The ghost coast

Adam ran his hand over his balding scalp. The dunes shimmered all around – expectant, empty of any movement except his, although he knew rare beetles trundled through rough grass, and he could hear toads, chirring contentedly somewhere amongst orchids and buckthorn. He couldn’t see the sea from here, but it would be far out at this time, perhaps exposing the ribs of the Sprite, which had foundered here fatally in 1888.

A track wended up a slope surmounted by wind-tortured hawthorns and a World War Two pillbox – an outsized armoured helm in lichened concrete. This had always been a watchful coast, wary of invaders or worried by water, fearing one day it might break through to complete the drowning of Doggerland. There were times – more and more often – when Adam remembered the world’s hugeness, and hardness. Its terrible hardness…

He sighed, and sweated up the slope. Bone-weary though he was, his eyes were darting everywhere. He had tofind it. Had to. It would be his first. It would be his last. It would crown the day, this year – in fact, his nature-watching life. And it would be the perfect sign-off for this place, which he’d soon be leaving for good.

Angela had loved it here. So many days here with her, sharing the exultance of seeing some creature that according to the textbooks shouldn’t be there at all, some visitant magically manifesting thousands of miles outside its accustomed range. Once, when lying beside her under bushes, watching a vagrant warbler almost never recorded outside Central America, she had breathed just audibly, “It’s like a miracle!”

So it was – although there was also sadness surrounding such wanderers, so far from home, never to return, fated to end among unfamiliar dangers, trembling in unaccustomed cold, calling out plaintively into unanswering air for flock or mate.

Birds had been Angela’s passion – house-sparrows as much as any exotic warblers. She had never taken any species for granted since reading as a girl about the passenger pigeon. They had even given their daughter the name of Martha, in honour of the elderly endling which had fallen to the floor in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the last representative of flocks which had once broken branches by sheer weight of superabundance. On that proud day at the font in sunlit St Michael’s, with smiling family all round, they had never considered their choice might be so portentous…

Adam was more interested in insects. They had fascinated him since he was four, after a hoverfly had alighted on his outstretched hand like a benediction, a gold-and-black bejewelled being gracing his hand in a God-ray of sunshine slanting through trees.

He had lived insects and arachnids since, keeping ants and stick-insects, rearing moths, watching Attenborough, reading books like The Life of the Spider and The Soul of the White Ant, habitually turning over stones and rotten logs – in incessant search of insect lives, their meanings, their secrets, their symbolism.

Medieval illuminators had made minibeasts into miniature marginalia, and philosophers had seen them as metaphors of society and statecraft. The bee-kings that became queens as science advanced – the toiling workers so infinitesimal in themselves, but whose united efforts brought strength and sweetness to the world. Adam owned a small 1660s still-life, an anniversary present from Angela – a Delft bowl of apples, grapes, pears, and pomegranates, festooned with delicate butterflies – a Golden Age representation of Earth’s bountiful interconnectedness. Insects intersected with everyone everywhere always; their fall would also be ours.

He had become an academic, a writer of papers and addresser of conferences, a campaigner and charity trustee – so often dull and dry work, filled with frustrations, but energised always by that childhood encounter, and then the prospect of the whole planet losing its pollinators – losing its life. Losing its soul.

Whenever things got bad, there was balm in the multi-legged multiverse that began outside his back door. He would switch off machines and go into the garden – there to lose himself in the polished elegance of earwigs, watch whirligigs writing in an unknown language across the pond, or look into the compound eyes of bee-flies and wish he could see the world their way. Invertebrates had more sense than some vertebrates. Their unflagging energy was humbling as well as inspiring, an example of courage to him and to everyone – how they would resurge after every reverse, like bees building each spring, or Robert the Bruce’s spider in the cave. Insects had seen dinosaurs pass; woodlice would probably see us out.

He interested himself intimately in insects’ activities, intervening like a god when provoked by some miniscule plight. Even today, with his mind filled with his quest, he stooped to move a burnet moth caterpillar from a bare sandy tract that from its perspective must have seemed miles wide, and placed it on the sappy stem of a ragwort. Caterpillars found out in the open were often dying, he knew, driven insane by parasites eating them inside. But maybe this one might just make it. And anyway, it was indecent to leave a helpless creature – just as sick people deserved treatment, at whatever cost, and however distant the chances of success. However futile, even – however blackly written in the book of mitochondrial heredity.

An emperor dragonfly angled electrically into view, and he watched it zigzag away like an escaped ampere – a spectacular insect, whose even larger ancestors once darted over drowned Doggerland. Land and sea so often seemed interchangeable along this littoral, confusing even the animals. He sometimes found insect-falls along the advancing edge of the sea – ants, devil’s coach-horses, ladybirds – tiny fragments of feeling kicking their legs helplessly or crawling desperately away from the water at the salt end of all things, pitifully paralleling the great human-falls of history. He always lofted as many as he could away to safety, although aware he was making little difference, and that all safety was at best a postponement. Under every summer beachscape lay freezing physical forces, under sun-warmed wavetops a constant churning of cold deeps, and under the fine sand sliding earth plates, all part of the constant longshore drift of life into detritus.

As Adam aged and ailed, some of his students joked that he looked like a late-summer lepidopteran. Mr Mothman, they called him – an upright and ugly imago. His skin grew dry, thin and chitinous, and his bones increasingly prominent, as if he was turning inside out, developing an exoskeleton. But why shouldn’t his softness hide inside? Life had so often shown him need of a carapace.

How he wished Angela could have been here today, of all days.

Late yesterday evening, when Adam had been reading a local nature blog, he briefly stopped breathing. Just a few casual words, written by a local nature-guide, mentioning that a Camberwell Beauty had been seen the previous day. It was the most wonderful of shocks. A Camberwell Beauty!

For much of his life, Nymphalis antiopa had been flitting through Adam’s imagination – an apparition flapping always in front, just out of reach. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known of the butterfly’s existence. But then his first home had been on Coldharbour Lane, where the butterfly was first recorded in 1748, by a man named Moses Harris, who called it ‘Grand Surprise’ to register his astonishment at its size and striking appearance – richly maroon wings, with blue dots and creamy yellow fringe, and powerful un-butterflyish flight.

It had stuck out even in Moses Harris’s still semi-rural, semi-magical London, with Camberwell still famous for fruit growing, and Peckham Rye nearby, where Blake would soon see angels in the elms. Science itself was still in a state of wide-eyed and wondering innocence, where each day brought discoveries which could still be attributed to God’s benevolent grace, and clustering new species were named after characters from Greek myth. There had been many Antiopes in Attica, but Adam was sure the Beauty must have been named after the daughter of Aeolus, or the consort of Helios, or maybe in honour of both, seeing that the creature was the most perfect union of air and light.

The boldness of the Beauty had clearly compelled Harris, who as well as being an entomologist, had also been an engraver and theorist of colour. Adam had sensed the other man’s aesthetic and aurelian excitement across the gulf of years – although for Adam excitement had always been mixed with melancholy, because the Beauty hadn’t been seen in Camberwell since the early twentieth century.

Others people had noticed, and mourned the butterfly’s absence. It had been referenced in literature and music, and there was a huge mosaic of one on a building in Burgess Park, moved there in 1982 from a demolished 1920s printworks, which had used the already rare butterfly as emblematic of their expertise. Adam remembered the mosaic in its prominent original location, and being told that the Luftwaffe had ironically used it as a navigation aid for raids.

But Adam felt the insect’s absence almost physically – felt it like a folk-memory of destroyed wildness, felt it like the pains amputees imagine in absent limbs. He almost envied the long-dead who had glimpsed the Beauty in habitats like those he had known – battening in Brixton back-gardens or fluttering up Forest Hill, or beating between the Hammer Horror monuments of Nunhead Cemetery, a Gothic shade among the white angels and the ivied urns – the Germans’ name Trauermantel (‘mourning cloak’) so suitable in that context, so redolent of the insect’s elusiveness, and adjacency to extinction.

Nymphalis was quite common elsewhere; Adam had even seen a subspecies in Sweden. But it was surrounded with special significance for him and all English lepidopterists, including the Edwardians who were the last to see it in London. Those Edwardians, with which Camberwell always seemed synonymous – those bicycle-clipped, moustached City clerks, with their copies of Illustrated London News, and Elgar on wax cylinders – so often seemed frozen in photos, fixed in period the way old collections of coleoptera were pinned to museum boards. But they had been wonderfully alive in at least one respect – to have had even an outside chance of seeing Beauties in their rose-gardens, flying in from some other realm to enrich their Arts and Crafts universe.

The Camberwell Adam had known as a child, then heard about as an adult – an anthill without purpose, a place of bad air, cars, crime, and riots – had seemed daily less likely to throw up Beauties. So now, one had kindly come to him, was waiting for him, possibly just over this hill – his personal ‘Grand Surprise’ sipping the sap of a willow, or winging royally across rabbit-nibbled clearings, the ultimate prize for hours of exertion on the hottest day of the year, the culmination of a life’s longing. This was circularity. It felt a little like – destiny.

