How Did You Find Out You Were Northern?
How Did You Find Out You Were Northern?
Northumberland is a place on the edge of a lot of places - it is between and half and bordering and elsewhere. England doesn’t call its parts on the border “The Borders” as Scotland does, but the permeable barrier exists on both sides of the cartographic line, open to the flow of words and culture and land and selfhood. Hadrian’s Wall is often used as a signifier of the border between England and Scotland – was frequently used as such during the Scottish Independence campaign of 2014 - but I grew up in the thin sliver of land which sits north of the wall and south of Scotland, that the Romans called Caledonia at one time and Britannia at another. It is England, but not a version of England I often saw reflected back at me; an English language full of Scots words, a part of England with its own tartan - a simple black and white, also known in Scotland as “the shepherd’s tartan”. The kingdom of Northumbria once reached from south of York to north of Edinburgh and to both coasts of Britain. The dialect incorporates aspects of Scots, Geordie, Yorkshire, Cumbrian, as well as many of its own words. In Scotland, the borders are often seen as one of its “softest” places, in a sense where soft is bad and hard is good – wealthier, more sheltered, more likely to vote Conservative, in contrast with the hard sense of labour and struggle and comradeship in the Highlands or Glasgow. In England, the borders mark the very North of the country, and are generally considered the opposite; harder, emptier, stranger, with that hardness seen as a positive by those within it and an oddness by those without. As Peter Davidson notes in The Idea of North, "To say ‘We leave for the north tonight' brings
immediate thoughts of a harder place, a place of dearth; uplands, adverse weather, remoteness from cities." But at a line of the map which has shifted over time, the North of one country becomes the South of the other; many times at university in Glasgow I would say, “I’m from the North East” - England thinks of its geography only in relation to itself, with little interest in the countries it shares an island and a Kingdom with only to have it pointed out, quite rightly, that the place I was describing was south of where we were. I’ve had conversations with people who thought I meant I was from Inverness or Sutherland, very fairly as I had expressed only a direction on a compass and not a country, and those directions would have made no sense in relation to where my home was and where we were – to travel home from Glasgow, I go south, then east. As Davidson notes, “North moves always out of reach, receding towards to polar night, which is equally the midnight dawn of the summer sky.” I identified my own home as North not because of location - you yourself are always in the centre of the compass, the needle always pointing to a North further away (until you reach Magnetic North and there is no direction but south) – but because of a sense of “northness” of identity, a sense in relation to somewhere else. The signs on the motorway read “The South” for anything after Sunderland; the name of the county even began with the very word, “North”. If northness is correlated with remoteness that certainly matched – Northumberland is the least populous county in England – as did an idea of hardness, and of hardness as positive in opposition to a softer south. It was rare to see the land represented in national media – the English countryside of pastoral ideals looks much
flatter and greener than the landscape I grew up in. But, geographically a part of England, England was the identity we oriented ourselves around. There may have been more land to the north, further north to travel, but that didnâ€™t matter; we ourselves were North, this place was North, had an undeniable northness beyond facts of geography.
Patrick Keiller’s 1997 film Robinson in Space ends with several shots of the North East, beginning with two images of Hadrian’s Wall. First, an image of the real wall, looking out towards Steel Rigg and Crag Loch at dusk, murky and blue. Then, a BT phonecard showing a picture of the wall from the same position; this time sunny and bright, landscape dimensions, with the red ENGLISH HERITAGE logo superimposed over the white space of the sky. “I could not tell you where Robinson found his utopia” says the narrator, over the image of the phone card, the last line of dialogue spoken in the film. “For the film-maker Patrick Keiller”, writes Davidson, “the north lies beyond Hadrian’s Wall in the otherworld of the prehistoric cup-and-ring markings on the rocks of the borders.” Growing up, the wall didn’t mean much to me – I knew its significance in history and saw the tourists and walkers traverse its length in the summer, but seeing it from the bus to school every day it didn’t look much different to the drystone walls that had been built around it in the millennia since. I remember going on school trips there, glumly making notes on footpath erosion in the wet spring air; the tallest parts of the wall came up to my shoulder and seemed worth the thrill of climbing on - much of it barely reached my knee, and for stretches of several miles no wall remained. This disassembling isn’t down only to time: from not long after the Romans left, locals took the bricks from the wall, now rendered politically obsolete by changing circumstance, not yet passed into the sacred realm of “historical site”. The bricks made quick-sourced, cheap building materials, and are now part of many a house, pub, church, in the area, the stones which once marked the border of an empire now forming part of the shelter and home for those on either side.
For Kieller, the wall represents border; the literal border at the end of England, the nation Robinson and the unnamed narrator or attempting to solve “the problem” of, but also a border onto an older, earthier, less understood geography than the neoliberal “new space” of business parks and empty shipping ports that much of the film is concerned with.
Robinson in Space (1997), directed by Patrick Keiller
Following the narrator's final line,
“I cannot tell you where Robinson finally found his utopia”
come several shots of cup-and-ring rock carvings found in several places around the borders, accompanied only by the sound of birdsong. Their design usually consists of a single, rounded indent in the centre, surrounded by shallower concentric circles, sometimes with a straight line leading from the centre, out. I think I may have a vague memory of seeing these in person, but am not sure where or when and don’t feel certain enough to say. I find a few notable ones on Wikipedia, see they are along routes we’ve often driven, into town or to the seaside, but if we ever stopped it wasn’t recent enough for me to have a clear memory. The shapes are simple; the lighting, sharp and angled, creates harsh shadows, making them appear more ominous, intimidating. The time these carvings are from is not clear – they are too old to date accurately, and as they are carved into monuments, they may have been added long after the monuments themselves were first built. The grooves and channels of some are designed to carry water down the rock face, from one series of circles to the next. Their purpose is nebulous; too old and too long ago, their usage has passed out of human knowledge. From a culture that did not write, or from which writing did not survive, that knowledge died with the last person who knew it. A religious purpose has been suggested, as is always the case with artefacts whose practical usage is not clear. They seem both strange and universal: similar designs
exist in locations as wide as Hawaii, Australia and India, their uses all uncertain. In the images they look tactile, comfortable; I imagine pressing my fingertips into the grooves, running them around the circle gently like playing a wine glass; placing my stuck-out thumb squarely into the cup-shaped middle, tracing the routes rainwater would take from one circle to another. I imagine someone, in an unspecified time, doing the same as they carved the shapes from the rock, knowing what they mean and what they are for, someone to whom they are sacred or record or warning. Their mark is left in the landscape, their knowledge gone into the earth. We are left with a sign but it points to an absence, to something which we do not know.
Robinson in Space (1997), directed by Patrick Keiller
Much earlier in the film, when our narrator and Robinson are further south at West Green, Hampshire, the narrator quotes “'it is my belief, Watson’ said Holmes ‘founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside’” Curious for the detective, so scientific, so based in deductive reasoning and the empirical, to place so much importance on anecdote. This voiceover is imposed over a shot of pale yellow primroses, their petals moved slightly by a light wind.
Robinson in Space (1997), directed by Patrick Keiller
After watching the film, I notice that the little booklet inside the DVD case includes “A Conversation between Patrick Wright and Patrick Kieller”, which I find contains this exchange: PK: Again, I had a preconception about this, the idea that there is something up in the countryside, that the countryside is actually a rather forbidding place. The town seems more friendly, generally speaking. PW: People still walk in the towns. PK: They walk about… The countryside seems more scary. I don’t know how real this is because I don’t live in the countryside. PW: I do, but I don’t have a lot to do with it. I come to London to go for a walk. PK: There’s a film called ‘Night of the Eagle’, made in 1961, with Peter Wyngarde as a lecturer at an educational institution with large eagles on its gateposts. His colleagues are practicing witchcraft which leads to some chilling effect involving eagles. I remember it whenever I drive past a pair of continental gateposts. There’s a new Gothic genre in the present day English countryside.
