Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards: Where does all this rhapsodising over badgers and briar get us?

Since Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane's success, it is now even possible to take an MA in “wild writing” at the University of Essex. Along with Mumford & Sons, The Great British Bake Off and real-ale microbreweries in Shoreditch, it feels like a sympto

Holloway
Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards
Faber & Faber, £14.99, 48pp

Sometimes, as I trail around Ikea in Edmonton, I think it would be rather nice to run away from modern life. I could build myself a little bothy on top of a mountain. I would spend my days foraging and, at night, instead of sitting in my flat listening to joyriders screeching down the road on stolen pizzadelivery mopeds, I could watch the stars.

Then I think . . . come on. It would be ever so damp. For idle dreamers like me, nature writing is the answer. Without having to leave my sofa, I have experienced the windy peak of Binn Chuanna and the Black Wood of Rannoch and revelled in words such as “moschatel” and “foot-querned” without needing to know what they mean.

The granddaddy of contemporary nature writing was the late Roger Deakin, a founder member of Friends of the Earth and author of Waterlog (1999), a witty and wonderful account of a year spent wild-swimming in Britain’s rivers, tarns and lochs. Robert Macfarlane was his friend and protégé and he has picked up where Deakin left off with a trilogy of books – Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways – that have been garlanded with prizes and critical praise.

In the wake of these two big fish swim many minnows; it is now even possible to take an MA in “wild writing” at the University of Essex. So popular has the genre become that, having been a fan, I am beginning to feel weary. Where does all this rhapsodising over badgers and briar get us? Along with Mumford & Sons, The Great British Bake Off and real-ale microbreweries in Shoreditch, it feels like a symptom of our collective nostalgia for a more wholesome age.

This general sense of disillusionment may have affected my response to Holloway, the latest book by Macfarlane, with the writer Dan Richards and the artist Stanley Donwood. In September 2011, the three men spent the night in a “holloway” or sunken path in Dorset. Macfarlane had discovered the place with Deakin in 2005 (this journey is documented in The Wild Places). They took with them “a hip flask, two penknives, matches & candles”, “a bottle of damson gin” and a book called Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household, in which the fugitive hero hides out in a holloway.

The book was first published by Quive-Smith, an imprint founded by the three authors, with a print run of 277. It is now being reissued by Faber. Donwood’s black and white drawings are lovingly reproduced in the Faber version but while Holloway might have worked as an art object (the original was painstakingly printed using an old-fashioned letter press), it now feels insubstantial. A cover price of £14.99 buys you less than 25 pages of text, several of which are simply abbreviated chunks of The Wild Places. It reads like a notebook of poetic and rather pretentious jottings: “No moon above the whispering fields, low service in the crosshatched apse and every outside sound an ambush. Amphidromic points of faith.”

Its greatest failing is its lack of humour. Deakin, in contrast, was a funny writer; he had a keen sense of the absurd and, as well as telling us about the wildlife he encountered, he was interested and amused by the other people he met. There is nothing wrong with escapism: it is lovely to read about beautiful places and wild adventures, especially when you are stuck in a slightly too small flat trying to assemble flat-pack furniture. But there is a danger in it, too, because no matter how long we hide in a hedge, the rubbishstrewn world will be waiting for us when we dare to peer out.

Woodland near Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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

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