How could it have come? Some came over the sea in some years, but very few, and never this far north. There were theories about pupae carried in cargoes of Scandinavian timber. There were also rare private rewilders, eccentrics or idealists who raised and released animals they felt ‘belonged’, animals which had a moral right to be in particular places. Aged eight, Adam had met one, the famous Leonard Newman, who had signed Adam’s copy of Complete British Butterflies in Colour – a book outdated even then, but still on Adam’s shelves. Newman had reared thousands of Beauties and let them fly in Kent one hopeful spring, then waited…and waited…and given up.

Adam knew why Newman had done this; skies that had known the Beauty must one day know it again. But he wanted to think this specimen had somehow made its own way here, acting on some unknown impulse, linking his early life with his late – bringing old London to modern Lincolnshire. It would be kismet – completion – closure.

He had sometimes worried that if he ever caught up with the Beauty it might feel like an anti-climax. Species ticked off lists were like sports trophies – wholly inadequate, tinny mementos of a very different day, a different outlook, whole other worlds of happiness and health. And this just wasn’t any species. The Beauty dwelled by itself. It had flown in front of him for so long that finding one might feel more like losing something. But if this was a risk, it was one he had to take. What else would he do? What else could he do? It was his nature. Angela would have understood – and Martha.

He fantasised hotly, the sun boiling the reddened skin of his scalp. There might be more than one. A venturesome individual might be the vanguard of a viable colony. Could this bold outrider be a scout – the crest of a climate-adapting wave, coping with change by expanding range? He knew, in truth, this was a fancy too far; the Beauty liked cooler climates. But somehow, somewhere among all this global destruction and private desolation, some species must find a way forward, lead a rebirth and recolouring of the cosmos. How wonderful it would be if at least a few beautiful things could defy the world’s contagion…Was that too much to ask? There was so much loss, so much waste and death…

He stopped to get breath, and looked up, to see the sun well on its way to the west. There weren’t many hours left. There were never enough. There was never enough time for anything. Angela and Jane were also now flying in front… He pushed on through trees and across a wide wasteland, while a large butterfly on the highest branch imperiously flared indigo wings, and indifferently watched him pass.

Refracted future

Humani Victus Instrumenta – Ars Coquinaria. 1570s engraving

The Mirror

Tim Bragg, Sycamore Dystopia, 2023, pb., 292pps., £10

Ever since the ancients invented automata, writers have wondered about the implications for humanity, and ruminated about the nature of consciousness. The Industrial Revolution would spawn increasing concern about subservience to machines and “Satanic mills.” The Great War and then Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (from which we get the word ‘robot, based on a Czech word, robota, meaning ‘forced labour’) made many people anxious about out-of-control technology – a theme revisited every generation since, as seen for example in the 1984 action classic, Terminator. Today, the growing sophistication of artificial intelligence has turned a trope into a cliché, the subject of articles, books and documentaries which often really tell us more about contemporary concerns than they do about possible futures. Musician-novelist Tim Bragg’s newest book is therefore in a certain idealist-nostalgic-pessimistic vein; this does not mean it is not distinctive or worthwhile.

As in Orwell’s Oceania, or the pages of Fahrenheit 451, the world of The Mirror is a surveillance society, where the state strives to control thought. Like Bladerunner, there are huge and ugly megalopolises, and androids, and people who might be androids. Like Logan’s Run (film version), there is a mysterious and romanticised threshold that must be crossed. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the authorities limit fertility. Like The Matrix, almost nothing is what it seems. As in many dystopias, there is an unjust government with a privileged ‘Inner Party,’ sinister secrets, ecological impoverishment, and bleak living conditions for the lowest echelons – and of course ‘red-pilled’ rebels seeking to upturn the system. This highly literate author imbues all these obvious influences with ideas of his own.

He brings the genre up to (future) date, setting his story in 2073, and reflecting upon today’s worries about self-image, the control of data, the time we spend online, the cashless society, the food we eat (insects bulk large in The Mirror’s meals), and the erasure of the past. Every citizen wears a ‘mirror’ device, which delivers a limited range of computer-generated entertainment and information, but most importantly allows the authorities to monitor the population. Emotions and sensations are all suspect – except those provided by pills or virtual reality, from ‘conversations’ with ancestors to sexual intercourse. There seem to be no local or national identities, or even any kind of economy.

The pivotal relationship is between two girls, Mia and Karella, who are arriving at physical and sexual maturity; there seems to be no ‘transgenderism’ in The Mirror world (which is plausible, as those who are so exercised by this today will have exited the scene by 2073). Both characters are well thought-through, and nuanced. Bragg’s emphasis on youthful female sexuality however feels slightly discomfiting, even though of course novelists must always be permitted to imagine themselves in guises or roles other than their own. It is however germane to this story, because both girls are being exploited by a highly intrusive state, with Karella the subject of life-long transhumanist experiments, and Mia being viewed as a brood-mare for a eugenics programme. Their every emotion is parsed for psychological significance, and there are constant interventions – for example a dogged therapeutic insistence on treating Mia’s phobia about swimming (a happy intervention, because her instilled ability to swim matters greatly later).

Like everyone else, Mia and Karella are under the purview of a panoptical ‘Hub,’ and an elite organisation called Earthly Living Kingdom (ELK). Mia’s own mother is an ELK Guardian, a senior operative of a group whose sinister plans become increasingly apparent, and the mother-daughter relationship is consequently complex. Mia’s father is absent – or is he?

There are menacing ELK operatives, partly countervailed by a sub-world of gathering rebellion, led by Ned, an IT expert who convenes a secret cell to keep alive fast-fading arts – in effect, the authentic human spirit, at risk from rationalist thinking, cultural coarsening, and technological reductionism. Mia finds especial inspiration and solace in the music of Bach, which although available through approved channels, has fallen into desuetude. In 2073, those who wish to hear such antediluvian sounds risk seeming at best eccentric – and at worst, refuseniks in ‘need’ of pharmaceutical intervention, or biotechnological ‘rebooting.’ Bragg has clearly thought a great deal about the psychological benefits of music for everyone in all ages, here showing synaesthesia as a means of inner escape from one-dimensional mundanity.

The ‘biohacker’ artist Neil Harbisson, by Hector Adalid. Wikimedia Commons

He handles generally well one of the perennial problems of dystopian literature – accustoming readers to invented concepts and specially coined terminology without interrupting the narrative with long screeds of explication. He has tried hard to come up with new idioms. French phrases are unexpectedly widely used. Anglo-Saxon expletives however appear to have gone out of vogue, to be replaced with what seem now insipid new terms of emphasis (“sparking uterus”), which seems an unlikely eventuality – but maybe this symbolises his surmised society’s distance from earthy realism. Some are more believable, such as “abundant” to express enthusiasm. There is admirable restraint and wit in the conversations between the human protagonists and the Rai robots who do much of the work (and are constantly being ‘improved’ by technologists and theorists obsessed with ‘migrating’ consciousness from human to machine, and even more worryingly back again).

The Mirror is a deeply well-intentioned book, and what is even more important, sensitively intelligent – a worthy reflection on issues which are swiftly becoming salient, and which seem certain to become even more so.

Un-harkened Angel

Angel

Alex Kurtagic, London: Spradabach, 2023, hb., 997pps.

DEREK TURNER finds mordant fun in a tale of modern alienation

In 2009, Alex Kurtagic published Mister, his novel of a highly-cultured IT consultant operating within what he saw as the hellscape of contemporary Europe – a man too intelligent for an age suspicious of intellectual distinctions, and too independent-minded for a continent in thrall to neurotic pettifoggery. In Angel, we meet a similarly misfitting man, but one with even less adaptive ability – indeed, a man almost without agency. This is a behemoth of a book about a midget of a man, wandering solitarily in the drab wasteland of these times.  

Angel is a student of 17th Century literature at an English university, whose unhappy fate it is to combine refined tastes and fastidiousness with an inability to impose these on even his immediate surroundings. He is physically slight and correspondingly cowardly, chronically short of money, and not even compensatingly articulate. Traditionally, angels enunciate glad tidings, but this one (aspiring poet though he may be) can barely sustain a basic conversation. He is announced to, rather than an annunciator. His most obvious resemblance to Biblical or Hebrew angels lies in his essential insubstantiality.

Angel is surrounded by people infinitely more impressive than he is – especially women, from his formidable mother and sister, and brilliantly inductive fellow-students to the mothering Amelia who (for some incomprehensible reason) pants to enfold Angel in her ample embonpoint. He is an incel, but unlike some incels, not potentially dangerous. He is not even angry – although the debased nature of his university, and society, deserves almost unlimited contempt. Kurtagic’s front-cover oil of his Van Dyck-bearded subject excellently conveys the nervy nature of his character, his twitching worriedness and state of blinking surprise at the awfulness of almost everything.

We do not lose sympathy for Angel as the tale unfolds, because we never really develop any. Even if somehow we could, he would haemorrhage it with his every action, or more precisely inaction. It is only at the very end that we start to feel sorry for him, but we can never feel respect. He is epically inept and wholly dependent on others, unable to perform the simplest task without mishap. He gets a menial job, but can’t manage the hours. He is given expensive things, and loses them. He is given excellent advice, and makes no attempt to follow it. He gets blamed even for things that aren’t his fault – and we are neither surprised, nor particularly perturbed. The reason he has no money is that he burned through a generous grant from his wealthy and influential parents in pursuit of an American woman (Madison) so obviously unworthy that people who have never met her instantly smell the gold-digger.

Huge events unfold around him, which culminate in unexpectedly dramatic style, but he is so busy mooning about his love-interest (and feeling sorry for himself) that he misses all the portents. And yet this over-specialised evolutionary aberration ends up as one of his cohort’s rare survivors. His near-invisibility ensures that he is mercifully overlooked by the most malign influencers, except when he accidentally offends à la mode ‘activists’ of one kind or another. He does encounter real rebels, but (probably luckily for him) never capitalizes on these encounters, through distractedness or pusillanimity.

But if we cannot admire Angel, we can smile at some of his pratfalls and predicaments. The author’s mordant sense of humour is abundantly in evidence, as his protagonist lurches from one petty indignity to the next – building up debts, humiliations and resentments, borrowing money he can’t repay, exasperating his family, failing his few friends, irritating his tutors, losing all his clothes at the launderette (and all his illusions about Madison), and vomiting all over the fragrant front of the only woman in the world who wants anything to do with him. Angel’s phobias are Ruskinian in their rarefaction, as he registers disgust with bad table manners, dirt, drunkenness, earrings, oxter hair (on women), tobacco and tattoos.

This is however not just a novel of amusing incidents, but also of serious ideas. The author is a determined logophile, and even those with above-average vocabularies may encounter words that are new to them, or that they have forgotten. These pleasing encounters contrast with sometimes over-long staccato dialogue sections when Angel is trying to attract the attention of barmen or shopkeepers, or, yet again, failing to explain himself to his supposed intellectual peers.

Sophisticated sociopolitical arguments are seeded through this book – about sex differences, elitism, the nature and purpose of universities, and freedom of conscience – but none of these viewpoints are expressed by Angel, although we infer that he generally agrees with their conservative-reactionary tenor. There are shrewd observations of today’s cry-bully tendencies, with their manic oscillations between psychological extremes, attacks on easy Aunt Sally targets, and protesting-too-much parading – and excellent evocations of cityscapes in all their Bladerunner alienness, or broken-down decrepitude. Strewn names of books, films, and paintings betoken authorial wide interests, and the book’s production values hint at his awareness of the importance of aesthetics in shaping worlds. Kurtagic is certain there is such a thing as ‘good taste’, and that it is at root a moral choice. This is weighty literature, in more than just a physical sense.

We eventually leave Angel all alone, contemplating the ruins of all his hopes and with no obvious avenue of escape, with even his once-powerful parents implicated in his downfall. It is a desolate outcome indeed even to so inglorious an odyssey, and even for someone not obviously deserving of respect – because behind his seriocomic unfolding can be seen substantive insights into 21st century society, and in his deeply-grained disappointment something of ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Miskatonian (Home page – The Miskatonian) and is reproduced with permission

Fathers of Botany – Fossil Trees of Lesbos

Image: Courtesy of Dimitris Yeros

DEREK TURNER is editor of The Brazen Head, and a novelist and reviewer, who writes for journals including Country Life and the Irish Times. His first non-fiction book, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire, was published in 2022 (Hurst)

Fathers of Botany – Fossil Trees of Greece

“We were searching to rediscover the first seed

So the ancient drama could begin again.” (George Seferis)


Tree from Titanic time, chlorophyll from Chronos –

A plant to make the Iliad feel young;

Older than Achaea, bough from Europe’s birth,

Corinthian column from anonymous earth.


Cell-structure chthonic, bark architectonic,

First saplings convert light for all lungs;

Dawns before dinosaurs, green deaths in deep glades

That shivered before any islands were made.


Steles sway in dead winds, mark skies meteoric –

Ossified weathers striated in stumps –

Hold in their heartwood earth’s earliest mysteries,

The comets and climates that changed before histories.


Rock sounds of ages and petrified tracks –

Trees shooting endless in verdant triumphs,

Creatures of ancient wing, instinct with sap and spring,

Once stood on these redwoods’ spread rooftops to sing.


Sang songs of the spheres, remote, melancholic,

Strange songs for lost woods in an alien tongue –

Harmoniously unify heavens and world

As seeds from stone cones let Creation unfurl.


Then day cataclysmic: deep doom from first physics:

Drums beating, bass booms as world structure unslung,

Ashfalls before Hades, heats pre-Hephaestus,

Flames black out the birds, stones alter the atlas.     

II

Metamorphosis – an ageless land’s axis,

New architect orders for the new world just sprung –

Stump of the sacred grove, and pillar of Zeus –

Shoots for the Stagirite, seeds Theophrastus.


Human analogies bud bright philosophic:

Trees rise, carry crowns, then return to the dung.

Though statues, they sow evergreenness from roots;  

Even now that they’re dead, we climb them for truths.

Deep state

DEREK TURNER is editor of The Brazen Head. He is also a novelist, reviewer, travelogist, and the author of the chorography Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire (Hurst, 2022). www.derek-turner.com. Twitter: @derekturner1964. Instagram: edge.of.england

“Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England”

‘Pike’, Ted Hughes

The plumber’s van’s been standing since the small hours

At the fishing-place beside the chartered town;

Its driver has been sounding deeper waters

Since he set up as the night was going down.


He saw the sun come wheeling up from ocean,

Watched whitening sky go glowing into gold;

Heard the birds orchestrate their calling,

Stamped booted feet to counteract life’s cold.


Cynosure of today these level courses –

These muddy understated lowland drains

Whose depths hide evolution’s shining forces –

Silver knights swim pricking on these plains.


Other men stare silent at reflections,

Itching for a twitch upon their lines,

Unknowing echo ancient Izaak Walton,

Compleatest anglers, contemplating time.


Coarse fishers here can sit on thrones like Doges

Wedded to the waters of their wealth;

Serene for once among the mace and sedges,

Each man an island nation to himself.


Slow surface holds deep state of planted kingdoms,

Mirrors showing sallow, alder, oak –

Chlorophylled and kingly-symbolled leaves

The royal trees on any English road.


The tops of reeds stand proud among sheet-silver,

Their dirty roots outshone by swelling light –

Excaliburs – or the lances of dead riders

Who rode here once to set the east alight.


Waterfowl calls urgently to offspring –

Brown fuzzy balls bob cheeping at her steer.

The angler cannot stop himself from smiling,

As he casts for luck across the haunted mere.


(Awake by now at home, his fishing widow,

Sipping her first coffee of the day.

Smiling at her grandkids out the window –

Her ducklings’ ducks, so soon to swim away.)


The plants that edge the lake have grown here always;

Reseeded from some Anglo-Saxon store –

Marginalia from the seventh century,

Still richly green if now less filled with lore.


Epona tails of Rome and Celt connections

Vanished lands in floreated forms –

Lush lowland lawn, these thronging herbs of nations,

Forget-me-nots and flags, dog-rose and thorn.


Apothecaries prospected these elixirs,

Water-mint and yarrow, woad and rue –

Cut and dried for daubed dog-Latined ewers,

Cures for flux, stone, plague, and marsh-ague.


Pallid fish slide silent near the surface

Or nose among new-inundated grass,

Animals always searching for advantage,

Ghosts glimpsed in oxidising antique glass.


Carp suck and spap and rise to find him casting;

Their ancestors gaped for God-believing men;

Now endless sky, that abbey’s painted ceiling –

Great fane forlorn, foundation lost in fen.


He throws his line along the deepest margins,

His hook hangs in the decomposing ooze;

He hovers with all fish beyond all ageing –

Quick and dead commingled in long view.

A poet’s pole position

Arctic Elegies

Peter Davidson, Carcanet, 2022, pb., 72pps. £11.99

DEREK TURNER feels impelled to look to the north

There are poets associated with particular places, or special states of mind, but Peter Davidson has made a geo-poetical genre of his own, as celebrant of a cardinal point. His interests are wide-ranging, but magnetized in one compass direction – towards ‘Norths’ geographical and conceptual, Norths as landscapes and mindscapes, Norths as essences of bleak beauty and soughing melancholy. Auden, Larkin and others celebrated septentrional subjects, but Davidson brings a clarity and suggestiveness all his own to the lonely latitudes that lie above the treeline.

