The Old Ways

In the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition, amongst the gems of first editions, scrawled upon typescripts, and radio interviews (including Daphne du Maurier reading her diary entry for the occasion when she first saw the real Jamaica Inn!), there were some video clips of various wild writers in various wild places talking about British landscape and literature.

Robert Macfarlane was among these celebrated writers, which was a happy coincidence, as I have been reading his new book The Old Ways. It’s a beautiful big hardback, too precious a thing to be carted around in my bike bag with my oily lock and leaking packed lunch. So, quite unlike All Passion Spent, which I read all at once, I read The Old Ways discretely, chapter by chapter, half-centimetre by half-centimetre, over a few weeks. The book is split into sixteen chapters and each explores a different path, so it’s rather a good one to read like this. Rather than the sudden rushing gush that comes with reading a book all at once, this gradual process meant that it seeped into my consciousness, drip by drip, permeating down slowly but surely, etching its mark gently but repeatedly. It’s meant that I’ve had some very nice, lyrical, Macfarlaneish thoughts buzzing around the back of my mind over the past weeks.

Amongst all the brilliant ideas, beautiful descriptions and fascinating people who are strewn liberally across the pages of The Old Ways, I particularly like the links Macfarlane explores between walking and thinking. He points out that the verb ‘to learn’ etymologically stretches back to the proto-Germanic liznojan, which means ‘to follow or to find a track’. So following paths is a way of learning and our language is full of instances in which these ideas mingle together. Macfarlane writes:

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it.

I like the idea that as we tread on a path, we are also stepping along ‘lines of thought’, or following ‘streams of consciousness’; wandering is a way to ease wondering, and walking a way to ease talking.

He also writes how treading a path connects you to the ghosts who have stepped that way before you. Macfarlane quotes Richard Holmes, who compares writing a biography to:

a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past.

And so Macfarlane sets out to walk where Edward Thomas (see here and here for more thoughts about him) walked, following the Icknield Way amongst others, conjuring his ghostly presence from the chalky landscape.

But my very favourite thing Macfarlane said was in the British Library video clip. Up popped his head, which, having spent so much time reading his book, felt like seeing a familiar face in a crowd. Then he said, we have a:

densely storiated landscape.

I LOVE it.

I love the way the slippage between stories and striations brings to mind layers of stories, laid out like successive stripes across a rock. Of course it made me think of the novel I’m writing about a derelict house, where each trace reveals a story from a different time. And it also made me think of experiences I’ve had of feeling connected to a piece of literature by virtue of being in the place where it was written. Listening to Moonfleet while driving down to Dorset, for instance, or reading Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water while in Harris.

But it was when I was looking at Chart for the Coming Times, an exhibition now on at Rowing Projects, a friend’s new gallery on Holloway Road, that the phrase ‘densely storiated landscape’ seemed most apt.

Chart for the Coming Times is a collaborative work between Portuguese artists Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela as part of their ongoing project, Gradations of Time over a Plane. This installation’s centrepiece is a video, luminously, Bergmanesquely filmed around the chalk cliffs of Seven Sisters, East Sussex. The cliffs are an astonishing sight.

From afar you can see the deep black striations ruled across the white chalk. They look like lines on paper, ready, perhaps, for stories to be written upon. And the very pleasing thing is that that is exactly what has happened. We get a close-up and see that the cliffs are covered with names, which people have carved into the chalk. Stories have been engraved on the striations.

These cliffs are continually being eroded, and so these graffitied names, these words on the striated paper, are ever disappearing. Except for one little patch, which the artists have taken a cast of, and preserved indefinitely in a time capsule, which they ritually buried nearby.

I cycled home still thinking about this storiated cliff, being eroded with people’s names and with the force of the sea. It was only when I was half-way home, somewhere along Holloway Road, that I remembered that I was cycling along what was probably once a holloway, an example of one of the ‘old ways’ about which I’d been reading. I thought of all the cattle that once were driven along this path, trampling it deeper into the ground as they passed, now replaced with the rumble of busses and cars, bolstered up by tarmac. Now it’s part of the A1, a big, grizzly main road, but it is still a path of sorts, and its origin survives, captured in its name. And I thought that just the name – Holloway Road – is a story in itself, conjuring the layers of time that passed during its transition from holloway to road.

The lights changed and off I cycled, feeling a little dizzy at the thought of Holloway Road being the very essence of London’s storiated landscape.

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