Awake Awake Sweet England: Why We Need Landscape Punk

Does the landscape of Brexit Britain need a reappraisal away from twee woodcuts and nihilistic conservatism? Gary Budden (words and photos) calls for a re-weirding of place and a new landscape punk.

"I am nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!”

– Penda’s Fen, 1974

I am obsessed by several things: Birds. Landscape. Place writing. Punk rock and all its associated subcultures Weird fiction. The anti-pastoral. London fiction.

There are some things I hate. Big and small c conservatism. Fascists. Woozy New Age approaches to subjects I care deeply about. English and British nationalism.

You could say it’s an interesting time for me; a lot of the things I love are suddenly getting mainstream attention. One of the more extreme and political aspects of underground punk culture, the antifa and the wider anti-fascist movement, is currently mainstream news. Fascism, and all the twisted notions of belonging and national and ethnic identity that go with it, has emerged again as a genuine threat.

British landscape writing is also very much in fashion – bookshops now have dedicated shelves full of books with woodcuts of bucolic scenes and inviting earthy tones on their covers. Like any genre that gets its moment in the spotlight, these books range from the sublime and wondrous to the prosaic and, dare I say, it (small c) conservative and twee. There’s a boom in a kind of gentle place-based nature writing, even as we know the idealised version of nature the books present is dying right in front of our eyes. To not tackle this issue, now, when we know that ecocide is happening everywhere, seems dishonest.

So then what function does our place writing, our nature tomes, even our psychogeography, play? At time, perhaps a role like that of escapist fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but I feel a trick is being missed, and I question the role this literature performs. I sense a desire for simplicity in these books (they often end with –Lands, featuring charming illustrations of badgers, otters or meadows on the covers). Yet simplicity is a short journey away from purity, and I worry about purity. There is no untouched nature in Britain. Everything and everyone is hybrid. We may not like the fact, but no-one and everyone belongs.

I prefer books that take a hybrid approach, and you can find those books in the mainstream. Examples: Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks is a book that looks at the relationship between place and language itself, though unfortunately not interrogating some of the less appealing ideas of some of the writers it covered. Macfarlane alludes to certain writers he lauds as containing unsavoury ideas about belonging and race, but sadly glosses over the subject. Instead, now is the time to fully interrogate whatever ideas we have about ‘the land’ and who and what belongs there. Helen MacDonald’s H Is For Hawk was not really nature writing but an account of falconry, familial loss and the writer T.H. White. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was a fusion of traditional recovery-memoir and more standard, if such a thing exists, nature writing. These are books all worth your time.

This hybridity is something that should be celebrated, despite the slightly grumpy protestations of writers like Mark Cocker who claimed a number of recent works are not ‘real’ nature writing. For my part, I like Cocker’s writing, especially Crow Country, but I had to differ with him on that one. If ‘real’ nature writing isn’t being produced, that’s something to blame on the publishing industry and marketing departments, I believe, rather than the writer, and I wonder if those who were criticised by Cocker ever set out to write in one specific genre in the first place.

Landscape fiction is also a big deal right now. At university, I fell in love with the brutal, heartrending and ecstatic novels of Niall Griffiths, a type of writing that I would call anti-pastoral fiction that I follow eagerly in the work of Cynan Jones (who just won the BBC Short Story Award), Benjamin Myers and more. Rural landscape novels, perhaps less visceral, make it onto Booker shortlists.

When we move away from the idealised landscapes and into the anti-pastoral hybrid forms, we find this fiction lending itself to the weird too – look at the recent successes of books like Daisy Johnson’s Fen, or the current infatuation with folk horror, reappraising and rightly lauding everything from The League of Gentlemen to Robert Aickman to David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen. The weird itself is now officially A Thing – the film adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation draws near, surely marking a watershed for intelligent, eco-focused weird fiction.

