‘Her memories slip like grit under her feet’.
A sister remembers the loving violence of her childhood relationship with her brother, looking backwards to a past that is fading into history. Back then, new infrastructure was reshaping familiar landscapes. Those growing up at the time felt the pressure of change, fear of the unknown speed of things, even in that middle space of England between country and city; a place where – as Denis Cosgrove writes – the seeming balance of pastoral is always overshadowed by the intimation of death.
She tries to go back from her modern urban life to the place of her dreams and fears. She wants to commemorate that love of brother and sister, now so clearly gone. But even when she finds the place itself, it is no longer that place. The cycles of progress have swept it clean, drained it of meaning for her, in the paradox of feeling for place in an age of improvement and reclamation.
This is Anna Lawrence’s short story ‘Quarry’. But that rough outline resonates with George Eliot’s work – and in particular, The Mill on the Floss(1860) and Silas Marner (1861). Lawrence is writer in residence on the AHRC funded project Provincialism: Literature and the Cultural Politics of Middleness in Britainand has been commissioned to produce work in response to Eliot’s bicentenary in 2019. ‘Quarry’ is the first story to result from that and one which – as its polyvalent title suggests – figures writing and memory as pursuit; as elusive prey; as excavation and sudden plunge; as careful, patient scraping away at recalcitrant material.
‘Quarry’ explores a sister’s memories of her older brother in a childhood threatened by small violences, passionate love and a great chasm of absence. We know the fates of these two – the bookish girl, Bub, and Gav with his bikes and torn jeans – will take them different places, carried on the currents of social (im)mobilities in the late twentieth century. The relationship echoes the violence and love of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, thrust apart by forces of change, lives ended by environmental disaster, and the troubled nostalgia of Eliot’s Brother and Sister Sonnets. The quarry that is so full of fears for young Bub haunts those poems too, as it does Silas Marner, where Dunsey Cass ‘stepped forward into darkness’ by its slippery edge. The pit outside Silas Marner’s house is drained thanks to progress in landscape management; but whilst the quarry reveals his stolen money and a long-sunk family secret, his attempts to find the truth of his own past back in Lantern Yard are fruitless. The restless energies of capitalism mean that the place he remembers has gone. Nothing remains apart from his memory and the trauma of his shunning.
Silas finds that ‘The old place is all swep’ away’ for a new factory in his former home in the industrial North; Bub finds ‘rewilding’, conservation projects, newts and rangers at the old quarry when she returns. Both stage the impossibility of returning to the old home. Place memory is made out of what we carry away from it, the dust and sand and crumbs stuck in the corners of pockets; it is filled with meaning by the stories that we gather up and pin to it – of gods, ghosts, saints, of rumours, myths and fairytales – and it is only through these that we can take a sense of place with us on a world on the move.
Lawrence, who was raised in the Black Country and now teaches in Birmingham, has a rich record of writing and thinking about local place and how dream, memory, fantasy shape our sense of attachment and dwelling. ‘Quarry’ returns to those themes and works with materials that have fed a wave of new work on landscape and Englishness across the arts in the last decade. Lawrence’s title plays with the idea that writing rests on a heap of resources mined out of common grounds and Eliot’s own practice. In the research process for her novels Eliot kept a series of notebooks filled with extracts from her reading. She copied the final sift of into what she called her Quarry.
Lawrence’s most visible quarried resource in the story is the public information film, The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water(1973 Central Office of Information dir. Jeff Grant), narrated by Donald Pleasance. At the film’s opening the cowled figure of the Spirit – straight out of the Gothic canons of Matthew Lewis and Anne Radcliffe – stands in a mist-covered swamp. ‘This is the kind of place you’d expect to find me’, trickles out Pleasance’s sickly dark-honey tones. The film then cuts away to an everyday sunlit scene of young boys egging each other on trying to get a ball out of a muddy-banked pit of water: ‘But no-one expects to find me here – it seems too ordinary’. The boy’s foot slips. There’s a splash; then there is silence. It’s a brilliant breaking apart of our conditioning to genres. Death can be seen – just out the corner of your eye – amid the everyday and ordinary places; the real can also be haunted.
Lawrence’s ‘Quarry’ figures that presence of death through the break, the gap, the silences that shape its delicate frame. ‘Bub’ herself takes her new name (the only one we have for her) from the public information film in which we hear that the spirit of the dark waters has ‘no power’ over ‘sensible children’. Bub is safe from death in dark waters, but is still tethered to some dangerous object in its hidden depths, even in the modern day present that the story closes with. The story is an exercise in the painful impossibilities of nostalgia for those whom the past is full of sudden falls, darkness, in which loving violence leaves but a sweet sprinkling of dust to fill the void.
