The moors near Pickering in Yorkshire. Photo: Getty
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Walks on the wild side: a weightless, weighty history of the Yorkshire moors

We now cannot think of the Yorkshire moors without Emily Brontë, but we must reclaim our moors from cream teas and see them from the vantage point of the raptors wheeling overhead.

The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature
William Atkins
Faber & Faber, 371pp, £18.99

In the upper reaches of the National Portrait Gallery in London, Branwell Brontë’s oil painting of his sister Emily is cracked and fissured. The paint barely sits on the canvas. In front of it, an American woman employed by the gallery is delivering a lunchtime talk about the Brontës. She is knowledgeable and efficient, and she quotes from a contemporary review of Wuthering Heights, written by a critic who found the book barbaric, shocking and disgusting; beyond the pale of respectability.

But Emily Brontë is now the accepted face of the wild moors, and we cannot think of the Yorkshire moors without her. The savageness of her work has become polished by our preconceptions. It needs to be renewed; we must reclaim our moors from cream teas and see them from the vantage point of the raptors wheeling overhead.

William Atkins does that, gloriously, in his disinterment of the English moors. His book, which has an affecting section on Emily – who was called “the General” by her family and who emerges as fairly barbaric, too, not above whipping her own dog – approaches those mythic wastes in the way she did, walking over them, and populating their wilderness (which covers 6 per cent of the country) with the humanity that shaped it. Drawing on literature, art and industry, The Moor is as much social history as natural history. Atkins is an expeditionary anthropologist, making his way into England’s dark heart.

He starts his countrywide trek at an unlikely place: a vestigial moor in southern Hampshire, so insignificant that, even though it is less than ten miles from where I live, I never knew it existed until now. Atkins grew up there, in the town of Bishop’s Waltham. As a 14-year-old boy, he wrote a precocious GCSE essay on these few acres of wild land. The Moor is an imaginative, allusive extension of that enthusiasm – sometimes I felt young Will was doing his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and feared for his safety in bog and mist. But as Atkins sits down to his King-Size Pork Pie and sachet of Capri-Sun, poetry spills out. Not since Tim Binding’s haunting On Ilkley Moor (2001) has a writer evoked the uncanny spirit of the moors so powerfully.

The moors lodge in our collective imaginations from early on. As my father was Yorkshire-born, we spent summer holidays visiting the blackened parsonage, graveyard and cobbles of Haworth or the moorland asylum where my own uncle was incarcerated. Dartmoor, too – with its Gothic prisons and red-eyed hounds – is a fixed childhood memory for many. In the village of Princetown, Napoleonic prisoners of war froze to death in a building whose windows went unglazed. Inmates killed one another “over half a raw potato”. In its first ten years alone, 1,478 men died at the prison; Atkins describes their bones rising to the surface as if rejected by the moor. More benevolent is the presence of Buckfast Abbey and its bee-breeding monks, in whose company the author finds a certain anachronistic solace.

On Saddleworth, other ghosts appear – those of Hindley and Brady (Atkins could well have included the white-shirt-clad spectre that lurches out of the same midnight moor in Morrissey’s autobiography). And on the North York Moors, Atkins encounters the eerie early-warning installations of Fylingdales, with their ominous domes and oddly lyrical acronyms: SSPAR, “solid-state phased array radar”.

Deeper into Yorkshire we find Ted Hughes as a boy, climbing up the hills of Hebden backwards, because it was good for the leg muscles. And we follow Hughes and Sylvia Plath up to the ruined shell of Top Withens (claimed as the model for Wuthering Heights). “We could buy this place and renovate it!” says Plath, only for Hughes to reply, darkly, “except, of course, except/For the empty horror of the moors”.

But these are places of recreation and procreation, too. Atkins takes issue with Auden’s “celibate, evacuated landscape”. Instead, he sees the land alive with burping frogs, whinnying curlews and rising larks. He “landlopes” over every moor, and even immerses his body in the peaty brown water that runs from farm bath taps (Victorian spas offered the ultimate invasion of a peat enema).

While he charts murders, plane crashes and fields filled with the lethal leavings of army manoeuvres, he also walks out in the summer, continually turning his cap peak against the beating sun. In the winter, he crosses frozen expanses where, in a memorable scene, he sees what he thinks are wading birds taking off from a lake, only to realise the shapes are “fine platelets of ice being torn away by gusts of wind and flung up – twenty feet into the air, and scintillating”.

At points, Atkins might well be describing Antarctica, a terra nullius. At others, he evokes a more obviously managed landscape, joining a grouse shoot in an exciting episode evocative of a battle scene, with circular butts as trenches and well-dressed “guns” from town. Even in this celebration of futile death, an artificial harvest for which countless hen harriers and falcons have been poisoned or shot, Atkins sees a kind of transcendence. Handed a dead grouse, he swings its head between his forefingers as he has seen the hunters do, and it seems to weigh almost nothing at all.

Perhaps that is the beauty of this book. Vivid with incident and exquisite des­cription, it has a touch so deceptively light that it too seems to weigh nothing, yet mean everything.

Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” is out now in paperback (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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A L Kennedy Q&A: “Of course we’re all doomed"

The novelist talks wise politicians, time travel and Captain Haddock. 

What’s your earliest memory?
I’m not sure my early memories are that real. I recall pulling a doorknob off in the hallway in an attempt to leave home, because I was walking away from salad and was never going back . . . Salad back then was limited and scary.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was fond of Captain Haddock. And impressed by Henry Dunant. My heroes were mainly in books. My adult heroes would be numerous. The Lakota (and other) folks resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline are amazing. Bill Nighy is quietly doing amazingnesses on behalf of others. The whole of Médecins sans Frontières – they’re extraordinary. Lots of people do amazing things but don’t get mentioned. We are constantly given the impression by politicians and the media that everyone else is a bastard. It’s not true.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m always happy to read a wonderful book. But I guess I have envied writers who have been to amazing places or lived in amazing times and been useful. Rebecca West, then, Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Nelson Mandela was very wise about a number of things. Václav Havel and Gandhi also. In the present, the mayor of Düsseldorf is pretty impressive. So is Nicola Sturgeon. They’re people you can stand to be in the same room with – which is unusual in politics.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Anything I enjoy knowing would get spoiled by having to sit and spit out chips of it. Plus: my memory is on temporary leave of absence while I have the menopause.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
I’d like to have visited Shakespeare’s London – awful to live there. The UK in 1946-50 would fascinate me. And I’d like to have been in the US for the Sixties.

What’s your theme tune?
Depends. Bits of Dylan, lots of Elvis Costello, “Bread and Roses”, some First World War songs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that if I held on and passed my forties, life would be infinitely more fun. I did and it is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Don’t get me started. Let’s boil it all down to ambient cruelty and stupidity. We seem intent on becoming extinct. And if we go on as we are – we kind of should.

What single thing would make your life better?
I can’t tell you. But it would.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
No idea. I quite liked bits of acting – that’s tough, though. I like painting, in the sense of decorating. I wouldn’t mind being a painter.

When were you happiest?
I would imagine it’s all the times when I’ve forgotten about being me entirely and been completely involved in something other – nature, writing, giving a shit about someone else . . .

Are we all doomed?
Yes, of course. We always are. We all die. That’s why we ought to be kind. 

A L Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” is newly published in paperback by Vintage. Her children’s book “Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure” is published by Walker Books

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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