There’s no more discussion of this forbidding countryside here, or elsewhere within the film, but I notice the parallels between this and the genre of “folk horror” that has emerged in discourse, particularly within film criticism and theory in the last few years. The term was originally coined to describe a loose collection of 1970s British horror films set within and exhibiting an interest around the British countryside and folk tradition, of which 1973’s The Wicker Man is the most recognisable. The genre has experienced a contemporary revival in films like Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and A Field in England, as well as a renewed critical interest in the genre as a whole. Exactly what the term denotes is a little hard to place a finger on – writer Adam Scovell describes:
An emphasis on landscape which subsequently isolates its communities and individuals, skewing the dominant moral and theological systems enough to cause violence, human sacrifices, torture and even demonic and supernatural summonings. The [genre] follows an alternative vision of Albion, unearthing a darker past often kept on its littlevisited, uncanny copse-ways.
Scovell considers the “horror” of folk horror to be “the evil under the soil, the terror in the backwoods of a forgotten lane, and the ghosts that haunt stones and patches of dark, lonely water” – a genre focused on both fear of and attraction to the wild, the rural, the ritual. It is a genre I am drawn to and deeply
interested in, focusing as it does on both fear and fruitfulness of the land and the persons and traditions that inhabit these landscapes - but it is also a genre I am uncertain of my relationship to, especially regarding its focus on those within and those without. Video essayist Grace Lee argues that “[folk horror’s] obsession with the wild, rural landscape might ultimately speak to an underlying fear around security, belonging, finding our place in ‘the bigger picture’ of the earth or even our society’s place in the ‘bigger picture’ of history.” Where do I place myself in relation to the landscape I grew up inhabiting but no longer do, the communities I lived within while wanting to leave and which I continue to drift away from? Folk horror is characterised by the entrance of an “outsider” character into a culture and tradition which they do not understand, into which they are either absorbed, becoming part of the collective, or from which they are violently removed, either via ostracisation or ritual sacrifice. Journalist Michael Newton describes the human geographies of folk horror, noting that, “in these forgotten spaces, there are other laws: rules and rituals that are both familiar remnants of some tribal memory yet utterly strange. The locals understand, while we do not. Their rootedness in place becomes uncanny.”
At home I always felt both of and not-of, a feeling which has only increased as I’ve moved further away – a personhood on the border, a peripheral member of the collective who becomes a little more the outsider with each return. At university I end up describing a local New Year’s tradition, the Tar Barr’ls, in which
local men carry barrels filled with burning tar atop their heads to add to a great bonfire in the village square. Fire festivals are a common tradition across European folklore, and the exact origin of this particular one is unclear; I had heard that it began with the Vikings but can’t find any evidence supporting this. The person I am telling laughs and says “it sounds quite Wicker Man”, and I laugh and agree, thinking of the flying yellow sparks in the black air, the feeling of the bright heat of the fire on my face and the chill of the winter night on my back, linking gloved hands with strangers and singing auld lang syne. Old ritual is odd and unnecessary and yet the very act of repetition carries an air of magic.
In Newton’s vision of folk horror, “the countryside harbours forgotten cruelties, with the old ways untouched by modernity and marked by half-remembered rituals”, and here I find halftruths – not so much “forgotten cruelties” as “half-hidden violence”; the half-memory supporting ritual being what gives them their power. I wish not to be alone and I wish not to be absorbed. A fear of being without; a fear of being within.
I had the idea for this work on a trip to the Isle of Arran, after taking two trains from Glasgow and the ferry from Ardrossan, and then a bus around the island to get to the standing stones on Machrie Moor. At home that number of methods of public transport would have been taken to get away from the countryside: Newcastle had been my place of escape, or occasionally Edinburgh or London when I had more time and money. Now I was someone who came from the city, out. On the way back we realised we were going to miss the last ferry if we waited for the bus, and decided to walk to Blackwaterfoot and try to hitch-hike on the way. I walked at the back and picked blackberries that grew beside the road - mid-September, perfect timing for them to be big and rich and tart. At every passing car we stuck our thumbs out and every time no luck. In Holly Antrim’s film Common Ground, she notes that people are more ready to ask for things in the countryside, and more ready to give when asked. This is true, but you have to know how to ask, and who to ask, and be the right person asking. Here I am the tourist, the person from the mainland, not recognised or known. Eventually the bus passes us, huge and lumbering on the thin island roads, and we climb in to the world of neon-yellow handles and abstract moquettes. The bus can only take us part of the way, but the driver gives us the number for a cab. We call from the pub where we get signal; the cab is unmarked, no official plates or city council stickers, just someone’s car. We squeeze in and the driver tells us how the island is getting more and more expensive to live on, more houses becoming holiday homes that sit empty for most of the year and cost too much for the locals. It’s an effect that hasn’t reached home yet but that
Iâ€™m familiar with from Cornwall and Devon and the Highlands. As the ferry pulls into the mainland, there is an enormous harvest moon off the prow, huge and bright and glowing orange in a pure-black sky. I try but my camera canâ€™t capture it; only a faint smudge of something peach-coloured in something navy blue.
Somewhere on the train line between Carlisle and Hexham is where it stops feeling like the real world. At an unspecified point among those rounded hills and bastle-houses and bridges where the river almost touches the tracks and thereâ€™s no habitation but the farmhouses. Around where the phone signal and the WiFi start cutting out. In the winter the whole landscape is blue and the sunsets are watery weak orange, it is already night around 3pm and the blasting radiators make the train carriage too warm and too cold at the same time. In the summer the train is too hot and everything smells of wild garlic. The banks either side of the tracks burst with green, leaves and long branches brushing the old windows. Sunny weather is always impermanent, the movement of the clouds always visible on the fields, sometimes in changing colours, sometimes in sharply outlined dark shapes.
A story that I loved telling, to emphasise the quiet, rural oddness of my upbringing; my cats would often bring dead birds into the house, as cats are wont to do, but they would also often bring them in living and let them go, sending them flapping around the living room in a wild panic. My mother found the birds frightening, but I was one of those children who loved animals, so catching and rereleasing them was always my job. I’d do this by first backing them into a high corner of the room, and would then gently close my hands around them, the weight of them between my palms like a smooth stone. Ideally I would grasp them with their head poking out between my thumbs, hoping this would prevent them from being frightened, but this wasn’t always possible, and sometimes they cowered in my hands in a little ball. There was always a soft thrill in holding them for a moment - the tickle of their wings against my palms as they panicked, the release of tension as they realised they were trapped and froze themselves stock-still. I carried all kinds of birds this way - wrens, sparrows, blue tits, robins, even a woodpecker in one instance. Once, just before I let the bird go, he pecked me sharply on the hand, and in my child’s mind I was deeply offended that a creature I had rescued could be so ungrateful. Another time, the bird flew out of my hands before circling back to me once more, as if to say thank you. My cats once brought in a half-dead bird - I don’t remember what kind, but his chest was white, and a blossom of bright red blood had flowered there. I took him and carried him gently to our front garden, shut the cats in the house, and placed him on a large, cool leaf. I knew he was still living because his red chest moved up and down heavily, as if with effort. I checked back on him
hourly or so, hoping he might recover but knowing somewhere that he wouldn’t. As it was getting dark, my mother stepped out to look at him, and came back to tell me she was very sorry, but he was dead. I was furious at my cats and their claws and teeth, even though I understood they couldn’t help their nature.
The week I begin writing this project, I step out of my flat to find a magpie in the close, cowering behind a large potted tree. I think about grabbing him, but he wriggles backwards behind the pot as soon as I look at him, then speeds down the stairs flapping and hopping. I try to chase him out this way. When the sun through the skylight catches him his black feathers glow bright blue; he flaps his white wings every few steps, never takes off. I manage to chase him to the front door but as soon as I get close enough to open it, he bolts back inside and I can’t find him. I am late for a meeting and have to ask my flatmate to help him; she tells me he doesn’t fly because he’s a fledgling and hasn’t fully learned how yet. She tries to lure him out with granola but he isn’t interested; worms would be better if we had any. Eventually he is out and hiding under a bush; I joke if he comes back we should keep him – we’re due to move out and I imagine telling prospective landlords about the magpie we live with.