Davidson studied literature and art history at Cambridge, and taught at Warwick and Leiden before spending many years as Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen. He is now Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, University of Oxford. His earliest writings were monographs on Scottish drinking songs, but he has also edited works of the 16th century Catholic martyr St. Robert Southwell and the 17th century Royalist diplomat-poet Sir Richard Fanshawe, and written an opera libretto (part of which features in this book).

A 2005 topographical tour-de-force, The Idea of North, set him undeviatingly on his compass course, and he followed up with Distance and Memory (2013), and The Last of the Light (2015). His 2018 book, The Universal Baroque, was a radical revisioning of cultural history in which national labels were rejected as otiose, and the very word ‘baroque’ released from its period prison. In his latest book, 2021’s The Lighted Window, the illuminated opening is seen in all its symbolical aspects – as sign of warmth and welcome for those out in the darkness, alternately allowing insights into interiors or outlooks onto wide worlds.

He has gazed northwards from different standpoints, but always through a prism (or snow-globe) refracting an English Catholic sense of dislocation and loss. Northern Europe has long been mostly Protestant (or post-Protestant), but he stakes an older claim, of the far North as fiefdom of ‘the Faith’. His Norths seem often empty, yet always echo, with thin ghost-voices wired on winds across gulfs of territory or time.

He is a celebrant of half-light and half-memories, looking out through long library windows onto winter afternoons with the cold coming down hard – of gloaming peregrinations across parklands and along secretive streets – of old houses and of wildness, of solitary ships and wandering stars, snowstorms and woodsmoke, falcons and thorns – bittersweetly aware of sacrifices made, failed schemes, doomed adventures, long exiles, lost expeditions and causes. Like Rose Macaulay, he takes pleasure in ruins; like Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, he finds substance in shadows.  The North, he notes in Distance and Memory, can be a place of “grim consolations” and wintry raptures, where dearth and even death can be counterbalanced by pristineness and purity. The lights of the North are conventionally held to be harder than those of the temperate zones – but even under the most unforgiving rays this evocative writer finds ample room for romance and ornate symbology, conveying great meanings in vastly evocative blank verse.

From a British vantage point, Norths are not necessarily polar wastes, but can be Pennine hillsides, Yorkshire towns, or Hebridean isles. Even those motorway signs on the edge of London which read “A1(M) The North” act almost as ambassadorial outposts, indicating richly-imagined places, and suggesting the supposed attitudes, habits, and traits of those who dwell in them – guardedness, practicality, sternness, stubbornness, terseness, thrift, toughness. The folksong phrase ‘North Country’ has long elicited images of lakes left by the Ice Age, broad fells, and drystone walls – and even today’s political term, ‘Northern Powerhouse’, is more romantic than rational, conjuring a domain of latent strengths. Entire Northlands can be evoked immediately in everyday architecture and art – stained railway arches, empty mills, the evenings of J. Atkinson Grimshaw – or even sounds – foghorns, geese, the haunted songs of Joy Division. In other countries, their Norths can be our Souths; an Italian’s idea of North may be Austria, and an African’s Italy. In Australia or New Zealand, vague notions of Northness may be swivelled to the South, with Antarctica taking the Arctic’s place in the cultural imagination.

The English east coast under snow. Image: Derek Turner

One of Davidson’s lost causes is the Stuart succession, with ‘Jacobite Song’ launching this second collection for Carcanet (following 2008’s The Palace of Oblivion). The forces of the pre-Reformation, clannish, chivalric Caledonia that briefly terrified Anglican, mercantile, rationalist England in 1745 are honoured in absentia – “The regiments like snow all overborne / The boat rowed far from the cold shore, long gone. / O blackbird taken in the fowler’s snare / He is now far who will return no more.” His king over the water has now gone over the ice, once-bonnie emblem of a past that has “Faded, flown, taken, frozen, falling, gone.” Later (‘Secret Theatres of Scotland’), under a carving of a stag in 1740s plaster he ponders scratched Scots words of desolate departure, graffiti of the gone – “Lang befor daylicht, he began his flicht”.

We then journey to find the jaded, tired Queen of the Adriatic reflected in Murano-made convexity in ‘Venice Glasses I’, one of three poems inspired by Victoria Crowe’s paintings. We can almost smell the Grand Canal and see gondolas rocking gently at their posts as another frantic day fades out – “When vanished things take shape in the stir of the waters / When glimpses and shadows pass at the edges of glasses”. This is a black and dank prospect, suggesting slimed piles and a faint under-whiff of sewage, mercifully uplifted by ‘Venice Glasses II’, where an overflying aircraft scrapes a bright stripe across the darkening welkin.

Back in the hushed old-maid austerity of Edinburgh, he scans second-hand bookshops well-stocked with the frigidly unsatisfactory productions of the eighteenth century – “A back room full of quarto shelves of Scotland / The August pleasures of dead advocates”, searching for sparks of passion within rows and rows of reason – “These wintry precincts of enlightenment / Which hold out for the moment, just, they hold.”

He hovers above 1845-8 to birds-eye the high-tech, high-hoped, disastrous Sir John Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which got frozen in forever, where “The ice grows downwards building in the dark”. He soars skua-like back to anxious England, and awaiting Lady Jane, pacing in her garden, seeking psychic aid to link to her too-long absent spouse, and eventually enlisting patriotic public opinion to make the Admiralty send in too-late search. We think of those famous pictures of the frozen corpses discovered long after – the luckier ones who died earlier, and received obsequies, before the rest perished miserably out in the white hell, benighted among bitterness, enmired in allegations of anthropophagy, insanity, lead-poisoning, and uncertainty. Davidson prays for intercession for these expeditionaries still – “Lord of the treasuries of Hail, absolve them now, / Queen of Miraculous Snowfall, lead them home.”

In ‘The Early Christian Monuments of Wales’, a poem titled like a treatise, we find evidence of earliest missionaries in monoliths on hawthorn-studded hills, and crude lettering in eroding inscriptions – the gospellers who gave birth to the monks, and the monks to the Matter of Britain – “Words growing thin in time’s vastness, names themselves breaking” – apostles long unreachable, and yet omnipresent even in today’s physical and psychological landscapes. Some poems are more straightforwardly devotional, like ‘St Edmund Campion meditates on the Passion’, or ‘Sonnet for Trinity Sunday’, but his abstractions are rooted in the natural kingdom of the North – “For we are God’s hands and eyes through each green day / Of dog-rose and elder, plough-furrowed leaf of the hornbeam.” Serenity of God is one with sublimity of scenery.

Faith filters into everything he writes – onto the fretted neck of John Dowland’s lute (‘Mr Dowland’s Midnight’), and into his allusions to Caspar David Friedrich’s hyperborean heroism, (‘Dialogue at Kloster Edelna’), and the works of other painters (‘Pryde’s Ghost’, ‘Rex Whistler’s Blues, August 1938’). The most personal lyrics of all thaw all permafrost to remember old friends, taste again late fruits once eaten in disordered once-elegant rooms (‘Lastness, or Rory’s Apple’), and honour his ages-ago aunt, losing her mind yet still able to remember Rilke (‘September Castles’).

Davidson’s conservative, mordant philosophy feels very far removed from those of most modern poets – indeed, it diverges radically from all modern outlooks – but there are times when he can cut through the deepest coldness, to pierce the most glass-slivered heart. He shows us in Arctic Elegies a land and state of mind both lyrically described and thrillingly delighted in – a land and state of mind both eminently deserving of celebration, and capable of shining suddenly with beauty and transformative warmth.

Parnassus, and patria

Tumuli at Revesby in Lincolnshire

Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry

Various authors, edited by Alexander Adams, foreword by William Clouston, London: Bournbrook Press, 2022, pb, 55pps, £12.50

Bournbrook Press is an offshoot of Bournbrook Magazine, founded in 2019 to offer a “primarily British audience with traditionalist, socially conservative argument and entertainment”. This venture’s newest publication is something unusual, and unlikely to be financially profitable – an anthology of original poetry put together specifically to appeal to small-c conservatives, a subset of the population not noted for their interest in new verse.

Poetry written for political purposes always runs a risk of being bathetic, just as other arts can easily become ‘artivism’ – a point amply understood by this collection’s editor-contributor, who has written an informative book on this subject. I have a 1900 anthology on my shelves, Heroic and Patriotic Verse, and while much of the verse is excellent (it includes Byron, Goldsmith, Gray and Shakespeare), some has dated less well, including ‘Of old sat Freedom’ (one of Tennyson’s windier effusions) and the frankly indigestible ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’. The verse in Sunken Island is similarly uneven, but when it is good, it is, as Social Democratic Party leader William Clouston notes in his Foreword, “both serious and enjoyable”.

