To begin, an apology. I promised you a guest this Sunday, but the boiler needed replacing, and a proper man was booked to paint the kitchen, and with one thing and another, we’re all a-fluster, and we’re in no state for a guest. But here you are, and as my mother would say with a perfect grasp of grammar: Well, we can’t not give them something. If you were expecting a full Sunday dinner with trimmings, then sorry. I can do you a pot of tea and a biscuit.
As it happens, a couple of things have coincided; not unhappily. As my mother would never have said.
First up. I wrote a cobweb strand on Oct. 26…’A way with words’. It was about the language of maps and landscape. It took me ages. Last week I bought the wonderful Robert Macfarlane’s new book: Landmarks. Within the first four pages he had elegantly articulated everything I was trying to say in October. And the rest of it too. The stuff that I wanted to say but couldn’t find the words for. The words that fit. The words without which there wouldn’t be the idea.
Second, I went last week on a three day writing course at Rydal Mount near Ambleside. I hate to say this, but I’m not a fan of the Lake District. Or, more strictly, of the National Trust, biscuit tin, jigsaw puzzle Lake District. It puts me too powerfully in mind of something Raymond Williams said of the novels of Jane Austen….that the majority of the people (who make the houses and the villages and farms and estates and landscapes possible) are, simply, invisible. The Lakes are a working landscape of thin and difficult steep land and tough little Herdwicks, and small farms, but you wouldn’t know it driving up by Windermere, and through Ambleside and up to Keswick.
As we drove from Kendal, though, the land was lovely. There were comb-overs of late snow on the ridges of the far hills. The fields were that clean grey-green of the end of winter. There was a lilac haze at the tips of the hawthorn and rowan and sycamore. There were early lambs out in the fields. Everything was there to be seen as it isn’t when everything’s in leaf. All the work was visible. The work of drystone walls, of baled hay, of cleared out ditches and newly gravelled field tracks. It’s a landscape that doesn’t dissemble. It declares how it’s been made by hard graft and skill out of natural materials, out of what comes to hand.
And then we arrived at Rydal Mount. It’s truly a handsome place, and it’s gardens are landscaped. I normally bridle at 18th and 19th C. landscaping. It’s what my socialist uncle used to call theft on a grand scale. But in the rain, and in this tight little steep sided valley it looked perfect, and I relented. Melted, in fact. There were three sheep in the middle ground just below a knoll crowned with three well-disposed conifers. They looked as though they had been trained to stand there, never to move. You could sit in a huge sitting room, out of the rain, and enjoy the Picturesque, the well-wrought urn. And somewhere, out of sight, someone would be ironing, washing, chopping, cooking, scrubbing, smithying, drywalling, painting, hewing…………….and you would need never be troubled.
I remembered Raymond Williams in a BBC adaptation of his brilliant work ‘The country and the city’. He had one of the books of the landscape gardener, Humphrey Repton, and he turned the huge pages as he held it up in front of the sweeping landscaped grounds of Tatton Hall. A work of beauty, those books. Large double spread watercolours of the land as it originally was, and then pages that folded over and folded in to hide and reveal successive changes and additions. Like The Hungry Caterpillar for the unimaginably rich. It always stuck with me, that image, partly because of Pope’s scathing attack on what he regarded as the vulgarity and bad taste of the craze for redecorating the land, and partly because of the strange vanity of it. You could look at the paintings and drawings of what your estate would ideally look like. Eventually. It struck me that you’d never see what you were paying for. I mean, how long does it take for a stately beech to grow big enough not to look insignificant in a deer park? Well, I found out later that what happened was astonishing. Huge mature trees were dug up and transported, dragged on waggons drawn by teams of oxen, and planted in prepared holes and watered in. It turns out that you didn’t have to wait. But by then I’d already written a poem. It’s in The Garden: words that will grow on you. And it’s also here:
The grass is wet, Ma’am; take care. Allow me. So.
Perhaps your man can hold the book? Yes.
You see this colour wash and pencil shows
the way the land’s disposed just now. These barns
and cottages will have to go. Now, if we fold
these papers, let me show you our design.
Thus: a shallow valley where we redirect
the stream, and, in the middle ground, a lake,
this balustraded bridge in Portland stone;
here, we plant our stands of chestnut; here, of elm
and beech. We need the play of dappling light.
A raised knoll here — with Pantheon —some sheep
precisely placed, a scattering of deer.
The Pictureseque, you see. This vantage point
will need a temple. Something simple, Doric.
Madam, you approve the scheme? The which
to undertake will be a privilege.
We could begin within the month….upon my word.
And as to finishing? The work to be complete,
within a twelvemonth; Ma’am, my word on that.
The achieved effect? Ah. Shall we say, two hundred years.
Right. Another cup of tea? A biscuit?…..sorry we only had plain. No? You must be off? Listen, we’ll do it properly next week…all the trimmings. It’s a date.
(For the record, you really must buy: Robert Macfarlane Landmarks [Hamish Hamilton 2015. £20.00]
While you’re at it, treat yourself to The garden [Otley Word Feast Press 2014. £8.00] …..they do PayPal.)