I read an article in the Guardian a couple of days ago, which I’ve been pondering on and off since: “[A]s more of us are spending our summer holidays in the UK, we asked writers to recall the book that for them best captures somewhere special on our shores…” It was a great list. I wanted to play.
I made myself a cup of tea, settled back in my chair–and drew a complete and utter blank. I couldn’t conjure up a single, crystal clear image of a specific, particular, English place described in fiction. Not one.
I came up with many generalised images–just about everything ever written by Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece–but they weren’t specific, weren’t particular, weren’t named. I couldn’t point to them on a map with any confidence. I reached back to school books, to Lorna Doone, and Wuthering Heights. Nothing but vague notions of moors and a certain brooding quality.
It dawned on me that what I absorb from novels, landscape wise, is mood: wild and haunted forest, dappled and peaceful clearing, cold and still heath at dawn, warm and drowsy kitchen garth in mid-afternoon. I recall smell and texture and sound, how it all made me feel, but I don’t see it.
That surprised me–and, on some level, disturbed me. I bore down. I was determined to come up with some perfect image.
The next surprise was that the landscapes I did finally come up are all wholly imaginary: the seitches of Arakis, the towers of Minas Tirith, the sands of Damar. I tried harder, pushed farther, frowned, drummed my pencil on the desk. Patrick O’Brian! Yes! But, no, not quite: what I really remember of the Aubrey/Maturin novels are the ships. I’m not sure they count. They were almost always in foreign waters.
Then I got desperate. The elegaic old English poem “The Ruin.” (Go read it; it’s a beautiful poem.) A couple of Shakespeare’s sonnets (especially Sonnet 73, which is just an eight-hundred-years-later version of “The Ruin”). Sappho mourning her loneliness as the moon sets, and the Pleiades… (Not even English, sigh.)
But then I remembered with relief Roger Deakin: Wildwood, and Notes From Walnut Tree Farm. A couple of snatches of Richard Mabey. The beginning of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. (I think of them as the R Lads.) All non-fiction, though. And, even so, it’s the sound of wind in trees I remember, the flash of a sparrowhawk, the creaking of frogs, the gnarled bark under the hand. I feel it; I don’t see it.
I see so clearly when I write. I’ve always imagined I saw clearly when I read. Perhaps I do. Perhaps this feeling vs. seeing is a function of recall, or of how the memory is laid down in the first place. It’s all very strange.
So now I’m curious. How you read such things. What visual images from a novel will be with you forever?