Every fertile inch: Derek Jarman’s “Modern Nature”

Dungeness occupies a peculiar place in the English psyche. If the more overtly symbolic Dover cliffs can be read as embodying England’s stance toward Europe – aloof, haughty, withdrawn – Dungeness, whose geography is far less confrontational, is more ambiguous.

It is an English wilderness; one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe. It is inhabited, but the settlement is very un-English: isolated cottages lined up amid the shingle and facing the sea.

These contradictions, or multiplicities, make Derek Jarman’s stay at Dungeness entirely appropriate. Not merely a film-maker, he was an artist, writer, set-designer, gay rights activist and gardener: Prospect Cottage is testament to that. And that gently sloping shore, in stark contrast to the white fortresses to east and west? As he says of his 1986 film Caravaggio, it was “my own throwing down the gauntlet at the American-oriented cinema and saying ‘here is a film oriented towards Europe’, which has always been where I’ve looked”. No-one proposes giant, aggressive statues of Prime Ministers on Dungeness beach.

I found Modern Nature – smartly repackaged by Vintage earlier this year – shelved in one bookshop under Nature Writing and in another under Biography. As with its author’s life, the book – though undeniably a diary – is not content to belong to merely one genre.

As Jarman says of the cottage, or more specifically of the garden which attracts tourists in their numbers a quarter of a century after his death from an AIDS-related illness, “There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon.”

This is a brave, even transgressive idea, and can be read several ways. The first, and most trite, is that it symbolises a life without the boundaries imposed by bourgeois culture. Secondly, that in being open – neither delineated nor protected – it lets the outside (the Other) in. Thirdly, the counter, is that it stakes a claim to everything that lies “outside”, i.e. the entire world might be my garden.

There are many descriptions of the wildlife around his cottage: his director’s eye is ever-sharp: “Today the sun shines with an unreal intensity, precise as a street corner in a de Chirico, razor-sharp shadows. The crocuses bright as flares in the shingle.”

Yet those expecting the consolations of the new nature writing will be disappointed. This, unlike the books that cover the tables in bookshops, is not a tale of personal redemption found through extended exposure to nature. We know how his story ends, for a start (though Smiling in Slow Motion continues the diary until a few weeks before his death in 1994).

Jarman moved to Prospect in 1986; Modern Nature is his diary of 1989 and 1990, when his immune system first shows signs of ailing. Weeks pass in hospital, in which he is unable to write. He is angry, and often scared and lonely and exhausted.

“When the doctor first told me I was HIV positive, I think she was more upset than me. It didn’t sink in at first – that took weeks. I thought: this is not true, then I realised the enormity. I had been pushed into yet another corner, this time for keeps. It quickly became a way of life. When the sun shone it became unbearable. I didn’t say anything, I had decided to be stoic.

This was a chance to be grown up. Though I thought I ought to be crying, I walked down Charing Cross Road in the sunlight, everyone was so blissfully unaware. The sun is still shining.

The perception that knowing you’re dying makes you feel more alive is an error. I’m less alive. There’s less life to lead. I can’t give 100% attention to anything – part of me is thinking about my health.”

Yet he finds delight in the smallest of things, as he tends to the garden; planting or watering (an act we see in his 1990 film The Garden1, the making of which is detailed in the book), or exploring the headland.

Ever a social animal2, he details all the gossip of his wide circle (much of the talk is on the declining health of friends and lovers as AIDS takes its brutal toll), and takes special pleasure from the company of people such as Tilda Swinton – a long-term collaborator – and Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant.

I was intrigued to discover his loathing of Peter Greenaway’s A TV Dante (Greenaway does not emerge from this book well), which as a 16-year-old blew me away. I had always linked the two directors in my mind, possibly because their works were contemporary and (in different ways, though the nuances were lost on me at that age) highly extravagant.

If Prospect Cottage is a refuge from London, it is far from stable: battered by the storms which reshape the beach and lend the landscape its unique look (watching The Garden, I was struck by how much Dungeness actually looks like the set of a Jarman film), and also at the mercy of one of Jarman’s many pet hates: officialdom and bureaucracy (a facet of the “straight” establishment whose oppression of gay rights and culture he campaigned against):

“It is not the good manners of Dungeness that have made it so delightful, rather the haphazard growth and crusting past. The old army buildings, PLUTO pipelines, even the great nuclear power station gives this landscape it’s charm.”

Quite so. Another kick in the teeth for those who see no beauty in concrete. RAF Denge is nearby, with its World War 2 pre-radar “listening walls”, designed to alert coastal defences to incoming Luftwaffe attacks:

“The listening wall is the greatest concrete structure in the kingdom…even great Lutyens’ Cenotaph or the many monuments of battle lack it’s power”

What, then, is the “nature” recorded in this diary? Not solely the flora and fauna around Prospect (shown in The Garden in wobbly 8mm glory). Philip Hoare describes it as “a natural history of the HIV virus” and writes:

“Like some contemporary Thoreau – his tar-painted seaside hut set, not like Thoreau’s Walden next to the new railroad, but in the shadow of a nuclear reactor – Jarman recorded his sojourn in Modern Nature, his ironically titled journals, alongside the development of the virus that would soon take his life….His writing spoke to a queer nature, as well as being a natural history of his infection in the way that Kathleen Jamie’s essay “Pathologies” treats cancer cells under a microscope in a Dundee hospital as an equally valid subject for “nature writing”…”it’s not all primroses and otters””

Nature is also what we need to live: not merely plants and their place in the food chain, or in mythology3 but the chemicals that prolong our lives or in Jarman’s case keep the illness at bay as long as possible, and also in the form of the massive nuclear power station that haunts the book, standing gnomically behind Dungeness’s fragile ecosystem.

