To celebrate and commend this landmark publication from Ken Worpole and Jason Orton, we present an interview about the book. The New English Landscape argues for the importance of a place once awarded ‘no marks at all for landscape quality’ by Country Life. It unearths an extraordinarily rich history of cultural traditions and a distinctive relationship between ecology and human settlement. But it is also a book with a wider message about what we value, and how we find value, in the landscapes around us. The New English Landscape follows their 2005 book 350 Miles: An Essex Journey which saw the two travel and document the estuaries of the north Essex coastline. In this new publication though, we find a full and striking exploration of the historical context for our relationship to the land in the post-war period. Together the books represent a radical re-evaluation of our topography and landscape aesthetics – a highly successful one, we feel – at a time when such a re-evaluation is much needed:
‘A growing appreciation of the importance of place now goes to the heart of politics, public aesthetics and cultural identity.’ – Ken Worpole
You describe a change in landscape aesthetics from the ‘arcadian interior’ to the ‘contested eastern shoreline’. How significant is it that the aesthetic of the new topography is ‘contested’?
I don’t think this shift is consciously contested, but you only have to look at the still-dominant forms of ‘best landscape photography’ or televised images of the English coastline to realise that a more interrogative, ‘all-weathers’ landscape aesthetic is still resisted. An exception is in television drama and film-making where marshland, fenland and former industrial landscapes are increasingly used to achieve more intense emotional effects.
How far is The New English Landscape a post-rural landscape and do you think that the rural is still relevant as a landscape category?
I remain committed to the notion of a ‘working landscape’, as Raymond Williams always did, as a means of resolving these unproductive distinctions between urban and rural.
The question of English identity is one that people have been shying away from for all kinds of reasons, not least of all that it is tainted by nationalism, cliché and often seems opposed to scales such as the regional and local. How important is it that this is a new English landscape?
You have raised an interesting issue with regard to the scale at which landscape distinctiveness emerges – is it local, regional, national or what? I think distinctiveness and ‘landscape character’ can operate at many levels of scale. In this essay, however, I take the attribute of Englishness as deriving from a particular period of social history – from the rapid fortification of the East Anglian coast at the outbreak of the First World War to the present day writings of people like W.G.Sebald – to chart this movement of artists, writers, and latterly psycho-geographers, to the estuarine landscapes of the east coast, as constituting a particularly new era for English visual and literary aesthetics.
The book’s prose offers a sustained argument about a particular aesthetics, and yet with the images it seems also to be enacting the very aesthetics it is arguing for. How far is the prose also consciously enacting this aesthetics?
The photographer Jason Orton and I have collaborated on several projects, and have always agreed that text and the photography should be quite independent of each other: but when they act in counter-point something remarkable can emerge, as I hope it does in The New English Landscape. We have been walking together for many years and intuitively share the same interests, pre-occupations and attentiveness to visual and historical detail, so it is not surprising that there are recurring synergies and affinities. Book design is another strong integrating principle, of course, and Peter Brawne’s experience as a designer brought yet another dimension to the project.
There have been some fractious arguments made recently that oppose documentary and factual writing to writing of a more overtly aesthetic quality. Where do you feel The New English Landscape sits in this debate?
Strangely I have never thought about this before, though by background and temperament I write in a social-historical tradition, but one that was informed by an early involvement in the oral history movement where the importance of narrative, story-telling and evocation of place and atmosphere was given great respect. (I was much influenced by the writings of historian Raphael Samuel, who himself was influenced by Clifford Geertz’s espousal of ‘thick description’.) You will note a rather long bibliography at the end of the essay, as I am always conscious of the influence of others working in the field, and want to pay my dues.
The fascination for the picturesque in the eighteenth century seems to express a certain longing, the product of a certain loss of daily contact with the land that it took as its subject. Are there some parallels to be drawn between this historical moment and our own?
In the book I record how strong the ‘back to the land’ movement has been in Essex particularly over the past hundred years, whether as a result of anarchist, Tolstoyan, religious nonconformist, pacifist, or ecological belief systems. I am always coming across these ‘experiments in living’ when going through the local history archives or talking to people. With a renewed emphasis on local food production, this impulse seems as strong as ever.
There seems to be a real admiration for the utopian communities of the twentieth century in here. Patrick Keiller has similarly explored an interest in utopian landscape and architectural movements. What do you think it is about such movements that is capturing the interest of our contemporary landscape aesthetics?
Again it comes back to the energising concept of the working landscape, which partly resolves antinomies between work and play, economy and leisure, urban and rural, as well as requiring some hard thinking about the visual aesthetics of place and habitat. I have written elsewhere that thanks to efforts by wildlife organisations and ecologists, we have become pretty sophisticated in recreating wildlife habitats where bio-diversity flourishes anew, but when we look at the habitats created around new housing developments they are invariably sterile and at complete odds with their environmental setting. We can make a home in the landscape for the nightingale and the crested newt but we haven’t yet learned how to do this for people. You have to have a political and environmental aesthetic at work in new community-building, otherwise it is just bricks and mortar and feeder roads: residential compounds set in an unloved and unvisited quasi-rural hinterland. The statistics about how far people walk from their homes in new housing developments is pretty shocking – most, never at all.
For more about The New English Landscape, forthcoming talks and events and how to buy the book please visit: http://thenewenglishlandscape.wordpress.com/