An Interview with Philip Marsden
Philip Marsden is an award-winning author of numerous books, including The Levelling Sea and The Bronski House. His latest, Rising Ground, was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize 2015 and has been recently released as a paperback. In interview with Luke Thompson, Philip talks about the writing, places and people of Rising Ground and explores some of its themes.
Congratulations on the success of Rising Ground. It follows nicely from your last book, also based in Cornwall, The Levelling Sea. But this is a bit of a departure from your previous travel books, isn’t it? This is ‘A Search for the Spirit of Place’. Not ‘a place’, but place itself. Is this a concern that comes from your life as a travel writer?
I have never seen myself as a ‘travel writer’. I have written travel books certainly, but have come to each subject fresh – explored it, researched it, teased it out and tried to unravel its attraction. Only then do I assemble the form that it requires to tell. I have written a novel, books of history and a hybrid fusion of fiction, memoir, history and travel (The Bronski House). In The Levelling Sea, I began with the idea of the sea as an obsessive and transforming element in people’s lives and it became a series of biographical studies, telling the parallel stories of Falmouth’s rise and fall, and of Britain’s rise as a maritime power. Rising Ground ended up as a travel book and it’s inevitable I suppose that a book about ‘place’ should involve moving through the land. I do believe in the travel book as a great and revealing literary form, the journey being a mythic narrative structure of fabulous antiquity. Walking in particular offers not only footloose and fluent passage through the world, but also the slow pace with which to be fully attentive, to notice. As for the notion itself, of place and its meaning – yes, I found that it did involve many of the regions and peoples I’ve travelled among over the past couple of decades. In this way, it was a very satisfying book to write as it brought together ideas that had been quietly gathering shape for most of my working life.
It’s interesting that you call Rising Ground a ‘travel book’, as it feels like someone settling, almost marking out a territory.
Well, it combines two things. What was happening in my life was moving house – falling for a slightly run-down old farmhouse at the end of a long track, but falling for it so completely that for a time it became slightly unhealthy. When we finally managed to get it, I was able to reflect on what I’d felt and thus opened up the whole notion of place and how powerful an effect it can have on us. But at the same time I’d been itching to write about landscape. I was interested in how certain shapes of the land, certain natural features, certain places have the capacity to generate story and myth, and how they build over the years to create traditions that lie at the heart of most cultures. It was natural I suppose that these two closely related themes should coalesce.
In terms of the house, the story is less one of settling or marking out a territory than of discovery, that wonderful unfolding of a place that you know will become your life, sensing all the people that have been there before, seeing what grows, what lies half-hidden. But most of the book is about a walk westward through Cornwall, seeing many places for the first time, describing them, conjuring up their particular spirit both through personal impression and historical research. Each aspect of the book – the new house (new to us) and the walk are alike in a very particular way – they rely on that freshness of vision that comes from seeing somewhere for the first time. That is what has always appealed to me about travel writing – the tabula rasa. Reader and writer share that innocence.
Perhaps you could say more about that ‘particular spirit’. Putting it crudely, what’s the nature of this ‘spirit’? I mean, there’s a sense of loss in some of the language you use and in your process of deep mapping. Using a word like spirit suggests longevity, even immortality. Do you think the spirit of the place survives regardless? Or is it under threat of exorcism?
Behind the book is the idea that our reaction to places, to certain landscapes, lies at the heart of both our personal lives and our collective lives, our culture and traditions. Put crudely, landscape is inanimate, a random combination of geology and fluvial or glacial processes. It is us who imbue it with spirit and meaning. What is interesting to me is that it is precisely that randomness and lack of meaning that appears to bring out our most creative impulses. Something in our make-up drives us to animate the world around us, to fill it with significance. In terms of landscape it is traditionally the world we have known – the shapes of hills for instance – a constant presence in the daily lives of those unused to moving the huge distances that we do. Over time, those shapes began to be infused with responses, with memories and stories, and those traditions themselves draw other people to them, to respond and embellish them. Therefore you get places like Tintagel or Glastonbury whose stories and associations draw large numbers of pilgrims and visitors, each deepening the site’s significance.
Anthropologists identify animism as the most basic form of belief system in which stones and trees and places are filled with ancestral spirits. You can detect traces of this impulse still in the mythology of places, and in the latest interpretation of Neolithic monuments in which stone circles, standing stones etc are believed now to have been erected with reference to particular features in the landscape.
All that might sound very prosaic and relativist, a rational wrapping up of the notion of spirit. But I still believe that our response to landscape is a mysterious and beautiful thing, and one of the most powerful and revealing ways in which we engage with the world.
As to the sense of loss and sadness, well, it just seems the right register in which to write about these subjects. It’s why they call Blues the ‘truth’.