Clouston also points out that this book’s eight contributors are not “blind to the country’s flaws”, and this gives this collection both muscle and a certain wryness of outlook notably absent from some patriotic poets, like Rupert Brooke or Henry Newbolt. There is no bombast to be found in Sunken Island, nor sentimentality, nor Patience Strong-style platitudes. The two prevailing emotions are love, plus loss – an odd echo of Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island (1988), which concluded that “there’s no longer an English literature”. 

Kenner’s gloom is to some extent gainsaid by the poets in here, who suggest that a kind of distinctively English literary sensibility may still be discoverable – or at least a British one, because one of the poets included (the pseudonymous ‘Columba’) is Scottish, while another (Rahul Gupta) is a noted exponent of traditional alliterative verse. This does not mean that the other six contributors are stodgily suburban, nor even a hundred percent English. Alexander Adams is a justly well-regarded artist whose work is in the V&A (several of his drawings are used in Sunken Island). Benjamin Afer calls himself an “authentic reactionary”, but authors futuristic novels. Daniel Gustafsson is a bi-lingual (Swedish) doctor of philosophy, as well as a highly-regarded poet. A. Robert Lee taught in America and Japan, and lives in Spain. Nicholas Murray is a biographer of Kafka and Chatwin, and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy. S. D. Wickett is an aficionado of Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick, and affianced to digital media.

The poems vary greatly in style. Nicholas Murray’s six short contributions feature everyday vexations, from standing on a train station concourse to being bitten by someone else’s dog (for which he apologises, the most stereotypically ‘English’ moment in the book). He notices small things, and honours the 19th century clergyman-diarist Francis Kilvert, who did too – “…the man of God whose fine gift / for seeing things lights the day / As sunshine after sudden rain”. He looks into a painting of a Lancashire landscape, and remembers its departed artist. He is abashed by the force of nature, in the form of a night wind which blew away rooftiles, and “glib proposals”. He then eavesdrops on an imagined conversation between James Joyce and Percy Wyndham Lewis, as verbose Irishman and Vorticist Englishman consider quantity, and the urgent need to stir things up, to dissolve “the solid shell”. 

A Robert Lee’s contribution, ‘From…’, addresses Englishness, coherent but complicated, encapsulated by the “multi-there” and “multi-then” of his own odyssey from 1950s Manchester via London, America, and Japan to 2022’s Spain. “The initial from takes on lengthening distance…” while everything changes and he changes with it, but remains in some ways strangely the same. ‘From…’ is more impressionistic jottings than verse, yet it ably conveys diverse textures and odd connections – between Manchester, Lancashire and Manchester, New Hampshire – between London periods and London postcodes – between the Kents of Chaucer and supermarkets – between the island mentalities of Britain and Japan, and the “inside outsider” status of being a Spanish-speaking Englishman in Spain. In him, national nostalgia seems in permanent tension with what Germans call Fernweh – ‘farsickness’, a wish to see far-off places – and perhaps he needed to get away to understand where he had come from. As Kipling asked, “what should they know of England who only England know”? Lee at least has come “to relish the from and the to: England’s away-day, England’s away-life”.

Adams’ poem ‘Roadside Diner, Shropshire’ is less sanguine, a contrast between the heartbreaking hills of Housman, and the plastic-bottle spotted county Adams and companion view from a bleary café window, downing terrible food while “vital, indifferent” traffic dashes by, heading nowhere purposefully. This England is, he repines, “an absent people, a civilization surrendered”, and sometimes he feels like a “lone journalist remembrancing a defeated land”. Lack of legacy nags and nags at him, as he sees sunning girls arising and going “back to life, leaving nothing of themselves” – fewer traces than even the evanescent, underestimated flowers of May.

Daniel Gustafsson’s ‘Bulbs’ strikes a brighter botanical note, reminding us that even the gnarliest corm in the coldest ground pushes green spears upwards each spring, offering potential for beauty and self-realisation. His work is rhizomed in Yorkshire, a county whose notoriously crumbling Holderness coast offers plentiful metaphors for erosion of substance. “The guards have let us down”, Gustafsson warns, political leaders and opinion-formers mere “architects of entropy”, letting everything slide into the abyss out of sheer carelessness. “We’ve seen our footings fall / to sludge… have seen, through slurred decrees and sleights of hand, / a state of blank forgetfulness / usurp the patterned sand.” Spurn Point at the northern tip of the Humber could be nationally emblematic, a sandy spur soon to be an island, near where the great port of Ravenspur once saw kings land, and monks build monumentally. The East Riding’s erosion is symbolic to him of a country’s “great diminishing”, as a former “common ground” is washed across by shallow sloganeers, who impose their views on others like some postmodern Morality Police.   

Gustafsson’s lyrical wistfulness is given a more combative edge by Benjamin Afer, whose ‘Lines on an English Street’ express feelings of inner exile, the author feeling alienated from his ancestral domain by demographic changes as symbolized by ethnic restaurants – “a surfeit of whiffs”, from an alphabet soup of eateries in High Streets that have somehow become Grand Bazaars. “It’s a solitary walk the Englishman beats / In the swelling crowds of the English streets”, he insists bleakly, notwithstanding possible economic upsides: “The happy ringing of tills and drumming feet / Make a merchant at home on the English street.”

The collection closes on an unexpected crescendo, with four extracts from larger works by Rahul Gupta. The author, who holds a doctorate in alliterative verse, and is undertaking a major translation project from Old Norse, is alive with logophilic intensity, pouring torrents of words onto pages as if upending some wonderfully capacious cornucopia. Familiar words are deployed in unexpected ways, unfamiliar ones summoned from OE word-hoards where they have lain too long asleep, and new ones are smithed – and all are marshalled to striking mythopoeic purpose.

Gupta’s chief area of operations is the post-Roman, pre-English world, when Angles, Celts, Jutes, Saxons and Scandinavians moved across claimable spaces between downfallen towns, where horse-masters could be kings and stones sacred, and ravens battened on bodies at real battles whose locations we have lost, and which we barely now remember even as names. This is ‘Matter of Britain’-territory, Gog Magog-country, the Logres that lies under even the ugliest parts of everyday England, giving the least imaginative modern Englishman some vague sense that he belongs in some continuum. This epic subject – so liable to be conventionalised and sentimentalised – gains vastly in vitality at his hands.

‘A Norse Étude’ is a combat scene condensed from all the hyperboreal epics, from Heimskringla and Orkneyinga to Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon, imagining “horny-nebbed” hooded crows descending on men falling under a hail of “Flanged arrows as flinder- / fledges leapt from edges / over shields, bows shrilling, / when shank-deep was dankness / of gore”.  Poems were – and are – also weapons in these wars of all against all, as tribal minstrels interpret and invent legends, weaving words “from that web of swords”, trying to forge the future by capturing the past.

‘The Turn and Fall of Leaf’ could be a title from Tolkien (to whom Gupta has been likened), a lambent disquisition on autumn, its colours and significances, its glories and sadness, as the glowing greenwood goes glorious, then brown and blighted. Winds pick up and shiver the timbers, and their chlorophyll clothes weep to the far-below floor. Secret glades are shockingly made naked, and rides are mounded deep in dry detritus – “pathways choked, by parched masses: / crinkled chamoisy, crunched underfoot / as shuffling drifts. With shift and ruffle / They enswathe the sward”.

Time for ‘The Onset of Winter’, with clouds and winds as “sky-skirmishers, obscure armies / of ill omen”. The Wild Hunt passes, baying and foaming hounds headed by Herne, antler-masked “wood-warlock of the warrior-band”, in elemental pursuit of white harts from heraldry, while berserkers and whippers-in howl and scream and “chew the shieldedge” in frenzy. And then – the chase passes and the thrumming hoofbeats recede into infinity. Nature exhales, and all is suddenly motionless. Overhead, “Hunter and Hound are hovering still” in a sky diamonded with stars and a moon of mother-of-pearl.

At other times, winter deals harsh hail and sleet to punish the patient earth – “gravel-grain that grows no harvest”. Yet other days, snowfall hushes all noise, subdues all striving; a giant Cold Genius walks the whitening land with his finger to his lips, casting crystals of infinite variety indifferently over the quick and the dead, obliterating boundaries, ivorying all the colour-fields. “All wear his harness: / ironhardened earth” and “The ice tightens / Wonderfetters”.

