Places Archive

Lines on the landscape

Why and how does the British landscape — urban as well as rural — inspire writers? That’s a question addressed in a lively BBC “Arts & Ideas” podcast bringing together the writer “and incorrigible walker” Horatio Clare and the rapper and playwright Testament (AKA Andy Brooks), in whose Black Men Walking (see below) four ramblers discuss Britishness and belonging while stretching their legs in the Peak District. The session is chaired by the historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough.

In Russia — and the Fens

In the couple of weeks while I’ve been escaping the desk, several more reviews have appeared of Mud and Stars (Jonathan Cape), in which Sara Wheeler travels through Russia with the writers of the Golden Age. Julian Evans, in The Daily Telegraph, concludes that Wheeler’s “modest, ungrand tour… is far more of an epic than it at first appears”.  Alexander Larman, in a brief notice in The Observer, says that Wheeler’s “fascinating” book offers an important corrective to the image many Westerners have of Russia, and that its author is “as enthusiastic and authoritative a guide as one could wish for”. I’ve also just seen a review by Malika Browne, published in The Times in June, who says the book is “a well-researched, droll journey”.

  Francis Pryor’s The Fens (Head of Zeus), which was recently Book of the Week on Radio 4, has been reviewed by Hugh Thomson for The Spectator. Pryor, he says, “has spent most of his professional life working in the Fens and this book is a distillation of everything he has learned… His enthusiasm is infectious, whether he’s glimpsing Ely cathedral from a train, coming across John Clare’s grave or counting the bricks of Tattershall Castle.”

‘The Fens’ on Radio 4

The Fens, a new portrait of the marshy, low-lying landscape of eastern England by the archaeologist Francis Pryor (Head of Zeus, £9.99), is to be Book of the Week on Radio 4, starting next Monday morning. The BBC site had few details when I checked, but the publisher’s blurb says: 

Inland from the Wash, on England’s eastern cost, crisscrossed by substantial rivers and punctuated by soaring church spires, are the low-lying, marshy and mysterious Fens. Formed by marine and freshwater flooding, and historically wealthy owing to the fertility of their soils, the Fens of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire are one of the most distinctive, neglected and extraordinary regions of England.

Francis Pryor has the most intimate of connections with this landscape. For some forty years he has dug its soils as a working archaeologist – making ground-breaking discoveries about the nature of prehistoric settlement in the area – and raising sheep in the flower-growing country between Spalding and Wisbech. In The Fens, he counterpoints the history of the Fenland landscape and its transformation – from Bronze age field systems to Iron Age hillforts; from the rise of prosperous towns such as King’s Lynn, Ely and Cambridge to the ambitious drainage projects that created the Old and New Bedford Rivers – with the story of his own discovery of it as an archaeologist.

Lines on the landscape with Dan Richards

Dan Richards’s latest book, Outpost (Canongate), is a sprightly tour of places on the edge — among them the bothy, the writer’s retreat, the fire lookout tour and the lighthouse — and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. The author was invited by the excellent Five Books site to name his favourite works of landscape writing. His quirky selection, offered in an interview shortly before Alice Oswald was elected Oxford professor of poetry, includes her Dart, which she herself has described as “a river map of voices, like an aboriginal song line”.

Lines on the landscape with Macfarlane and Lopez

Thanks to the Twitter feed of the writer Julian Hoffman, I was directed yesterday to a recording of a conversation last Thursday between Robert Macfarlane and Barry Lopez at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Macfarlane — who is currently promoting his new book, Underland, in the United States — has said that it was reading Lopez’s Arctic Dreams at the age of 21 that turned him into a writer. Lopez has been similarly complimentary about Macfarlane’s work. The pair have long been writing to each other, but this was their first meeting. There’s an element of the mutual admiration society, but this is still a conversation worth hearing, in which two masters of writing on place talk about their craft and the ends to which they have turned it in this overheated age of the Anthropocene.

  On June 27, incidentally, Julian Hoffman is due to publish Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places (Hamish Hamilton), for which he set out “to explore loss in a way that wasn’t simply elegiac but defiant”.

‘Far corners and deepest depths’

The latest podcast of The New York Times Book Review takes listeners into “far corners and deepest depths”, featuring Robert Macfarlane, talking about his latest book, Underland (which you can read more about on Deskbound Traveller), and Julia Phillips, whose debut novel, Disappearing Earth, is set on the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia. The Book Review also has a review of Underland by Terry Tempest Williams.

13 titles on Wainwright Prize long list

The long list for the Wainwright Prize — £5,000 for the best writing on the outdoors, nature and travel focused on Britain — was released today, World Environment Day. It runs to 13 books, which vary enormously in genre, subject, tone and length. Among them are Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet; Out of the Woods by Luke Turner, which is both an examination of bisexuality and a tribute to “Effing” Forest; Landfill by Tim Dee, which is about birds — gulls, specifically — and rubbish; and Timesong: Searching for Doggerland by Julia Blackburn, a hymn to a vanished landscape and the people who once inhabited it. The full list is on the Wainwright Prize site; the short list will be announced on July 2.

Barry Lopez: wisdom-keeper turns wisdom-sharer

If you have any interest in what we’re doing to what Barry Lopez calls the “throttled Earth”, and how we might begin to ease our deadly grip, you ought to read his latest book, Horizon. My review appeared in print in The Daily Telegraph on May 11 and is now online. You can also read it here on Deskbound Traveller.

Robert Macfarlane on dark places, deep time — and books to get buried in

Back out in the light: Robert Macfarlane, in front of the Oriental plane at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Picture © MICHAEL KERR

In his latest book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey (Hamish Hamilton), Robert Macfarlane travels into the world beneath our feet and what we’ve made of it — physically, with mines and tombs, and metaphorically, with myths and legends. It takes him from Bronze Age funeral chambers in Somerset, via the catacombs of Paris, to a nuclear bunker in Finland. It’s a book that expands our notions of what constitutes landscape. It’s one full of wonders — in Kulusuk, Greenland, he celebrates “the wildest land I have ever seen” — but also of warnings of the harm we are doing in this overheated age of the Anthropocene.

  A week before publication, I went to Emmanuel College in Cambridge, where Macfarlane teaches, to talk to him about  what he calls “the hardest book I’ve ever written”. He’s spent a lot of time recently in dark, poky places, so I wasn’t surprised when he wanted to make the most of a sunny day and sit outside. We talked in the Fellows’ Garden, yards from a celebrated Oriental plane that was planted some time in the 1800s and seems to have as many branches reaching down as up. I wrote a piece for Telegraph Travel that appears in print today and is also online (though you’ll have to register to read it). You can read a fuller version of our chat here on Deskbound Traveller, including Macfarlane’s recommendations of new writing on travel and place. It runs to more than 4,000 words, so you might want to read it on something other than a phone.

The under-story of ‘Underland’ with Robert Macfarlane

My interview for Telegraph Travel with Robert Macfarlane about the wonder-filled Underland — the book he published this week — is now online and due to appear in print tomorrow. I’ll be putting a longer version up here on Deskbound Traveller a bit later.