Graham Swift’s 1983 novel, Waterland, changed perceptions of the Norfolk Broads from that of a carefree interlaken of summer boating lagoons, to a grimmer network of bleak dykes and lonely hamlets, isolated between the fens and the sea. Very flat, Norfolk, was Noel Coward’s dismissive ventriloquism, but in his engaging collection of literary postcards from home, The Regional Book, the cultural geographer David Matless gathers support from Georges Perec’s injunction to ‘Force yourself to see more flatly’.
Matless is rightly admired for his near-definitive, Landscape and Englishness, first published in 1998 (rumoured to be back in print again next year in a new edition), and ever since a rich resource for anybody interested in the social history of landscape. The Regional Book is rather different, and much more allusive, a gazetteer of 44 Norfolk places, each described in telegraphese, halfway in style between Pevsner and the poet Roy Fuller. It is very persuasive.
The frequent re-iteration of similar viewpoints and settings evokes a landscape where the historic infrastructure of canals, dykes, navigations, cuts, sluices and locks, slipways and quays, reedbeds and saltwater creeks, still dominates the experience of place, perhaps more than anywhere else in England. Furthermore, since water transport is largely for leisure purposes today – as well as being seasonal – for most times of the year the Fens and the Broads remain under-populated, with in Matless’s words, ‘a past in league, a present in trust.’ That past is this watery world of former medieval peat excavations, shallow but flooded ever since, and interwoven with the rivers Ant, Bure, Thurne, Waveney and Yare. Although ‘the Broads’ became an important element in the post-war landscape of Englishness, it needed Matless to venture beyond the benign sun-dappled shallows to discover a more mysterious, complicated terrain where nothing can remain hidden for very long.
The spare, enigmatic prose style – something of a house style for its publisher, the small but perfectly formed Uniformbooks – reminded me of one of John Cowper Powys’s lesser known novels, and the only one set in East Anglia, Rodmoor. First published in America in 1916 but for some strange reason not issued in England until 1973, it too is permeated by rivers and tidal waters, and the constant flooding, draining and re-flooding of place and memory. Despite a bizarre accumulation of characters and plotlines, part King Lear, part Cold Comfort Farm, Rodmoor succeeds best as a disturbing evocation of East Anglia, taking the yellow-horned poppy as its totem, and with admiring references to the Norwich school of painters and the hallucinatory, destabilising inter-relationship between marsh, sky and sea. At one point one of the characters, Nance, asks why ‘there is always something horrible about tidal rivers? Is it because of the way they have of carrying things backward and forward, backward and forward, without ever allowing them either to get far inland or clear out to sea. Is a tidal river the one thing in all the world in which nothing can be lost or hidden or forgotten?’
It is this recursive, refractory nature of the East Anglian fens and marshlands that make them the ideal landscape for the return of the repressed, most recently given another outing in the film, 45 Years. The film is set close to Norwich, in a wintry landscape, employing that Sebaldian device – first used in The Emigrants – whereby a letter arrives informing the principal characters that a body lost to the mountain ice decades earlier has been returned to the surface still perfectly formed, thus bringing about the painful unraveling of once solid assumptions and understandings.
Matless first raised the flag for the Norfolk Broads in the opening section of Landscape and Englishness, defending the chalets and shacks of inter-war holiday-making against the claims of the heritage police as to what was considered appropriate or inappropriate development in such a singular landscape. It required the rise of cultural geography to make the case for the vernacular landscape as a field of localised habitation, places where men and women have created a home for themselves in the world, and especially where it still remains possible to live differently because of what Powys described as ‘the illimitable space around…as boundless as infinity.’