But there is release at last, as even in winter there is the possibility of warmth. In ‘The Midwinter Sun’, the “all-tending orb” suddenly rides high and reaches down with effortless sensuality. He “…drives the spore: he inspires the bud, / as the twig whitens, to untwist her whorl: / he parts her petals; the pollen to smoulder / from flaunting catkins”. Blinking, yawning animals emerge from hibernation, hungry for the starting grass, conscious of urgent impulses that make the male hen harrier seek out multiple mates, send hares careering across champaigns, adders intertwine Gordianally, and unsettle cattle in crew yards. The poet tracks Phoebus lovingly through his golden ascents, then Wheel of Fortune downturns, as the “traitor-barons…eclipse the glory of his lion’s mane”, as so often before. The uncertain sun sinks into the sea, and troubled men set out in tiny boats, “travailing westward /… on benighted tides, / In search of the dawn.” Like all his others, this is a virtuosic performance, a welcome reminder that there is still blood in the tradition.

The contributors to this volume could all be seen like Gupta’s metaphorical sailors, navigators of unknown waters, seeking Sol-ace in a gathering dark, reaching for verse to reverse eclipse. If sometimes their reach falls short, at other times it does not, and always they are honourably-intentioned. This public-spirited Parnassian project can be judged a success if even a few of the many other anxious among the English are inspired to poetry in their turn.

A painter’s peregrinations

Field Notes: Walking the Territory
Maxim Peter Griffin, London: Unbound, 132pps, hb., £16.99
DEREK TURNER admires a unique landscape artist

Several years ago, when I was thinking about writing a book about Lincolnshire, I found a strikingly original Twitter account. Almost every day, the seemingly tireless Maximpetergriff posted pictures painted during or after apparently endless walks across Lincolnshire, in all weathers and states of mind, showing the things he had seen in clear and luminous tones – birds, buildings, clouds, dogs, people, planes, planets, plants, pylons, rains, roads, skies, stars and suns.

These things had not just been seen, but looked at – everyday things uplifted by a strong sense of their possibilities, made resplendent in modern hues. Nothing seemed beneath this observer’s notice, nothing predictable in this parallel Lincolnshire, his glowing images intercut with staccato captions about bats overflying, bridges crossed, dogs howling, insects hurrying, litter lying, people overheard, the smell from takeaways, strange stones picked up, waterways running slickly away under moonlight.

The images were small, apparently simple and spontaneous, but in truth were full of thought. This was a county beyond conventional depictions, a painterly psychogeography; here were Englands within England. This walker was no pedestrian, but dashed off little-known vistas with verve, influenced by the likes of Nash and Piper while also being confidently contemporary; as he records, “two older ramblers look on the work with dismay”.

Some of these evanescent images have now been confined within the boundaries of a book, crowdfunded by those who liked this take on this territory. Field Notes’ freeze-frame cover suggests the unusualness of the author’s perspectives, and the élan of his approach. A redder than real sun stands in a yellow-brown sky, silhouetting black grasses. Geese power south from Scandinavia in a sky like a destroyer’s dazzle pattern. Suggestions of cirrus shadows spot Ravilious-reminiscent fields. Cruciform crows angle home over saltmarsh. White pylons overlay lands filled with decayed life-forms. On the inside back cover, where we expect an author photograph, we find a fugitive Everyman in a raincoat, painted from behind on a beach improbably alchemised from greens and blacks – the self-effacing artist as Sebaldian character, stepping out sturdily across the echoing east.

Griffin is sometimes sentimental, but never nostalgic; the book, like many of his Twitter posts, ends on the word “Onwards”. Yet he honours equally the mammoths that stomped drowned Doggerland (whose bones are taken up by trawlers), the antiquarians and eccentrics who discovered or dreamed our ideas of England, and today’s young English, heedlessly in the moment yet standing on the same fossiliferous foundations. Seams of gaseous Kimmeridge, outcrops of chalk, flint hagstones, the slimed tree-roots exposed at the lowest tides and the movements of muntjac are in a continuum with John Aubrey, boys on BMX bikes, exhausted seaside resorts and whooshing wind-turbines, while overhead ley-lines intersect with jet-fighter flight paths.

Field Notes is an account of one closely-noticed, deeply felt year in Lincolnshire, starting for the author (predictably, unpredictably) in October, with a Humbrol-hazed moon announcing the equinox, and the coming of the cold. “Look – the peak of autumn”, he marvels – with anthropophagical arachnids eating each other on barbed wire, RAF Chinooks, leaking boots, geological specimens arriving in the post, and ancient tracks to towerless churches passed over by Pevsner. “Look” again, he urges us, at the waning of the year, the chiaroscuros of clouds, the shadows of fences, the darkness under trees, the unlikely reds of earth, the arsenics and Prussian blues of limitless firmaments.

November brings branches waving against vastness, bleached bones in dunes, beachcombed sealskins and plastic bottles, deserted caravan parks, huge ships hove to off Spurn Point, memories of the drowned. An Airfix-coloured pillbox gives rigidity to the dynamic landscape, and a gun port leads into blacker than blackness. December holds the old names of ditches, mysterious murmurations, Mesolithic mirrors, thoughts of Raymond Briggs and memories of Mablethorpe Carnival Queens, the turning of this twelvemonth accepted as part of the epic, indifferent, unalterable cosmic churn; “The ocean will have us all – good.” Deep Time, East Midlandian history and today meet and mingle, even his cooking over campfires a sensory link with aurochs-eating, the crude charcuterie once carried out in willow-meads ages ago eaten by the waves.

Month by month, step by sometimes blistered step, sketch by swift sketch, we glimpse something of this arcane county’s blend of beauty and bathos, its grand desolations so often made mean by bungalows, car boots, leylandii, phone masts, and the demolition derbies of Skegness. There is grit in this Lincolnshire, some hardness and ugliness – asbestos sheds, chicken concentration-camps with humming extractors and the sharp stink of ammonia, algae-choked dykes, desperate biro notes found on the ground, rat-gnawed rubbish, washed-up whales, a man in an oxygen mask expending too much of his short time selling 1970s cassettes. But the overarching impression is deeply positive – room to breathe and self-realisation under the biggest of big skies, despite the oncoming storm-fronts of life.

Field Notes is filmic, impressionistic, and personal. It also manages to be unpretentious. In Griffinland, knowledge of the exploits of Alexander, Welsh poetry, Kurosawa, or “our pal Pieter Bruegel the Elder” co-exist chummily with pop blasting from cars, addicts passed out in hedges, shops selling tourist tat, and lost footballs floating out to the estuary. Phrases that from others might have been merely gnomic point towards places you’d want to visit. Even those who have some acquaintance with Lincolnshire will not be familiar with all the artist’s itineraries, and are certain to see new sights from his very particular vantage-points.

After long obscurity, Lincolnshire may be rejoining the mainstream of national history, with uncertain effects. This paean to little-known landmarks carries folk-memories forwards, while facing “Onwards” with equanimity. Ultimately, it suggests that whatever happens or is done, Lincolnshire has always been, and will always be, a land of graphic dreams.

The political landscape

Photo: Derek Turner

Green Albion – Restoring Our Green and Pleasant Land

Various authors, Conservative Environment Network, 2022, 101 pages, free download

DEREK TURNER welcomes a practical contribution to often overheated eco-arguments

Environmental protection is conventionally seen as a ‘leftwing’ concern, because its most voluble advocates are often equally vociferous on what are dismissively called ‘woke’ preoccupations, from asylum-seekers to transsexuals, or EU membership to Scottish independence. Yet there has always been a conservative kind of environmentalism – famously represented by the late Duke of Edinburgh, and his son – although at times in postwar history it has faded from view, sidelined by administrations prioritizing the economy over the environment.

If modern Greens often gravitate in leftwing directions, it is at least partly because from the 1950s on, mainstream conservatism developed a brusque, complacent and unimaginative streak, which held that business, ‘freedom’ and ‘growth’ mattered more than the natural world. Influential opinion-formers and politicians chortled at ‘tree-huggers’, and sometimes even said environmental damage was just Darwinism in action. An effect of this almost Randian reductionism was essentially to abandon a hugely important area of concern (and large swathes of university-educated and younger voters) to the ideological left – which whatever its other shortcomings could see that the environment was not only precious, but priceless.

This was ironic, because during the twentieth century socialist countries had a shameful ecological record. Soviet and Maoist economic, industrial and social practices laid waste their respective ecosystems, whilst in America supposedly retrograde conservatives took some difficult long term decisions, often against the wishes of big business backers. Theodore Roosevelt established the United Forest Service, five national parks, and fifty-one bird reserves. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, while Ronald Reagan designated more than ten million acres as wilderness. Whatever their other limitations may have been, these could at least see that conservation and conservatism are adjacent conceptually as well as alphabetically.

The natural world, with its blind instinct, harshness, hierarchy, and territoriality is not an obviously congenial area of interest for ‘progressives’ or ‘radicals’, who are usually more concerned with abstract moral values, and believers in human plasticity. Nature is neither egalitarian nor kindly, and examples from what was tellingly called the ‘Animal Kingdom’ lead logically towards a Hobbesian interpretation of the world. Early environmentalists and organic agriculture advocates were more often ‘right’ than ‘left’, seeing animals and landscapes as contributors to, and symbols of, national characters. Into the 2000s, there was a strand of English conservatism which supported hunting as rooted in national history and human nature, epitomised by writers like Robin Page, R W F Poole and Roger Scruton, and the huge, if ultimately unsuccessful, campaigning of the Countryside Alliance. The fact that in most modern Western countries environmental politics have become a kind of leftist reserve says much about the ‘culture war’ fighting capabilities of the West’s conservative parties.