A poem which appears under the entry for April 27th 1989, and which is spoken on the (superb) soundtrack of The Garden, includes these poignant lines:

My gilly flowers, roses, violets blue

Sweet garden of vanished pleasures

Please come back next year

Cold, cold, cold I die so silently

Modern Nature is a fascinating, funny, angry and brutally honest glimpse into the mind of a major artist.

 

1 The Garden saw him revisit the 8mm format of his early films (of which A Journey to Avebury is highly recommended, as is Adam Scovell’s study of it)

2 In an interview on the DVD of Caravaggio, he describes his approach to film-making as an environment in which “…everyone can come together for a few weeks and find something to work on which opened up avenues of different sorts for themselves and that that was the real purpose of film making…to create community. This is one of the reasons why its been difficult for me to join in the commercial or even television-oriented cinema that we live in now where people are actually sort of employed for jobs. [That] never struck me as the right way. People should come to it because they want to make a film.”

3 “In ancient Greece, where every part of the body was perfumed by a different scent, mint was used under the arms. In the middle ages it was used for whitening the teeth. Menthe was a nymph whom Pluto loved – changed to this plant by Proserpine in a fit of jealousy.”

 

Sources:

Jarman, Derek: Modern Nature (Vintage, 2018)

Hoare, Philip: “The Unfinished World” (in Ground Work, ed. Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Caravaggio (BFI DVD, 2007)

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“Landfill” by Tim Dee

My copy of Landfill was supplied for review by Little Toller Books.

Tim Dee’s latest book may just be his most important. His 2008 work The Running Sky is justifiably recognised as a classic of modern nature writing. Through the months of a year Dee looks at a particular species, habitat, or aspect of our relationship with birds. Never the monomaniac, he sees connections between things that are not always obvious: a magpie’s eye for collecting seemingly disparate threads and bringing them together.

His second book, Four Fields, is – for me – his weakest. A study of four different fields (in England, America, Africa and Ukraine) in different weathers and seasons, the book reads like the author is trying too hard for unity of design. That said, Dee’s prose is always a pleasure, and the chapters on Chernobyl were engrossing. Of all the Chernobyl-related literature I’ve read, this passage stands out:

“Fall-out was so potent in these woods that for a time it destroyed microbial activity as well as most other living things. Rot was killed, decay arrested and the dead kept immutably dead. There were no friendly worms. Death, needing no colleagues, moved as an absolute master through these woods and fields, armed solely with itself, raining death beyond death down over the trees and grass, keeping everything dead.”

The idea that there can be a form of death so absolute that it prevents rot is appalling; utterly un-natural. I first read that paragraph with the same creeping feeling of dread that a horror story gives.

All of which brings me nicely around to the new book. Landfill is, in one sense, a book about death. Throughout, we see glimpses of Dee’s ageing parents and the slow constriction of their horizons (ironically, in a book about one of nature’s great colonisers) and his adjustment to their increasingly straitened circumstances. But it’s also about what we throw away, and the effects of our behaviour on those most raucous and vital of our urban neighbours: gulls.

The book’s promotional material calls it “a new book about rubbish and birds” but that new is surely superfluous. There can’t be many books devoted to the relationship between our culture’s detritus1 and the natural world, and certainly fewer still about gulls. Why not? Dee has written passionately about the purpose of the new nature writing, and in his introduction to the recent Ground Work: Writings on Places and People, says:

“Modernity has shattered our world like never before, we are more deracinated than ever, but because we feel most places to be nowhere we have also learned that anywhere can be a somewhere.”

Landfill, then, is a further entry into the library of nature writing which aims to redress that particular imbalance.

***

As an occasional birder, gulls are one of my blindspots: I can identify black-headed, herring, lesser- and greater-black-backed but like many people tend not to pay them much regard (though watching a soaring white gull against a clear blue sky is one of life’s small pleasures). “Nowadays gulls are trash birds, the subnatural inhabitants of drossscapes“: this is true. We view them as we view pigeons or rats (“slum avifauna”), and in the process we establish a mental hierarchy of nature. But larophiles (from the genus larus) exist, and this book shines a light on them.

Our rubbish tips allowed previously cliff-dwelling birds to colonise inland areas miles from the sea. However, changes to our disposal habits are forcing them to adapt. We throw away far less food waste than we used to, so the number of gulls at landfill sites has dropped. At the same time, reports (usually in the silly season, which coincides with the summer holidays) shrilly alert us to the hazards of marauding gulls who brazenly steal tourists’ chips or guzzle their ice creams. The reality, as ever, is more nuanced.

