Thursday, October 14, 2021

Susanna Clarke - Piranesi

This is a short, unusual and compelling work by the author of the very successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Piranesi opens with her titular character in the maze like House. Piranesi worships the House, a network of rooms, decorated with different statues and sometimes open to the elements. The maze-like structure is periodically flooded and contains numerous statues which Piranesi has woven into a mythical like explanation for the house and his role. He fills his time fishing for food, exploring and respectively looking after the skeletal remains of other individuals. He knows that the House experiences periodic floods from different times and can predict the height of tides accurately. Piranesi was an 18th Century Italian architect who drew multiple designs for imaginary, fantastical prisons - they give a sense of the purpose of the House - simultaneously a trap and an alternate, escapist reality. Though in my imagination the House is more like one of those old text adventures, each room discrete and decorated uniquely, with a few exits - N,S,E and Up or Down.

He also has at least one other companion, a friendly character who appears at regular intervals in different clothing. Piranesi holds this Other in high esteem - he is trying to understand the House but is unwilling to spend much time there, or travel far. On occasion the Other brings him gifts - new shoes for instance. 

To the reader there is some clear overlap with our own world. The Other's gifts and outfits for instance. Piranesi also seems to have some knowledge of a time and place before the House, which helps him invent an explanation for what the House is. But the reader learns at the same time as Piranesi what is happening and what the House is.

The story is very compelling - I finished it almost in a single setting, as I rushed to the end to work out what was going on. The ending is remarkable and quite shocking, though Clarke gradually allows the real world to break through into the House (and Piranesi's) reality. Highly enjoyable, I think this will repay repeated readings.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Nicola Chester - On Gallows Down: Enclosure, Defiance & the Cuckoo's Return

Browsing the nature sections in bookshops often find brings me to despair. On the one hand it is lovely to see so many books about the natural world. They celebrate ecology and landscapes. But simultaneously they feel inauthentic. Too many writers, perhaps hunting for that unique selling point, break down the natural world into its component parts. We find books about species, geographical features and particular places - yet these are disconnected from a wider ecological web. In particular they frequently ignore a key element - people. Human labour  has shaped the landscape - ploughed, cut, planted, dug and burnt. We have also struggled, fought, trespassed on the land - to defend jobs and pay, to protect landscapes and woods. But all to often where people do appear in contemporary nature writing they tend to be middle class - interlopers in the countryside, visitors or more often landowners. Nature for them is an add on - seen on a walk, a break or through glass.

Which is why Nicola Chester's book On Gallows Down is quite simply one of the best works of nature writing I have ever read. An account of her life in the landscape that she grew up in near Newbury it tells how as a youngster she develops an affinity for the outside, exploring paths, streams, woods and fields. Finding, listening, touching and enjoying everything. But this childhood is disturbed by external forces. Her teenage years are spent watching the Women's Peace Camps at Greenham Common, a public landscape that is very publicly taken from the community. Later she joins the activists trying to stop the Newbury Bypass, a road extension that eats up the land she loves so much. After the defeat of the protesters she writes: 

I walk footpaths that, in my mind, still cross hayfields; bridlepaths that skirt, uninterrupted, the heathland search for the piece of the water meadows; and cannot process, for an unsettling heartbeat, the chain-link fence, the concrete bridge, the motorway embankment. It is a like a shard of glass gone from a mirror.

It reminded me of a passage written by the great historian of the English Landscape William Hoskins, who described how the development of capitalism rapidly transformed the English countryside:

A villager who had played in the open fields as a boy, or watched the sheep in the common pastures, would have lived to see the modern landscape of his parish completed and matured, the roads all made, the hedgerow trees full grown, and new farmhouses built out in the fields where none had ever been before. Everything was different: hardly a landmark of the old parish would have remained.

Chester understands that the countryside she loves and enjoys is being constantly changed, and the forces that transform it are rarely acting in the interest of those who work, or walk, the fields. But this is no abstract activist tract. The book is full of her love for the countryside and all its inhabitants. Her breath-taking night-time encounters with badgers, foxes and owls made me yearn to be there to share in these delights. The book is full of elegant descriptions of bird calls (who knew that fieldfares sound like the "chack" of a washing machine dial), insect behaviour (don't look up videos of Sexton beetles if you are squeamish) or how to propagate mistletoe. 

