So, the conference went well. Most academic conferences make me want to sleep, or scream, but this was actually exciting. It was thought-provoking! So this post probably dips into pretentiousness, but I want to get all this out in words, because it has been exercising my noddle a great deal.
Patrick Wright, one of my great historian gurus, has written beautifully on all sorts of things. On tanks. On Chesterton. On camouflage. His talk was complex and considerate. It dealt with the concept of nativity. Of locality. And one of the things he raised was the point that there has been a long tradition in England of assuming that great love for the local, that love for the land, has to be founded on some kind of presumed organic connection to it. Something forged by blood, and history. Which is why the BNP thinks it's on a winner when it leaflets folk gigs. As soon as you posit organicism, you end up excluding people. This is a great and grave problem for anyone like me, whose political intuitions tend to the Left, but who find themselves stymied by the political landscape attendant to expressing love for the countryside, for the landscapes of England.
Wright played some raucous, rabble-rousing folk music to the audience, and told a splendid story about the painter Stanley Spencer, who, rather astonishingly, accompanied a group of Labour MPs on a cultural delegation to China in 1954. It seems they found his company rather trying. But he aced them all when they finally filed in to their grand meeting with Premier Chou En Lai. Who talked and talked, and asked the group for a response. There was dead silence. None of the MPs said anything. They were all too scared to be seen to commend Chinese Communism. And suddenly, Spencer spoke.
"Let me tell you about Cookham" he said. "I feel at home in China because I feel that Cookham is somewhere near".
Patrick offered us this little story as evidence that the local does not have to be insular.
I have thought about this a lot, since. In Uzbekistan last October we camped in the Fergana Valley's last remaining stretches of desert—dunes and flats squeezed between cotton fields and acres and acres of remnant marsh. I filmed hunting wasps dragging paralysed tarantulas, I tracked hares, and jackals, and spent a scared, sleepless night convinced that I'd be struck dead by lightning. My camping nous is not brilliant. I failed to remember not to pitch my tent at the top of a hill. In the morning, still with the refrain "carbon fibre rods! carbon fibre rods!" running through my exhausted brain, I got out of my tent and wandered about in the foggy dawn and the hulks of dunes. The world looked like this:
Ecologically, these remnant deserts and marshes are in a pretty ruinous state. The desert is overgrazed. The sand is salinating fast. The water buzzes with hot particles washed down from uranium mine tailings in Kyrgyzstan. Cotton survives only through the application of frightening, frightening amounts of fertiliser. And yet. And yet being in this watery land was amazing because it reminded me of something I had never seen: an ecological plenitude far greater than that found in modern-day England. The dripping bushes were full of warblers—big, damp Siberian chiffchaffs and whitethroats preening their coverts and rousing to rid themselves of dew. I wandered across wet dune sand — leaving huge, crumbling footprints — occasionally flinching as a sound exactly like a small jet plane passed overhead. A dopplering long-width roar, like the sound of a bottle rocket launching, about ten feet above my head. I stood for a while trying to work out what the hell was going past, up there, in the fog. Couldn't see a thing. The roar came maybe twice a minute, or more. And then I worked it out. Each roar was a flock of two hundred or so sparrows flying from their roosts in the reeds out to the rice fields the other side of the marsh. Their flap flap flap glide flight-style had synchronised through the whole flock, so that the roar had ripples in it, like a diagram of propagating waves, and it was damn exhilarating, amplified as it was by the wetness in the air.
And as the sun rose and broke the fog, the flat expanses of reeds stretched and glowed into the distance. The air was full of a host of marsh harriers. Everywhere you looked, they sailed over the flat planes of reed, wings set in a characteristic half-raised plane, like a self-willed paper aircraft. I have never seen so many harriers in my life. They were the single most obvious, most dramatic, and most moving animal in the landscape.
