Hawks and rivers

Hawks and rivers

I am drawn to books which weave memoir with nature writing, combining literary, social and cultural histories with personal experience. The success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk reflects what seems to be a fairly recent resurgence of texts that merge life-writing and nature. Ghost-written celebrity autobiographies often top the bestselling lists, but books which complicate aspects of life-writing and weave cultural and literary narratives alongside personal memoir are, I think, becoming an interesting antidote to generic biography.

The two books which I refer particularly to are Macdonald’s account of training a goshawk and Olivia Laing’s To The River, a travel memoir which narrates a source to sea walk of the River Ouse in Sussex. Published in 2011, Laing’s book had somehow slipped under my radar but reading it immediately prior to H is for Hawk, I was struck by the blending of autobiography, literary allusion and a socio-historical study of landscape which both authors adopt.

Macdonald and Laing are both haunted by literary predecessors, lending their texts a sense of homage to those who have gone before. In H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s personal account is woven alongside the experiences of T.H. White, a writer known for The Sword in the Stone, whose own account of raising a bird of prey is documented in his book The Goshawk. Laing’s narrative is steeped in Virginia Woolf and her last walk into the Ouse in March 1941. Here, the river is revitalising and destructive, running simultaneously through both life and death.

Both women are writing about a time of grief which led them to immerse themselves in the natural world. For Macdonald, the trauma of the death of her father causes her to retreat from human society in to the wild world of the goshawk, whilst the breakdown of Laing’s long-term relationship leads to a pilgrimage-like journey along a river that holds both personal and literary significance. As such, both texts seek solace in something older and bigger than a mere individual; the natural world that was here before and will remain after life has ended. The life of Helen’s goshawk and Olivia’s river runs far deeper than human experience and the writers lose themselves in their vast expanse. Laing writes of her pleasure at swimming in the river and ‘abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control’. These writers turn away from the present and retreat in to the wild to cope with their trauma.

But the nature in these books is not one of Wordsworthian wonder. It isn’t a landscape that one looks out at, awestruck and inspired. It is earthly, vicious, feral, unpredictable. It is all-consuming. Despite the patterings of humans, the river pulls onwards through its winding course, the hawk beats its wings. Crucially, the worlds inhabited by these writers, and by us all, are made sensible through our experiences. At the end of H is for Hawk, Helen reflects upon her journey with the hawk: ‘In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing to the wildness that inhabits it.’ When we slip into the wild discomfort of nature, we do so with human perceptions, human reactions and through human experience.

Virginia Woolf is known to have loved walking and wrote vociferously about its curative impact. At the end, she walked knowingly to her death and slipped quietly into a river, leaving her walking stick behind on the bank. The river continues to flow, but Woolf has gone. She lives on not through the flowing waters of the river, but through memory, through her writing, through the endurance of human emotion and sentiment, even after death. As these writers mediate their grief, they seek solace in the comfort of other writers, of other lives, of other traumas. Shadows are often cast in books by those departed and these are no exception; Helen’s father, Olivia’s former partner, Virginia Woolf and T.H. White all linger just beneath the surface.

Meditating on blue

Meditating on blue

I recently attended the first meeting of a new Book Club organised by one of my friends. The focus of our reading is on cultural and critical theory, and the first book on our list was William H. Gass’s ‘On Being Blue’. The author subtitles the book as ‘A Philosophical Inquiry’, but it is clear from the outset that his primary concern is language: he uses it, abuses it, savours it and concludes by encouraging the reader to wallow not in ‘the blue things of the world’ but in the language which says them.

Since reading this book I, like Gass, have been meditating on blue and its multiple manifestations. For Gass, blue is pornographic, melancholic, cold, wet, violent. Blue is emotional, adulterous, physical, sensational, unstoppable. And language is the medium which gives this blueness its materiality. Without language, blue would be a vague feeling. With language, it is vivid and sensational, captured in many forms by Gass throughout the book. It is this materiality that really intrigues me.