But Chester's talent isn't just her ability to write evocatively about the countryside. It also stems from a viewpoint likely unique in contemporary nature writing - that of a working class family labouring on the land. Some of the most moving chapters are those that talk about the poverty of rural life, the tied cottages that mean eviction can come a few weeks after angering a landowner, the lack of privacy or the lack of amenities and shops. But they also show community - the other families that will stand alongside one another to protect a wood, or form a reading group or discuss lawnmower prices in a pub.

While Chester sees the landscape shaped by human action, "Heathland is an almost accidental man-made environment", it also constantly evokes the past. That includes her own history at Greenham and Newbury, but also older history. There are Neolithic barrows that dot the landscape, a gibbet that still stands on the hill, warning contemporary transgressors and the class struggle. Those connections where drawn out by her reading, which:

connected me with who had gone before, real or imagined. From then on, every landscape became a narrative one, full of stories that could also be my stories. I cross-referenced, read between the (contour) lines and meandered down paths in sentences and paragraphs so that place became as much a figurative and imaginative landscape as a real one.

But, and it's a big but, "this was no pastoral idyll either". This recognition distinguishes Chester's book from much of the middle class lifestylism that swamps the bookstores. The landowners can send tree cutters into the backyard on a whim, they can order a community's' beloved forest chopped down, cut jobs or wages. Their friends in government can order roads built or deploy nuclear weapons on common land. Chester's anger at these big and small insults shines through:

On coming in for an inspection one day, he [the estate manager] asked me not to leave 'those clothes drying on the radiators, you'll damage my walls.' I had absolutely no rights or grounds to protest about the tree. I didn't own it. The men had the right to enter the garden of my home without asking, and chop it down.

Running through On Gallows Down is a sense that Chester struggles to find somewhere to belong. She loves the countryside, but never quite makes roots. She is moved too frequently, her landscapes are changed too often. But most importantly, the land is never hers. I don't mean that in an ownership way. Chester doesn't want to parcel up and hedge off a chunk of land for the sole use of her family. But the land has been taken away from the community, despite all those fights to keep it in common. In this sense, On Gallows Down is the story of the English countryside, the landscape that was, and ought, to be there for everyone to enjoy and work, but is now mostly the preserve of big landowners, second homers and poorly paid, badly housed workers. No wonder that Chester identifies with Captain Swing's nameless adherents or the anti-enclosure rioters.

But there are new battles. Chester fights to save biodiversity, but finds her hopes and optimism crushed by uncaring powers. She knows she has to take the fight elsewhere and writing offers her a way to do this. For one fearful paragraph I thought the author would join all those others in writing, and nothing else. But, 

To a greater or lesser extent, writing about nature had always dealt with loss. But now it had long passed the point of being imperative. It is impossible to write with integrity about nature without protesting and resisting and waving a desperate red flag.

It is a glorious sentiment. As we prepare to protest for Climate Justice during the COP26 conference, we know what we are against, but we must also remember what we are for. We need a world where nature is not something that is simply acted on in the short term interest of profit, but a constant of our lives. In this remarkable book Nicola Chester shows us the real countryside - a place of love and work, of struggle and hope, of despair and happiness. She urges us to fight for it, as an integral part of making real our dreams of a better world.

Related Reads

Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Hudson - A Shepherd's Life
Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside
Harrison - All Among the Barley
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Archer - A Distant Scene
Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Attack - John Clare: Voice of Freedom

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Brian Manning - The Far Left in the English Revolution: 1640 - 1660

Brian Manning explains in the introduction to this short book that it is an attempt to remedy an omission. At the time of the Revolution, he says, it was common to "make a tripartite division of society" into the gentry, the middling sort and the poor. The roles of the first two have been amply discussed, but the poor have been "largely neglected". Manning explores the role of this section of society by looking at those who "attempted to speak for the poor", which he admits begs the question of "how far they reflected attitudes and aspiration". 

