EDITORIAL Gwen DaviesNWR Issue 97
The Talk Slides North
The summer edition looked far south, to Argentina and Antarctica. Now we look Far North, led by nature writer and poet Susan Richardson as she treks beyond the Arctic Circle in Norsewoman Gudrid’s ski tracks in ‘And the Talk Slid North…’. John Harrison accompanies us on another northern journey a little closer to home but still within Icelandic Saga territory as he takes the second in his series, Islands on the Edge, to Orkney.
Harrison’s opening intro alone to the Orkneyinga Saga
will surely bring it a new audience:
‘The year is 1153. Earl Harald Maddardson set out for Orkney at Christmas with four ships and a hundred men. He put in at Hamna Voe on the west side of the Mainland of Orkney, and on the thirteenth day of Christmas they travelled on foot to Firth on the east coast. During a storm they took shelter in Maeshowe, a burial chamber, and there two of them went insane, which slowed them down badly. They reached Firth in darkness.’
This mint Harrison essay sums up the parts of creative nonfiction: documentary, travel, philosophy, memoir, nature writing, history and culture. These parts are oiled by humour. First, second, sixth and seventh base are covered by Harrison crouched in Maeshowe, a 5000-year-old burial chamber, next to some Viking ‘graffiti’ runes. Third base by his new philosophy of the periphery that might prove a cure for the Union Jacked-off:
‘Islands often appear to be located on the edge. They are across the sea and the sea is a barrier. Before good roads, that is, for most of history, the sea was the only effective highway. In the dense kenning of Norse literature it was the swan road, the whale road, and most importantly, the longboat’s road.’
Fourth base, memoir, is reached with Harrison’s memory of receiving the news of his mother’s death below a Shetland fortress ‘similar… to a forty-five foot cooling tower’. And fifth, nature writing, by prose of unspoilt landscape that resists being made exotic: ‘I switched on my phone looking for a signal from a sky stitched with Arctic terns bringing silver slivers to nestlings waiting in the dry field walls.’ Seventh base, literature, is reached with a look at Orkney writer George Mackay Brown’s novel, Vinland
. What better place for nonfiction that sings of the swan road from the sea-edge, than in NWR?
Susan Richardson’s ‘And the Talk Slid North....’ excels in gorgeous landscape writing. Here she is on a 2am Arctic Norway sunrise:
‘The sun had made a half-hearted attempt to sink towards the horizon, only to bounce right back up, blaring and raring to go again. This is genuine daylight… not a half-hearted half-light, not a grimy, grey, frayed-at-the-edges, overwashed underwear light, not a lacklustre dusk. This is an upfront, in-your-face light, a high-latitude-with-attitude light.’
Susan Richardson and Jane MacNamee’s essays mark a start to my mission to promote nonfiction by women. Highlighting the humour and compassion of Tiffany Murray, Hay International Fellow, in her travel-memoir flash essay and Jayne Joso’s fine sense of place in her Wexford-set Rich Text piece takes the project a little further on. Richardson speaks of how the empty Arctic landscape recalibrates her psyche:
‘As an only child who has always craved isolation, it is perhaps understandable that a landscape of big horizons and small populations would fit with my emotional topography, but I underestimated the degree to which the Far North could quell inner turbulence and agitation.’
In a tweaking of Wordsworth’s isolationist tendencies for the digital age, MacNamee’s ‘Persistence’, a tribute to the nature diaries of William Condry, writes how visiting Enlli annually adjusts her ‘internal compass’: ‘I can leave twittering to the birds, since the encroachment of mobile phones into every aspect of our lives sends me running for leafy cover.’
Another female writer specializing in the nature journal and especially Bardsey, is artist and author Brenda Chamberlain. She lived at Carreg on Enlli from 1947-1962. In this the centenary of her birth, NWR celebrates Chamberlain on our cover, which is taken from a drawing from her German-set novel The Water-castle
, with a review of the book by Penny Simpson, and an essay by Damian Walford Davies on his edition of Brenda
Chamberlain’s only play, ‘The Protagonists’.
Issue 97 marks the magazine’s first appearance in app and e-pub formats as well as print. It features Dai George on folk revivals and the quest for a radical English identity. Other highlights include: the 2012 Cardiff International Poetry Competition winners, Mark Tredinnick, Jonathan Edwards and Harry Man; Jon Gower on Colombia; fiction by Michael Nath and Julia Forster, plus reviews of books by Candy Neubert; Italo Calvino; Philip Gross; Robert Minhinnick; Owen Sheers and Stan Barstow.
previous editorial: Pippi Grows Up
next editorial: Baron Samedi and Other Vital Illusions