I later realise I forgot to greet him to ward off bad luck – my regional variation of incantation against “one for sorrow” is to say “Hello Mr Magpie, how are you today?”, accompanied by a two-fingered salute and a small nod of the head. Later that day, I lose an opal ring that matches one my grandmother owns
somewhere outside Central Station; when I get home, my mirror falls from its place on the dresser and splits clean in half, a smooth crack straight down the middle. I donâ€™t tend towards superstition, but this bad luck feels laid on thick.
I return home to visit: on the first day I’m bedridden with a terrible headache. “It’s probably the weather” says my mum, “there’s a thunderstorm coming, the girls at work say there’s already thunder further up the valley, someone was in Hexham and she walked out of Tesco’s and the clouds opened and went ‘whoosh’”. I lay on the bed in the spare bedroom and look out the window: it is the ominous weather before a summer storm, bright sunshine making the yellow fields glow and thick, heavy grey clouds on the horizon. The telephone wires run from just outside my window to the large wooden pole across the street; now and again the swallows plop themselves down on the wires, alone or in twos or threes, their sharp little bodies just the other side of the glass.
The heavy weather pressing down on my temples.
A few days before I had been in St Andrews; getting up early on another grey day and walking down one of the thin, straight cobbled lanes, we were passed by swallows flying at head height or below at enormous speed, their little W-shaped forms dangerously close before being gone in a blink. Later, the grey sky cleared to be replaced by incredible heat; my friend noted that this was why the swallows must be flying so low, the air pressure, that there’d be storms tonight. Later I lay in bed and hear the thunder rumble in the distance as I go to sleep.
It was strange to adjust to walking as something you got on the bus to do, something you dress for, becoming a person who owned walking boots and a mac that only got worn in the countryside or the rain.
Not that we never took holidays to different “nature”, Scotland or the Lake District, used other landscapes as escapes from our own. It felt curious to see the same things in different places; the market towns around which the village congregated were the same in Cornwall or the Highlands; all country pubs had the same three or four men at the bar, ready to assess the localness of anyone who came in; the animals and the terrain changed but farmland carried on and on.
A group of friends and I went to Glen Coe one winter, stayed in an old crofter’s cottage in the nearby village of the same name. We stepped off the bus and I felt it at once; not local; annoying. A sense of trespassing in someone else’s nature. We ate in the café beside the bus stop and overheard the same conversations between the staff as I did at home – how was someone’s nephew, someone’s son, where were they off at university again, how’s the farm doing, have the sheep been alright in this winter. None of us drove and, for a place so advertised for walking, there were few footpaths outside the village and little signage telling you where to go. We made several false starts trying to set off, meeting a burn with no visible crossing, ominously locked gates, paths through the woods that could have been for walkers or could’ve been someone’s driveway. We weren’t sure what was
somebody’s property and what wasn’t, which disoriented me. At home I knew which fields were ours and which were not; I don’t remember being told. I climbed the dry stone wall once near the top of the hill, into the next field, barely made it to the top before I knew it felt wrong.
Coming back from the walk we saw, in a ditch by the footpath along the main road, the body of a deer. It was perfectly hidden unless one was looking, the same colour as the frost-hardened ground and long-dead leaves. The friends I was with were distressed by it; I found it quietly sad but couldn’t help looking. I didn’t take a picture, it felt rude, but the image of it lodged in my mind, lonely and strange to see in that landscape when not expecting it. The cold stopping any rot or hungry animal, it was as intact as it would have been living - frozen, whole and peaceful, with white flecks of frost on its still, grey fur and intricate crystals forming in its eyelashes.
Saint Cuthbert was also supposed to have been a whole and perfect corpse, an “incorrupt body”, as Bede describes him. When they opened his tomb after eleven years he was the same as on the day he died, a sign of his holiness. Most villages in the North East have a church of Saint Cuthbert; they carried his remains from place to place after the attack on Lindisfarne by the Vikings. A fugitive body, the monks seeing oncoming invaders dug up his remains and carried them on the run, marking each town they stopped in with a church and a sacred name.
I always knew more about Cuthbert in death than in life, this strange transportation of his bones around the county, his monks treasuring the holy remains and keeping them safe from harm. My village has a St. Cuthbert’s well; a squat and unassuming thing, a little block of grey stone with lichen creeping over - but water is always flowing from its spigot, cold and sweet to drink from the palm of your hand. He is a saint of sea birds - puffins, kittiwakes, seagulls, noisy and clamouring for space on rocky islands. We call Eider ducks, “cuddy ducks”, an affectionate nickname for the egg-shaped black-and-white birds bobbing gently in the sea water. The ducks were supposed to be under his protection; tamed, they nested in the chapel altar, slept and laid eggs where the monks prayed and lit candles. In one story, he goes out neck-deep in the ocean to pray; when he returns to the land, two sea otters come to dry his feet. Creatures of both land and water, permeable and half-of.
Neck-deep in the ocean off the coast of Northumberland, looking out at the Farnes and Holy Island, is where I do something like praying too. The sea can be a place of absorption, or more accurately suspension, like a particle of salt in solution in water. I become weightless and moved by something beyond myself, as small as a grain of sand in the whole ocean. It is cold, yes, but only for a moment; walking out, the water creeps slowly further up the body until I am out to the waist; the sensation is prickly, sharp, then numb, the cold parts both devoid and full of feeling. After a few breaths I work up the courage to plunge my whole body in, sit down at the knees; the gasp that comes with
An icon of Saint Cuthbert praying, with otters in attendance.
the shock of the water lets out all the air I’m holding. The prickle in my arms hold me as my body adjusts. My skin becomes serene, goose-pimples receding and hairs lying flat and smooth like a water-mammal, learning to work with the water I’m suspended in. The body forgets the cold and learns to carry you and to be carried, to be buffeted gently from side to side by the current and tossed under by the waves. You learn the rhythm of what is coming, too, and adapt accordingly; on a calm, bright day the salt water floats you on your back, the sun warming your face and arms and the water rocking you gently. In choppy waves it becomes a game of when to crouch and when to jump – unbroken waves, pure and blue-grey, rise like mountains and lift you gently, off your feet and up to the sky, before plopping you back down. Once broken, the white foam roars and races towards you, pulls you under into a world of blue and puts the sound of your blood in your ears, the same pace as the current that surrounds you. The body loses all aesthetic purpose; from the shore you are only a head, bobbing, hair like seaweed clinging to the back of your neck. Your body is weightless and working just for you, and your mind works only on your body – keeping it steady, feeling the sensations, seeing the tumbling blues and greens and whites. You leave yourself an animal, a part of the landscape in which you function and are moved. No outer self looking back in at you, just a body feeling and moving and seeing. It is impossible to hate a body which is only working; the only thing you are is alive, as much an untroubled part of the system as the seaweed winding round a leg or the round white bird bobbing on the waters’ surface.
After watching the Disney film, I asked to be read the original version of the Little Mermaid; the one where, her love unrequited, she throws herself back to the ocean and dissolves into sea foam. I cried when I first heard this, expecting the sanitised American ending of wealth and love everlasting. Walking back up the beach, wet and with the cold beginning to creep down to my bones, I now think that is the closest to heaven I can imagine.
Their murmurations above the village
Black cloud moving like a lung breathing
Sweeping from side to side of the valley,
Black pinpricks on the peach fade of the sunset
The ground is black,
Glows like embers
To release something
To breathe out into the landscape
My wellingtoned feet in the bog,
BRIDGIT (2016), Charlotte Prodger.
I am awake in the middle of the night watching videos, as I assume I will not get to sleep, a self-fulfilling prophecy. I watch a clip of BRIDGIT by Charlotte Prodger that is available on vimeo, 1 minute 46 seconds of Scottish landscape in winter, the tops of the hills half hidden in cloud, obscuring the snow that dusts them. Shot from the train, the video conveys the kind of still movement only that form of transport can produce; a red lorry races the train along the road that runs parallel to the tracks, before the train overtakes it and it slides out of shot. At first I am sure I recognise this landscape, somewhere between Glasgow and Carlisle; the thin line of pine trees and the winding, flat river make that clear; and then I think it might be somewhere else, the train line through the Cairngorms that I’ve ridden far fewer times; then I am not sure if I do recognise it at all. The voiceover considers the Celtic Neolithic deity, BRIDGIT, and the many different names by which she was, and has been, known. To me the name Bridget first recalls my old neighbour three doors down, who ran the bakery in the village.
The smooth movement of the train makes me think about whether the body in the train can also be considered to be a body in the landscape, the way we were taught at school in biology that food within the digestive system was not “inside” the body until it had been absorbed into the blood or elsewhere; how this both made sense and seemed wrong. I feel incorrect saying “I’ve been to the Cairngorms” when I’ve only ever seen it from the train. But then, astronauts have “been” to space, although they’ve never stepped out of their artificial little earth-bubble, out of need for survival. From the train you see the landscape
filtered through the dirt and bird poo on the windows, natureâ€™s presence in a different kind. Sounds from outside are impeded by the glass, although the raindrops hitting it make their own quiet soundtrack, warm and dry and well-lit in the indoor bubble of the train.
The landscape is curated. I remember in biology A-level learning that Britain would naturally be almost all deciduous forest, that the landscape of fields and pines I grew up with is entirely man made. “8,000 years ago, Britain had so many trees that a squirrel could go from John O’Groats to Land’s End without touching the ground”, I read somewhere. I watch a BBC documentary based around satellite images of the Earth. Timelapses show mass deforestation in South America, India, China. The narrator expresses shock at the loss of wild spaces; I think, “we only have the privilege to disapprove because we did this outside living memory”. We wouldn’t recognise our landscape if we saw how it looked without us. Around the same time, I learned the “wildest” place I regularly went to, Kielder Forest, was all human-constructed too; a plantation of Stika Spruce from the coast of Alaska, grown for chipboard and fuel. Forest constructed by capitalism, as I should have guessed by the giant, hulking timber lorries I passed on the bus to school every day. The trees are planted so tightly that only the ones at the very edge of the forest ever get enough light to grow their thin, spiny leaves; the rest stay as naked trunks in the dark, with only fragile, wiry branches, easier to strip into clean, thick logs for transportation, stacked neatly on the lorry. The forests are dark, foreboding, uniform; clearly not grown for beauty, grey and damp like the Pacific Northwest they come from. As a child I was very interested in wandering away from the path, into the dark of the thick woods – my mother warned me, all parts of the forest are identical, you lose the path and you have no way back. Deep enough in the forest the trees block out all the sunlight; it is pitch black in every direction, day or night.
My aunty finds me a job in the pub in a nearby hamlet, to help pay my rent back in Glasgow over the summer. The guests are mostly middle-class tourists from Newcastle or further south, away for the weekend or moving slowly round the country over a week or two. Every morning I have a similar conversation as they check out – “where are you up from? Where are you going next? Yes, Kielder’s nice, Bamburgh’s nice, Alnwick’s nice”, enjoy advising on lesser-known places to visit. On a quiet, sunny evening I’m waiting tables outside, get talking to one of the guests. “I’m a writer”, she says, “I’m on the residency nearby for a year.” I get called to the kitchen before I can ask more. I am also a writer, I think, carrying armfuls of heavy plates, my hair smelling of chips.
It is the kind of work that your mind can separate from. In the morning I’m often left to change the sheets by myself, and my mind wanders, sometimes into the space of writing. I circle my thinking around the character of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, the phrase “porcelain, ivory, steel”, why you would have patriarchy in your escapist fantasy and why I’m using it as my escapist fantasy. I think about the sigil of the wolf, the idea of animals as sigils, as talismans, as identities. Those who lived with wolves in the forest probably feared them; if they took them as symbols it was to control that fear, transfer it to their enemies from themselves. The last wolf in Britain, I read, died somewhere in the Highlands in the mid-eighteenth century, “secretly and silently on the peripheries of human life, of old age after failing to find a mate.”
The Ardross Wolf, Pictish stone carving, 6th or 7th century
The wind turbines are placed high on the moors between Newcastle and the village. You can see them on the horizon driving out of the valley, barely visible, and only if you’re trying to see. Up close they are enormous, silent, their spin slow and steady. One night we drive between them as the sun sets with Fleetwood Mac playing on the radio; the space between them feels like the future. “Some people really don’t like them” says my mother, pointing them out as we drive by, “think they make the landscape ugly. There won’t be any landscape left if we don’t have them, it’ll all be underwater.” Kielder Water sits in the middle of the forest, held up by a huge, sloping dam, as man-made as the woods. My grandmother remembers before the dam was built; how the valley used to flood, the small village they had to empty before they drowned it under water. I remember hearing that at the end of hot, dry summers, the church spire could sometimes be seen above the water, although I’ve never seen it myself. I used to imagine the villagers refusing to leave, drowning defiantly in their homes, a little community of water-ghosts under the surface. I used to ride my bike around the reservoir, past felled trees and dark water, the boating club, across the spine of the huge concrete dam.
I think of the farm as “ours” but of course it isn’t; like so much of England it’s owned by someone who owns much more land than they need. The family in the big house on the hill - in our case The Festings, a now-deceased WWII hero patriarch, one son in the Vatican and other an artist who’s painted portraits of the Queen. My grandmother calls them nice people; my uncle, who pays them rent, does not. It’s land my family have worked on and lived on for several generations, grown up on and grazed sheep on and breathed in the clear air of the fields and the hayclogged air of the barn and got up at five in the morning to pull struggling lambs from their mothers. But the land is not our land, does not belong to us. My cousins don’t want to own the farm, and fair enough, neither do I; I ask if that means we will lose it in the next generation and my mum suggests we will have lost it long before then. Brexit has meant that British sheep and their products are no longer worth exporting, worth farming, worth the livelihoods of the people who herd them. The land up here is bad land, hard soil no good for most crops; the farm will likely be replaced by more logging, the dark pine trees spreading out and out across the fields, the landscape re-curated for new economic conditions. The musty air of the barn is the first thing I remember of it, thick with the dust of grain and sheep feed and hay and animal breath. There was a clear, thin path through the dark chambers of the barn, surrounded by old wood and sheet metal and no light, an easy tunnel to run through. Some rooms would contain sheep feed or grain piled all the way to the ceiling, climbable and unstable like sand dunes; other rooms echoing and empty
with the clanking sounds of heavy doors and chains. The contents shifted at different times of year; sheep, sheep-feed, sheep’s wool, grain, hay bales, the tractor sitting idle. In early spring, fingers-crossed after the snow had melted but oftentimes not, the barn was crammed with mothers and their just-born lambs, fenced off into uniform squares with loose gates strung together. I’d walk through the channel between them to see the lambs on their wobbly legs, the mothers fiercely defensive, circling in front of their babies and ready to kick if you came too close. That you mustn’t touch a lamb with a mother was one of the first things I learned; the smell from your hands would attach to their wool and their mother, not recognising their scent, would leave them to die. Their soft, thick lamb’s wool, so tactile-looking but forbidden to touch. Occasionally there were motherless babies; those who died in childbirth and those who took one look at their babies and shuffled off, disinterested. I have memories of bottle-feeding a few of these – their ears folded back as their mouths glugged at the bottle – but it’s timeconsuming and expensive to hand-rear a lamb. Occasionally in winter when my mother was young, she told me, they would warm lambs born too early and nearly freezing in the winter inside the AGA; I thought of their little white forms curled peacefully inside the huge, dark blue lacquered contraption that sat in the centre of my aunt and uncle’s kitchen. My other cousins, further up the valley and softer, kept a pet lamb so tame that he briefly lived in the house. More economical was to introduce the lambs to a new mother, in a strange metal device that trapped their heads, blinkered, in one
chamber, and their body in the other. The sheep would want to reject the lamb at first, but wouldnâ€™t be able to see it or to move away, allowing the lamb to feed from its teat in the hope that the sheep would come to accept it. The first time I saw this, the sheep were straining and wiggling against their entrapment, kicking aimlessly and angrily, the lamb cowering beyond the reach of their legs. My urge was always to scoop the lamb away from danger and tend it myself, fed it gently from the rubber teat of the bottle, but I always knew you mustnâ€™t touch. The birth of the lambs was a similar kind of violent motherhood. The sheep needing to be tended at all hours of the night, my uncle often getting up at three AM to pull lambs from their motherâ€™s bodies in the cold February dark. I only ever watched in the daytime; if all went well they came out legs-first, still in their big in vitro sac, pink and translucent, the little body halfvisible inside. To save time and make it one quick pain instead of drawn-out, he then grabbed the two skinny legs and pulled the lamb out in one sweeping tug. The new little body sat in its pink-purple bubble in the straw, before its sharp hooves pierced through or red human hands tore it open with ragged thumbnails, spilling amniotic fluid and revealing the new lamb. The wool wet and slimy, its little red mouth would be learning to bleat with its sharp tongue, taking in new air, the mother crowding in to lick the fresh body free of slime and straw. Sheep can move violently when confined; in the early summer with the weather turning hot, they are lined up to be sheared, crowded into pens together to come forward one at a time.