But what are gulls to do? “We’re responsible for all this. Gulls are caught in an ecological trap with us”, says Viola Ross-Smith of the BTO (Dee speaks to many experts throughout the book and generously allows them their own voice, even their own chapter). I particularly like the anecdote about how “[gulls] have even learned that dumps often don’t open on Sundays and they must go elsewhere…apparently [they are] confused by public holidays, and wait for hours in vain.” Poor sods. Yet “gulls are dynamic birds and fast adapting”, displaying aptly-named “behavioural plasticity”.

On the subject of plastic, I would have liked – and indeed expected – a little more on the subject of rubbish itself (the balance is definitely in favour of “birds” over “rubbish”). As it happens, while I was reading the book BBC4 showed a documentary on the history of landfill which was far more informative on what happens to what we throw away. Perhaps I’m being too literal in my expectations.

Despite what the title implies, this is a book more about order than mess. I hadn’t known that the early years of this century saw the Herring Gull split into several individual species, including Yellow-Legged and Caspian, which had previously been considered sub-species. Dee examines this at length, pondering the way we sort and organise the natural world – none of which materially affects it (a Herring Gull doesn’t know it’s a “Herring Gull”) – and then revise that ordering. Species are “lumped” together or “split” apart, yet the whole time “a species is a human construct”. Gaps in the Arctic sea ice have made passage around the northern hemisphere easier for birds, and this has allowed previously separate subspecies to interbreed. “Evolution isn’t over, although most of us carry on as if it has finished – as if its discovery, the auditing of its accounts, locked it down forever.”

***

Dee intersperses his own trips to watch gulls with pretty much every significant cultural appearance of the birds (including, naturally, Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, which I’ve looked at before) or of rubbish dumps. Again, I got the feeling that at times he was trying to bring everything into scope and was perhaps over-reaching in search of significance. That said, his contempt for Richard Bach’s “poisonous” Jonathan Livingston Seagull is amusing. He loathes its embodiment of a particularly American sense of Manifest Destiny, and laments that the gulls are only gulls in form. Bach “stole their gullitude and colonised or domesticated the birds even as it constructed a fable around their real aerial mastery.”

Moving onto cultural representations of rubbish, he looks at Clive King’s gentle, wonderful Stig of the Dump: a book I persuaded – over a period of months – my reluctant son to let me read to him, and who then loved it. Dee muses on the dump in question, full of pre-plastic junk, all reusable and re-purposed by Stig. He looks, too, at that poet laureate of “living residue”, Samuel Beckett, via Happy Days and Endgame, works in which life, in true Beckettian style, just persists.

Although by the end you may feel that every cultural reference to gulls and rubbish tips has been exhausted (though the anti-epiphany of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is absent), ultimately this is a rewarding book, even if the concept may not be one with immediate appeal. Dee himself had reservations, but the process of researching and writing the book evidently affected him:

“I thought writing about this might describe an impoverished experience: birders turning to gulls because they are the only birds around…but it turns out more substantially that the meeting of gulls and people is exuberant… birders [are] processing the gulls, picking through them, finding new things to know and to understand, finding value in creatures others labelled shoddy or dreck. This enthusiastic ordering of life…in the midst of the organising of what we would call death is gripping. Landfill means more than just a tip for the end of things. It is also a description of how we have worked the rest of the living world, learned about it, named and catalogued it, and have thus occupied or planted our planet, filling the land.”

In the introduction to Ground Work quoted from above, referring to the charity/lobby group Common Ground, whose guiding principles inform much of the best of the new nature writing, Dee writes:

“One of the reasons why nature writing is resurgent today is because of Common Ground’s steadfast belief in the value of exploring what the natural world – even the broken-down, rubbish-dump world – means to us.”

With biodiversity destruction rampant, the Brazilian rainforests under renewed threat, plastic choking the oceans and species extinction at unprecedented levels, we can no longer turn our face from what we have done to the world. And that, as this thoroughly absorbing book examines, means bearing witness to the environments our culture has created, even if it means risking “the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass”.

 

1 “At the point we identify anything as waste, even though up until then it has been ours, we don’t want it and we don’t like it.”

 

Sources:

Dee, Tim: Landfill (Little Toller, 2018)

Dee, Tim: Four Fields (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Dee, Tim (ed.): Ground Work: Writings on Places and People (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Lodestone – the work of Benjamin Myers

Benjamin Myers is a writer whose time has come. Recent winner of the Walter Scott Prize for his stunning The Gallows Pole, Myers has been a prolific voice of the English North for several years, and his wider renown is thoroughly deserved. It also comes at a fertile time for writing from the North of England. Writers such as Jon McGregor, Fiona Mozley and Andrew Michael Hurley have also recently published critically-acclaimed works which explore a sense of place and identity during this (to put it mildly) interesting time for England.

I want to look at his most recent works: The Gallows Pole, which resurrects the tale of the Cragg Vale coiners in 18th century Yorkshire; and Under the Rock, which details Myers’s own experience of settling into a home in the shadow of the brooding Scout Rock in Mytholmroyd: a town whose name immediately sparks thoughts of another writer intimately associated with deep Yorkshire: Ted Hughes.

