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December 15, 2011 / nethergrove

Tess of the D’Urbervilles on Marlborough Down (Remix)

I’ve edited this review to (hopefully) make it more readable. Does it lose some of the immediacy? Is that a bad thing? Homework: compare and contrast. Any comments welcome! (Ed.)

I’m sitting on one of the many outcrops of chalk hills that carve Wiltshire up into distinct Vales, looking down over the Vale of Pewsey to Salisbury Plain. I’m partially sheltered from the wind by the remains of some ancient earthworks, now called Adam’s Grave, but whose original name has been forgotten and purpose is unknown. A thin veil of cloud bleach whatever warmth the sun might have had. Beneath the clouds,‘fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape, the lanes are white, the hedges low and plashed, the atmosphere colourless’ (9).

So not the most delightful scene. In the fields below, the fields, planted with winter wheat, are poster-paint green slabs. Tractor lines in the leached, chalky soil have a sickly pallor, the colour of putty. Row upon row of parallel pairs of lines are overlaid on top of the ghost of the previous season’s rows, which ribbed the field at a slightly different angle.

The last time I was here, just a few months ago, it was so hot that my girlfriend and I fell asleep watching paragliders playing in the updraughts above the Alton Barnes white horse. Now there are only crows hovering wind that races up the steep hillside, and in the distance two military helicopters are rehearsing amongst the dull thumping of the artillery range on Salisbury Plain. Wrapped up in the dubious camouflage of a tartan National Trust picnic blanket, I settle down to read.

About as far from the figure I cut as it is possible to be, Hardy describes women like Tess who work in the fields as becoming part of the landscape. “She becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature, and is not merely an object set down therein…a fieldwoman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surroundings, and assimilated herself in it” (111). It’s too cold for me to really grapple with the gender politics of this, but looking up, I half expect to see a gang of Tess-like women emerge from the ground like moles, and set to work on the fields below. Instead my eye finds a tractor making its way along a lane. And the land is empty. Hardy describes the rural community as something timeless, natural and eternal, but also, paradoxically, as fragile. I wonder if he would even recognise this Wessex.

I skip on to the section where Tess is at Flintcombe-Ash Farm in Winter, reduced to hacking swedes from a field as high and exposed as the one I am in today, desperate not to drag the name of her estranged husband down with her. She makes the landscape feel inescapably bleak. Her suffering is so passive that she normally makes me angry, but now, numb to the bone despite my mum’s Peruvian gloves, wind-raw cheeks, I’m only glad I don’t have to hack swedes. I don’t usually quote long sections, but this is too grim to miss:

‘The upper half of each turnip had been eaten off by the live-stock, and it was the business of the two women to grub up the lower or earthy half of the root with a hooked fork called a hacker, that it might be eaten also. Every leave of the vegetable having been consumed, the whole field was in colour a desolate drab; it was a complexion without features, as if a face, from chin to brow, should be only an expanse of skin. The sky wore, in another colour, the same likeness; a white vacuity of countenance with the lineaments gone. So these two upper and nether visages confronted each other all day long, the white face looking down on the brown face, and the brown face looking up at the white face, without anything standing between them but the two girls crawling over the surface of the former like flies.’ (363-4)

I remember reading this section at home, regarding it as almost Dickensian in its melodrama. But with hundreds of acres of uninterrupted fields laid out below me, I have never felt more grateful for tractors, or tartan blankets.

I read on until the sun begins to set. The rooks have given up their individual hang gliding and have crowded together to caw their evening chorus. I think I have always blamed Tess’s fatalism or lack of initiative for her passivity and disempowerment. Now I’m not sure. The narrator lays the blame on political inequality and fate. But on top of this she also seems to be afflicted by some kind of Landscape Affective Disorder (thought LAD wouldn’t make for an appropriate acronym), oppressed by the malevolently featureless fields into accepting her own condition as hopeless. If she did represent part of the landscape, she would be a poppy, thistle or fireweed struggling to grow amid the glyphosate monoculture. Hardy describes the ‘patience’ that sustains Tess as a ‘blending of moral courage with physical timidity’ (363), which is faint praise at best. I imagine her working in the poster paint fields, ending up like Adam’s Grave, having ‘lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surroundings, and assimilated herself in it’ (111).

I was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, first published in 1891, but the copy I read was published by Penguin Popular Classics, and was bought from the Elephant English-language bookshop in Barcelona. I think it actually belongs to my girlfriend, but these things get a bit hard to keep up with.

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December 10, 2011 / nethergrove

Tess of the D’Urbervilles on Marlborough Down

It seems rather unnecessary to describe the Wessex landscape when writing about a Thomas Hardy novel. The narrator in Tess has done all the work already, far better than I can hope to manage. I’m sitting on one of the many outcrops of chalk hills that carve Wiltshire up into distinct Vales, looking down over the Vale of Pewsey to Salisbury Plain. I’m being partially sheltered from the wind by the remains of some ancient earthworks, a fort or lookout point, whose name has been forgotten and whose purpose is unknown. A thin veil of altostratus clouds bleach whatever warmth the sun might have had. Beneath the clouds,‘fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape, the lanes are white, the hedges low and plashed, the atmosphere colourless’ (9).

I can only imagine that the modern fields in the Vale of Pewsey are even larger. Winter wheat at different stages of growth flattens the fields even further into unvarying slabs of poster-paint green. The tractor lines in the leached, chalky soil have a sickly pallor, the colour of putty. Row upon row of parallel pairs of lines are overlaid on top of the ghost of the previous season’s rows, which ribbed the field at a slightly different angle.

The last time I was here, it was so hot that my girlfriend and I fell asleep watching paragliders playing in the updraughts. Now there are only crows hovering wind that races up the steep hillside. Across the Vale of Pewsey is Salisbury Plain, where two military helicopters are rehearsing amongst the dull thumping of the artillery range. I settle down to read.

Hardy describes women like Tess who work in the fields as becoming part of the landscape. “She becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature, and is not merely an object set down therein…a fieldwoman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surroundings, and assimilated herself in it” (111). It’s too cold for me to really grapple with the gender politics of this, but looking up, I half expect to see a gang of Tess-like women working on the fields below. Instead my eye finds a tractor making its way along a lane. Suddenly the land feels empty. Hardy describes the rural community as something timeless, natural and eternal, but also, paradoxically, as fragile. I wonder if he would even recognise this Wiltshire. I have to remind myself that he was writing about a fictional idealised Wessex even in the 1890s.

The section I really want to read is when Tess is at Flintcombe-Ash Farm in Winter, hacking swedes from a field as high and exposed as the one I am in today, desperate not to drag down the name of her estranged husband with her. She makes the landscape feel inescapably bleak. Her suffering is so passive that she normally makes me angry, but now, numb to the bone despite my mum’s Peruvian gloves, wind-raw cheeks, I’m only glad I don’t have to hack swedes.

‘The upper half of each turnip had been eaten off by the live-stock, and it was the business of the two women to grub up the lower or earthy half of the root with a hooked fork called a hacker, that it might be eaten also. Every leave of the vegetable having been consumed, the whole field was in colour a desolate drab; it was a complexion without features, as if a face, from chin to brow, should be only an expanse of skin. The sky wore, in another colour, the same likeness; a white vacuity of countenance with the lineaments gone. So these two upper and nether visages confronted each other all day long, the white face looking down on the brown face, and the brown face looking up at the white face, without anything standing between them but the two girls crawling over the surface of the former like flies.’ (363-4)

I remember regarding this section as wildly sentimental pathos when I read it before, at home. But with hundreds of acres of uninterrupted fields laid out below me, I have never felt more grateful for the tractors.

From here I can watch cars drive along the long, straight lines of the roads at 50-60mph, and yet they seem to be crawling. Tess has just get up at 4am to walk 15 miles to visit her in-laws, knowing that she will need to walk another 15 miles to get home that afternoon. Of course, the visit was an utter failure, ruined by chance coincidence, as are all of Hardy’s protagonists. From here I can perhaps see 15 miles through the rain (the clouds gathered a few minutes ago). On a hillside nearby, a little way along the ridge, a steady trickle of people have come to walk their dogs. The rain moved on, and I can see it making its way along the Vale.

