Archipelago: A Reader, by Nicholas Allen and Fiona Stafford (eds), Lilliput Press, €25, ISBN: 978-1893517825
Archipelago is a vast, commodious and engrossing accumulation of a wealth of environmental and topographical observation and appraisal. A slow accumulation, for the pieces gathered here are all reflective and discerning, and sometimes elegiac or idiosyncratic. All originally appeared in the journal of the same name, founded by Andrew McNeillie and running to twelve issues between 2007 and 2019. The current selection consists of key contributions to the magazine, arranged under five headings: “Ireland”, “Scotland”, “Other Worlds”, “England”, and “Wales”. A comprehensive and insightful afterword by McNeillie sets out Archipelago’s origin and purpose, with a nod to its guiding spirits – among whom he names William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Jones. Ambitious and distinctive, Archipelago is replete with coasts and ghosts, with safe harbours, far horizons and perilous seas. Its geographical or territorial aspects sometimes carry a mythological overtone to add complexity.
The editors of the compendium, Nicholas Allen and Fiona Stafford, have gone about their work with flair and vigour. The book opens with a poem by Derek Mahon, “Insomnia”, whose resonant images and melancholy lyrical note – “… echoes of a distant past ‑ / the empty beach house with no obvious owner, / an old hotel like a wrecked ocean liner” – somehow set the tone for much of what follows. The prose pieces are interspersed with poems, and with wonderfully smoky and smudgy etchings by Norman Ackroyd, all tending towards an intense responsiveness to landscape and seascape, to climate, season and ever-changing light. And, as with all good anthologies, Archipelago’s various inclusions are arranged to enhance and amplify one another. Sorley MacLean’s incomparable poem “Hallaig”, for example, appears in Seamus Heaney’s inspired translation – “Between Ben Lack and Fearns / The road is plush with moss” – and after it comes Roger Hutchinson’s tribute to the great Scottish Gaelic Raasay poet. “The Other Side of Sorrow” is brimful of history and biography, the Clearances of the 1840s commemorated in “Hallaig”, and the “solitary brown waste” of Oscaig on Raasay where MacLean was born in 1911, “into a family with typically long and vivid Highland memories”. “Hallaig”, indeed, is a unique evocation of ancestral shades – and Heaney, listening for the first time to the elder poet reading at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, found himself “led into an uncanny zone, somewhere between the land of heart’s desire and a waste land created by history …”
Along with the quest for roots and allegiances, the more or less uncanny zone is a motif of Archipelago, whether it’s a simple effect of wind and rain, of a deserted village or an autumnal wood at twilight – or something more supernaturally fraught, like Robert Macfarlane’s sunken lanes in South Dorset (“time-tunnels”, he calls them), or Kathleen Jamie’s Scottish holy wells, of which only the barest traces remain. (These essays have as much to do with reclamation as acclamation.) Or Tim Robinson scrambling through a hole in a wall in South Mayo – one of the traditional, or folkloric, routes into an unearthly realm – and emerging unscathed but disquieted, with MR James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary coming appropriately into his head. This little jeu d’esprit, called “The Gods of The Neale”, in which time and space come slightly adrift, is perhaps the closest we get to fiction in the book.
Tim Robinson from Yorkshire made it his life’s work to map out, explore, assess and irradiate the landscape of Connemara, to bring himself to an understanding of this part of the West of Ireland “through the soles of my boots” (as a walker and mapmaker), with insistent attention to every outcrop, boulder, cave, stone wall, harbour, bog and mountain encountered along the way. His influence is all over Archipelago. John Elder, in the essay “Catchments”, praises the “dogged and eccentric excellence” displayed by Tim Robinson throughout his entire engagement with topographical elements and essences – excellence which extends to the retrieval of Irish placenames obscured or distorted by Ordnance Survey ineptitude during the nineteenth century. Placenames are important for their descriptive or associative bearing. Some hidden corners of South Derbyshire, for example – as John Brannigan has it – “make it difficult not to feel as if inside a children’s book, an insular land of the imagination: Wicket Nook, Sharp’s Bottom, Broomy Furlong, Badger Wood, Coton in the Elms”.
A children’s book. Turn to the very lucid contribution by Peter Davidson, and in comes Lewis Carroll, with his “late summer sadness”, his vision of the “tense and melancholy seashore of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle”. Davidson’s “The Latitudes of Twilight” encapsulates feelings about the northern zone of endless summer evenings, their dreamy aura and perpetual half-light; and ushers into its orbit not just the Alice author but many artists and writers susceptible to the enchantments of a subtle and luminous terrain. The work of Caspar David Friedrich, Atkinson Grimshaw, Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and Tove Jansson (along with others) is central to the author’s purpose. These are all connoisseurs of the strange and incalculable. (A marvellous book by Peter Davidson, The Lighted Window, just published by the Bodleian Press, enshrines the author’s continuing preoccupation with crepuscular effects.)
