TLS review: ‘Ground Work’, Tim Dee ed. (Cape, 2018)

The essay collection as a form is enjoying a strong few years: in the field of nature writing, Ground Work follows Arboreal (Adrian Cooper ed., 2016), while questions of place and belonging have been variously addressed, explored and toyed with in The Good Immigrant (Nikesh Shukla ed., 2015) and Know Your Place (Nathan Connolly ed., 2017). Inasmuch as these books invite new or overlooked voices into our common conversations, they are hugely welcome; inasmuch as they offer a licence to waffle, they are less so. Tim Dee’s wordy prologue (of which more later) signals a listing towards the latter tendency. His throwaway and inadequate ‘I … failed to find anything other than white contributors’ inspires even less hope.  But there is plenty of worthwhile work here.

Alexandra Harris’s ‘The Marsh And The Visitor’ cheerfully challenges a few nature-writing norms: ‘The tradition of English place-writing … has little truck with holders of a return ticket via London. The nature writer does not go out with the Dorling Kindersley book of wild flowers.’ How ‘valid’, she wonders, are her feelings for the Sussex landscapes that she knows only as a visitor? The book as a whole could have used more of this sort of brisk and insightful examination.

The more interesting contributions here come from people with something interesting to write about. It’s an unsurprising observation but one worth making in the present climate. Paul Farley’s wonderful ‘Tipping Buckets’ takes Liverpool’s Piazza Waterfall as its jumping-off point for a tour of histories both civic (the slave trade, the Mersey Docks, the Liverpool blitz) and personal (pop records, his father’s cigars: ‘If this is only so much botanising on asphalt … it still feels like returning to a source’). Ornithologist Nick Davies is surprisingly affecting in a piece revisiting the cuckoos and reed warblers of Wicken Fen in Cambridgshire. Helen Macdonald, never not interesting, again rather gives the impression of having been invented by an eccentric novelist, reflecting on a childhood of dead birds and crackpot neighbours in Surrey’s Tekels Park. ‘During this sixth extinction,’ Macdonald writes, ‘we who may not have time to do anything else must write what we now can, to take stock.’ Ken Worpole on public parks and Hugh Brody on the making of Inuit history-maps (‘Stories became maps; maps turned into a new kind of story’) are both excellent. Richard Mabey is very good on Hardings Wood, his patch of Chilterns forest, but it feels like we’ve been here before; Mark Cocker’s rich piece from Upper Teesdale is largely lifted from his new book.

Elsewhere, however, one writer after another lurches into something very like self-parody: ‘How does the terminology of beekeeping diminish a symbiosis?’; ‘Every place is unique. Did Thoreau say that? I seem to think so, but I can’t remember where and perhaps I am mistaken’; ‘I don’t operate a mobile phone, or wear a watch. I cycle, like the boy I was’.

The collective effect is to underwhelm. Many of the essays here won’t provoke much more than a ‘Yes, and…?’ from the reader. Nothing really startles. No-one is funny. The ruling aesthetics feel well-worn. Interconnections of place, culture and memory are trodden over again and again without anything very new being unearthed. Perhaps the problem is that writers simply aren’t as interesting as other writers think they are. One wonders what an oral historian, a Tony Parker or an MY Alam, might have done with the same theme; what sort of book might have been achieved had the thirty voices been less filtered, less carefully mediated by writerly sensibility.

The idea of mediation brings us back to Dee’s preface. His inveighing against ‘the untextured places we increasingly live among’ has the feel of a manifesto. He condemns the age of the smartphone (modern nature writers have a real thing about smartphones) and kicks against ‘the unmuddy world of the depthless screen and the sealed space’ (a bit jumpers-for-goalposts, this). The values of place-writing since the 1980s, he argues, have shifted: ‘We now understand that the paved world can be as articulate as the vegetated … All of our habitat is relevant: not just the pretty bits.’

It feels rather odd to be speaking about works like Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside (1973) as though they were in the vanguard of thinking on landscape and nature, but that’s only part of the problem here. The reality is that our modern experiences of place and landscape remain far from untrammelled – it’s hard to see how they could be, when in this same preface Dee himself declares roads, airports, hospitals and supermarkets to be ‘non-places’, as if nothing worthwhile was ever seen or felt by a hospital bedside or in a departure lounge (just as, of course, there is nothing worthwhile to be found in a smartphone). Dee writes as though modern landscape writing is a wildly diverse and inclusive thing but in fact the weight of the prevailing aesthetic – today favouring, as a rule, the brooding and sublime, the sensitive, the straight-faced – is just as heavy as ever, and can be just as stultifying.

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