The sun is beginning to set. The rooks have give up their individual hang gliding and have gathered together to caw their version of the evening chorus. I think I had always blamed Tess’s lack of initiative for her disempowerment before. Now I’m not sure. Hardy seems to lay the blame equally on political inequality and fate. But to me she seems to be afflicted by some kind of Landscape Affective Disorder (thought LAD wouldn’t make for an appropriate acronym), oppressed by the malevolently featureless fields into accepting her own condition as hopeless. Hardy describes the ‘patience’ that sustains Tess as a ‘blending of moral courage with physical timidity’ (363), but I think from here she seems to have ‘lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surroundings, and assimilated herself in it’ (111).

I was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, first published in 1891, but the copy I read was published by Penguin Popular Classics, and was bought from the Elephant English-language bookshop in Barcelona. I think it actually belongs to my girlfriend, but these things get a bit hard to keep up with.

December 5, 2011 / nethergrove

The Hound of the Baskervilles on Dartmoor

I left the car by the side of the road and followed a path up to Hookney Tor. It wasn’t long before I noticed the tracks in the soft ground ahead of me. Fresh, clean, not six hours old. A chill ran down my spine, and for a moment all modern rationality, all enlightened thought deserted me, and the voice of reason shrank in my head to almost a whisper – they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

The size of a Labrador I’d say, or at least a very large collie. But I was on my guard. I’d already read the first few chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles before setting out (they’re set in London), and was ready for a good romp now that the action had finally arrived at Dartmoor. It was already 2pm by the time I reached the Tor, and I was keen to get on with it.

Sherlock Holmes is almost exclusively interested in London. So when he gets the opportunity to visit the backwards countryside, both Holmes and Doyle have a bit of fun with Victorian Celtomania, which saw so many tourists flock to the South West of England to find the relics of what they believed to be some brave Teutonic race. Both mock Dr. Mortimer’s pseudo-scientific phrenology, which noted that Sir Henry had ‘the rounded head of a Celt, which carries inside it the Celtic enthusiasm and power of attachment’ (55), though neither seem to notice how easily racial overtones slip into their feudal ideas what is best for the countryside. Early on we hear Dr. Mortimer agonising over old Charles Baskerville’s death, because ‘the prosperity of the whole poor, bleak countryside depends upon [the rich landowner’s] presence’ (26). When the young Henry Baskerville finally gets a chance to see the Moor from the railway carriage window, Watson reflects that ‘as I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery and masterful men’ (55-6).

Conan Doyle visited this part of Dartmoor to research his book in 1901, and his guide managed to pass off the recently ‘restored’ Bronze Age village at Grimspound (in the shadow of Hookney Tor) as being the remarkably well-preserved relics of ancient indigenous people. As Watson’s guide tells him, ‘Neolithic man lived thickly on the moor, and as no one in particular has lived there since, we find all his little arrangements exactly as he left them’ (69). I read in the shadow of the wind, sheltered by one of the rocks of the tor, looking down onto Grimspound, with a flask of hot chocolate, a picnic blanket to sit on, and wrapped up warm in a waterproof jacket, but even more snug in my superior knowledge, laughing at the arrogant ignorance of the late-Victorians.

I was just thinking how nice it was to be able to read somewhere so far away from distraction – no roads, no people, no noise but the wind – when the sun broke out unexpectedly, and I glanced up to see that it had transformed the pewter grey winter moor into a four dimensional ocean of colours, where the contrast between the rich green-gold vegetation and the peat and chocolate shadows gave the whole landscape a kind of depth that makes you want to breathe it all in. Then I looked behind me to see a herd of ten or so Highland cows, with their two-foot horns, holding the high ground around the Tor’s granite fortifications. Below, a few walkers and a dog (not that dog) approached Grimspound. I blot them all out, and hide in the book.

Watson’s gone to see the Stapletons of Merripit House, and had his first experience with the Grimpen Mire. ‘A false step yonder means death to man or beast. Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it’ (67). On cue, ‘something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upwards and a dreadful cry echoed over the moor. It turned me cold with horror’ (68). There’s a lot of horror to be had in that moor, by the sound of it, what with an escaped murderer, rugged tors ‘like the huge, corroding fangs of some monstrous beast’ (77), the Grimpen Mire and its inexplicable moaning howls, not to mention the Hound itself. Needless to say, the moor in the book is rather more sensational that the moor before me, despite the Highland cows. The wind finally made its way down my wellies and into my toes, signally that I had to move.

