Tuesday, 12 April 2011
Localism without line breaks
First things first: Blogger seems to be getting rid of my paragraphing, which is why my last few posts, and this one, are an undifferentiated mass. My mundane quotes for the day will have to be suspended until I can sort this out - or, more realistically, until it sorts itself out. Anyway, Alexandra Harris has a nice piece, ‘The ground beneath our feet’, in last week’s New Statesman (not available on the web sadly), on the vogue for localist writing: ‘The small scale has seemed a big deal to me ever since a school biology lesson in which the class trooped off to a nearby field, equipped with squares of wire called quadrats. We had to throw our square randomly and then examine the bit of ground it framed. We counted the kinds of grass and tried to draw the flowers that we had never noticed under our feet … I remember the sense of revelation: narrow down your view of the world for a moment and a whole territory appears. Then try looking up again, and you find that the whole field is transformed.’ Harris mentions Michael Wood’s The Story of England, Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot and a book I loved which deserves to be better known and which I’m glad she reminded me of: James Attlee’s 2007 book Isolarion, which throws a metaphorical quadrat round the Cowley Road in Oxford. (An Isolarion is a type of atlas, originating in the 15th century, that attempted to build up an image of the world by mapping a little fragment of it.) Cowley road is not, of course, the Brideshead Oxford but the mundane Oxford of rundown Halal shops and hairdressers. I particularly remember Attlee’s description of a barber’s varnished wooden floor ‘across which hair drifts like the iron filings in an Etch a Sketch’. Unaccountably, though, Attlee neglects to mention a famous resident of Cowley Road: David Cameron, who lived at number 69 while he was a student in the late 1980s studying PPE. His daily routine there included watching Neighbours and the trans-European quiz Going for Gold, presented by Henry Kelly. Attlee has a new book out, Nocturne, which is on my wish list. And I also enjoyed Harris’s book Romantic Moderns – not surprisingly when she writes so evocatively about the provincial, particular, suburban contexts of ‘modernist’ writing and art, from John Piper and J.M. Richards’s planned ‘Study of a Hundred Yards of a Suburban Road’ to Stevie Smith’s weather-watching narrator in Novel on Yellow Paper, to Henry Green’s Party Going, which takes the reader up on high to look down on the crowds at a London railway station.