The Gallows Pole tells of the rise and fall of a gang of coiners under the rule of “King” David Hartley. For 3 years, from 1767 to 1770 his fiefdom provided a kind of socialism or, if that’s too much of a stretch, a welfare sub-state for the poor of the Calder valley. In so doing his forged coins devalued the official currency of England, something the authorities were not going to overlook. Myers’s story, then, is a tale of power and authority and identity, what creates them and what happens when they are challenged.

Myers writes thickly layered prose; the world is invoked by dense clods of language and his David Hartley is an elemental figure subject to visions, in stark contrast to the “genteel”, smartly-dressed figures of authority who live in town: “David Hartley appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills”. Town and country are pitted against one another. Men “whose family names were as much a part of the terrain as the boundary marker stones that mapped the moors and fractioned their tight territories” do not exist in an urban environment. Yet urbanity, too, has its depths: “It seemed to him to be two places, Halifax. A town of two faces. One of sunlight and another of shadows”: both exist and both are true.

To the coiners, town represents officialdom and “England”, a notion which means little; an idea too big and too distant to matter. “Jorvikshire” is the limit of their focus and ambition: they make no reference to England and cannot conceive of a wider polity than their own county. “England” exists only for the rich: when the Prime Minister’s name is invoked, one of the coiners retorts “I’ve never heard of him”. Hartley’s brothers style themselves the “Duke of Edinburgh” and “Duke of York” in a (partly) ironic assumption of nobility. They are questioning what nobility means: they are, after all, acting for the benefit of their people, even if the nobility of their actions is a side-effect of their accumulation of specious wealth. But England contains Yorkshire within it, and their power and independence is ultimately shown up for the circumscribed game that it is.

When removed from their environment, the gang members are bereft: turncoat James Broadbent looks around him in the home of one of these authority figures, hoping to trade his knowledge for cash and immunity. But his identity is fractured by the multiplicity of things, of reflective surfaces: “Furnished textiles. A pewter platter. A tea service. A decanter. Mirrors. Many mirrors reflecting James Broadbent’s eyes as they dart around the room and struggled to take everything in…a world unimaginable.” The difference between assumed power and established power is revealed.

And yet, for all the power of the establishment, to what end is it being put? To maintain itself, of course. The coiners offer a vision of something better, a localism opposed to the nationalism of England. “The starving of Calder Valley…had been clothed and fed and given hope, and that was more than any landowner or dignitary or law-maker…had done. It was more than the King of England himself had offered.”

Of course, an existential threat such as is posed by the coiners cannot be accommodated and must be purged. “The Crown doesn’t need proof…when the man decides it’s you, then it’s you that will be swinging”. The lawmen’s betrayal of Broadbent is no surprise: “this was about pragmatism and trust in a system. The English way.” Pragmatism is that default setting of the English establishment, historically adept at justifying the means to an end. For all their culture and manners, the Law and “England” are as morally skewed as the coiners, who are at least true to their word.

The Gallows Pole is a brutal work (not least for the few stoic females that haunt its pages), but utterly gripping and convincing in every aspect.

Staying in the Calder Valley, Under the Rock sees Myers explore his new home. It’s a piece of landscape writing which is parochial in the best sense: in not showing how small a locality is in the wider world, but showing how large a world exists in that locality.

The double meaning of the title can of course refer to the poetry written about and around a place (by Ted Hughes, Glyn Hughes and Simon Armitage, for instance), and also the innate meanings and resonances, shapes, forms and moods, that a place can have. Elmet is the title of one of Ted Hughes’s finest collections, where his poems are paired with photos by Fay Godwin: wonderfully evocative monochrome scenes of post-industrial decline and savage moorland in which even the brightest sunlight sends a shiver down the spine.

“Elmet was the ancient Brittonic kingdom of the native Celts that covered much of the West Riding between the fifth and early 7th centuries and part of the larger Yr Hen Ogledd – The Old North – region that incorporated numerous minor kingdoms from Southern Scotland down through the Borders, Cumbria and Yorkshire.”

Hughes had previously written a collection called Remains of Elmet, but edited and supplemented this in the revealing light of Godwin’s work.

Remains are thick on the ground anywhere in Britain, and come in many forms: “what I particularly like are the industrial remains: the old mills and mill ponds, the buried pieces of machinery, forgotten things half hidden beneath the undergrowth.” Even since the late 70s of Hughes’s poems and Godwin’s photos, the landscape has changed. In trying to find the spot from which a particular photo – featuring the dark sentinel of Scout Rock – was taken, Myers realises that it too has gone; has been built over, redeveloped. The site of those lost visions of Hughes’s 1930s childhood are themselves lost; a double-burial.

Myers’s writing is refreshing in that his eye misses nothing; its view is not selective: beauty can exist anywhere, in unexpected forms. “The sun’s rays reach Burnley road to flood the industrial units and workshops and bacon-packing factory with light, and fill the stagnant canal with honey, making even the dumped BMXs and deep-green swirls of goose shit look golden”. This is nature writing that acknowledges the pictureskew, that does not hide from the acts of violence done to and within a landscape:

“Recent years have seen our bookshops swell with works that consider the rural landscapes of Britain. Often their authors are people like me, blindly staggering around trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. But so many of these accounts veer towards the romantic. They are escapist representations…one step removed from the reality. Few seem prepared to tackle the more insidious side of the landscape – the blood and guts of it, and also the actions of those individuals whose negative influence can define a place for decades of centuries”

Myers may have had one eye on the Cragg Vale coiners as he wrote that, but the other was fixed on the unholy local trinity of Peter Sutcliffe – the Yorkshire Ripper – his friend, Jimmy Savile (whose life and fame only becomes more strange and unpleasant the more you read of it), and mass-murdering GP Harold Shipman. In this region of uncompromising landscapes, the world of Heathcliff and Ted Hughes, he asks “can the contours of a county determine the actions of its residents?”

Yet Scout Rock, whose “dark mythology” overhangs the book in every sense, offers Myers both stability and hope in a time of financial hardship and emotional difficulty. This may be from study of the fauna: “most are weeds and viewed as invasive or poisonous or ugly, yet I find them fascinating and beautiful, each as valuable as a wild orchid, if not as rarely seen”, from the persistence of nature in reclaiming humankind’s efforts to subdue it: “I have seen true rewilding at work at a microcosmic level, and barely a stone’s throw from schools and houses, pubs and petrol stations. It has been completely accidental, and has happened despite, rather than because of, humans…the rewilding of Scout Rock is born out of neglect, and is nature’s fight-back against the centuries of industrialisation,” or from the hypnotic consolations of putting one foot in front of the other:

“Walking is writing with your feet. When we walk our footprints mark the soil like the crudest of hieroglyphics, and our minds take fanciful turns. Over long, solitary miles abstract or disconnected thoughts can often find purposes in words which then link to form cogent sentences. Writing and walking are co-dependent…Writing is a form of alchemy. It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.. But it is archaeological too, an act of digging and looking. Writing is an attempt to tap into narratives, and to look in either direction along the timeline.”

As a coda, Myers journeys to Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber, into which the Calder flows: that river’s “true conclusion”. He despairs – as he has throughout the book – of the “downward ecological spiral” our culture has produced for itself. At this outermost point of Yorkshire he sees the curious juxtaposition of plastic junk washed down rivers or cast up by the waves, piling up on a steadily eroding coastline. When he says “we are a shrinking island” he speaks metaphorically as well as literally. “Water is only ever passing through”: it is “not self-contained…[and] lead[s] elsewhere…I must remind myself that there is a world beyond.”

The obvious, looming narrative that writing taps into at this point in time is Brexit. In common with both fiction and non-fiction currently exploring the idea of “place”, these works are  – perhaps inadvertently – a reaction against the narratives that have brought us to the brink of Brexit; a reaction against the insular visions of Britain (Greater England) that have poisoned the public sphere and made the current political mess possible. They are works that aim to reclaim the local – explored in explicit, even forensic, detail – in deliberate contrast to the vague, platitudinous ideas of the nation that decorate tabloid front pages.

I may be stretching here, but this wave of New North writing reminds me of the brief mid-90s fashion for Scottish literature (fashionable among London press and publishers, that is: it wasn’t “fashion” up here, it was just “literature”). It’s widely accepted that this resurgence, which started in the 1980s with writers like Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, helped fashion the new sense of national identity (crucially, from a left-wing perspective) that made devolution possible (and independence likely).

What’s telling now is that this New North writing is a specifically English – as distinct from British – thing. The fact that many of these works are from independent (northern) publishers also shows that the movement (to call it such) is an organic thing, and not driven by London taste. I know that Yorkshire in particular sees itself as a separate country (as does Cornwall) and that it has a far greater sense of identity than, say, Northamptonshire or West Sussex. One of the many interesting things about the insane state we find ourselves in as Brexit looms is the struggle for a specifically English identity to emerge from the unravelling fabric of “Britain”. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have long had a sense of themselves as entities; England, as the major partner in the United Kingdom, has not; and as the ties of that Union fray, England is an uncertain and fearful thing. It needs more works of literature like these, which examine the country, its people and its places, and the relationship between them. It may be a dark and painful process but it’s a necessary one.

 

Sources:

Myers, Benjamin: The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose)

Myers, Benjamin: Under the Rock (Elliott & Thompson)

Myers, Benjamin: These Darkening Days (Mayfly)

Here Comes A’body

Visitors flocking to the sleek new V&A in Dundee who opt to explore the city further may, depending on the childhood they had, be bemused by the statues in the city centre. A stout cowboy, striding along the Nethergate and hauling a recalcitrant bulldog, is about to be ambushed by a catapult-wielding adolescent girl. A few streets away, and therefore needing further exploration to find, a schoolboy sits on a wall near the city’s High School, an upturned bucket by his side.

