Terror In The Terroir: Resisting The Rebranding Of The Countryside
, December 13th, 2013 08:29
Resisting ideological efforts to brand the countryside as a place of safe, reassuring conservativism, argues Joe Kennedy, a host of art and music in 2013 powerfully emphasised the uncanny and traumatic aspects of rural Britain. Photograph by Luke Turner.
Two years ago, I wrote a handful of articles, including a Wreath Lecture for this publication, which attacked the way that the pastoral and home-grown had become ideological cornerstones of austerity politics. Sadly, the nation still remains too caught up in its Mary 'British' Berry's British Best of British British Bake-Offs to do much about the fact that the real ale-and-pork scratchings façade of our leading politicians conceals an allegiance to a notably inorganic system of global finance which is happy to have people freeze to death to keep its markets unregulated. 'Let them eat LOCAL!' persists as a leitmotif of disguised priorities. However, the same two years has also seen the coalescence of a rural, or at least extra-urban, aesthetic which requests that we see the spaces beyond Britain's cities in all their weird specificity, rejecting the generalising pastoralist homilies of – sorry for the straw men, but they've done nothing to redeem themselves this year – nu-folk and the pro-provenance cookery columns in order to expose a hard seam of terror which cuts through the terroir.
The 'bad', Mumfordian pastoral imagines the countryside as a place of reassurance, an Oedipal retreat which responds to (and, paradoxically, helps to ensure) a snowballing techno-economic crisis. This, though, is a perversion of a tradition in English art which has long intuited that the countryside is uncanny: a place which seems to offer security, and yet is somehow the location of menaces far more profound than those found in the city. Arthur Conan Doyle tipped his hat to this in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, one of the earlier Sherlock Holmes stories. In it, the mastermind of the leftfield hunch and his intellectually mundane companion Dr. Watson are travelling by train through the gently impressive southern English landscape. Gazing from the window, Holmes scolds Watson for his steadfast fidelity to received wisdom, speaking of the malevolence lurking in the ostensibly benign scenery. The stables and cottages that the Doctor views unsophisticatedly as "dear old homesteads" fill him "with a certain horror", and "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
We can find a plethora of examples, going back to Romanticism, which explore the uncanny and at times traumatic aspects of the rural. Take Turner's paintings, which play natural beauty off against a deep sense of geographical and technological unease, or Alice in Wonderland, which uses an identifiably English vista of woodlands and hedgerows to derange the logic of the everyday world. In the twentieth century, the canon of pastoral fear takes in M.R. James' ghost stories, W.H. Auden's Pennine absurdism, Paul Nash's Home Counties surrealism, the parochial nightmares conceived by Nigel Kneale, Hammer and Doctor Who in the 1960s and 1970s, The Prisoner, and many of Roald Dahl's Tales Of The Unexpected. Perhaps as a rebuttal of the simplistic rendering of what lies beyond the city in the standard Keep Calm and Holiday at Home narratives, there has recently been a discernible turn towards a way of looking at the hinterland which corresponds to the affective dimension of this heritage – its enrapturement by the weird and seemingly out of place – even if it does not necessarily share its repertoire of imagery.
It's an odd place to begin, perhaps, given that it was a large and rather glossy film production, and perhaps is somewhat more watered-down in its take on the subject than some of what I'll cover, but Kevin Macdonald's How I Live Now somehow encapsulated how the countryside has started to bite back at its appropriation. As I wrote in my review of Jon Hopkins' soundtrack, "the movie toys initially with an of-its-time celebration of the Great British bucolic before lurching disquietingly into a study of a militarised England". It seems to argue that, in difficult times, we cannot simply fold in and, as it were, return to home and hearth, for the precise reason that home and hearth is where the trouble begins. Some appeared to read the film as a valourising of Mumfordland, but this was to miss its finer points.
Nevertheless, How I Live Now was merely indicative of something stirring slightly deeper. While its critique was sharp, it still generalised, demarcating England into London and a green and pleasant not-London. More refined studies of the hinterland have struck out for the particular qualities of localities. 'Psychogeography' is a term which has become nigh-on redundant through overuse, but a lot of the most engaging music and writing to have come out of England over the last couple of years has had an eye, or an ear, for the palimpsestic qualities of place which psychogeographic thinking has emphasised.
