Book review: Distance And Memory by Peter Davidson

A moving meditation on northern landscape and culture fascinates Stuart Kelly

Distance And Memory

by Peter 

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Carcanet, 178pp, £14.95

This is one of those gloriously unclassifiable books; part nature writing and part art history, part essay and part memoir, part meditation and part investigation. What binds these disparate forms into a harmonious whole is the idea of the northern. Davidson, a Professor in the Art History Department at the University of Aberdeen, is both sustained and surprised by his supposedly “remote” Aberdeenshire home, and uses its history, landscape and traditions to unsettle Scotland’s usual geographical dichotomies, elegantly pointing out in passing how the norths of Sutherland and Sunderland are somebody else’s south. The northern nature of his Aberdeenshire is typified thus: “The Sacrament was given to the dying on the field of Culloden in whisky and oatmeal, of sheer necessity. That single haunting fact is one of the keys to the nature and memory of this northern place.” The combination of baroque, secret Catholicism and a hard edge honed on scarcity is what illuminates Davidson’s elegiac and intriguing volume.

The architecture of Davidson’s book follows the year, but even in this he stresses the difference of the north. There are not four seasons, but five: a lenten spring of drawing out, a summer of darkless nights, the hairst, or harvest, the “back end of the year” and finally winter. This kind of scrupulous noticing runs through the collection; and it unites how Davidson writes about the natural world with how he examines cultural artefacts. “Minutiae of change in the year”, Davidson writes, “becomes crucial subjects for northern painting: there may be only four days in a year when birch trees are in pale green leaf with a cloud of their pollen hanging above them in the air”.

Davidson describes nature in terms of culture and vice versa. In, for example, “Winter in the North” he describes “the washed brightness of the end of October falls on umber and viridian in the valleys, white pencilling on the high slopes above”, segueing seamlessly into a discussion of Raeburn’s “colder palette: the slate-grey and silver-grey of wintry Scotland, and – always low in the afternoon sky – a gash of his distinctive yellow”. Similarly, there is a beautiful and compact precision in the description of “a little stone jetty in still water: water like pewter, extraordinary water”.

Distance And Memory features a constellation of northern artists 
and writers: George Mackay Brown, the Counter-reformation painter Cosmo Alexander, W H Auden, Eric Ravilious, Atkinson Grimshaw, Schubert’s Winterreise, and the Icelandic sagas.

One of the most interesting pieces is a discussion of spar boxes, a form of art naif or arte povera from the Pennines in which cabinets are turned into weird grottoes with local minerals: fluorspar, quartz, galena, hematite, specularite. These indigenous Wunderkammer provide the starting point for an impressively wide-ranging essay encompassing Bede’s theory that the stars are frozen, the work of Tim Brennan, Claude glasses, an unrealised project to film W H Auden’s Paid On Both Sides. The joy of collections such as these is the way in which the author’s mind leaps from subject to subject, neither meandering nor syllogistic.

This is, in one respect, a curious book for me to review. It is a well known fact that you cannot play six degrees of separation in the world of Scottish culture – everybody is connected to everyone else by far fewer links – but it is nonetheless odd to read a book which features two people whom I know (or knew). The essay “Northern Waters” concerns the work of the artist and curator Pat Law, whose work includes drawings made from lava dust and glacial water, installations commemorating lighthouses and the songs of fishwives, and most recently an ongoing work inspired by a journey around Svalbard. She also happens to be our neighbour, and we spent a glorious summer afternoon discussing Lavinia Greenlaw’s reworking of William Morris’s Icelandic expedition. I can only concur with Davidson in marvelling at how Pat “brings our the intrinsic poetry and melancholy of navigation”, and how in her hyperborean imagination the mundane (ropes, sails, jetsam) and the fantastical (the Isles of the Blessed, the dragons of the sagas) are combined.

In the melancholy “Visits in Autumn”, Davidson recounts a visit to the scholar Elsie Duncan-Jones, an expert on Marvell, Eliot and much more, whom I knew some 20 years ago. Davidson captures her mischievous sharpness and rightly laments she never wrote more autobiography. I vividly remember her, with a Benson and Hedges cigarette turned to a teetering but intact column of ash, talking about the sheer shock of reading Eliot’s Prufrock And Other Observations on publication: “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled – that’s not poetry, I thought”. It was a salutary lesson to a young critic that anything genuinely ground-breaking might be met at first, and even by the brightest, with misunderstanding.

Distance And Memory is a sophisticated and intense pleasure: cerebral but not academic, moving but never sentimental, detailed without being pernickety. Like the works it examines and the landscapes it describes, it has an indelible, lingering quality.