The Uncanny Landscapes Podcast: Problems with Nature Writing

Justin Hopper, author of The Old Weird Albion, recently launched a podcast called Uncanny Landscapes. The first episode contained an interview with Angus Carlyle, a writer I’d not heard of before, but whose books I immediately hunted out.

The interview with Carlyle described something that has troubled me for a while. Carlyle was discussing the compilation of two of his books, Nightblooms and A Downland Index. Nightblooms contains poetry and photographs taken with a smartphone and torchlight while running on the downs. A Downland Index consists of a hundred pieces, each 100 words long.

Both books were initially written as entries on social media platforms – A Downland Index as “an obscure Tumblr”, and Nightblooms on Twitter and Instagram. While the use of these services in the book’s production is not foregrounded, Carlyle says that he was fascinated by the relationship between the timestamps used in these services, which put the uploaded item into an almost-legal framework, and the ambiguity of the thing being timestamped.

Carlyle used this to explore his feelings about nature writing. For Carlyle, such books depend on a “mantle of truth-telling“, but it is hard to know how authentic this is: “Did they really know at this time they described themselves knowing it?” There seems to be a “projection of a certain expertise… the nature writer is a virtuosic inhabitant of the familiar or unfamiliar. Even in the unfamiliar they rely on beautiful writing [or] a transparent reflection of their own emotions, reporting back their experience“. How do you seperate the lived experience from the writer’s later research?

The digital services used acted as witnesses to Carlyle’s immediate presence, exploring “how to use something as clean and digital and unnatural as the internet architecture around these clocks that are constantly logging activities like me uploading things… as a way of inserting some kind of doubt into the process of nature writing”.

It was an exciting discussion, and arrived while I was wrestling with a question around my own writing. I’d been asked to provide documentation of a favourite walk, but there seemed to be various traps around this. I did not want to fall into the role of a man wandering about noticing things then explaining them. Carlyle’s assertion of presense feels like an useful thing to consider.

I’m going to write more about Carlyle’s book soon, particularly A Downland Index. Indexes do not appear often enough in creative writing (one notable exception being JG Ballard’s story The Index.) Carylye begins his book with the index and it’s an interesting way to present a book. Why are there more entries for cars than chalk? How does this format affect my feelings about the coming book?

Justin’s podcast is beautifully produced, and his voice is perfect. The third volume arrived in my RSS reader, and I’m looking forward to listening to it this afternoon.

Lockdown Retreat Day 135: Escape from Brighton

Last weekend was my first overnight trip out of Brighton since lockdown (the last being my hike to Firle and back). I’d originally planned to see my family the weekend of Mother’s Day, but the growing crisis meant that we cancelled.

There’s a game I sometimes play when I’m walking about Brighton, which is to look for signs of the pandemic, seeing how long it is before I can spot something out of the ordinary (or something belonging to the new ordinary, whichever way you want to put it). It’s like the set-dressing for a dystopian future – masks, obviously, rainbows in the windows, adverts on buses for films released at the start of the year. Driving up the M1, approaching the junction to Leicester, the gantries announced that Leicester was ‘ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ONLY’.

When I arrived at my sister’s, things were not entirely normal. I didn’t enter any of the houses, staying in an Airbnb that she runs, and I didn’t touch anyone. I don’t know if we were being pious about the bio-security protocols, since the law would have allowed me to enter my parent’s house or my sister’s, but it seemed safer not to.

It was liberating to be in the countryside, and I fell asleep on a shady bench that first afternoon. It was also good to be around animals: the nervous moorhens, the chickens, a half-feral cat and the dogs. I slept so well at night that I wasn’t awake in time to see the hare or the deer. I felt revitalised by sunlight, flowing fresh water, trees and breezes.

Having said that, sunlight was in short supply. Saturday afternoon it began raining. In the evening, we ate curry under a marquee with water dripping down the sides. It felt and just like being at a festival.

Still the rain wasn’t bad for everyone. I’d driven my sunflower up, as I didn’t want it dying while I was away (this is normal behaviour, right?) I got to give Vicky the Sunflower a new home, repotting her in something larger. She also got to enjoy being outside, which meant experiencing rain for the first time.

One of the best bits of Lord of the Rings is Rivendell. After a various dangers and excitements, the story pauses when Frodo stops off on the Last Homely Home. It’s a strange part of the book, where everything seems to pause.

Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep, or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.’ Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear and sadness.

Of course, the downside of a pandemic is that there is no real quest to it for most of us. As the meme joked, we could be heroes by staying indoors and doing nothing. Now I am back in Brighton, I need to think of more exciting things to do than sitting in my flat.

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre

A Legacy of Spies (published 2017) is both a prequel and sequel to Le Carre’s most celebrated novel, A Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963). Peter Guillam is retired in Brittany, when he is summoned to London to resolve “a matter in which you appear to have played a significant roles some years back“. Legal claims have emerged relating to the 1960s mission described in Le Carre’s earlier book.

Le Carre is at his best writing interrogations, and the scenes where Guillam faces British Government lawyers are great. I particularly liked the character of Tabitha, a service-appointed lawyer representing Guilliam. He cannot decide whether to trust her or not, and it demonstrates the Kafka-esque nature of trials where details are restricted to lawyers and defendants.

The problem is, in discussing an event set in the early sixties, Le Carre resorts to having Guillam read through old memos and transcripts. This mean the action felt very distant, and it was a little like being at work. The quality of the encounters between Guillam and the lawyers only make this technique feel more threadbare. Despite that, the writing is often brilliant, with some striking phrases, such as when Guillam muses, “Sometimes I wonder whether it is possible to be born secret, in the way people are born rich, or tall, or musical“.

Ultimately, Guillam has to decide what to do with secrets that have been kept for decades. Bunny, one of the government lawyers, refers disdainfully to “the British public’s insatiable interest in historic crime… Today’s blameless generation versus your guilty one“. The legacy of cynical and shameful acts needs to be reckoned with, and potentially punished long after the fact.

The structure of the book promises an encounter with spymaster George Smiley. We see him in the old transcripts first, “tubby, bespectacled, permanently worried“. There’s a lovely description of Smiley carrying out an interrogation: “a bit put out, a bit pained, as if life is one long discomfort for him and no one can make it tolerable except just possibly you“.

In the final section of the book, Guillam sets out to find Smiley. There is a brief rousing chorus of Smiley’s People before this final reckoning. Smiley seems younger than he should be and, indeed, his age has been retconned in a couple of earlier books. He has become one of those de-aging spies, like Nick Fury, his past rewritten to catch up with him. This final encounter is brief and perhaps inconclusive, as was the novel itself. Smiley cannot but be seen as a cipher of Le Carre himself, a mysterious presence in the background of all these books.

I think Le Carre is one of Britain’s most impressive living writers. This book feels very much a valedictory one, and last year’s Agent Running in the Field came as a surprise. The more recent book is probably the better one, since this book feels limited by being a legacy project but it mostly works well.

We do feel it’s an important job, as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means“.

Review: ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ by Ben Graham

I read a version of Ben Graham’s new book ‘Pink Floyd are Fogbound in Paris’ in March, just as lockdown was starting. The book was written for the 50th Anniversary of the doomed ‘Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz’ festival and is officially published next month. It’s turned out to be a sadly appropriate book for a summer without festivals.

Ben does a great job of telling the story, using his research without quite puncturing the legendary parts of the tale. “On the weekend of August 14-16, 1970, roughly 25,000 people gathered for the first Yorkshire Folk, Blues and Jazz Festival. It was also the last”.

There’s a lovely story arc, as the enthusiastic promoters do their best to put on a festival, find solutions to many problems but ultimately doomed by forces they can’t control. Ben paces the narrative well and provides some lovely asides.

I’ve been to some grim festivals. I’ve seen muddy years at Glastonbury, and was a day visitor to one of the flood years at Download. I also enjoyed the charmingly shambolic final Playgroup festival. But the problems faced by the Krumlin festival went beyond that: an isolated, exposed location, beset by vicious weather. It was a true festival hell.

The physical book is really good looking. I adore the cover, and there are some fantastic photos. I particularly liked the one of Christy Moore standing on the M62, which was being built at the time. This motorway lurks wonderfully in the background of the story, with Ben using quotes from a report on its construction to illustrate the severity of weather conditions at one point.

I re-read the book on an English summer’s day, sat in a garden marquee while it pissed down outside. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the bands, the tale is really one of man versus the elements. It’s well worth reading – and definitely essential for anyone who’s idly thought, “I reckon we should put on a festival”.

