Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A Sense of Place

From Glasgow to London

When I went to the British Library's Writing Britain a few weeks ago, it was in the context of already having spent some time as a doctoral postgraduate pondering on the importance of place to song-collectors (and writers) like Robert Burns, James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott, or Alexander Campbell, to name but a few!  So, with my PhD graduation day now a happy memory, I was all set to spend a couple of hours down memory lane.  I knew I'd be enthralled.

I arrived later than intended that morning, having spent an extra four hours on the sleeper down from Glasgow.  (This was after a week of flooding in England, and a landslide at Oxenholme meant a major detour for my train.)  Still, I had time to look at most of the exhibition, and what made it so enjoyable was the realisation that not only was I seeing publications that I'd encountered in my doctoral reading - I was also meeting old childhood friends as well: Charles Dickens, Alan Garner, Malcolm Saville, Arthur Ransome, George Eliot, Du Maurier, John Fowles - there they all were; and I realised that the common link in all of them was - yes, the descriptions of the localities in which the stories took place.

Now, whether this means I was a child particularly sensitive to the delicate nuances of description, or a child fortunate enough to have excellent English teachers, is a moot point.  Similarly, did all these descriptions of English places somehow resonate when I came to think about the effect that particular localities had on my Enlightenment and early Romantic Scottish song-collectors?  Or did I simply enjoy the idea that different places provided particular inspiration for these generations of collectors?  I can talk for hours about cultural nationalism now - I hadn't even heard of it as a child!  

All I knew about nationalism then was that Vaughan Williams based many works on English folk-tunes; that Sibelius's music evoked cold, chilly Nordic scenes; Smetana's Die Moldau (from Ma Vlast) made me think of peasants dancing beside a flowing river; and Mahler used folk-tunes he'd have known from childhood.

And from Norwich to Glasgow
 But let's return to today.  Well,  yesterday, actually.    We've just spent a long weekend in Norwich, where my teenage sons had been keen to wander around the mediaeval part of the city.  We criss-crossed from Tombland to St Benedict's Street, from Elm Hill to Castle Meadow, and from Gentleman's Walk to the City Hall.  I knew and was proud of Norwich's mediaeval past, but I had truthfully never realised just how many mediaeval, Tudor and eighteenth century buildings are still standing.  Buildings that were already old when my Scottish song-collectors were active.  Buildings in a place that "my" collectors had almost certainly never visited, of course.  I wondered, in an abstracted kind of way, what Norwich musicians were doing while "my" Scots were scuttling between peasant cottages collecting songs in the Hebrides, the Highlands or the Scottish Borders.

Yesterday, we drove back from Norwich - where I grew up - to Glasgow, where I've spent the past 24 years.  Until we reached the Borders, we had brilliant sunshine.  North Norfolk churches stood stoutly against a vivid blue sky, their dressed flints almost glistening in the sun.  After Newark, the motorway offered fewer tantalising delights, although Nottingham Forest made me think of Robin Hood, and with him all the old legendary images of green men - and green giants.  Ballads tell their stories; and my eighteenth-century ballad-collectors debated long and hard about which was the oldest, the most authentic, version. Now, we smile and nod as we go past - "Do you think we'll see Robin Hood today?" - and then it's gone, at 70 mph, and our conversation changes subject, just like that.

The sight of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station chimneys had a different effect.  Suddenly, I was thinking about the "industrial north" that Norwich schoolgirls only encountered in their geography textbooks.  They're iconic, those chimneys - and they always mark a significant point in our journey.

The weather became greyer and even a bit drizzly as we drove up the A66.  I love the wildness of the countryside in the Borders.  How can I describe the difference from Norfolk?  Norfolk is basically quite flat, a tidy grandma's patchwork quilt of fields - whilst the Lincolnshire fens are to the Borders like a hospital room compared to the crumpled mess of a teenager's pad.


The Borders always make me think of Hannah Hauxwell, the old lady who lived a life of unbelievable hardship up in the hills near Barnard Castle.  I compare her staunch tenacity with another old lady about whom I've just been reading - May Savidge, who moved her whole house to Norfolk rather than let the planners demolish it for a roundabout.  They don't breed them like that any more!  I thoroughly enjoyed a book that I bought with my Christmas money this year - The Garden Cottage Diaries, by Fiona J. Houston.  Fiona actually lived the life of an eighteenth-century countrywoman for a whole year, just to see what it was like.  In some senses, Hannah and May shared some of those experiences.  But that was what life was like for my song-collectors.  Fascinating.

And then suddenly, there we were on the new M74 extension, hurtling along to join the M8 near our home in Glasgow.  What stood there 150-200 years ago, before the motorways and cars?  Just green fields and maybe a few cottages?  Before the tenements that had to be knocked down for the motorways themselves.  I'm fascinated by the idea of what preceded the realities that we know now.  Although my living in two parallel universes can sometimes prove just a bit confusing to the people closest to me!

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