Desperate Dan, figurehead of The Dandy, and Minnie the Minx of The Beano are probably better-known to the wider UK audience than Oor Wullie, the boy with the bucket. All are products of DC Thomson publishers, whose impressive red sandstone building dominates the city centre skyline as their comics once dominated the kids’ market. Home of the obstinately old-fashioned People’s Friend (your granny reads it) and Scots Magazine, Thomson also publish The Courier, one of the biggest-selling local newspapers in Britain1.

While The Dandy went digital-only a few years ago, The Beano is still published, selling just shy of 40,000 copies every week: half of what it sold in 2006, but an improvement on the early years of this decade, no doubt aided by various TV incarnations of Dennis the Menace. Oor Wullie and his stablemates The Broons, although they appear in The Sunday Post each week2, are generally associated with Christmas, when the annuals still appear under the tree of thousands of kids across Scotland and beyond.

For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Caledonian cultural artefact, Oor Wullie (“our William”) is a black & white comic strip, of roughly 20 panels across 5 rows. Wullie is a cheeky and imaginative ten-year-old boy who always wears dungarees and boots, and sports spiky blonde hair. Each strip starts with him sitting on his trademark bucket, excited at the onset of the school holidays (or conversely, miserable about their end), looking forward to snowy weather, or simply coming up with a ploy for his own amusement or financial gain3.

wullie2

The final panel usually shows him either well satisfied with the day’s adventure, or else bitterly regretting it’s failure. In the 20th century, it was typical to see him sitting with cushions on his bucket to protect his backside, which had been liberally skelped by his father’s slipper for some misdemeanour. The corporal punishment, as in Dennis the Menace, has long been phased out.

His constant companions are Fat Boab, Soapy Souter and Wee Eck. Typically for kids, although the best of friends (for over 80 years), they fall out regularly. Wullie also has a mouse – Jeemy – and more recently a West Highland Terrier, Harry. His parents (Ma and Pa) and local policeman PC Murdoch are the only other longstanding figures, though recurring character Primrose Paterson (a smart girl whose romantic overtures to Wullie may well just be a calculated wind-up) has in recent years become a regular, in order to deliver some overdue gender balance. Periodically, members of The Broons may also feature (and vice-versa).

The characters speak in (a sentimental and – certainly in older strips – inauthentic version of) Scots, though middle- and upper-class characters – and, interestingly, Primrose – tend to speak with Received Pronunciation, thus placing Wullie in a traditional Scottish working class. The location of Wullie’s home town (only in recent years named Auchenshoogle) is never specified: the geography is wonderfully flexible; lochs and braes are within easy reach. As a Fifer, I always had him pegged as coming from the east coast (mindful of the strip’s Dundee origins). But nothing really ties him to any locality: he’s just universally (or generically) Scottish.

The strips have no title, only a couthy rhyming couplet at the top. Each adventure is self-contained; there are no two-parters or story arcs. Everything is reset at the first panel. The Broons follows similar rules, and that strip’s conservatism is obvious in its plots: any attempt by a family member to better themselves will end in shame and/or disaster. That’s one of the strip’s two storylines, of which there have been eight decades of variations on a theme. The other, brilliantly spoofed by Viz’s note-perfect The McBroons, is where a family member is overheard, and the entire clan rushes to prevent shame and/or disaster, only for it to transpire that they’d been misheard in the first place.

In Oor Wullie, for me, the formal conservatism is part of the attraction. Yes, he breaks the fourth wall at least twice in each strip, but there is no attempt, ever, to change the structure. I’m reminded, oddly, of Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig’s comment on Kraftwerk, a major influence on him: “they were so stiff they were funky”. Oor Wullie is so structurally consistent it’s hypnotic. Although his asides to readers, and the meta- and inter-textual references (see below) are oh-so-postmodern, critical theory was probably not in the mind of his legendary creator, cartoonist Dudley D Watkins. We should see such traits instead as an example of parallel evolution.

Celebrities have occasionally turned up: Ewan Macgregor on a motorbike, and in a unique instance of colour (the blue of the saltire plays a role in the story), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon appears in a 2015 strip. These imply that Wullie is known about, that his fame is implicit in his escapades, which adds a metatextual level that it would be interesting to play with5. One strip even has him hide a severe haircut under a wig which had been used as a prop in a play about his own adventures. I had visions of him eternally frozen at ten years old, with his family and friends in some kind of bubble, sealed off from time while the rest of Auchenshoogle moves on around them. Think Peter Pan meets the Truman Show, and the whole thing becomes infinitely sadder.

Though token mentions are made of phones and devices and other 21st century paraphernalia, the relationships and activities are far closer to the 1950s, yet were probably as much of a fantasy then as now: how many kids in urban Scotland spend as much time as Wullie and his pals do outside, or have that level of recognition among the locals?

As I mentioned above he was created and drawn for thirty years by Dudley D Watkins, a one-man comic factory within DC Thomson. Upon his death (at his desk) in 1969, the publishers rotated his old strips for a full seven years before engaging a new artist. Several (Ken H Harrison, Tom Morton, Peter Davidson) have had a spell in the role, and for all the consistency the different eras are recognisable. There was a particularly poor period (I forget under whose stewardship, and don’t have a representative annual to hand) in which the panel count was almost half what it was under Watkins, the scripts basic and the artwork uninspired: Wullie had a round face and huge chin, and the pencilling line was finer than normal; the strip lost its essential roughness.

In 2004 Wullie was voted “Scotland’s favourite son”, ahead of Sean Connery himshelf. What does this scamp tell us about how we see ourselves? Wullie is no hero: no Dan Dare or even Roy of the Rovers, though he’s handy with a football. Indeed he’s (to use a west coast word) gallus, in the way we once liked our footballers. He’s not a troublemaker in the mold of Dennis or Minnie. Anne Hoyer, in Cultural Specifics of a Scottish Comic, sees him as an exemplar of the “Improvising Scot”: a cultural stereotype whose resourcefulness “in direct contrast to England’s wealth” is a response to “the scarcity of Scottish resources”. For far too long, Scots’ self-perception was entirely negative: we were whatever we judged the English not to be. That attitude, thanks in part to devolution, is on the wane. Oor Wullie though, is not, and as long as he reflects back to us an idea of who we think we are, we’ll always find him on his bucket, ready for whatever the day throws at him.

 

 

1 For a company whose conservatism is practically a founding principle, perhaps recognising that Dundee was one of only four council areas in Scotland to record a majority vote for independence in 2014, The Courier tries very hard to be neutral on the issue, unlike most of the Scottish media.

2 “Couthy, conservative, and sentimental” in Iain Macwhirter’s description. Tom Nairn memorably declared that “Scotland will never be free until the last kirk minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.”

3 Wullie is neither avaricious nor aspirational: enough cash to keep him in fish suppers and sweets is all he asks.

4 It’ll never happen. I seem to recall the annual Macallan/Scotsman short story competition having a winner in the late 90s which DC Thomson took extreme offence at, and it was never published. Featured a thinly-disguised Wullie in later life having gone off the rails. Trainspotting-style. The internet is silent on this. Does anyone else remember?

 

Sources:

  • Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Mark Berninger, Jochen Ecke, Gideon Haberkorn (Editors), McFarland
  • Oor Wullie (various editions), DC Thomson

All images absolutely and completely copyright DC Thomson, make no mistake.

Other people’s nostalgia

If I could visit any place and time in history, among my choices would be Paris around 1960. It was a time of great societal tension, with events in colonial Algeria at the forefront of events. But it was the time of the nouvelle vague, the nouveau roman and jazz music, and it was a golden era for cycle racing.

I have a copy of Pilote magazine from April 1961, and a copy of Look-In from June 1981. 20 years and La Manche separate these publications, and while there are similarities, the differences are interesting.

The two magazines are not, it becomes clear, doing exactly the same thing, so this cannot be a direct comparison. Look-In was marketed specifically as the “Junior TV Times“, and to that end its features, weekly TV listings and (often superb) comic strips are ITV-centric, though with strong features on pop music and topical sporting events it was more than just a listings magazine. But as the product of a commercial broadcaster, at root it’s selling things.

Pilote is a more educational publication, a mash-up of Look-In‘s strips and World of Knowledge or Look and Learn‘s historical and scientific features, and is therefore far more Reithian (or whatever the French equivalent is) in it’s outlook. It reflects the post-war optimism: many of the features are on expanding horizons (the space race1, futuristic car designs, the spread of the American railroad in the 1860s). There’s a two-page illustrated retelling of the death of Charles the Bold (Charles le Téméraire), and a colour spread across the centre pages detailing the Zeebrugge Raid in April 1918. Outside the femmes fatale or damsels in distress of the comic strips, I’m not sure there are any females, though.

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The adverts are by and large for edifying things such as Caran d’Ache pencils2; stamps; a map of Europe with stick-on flags; cameras and watches. There’s a puzzle page with chess problems and spot-the-difference. But to leaven this somewhat worthy mixture there are comics, as only continental Europe can do them.

For, if Pilote is known outwith the Francophone world, it’s as the birthplace of Asterix the Gaul. I love Asterix: I did when I was a kid, and now my son reads the books I enjoy them all over again, getting so many jokes and references that went over my 10-year-old head. They’re funny and clever and beautifully drawn.

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Not Asterix

Alas, the creative team of Goscinny and Uderzo were between adventures in my copy. Their other contribution – Jehan Soupolet (also known as Jehan Pistolet) a pirate story whose Uderzo artwork is far sparser and rougher than his lovingly detailed work for Asterix – is some consolation, but evidently behind the scenes they were working on Asterix and the Goths, serialisation of which would begin the following month. Goscinny also illustrates Tanguy et Laverdure, an (I assume) exciting air force pilot adventure series.

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Away from comic strips, Goscinny’s droll Petit Nicolas stories (with thumbnails by Sempé), whose translations into English I enjoyed as a child, is one of the serialised stories along with “Alamo”, a cowboy tale: cowboys were hugely popular in the 50s and 60s, in France no less than the Anglophone world. But that was before we realised that the Indians were not, perhaps, the baddies after all…

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Asterix wasn’t the reason I bought this issue, though: the cover star Rik Van Looy was.

Who? Why?

