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

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses