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Letter from Iceland

August 20th, 2015 No comments

Letters-from-Iceland-TP_zpsb65ae8d4Difficult to be here without thinking of the travel book W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote in 1936 when they came.  Letters from Iceland is a curious and in some ways very lazy book, which they threw together for Fabers at a time when such golden boys they could pretty much do anything they wanted.

So in some ways it’s a mischievous anti-travel book that tweaks the tale of more serious contemporaries like Peter Fleming.  There’s quite a lot of ‘I can’t really be bothered to do this,’ with deliberately amateur black-and-white pictures.  At one point they just bundle in a whole anthology of clippings from previous visitors to bulk it up a bit.

But it also signals a sea change in their own writing – in Iceland, they can loosen up, free from the pressures of being ‘the voices of their generation’ back home, a particular pressure on Auden.  He had read Byron’s Don Juan on the boat over and the idea came to him (in a
bus when travelling across Iceland) that, for the first time, he could write some similar light verse, in the form of letters home to friends in England in which he could put ‘anything I could think of about Europe, literature, myself’ . And this lovely couplet about a place I’ve just visited as well:

‘In Seythisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.’

images (3)MacNeice contributes much less to the book – some eighty-one pages out of the first edition’s two hundred forty – but has some equally effective couplets in his own verse letter which prefigures the great wartime Autumn Journal: 

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‘Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
stills from the film of life, the frozen fire’

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they rode on ponies around the glacier of Langjokull

There was a subtext to their visit as well.  Some Nazi anthropologist were also visiting the island in an attempt to prove that it displayed pure, isolationist Aryan characteristics.  The two poets tried to show in contrast that it was the model for a quiet, democratic nation, free from such shrill nationalistic yearnings.  And it was in Iceland that Auden first heard the news about the civil war in Spain, and everything changed….

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Talking Sheep

August 3rd, 2015 No comments
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Jason Gathorne-Hardy, the master artist when it comes to sheep

Not often that an obvious stand-out classic arrives in the rather over populated world of nature history writing at the moment. Last year it was Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

This year it is definitely The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks , who already has a large following from his Twitter account as ‘The Herdwick Shepherd’.

Counting sheep will never send people to sleep again. It’s an extraordinary authentic account of what it actually is like to live and breathe sheep.  Tersely written as well.

He pays tribute both in his title and in his text to WH Hudson’s classic A Shepherd’s Life, which was based on a series of interviews with a shepherd in Dorset and which I quoted in The Green Road into the Trees when walking through that part of the world:

The naturalist WH Hudson, noted how the local plants had adapted by growing as low as possible to avoid the attentions of the sheep.  I was a great admirer of Hudson and had visited the house where he was born in Argentina, overshadowed by an enormous ombu tree:  a strange tree which is more like a giant shrub, and needs to have its branches supported on crutches across the ground, so that it resembles a giant spider.

He brought to his studies of England, in particular A Shepherd’s Life about these Dorset and Wiltshire Downs, a sense that England was just as strange and exotic as the pampas;  also a sense of how short rural memories are.  He told an odd story of how a farmer he had met had puzzled over finding a disused well full of sheep heads with horns, when none of the local breeds were horned;  and that Hudson had had to tell him about the old Wiltshire breed of sheep, with horns, which had only died out a generation or so before.