In Britain, there are precedents for the Johnson government’s notable interest in environmental issues from energy policy via gene-edited crops (to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use) to rewilding. David Cameron’s Green stances earned him considerable scorn within his own party and from some in the Conservative press, but like Johnson he was borrowing from old ruralist Tory tradition, and more recent small-c conservative thinkers like Edward Goldsmith, who founded The Ecologist, and was instrumental in the founding of the Green Party. There were political precursors too. Macmillan’s, Eden’s and Major’s governments passed noise abatement and clean air legislation, while Churchill’s created several new National Parks (following the Labour government’s creation of the first, in 1951).

Although Thatcherite neo-liberal policies entailed a hefty environmental price tag – encouragement of conspicuous consumption, the opening up of ecosystems to rapacious corporations, road building, relaxation of planning laws – sometimes they also meant improved environmental protection, as the new private company executives became suddenly accountable to public opinion. Mrs Thatcher took a perhaps surprising interest in global warming, acid rain and pollution. Her aversion to the British coal industry was based at least partly on her knowledge of coal’s environmental impact. In 2012, former Friends of the Earth leader Jonathan Porritt noted marvellingly, ‘Thatcher…did more than anyone in the last sixty years to put green issues on the national agenda.’

In 1989, she told the UN General Assembly, ‘The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out… No single generation has a freehold on the earth.’

These were resonant words from a politician not even the most callow Objectivist could accuse of fuzzy sentimentality, or anti-business sentiment, or ‘big government’ instincts. There were contradictions in her outlook, but something in her sensed that governments have an historic and moral responsibility to protect the landscapes and wildlife which help define the character of the nation they govern. She saw that the Green movement, for all its faults, was addressing real problems. She could also see that the Greens would benefit greatly by the involvement of more down-to-earth ‘Blues’ to represent the legitimate interests of agriculture, industry and landowners, and balance frigid universalism with local attachments, and the ideal with the achievable.

Thatcher’s words are emblazoned along the masthead of the Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN) website, because of their insightfulness, but also because her name is likely to disarm anthropogenic climate-change sceptics, who are drawn almost exclusively from the political Right, from libertarian conservatives to populists in the Farage, Trump and Bolsanaro mould.

Environmental problems can seem intractable, the literature is frequently tedious, and ‘activists’ often smugly jejune. Considerable credit ought therefore to be extended to the politicians who have taken the trouble to contribute to this compendium, which nods at national nostalgia (Blake, Wordsworth, Larkin et al) but also offers practical suggestions on a range of interrelated issues. It is about time that Britain’s long-suffering landscapes were afforded less exploitative kinds of treatment – ‘undevelopment opportunities’, to allow it (and us) to recover.

There are contributions by eleven MPs and one peer on wetlands, peatlands, woodlands, maritime habitats, rivers, and some of the possibilities for UK agriculture in the post-Common Agricultural Policy landscape. The essays are topped by a Foreword by the Minister for Farming, Victoria Prentis, and tailed by an Afterword by Ben Goldsmith, Chair of the CEN, representing the public-spirited family which has done so much in recent years to force responsible environmentalism onto a sometimes reluctant party (Ben’s brother, Zac, is Minister of State for the Pacific and International Environment). It offers an ambitious and thoughtful vision for a renewed environment – even if we suspect much of it may never be realised, amid Brexit, Covid and global insecurity, on top of the usual political vicissitudes.

The Minister hails ‘the biggest changes to farming and land management in 50 years,’ using environmental land management schemes (ELMs) to make agriculture more efficient and improve food security, while increasing biodiversity and protecting existing habitats. Stroud MP Siobhan Baillie speaks of incorporating ‘natural capital’ into Treasury thinking, to restore 100,000 hectares of wetlands as carbon sinks, floodwater repositories, and refuges for rare species – and even as a means of improving mental health. Robert Largan calls for the rewetting of lowland peat where possible, new kinds of crops that can be grown on wetter soils, the banning of peat-based fertilisers, and the prohibition of disposable barbecues, often the cause of devastating moorland fires.

Michael Fabricant wants millions more trees to be planted, plus natural regeneration, and better protection from imported diseases by home-growing saplings – with special provisions for threatened temperate rainforest, and an updating of the Forestry Commission’s century-old charter. Hastings and Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart seeks to encourage coastal (especially saltmarsh) and undersea carbon sequestration, ban bottom trawling in Marine Protected Areas, and action on maritime pollution to increase underwater vegetation and boost fish stocks.

Andrew Selous gives a ‘Christian stewardship’ perspective, setting out ideas to improve management of statutory nature reserves as well as Church and National Trust properties, and improving biodiversity through a new land designation of ‘wildbelt’. He also calls for less intensive farming methods to improve soil and reduce flooding, with reduced grazing and tilling pressures, and using fewer chemicals. Craig Williams, whose Montgomeryshire constituency is threaded by the Severn, envisages an holistic riparian management strategy to cover tributaries and whole watersheds, with better waste management, bankside tree planting and channel restoration to reduce pollution, boost wildlife and reduce flooding.

Anthony Mangnall and Jerome Mayhew draw urgent attention to the financial pressures faced by farmers, but discern possible benefits from Brexit. While welcoming organic methods, they acknowledge these are not applicable to all farmland, and generally mean more expensive food. Rewilding, engaging and useful though it is, is not easily compatible with large scale food production, and needs to be tempered with a ‘land sharing’ approach (which Ben Goldsmith terms ‘wilder farming’). Ideally, their contributions would have been balanced by one making the case for rewilding, but they make valuable suggestions, such as less use of high-carbon chemical fertilisers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and chemical runoff into waterways, and market mechanisms to ensure attempts to contain carbon at home do not lead inadvertently to increased emissions abroad.

Jonathan Djanogly calls arrestingly for expediting cellular meat production – meat grown in laboratories from muscle tissue harvested from living animals. Cellular meat of course entails no animal deaths, far less land use and pollution, and far fewer hormones or other chemicals. This would not replace conventional livestock farming, but could open up huge new markets, especially in Asia, where burgeoning middle classes are demanding ever more meat that at the moment is not always available, or only at great environmental cost.

Baroness Jenkin is concerned with minimising UK food waste – the UK wastes more food than anywhere else in Europe – through better supermarket practices, redistribution of still–edible food to the neediest, more food waste collections by councils (that can then be used to make energy), and – a Thatcherian touch – thriftier household management to simultaneously benefit the planet, and save families money. The government’s ambitious (and hugely controversial) energy policy is scanted in this volume, but Pauline Latham demands an end to the burning of biomass, now known to be not renewable as once thought, in order to lessen air pollution and land use, as well as the carbon released by the removal and burning of trees. Ruth Edwards takes up the bosky theme, with a call for global as well as domestic action on deforestation, building on existing government commitments to bar imports of products like palm oil and soya produced on recently deforested land.

This book overflows with ingenious ideas which, if realised even in part, would go a considerable way towards meeting the objectives of the likes of Extinction Rebellion, without endangering the economy. But there are curious omissions. While it was only to be expected that the huge and complex area of energy policy would need to be treated separately, it is strange to have little or nothing about such matters as plastic pollution, factory farming of animals, the wasteful profligacy of the electronics and fashion industries, eco-building technology, planning laws, or the proper management of parks and verges for wild flowers. One would also have liked some detail on the thinking behind the crop gene-editing legislation presently going through Parliament, and about post-CAP farm finances, especially of smaller farms.

And what about overpopulation? The United Kingdom is already one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, and the Office for National Statistics predicts that the present population, of around 68 million, will increase to some 77 million by 2050, largely attributable to immigration. Whatever mitigations may be in place, or whatever fixes may be found, the truth is that more people equals less nature. The government is taking little or no interest in this subject, partly because busy with other matters, but also, one suspects, out of unwillingness. Yet if they do not start to soon, lovers of the British countryside, whether romantic rewilders, pragmatic farmers, well-meaning MPs or weekend walkers, may all ultimately find that their efforts, ideas and inmost emotions are rendered redundant by sheer pressure of people. ‘Greenness’ and ‘pleasance’, and sense of place, can only be located within quietude and space.

It is to be hoped that this admirable caucus will increase our sense of obligation to them by taking up these subjects in subsequent publications.

