I grew up in a story-heavy household. Greek myths rubbed shoulders with the Brothers Grimm. Margaret Mahy sat on the shelves next to Enid Blyton. On the landing we had collections of folklore from around the world: Czech, Japanese, German, Australian, Welsh (all translated or retold, of course. I speak nothing else beyond very, very bad GCSE French). I mainly remember them in snatches now, the odd character or detail. What remains is that sense of being immersed in numerous worlds – falling into the pages and inhabiting whatever landscape was present, be it forest, castle, bustling city or an early 20th Century England filled with plummy accents and dastardly criminals.
A little later on, I discovered Alan Garner – first via The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (set in Cheshire), then The Owl Service (set in a remote Welsh valley). I’ve since filled in the gaps with Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, Red Shift, and his excellent set of essays The Voice that Thunders. Garner’s sense of place informs everything. The landscape is not merely interwoven with the story. It is the story. He draws on some of the eeriest mythology and imagery you’ll find in children’s literature (well, if you count it as children’s literature, which it’s really not. Go read him now, regardless of your age). He writes with bite and earth. Each sentence is perfectly weighted, each book unnerving and wonderful - somehow both ancient and timeless.
I’ve been thinking about Garner again, on two counts. First, I’m currently writing about one of his essays for some coursework (picking his images and observations apart is a laborious joy). Second, last month I went to a talk in Oxford titled Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the “English Eerie”. There his TV episode To Kill a King was discussed, alongside a variety of other things: archeology, poetry, rituals, folk horror, films. With the latter, we saw three short pieces by Adam Scovell – small, self-enclosed narratives filmed on Super8, brimming with shaking reeds and mysterious shadows. The theme of the evening was ‘a sense of unease and of Otherness’ specifically located in the English landscape. It was marvelous - full of flickering points and embers of ideas to consider further.
When I left, I cycled home in the cold, poured myself a large glass of wine, stuck on PJ Harvey, and began scribbling copious notes. I’m not quite sure why the event had this effect. Perhaps because it articulated lots of the things I want to read and write more about: psycho-geography, the aesthetics of decay, the complex relationship between literature and place. Perhaps because it linked to all sorts of creative projects I can’t wait to explore when I have the time. Mainly though, I think, because it tapped into some type of nostalgia: Robert Scovell’s beautiful adaptation of Robert Macfarlane’s Holloway filmed in a different part of the country to the one I grew up in, but still recalling the thrill of the area where I grew up. I too trekked up little gulley-ways and splashed along river-soaked furrows hidden behind hedges. The sounds of shivering leaves and cooing wood pigeons and the dripping of rain from trees are all intensely familiar. Nothing makes me feel calmer than the fall of late afternoon light on woods (well, quite a lot does – but it certainly does help…)
There was another link too: this blog. Despite there being a distinct lack of unease or spookiness here, I've always enjoyed dressing up in eerie, unusual, vaguely spectacular ways: donning a white 50s lace wedding dress to haunt a crumbling cottage; pretending to be both Snow White and Rose Red; hanging out under weeping willows in a black ball-gown with voluminous sleeves; emulating Kate Bush (regularly); standing on a rugged hilltop in long grey skirt and long grey cloak; getting chilly in a 70s synthetic wedding dress (notice a theme?) at twilight; spending time at Orford Ness under a glooming sky; wearing green satin next to a tumbledown farmer’s shed with a corrugated roof; adding a home-made crown of ferns for some impromptu photos next to a Welsh waterfall (in fact, the photos are broadly split between English and Welsh surroundings). All of them are about momentarily fantastical stories: the stories of places I was in, the stories I played at inhabiting with particular clothes and poses for half an hour or so. All of them are stories about and in the landscape too: full of spindly trees and green brooks and piles of rocks that once formed the boundary lines of a home.
All of this has its own distinct form of selective nostalgia attached, too. It’s easy in retrospect to forget the biting cold that accompanied the poses, the flinches at wind hitting bare skin, the absolute relief of throwing back on a jumper, coat and boots at the end (something I wrote about here). What remains afterwards is the image. Me, in a variety of costumes in a variety of places over the last six or so years: my face changing shape, legs lengthening, body shifting from lines to curves, hair getting incrementally shorter and curlier, style changing subtly. Nervous, elfin girl through to confident young woman. Teenager unhappy at school through to student looking towards the end of her degree. Some things remain though: I'm still someone who bloody loves a good costume, a good character, a good narrative, a good excuse to pose at the top of a hill in ridiculous heels and a vintage ball-gown. Long may that continue…
This vintage dress (temporarily stolen from my mum) is the most ridiculous, glorious thing ever. The sleeves alone could be written about at length. I shot this when I was back home last month. I'm already looking enviously at that carpet of yellow leaves - so bright by comparison with the current grey of November. Here I opted for sensible boots rather than impractical heels. All the better to stomp and swirl around in.