A kindness, as they would overheat out in the fields in summer; but also a source of an ever-slimming profit. They are let loose from the mass of sheep one by one, running forward towards the man with the shears roaring. Restrained either with the head clamped between the thighs or the front legs clasped tightly in a fist, their legs fly directionlessly in fright, largely helpless, with only their sharp hooves posing a risk. The short, soft hair of the belly comes off in little wisps, piling on the floor, while the thick wool of the back is removed in strokes that ideally leave it in tact as one whole skin, gathering in thick clumps like a duvet. When finished, the sheep is released and wriggles free, the body skinny and naked, pink skin showing through the thinned wool but, if done by a skilled shearer, with no hint of blood. The wool removed in one piece is then stacked up like body-shaped carpets, the pile looking thick and soft and weighty, comfortable to sit on or sleep under, and carrying a thick animal smell. The sheep runs into the glaring light outside, legs still kicking aimlessly and head shaking, freed from the heavy, hot weight they’ve been carrying til now. Death is an integral part of this economy too, both organised and natural. My mother describes herself as “half-of” this landscape, always conscious of the necessity of death but preferring not to think of it – she didn’t like, she said, when the vans came to take the sheep to be slaughtered. That was always outwith the farm, somewhere else and unseen. The more visible deaths were those from natural causes; disease was common enough, the sight of a sheep’s carcass out in the fields, part-decomposed, was not rare. The foot and mouth outbreak of the early 2000s is the first major
news story I remember because I was embedded in it, every visit to my uncle’s farm or any others begun and ended with the washing of shoes in strange orange liquid, the piles of carcasses burning in the fields both on the news and on the farms we drove past, obscured behind the barn. I remember playing with other kids at my friend’s house and being dared to touch the half-gone sheep’s carcass in the field behind her garden. Mostly only the bones and wool remained, ruffled by the wind, bright white and yellow daises growing up between the bare teeth, the eyeless dark sockets looking back at me. All muscle matter and sinew gone, the most biodegradable parts of the body going first, the bones and the wool taking longer. I did not touch it, but neither did any of them. In a bar I am thinking about this when I look up and see a ram’s skull, perfect, clean white and scrubbed of all sinew, mounted on the exposed brick wall. The white of it is so perfect I’m not sure it’s real, although if not it’s an impressive fake, with the lightning-jagged joins of the skull plates and pale brown translucence where the bone is thinnest. I can’t explain it, but something about the hollow eye sockets no longer seem to look. Where domestic animals are economically necessary, wild animals are often an economic nuisance. I remember being furious, age five, to learn that my grandad would be called in to set traps for moles in other people’s farms and gardens. Envisioning Mole in Wind in the Willows, whimsical animals in their little waistcoats, I couldn’t believe anyone would want to harm those little round bodies, with their bind eyes and star-like
noses and little digging clawed hands – but the dirt from their mole hills can clog up equipment and their tunnels can destabilise the ground. Occasionally we’d drive past farms who strung up the moles from barbed wire fences, their bulbous black forms looking like strange growths or plants from a distance. In the hot summer they take on a horrific and foreboding appearance, the only dark shapes in a landscape of glowing yellow and green, a demonstration of the harsh red labour that goes into maintaining a landscape fit for production. My grandmother is currently furious about a plan to introduce lynx into Kielder Forest. Conservationists at Newcastle University have proposed trialing the introduction of extinct species back into the British landscape, beginning with lynx intended to manage outsize deer populations. An article in the Times says that impact to farmers will be “minimal”, and financial losses will be “offset” by grants. My grandmother, a farmer’s wife, has been to every meeting in the village about it to register her complaint, asks “would a lynx prefer to kill a wild deer or a newborn lamb”, still struggling to walk and encased in an open, flat field. The lynx sounds beautiful, with tufted ears and cheeks and bobbed tails; but elusive, and with claws and teeth.
Outrage over the display of 2,000 dead moles in the Lammermuir Hills from The National, 26 November 2014
A display of 2,000 dead moles near a grouse moor in the Lammermuir Hills in East Lothian has been condemned as “disgustingly Victorian”. The animals’ bodies have been strung up in a long line on a fence through fields south east of Haddington. They were photographed and counted on Sunday (23 November) by a birdwatcher, Geoff Morgan, and posted on Twitter. Landowners, gamekeepers and farmers regard moles as pests and regularly cull them, but the scale and manner of this mass killing has shocked animal welfare groups. “Queen Victoria must be alive and well,” said John Robins from Animal Concern. “This unnecessary massacre of native wildlife shows the outdated mentality of some people working our land today.” He pointed out that hanging out corpses on a line went back to the days when gamekeepers and shepherds had to prove that they were doing their job so they would get paid. “If these moles have been poisoned their carcasses could in turn poison birds such as buzzards, harriers and hawks,” Robins suggested. Libby Anderson, policy director at OneKind, an Edinburgh-based animal welfare group, accepted that hanging dead moles on fences was a longstanding practice. “But for many people it’s highly objectionable to see a line of dead animals, simply serving as a reminder of widespread wildlife killing,” she said. Ronnie Graham, a wildlife campaigner and member of the Dumfries and Galloway told The National: “The practice of hanging moles on fences to show off the prowess of the mole catcher is a tradition which belongs in the Victorian era and has no place in the modern day working countryside. “Today’s hill walker or rambler does not want to be faced with an endless gibbet of dead animals when out for a stroll regardless of how essential mole control may be. The constant bleating of the sport shooting and farming communities that we have become detached and have lost some mythical understanding of their country ways can only be exacerbated by this type of behaviour.”