Lockdown Retreat Day 130: Looking towards a hard winter

One of the things that scared me most about lockdown was the lack of a clear exit strategy. A lot of the restrictions have now been lifted, but it feels like a stumbling sort of progress. At the same time, with so many venues closed, beaches and parks are packed, and there’s a relaxed summery mood. We are in the midst of a crisis, but that crisis feels remote. What scares me now is the possibility of a very hard winter coming, and one that we are poorly prepared for.

At the start of the crisis, I was pleased with the government’s handling of things, once they finally took things seriously. I might loathe some of the politicans themselves, but the messaging was clear and the leadership appeared confident. Things have collapsed since then. A succession of obvious errors have made things a lot worse than they needed to be.

An example of this is the rules around masks. It’s obvious that masks won’t make things worse, and the experience of some countries suggests that they may contribute significantly to reduced transmission. We had an announcement that masks should be worn in shops, saying they would be mandatory in ten days time. The reason given for this is that it gives people time to prepare – despite masks being made mandatory on public transport with much less warning. Like the decision to close pubs, the government is fumbling inevitable changes.

While most (sensible) people hope for a vaccine as a permanent solution to the pandemic, that is by no means guaranteed to be possible or timely. It’s vital that the country has effective and responsive test and trace systems to control things in the meantime.

Testing has been a fiasco Data collection has been “primitive”, with senior officials describing it as “not fit for purpose“. The government has suppressed data on the number of people tested, finally declining to publish this information at all going forward – which feels very similar to how the government suppressed graphs showing international comparisons once these became inconvenient.

Tracking is a mess – despite this being one of the most important ways out of the current crisis. The government promised a world-beating test-and-trace system, yet a huge number of people are not contacted in a timely manner. Rather than build on established local tracing expertise, the government opened this work out to private contractors. The overall responsibility for managing the tracing systems has gone to someone whose most notable previous achievement was presiding over the UK’s worst corporate data loss to date. The government also produced an expensive, failed mobile app, which didn’t work for the exact same reasons they were warned about by specialists within the industry.

There appears to have been very little oversight of procurement contracts: The Government spent a staggering £5.5bn on PPE contracts. Shockingly, three of the biggest beneficiaries were companies specialising in pest control, a confectionery wholesaler, and an opaque family fund owned through a tax haven.

In addition, there are significant disincentives for people to be tested. Care workers who test positive face the prospect of losing their wages. One care worker discussed the problem of trying to live on £99.85 statutory sick pay: “I can’t pay my rent with that… I’d have to choose between heating my flat or feeding my kids. Either I live in poverty or I kill my client.” That is on top of the potential negative responses in communities to people testing positive.

We’ve also learned that the country’s chief nurse was dropped from a daily briefing, apparently because she refused to follow the party line on the Dominic Cummings affair: “Aides to the prime minister briefed journalists at the time that she may not have made it to the briefing because she could have been stuck in traffic.

Lockdown was incredibly expensive. It should have bought us time to put world-class systems and policies in place to deal with the virus. Instead, it looks like the outsourced solutions have failed to deliver the outcomes we need.

In recent years, a bad winter flu season has stretched the NHS. It’s summer, and that season feels far off. I’m going swimming in the sea. My homebound life feels normal enough, and Small Batch has reopened. Things no longer feel so strange and threatening (it’s 30 days since I last wrote about my experience of the pandemic). But winter looms in the distance, and I hope it will pass smoothly. But I’m already starting to wonder how I might cope with restrictions and disasters in the short, cold days.

New story: If Vampires were real

On Sunday, a story of mine was published on Paragraph Planet: If Vampires Were Real. Paragraph Planet is a long-running flash-fiction site, which publishes a 75-word story each day.

If Vampires Were Real was written as part of the Not for the Faint-Hearted sessions, which I have been running online most Saturdays since lockdown begun. We write 8 or 9 stories each session, which means I’ve written about 100 tiny stories during the pandemic. Most of them I throw away, but a few are worth polishing-up.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve also been writing 500-word stories as part of the Writer’s HQ Flash-Face-Off. I’ve written four pieces so far. None of them have taken a long time to write, but I am fairly happy with how they’ve turned out. All four are going to find a way into my South Downs Way project.

