England’s eerie dreaming

a woodland scene in England

Photograph by the author

Sometimes you read an article or blog post that sums up much of what you’ve been thinking around, and that’s good. When the article not only does this, but is also written incredibly well and goes on to give you a hundred more avenues to explore then it’s eerily fantastic.

And eerily fantastic is an apt description of Robert Macfarlane’s article in yesterday’s Guardian The eeriness of the English countryside.

Macfarlane provides a comprehensive overview of a:

…loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.

And most interesting is his observation on the breadth of interest from practitioners of all sorts:

This eerie counter-culture – this occulture – is drawing in experimental film-makers, folk singers, folklorists, academics, avant-garde antiquaries, landscape historians, utopians, collectives, mainstreamers and Arch-Droods alike, in a magnificent mash-up of hauntology, geological sentience and political activism.

I have to be careful because the temptation is to quote Macfarlane’s entire article and intersperse it with an occasional comment of mine. I’ll try not to do that and just urge you to read it. Even the comments thread is interesting, informative, and overwhelmingly polite - it’s like the internet we were always promised rather than the one we actually have.

Macfarlane’s article builds on, and was probably prompted by, Eddie Procter’s post Towards a new landscape aesthetic (which he cites in his article), which is also very much worth reading. Both Macfarlane’s and Procter’s articles provide a plethora of rabbit holes—in the form of references and links—that you can lose yourself in for hours-on-end if not days. Both unsurprisingly reference Ben Wheatley’s excellent film A Field in England as an example of this growing body of work, but I think there’s another link to the English Civil War that needs to be explored.

The immediate aftermath of the English Civil War was rich in radical thinking, new ideas, and new takes on old ideas. The Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters, the Fifth Monarchists, and so on. To quote Christopher Hill’s Introduction to his book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical ideas during the English Revolution:

From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came in question.

The whole of Britain (not just England) seems to be in a similar mode of radicalism and revaluing at the moment, albeit that blogs and online articles have replaced pamphlets and broadsheets, and this time they’re talking about landscape, rewilding, psychogeography, archaeology, myth, and hauntology as well as politics and government.

The British political landscape has also changed over the past few years: the recent seven-party televised election debates replacing the three-party debates of 2010, the rise of Scottish Nationalism and last year’s close referendum on Scottish Independence (and the inevitable prospect of a second referendum at some point in the future), talk about devolution of central government power to local governments in England as well as Scotland and Wales that might actually happen (although maybe I’m being too optimistic there), and the Snowden leaks that prompted people to re-evaluate the reach of government into private life.

I should say that I’m not expecting Britain or England to erupt into civil war or revolution, but I think the similarities in the upsurge of radical rethinking and revaluing is notable, and non-violent change seems afoot.

Macfarlane attributes the present-day situation to a reaction against late capitalism (which I certainly think can be added to the list above):

What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectres, shadows or monsters: our noun monster, indeed, shares an etymology with our verb to demonstrate, meaning to show or reveal (with a largely lost sense of omen or portent).

As a visual artist working within this eerie counter-culture – this occulture (Macfarlane, q.v.) whose artwork is concerned with some of these subjects, this ongoing discussion and examination of its roots is intensely valuable as well as being compellingly interesting.

This seems to have been the latest in a series of posts by me that address landscape, myth, nature, and related issues. Others have included (in no particular order):

Now I’m off to follow some more of the references in Macfarlane’s and Procter’s pieces. I may be some time…

Myth and Masks bookNote: A version of this blog post has since been published, along with others on the subject of myth and the “English Eerie” and pieces of my artwork, in my 2016 hardback book of art and writings Myth and Masks, available exclusively from our online shop.