Four Fields by Tim Dee: The troublesome boundary between the human and the natural

The naturalist Tim Dee has written an ambitious, affectionate investigation into the pastoral by way of four fields dotted around the globe.

Four Fields
Tim Dee
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99

A few years ago, Tim Dee wrote a magical memoir of birdwatching, a voyage both literary and airborne, The Running Sky. Now he returns with something far more ambitious: a loving investigation into the pastoral by way of four fields around the globe. It opens with cut grass scattered across the A14 and closes with grains of wheat nestled in cracks in tarmac: heraldic images for a work that situates itself on the troublesome boundary between the human and the natural.

The first of Dee’s four fields is Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, a few miles from his home. The fen has been contested ground for centuries, sometimes flooded and sometimes drained, sometimes planted and sometimes disgorging enigmatic relics – bog oaks, desiccated moles, the pickled body of a fenman standing bolt upright in a canoe.

As Dee returns through the seasons, he disentangles some of the counterintuitive facts of the place, the way it has resisted being farmed and managed; the ways that human endeavours past and present have created habitats for species we might more commonly think of as wholly shy of humankind.

The language is almost overwhelmingly rich and ripe, full of tumbling wordplay (a storm on the fens leaves him “shrunken in the wash”). Dee has a naturalist’s knack for close-range seeing (and smelling: the description of a little, foot-high scented tower above a dead shrew suggests an acutely precise olfactory system).

Some passages have the miraculous quality of dreams – a description of swifts sleeping high above the earth, or of skating across frozen fens, the grass preserved in rippling waves beneath a sheet of ice.

Sometimes these good earth dreams slip into nightmares. Out in the bush in southern Zambia, Dee encounters a river crossing where more than a hundred wildebeest have drowned: “the biggest uncooked sausage ever made”. Death stalks his fields, and even in the most bucolic settings he senses their cache of corpses, their scent of rot.

Towards the end of the book, he travels to Chernobyl to assist two scientists in gathering grasshoppers from the nuclear exclusion zone. The writing that follows is among the most powerful and indelible about disaster I have ever encountered. Dee dismisses the notion that the wild is reclaiming this depopulated and abandoned place, describing the swallows with their feet on backwards and pine trees bare of twigs but displaying at the ends of their branches mad black balls of needles, as if, “at its dirty fingertips, the tree had grown its own wreaths”.

This is a different order of death altogether: death of a sterile, permanent kind. And yet even here, Dee manages a kind of plainsong of despair. Regarding the piles of prams, lampshades and bikes in the abandoned Ukrainian village of Vesniane, he writes: “Here is our Scythian gold, our Roman silver, our cave paintings, our ghost shirts and dream-catchers, here all of it dreck and trash and the colour of old blood, our pigment gift to the world’s palette, our rust.” This is writing and thinking that leaves the parochial concerns of most of what we designate “nature writing” in the dust.

One of the persistent tensions of the genre is how to handle the people in the landscape. Dee, thoughtful about the problems of the past historic, the caricatures of fen folk in moleskin gaiters romping through the tabulations of gentlemen-historians, runs into sticky ground on his third field, a contested stretch of Montana where the battle of the Little Bighorn was fought in 1876.

It is a place to consider the colonial imperatives of farming and its costs, yet Dee seems baffled and unsettled by the spectacle of the dispossessed and disheartened Crow tribe and their tatty reservations. It’s a pity that such an attentive listener to all the birdcalls of the world chose to speak at greatest length to a part-Crow who doesn’t speak the tribal language and to a white academic “who knows more Crow lore and history than most Indians”, rather than considering the sense the surviving First People make of their own trials.

During his week in Chernobyl, Dee was forbidden to take anything out; instead, he left a postcard of Wicken Fen in Prypiat, an abandoned city where the trees have taken over. On it, he wrote “Field One for Field Four”. Funny, but it’s that postcard that stayed with me. It seems to sum up both the best of this book and of our own busy work as a species, our capacity for sympathetic interest, the myriad sowings and seedings we have brought forth across the world. That, and the image of a flock of goldfinches, “like itinerant weavers flying their precious thread through the homespun, until the whole fen became a field of the cloth of gold”.

This is virtuosic beyond the merely visual, its aesthetic power drawn from Dee’s sense of deep time, his ability to interweave the natural, historical and cultural into one dense and lovely tapestry.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)

A man carries a wooden cross near the abandoned village of Dovliady, near Chernobyl, one of the four places in Dee's book. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser