No ideas but in things

Memorial wars seem to be breaking out all over the place. Just down the road from where we live, Maggie Hambling’s statue of Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green has upset more people than it has pleased, while in Bristol the statue of Edward Colston who made his fortune in large part from slavery, was energetically toppled and dumped in the Avon last June; as a result four people are now up in court. Back in London protracted opposition to David Adjaye’s proposed design for a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens in Westminster, has caused endless arguments and judicial reviews, and the decision to go ahead remains bitterly contested. Historical memory is disputed territory, particularly as the once well-constructed narrative of ‘our island history’ starts to come apart at the seams.

Meanwhile, industrial ruins have become a focal point for those seeking authentic monuments to the everyday domestic past, but here again aesthetic arguments are flying in all directions. In the introduction to his new book, Landscape as Weapon, John Beck observes that today a large outmoded rusting agricultural raking apparatus when exhibited in a gallery can today be quickly accepted as a major piece of found sculpture. This was the case when British artist Mike Nelson mounted such an object in an exhibition called The Asset Strippers in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2019. ‘It is hard not to see art in an art gallery,’ Beck wryly notes. Yet when lying disused in a farmyard, the giant appendage was nothing more than redundant scrap metal (even if it did possess a certain rustic charm). Mary Douglas’s famous anthropological observation that rubbish is matter in the wrong place has become central to modern aesthetics. Today art can also be (any) matter in the right place, especially if that place is a gallery. I have no argument with that actually, and nor does Beck it seems. The aesthetics of industrial machinery – form follows function, often magnificently so – are often of the highest order.

Beck’s probing disquisition on the multiple ways in which representations of the past in history, literature, film and photography are coming under renewed questioning, is timely and thought-provoking. The issue of interpretation is understandably a key theme, avoiding the crude binary choices of those who either wish to uncritically conserve all artefacts from the past, or those who wish simply to eradicate them. Context and interpretation are essential. Though we can’t change the past it is surely possible to understand it afresh, and that is better than wiping the historical record clean. Future generations may well have quite different ideas of the good, the bad and the inadmissible from those prevailing currently.

Beck’s account opening chapter gripped me, examining as it does the public reception and subsequent controversy over Ronald Blythe’s book, Akenfield, a thinly disguised oral history of life in a Suffolk village in the first half of the 20the century. This was first published in 1969 and adapted for film by Peter Hall in 1974, both to widespread acclaim. As someone involved in the oral history movement at the time, I was caught up in the arguments about the book. On first reading of Akenfield I was enchanted, and that enchantment hasn’t worn off despite the years. However, within months of its success, historians, linguists and anthropologists, and others in the academy, were questioning the book’s authenticity. They queried the degree to which the multiple voices Blythe ventriloquised in his book, were in any way close to what people had actually said. In their view, if that was the case, the book was no longer valid. To faithfully reproduce direct speech with all its hesitancies, repetitions, caesuras and convolutions, was, it was claimed, the only way to stay true to the authentic recorded voice (even if that made such books potentially unreadable?).  What was beyond consideration was the possibility that the speakers might prefer to be ‘cleaned up’ and made to sound more coherent, direct and to the point at all times. This debate went on for years, and remains unresolved in some quarters.

In retrospect we can see that Akenfield was one of the earlier hybrid works of documentary rapportage in which the imaginative empathy of the writer crossed the border into fiction. This blurring of categories went on to give the world Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and W.G.Sebald’s Austerlitz, amongst a growing number of other ‘unreliable’ texts. Chatwin’s book I read initially as straight reporting, and was later surprised to read that Chatwin himself describe it as a novel, thus opening up new territory in the field of literature that has gained ground ever since. In a nice phrase Beck argues that ‘the struggle to retain some measure of scholarly credibility within fields unused to dealing with the unverifiable and unstable materials produced by oral history’ led to all kinds of academic anxiety.

Much of this new kind of literature, especially that of the ‘new nature writing’, no longer makes a claim on realism, but is in the business of re-enchantment – a noble but melancholy cause. This is the view of Adam Nicholson, who in a persuasive 2018 Guardian review of Mark Cocker’s admirable book, Our Place, wrote that ‘the current wave of nature writing is like the light from a dead star, illumination from something that is essentially over.’

Landscape as Weapon ranges well beyond rural nostalgia, fake industrial heritage, and historical mis-representation, to go into the bleaker territory of ruin porn and dark tourism. Here are the blasted heaths of military firing ranges and nuclear testing grounds, the defensive territories cultivated by proponents and activists of bunker ideology, the continuing memorialisation of tyrants, where the old and the new, satellite skies and pastoral latifundia, slums and cultural quarters, all sit alongside each other. These are places where, in the words of novelist William Gibson, ‘The future is already here but has just not been evenly distributed.’ Beck shines a light on all these conundrums, helpfully so.