Lawrence’s work claims the right of the ordinary to be, in and of itself, luminous. Her story pushes beyond the wave of new writing, art and music that embraces the aesthetics of the 1970s to look inwards and imagine a ‘deep England’. The late 1960s and 1970s have been mined for their own revivals of English folklore and myth, even as pylons began to stride across the downlands and industrial decline left rust and brickfields on the edges of towns and cities. The aesthetics of public information, mass further education, and life in a provincial town are sampled to present an imagined alternative to the eviscerated municipal commons of now. David Matless and Michael Gardiner have both written recently of the political problematics of this nostalgic return to a landscape of Englishness, even if, as one notable practitioner Jim Jupp suggests, it is an accession of impossibility – a ‘nostalgia for nostalgia’.
Perhaps the best way to grasp the aesthetic of this provincial weird is to skim the catalogue of Ghost Box Records. The label’s house band, Belbury Poly, conjures life in a fictional market town in the borderlands that has an ancient church and recent polytechnic. The design aesthetic of the album covers is inspired by 1970s Open University textbooks. The music, on the other hand, rips open that carefully managed surface of deliberate ordinariness to allow us to hear something like the spirit of dark waters. We’re tuned in to the sounds of another dimension – an alternative modernity that has already split up with our world and gone by on its separate way – thanks to the soundscape of moog and synth and radiophonic experiment that, in themselves, represent near obsolete technological forms.
But despite Lawrence’s early literary interests in magical realism, ‘Quarry’ stays in form as well as in subject in the realm of the everyday. Its concern, as the title suggests, is not with alternative worlds and hauntology, but the stuff under our feet. How we build a world by digging it away and then wonder at its instability. How we exist on a surface, how writing and art forms its own surface, how gaps and sudden falls – elision and caesura, scraped paint and scratched paper – are part of making work. Lawrence’s commitment to realism and the materiality of writing practice in this story is, of course, a fit tribute to Eliot who did more than any other British writer to transform what it was we think a piece of fiction can do in our relationship with the everyday world. It is also, however, a quiet demand for the political significance of a certain sort of storytelling.
In Writing in Society(1983) Raymond Williams looked back over the emergence of the category of ‘regional fiction’ in the twentieth century, a category he saw that was increasingly aligned with ‘working-class fiction’.This sort of labelling, William points out, implies that life in some regions – say London or the home counties – is normal or general, whilst the people and lives anywhere else are, well, regional. Williams’s essay still has much to offer an analysis of the contemporary literary marketplace, which has at least begun to acknowledge the problem of the blithe arrogance of metropolitan, middle-class possession of the ‘normal’.
Williams argues that stories of regional or provincial life remain vital to a state of political self-realization. There is a great need, he argues, for works ‘rooted in region or in class’ which can achieve a ‘close living substance’ from experience:
they seek the substance of those finer-drawn, often occluded, relations and relationships which in their pressures and interventions at once challenge, threaten, change and yet, in the intricacies of history, contribute to the formation of that class or region in self-realization and in struggle, including especially new forms of self-realization and struggle. Raymond Williams, Writing in Society (1983)
Stories involve a moment of recognition that is in itself a transformation. Forget the late bourgeois idea that novels are concerned with individuals living privately. Williams insists that we make space for fictions – especially in a post-colonial world – that let us see the entanglement of lives, regions, geopolitics and understand the reflexive play of self in that nested scale of society.
Struggle and self-realization is at the heart of Lawrence’s story too. Yet unlike a strong regionalism that we might trace in an arc from Scott, to Emily Bronte, early Hardy and Lawrence, to Benjamin Myers, its landscape is not one of radical alterity. Her work is closer the genre of provincial fiction as it emerged in the nineteenth century with Eliot, Gaskell, Trollope. It is a genre of everydayness and one that became increasingly associated with the middlebrow and the feminine in the twentieth century, perhaps reaching its neutral epitome with Barbara Pym. If its outlines are less extreme, its violence small, its settings middling, the struggle to collective self-realization is no less vital.
Bub’s story is one that many women feel they already know because it’s always been there. The only surprise is that it has come as news to so many: that life is a constant calculation of risk – we could be pinned down by anyone, anywhere at home or out and about – and sensible girls must always look twice before crossing. In Lawrence’s hands that provincial mode is a realization of the self-censorship that so many women practice to stay alive, living carefully in the middle landscape. Try to climb higher, to quarry deep, or stand out, and, like the figure in Goosey Gander, you may find you are flung over the edge, falling.
Denis Cosgrove, ‘Landscapes and Myths, Gods and Humans’ in Barbara Bender ed. Landscape Politics and Perspectives (Oxford: Berg, 1993), pp. 281-305
Michael Gardiner, ‘Brexit and the Aesthetics of Anachronism’, ed. Robert Eaglestone, Brexit and Literature, (London: Routledge, 2018); David Matless, Landscape and Englishness(rev ed. London: Reaktion, 2016);
Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’ in Writing in Society(London: Verso, 1983), 229-238.