Some weeks ago, I spilt an entire pot of blue ink on my bedroom carpet. My initial reaction was one of shock; I was frozen to the spot, watching the stain spread like a pool of blood. The blueness of the ink was almost as shocking as that bright red might have been. I spent two hours scrubbing the carpet to get the ink out and, like a bruise, it grew gradually lighter: from navy, to green, to yellow until it was barely visible. This blue that had spilt on my floor seemed to be the material body for words that might have been; the ink that would have fuelled my fountain pen and given life to language on paper. Sitting on my carpet, bruise-like, it looked bluer than ever; melancholic, lost and lonely. I imagined the words I might have written sinking into the carpet and vowed to use ink cartridges in the future.

There has certainly been an artistic trend to meditate on blue: Picasso’s so-called ‘blue period’, Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and Matisse’s blue cut-outs, to name but a few. Perhaps Gass could have chosen any colour or object or theme and found a way to weave a linguistic web around it, as he has done here. Perhaps blue is incidental, an opportunity for him to meditate philosophically, using language, on any given subject. But I was drawn in by his magic. There seems to be something peculiarly special about blue and its connotations.

‘It’s not the word made flesh we want in writing, in poetry and fiction, but the flesh made word’ (p. 32). Gass is preoccupied with the physical, with the fleshiness of language and its relationship to our experience. Whether this inquiry is philosophical, literary, emotional or personal, it taps into the relationship between language and experience which permeates all of our lives, whether we know it or not.

As much as I relish refilling my fountain pen from a pot of ink, I am still using ink cartridges. Once the bruise is light enough, I will return to my old ritual. I will return to the physical, impulsive injection of blue that seems such a crucial part of writing. 

Empty Chairs

Empty Chairs

At the beginning of September 2014, I spent a wonderfully sunny Sunday visiting the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield. This piece was inspired by Ai Weiwei’s exhibit in the Chapel and written for Felt Acts, an online platform for performance.

I am sitting in a train compartment, surrounded by empty chairs.

The two groups of four chairs adjacent to one another in my small compartment seem to hearken to a collective, but their emptiness heightens my own sense of being an individual, alone. Looking at each chair singularly placed, I hear the echo of the statement in Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the YSP where the installation of 45 chairs are ‘spaced so that each chair is solitary’. An empty chair on a stage arguably performs in its own right; implying the person that might sit down, or emphasising the lack of such a person. In Weiwei’s collection of Fairytale Chairs, visitors are invited to sit down: a privilege not normally afforded in a world where we are encouraged to look rather than touch. Presented as a vehicle for contemplation, these chairs are situated in the nave of a former chapel turned gallery space, where the walls are painted white and the building has been emptied of the religious paraphernalia that we might expect. I decide to embark upon the quiet contemplation encouraged by Weiwei and find myself contemplating the white-washed walls of the former chapel, now emptied of religion but retaining through its shell a sense of spiritual significance. The chapel still remains a chapel. The replacement of a by-gone religion with an installation seems an unsurprising one. Weiwei’s Fairytale Chairs fill the nave with something mythical, reminding me of an Arthurian past, which never quite existed. There is an absence of organised religion, an absence of the artist himself, who is unable to visit this particular space, but the chairs, which were empty when I arrived, have begun to fill up. It’s a Sunday and the worshippers are here to pay homage to Weiwei’s religion.

Weiwei fills an empty chapel with empty chairs and invites us to fill them. Once they are filled, however, they somehow remain solitary. Far enough away from one another that whispering to the person next to you is difficult, requiring an uncomfortable lean. These are not the cushioned chairs of a train carriage. They are hard-backed, slightly oversized chairs whose discomfort prevents me from sitting for too long. Weiwei’s chairs don’t allow you to forget where you are. The chair is no longer empty but I am alone and I am left to my own quiet reflection. Sitting in the white-washed space, I am left wondering whether an empty chair is dysfunctional in its lack of a person sitting on it, or whether it functions symbolically in its own right.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Weiwei’s exhibition, the first to be held in the UK since his renowned Sunflower Seeds at the Tate in 2010, is the fact that he planned it based on photographs of the Chapel. Since having his passport confiscated by the Chinese authorities, Weiwei has been unable to leave his native country, and this exhibition is a poignant reminder of his absence.

I am sitting on a train and the chairs around me are empty. Perhaps I don’t feel alone, surrounded by those who have sat down before me and the future presence of those yet to sit.