But Archipelago has many facets. Woodland and wild life, botany, ethnography, geology, ornithology, coastal particulars, stormy weather, an invigorating “Inversnaid” unkemptness, all get a showing. Here is Sally Huband on the trail of purple sandpipers in Shetland (“Black Stane”) and getting caught up in witch trials of the seventeenth century. In the course of her investigations, she finds one witch leading to another, and horrendous instances of persecution and execution are adumbrated. Here is Robert Macfarlane enjoying a swim with a playful dolphin in the sea around Tory Island, while keeping in mind the painter Derek Hill, who claimed Tory as a source of artistic inspiration. Here is Richard Murphy – another defining presence in the book – sailing from Cleggan pier to Inishbofin (and I hope pronouncing the latter placename correctly and not as though it were spelt Inishboffin). Andrew McNeillie’s poem in memory of Richard Murphy mentions the latter’s “poet’s prescience”, his “epic of the Cleggan disaster” of 1927, his deep understanding of the presence of the past all around the shores of Connemara. It’s a well-wrought tribute.
Poets are here in abundance, with their own individual voices, or in the recollections or the salutations of others. Michael Longley’s “Wild Orchids” joins forces with Douglas Dunn’s “Botanics” and Mick Imlah’s “Wallflowers” to form an arresting small group. Alan Riach provides a vivid account of Hugh MacDiarmid on Whalsay between the wars, emphasising his travels around the islands, and the literary and psychological struggles which beset him. Ivor Gurney is here in his own right, with a short prose piece on sailing on the Severn and a couple of poems, while his life and eccentricities are sympathetically appraised by Philip Lancaster. Jem Poster aptly pairs Richard Jeffries with Edward Thomas, noting all their common hauntings and perplexities. And so on.
Terry Eagleton, finding himself (somewhat surprisingly) inhabiting an old rectory in a remote corner of northwest Ulster (what is he doing there?), makes merry with a selection of Northern Irish historical and geographical anomalies; but his attention is focused mainly on Frederick Augustus Hervey, eighteenth century bishop of Derry and earl of Bristol, whose library, in the form of the beautiful Mussenden Temple, still stands – albeit precariously – on a cliff edge at Downhill. Eagleton’s engaging aplomb and resourcefulness are much in evidence here, and act as a balance to the more austere or contemplative side of Archipelago.
Eagleton, however, is in somewhat odd company in this anthology, being in no sense a nature writer, and with nature in all its guises, lush, unaccommodating, bountiful, overwhelming, entrancing or apocalyptic, being at the heart of the Archipelago project. The current “Reader” is full of wilderness areas and their inhabitants. Birds fly in and out of its pages: the birds of Jura, birds of the Machair, raptors and seabirds, linnets, ducks and geese. The seas swarm with marine life. Vegetation abounds. Kathleen Jamie, on a solitary rural walk near a loch not far from her home in Scotland, catches sight of a roe deer bounding out of a thicket. It lifts her spirits. Moya Cannon’s bees, Liz Lochhead’s black and white dog, the mythical cow from Tory Island … these, and other creatures, make a decorative backdrop alongside the endless, scholarly and intriguing purposes of the authors, whether it’s to evoke the spirit of a Cockle-woman from Penclawdd or consider the role of the oak tree as a symbol of immemorial Englishness.
The impulse towards conservation is strong among the Archipelago writers: at least, this is true, by and large, of contemporary writers. But if you take the entire tradition of nature writing, you cannot avoid encountering the utmost destructiveness. Destructiveness, and cruelty, with wild creatures viewed solely as commodities or comestibles. At a basic level, indeed, the genre is founded on killing, killing for food, for sport, or to test one’s prowess. What comes to mind in this dispiriting context is something like WH Maxwell’s nineteenth century Wild Sports of the West – or, in the present volume, another Maxwell (Gavin) slaughtering basking sharks for a living, WS Graham hunting rabbits with a ferret, or Ian Niall going in for killing on an exorbitant scale: “I am afraid I had little respect for the life of other creatures.” If you catch a note of compunction here, you cannot help feeling it’s come a bit late in the day.
Ian Niall, born John McNeillie in 1916 and a doyen of mid-twentieth-century rural writers, was clearly one for whom nature was unequivocally “red in tooth and claw”. These are the words of his son Andrew McNeillie, who celebrates his father’s achievement, his hardihood and his literary expertise, in a brief prose passage included here. At the same time, he concedes that Ian Niall’s slaughter tally is hardly in keeping with the liberal thinking of today. But he is his father’s son, and has inherited Ian Niall’s love of the outdoors – as he demonstrated in his impressive account of an eleven-month sojourn on Inishmore, published as An Aran Keening in 2001 – and also his unsqueamish attitude to animals, never balking, himself, at snaring a rabbit or two for his supper. It’s a way of testing himself “against solitude and hardship”, for one thing ‑ but the rationale of An Aran Keening, you’d have to say, corresponds essentially to the impetus behind Archipelago: to draw “as near to matter as I might, to the stones and the weather”.
Patricia Craig’s Kilclief & Other Essays is published by Irish Pages and was reviewed by Eve Patten in the September issue of the Dublin Review of Books.