Foxes became different in the city. In the country they lived on the furthest margins; the sight of one was something magical, revealing of another world that existed on the same plane as ours but always invisible, their bodies stock-still and eyes shining gold and alien in the car headlights. When I called foxes cute I was told how they broke into hen houses and slaughtered everything inside, how they tore lamb's throats out for fun, although I was still read Fantastic Mr. Fox before I went to bed. In the city the foxes became other citizens, perfectly adapted to bin-scavenging life. Cautious but not uncomfortable within touching distance as I walked home from Tesco’s in the winter’s early dark, simply crossing the road in the opposite direction without acknowledgement. Even seeing a mother and her five cubs in the small hours after coming back from a night out, they were only cautious, not panicked, little black-socked legs never breaking stride as they slunk under the fence into someone’s garden. Corvids, too; when admiring their gothic aspect as a teenager I was told how they picked out lamb’s eyes and left them blind – “I live on lamb’s eyes and road accidents”, says La Corbie, Scots for crow, in Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. I began to understand their role as death portents as more than just aesthetic; the Irish war goddess Morrigan scavenging the battlefield for corpses in the form of a crow would have come easily to the people who believed, seeing a field swarming with black birds around bodies. I still appreciated their cleverness, though, and their strange croaking old man voices. My gothic revival university campus would fill
with ravens in the autumn, enormous and unafraid of human presence, and I always enjoyed their strange, ominous forms. Pheasants appear to be suicidal, always stepping out into the road just as the car approaches at high speed. I’ve only ever been in a car that hit one once, with a horrible “thunk”, juddering over it; but the remains of them are a frequent sight. If not killed by the car they are most likely killed by the shotgun; disturbed on moors by beaters and sent into the air in a panic, to be pierced square through the chest for someone’s sport. Sometimes in National Trust houses you’d see them strung up in kitchens, an example of accurate historical life, their green neck feathers glimmering. Most people I knew were careful drivers, respected wild animals in their separate world, or appreciated them for controlling the population of some pestilent species, bugs or rabbits or anything else. Occasionally I rode with people who weren’t so careful, taking the empty dark roads as an excuse to careen around, and I saw how the violent collisions between the human and animal world took place, and left little forms slumped by the roadside. On the road near the farm there is now a “squirrel bridge” - what looks like a miniature Center Parks climbing course, strung up between the trees, to reduce the number of red squirrel deaths on the road. The British countryside is a site of past extinctions of native species; but it is also, in Northumberland especially, the site of an ongoing extinction event. Red squirrels, Britain’s native species, have been out-competed by greys, a larger, hardier species brought over by colonists returning from North America,
and now reds persist only in select pockets in Northumberland and the Scottish Highlands. The hatred grey squirrels inspire in locals is extraordinary – the official advice is to always report the sight of one so it can be humanely destroyed. Moving away as an adult, it took time for me to regard grey squirrels as a passive presence rather than a terrible danger, but in areas where red squirrels are already gone they no longer pose a threat. I’ve always felt some sympathy for the grey squirrels; they neither chose nor understood their move across the Atlantic and have only acted as they always did; human engineering brought the near-death of one species and now enacts euthanasia in an attempt to save it. Red squirrels are smaller and cuter than their grey counterparts, their bodies rounder and in a bright autumn-leaf orange. They featured prominently on calendars in my childhood bedroom, as they do on postcards in local newsagents and bookshops. I’ve never seen one that was wholly wild; they’re rare, quiet and well-camouflaged, even within the artificial pine landscape they didn’t evolve for. Family friends used to feed them from their back garden which faced onto the forest, from behind sliding glass patio doors. The squirrels were too timid to be directly in human presence; you had to throw out shelled peanuts onto the mossy tiles and slide the door closed again. If you waited, you could see them shimmy forward, running low to the ground, their bodies undulating in little waves. When they found their food they’d become round again, grasping the nut in their little clawed baby hands and nibbling, eyes and muscles always shifty and ready to run again.
The water rose
Littered the banks with oil cans, trees, sheepâ€™s bones
Hackberry, cow parsley, Hawthorne
Bridal white and pure
It is women who like nature, they say, women who have a connection to the land through some symbolism of birth and growth and growing. Women who tend the garden, pick the crops from the fields. Mother nature, birthing our plants and animals and land and selves. Celtic sovereignty goddess, the land personified as a woman and as something to be won, the land as woman to be claimed for the king to prove himself worthy of and then take. The landscape as female body, any roundness must mean something else, Charles Jenck’s absurd “Northumberlandia”, a kitschy, imitation Cerne Abbas giant, ersatz Neolithic artefact, huge female form all spirals and tits and hips.
Ecofeminism - the parallel between the oppression of persons and the neglect of ecosystem, women and queers subjugated as the land is subjugated. Women who work with nature, commune with, live in nature. Witches as women who knew how to turn plants into medicine.
I know about nettle soup and I imagine holding a nettle leaf in my mouth, its prickly corners swelling the inside of my cheeks. Dock leaves never grow far from nettles, the salve near the source of pain - for a long time I thought it was spelled “doc”, as in short for Doctor, referring to the healing properties of the leaf, rather than dock, as in a place to moor boats. When my hand brushed nettles on a walk, or when I lost my footing and fell in, the dock leaves usually grew close by. Wide and low to the ground, the perfect bandage size to wrap around the hand, press with my tight fist or rub with my thumb and make the thin green
juice squeeze out into my palm or onto red, blistering skin on my limbs. The cure never far from the plant that caused you pain.
I was raised by women in commons, single mother working full time, different aunties, great aunties, grandmothers, cousins, friends, different living rooms, tomato soup in front of the TV and dust floating in the air. Widows and housewives and retired teachers, sharing and helping, husband on the farm coming in with mud-clogged wellies, everyone managing and helping each other manage.
My mum calls me and I speak with my mouth much rounder, enter the space of home. My partner says, laughing, “you sound so northern on the phone”, repeats what I have said back to me in my altered intonations. I realise that without even thinking I have shrugged off my own accent for the sake of being taken seriously.
Words I hadn’t recognised as words, that I hadn’t said outside of home without even knowing
Howk or hoik – to pull, particularly to pull up your trousers
Hoy – to throw
Spuggies - sparrows
Words I though too small and natural and comfortable to be words, that must be noises because they weren’t enough to be taken seriously.
kittiwake, said best with the glottal stop - kih’-ee-wehk
I don’t say mam any more I say mum; my mum calls her mum mam.
At work in the pub when someone ordered a latte I said lah-tay to the customers and la’-ee in the kitchen.
Feels strange to hear the familiar accent out of place, soft and flat. When I meet people in Glasgow or London with the accent of home it always throws me off.
When I was about 10 we went on a trip to London to see Billy Elliot in the west end. The programme had “Geordie to English” translations for words like “howay”, “pet”, etc. All of us agreed it was the people who wrote the programme and who needed that glossary who were ignorant.
When I was 17, Cambridge University paid for us, kids from a “disadvantaged area”, (a label I wouldn’t apply to myself then and wouldn’t now) to visit. Asking a question about reading lists the tutor, an old and white and very English man, looked at me over his glasses in a way that, for the first time, made me ashamed of my accent.
CONVERSATIONS ON NORTHNESS All quotations from The Matter of the North, BBC radio 4, 2016. Speakers: Shelagh Delaney, Melvyn Bragg, David Hockney, Lee Hall, Tony Warren.
It’s a function the north has served – a “breath of fresh air” – at moments in the past, when it’s always done it literally, southerners coming to the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales to refresh themselves, it happened strongly in the Victorian period
So many had been merely numbers to the alphabet of history: Labourers - ten Estate-men – sixteen Or more usually: a number of men
Storm the bastions of the south
The language is alive, it’s virile, it lives and it breathes and you know exactly where it’s coming from, right out of the earth
How did you find out you were northern and what reaction did you have?
Writers who pay attention to the lives of ordinary people
I didn’t think it was in any way obscure – I only realised it possibly was to other people when we brought it south
When the men came back, the women carried on being strong
What’s good enough for London will be good enough for the north
Humour is something that can keep us on our toes
I’ve always liked seeing the world through a grain of sand; it’s sometimes the sharpest way to see it.
There’s a sense that to get above yourself is not very northern
The one thing you do not want is arrogance – that belongs to the south, to the moneyed south
Surreal yet blunt way with words
Seemingly ordinary people could take the lead
I do remember elocution lessons – I said “what is elocution lessons?”, and this girl said “oh, they teach you to speak right”, and I said “I can speak right, it’s what you have to say that counts”, doesn’t it, I said.