The booklet can be downloaded from https://www.cen.uk.com/green-albion

Voyages through vanities

Gulliver’s New Travels: Lemuel Gulliver Collides with the 21st Century

Guy Walker, self-published, 2022, 140pp, £4.99

DEREK TURNER is entertained by a clever updating of a classic

Satire, often thought of today as a liberal genre, can also be a conservative art. Any writing that relies for its comical or scourging effects upon the discrepancies between fantasy and truth, hypocrisy and sincerity, can lend itself easily to a conservative sense of realism, and distrust of fine rhetoric. Cant, dishonesty and foolishness are perennial, and no respecters of parties.

Satire was practised by Aeschylus and Euripides amongst others, who wrote plays as jocular tragedies, wherein the actions and words of serious characters were constantly being undercut by drunken, foul-mouthed, priapic satyrs. Such contrasts have a recurring appeal to a certain type of person, who may be of either ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, depending on who is in power, and how badly they are abusing that trust.

Chaucer belaboured corrupt clerics, not on anti-clerical but on pro-Church grounds. Satire was also deployed by reforming humanists like Sebastian Brant, whose still-read 1494 Das Narrenschiff (‘Ship of Fools’) was just one of many similar salutary works – not to mention Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel was officially condemned, but 16th century Cardinals kept copies in their cassocks. Juvenal’s withering satires of the Rome of the first and second centuries were of intrinsic appeal to the 18th/19th century writer William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review (the journal which coined the term ‘Conservative’), who became one of the poet’s most successful interpreter-translators. The contemporary comedian Andrew Doyle uses his avatar ‘Titania McGrath’ to lampoon the inconsistencies of ‘intersectionalism’, and prick the priggishness and pomposity of over-sensitive orthodoxies. 

Jonathan Swift was first a Whig and then a Tory, whose loathing of the Deist and mercantilist currents of his time led him into morally outraged vituperation, most famously his 1829 Modest Proposal to deal with Irish poverty by advocating anthropophagy, at a time when the English authorities seemed content to let the Irish starve – a phrase which has become shorthand for any straight-faced outrageous suggestion. Most lastingly, of course, he dreamed up the disingenuous Lemuel Gulliver – a supposedly simple mariner cast up by shipwreck into a parallel universe, where the assumptions, institutions and practises are oddly reminiscent of those of early 18th century Europe, with just a wicked twist to emphasise the essential ridiculousness of the originals.

Gulliver epitomises Swift’s ideal of the Englishman – brave, enterprising, inquisitive, resourceful and sturdily commonsensical, with a tincture of Protestant prejudice. Gulliver’s Travels was deservedly successful, even if at times Swift’s touch is too heavy, and the conceit is carried on too long. Two centuries on, the English writer Guy Walker has been inspired to follow this great unflagging example, and apply Swiftian lucidity and smiling scorn to some of the deceits and rodomontade of today.

Walker is notably widely read and a retired teacher of language, attributes made evident by the orthographical exactitude of his text (‘atchieve’, ‘Emmets’, ‘extream’, ‘Fanfaronade’, ‘smoak’), and his familiarity with the atmosphere and state of knowledge of the England of Swift’s time. An unwary reader could easily assume that the ‘real’ Gulliver did indeed visit the fantastical realms of Khiliastika, Obversia and Ypsilosia, especially as these are interponed on this itinerary with Swift’s Houyhnhnms and non-fiction’s St. Helena. The ‘authenticity’ of Walker’s style and vocabulary inescapably entails offensiveness to certain refined members of modern audiences, for whose delicate benefit he includes a prior ‘WARNING’ that is all part of his vigorous joke. But inside all his rumbustious humour, as inside Swift’s, is a swingeing critique of some of our prevailing reductive philosophies, a wonderfully witty appraisal of some of the ways we delude ourselves.

Khiliastika is a land of ostentatious self-abasement, whose inhabitants vie with each other in demonstrations of humility, even publicly classing themselves below animals. Inevitably, this so-public humility is really private pride, a neat inversion of the former worldview, when pride in being part of the hierarchical ‘Great Chain of Being’ had really been a kind of modesty, which acted as restraint. The present Khiliastikan elite is idly rich, existing parasitically on the fruits of former industry and responsibility, with rather too much time to adorn themselves and consider their own reflections in strategically placed mirrors. Domestic servants and other workers on Khiliastika (as elsewhere!) are largely disregarded as irrelevant, even as their masters and mistresses vie with each other in expressing egalitarian and internationalist sentiments, and loudly apologising for their very existence. Parallels with modern middle-class checking of privilege and virtue-signalling (a phrase Swift could almost have coined) hardly need to be adumbrated.

Wealthy Khiliastikans are also subscribers to an apocalyptic philosophy, which holds that the old industries had critically damaged the world through over-heating of the air, exacerbated by the ‘Flatus and Ructations’ of ‘Cattell’, horses, and the islanders themselves. People are ergo expected to abstain from meat-eating and leather- or wool-wearing, and await the coming of a braided young ‘Prophetess’ bearing a not wholly adventitious resemblance to Greta Thunberg.

Prestigious ‘Virtuosi’ and ‘Universal Artists’ are employed to find ways of storing the animals’ involuntary emissions, and even to plug an active volcano. Others are building vehicles powered by magnets, springs or wind, others metal domes to afford protection for when the sky falls in, yet others an Ark for the end of days. Those who diverge from any detail of the orthodoxy are pilloried, ridiculed and excluded even from employment. Even for readers less sceptical of anthropogenic climate-change than this author, the satirical strokes fall fast, and hard.

Onwards to Obversia, a black kingdom whose inhabitants treat the mariners with extraordinary condescension – because amazed ‘at the Miracle of Humans of a white Complexion shewing that they too could make Shift to build and navigate a Merchantman.’ Rich Obversians compete to offer accommodation to the pale barbarians, because they see this as an opportunity to demonstrate their non-racist charitableness. They are haunted by Obversia’s one-time prominence in the slave trade, which had long ago entailed the kidnapping of countless ‘white-Complexioned’ people to boost the economies of Africa.

Obversia’s impressive-looking Grand Academy is staffed by grave intellectuals, determined to upturn all assumptions (such as that men differ from women), and ultimately erase Nature. According to the Academy’s overarching theory, everyone is equal and interchangeable, and everything inherited from the past, including maths and science, is illegitimate. Politicians, including the rather ponderously-named ‘Sir Kirkley Streamer’, when not in power themselves, as a matter of both principle and policy always advocate the opposite of whatever the government is doing, irrespective of its merits. Poor and starving people are kept on a barren offshore island, so they can be inspected and publicly petted by wealthy mainlanders, who have themselves painted in such edifying poses. A whole ‘Œconomy’ has grown up around this practice, and when Gulliver asks why the poor are not allowed off this island, to settle in available fertile land on the mainland, he is laughed at for his simplicity – because they are more valuable to the exchequer (and public morality) where they are.

They leave this island gladly, and are then captured by the airborne ships of the powerful Ypsilosian Navy. All the Ypsilosians’ military might is dedicated ironically to the service of a state which advocates a universal language and ultimately universal peace. The savants and wealthy residents of the capital, Schro Dinga on the River Phrenos, float serenely above the ground, uplifted by the rarefaction of their reasoning, while earth-bound drudges toil below. Beautiful women in elegant salons condemn their Objectifycation and oppression by men, and bewail the squalid necessity of child-bearing. Prominent businessmen call for higher taxes, and condemn the common people for worrying about the price of food and value of their hovels. Senior military men espouse saccharine pacifism, and the country’s leading intellectual urges the severance of all connections to culture and nation – and biology and geography. At the Temple of Transcendence, a gorgeously attired celebrant preaches disbelief in deities, but foresees lifespans of a thousand years and in the meantime, the survival of intelligence by means of electricity.

Gulliver and his companion dislike all this vastly; ‘we had begun to find the Attempt to be and not be the same Thing at the same Time inimical to the Composure of our Brain and the Quietude of our Minds.’ They escape, and make sail to St Helena, a British colony and assumed safe haven – only to find that ideas like those prevailing in his recently-visited dystopias have made their way here too.

Under the rule of a party calling itself the Know-Alls, the common islanders have been discouraged from making up their own minds about anything until ‘This might extend to their not even being able to distinguish confidently between their Posteriors and their Elbows.’ Now called contemptuously Know-Nothings, ordinary people have been fenced out of old land-holdings by Projectors, enclosed out of ‘Common Sense’. Philosophers strive to reduce life on even this tiny outpost to rigid formulae, even trying to mathematize the arts, banning dangerous displays of spontaneity and enjoyment. This abhorrent state of affairs calls for outraged action, and Gulliver is just the kind of Englishman to act. Condign punishments ensue, and ancient arrangements are resumed, to general contentment.

Gulliver sails on eventually, the ever-restless Englishman, an Anglo-Saxon Everyman – but he leaves behind a better island, and real-life readers wishing real-life restorations could be quite so easy, or swift.