Monday, 30 July 2012

Reading Waterland

It's been a bit quiet in my corner of Topograph recently, mainly due to Helen and I retreating to the Norfolk coast for a week's holiday. During our frequently rainy sojourn I had the pleasure of reading Graham Swift's 1983 novel Waterland, selected on Helen's recommendation of its brilliant evocation of Norfolkian landscapes.

The novel sees a narrator recounting his uncovering of the sexual and genetic intrigue which lead to his family suffering alongside the diminishing fortunes of a Fenland economic dynasty. The jealous murder of a neighbour's son is the centre piece of our narrator's - now a retired and disgraced-by-association history teacher - investigations into the skeletons in the closets of an isolated lock-keeper's cottage on the banks of the River Leem, a fictional tributary of the Great Ouse. The novel meditates on themes of familial strife, coming-of-age, secrecy, and the nature of history and experience as plot lines from different historical eras are skilfully intertwined through the spectral landscapes of the East Anglian Fens.

I was fortunate enough to read the 2010 re-release of the novel which features a new introduction by the author to celebrate the book's 25th anniversary. In his revisiting of the writing process, Swift confesses that the Fenland setting of the narrative was originally chosen as he felt the flat, seemingly featureless landscape would make an appropriately blank background for his intricate narrative. Yet the landscape of north Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk quickly became for him a key element of the story. What he initially perceived as a static, flat, two-dimensional place re-emerged in his historical researches as a site of infinite drama (a similar shift in perspective on the nature of space in large part defines the changing nature of human geography since the 1950s).

The Fens were once not so neatly and incessantly divided into wet and dry. The marshy, swampy country to the south of the Wash was home to eel catchers and bird fowlers who subsisted off the boggy land long before the rise of the intensive industrial agriculture which largely defines the region today. As prospectors grew aware of the agricultural potential of the area's fertile soils in the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch drainage technologists were drafted in to drain the land with a new geometric network of wind pumps, dykes and straightened rivers. The process of drainage is ongoing; an unending battle to maintain the integrity of dry land. The Fens we see today are thus constantly emerging and in flux; in no way do they represent the stasis of a level surface on which social action can be played out.

Swift plays with this unceasing drama between water, land, and people. Silt - the interminable enemy of drainage - stands as a motif for the accumulation of the past and the constant need to dredge - or to inquire.

There's this thing called progress. But it doesn't progress, it doesn't go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It's progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged, vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires.

This drama of land, water and people is played-out in different ways in the Norfolk Broads - the medieval peat diggings which evolved into an enchanting network of rivers and lakes. The manmade nature of the Broads was only established in 1960 by Dr Joyce Lambert. Nowadays, conservation efforts focus on preserving the unique ecological systems which flourish in this patchwork of land and water, alongside efforts to maintain the Broads as navigable waterways. Left to themselves, the Broads would soon return to the kind of boggy, marshy landscape once characteristic of the Fens at the opposite end of the county. Here too we see the desire to maintain the distinction between man and water; to conserve in the name of nature that which is not 'natural', but a hybrid born of people's immersed presence in the landscape.

Abandoned pumping station on the River Bure
There's surely much more to be written about the Broads and the Fens. Swift's work is a striking evocation of how landscape functions as social text: a surface on which we project our cultural imaginations. However, in line with a lot of recent thinking in cultural geography, Swift shows how we need to recognize how landscapes are constantly being re-made, the role that landscapes play in their own making, and how it is important to take note of the fundamental hybridity which leads to landscapes being as they are, whether experienced first hand or in diverse cultural representations.

I wonder how people reacted to Dr Lambert's claim that the Broads were just such a hybrid landscape, rather than the watery wilderness they were once taken to be. I wonder what forms of cultural authority she needed to marshal in order to make such a radical ontological claim. I wonder too how the hybridity of the Broads and the Fens informs conservation efforts given the inevitable choices that have to be made between natural/unnatural, desirable/undesirable and between that which belongs in a landscape and that which does not. These would make for interesting research questions at the juncture of historical and cultural geography.

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