There are good reasons why we are who we are
The north is still the pole star
It’s quite intangible what northernness is, in a literary sense, but to me it has something to do with the connection between the ruggedness of the landscape, and a literary equation between that and a roughness of language, a sense of resistance that I think has a very very long history
I saw no shadows. Most of the days were grey. And I remember seeing strong shadows in a Laurel and Hardy film, and I thought, “well, that’s Los Angeles and that must mean it’s sunny.” And I’ve always said I was brought up in Bradford and Hollywood and Hollywood was always at the end of the street in the cinema, wasn’t it?
Every single day was different – well, you can’t say that about Kensington High Street, can you? The winter is even more colourful, and in the winter there’s colour if you look – you go north, going into the light.
Some friends and I go to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art one day and stumble into their NOW exhibition focused around Anya Gallaccio. The first room I enter is down the end of a long, white corridor, and I encounter the work The Whirlwind in the Thorntree. It is a single tall, straight branch, alone in the corner of a white room, reminding me of “the arm” from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Its loneliness in the clean, white expanse of the modern gallery is striking, and it stops me in my tracks. The man invigilating the exhibition, in tartan Edinburgh Galleries trousers, tell me it is secured by an enormous bolt under the floorboards, “to give the impression of defying gravity.” I look to the bottom of the branch and see that it rises seamlessly from the floor, all methods of suspension and holding invisible, its position in the room both effortless and alien, as though it has been photoshopped into the scene from elsewhere. “It’s cast in bronze; the berries are made of silver” he says – I step closer, within touching distance but not touching, hold my breath in and my back straight so as not to disturb. The berries are indeed silver, the shine of real silver, delicate and expensive. I imagine some fairy tale in which the poor heroine comes across this tree in the dark woods, glowing and suspended, looking as curious in the real forest as it does in this white room, and she plucks the silver berries from the tree to wear as jewellery, become fine and refined and rich. I imagine plucking one of the silver berries myself, as I would take the red ones from the hedgerows or the rosehips growing near the burn, and setting off a terrible alarm.
I take out my disposable camera to photograph the work. No flash in the gallery, so I am unsure how the picture will come out. As it turns out, the room looks much darker in the photograph, like somewhere abandoned and broken into at night. The colours of the metals donâ€™t come through, and the tree is rendered in pure black outline, more like the silhouetted, reaching branches I saw from school bus window on grey winter mornings. The photograph is more sinister than the room was, doesnâ€™t represent exactly what I saw, but the space in it is real in its own kind.
I go to sleep one night with the curtains open and the waxing gibbous moon shining bright through the window. The telephone wire draws a straight line almost perfectly to the small white dot of Jupiter, nothing of its orange clouds or great red storm visible to the naked eye. Saturn should rise in an hour or so but as yet sits behind the other side of the valley. Despite there being more light outside than in, a moth throws itself against the windows now and again, an amorphous black shape clattering in the darkness.
An hour later, still awake, I lean out the window (like Juliet on the balcony, I would’ve thought as a teenager) to spot the smaller light of Saturn, flanking the moon on the opposite side of Jupiter. The moon is too bright and the sun too recently set to see much, and the pale yellow streetlamp outside the house doesn’t help. I can pick out a few stars from the window; Arcturus, some of the brighter stars in Aquila. I can lean my arms outside the window in a T-shirt but I long for the freezing, clear air of a moonless winter night, all heat lost with no clouds to hold it in and the long-stretching path of the Milky Way clearly visible across the sky. On top of the hill surrounded by felled trees at the observatory, nose freezing and the only impediment to stargazing my cloudy breath and the pale blue of earth’s atmosphere. The best time was after the tourists had gone home and we were left to tidy and more importantly to look. The men often tinkered with their telescopes and compared kits; I was happy to look through the viewfinder but preferred to walk silently under the wide scope of the sky, try to teach myself the
constellations and look for shooting stars. My second favourite part was the amazement of the tourists when we stepped outside for the first time, the gasps and oh my gods to which I nodded, realising my luck in growing up in this lightless place, that light also meant light-pollution and in the city this was what you did not see. My third favourite thing was making the hot drinks for everyone when we came back to the warmth inside the woodpanelled room, fire in the little stove, posters on the walls of astronomical symbols that looked half scientific and half occult.
The last major astronomical event, the super wolf blood moon, I was in Glasgow and wasnâ€™t sleeping. I sat up til four looking out of the window, knowing I could at least see the moon from the city if nothing else. At around five, I stepped out with a coat and jeans over my pyjamas into the February pitch-black morning; I turned two corners from my house and reached the top of University Avenue before the clouds moved in and obscured everything. I clomped back to my room over frosty pavement, the moon turning red unwatched behind the thick grey clouds.
Sitting at the window at midnight I watch the mist settle in the valley; it looks liquid and swimmable, glowing pale grey between the dark shapes of houses and trees. In the distance the sheep can be heard bleating, as they always are, a sound that strikes me every time I come home. I can hear the church bells from somewhere in the village striking midnight and imagine telling the time only by them, the community around the church. The bell tolls for midnight not for me.
Class is different in the countryside. People are closer together, physically at least if not financially or in social or cultural capital. The only school is the village school; everyone uses the same doctors, drives into the same village to pick up groceries or go to church. When my mum was a child she used to play in the enormous stately home across the river, run down wide wood-panelled corridors and hide in suits of armour. My grandmother’s near neighbours, a mile or so away, sent their sons to Eton, and still pop in on her, normal in her small bungalow with the fire always going.
My great-grandparents, my granny’s mother and father, ran a farm on the land of Sir Charles Trevelyan, the rare phenomenon of an aristocratic socialist and a member of Britain’s first Labour cabinet. The lady of the house used to go for tea at my greatgrandmother’s table – from all I’ve heard they conversed as equals. When I was younger I used to imagine her coming in draped in a fur stole and dripping with jewels, cigarette holder poised elegantly between her fingers, while my great grandmother peeled potatoes at a scuffed wooden table. I suspect it was not quite so caricature. The Trevelyans left their property to the National Trust, an attempt to make the beautiful homes of the upper classes open to everyone – it was the first property, in fact, that the trust owned. We used to go there for days out and walks, mainly to the enormous gardens. On our first trip to the house I was pointed out a small, black-and-white picture of farm labourers in a thin corridor on the way to the kitchens. These, I was told, with a finger pointing to each of the
Grace Darling (1815â€“1842), and Her Father William Darling (d.1865), Save the Survivors from the Wreck of the Steamer 'Forfarshire' on the Farne Rocks, 7 September 1838, William Bell Scott.
straight faced figures in dark suits and aproned dresses, were my great grandmother, great grandfather, great-great-grandmother and father, aunts, uncles, etc. I looked hard to spot any family resemblance, but the room was dark and the faces a little unclear. On the opposite side of the wall lay the Central Hall, the centrepiece of the grand house. Held up by great pillars and archways, the walls decorated with eight murals depicting notable persons and works in the history of the North East; Grace Darling saving the survivors from the shipwreck; the industrial revolution; the building of Hadrianâ€™s Wall; the death of Bede. Painted by William Bell Scott, Pre-Raphaelite and flamboyant, they are dramatic, self-mythologizing, sublime, and a little bit kitsch. At first, I felt an acute sense of class division at the fact that the whole house was a museum to its former owners. One family history was represented by a home full of intricate portraits, lush furniture, great artworks and extensive taxidermied creatures, while mine was represented by a single small photograph in a dim hall. Now, I feel less certain about this. Maybe the small portrait in their Sunday Best belongs hanging facing the kitchens, a site of labour more hidden and less privileged than their own, and on the opposite side of the wall to a half-fantastical history of the land.