The stories I produce quickly to prompts seems to work better than the pieces I labour with. Lockdown is giving me an opportunity to play with my writing, and I am still learning new things.

A pandemic artwork on Hove Lawns

At some point in the early hours of Friday morning (10th July), an artwork appeared on Hove Lawns. Tens of thousands of pebbles had been laid out on the east end in the shape of the UK’s official Coronavirus death toll:

It’s a stark and thought-provoking piece of work, placing this horrific number into the midst of a public area. My first response was amazement at seeing each stone had been individually numbered. At first, questions about the piece’s construction were a distraction from its meaning, until that came back with a shock. Each one of these tens of thousands of pebbles represented a life lost.

The following day, on my daily walk, I saw the artist and got talking to someone who described themselves as their ‘gofer’. He said he’d written some of the numbers, an effort that had taken a week’s work to complete. He had burst into tears at one point, he told me, the stark numbers suddenly reminding him of the tattooed numbers at Belsen. That comparison feels problematic to me, but I can understand it.

The piece is confrontational, particularly when we’re being told that it’s our duty to go back to pubs and restaurants; while, at the same time, government ministers say mask-wearing should not be mandatory, even though they might save lives, even though there seems to be little downside. This is just another number we’ve got used to, alongside millions who die of hunger each year.

Another question about the artwork is why that number, which is the official death toll. The Gofer said it was picked because that number was controversial, and the artist wanted people to think about it. Looking at the piece on Friday lunchtime with Kate Shields, we got talking with a couple who told us about their friend. This person had been suffering a variety of conditions related to cancer, but had been marked as dying of coronavirus; and the family felt this was incorrect, that this cause of death was a political move.

Photograph by Kate Shields

The number formed by the pebbles is being updated daily. The shock of the artwork will diminish, and I’m not sure how long it will survive in its current location. Maybe people will encounter the numbered pebbles on the beach in years to come, and wonder who wrote on this pebble, and why?

Back in March, Stephen Powis said of the coming death toll, “If it is less than 20,000… that would be a good result though every death is a tragedy, but we should not be complacent about that

The larger a number, the more difficult it is to reason about.

Monthnotes – June 2020

June’s monthnotes are slow in coming, which is a reflection of how things feel right now. I actually have less energy now than I did during full lockdown. There’s something seductive about the calm of staying indoors, and I’m trying to think of ways to get out and about more.

My step count was a meagre 386,597, with a maximum of 29,732 – no epic hikes last month. Some of the morning walks were less tedious, thanks to my bubble-partner Rosy, but solo walking continued to be a chore.

In the whole month, I only finished three books. 16 ways to defend a walled city was an interesting post-Game-of-thrones read, looking at a lot of the details fantasy fiction skips over.

I watched six films ranging from the poor (Skyscraper, Tango and Cash) through to the good (Miss Americana). Not knowing anything about Taylor Swift made that documentary a very strange experience. Shin Godzilla couldn’t overcome poor special effects, Seeking a Friend of the World was less fun on this rewatch. Da 5 Bloods was an interesting film that fell apart on reflection.

Not much else, really. My first locked-down birthday, a little hiking, released a new pamphlet. Otherwise, lockdown feels like a tar pit. But, then, the effects of Covid-19 haven’t become less severe just because we’ve left lockdown, so it’s hard to know what to do.

Zine submissions wanted: How Did You Become Invisible?

The London Invisibles Salon is collecting submissions for a zine responding to The Invisibles. In the 25 years since Grant Morrison’s comic was first published, it’s inspired and influenced people. We’re looking for personal responses to the book:

  • How has the book inspired you and changed your life?
  • What adventures and interesting people has it led you to?
  • How you feel about the comic now? Has it stood the test of time?
  • If someone discovers the book now, what should they do next?

We are looking for pieces of 100-500 words, on “How I became invisible” for a print zine that will be published in the Autumn. We will also be publishing a PDF/Kindle version that will be sent to all contributors.

We don’t want this zine to be simply an exercise in nostalgia. It’s an opportunity to show how some present day counter-cultures that connect back to the book.

Deadline – We need your submissions at by midnight UK time on Monday August 31st 2020. We are open to longer contributions too, but please get in touch with us first.

The zine will be published on November 23rd. Keep an eye on for the latest information. It is being produced by the Invisibles re-reading forum, and the London Invisibles Salon.

For more information, please email us at