As I made my way down Hookney Tor towards Grimspound, I realised what it was that was so wrong about Doyle’s moor. The point of these reviews isn’t the assess the accuracy of the book-world, but to describe what the place does to the reading. And the place forced me to compare. The problem was something to do with the scale.

Watson does describe the moor as huge, but somehow the way the action flits from one set to another seems rather theatrical, or as if the moor is a kind of theme park. Baskerville Hall, Grimspound, the Grimpen Mire, they all have something of a theatre backdrop about them. The characters are so cartoonish, almost caricatures of rural society, that they seem to fill the moor with their eccentricity. More than anything, the book is bound by its form, and the murder mystery turns any setting into a country house, complete with suspicious butler, alluring women, and old money.

The moor before me is of a totally different calibre. If there is anything resembling a Grimpen Mire on Dartmoor (which I seriously doubt), it is not anywhere around here. Neither is there a Bog of Eternal Stench, Fangorn Forest, or River Lethe. The landscape isn’t exciting in that way at all. I made my way through Grimspound as the sideways hail and rain started, soaking and battering me in equal measure. I’d thought to hide in one of the huts, like Holmes does, but they’re far too muddy, and the low walls don’t offer nearly enough shelter to keep me out of the wind. There’s a kind of dignity in the moor that won’t let itself get typecast as the malignant, desolate plain of the novel. It insists on being a place, not a character. According to my copy’s introduction, The Hound has been variously analysed as the proletariat baying at the gates of the bourgeoisie, and the repressed Victorian Id. Both arguments seem reasonable, especially considering some of the ‘eccentricities’ of characters such as Mr Frankland, who wiles away his fortune taking villagers to court for the sake of his passion for litigation. But Dartmoor, which forced me to run for my car, will have none of it. The wind and the hail seem to be mocking the idea of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and once again I can’t recommend reading the book on location. The best place for it is beside the fire in 221B Baker Street, with a deep pipe and a bottle of port.

I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, published as a Penguin Classic in 2001 (First published 1901), on loan from the good people at Barnstaple Library.

December 3, 2011 / nethergrove

Tarka the Otter by the River Taw

North Devon is all Tarka country now, there’s Tarka Tennis, Tarka Housing Association, Tarka Holiday Park, even Tarka Chimney Sweeps. But, to my shame, I’ve never read Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, despite having lived in Devon for years. So I’ve come to one of my favourite spots on one of Tarka’s rivers, the River Taw, to finally read the book.

I parked at Chapelton Station, on the Tarka Line, and walked across a field and over a footbridge to one of the best wild swimming spots on the whole river. In Summer, at least. As I look for a good place to sit and read, a buzzard erupts out of a nearby tree. He struggles to find a thermal on a grey second of December, and instead lopes over to another standard hedge tree, his wings beat long, sullen strides. The khaki brown river is full. When I was last here I sat under the bridge with my legs dangling in the water, squeaming as small fish nibbled my feet. Now, a fallen ash tree that has been swept down the river is jammed in front of the bridge, pinned between two of the bridge’s brick supports. The noise of the river slowly crushing and stripping the corpse is not quite loud enough to drown out the sound of the wet A377 or the nearby timber merchant. I can’t even imagine an otter swimming here now. I settle down with a picnic blanket and Thermos flask next to the chainsawed remains of a tree trunk, and begin.

Something that Williamson does very well is give the reader a different perspective on the countryside. I’ve read that whilst writing he would crawl about through the grass, to get an otter’s-eye view. But even in the first chapter, the narrator goes further, describing different perspectives of time on the river. The river can remember the 300 years of a now dead oak tree’s life, and knew rumours of the Roman occupation. A water vole hurries breathlessly to clear out its nest hole. My favourite measure of time (a bit later on) was when Tarka found an egg and “ate it before the shadow of a grass-stalk had moved its own width on the bank” (35).

As I get to the end of Chapter One, I realise that I’m having more trouble than usual falling into the book world. It has begun to rain gently, and there are now engineers working on the Tarka Line, as loud as the train, when it passes. But more than both of these, it is the river that’s hindering my imagination. The real river seems to be acting as a barrier to the river in the book, not letting me imagine otters swimming about placidly in the standing waves, eddies and debris. This is somewhat disappointing, not at all the result I’d expected.

Rather than raw fish and eels, I brought a flask of sugary coffee, which I drink whilst waiting for the rain to pass. It wouldn’t do to go getting library books wet, not even this one. I stare at the river whilst I wait, but see no sign of otters, or any other water creatures for that matter.

Williamson’s anthropomorphism is beautiful. Usually I can’t stand that sort of thing, but here it seems based on such close observation that instead of pretending the otters are like little fishermen with moustaches, it helps me see the otter’s behaviour in my mind’s eye. In fact it’s helping me a lot more than the Taw to imagine otters.

A duck! Finally an animal! I was beginning to think the river had been poisoned or something. A kingfisher! ‘Halcyon the kingfisher sped down the river, crying a short, shrill peet! as it passed the holt’ (22). A flash of electric blue and the shrill peet! was all I saw of this kingfisher too. But it did feel like a connection between my Taw and the river in the book. I shift position to get more comfortable.

As I carry on reading, I’m starting to understand what’s stopping me from wrapping myself up as much as usual in the book. Tarka’s family have just escaped the hunt and sought sanctuary in a new pond, where a dog otter is picking over the feathery remains of a drake it has just killed. Tarka finds the half-dead frog that the drake was eating as it was attacked, and takes it to a thorn bush planted by a lark beside the pool. All the while, the drake’s mate and her brood of ducklings look on in fear from a patch of bulrushes, which themselves were dropping pollen to make a yellow film over the pond. It’s a violent but beautiful snapshot of the pond’s ecosystem, painful but not cruel (the only cruelty comes from the humans with their gins and cries of Tally ho!). I look up from the book, the red line of the text still burnt into my cornea as I gaze at the green, green, green of the riverside. I’m a total alien here. The river is another planet, and I can hardly even breathe the atmosphere. The sawmill by the A377 screams with every new plank. Wrapped in bright red Gor-Tex, I feel less connected to the river for reading Tarka by the Taw than if I was curled up by the fire at home, pretending. The real world is constantly ridiculing any attempt at empathy. It’s like a play where Brecht’s ‘forth wall’ is constantly being broken. And it’s sad.

To put it politely, after sitting for two hours on a not-quite-waterproof picnic blanket, I need to stretch my legs. As I stand up, three pigeons explode from a tree on the other side of the river. I walked to the soft riverbank, down where the cows go to drink, and a cock-pheasant that had been hiding in what was left of the dead reeds fled noisily. Almost every animal I have seen this afternoon has been trying to escape from me. Tarka’s intimacy with the other animals, even his contact with those he hunts, makes me feel more alien by comparison. Instead of enjoying a day by the river, I feel like I’m walking through a village fête firing a Kalashnikov into the air.

I start reading again, and soon start to understand what else is making me feel uncomfortable. Williamson describes much of the action from the point of view of a bystanding animal, an owl watching as the otters find a new place to stay after one of the family is killed by an iron gin, a grey wagtail catching insects in the evening as the otters swim downriver. It gives me the feeling that I’m being watched. Perhaps this paranoia is exacerbated by my not really wanting anyone to see me here. I’m not actually on a footpath, though I’m not doing any damage, and reading by the river in the middle of winter might look a bit weird. I’d rather not face the awkwardness. Though I would love to be able to explain myself to the wildlife.

I’ve only read forty pages when I decide to pack it in for the day. My feet are getting painfully cold, and although it’s only 3pm, it’s dimity. I certainly want to continue reading Tarka the Otter. Williamson’s writing is engaging and not at all what I expected. But I think I’ll finish it inside, or at least in the Summer. Don’t expect this book to bring you any closer to nature. In fact, I found it drove me further away.

I was reading Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson, publishing as a Penguin Classic in 2009 (first published 1927), on loan from Barnstaple Library, where there is a rather good Henry Williamson collection.