My aim with The Eye is to shine a light on music, film and literature that deals with landscape in a multitude of ways.
The space below will be taken up by images from a series of landscape poems, which are now available in a limited run of signed A5 booklets here.
David Gladwell’s 1976 feature film revolves around the nostalgic reveries of the groundskeeper of a village graveyard in Sussex. We join this elderly man as he leaves his home on a housing estate and cycles slowly through the numerous haunts of his past, journeying back through time to a humbler existence among the farms and workshops that defined his young life. As he cycles, images flicker across the screen of the livestock he once tended – rendered in artful slow-motion – as well as dazzling scenes of a close-knit rabble of villagers at work in the fields.
The film allows us access to this community, whose members buried aspiration in a simple life. We drift into a workshop, scanning slowly over the exquisite handiwork involved in the production of a cartwheel. A plough, recalled briefly by the groundskeeper with its precise coils gently turning the soil, is soon spotted in the present day, rusting and derelict among the elements. Later, dwarfed by its hulking frame, he throws a clod of earth at its wheels in an act of impotent rage at the ancient livelihoods it slowly came to eradicate.
A juxtaposition is made between the sheer physicality of the past and the comfort and passivity of the consumer age. Alongside memories of the villagers toiling to harvest the crops, we return to see the groundskeeper cycling at a glacial pace, with considerable effort, alongside speeding lorries and motorbikes. Tellingly, he barely acknowledges their existence, despite their violent intrusion on his day; his is a radically different way of being, one that he has cordoned off from the chaotic modern world. We are, however, encouraged to reconsider the concrete shopping centre, a symbol whose peculiar peace was made possible, somewhere down the line, by the very same tide of machinery that rendered the scythe and plough obsolete.
In Requiem‘s most famous scene, the village council meet up in the church to discuss proposals for housing developments on local land. A passionate speech prompts the dead villagers to rise from their graves in rebellion. The rabble is presented as a kind of living memory, stirred from death by the need for their working lives to be valued. We also flash back to the protagonist’s wedding day. He is joined by old friends, who we assume they now occupy the graves that the groundskeeper chats away to while he ambles through the day. After sneaking off after the reception to bed his new wife, we witness a child being born in visceral detail.
Gladwell’s earlier short, An Untitled Film (1964), focusses on the sinister side of agricultural life, as the killing of a chicken is drawn out torturously on camera. We witness violence and terror here too – a woman is singled out and sexually abused without any possibility of repercussion for her attackers. Echoes of her suffering are glimpsed on the graveyard grass, as the groundskeeper looks on in horror. His inevitable death is loaded with significance – he is happily reunited with his memories, the past providing comfort and sanctuary from the tide of human progress.
This is the fifth in a series of recordings captured at locations around Sheffield.
The Old Weird Albion is a poetic investigation by an American searching for an obscured English heritage in the South Downs, and encountering an abundance of myth, memory and mysticism in its place. This article will concentrate on the third chapter, ‘Antiquaries’, in which our narrator joins a crew of ‘archao-astronomers’ to learn about (in his guide’s words) the “earth energies, standing stones and secret histories that [keep] Sussex moving on a astral level.”
After a brief visit to the top of an ancient sacrificial stone, we meet Simon and Mick, catalysts for Hopper’s on-going interrogations. Simon, described as an unassuming jack-the-lad with the patter of a London cabbie, wants to rediscover the ancient knowledge that was wiped out when the Romans came to dominate the land.
Mick is described as follows:
“Even driving blind and wet and skittish, Mick inspired confidence. Maybe it was the Marlboro Light dangling from his mouth, like a cowboy, or the calm with which he made even the most dangerous manoeuvre. Mostly, it was because the Downs and Weald are Mick country. He knew this territory better than most of us will ever know anywhere. For more than half a century he had struck out and receded back into it, a guerrilla fighting an occupying army with his old, weird spirituality. Simon scowled at the chain pubs and zebra crossings as we passed through picturesque villages populated by politicians and their wealthy psychotherapists. To Mick, the modern world was an invasive species. His Sussex lived on quietly beneath it.”
Hopper is equal parts sceptic and convert, enraptured by the world that Simon and Mick inhabit. While sketching out the ‘earth energies’ of St. Mary Magdalena church with dowsing rods in hand, he readily admits that he “wanted to believe, but it wasn’t getting any easier”. Later he becomes convinced, as the rods turn, that he has indeed stumbled across a supernatural force in the acting out of this bizarre ritual. He acknowledges that he has a different way of analysing the world; “…mine is the world that puts up signs, Mick’s is the world that ignores them.”
Hopper laces his account with references to the works of other writers and poets and does so in a way that’s sensitive and appreciative of the legacy he is taking on. Hopper recognises that his companions are drawn to the land for reasons greater than many would acknowledge; “that flame is enchantment”, he writes, “the uncanny experience of the land that Whitman described: ‘Something else is also here.’”
By way of Philip K. Dick’s short story Paycheck – in which a man wakes up to discover he has traded in all his worldly possessions for an envelope of inanimate objects (a bus ticket, a casino chip), each of which save him when he finds himself in mortal danger – Hopper playfully suggests that the major archaeological sites of the UK may have been designed by seers intending to offer us a lifeline from a disaster we have not yet encountered.
He goes on to relay a tale of eccentricity, involving golf umbrellas, ‘muggy snorkels’ of hash, and pre-packaged sandwiches. Hopper writes about the decidedly unglamorous elements of a British jaunt in the countryside with a romantic eye, mentioning that “Simon and Mick were trying to make me see the landscape with a sense of wonder” and that “the effect was intoxicating.” Hopper picks apart his visceral experience with the pair to discover an underlying thread: beneath the smoke and mirrors, their esoteric adventures are all about connectedness.
The chapter ends with a gardener relaying her experience in setting up an eco-practise. In one section, she explains how visitors are encouraged to walk out into the ‘wild’ area they have cultivated and ask nature to help them with a problem they are facing. It is the ‘soft fascination’ of working outside that provides respite for these people – the comfort of attuning oneself to the seasons and rhythms of the land, something that’s particularly pronounced for city-dwellers, who, in the words of William Burroughs, are victim to a ‘continual stream of second attention awareness. Every licence plate, street sign, passing stranger is saying something to you.’
The Old Weird Albion is at its most arresting when it engages with the personalities that bind the South Downs landscape together, as well as investigates the meanings people invest in its subtle signs and half-buried histories. Its pages highlight a shared fluency in the language of the natural world, a force that binds this disparate collective of people together through talk of trees, rivers and hills – the elements we all depend on for life.
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