Another love of mine is the cycling culture of Belgium. Flanders (the northern, Dutch-speaking part) is obsessed with bikes and bike racing. The greatest cyclist ever is a Belgian, Eddy Merckx3. But before Merckx, one of the sport’s biggest stars was another Belgian, Van Looy: “The Emperor of Herentals”. I saw this copy on ebay and wanted to a taste of the contemporary coverage of Van Looy’s career; a period artefact.

Van Looy, a stocky sprinter who therefore lacked the physiology that would allow him to compete with the best in the high mountains, never won the Tour de France but, crucially, is still the only man to have won every major one-day “classic” race. He was world champion three times, and the Pilote cover shows him resplendent in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. It was the photo that attracted me: the faded colour and the texture of the image so evocative of the early 1960s.

The photo is slightly misleading, though: I expected a major interview with the Emperor, but instead there’s a report on his recent Paris-Roubaix victory and a quick recap of his career. With a reference which dates the magazine perfectly, Van Looy is described as “the H-bomb of cycling”. The sport was a big draw in France at the time4, and at least two other Pilote covers from 1961 show famous cyclists, so his appearance on the cover was clearly a big draw. Presciently, another Belgian is the other feature on the sports page, where a long international career is (correctly) predicted for the 17-year-old footballer Paul Van Himst, who would play for the Red Devils until 1974.

There are no doubt dozens of references that fly over my head because of cultural differences (and my limited French). I’m sure Pilote triggers all sorts of nostalgic memories in a certain demographic of French baby-boomers, in the way Look-In does for me, as I’ve mentioned before. Nostalgia is fed by the recovered memory of ephemera such as these magazines.

This particular copy of Look-In is from June 1981. Technological advances are no doubt partly responsible for the greater use of colour and higher production values than Pilote (though the paper Look-In is printed on is flimsier).

Despite this, the headline sounds a weary note – “James Bond is back – again!” – as if pitying poor old Roger Moore having to creak his eyebrow into gear once more in For Your Eyes Only. The promised “colour feature” amounts to an extended promo piece, with some photos and a list of all the previous Bond films to date. A cut-out-and-blu-tac-to-your-wall (and I did) “Collect-a-Page” later in the issue has Moore as its focus, and I remember being stunned at the time to learn that he was 52.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of comic strips. First up is The Elvis Story, mercifully only a page long and while beautifully illustrated, as I mentioned here, quite how much the King would resonate with a readership keen for Toyah, Adam and the Ants, and Spandau Ballet is unclear. Worzel Gummidge’s hapless adventures get a two-page b&w spread, as does the period drama Smuggler, in which buckles are swashed and swash is buckled.

CHiPS and (my favourite) Buck Rogers both get the colour treatment. Surely IPC or whoever owns the rights could release a compendium of these strips: the old Daily Express James Bond, Modesty Blaise, etc. have all been compiled, and The Beatles Story from Look-In was itself smartly repackaged recently (see link above). Some of the strips lasted only a few months and so probably don’t merit a stand-alone volume each, but a Look-In comic compilation would certainly sell to a certain demographic (me).

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There are competitions – conspicuous by their absence from Pilote, and no doubt reflecting the commercial background of Look-In – and reader celebrity photos, fan club information, factoids and quizzes. There’s even a recipe for scones. The feel is a snappier publication geared to shorter attention spans than Pilote. Pilote‘s age target was 10-15, and I suspect Look-In‘s was slightly younger (I was 7 in 1981 but I suspect it was aimed at 9-13 or so).

As for sport, Wimbledon gets the 4-page centre feature, with a hero/villain piece about John McEnroe and a brief history of the tournament. I remember a copy which previewed the Milk Race, which would have been my first exposure to cycle racing. It would have appeared as a one-off, as neither editors nor readers would likely have had the knowledge of the sport that a continental reader would have possessed.

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The closest to Europe Look-In comes is in a feature about – and two-page strip featuring – those little blue Belgians, the Smurfs, though any hint of their Euro-ness is absent. And I think that’s the interesting thing about the difference between these publications. Look-In, for all the fond recollections I have of it, is a strikingly parochial magazine; entirely anglocentric, yes, and as an ITV publication it doesn’t even mention TV coverage of Wimbledon (which would, of course, have been on BBC). Look-In contains no news – even in a safe, kid-friendly form – other than whatever is current in pop and TV. Pilote, by comparison, is a publication that looks beyond the hexagon of France to other countries and, indeed, space (a realm which, after the end of the Apollo program, was largely left to space opera rather than as a destination for mankind’s future).

I admitted earlier that I’m comparing apples et des oranges, and I know I’m stretching a point, but it’s telling that French kids (albeit of an earlier generation – what Pilote was like in 1981 I don’t know) were absorbing developments from across the world, while in the ever-insular UK we were – pardon the pun – just being fed Bucks Fizz.

 

1 Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok flight took place the week before and features as news on page 2.

2 Amusingly, the advert for this shows a cross-hatched map of Europe which misses the UK entirely.

3 Merckx has a cameo in Asterix in Belgium, though it was 20 years before I realised: my interest in Asterix probably waned a little before I discovered the Tour de France.

4 Despite the popularity of the Tour, it’s decades since the sport in general was held in such high regard in France.