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Not to be Expected

By Anna Aslanyan.

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Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, ed. Di Robson & Gareth Evans, Artevents 2010

A grey day was breaking over a scene of utter desolation: a huge field of mud strewn with piles of rubbish, makeshift dwellings fashioned out of wet rags, fires smouldering here and there, and people – thousands of them, with gloomy faces, wearing dirty clothes, in various stages of exhaustion, all trickling in a few narrow streams towards some invisible point. This picture of exodus was positively dystopian, its more ominous elements still sticking in my mind: a battered pram pushed by a haggard bearded man, loaded with what must be his worldly possessions; a distant mouthpiece-distorted voice barking out incomprehensible orders. Walking over this wasteland, I felt strangely elated, unable to take my eyes off the bleak landscape. Finally we all arrived at a bus station, where it transpired that the sinister voice was only announcing departures. This was how Glastonbury 2007 ended for me.

The previous night, leaving a stall famous for its chai, I was listening to the owner’s parting words: “What’s wrong with you people? If I had a couple of hundred quid to spare, I’d go somewhere nice, not this shit hole in the middle of nowhere.” I promised myself never to set foot in this part of the world again. Back home, I spoke to a friend who had to leave the festival a day earlier (his tent was flooded); having heard my account of the last glimpse of the site, he exclaimed: “I with I could see it!” Sandwiched between these two opposite viewpoints, I kept remembering the place where I spent four days without noticing much scenery, its beauty and ugliness revealed to me in one final look. If, like me, you have ever had a similar moment of truth – or if you have not, but enjoy seeing things in an unexpected light – then Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings is your kind of reading.

The essays and poems collected here were contributed by several British writers, including such figures as Iain Sinclair and Lavinia Greenlaw. The book is published by innovative agency Artevents, and it is to their credit that there is not a single disappointment among the eleven pieces they commissioned. The main theme is the authors’ relationship with places that have a deeply personal significance to them – the relationship that, put into a wider context, illuminates the sentiments many of us experience towards our surroundings, if not always fully consciously.

Whether or not you are familiar with the locations mentioned in the book, the writing is so vivid you are bound to feel a certain affinity with at least some of them. The most striking example is Strata Florida, the remains of a Cistercian abbey in Wales. Jay Griffiths, visiting the grave of Dafydd ap Gwilym, the 14th century poet she admires, manages to convert the reader into her faith in the space of a dozen pages. Snug inside the trunk of an ancient yew, the writer repeats the poet’s words, “a living room is better if it grows”, his grave a welcoming hearth to his readers. Her Dafydd is “lascivious, mischievous and hot-blooded, barging his way across more than six centuries”, a man who called his cock “a trouserful of wantonness… pod of lewdness” and scattered his seed, both physically and spiritually, over the land he “sung himself into.” Griffiths writes about harp music, songlines, Welsh poetry traditions in such melodic sentences you almost succumb to her lullaby, expecting it to end on a similarly romantic, feel-good note. But then she makes an important point about “the undwellings of second homes”, suddenly waking you up to reality. The alarm bell is clear enough: “There are homes and there are denyings of homes to others”, and you open your eyes to the fact that tidy modern houses littering the farmland, these playthings of the rich, can harm more than people’s aesthetic sense. It is hard to discount the author’s concern – her love letter to Dafydd is brimming with such passion you firmly believe that she would never mention things of less importance in it.

Another passionate voice in the anthology is that of Iain Sinclair. He returns to his beloved Lea Valley to take a walk in Springfield Park for “a quietly eroticised pleasuring of the senses.” As usual in his wanderings, Sinclair finds “messenger spirits” that connect the past to the present; the immigrants taking a tram a century ago to find some rest from their Whitechapel existence in this “room without a ceiling, curtained with trees” are pictured next to the cyclists filling the space with their Babylonian mobile conversations today. An Orthodox Jew in a fur hat is juxtaposed with a woman, naked but for a short apron, taking a break from her kitchen duties in the garden, and you cannot help being drawn into “the drama of this non-event – hat, woman, watcher at table.” A Chinese poet living nearby shares the author’s regret about the commercialisation of the area in the run-up to the Olympics, stressing the power of the written word: “Only by our deep experience, our studies, can we keep the soul of the landscape”. Sinclair and his interlocutor agree that the place is under threat from those who see nothing but investment opportunities in it, and the best tool with which one can protect it, “show understanding and awareness”, is poetry.

This idea, extended to language in its many forms, is taken on board by the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Robert Macfarlane, in his insightful ‘A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, tells of the fight the locals put up to prevent their island from becoming the site of a colossal on-shore wind-farm a few years ago. The Brindled Moor where the pylons were proposed to be erected was described by the advocates of the plan as a wilderness, a desert. The rest of the application was composed in a cost-benefit newspeak of such blandness the islanders realised they had to provide “a new nomenclature of landscape”, that is, to introduce a language in which they would be able to explain the meaning of what to them was more than “a vast dead place.” A phrasebook of local moorland terms, together with a collection of poems, ballads, and folksongs dedicated to the Moor, tipped the scales in the protesters’ favour after three and a half years of battling. Macfarlane concludes that a similar “Glossary of Enchantment for the whole earth” is urgently needed to “provide us with the necessary tools for responsible place-making.”

The difficult choice between conservation and modernisation is also discussed by Ken Worpole who reflects on the ambivalences that inevitably occur when the old is driven out by the new. These, of course, are not unique to our age: the piece quotes Jules Renard, the 19th century French writer and politician, who said that “as a mayor, I am responsible for the upkeep of rural roads. As a poet I would prefer to see them neglected.” Searching for a link between landscape and national identity, Worpole starts his journey at East Mersea and goes on to compare Essex with other post-industrial areas, including a former steel plant in Germany and Gasworks Park in Seattle; these sites, now reclaimed by the public, have replaced more traditional ones as a source of inspiration for landscape students.

A visual taste is something that is defined not only by the eye of the beholder but also by the times he lives in. As Worpole reminds us, almost a century ago Thomas Hardy made a guess that “one day people would go for harsher surroundings when looking for beauty.” The post-festival scene recalled at the beginning would probably seem too harsh to the classic; on the other hand, he was quite at ease with “the winds, the rains, / And Earth’s old glooms and pains.” Glastonbury doesn’t feature in Towards Re-Enchantment (the nearest the authors get to it is Whitchurch Canonicorum in Dorset). And yet the book made me think of it as one of those places that have to be discovered, anew or for the first time. Perhaps I should return there, stay ’til everyone has gone and let the abandoned site re-enchant me with things I least expect.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 6th, 2010.