Creating Relationships with Place through Story

This is Garner’s own line, and I come back again and again to the talk it comes from.

I am not going to debate his method or dispute with him about this. I do wonder, however, about whether there is a mutual relationship here, too.  Place gives rise to story, story creates relationship with place – this is at the heart of the repeated line in Boneland that has become something of a motto for me “I dream in Ludcruck.” It is also at the heart of the saying I have on my office door, “Sing me frumsceaft.” (This is as good an introduction as any to the English text of Bede’s story of Caedmon.) “Sing to me the origin of things” commands the vision – and the illiterate, tone-deaf shepherd does:

He ærest sceop    eorþan bearnum

heofon to hrofe,  halig Scyppend

and it is a divine act of shaping, creation from on high, ex nihilo: the world comes from nothing, the song from nothing, too.

The world experienced, “place” in effect, is given meaning for us through story. However, I think the converse is also true: for me the song does not come from nothing: this valley, that hill, have meaning because of a story about it, and the meaning is given because of the story. We are knots in a web of interconnected stories and places, “haunted,” as Robert Macfarlane says in The Wild Places, by the archetypes, for example,  of forest and upland, and what our forebears have made of them or said about them. Perhaps this is one of the Oxford connections for writers such as Cooper, Garner, Lewis, Tolkein: they are searching not for a one-way relationship but something much more mutual and complex.

I am typing maybe 200m from where, driving back to Oxford in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night,  Harriet Vane starts her descent:

Headington. She was very near now, and in spite of herself a chill qualm cramped her stomach. Headington Hill, up which one had toiled so often, pushing a decrepit bicycle. It seemed less steep now, as one made decorous descent behind four rhythmically pulsating cylinders; but every leaf and stone hailed one with the intrusive familiarity of an old school-fellow. Then the narrow street, with its cramped, untidy shops, like the main street of a village; one or two stretches had been widened and improved, but there was little real change to take refuge in.

Magdalen Bridge. Magdalen Tower. And here, no change at all–only the heartless and indifferent persistence of man’s handiwork. Here one must begin to steel one’s self in earnest. Long Wall Street. St. Cross Road. The iron hand of the past gripping at one’s entrails…

For Sayers, this is the start of a deceptively simple exploration – Gaudy Night is at once a crime thriller, a romance and a gentle satire – of the city where she was born, where she attended University.  Her principal character is coming to terms with the “the whimpering ghost of her dead youth” in a landscape (and an urban and very particular one at that). She is creating a place, both real and imagined, making sense of the place through story – but also recognising how much the story shapes the characters. I don’t think it shapes just the characters in a story, however wonderful and terrifying it is to be out in the marshes with Pip or on the rooftops of Paris with Vango, or with Olive in the Lighthouse  in Emma Carroll’s book, or in the chalk pits with Tom Tit Tot or even (the list goes ever on and on) in the fairytale landscape of the Ahlbergs; it also shapes the reader, helps give sense to their world.  Story arises from place, and invites us to make sense of place: aetiology is not a one-way path, and it is not just for critics and folklorists. As Thomas Lane’s ingratiating dedicatory poem-preface to Robert Plot’s “Natural History of Stafford-shire” begins:

Describe the Land, Israel’s Commander said

And the glad Artists strait the word obey’d

Describing, engaging: this is the heart of Garner’s intensely localised life-long project, it seems to me. In looking at/for Thursbitch, we recognised as we wrote for Folklore Thursday that

the fear of us losing touch with the stories that made us who we are and still design us. What will happen to us when we stop looking back; when we can no longer dreamwalk into a history?


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