I like that you put people at the centre of your narrative, and that as well as walking and writing the Blues, you touch on the living life of places. I think you do this more than many people writing about place and landscape at the moment. It is one of the attractive qualities of Rising Ground that it’s full of people.
Well, again that comes out of my background in writing travel books. I love the describing of exotic places, and the shadowy backways of history – but it’s always the people I enjoy writing about most. Those chance encounters that fall upon you when you’re on the road, the sudden glimpses of whole lives – in an exchange that might last only a few minutes, the tiniest mannerism or a throwaway comment. In my book The Bronski House, a more sustained account of one woman’s life in Russia and Poland in the early twentieth century, I had access to personal papers and letters that enabled a much fuller portrait. That was a huge lesson for me. We are used to people being ciphers for history, biographies of the great and good who somehow embody their age. But that’s not how lives work. They’re much more chaotic, much more driven by the tangle of half-understood motives and attractions, and of luck. In The Bronski House I was interested in the way that the Russian Revolution, the Civil War could tell us about a young woman’s life, rather than the other way round. It’s the same thing with landscape – all that you can really say about landscape itself is geology, geomorphology, ecology. But the effect it has on us, as individuals or collectively, is infinitely rich. I didn’t realise quite how rich at the beginning of the project. It allowed not just a different view of historical periods – and prehistoric – but the examination of people’s lives (at least more recently) – Jack Clemo, John Whitaker, Charles Henderson and Peter Lanyon among others.
When you’re writing about the differences between those historical people dwelling in a place, you start to use some Heideggerian language. I’m thinking in particular of the passage in which you talk about ‘those who’d “dwelt” here truly and authentically’. I wonder whether you could say a little about that. I mean, for example, how do the people who live in these places now contrast with those ‘authentic dwellers’ of the past, do you think?
It was slightly tongue-in-cheek – there’s something rather schoolmasterly about Heidegger, and his notion that there is a true way of living in an old house. But I do think that behind the pomposity there is an important idea. I was constantly intrigued in the writing of this book, and contemplating the notion of place and what distinguishes one place from another, how often the past came to the fore. Faced with the blankness of a landscape and an awareness of its power and mystique, I found myself invariably trying to people it, to understand how it looked before and how it was worked and perceived. The same thing happens in an old house. The idea of one age living more authentically than another is dodgy thinking, to my mind. But in a pre-fast transport, pre-fast communication age, the relationship to place was inevitably different, more concentrated. Perhaps that lies behind the renewed interest in place, as a response to the loss of connection to one particular place.
Do you think that pre-fast transport, pre-fast communication connection to a place is better, or more healthy, or more attractive?
It’s certainly different. It’s one of those impossible ethical questions about whether things were actually ‘better’ in the old days. All I can say is that the speed of life, and of communication, must be affecting our relationship to place, and that if we want to understand how, and whether it matters all we have to go on is what went before. It’s instructive to examine how smaller-scale societies engage with the topography around them. Perhaps something in the urgency that the questions create, that I felt very strongly in writing about place, comes from a collective concern about what we’re losing.
With this in mind, what do you see as the role of this writing about about nature and place? Or its value?
Well that, I suppose – a focus on what we are in danger of losing, a celebration of it. There’s a lot of talk about the new nature writing and the nature writing boom but when you come to a subject it is not with a particular genre in mind. You simply follow by instinct, an idea, a story or series of stories that have particular appeal and watch them grow and the book take its own form. Later, you can say – OK, that’s where it goes in the bookshop. At least that’s how it is for me.
Philip, thank you very much for your time. Before you go, could you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m going back to sea. I have some unfinished business from my work on my previous book, The Levelling Sea. You never quite know where a subject’s going to take you when you begin – or at least I don’t. That book took me deep into maritime history, and the story of Falmouth as a port and the examination of a series of sea-soaked characters. But I didn’t get a chance to explore the phenomenon of sea voyages, or to describe the sea directly, and to spend time on it. So I’m now in the process of buying a boat to sail up the western seaboard – Wales, Ireland, the Hebrides. I want to explore the idea of imaginary places. It’s early days yet…
The paintings in this interview are from a sequence entitled ‘Minescapes’, by Jonathan Hayter. Jonathan is a CMR artist, an AIR resident at Falmouth University and an associate member of the Penwith Society. He has a forthcoming exhibition at the Maritime House Art Space in Falmouth from 27 July to 3 August, and another at the Fish Factory in Penryn, entitled ‘The Lake, the Wood and the Deathless Path’, from 11 – 27 September. He has provided workshops for schools and theatre groups, including ‘Wildworks’ and ‘The Story Republic’. Jonathan’s ‘Minescapes’ sequence was exhibited at Heartlands in 2013 and is a response to Cornwall’s post-industrial mining landscapes.