I met a farmworker there, an old chap in a felt waistcoat, a square Uzbek hat, muddy trousers tucked into his boots. We sat and chatted for ages. In 1939, he said, this was all marsh, with dunes only on the high ground. Everything else was water thick with reeds. The path from Namangan to Fergana was so dangerous that people wouldn't travel it alone; they'd wait around until they could travel in groups, to keep them from safe from wolves. Locals farmed plots on the higher ground, hunted ducks and boars, and fished in the marsh.
In the 1940s the authorities started draining the marshes. Even then, his father's job was to send tonnes of fish from the marshes to the front lines during the war. By the 1970s most of the marsh had vanished, because Soviet Central Planning had dictated that most of the region become cotton monoculture. The fish have nearly all gone. "I used to spend all night fishing" he said, "and I'd come back in the morning with anything from 40 to 80 kilos of fish". "Now, there's no point. You won't get more than a couple of kilos, and that's not worth spending a night awake for. None of the young people here fish any more." He was terribly, terribly sad about this.
The pre-war life here, then, must have been very like the life of the fen tigers a couple of centuries ago, a few miles from here, in the long tongue of swamp, lake and carr that extended down from east of Ely down to the very edge of Cambridge. The fen-dwellers hunted eels with barbed iron forks, caught fish in woven, reed traps. Cut sedge for kindling and roofing. Killed and salted down wigeon, teal, pintail and mallard in winter. On the higher ground they grew wheat. On the lower ground they caught fish.
On Sunday, the day after the conference, a pack of conference delegates went for a guided walk around Wicken Fen, an area of remnant fen that is being rewilded: enlarged, with great care. Over the next century or so it's hoped to reflood the whole long tongue of wetland, all the way from Wicken to Cambridge. It's a vast project, and a difficult one, involving tricky negotiations with local farmers, with hydrologists, with local authorities and all the user-groups involved.
Wicken looks wonderful. In fact, it looks exactly, exactly like the wetlands in Uzbekistan. Here is Wicken in the evening:
And here is Uzbekistan in the morning. Although there is a difference, because those aren't clouds you see in the background, all soft and purply: they're mountains.
And this is where I discovered for myself that the local can be the local without being insular. It would be an arrogant mistake to pin history to any of this: to see Uzbek farmworkers, living in reed shelters during the harvest season, to be remnants of historical process. Old-fashioned. To see them as fen tigers. And this is where Patrick's assertion, pace Spencer, crept in.
What I failed to work out was that the marshes in Uzbekistan were local to me too. I talked to people there who were harvesting reedmace fluff, because they used it to stuff pillows. I talked about paths and traversing the marsh, because these seemed important questions because I have spent so long trying to navigate this kind of terrain in the East Anglian fens. I watched carefully to see where the locals knew they could ford drainage channels and runnels by wading, or by balancing a sturdy stick from bank to bank to run across. I talked duck-flighting, because I know about ducks, and talked about the capacities of ancient Soviet rifles. We talked long about what this place meant to them. And this was all very easy to do, even through an interpreter. There seemed some robust, shared understandings, a shared cognitive map, even though the difference between me and an Uzbek rice-farmer might be as wide as that between an eccentric Surrey artist and the Chinese Premier. I felt close to home in the marshes of Uzbekistan, because western hemisphere marshes are a landscape I understand. Cognitively, I knew where I was. I felt local there. This the world smaller, and bigger, all at once. It was not an organic connection. It was an experiential one.
During the conference, a speaker mentioned Richard Mabey's theory about the double hammer-beam roof at St Wendreda's Church, in the fenland village of March. It is quite the most extraordinary piece of spiritual architecture I've ever seen. It reduced me to tears, literally, when I first saw it. Two hundred carved angels. It is sublime.
Mabey thinks that the wings of these angels were modelled on those of the most obvious bird of the fens, the Marsh Harrier, which must have been as common a sight then as it was to me in Uzbekistan. Wherever you looked, there would have been a harrier sailing past, a sort of motivating spirit of the air. I love this theory. It seems intuitively bang-on. And I love it because it makes religion local, too. In all the right ways.