Re-enchanting the World
Fraction of an infinite book review
‘Towards Re-enchantment: Place and its meanings’
Ed. Gareth Evans and Di Robson
£9.99, 151 pp
Available from www.artevents.info
I recently produced a book review and sent it in to the guy who had commissioned it. ‘People,’ he told me, ‘enjoy summaries about what is in the book’. Apparently ‘this is one of the reasons why people read book reviews’. I did as I was told in that case, but couldn’t help thinking a better book review, or one that was at least just as valuable, would consist in a list of thoughts prompted by reading a book.
I mention this flimsy line of reasoning because I’ve found it very hard to review a collection of articles, essays and poems when each one deserves an in-depth review in its own right. I toyed with the idea of producing one that ran in installments over several years or even decades, or possibly writing just one infinitely long book review. Then I considered the possibility of a discursive commentary on the nature of book reviews, a kind of meta-book review.
In the end I remembered that my time on this planet is not infinite and decided to focus on a few extracts from this brilliant little book, starting with a summary from the cover blurb which captures its essence far better than I could:
Here are paths, offered like an open hand, towards a new way of being in the world. At a time when the multiple alienations of modern society threaten our sense of belonging, the importance of ‘place’ to creative possibility in life and art cannot be underestimated.
There are pieces in here from Norfolk, Essex, the Isle of Lewis, Whitchurch and Aberdeen, but I would like to trace a path from Spitalfields to mid-Wales, via Norfolk, because I used to live in Spitalfields, I once went on holiday to Norfolk and I now live near mid-Wales. Hopefully these extracts will create enough of an impetus for people to invest in one of the limited print-run of 1000 copies of this collection.
Iain Sinclair’s ‘Springfield Park’ is a characteristically rich but dense piece (I have been reading his book ‘London Orbital’ for about 15 years now without finishing it) about one of his favourite haunts in north-east London:
Special holiday trams ran from Whitechapel and Spitalfields to Upper Clapton, depositing new and second-generation immigrants in a tidy park, which had been opened to the public in 1905 by the London County Council… And so it goes on…that conviction: how it is possible, even necessary, to escape, on a summer evening, at whim, to the marshes and the Lea Valley Corridor... Springfield Park was a conceptual space that was also a room without a ceiling, curtained with trees, box hedges, closed around formal benches, a carpet of spongy grass.
Perhaps I am alone in this, but I think there is a kind of esoteric joy in reading something that you only barely fathom because it sets off associations in all kinds of directions in your ruined and frantic understanding. The best way this has happened recently is in a story by Borges called ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis, Tertius’, (I know I’m on the right lines when I can’t even pronounce the title of the story). In that story he says: ‘While we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men’. What the hell?! Brilliant stuff. Maybe Borges had been reading too many quantum physics books?
Anyway I digress. For me Sinclair’s little extract puts me in mind of some Victorian town planner who went through all the planning and bureaucracy and politics and funding shortage to create that park, and no doubt it turned out less than he’d envisaged, and he went on to take early retirement, a slightly sad and underwhelmed but loving father. And just a century later, what prose his park has yielded! Such poetry in that last sentence about a conceptual space: unknown planner in your stovepipe hat, what a result for you.
No doubt Sinclair’s piece would create totally different resonances for other people. It is a Pandora’s box, it keeps on unfolding and would probably, eventually, create contact points with everything ever written. But I’ll leave it there for now and drift over to Norfolk where everyone’s favourite wild food forager Richard Mabey is now living. His essay about Norfolk, ‘On the Virtues of Dis-Enchantment’ suggests that:
If there isn’t such a thing as a regional character, there is a shared narrative, an ongoing conversation about ourselves. Like all essentially rural people, East Anglians tell stories, pub stories, literary stories, tall stories, the narratives are cumulative. They become a kind of regional gossip, a communal self-portrait, a background hum that is part of the region’s ambience. Sometimes hey are dramatically acted out and become literal parts of the landscape.
I love the idea of a place’s ‘background hum’. It has been 10,000 years since the last ice age so there is a lot of human chatter lying around under our feet. And what stories there must be everywhere you stop and listen for long enough, what richness of language. The Olchon Valley has its own phrasebook. The language link is important - Jay Griffiths points out that the connection to place doesn’t even have to be physical. This is a great idea, for someone who has spent most of his life wandering around. Apparently you can find your roots in poetry and the written word. She says ‘Poetry is home: a shelter for the soul.’
Her piece, which, extraordinarily, ends quite logically with her munching on a clod of earth, involves a visit to the grave of Dafydd ap Gwilyn, a 14th century Welsh poet, at Ystrad Fflur. This place, which is near the fantastically unpronounceable Pontrhydfendigaid, is apparently:
..old land. In geological terms, the oldest stones of Europe are to be found here. The old maps warn you away from Plynlimon, a wild land where even tomorrow is already old, and in its rain shadow, the rain of ages falls, as it always has, ceaseless, changeless, constant, obscuring the velleities of the hills, their slight inclinations, the gentle rise of the will to higher things. It is a land of old animals, too: the last wolves of Britain were thought to have roamed the Powys hills in the 17th century, and badgers, whose very teeth look medieval, are the last of Britain’s bears.
So mid-Wales has some of the oldest geology in Europe. No wonder there is something so middle-Earthy about this area. And badgers are related to bears! That fact alone is surely worth a big tranche of the cover price.
I would like to finish by stating that local is definitely becoming the new black. Connection to place is all the rage. Permaculture design reminds us of the value of ‘local resources for local needs’, and David Holmgren says that ‘we must become the new indigenes’. Meanwhile the government has produced something called the Localism Bill. Throughout the history of art we are encouraged to focus on the here and now. Proto-permaculturalist William Blake begins his poem ‘Auguries of Innocence’:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
‘Local’ is so great because it can mean anything and everything. For some it means insular, NIMBY, conservative. For others it means valuing the culture and history of where you are. For me, the value of ‘local’ is in finding connections to absolutely everything of any importance that has ever happened or will ever happen right here under my feet. Nothing is disconnected or marginal or isolated or minor, but instead it’s the key to the whole world. Franz Kafka, who had absolutely nothing to do with permaculture (but did invent the safety helmet), pretty much agreed with Blake, when he said:
It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.
William Blake, Collected poems
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Franz Kafka, The Great Wall of China and Other Short Works