I am in Wales, staying in a town full of writers and environmentalists. Specifically, I am staying with Jay Griffiths, looking after her cats while she is talking about Time at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and then talking about Frida Kahlo in Stornoway. The world turns in mysterious ways. Years ago I used to download music from the Smithsonian Institute’s vast library of sounds. Guadeloupe accordions, Dirty Jazz from Down South, Cubanismo from the Congo. Record labels have caught on and started making compilations from the archives, but you can still go there and get lost at your leisure with nobody trying to make you buy anything. I read Jay’s book Wild when I was on Lewis in 2012 and have been recommending it to everyone I meet ever since. Then I met Jay, earlier this year, and somehow that turned into a winter of empty Welsh houses to write my next book in, and make some home recordings of some new songs to tide me over until the next record. So here I am in Wales in this town full of writers and environmentalists. One of them is George Marshall, who has just published a book called Don’t Even Think About It, which attempts to examine the psychology of climate change denial and why nothing is changing, even though we all know (don’t we?) that it’s only a matter of time before the Titanic sinks and we all go down with it. So sane people are grieving for the trees and the skylarks and the vanishing places they love, and everyone else is watching TV….. or surfing. Last weekend there was swell. I drove to a funny little town called Borth, and surfed some funny little waves, and then I drove up the windswept coast and before I knew it I was in Snowdonia, parked up in a little valley near where I was born. I rambled around in the wet mountains for a couple of days and on my last day I went to visit a sculptor called Dominic Clare. Clare once trained with David Nash, who is responsible for my all-time favourite artwork. If you ever get the chance to see the film, seize it. I took some photos in Dominic Clare’s garden and wrote some stuff about his wood-carvings, which you can find here. It’s the first of a new column I am doing for Toast Travels called Art of Place.
I love books about as much as I love anything. That’s why I wrote one. It’s also why I have decided to share my love of particular books and their authors with a special “bookshelf” post each month (or six months…) I won’t be attempting exhaustive critiques. I will simply be sharing my personal connections, inspirations and loves. This month it is the turn of Paul Kingsnorth, whose first novel, The Wake, is easily the best book I have read this year.
when will i be free saes the cilde to the stag
and the stag saes thu will nefer be free
then when will angland be free
angland will nefer be free
then what can be done
naht can be done
then how moste i lif
thu moste be triewe that is all there is
At university we had to do a paper on ‘Englishness’. I found it very difficult. While I could talk about Wales or Cornwall with a semblance of pride and love and dignity, I was lost for words when it came to England. The England I knew was a place of clone towns and creeping suburbs. The England I read about was responsible for slavery and colonialism and class. I could not identify with England. Was this because there was so little of England left?
When physical landscapes are desecrated, our sense of who we are, both individually and collectively, is weakened
for man tacs on the ways of the place he is in
The hostile takeover of England’s cultural landscape is familiar territory for Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Real England; The Battle against the Bland (2008) is essential reading for anyone who weeps at the sight of a vast new supermarket on the outskirts of their hometown.
In his latest book, which was crowd-funded on Unbound and then longlisted for the Booker prize, Paul Kingsnorth goes back to the roots of his obsession, confronting the original hostile takeover of England’s physical landscapes. In 1066 a marauding army arrived on our shores, raping and murdering and burning villages, turning locals into slaves and forcing people to pay for access to their own land, a norm that has persisted ever since
a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years
Hung carefully on the little-known facts of a doomed guerilla uprising that took root in the years following the Norman Conquest, The Wake is narrated by Buccmaster of Holland in a ‘shadow tongue’ loosely based on Old English. The language takes a bit of getting used to, but the purpose of it is clear – this is Buccmaster’s story, and his meanings are framed in his language, as all meanings must be. To impose our own tongue on Buccmaster would be to saddle him with our own meanings, and therefore miss his triewthe.
What emerges, however, and all the stronger for it, is that Buccmaster’s triewthe is very much our truth. His deeply emotional responses and psychological complexity are as modern as they come, and the strangeness of the language only serves to emphasise that this is as much a book about what it means to be human as it is about specific historical events. The past illuminates the present. The connection between landscape and identity, the desire for autonomy, the need for privacy, the aftermath of war and the nature of freedom are themes that dominate Buccmaster’s reality and our headlines. As all good art should, The Wake forced me to look at the familiar through an unfamiliar lens, encouraging a re-assessment of my assumptions.
Buccmaster is no hero. A deeply flawed and unreliable narrator, he says ‘fucc’ and ‘cunt’ a lot, beats his wife, talks to trees, considers himself a ‘ceosen’ one, looks down on his inferiors and frequently runs away from battles, yet his difficult relationship with his father and subsequent egoistic insecurity reverberate down the centuries. He makes total sense. His complete identification with the land he belongs to, his overwhelming sense of ownership and place, his hatred of being controlled, his love of freedom, all rang true. His story felt like my story. For both of us (I suspect for all of us, if we were lucky enough to have access to the outdoors as children) the land that brings us up becomes a kind of parent-substitute, and the loss of it is akin to the loss of our parents. Not something you recover from easily, if ever.
Buccmaster’s trust in the ‘auld gods’ of the trees and the fens brings him shame and ridicule in the context of recently-imported Christianity. As readers we are invited to examine what we know deep down to be true, and notice the ways in which our own truth conflicts with what we are told to be true by those who are occupying not just our physical landscapes but also our cultural landscapes.
With the loss of our land it becomes hard to hear ourselves think. Our sense of self is weakened, we become vulnerable to occupation
in the tuns all is so great and blaec and there is so micel sound that no man can be free or triewe
All very handy for market fundamentalism, England’s current despotic ‘cyng’.
As the title suggests, The Wake does not have a happy ending. And yet I felt uplifted and hopeful when I reached the end. Like a postcard from a long-lost love, the only one who ever understood me, arriving just in time, just before I jumped. For
a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years
and England is still weeping.
But still, and it is good to be reminded,
thu moste be triewe.
Paul Kingsnorth is the author of two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry. The Wake is his first novel. He is a founder member of dark-mountain.net – a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.