These New Puritans - 'Fragment Two'
Look, for instance, at the top of the Quietus' albums of the year list. Just behind the open-skies psychedelia of Grumbling Fur at number one sits my personal choice, Field Of Reeds by These New Puritans. Field Of Reeds, as Tim Burrows suggests here, is an aural study of the estuarine environment which the band hail from, bringing to light its "discrepancies – between ancient creeks and marshland and the hyper-inflated lives of tech-savvy City commuters […]; between the straight-up directness of Essex parlance and the directionless, all-encompassing mists". The album conjures spatialities in which the listener perceives this coming-together of modern Essex's gridlocked A roads and urban spillover with a haunted, littoral England, the realm of The Woman in Black and the Setty Case. This is no abstract 'countryside', but a landscape in which rival historical and cultural forces churn against one another.
Field Of Reeds wasn't the first album in the last couple of years to perform an effective temporal cutaway on one of England's rural settings. Heading northwest, 2012 saw Sheffield's Eccentronic Research Council, aided by actor Maxine Peake, go on the trail of witches and witchfinders along the aptly named A666 road in Lancashire. 1612 Underture, named for the year of the trial of the Pendle Witches, uses burbling Casio krautrock and analogue echoscapes reminiscent of The White Noise and The United States of America as backings for Peake's simultaneously arch and eerie monologues. These intercut a narrating of a modern-day trip through the upland ex-mill towns of East Lancashire with what seem to be séances with the long-dead witches as they elaborate on the hypocrisy of Jacobean justice. One moment we're parking up on a down-at-heel high street in Darwen or Colne, all charity shops and Bargain Booze, the next we're in a seventeenth-century assizes watching a traduced woman plead for her life. Again, this captures the rural as much more than an empty vessel to be filled with the lifestyle fantasies of a moneyed metropolitan elite and the compensatory cant of Green Toryism.
Eccentronic Research Council & Maxine Peake - 'Autobahn 666 (Travelogue #1)
The West Pennines have served as the subject matter for a number of other artists of late. It's a while now since Richard Skelton produced Landings, but its evocation of the work of mourning in a glowering landscape of gritstone outcrops and flowing runnels is also powerful evidence of how a considered rural aesthetic has developed of late. James Kirby's work as The Stranger offers a more wilfully discordant take on the same area: while 2008's Bleaklow is probably his most pronounced engagement with the question of place, the dark ambient drones and clicks of new album Watching Dead Empires in Decay also contribute to his musical picture of what Justin Barton and Mark Fisher term an 'Eerie North West'. Here, the sublime moorland landscape is a backdrop against which a shadowplay of not-quite forgotten crimes and long-discontinued industrial activity takes place. Once again, this is the English countryside with its history and locational specificity reinstated, the rural scene reclaimed from its obfuscating ideological function.
The Stranger - 'Where Are Our Monsters Now, Where Are Our Friends?'
Literature, too, has played a fundamental role in the production of the countryside and England's wilder places as a multidimensional space in which geographical and historical realities collide to produce unsettling effects. In spring, M. John Harrison's novel Climbers was reissued, 23 years after its publication, and finally received its due acclaim. Climbers is, as travel writer Robert Macfarlane puts it, a survey of "a late Thatcherite England – mostly northern – of contamination, industry, unemployment and discard" which is fully appropriate to the terms and conditions of latter-day Conservative rule. The crags and moorlands offer some respite from the blind greed of a capitalism at riot, but the open air is in no way allowed to become a simple counterpoint to the unthinking marketisation which has blighted the cities, and nature is "a compromised category". Something similar takes place in Quietus writer Ben Myers' 2012 novel Pig Iron, a story of Traveller culture in County Durham which plays out over the last forty years or so, and takes as its setting an economically-blasted rural landscape largely neglected by fiction. Macfarlane's own writing also contests the notion that the countryside can, or should, be a place of simple assurances readymade for co-option by a reactionary politics.
It seems that now, more than at any time in living memory, what lies beyond the city is up for grabs, in a cultural and political conflict with increasingly high stakes. To insist on the historical complexity of the rural, by highlighting the often grim activities which occur beneath the sightlines afforded by postcards, is to query its tidying up into a set of easily consumable images and, lest we forget, tastes. Albums like Field Of Reeds or 1612 Underture hardly scream 'revolution' at their listener, but the very fact that they exist in the way that they do constitutes, in 2013, a political gesture, in that they dispel the notion that the countryside can merely be a retreat from the cares and concerns of metropolitan life.