In the Nineteenth Century the Northumbrians Show the World what Can Be Done with Iron and Coal, William Bell Scott
Parsley, sage, wild garlic,
Tufts of wool wound round barbed wire and white as my grandmotherâ€™s hair
My granny collects sticks slowly as we walk;
dowsing rods and walking sticks for mice and firewood and kindling for the sitting room
The fields are so wide that you can see the weather painted on the ground
The colours of the clouds move in and out
Thick, grey storms on one horizon, blue sky on the other
Cow parsley, hackberry, wild garlic, hawthorne, small white flowers
I think about being absorbed into the land, being grown-through, a form that becomes a part of a wider form until it is lost completely. I have a feeling that the land is graspable, permeable. Going out into it as a child involved direct contact with it, the absorption of mud or water into fabric, dry dirt or ribbon-traces of thin, brown water on the heels of my palms. The Brontës understood it; the heath being a better home than heaven, the crag and the moor being where you heal, what makes you yourself and makes you better. My grandfather farmed all his life, out in the fields every day; dying in the mudless white bed one of the last things he spoke was the wish to see something green. Jane Eyre believing she’s dying out on the moors and accepting the land she will become, that she always belonged to and will become part of soon, taken by the soil and eaten by the ecosystem, taken in and carefully put back. Not ashes or dust, something wetter and more living; mud to mud, dirt to dirt. Edvard Munch said “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity”, but it needn’t be so beautiful as that. I’d take heather or gorse or plain, ordinary grass. The importance is the small form - the blade of grass, the flower, the body - in the larger form of the landscape, the ecosystem, the thing which is only itself.
“Whacher is what she was. She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night. She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.” - Anne Carson, The Glass Essay Emily was always my favourite; the bitch, the weird one, feeding bits of bacon to a wild hawk in the kitchen. Charlotte, polite; Anne, sensible; Emily, furious, wild, in need of translation. I visited the Bronte parsonage on a school trip and it was not quite as feral and windswept as expected - it sat in at the edge of the graveyard, enormous headstones half-retreated into the moss already, or the moss half-encroached, bright green and sundappled and quiet. The edge of the graveyard led into the village; we had time waiting for the bus to walk down the pretty cobbled high street to the old-fashioned sweetshop and eat lemon sherbets or rhubarb-and-custards. Lonely, yes, and easy to make yourself lonely, but not as lonely as I’d pictured. The way we walked to the house tricked us into a sense of further isolation - what began as a farm road, two tracks carved out by tractor wheels, became a little path marked only by grass worn down by feet, a route with no signs or gates to stop you but which felt like you were trespassing on something. We passed behind dry-stone walls and full chicken coops, the sides built only of wire so you could see the birds inside, round and docile and “kwuk-kwuk-kwuk”-ing to themselves. At the sound of twenty teenagers passing the rooster screamed, another message
which felt like “go back” without anyone saying it. The top of the fell was visible, the fields greener and more vibrant than I anticipated. On the bus home in a grey spring I thought “I had expected more ruggedness”; if this was wild and heady country then my home was just as much so. I grew up in a house that was also near the top of a hill and on the edge of a village, farm fields at the end of the road and the open fell visible on the opposite side of the valley. Easy to make yourself lonely in, as Emily did, a “little raw soul caught by no one” as Anne Carson calls her. The inside of their house was pale blue and civilised; mine was pale yellow, the same. When it got too much the field was always open, in many directions; the creaking gate the end of our road, the path through the forest and up to the waterfall on the other side of the council estate; the route along the burn that took you to daffodils in the spring. It was a space to go to talk, and to breathe, and to think, alone or with others or with headphones in. The air swallowed your words and the land carried your weight and there were no eyes to see you; your breath left you and passed into the fresh air and was gone. Only the crackle of the river heard what you said and then washed it away; what you thought stayed in you. I could walk alone there at any time, at night, no matter the dark. I wasn’t a woman in the wilderness, in the fields, unobserved
and alone and safe, another animal. I could look at the stars, at frost, at crocuses; I could look, and be something that looks, and not be looked at. In the city I mostly walk with purpose, to get from one place to another. When I walk at night it is with my keys held tightly in my fist and my hand feeling my pocket for my phone. I look, but I am also seen, and have no way not to be. I am irrevocably a woman and can make no choice not to be, and am reminded by honking car horns or footsteps that mirror mine too closely, by the fact I am told I am not safe and that I feel I am not safe. The city at night has its own beauty but I would never stop, never tilt my head up to see the moon when I have a home to go to. There are no stars in the city and it does not belong to me.
Philip Larkin wrote a poem, called “Show Saturday”, about the show that happens at the end of every summer in my village. I didn’t discover the poem until I was at university doing an English Literature degree, by that time well away from home in both location and mind. The poem is about ritual, the site and performance of something annual and old, the ephemeral spaces that tradition creates. The poem is from 1973, but I recognise the conventions of the show, the same as when I was growing up; sheep-dog trials, horse jumping competitions, judging of livestock. Larkin’s description of the ‘long high tent full of growing and making’, the big craft tent where people displayed their baking and sewing and carving skills, is so vivid to me: Wood tables past which crowds shuffle, eyeing the scrubbed spaced Extrusions of earth: black leeks like church candles, six pods of Broad beans (one split open), dark shining-leafed cabbages – rows Of single supreme versions, followed (on laced Paper mats) by dairy and kitchen; four brown eggs, four white eggs, Four plain scones, four dropped scones, pure excellences that enclose A recession of skills. And, after them, lambing-sticks, rugs, Needlework, knitted caps, baskets, all worthy, all well done.
I remember the sun glowing softly through canvas or rain pinging off the tent-poles, the beautiful cakes and sets of perfect, identical eggs. I think of the flower arrangements or little watercolour paintings I made at the kitchen table, the tablecloth covered by newspaper; coming back in the afternoon to search for the cardboard sign that said second or third place; going up to the ticket booth to collect the prize money in a brown paper envelope and feeling the round, flat shapes of five loose pound coins inside. My mum would’ve been a young teenager when the poem was written. I wonder if she’s in it, if the kids scrapping or ‘children all saddle-swank’ are my uncle or her cousins, if the ‘men with hunters, dog-breeding wool-defined women’ included by grandparents. People seen in or peripheral to that poem still greet me in the village when I visit. The field where everything is held is called the show-field, it’s permanent name derived from its function on one day of the year. Pulling up in the morning, it would become a small encampment of bleachers and horse trailers and rows and rows of cars parked on wet grass. In the evening, the tents would already be coming down, great white sails folding in on themselves to leave the field muddied and bare the next day, the grass re-grown over any evidence in a month or so. The wall at the far end of the show-field borders right onto the cemetery two long-standing sites of ritual on the edge of the village, one
for mourning, the other for celebrating the summer just gone, a kind of mourning too. The poem ends: The dismantled Show Itself dies back into the area of work. Let it stay hidden there like strength, below Sale bills and swindling; something people do, Not noticing how timeâ€™s rolling smithy-smoke Shadows much greater gestures; something they share That breaks ancestrally each year into Regenerate union. Let it always be there. The line "let it stay hidden there like strength" has lay hidden with me since I first read it, serving multiple purposes and meaning multiple things. It refers to memory, to the act of creating a commons, to how actions mark the land they are performed on. Something of the land becomes internal, able to be carried; acts of ritual become embedded, like learning dance moves until your body can perform them without thinking. The land is permanent, and although the ceremony is transient, it leaves something permanent too.
References Peter Davidson, The Idea of North (London: Reaktion Books, 2005). Adam Scovell, “Where to Begin with Folk Horror”, BFI online. Michael Newton, “Cults, human sacrifice and pagan sex: how folk horror is flowering again in Brexit Britain” in The Guardian, 30th April 2017. Grace Lee, ‘Kill List: The Folk Horror Revival’, uploaded to YouTube channel What’s So Great About That?, 14th July 2017. Ross Barnett, The Missing Lynx (London: Bloomsbury, 2019). Liz Lochhead, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (London: NHB, 1987). Anne Carson, '"The Glass Essay" in Glass, Irony and God (New York: New Directions, 1996).