, and folkways seem nearly always to lead directly back to some very right-wing and reactionary sources.

Yet, when ancient and beautiful landscapes are torn apart to make way for public works like roads and housing, I think many of us do share a sense of violation strong enough to warrant language like "sacrilege" and "desecration" .  On an island like ours, where every square foot bears witness to thousands of years of human habitation, the sense of being haunted by heritage is strong.  This leads to a real dilemma.  So we sense something sacred when we feel we are walking the land our ancestors walked, and we want those Iron Age hillforts and ancient fields and water-meadows to be preserved, although we would shun the ways of life that gave rise to them.  Equally, though, we need more housing, utilities, factories, airports and bypasses to enhance our way of life, but are reluctant to pay the price.  We are all, at the same time, both desecrators and defenders, constructors and conservators.

This sense of the way cycles of disruptive "progress" patinate over the years into "heritage" -- and of the way a certain pervasive spirit of place persists beneath it all -- underlies these photographs.   These few square miles adjacent to Alfred's Saxon capital are a library and laboratory of English history, as written, unwritten, and extensively revised by succeeding generations.


Mike C said...

Fantastic piece of writing. Well done! I am looking forward to the eventual publication of your book.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Mike -- it's always a little disconcerting to discover that things you wrote in the past were written by someone who can write better than you...

There's a thread in there about the association of "folkways" and "tradition" with extreme right-wing politics I must draw out sometime. I've been exploring David Jones recently ("In Parenthesis", "The Anathemata", etc.) -- I've always admired his artwork (the calligraphy is wonderful) and was disturbed to find what a fascist nut-job he was...


Frank Harkin said...


I sometimes find it hard to decide which you are best at - writing or photographing. They are not comparable of course but they are both great.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Frank! Actually, what I am best at is putting things off...