Manning is at pains to show how the Revolution was a period when different forces vied for position, but influenced and shaped wider political movements. So he says

It was from amongst the class of independent small producers that the main driving force of the revolution probably came, and amongst whom the radical certainly found their chief strength. But revolutions commonly begin with alliances between diverse social groups against an existing regime, and as the revolution develops the different and conflicting interests of these groups emerge.

We certainly see this with the far left. The Levellers, for instance, whom Manning discusses in details, emerge as the radical edge of Cromwell's coalition, but eventually become opposed to his class, and are destroyed by Cromwell in turn. Manning continues:

it was with the progress of the revolution that class differences and class conflicts emerged, shaping the course and the outcome of the revolution.
But in exploring the exact nature of the classes involved in the revolution, Manning draws out real tensions. 

It is a decisive factor in the English Revolution that the 'middle sort' was divided between elements that favoured developments which we see now as facilitating the growth of capitalism and elements hostile towards those developments. The revolution was a crucial phase in crystallising a proto-bourgeoisie and a proto-proletariat.

Within these mass movements and the political ferment that arose, the ideas of small groups and radical individuals could take significant hold. Manning explores some of these, though sadly this book is short so this is necessarily done briefly. Manning looks at the Levellers and the Diggers, showing how their ideas arose in, sometimes, contradictory ways. Opposing the rise of capitalism and the same time as hating the old feudal order. In some areas where wage labour was coming to dominate production, eg large farms, "an approach t consciousness of themselves as a distinct class... created a potential for class conflict in those areas where capitalism was taking control".

Frequently drawing on the work of Marxists, Manning demonstrates the importance of Marxism for understanding these dialectical conflicts. Explaining the way that revolutionaries used religious ideas, Manning quotes Engels: "Each of the different classes uses its own appropriate religion". But then he continues by criticising Engels' chosen language, saying it "missed the close integration of class interests and class struggles with religious language and religious beliefs".

Returning to Manning's far-left and revolutionaries, he makes some interesting points about the nature of their radicalism. Talking about the Leveller William Thompson and the Digger Gerrard Winstanley he writes that they

were both typical of the revolutionaries of their time in that they thought the publishing of a manifesto and the example of action by a small group would precipitate a mass movement. But neither was backed by any widespread or nationwide organisation for promoting their ideas, attaching supporters and mobilising mass actions, and in the circumstances of the time that was probably impossible... the Levellers had no clear conception of a revolutionary seizure of power and taking control of the government.

Manning continues however by pointing out that had they taken control the Levellers would have had "to maintain a strong central government backed by armed force". Which is why the one other factor that must not be ignored is the army. Manning describes the army as having a "microcosm" of the "class conflict in society at large at the time of the English Revolution". This was why their had to be a clamping down on radical ideas for fear of losing control of the armed force that would have allowed radicals to maintain power, just as it enabled Cromwell to maintain control.

Manning nots an additional problem of the English Revolution. The development of capitalism was transforming social and economic relations in the countryside. Crucially this was seeing the beginnings of a mass process of enclosure. Manning argues that the struggles of the peasants, whom he emphasises were the majority of the English population, against enclosure were "disconnected from the revolution". The peasants would rise against anyone enclosing land - Royalist or Parliamentarian. But as a class they "lacked the political consciousness to rise in a new revolution" and "relapsed from the parliamentarian cause or rebounded into royalism". Manning concludes by arguing that while the English Revolution placed a revolution against capitalism and feudalism on the agenda, the emerging proletariat was not strong or distinct enough to take that forward. It was however powerful and radical enough to scare the bourgeoise who allowed the "return to political power of the old ruling class" within a new capitalist society, in order to keep down the masses.

While a short work of barely 130 pages, this is a remarkable read. A lucid account of the social forces at the bottom of English society and their radical wings, who were trying to understand the present and shape the future. Manning uses the tools and key concepts of Marxism to understand the social basis of the Revolution and the dynamic of the social forces within society. Its a breath-taking work of history, and those interested in the period, or radical ideas in general or those who want to see how Marxism can be used as a powerful tool to explore history, should grab this book.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebeians & Revolution in England 1640-1660
Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
Carlin - The Causes of the English Civil War