I find myself in difficult position. I consider myself to be an anti-fascist, and yet I read many, many books concerning the British landscape – I have written a fiction collection partly about that fascination myself – and I’m aware of how these feelings I hold towards landscape dovetail with those I disagree with, and at times despise. I care deeply about wildlife and conservation – to the point where I have been accused of holding a kind of animal anti-immigration policy, because I dislike the invasive species green parakeets, signal crayfish and grey squirrels. I am increasingly being affected by the ideas of radical ecology, of the notion of hyperobjects, the bleak but often truthful output of the Dark Mountain Project, but I felt very uncomfortable to see a writer I read with great interest associated with the Dark Mountain project sink into a kind of left-wing, pro-Brexit eco-nationalism. Troubling concepts like ‘Anglarchism’ leave me cold. The whole point of the Crass-inspired anarchism I grew up with as a punk was that there were no borders and no nations. You could deeply care the environments we inhabit without having to claim ownership of them.

I’m happy with the idea of a shared culture, a shared language, but focusing on anything specifically ‘English’ leaves me increasingly queasy, even as I search wider and deeper within my own culture to prove to myself that we (whoever we are) are not just a sad island full of unimaginative and fearful xenophobes. I find Crass a very useful example, in fact, when it comes to attitudes to place, and my own conflicted feelings about the literary genres I follow. I begin my book Hollow Shores with a quote from Penny Rimbaud’s autobiography, Shibboleth: My Revolting Life:

"Perhaps it was his love of the mythical past, King Arthur and his knights, that brought him back. Or perhaps he felt as I did, that real change could only be affected in the place that you most understood: home"

I found this a quote I kept returning to again and again. I questioned what home meant; home to me to is a bastard place, multi-cultural and multi-layered, mixed, impure. No one belongs, or everyone does. A place could be home, but it wasn’t ever mine in an exclusionary way.

The only way to avoid these problems is to create something new. Trying to achieve a different result using the same method is madness. Of if not create something entirely new – maybe an impossibility – then employ a new method and approach the same subjects in different ways. I consider the links between the tangled and confusing worlds of underground culture, in the UK and abroad, with weird fiction and landscape and place writing to already exist. They are there, for anyone who is willing to see, and I don’t claim this as an original point.

The evils of nationalism and corrupted ideas of belonging to ‘the land’ are very much with us now. It’s not something we can gloss over or pretend isn’t there because it conflicts with our mollifying views of nature, of our country and the world we live in.

We’re living in an age of mass extinction and climate collapse. We hear talk of those who don’t belong, who aren’t native, aliens – humans like you and me dehumanised when humanity is the thing we all desperately need right now. And it might be a small thing seemingly in the face of all that, but the books we write, and the books we read (along with the music we listen to and the films we watch), are important in how we understand these issue, and therefore understand ourselves.

I’m not interested in iconoclasm though, and I’m not trying to point the finger. If, like I say, I find fault in the cosy form of nature writing that seems to be selling well – give me the misanthropic beauty J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine any day – then criticism is surely not enough. There must be something done to combat and engage the problems I see.

It’s why I adopted the term ‘landscape punk’ to describe my work. A slightly tongue-in-cheek term for sure, lifted from my friend David Southwell, creator of the Hookland project. But I’ve found it very useful in marrying several things that didn’t seem to be fitting together under other generic strictures, but that I knew were connected. The attitude of the best of punk culture, the things that thrilled me about landscape fiction and place writing, and the literary weird fiction and horror I love.

It allows a mild bit of disrespect and a different approach to that taken by more traditional approaches to landscape writing. Being a punk fan myself made the fit seem natural. I think of it as a method for addressing the things I believe to be important, the things that obsess me, in a hybrid form that’s comfortable with its own impure nature. I can write about nature, but not from the perspective of an expert because I’m not an expert. I can focus on the hybrid bastard landscapes we all find ourselves in without editing out the unsavoury details. Landscape punk is the abandoned shopping trolley sinking in the wet marsh of a designated nature reserve. It’s the sodden remains of a Winnie the Pooh toy floating face down in one of London’s canals whilst a hungover protagonist watches kingfishers and cormorants. It’s politicised, it embraces the weird, the horrific and the non-realist to try and get to some deeper truths about the insane world we’ve found ourselves. Landscape punk is a method for writing about, and dealing with, the world we live in, not the one we may want.

It’s mud and flame. It’s nothing pure. It’s mixed. As we all should be.

Gary Budden’s new anthology Hollow Shores is out now via Dead Ink Press – buy it here

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