Here you can read a piece I wrote for the project sponsors, the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It was great to have a chance to thank all the excellent partners I’ve been lucky to work with in Nuneaton.
Category: Writing the Midlands with George Eliot
Deep England/ England’s Deeps: a response to Anna Lawrence’s ‘Quarry’
‘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.
A new short story by Anna Lawrence, project writer in residence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Gav twisted the button on the telly until the picture settled, laid out two sheets of newspaper on the settee and flopped down.
Bub looked up from her homework at the dinner table. She limited herself to one wafer biscuit per piece of homework completed, eating it carefully over a plate. She dabbed up the pink crumbs with a wet finger.
‘Not this, Gav, please. Turn it over. What’s on the other side?’
It was that daft advert with Death done up like a hooded monk, stalking round those stupid kids trying to get their ball out of the water. Bub usually pretended she needed a wee when these things came on, and usually never went, peering round the doorframe, holding her breath, watching through her fingers.
It unsettled her; it might make her do something reckless and compulsive, like climbing into an abandoned fridge and shutting the door behind her while playing hide and seek, or trying to catch a firework, or smuggling a rabid dog into the country (although she wasn’t sure when she’d get the opportunity). Mum had taught her how to cross a road, but still, she’d memorised every frame of Tufty the stop-motion squirrel, with his dead black saucer eyes, twitching along the pavement for an ice cream, and when she heard the soft thud, the yelp of brakes when Willy Weasel dashed out behind the van, she always said, ‘Serves him right,’ under her breath. There was something shifty and unwashed about that weasel. But she worried that she, too, would be gripped by the compulsion to run out behind a van, and whenever Auntie Stel gave her coins to get herself a lolly, she refused.
‘I need a wee.’
‘No, you don’t. It’s your favourite.’
‘Adverts are boring. Turn it over.’
‘It’s not an advert. It’s state-funded horror. I am the spirit of dark and lonely water…’ Gav actually rubbed his hands together when these things came on, like a cartoon villain. He saw these stupid films as dares, instructions. Things to try.
“It’s the perfect place for an accident.” He knew all the words and made his voice go deep and creepy.
Auntie Stel had offered to buy her a kite last summer – everyone wanted to buy them things last summer – but she’d said no in case she flew it into a power line. Children who did that – stupid children – deserved to fry like those lardy strips Gav peeled off the wodge of bacon each morning and slapped, sizzling, into the pan. Bub would track what her brother touched with his unwashed hands, and when he’d pulled on his overalls and slammed out, sucking ketchup off his fingers, she crept round the house, wiping raw meat fingerprints from door handles with a bit of Dettol on a hankie. There’d been a film in Biology about microbes. You couldn’t be too careful. Auntie Stel had actually spooned mould out of a jar this morning before spreading damson jam on Bub’s toast. Bub had said thank you and folded the bread into a bit of kitchen paper, saying, with her fingers crossed behind her back, that she’d eat it on the way.
She’d been relieved, at first, to bring her suitcase and her box of books to Auntie Stel’s. In their old house, the absence had pressed on her like great slabs of stone; the place felt hard and hollowed, heavy with a ringing, pressured silence. Auntie Stel’s was full of life. Radio 2 was always chirping in the background. The air thrummed with Woodbine and Glade, the surfaces thronged with porcelain owls in mortar boards and otters smoking pipes and after her shift on Friday nights, Auntie Stel would bring a brick of pink wafers from the factory.
‘Listen!’ Gav cackled. ‘I’ll be back.’
Bub packed away her colouring pencils and her geography book. A letter fluttered out.
‘Shut up, Gav. I hate that stupid Death voice.’
She grabbed the letter and crumpled it up before Gav could see, not that he was watching. She didn’t want permission for the stupid trip anyway. She couldn’t see why the other kids were so excited about a big hole full of rocks. There wouldn’t even be a gift shop, and the coach ride was only ten minutes. She’d dreamed of the quarry after glimpsing it through barbed wire and thicket when Gav took her blackberrying last August, trying to keep her mind off things: the land dropping away, suddenly sheer; the vast sprawling wound of a canyon yawning at the sky; tarry pools and slurry tips and blackened trees and rocks snatched out of earth by machines with claws the size of houses, scraping, crushing, scalping.There was something chilling and thrilling about the scale of it, something alien and removed, like the bleak landscape at the top of the beanstalk. She worried that she would not be able to keep from jumping.
‘Chuck us the biccies, if you’ve left me any, greedy piggy.’ Gav twisted and held his hands out, ready to catch.
‘I’m not chucking it. They’ll go to dust.’ She placed the tin on the coffee table with exaggerated precision. She pushed Gav’s feet off the table. His corderoys were thick with drying mud and the left leg was torn. He levered the lid off the tin and crammed a wafer in his mouth.
‘What happened to you, Gav?’
A thick track of blood all up his shin.
‘Come off in a ditch.’ He spat crumbs. ‘Chain slipped.’
‘I’ll get the TCP.’
‘Don’t bother. Only a graze.’ He picked something off his leg and held it up to inspect it, then wiped it on his t-shirt.
‘It looks like a cut.’
‘Bike’s ok. That’s the main thing.’
‘You need to clean it up.’
‘Nah. It’s just a bit scratched.’
‘You weren’t up the quarry, were you?’ She stood with her hands on her hips, looking down at him.
Every time they argued about the quarry he’d tell her she was daft. It wasn’t just him who went up there, he’d say. He’d seen swimmers, bird watchers, climbers. Some old hippies looking for hornblende to heal their root chakras, whatever they were. Even his old geography teacher scratching at the rocks for fossils.
She’d told him there were chemicals there. What they all called ‘the blue lagoon’ would strip his skin, she said. Dissolve him like a tooth in Coca Cola. He’d said that there were chemicals in the water at the local baths, otherwise they’d all be one big verruca. And what did she think her precious Jif was? Fairy puke?
(Years later, after yet another young man has drowned on a hot afternoon, she wants to ring Gav to tell him she was right and that the Council’s dyed the waters black in warning. But she can’t. The quarry, mourning).
She’d told him how the ground slips. The slopes are too sleep. You can’t get out. The water is too cold, too deep.She’d read about it. She’d seen it on the News. Dead things in there. Livestock. Rusty metal. The bodies of old cars. She’d threatened him with tetanus and drowning, but nothing seemed to work.
‘I said, were you up the quarry again?’ She folded her arms and glared down, trying to be commanding.
He grinned up at her. ‘No, Mum.’
They both reeled, just a fraction, and shock washed through his face. He looked suddenly limp. Bub bit her lip. She wasn’t going to cry. She hadn’t cried since the accident and she wasn’t going to start now. She hadn’t even cried at the funeral. She tried to think of nothing, of the curiously blank limbo of the Play Schoolset, with its soft-lit curved studio walls, the opaque tissue-paper dreaminess of the arched window and the staring rigid blandness of that fat doll, Hamble. She had never liked Hamble.
‘Have it.’ Gav held out a biscuit. ‘Go on. It’s the last one.’ His hands were mottled with dark patches of oil and mud. His fingernails were black.
‘Don’t want it. Your hands are piggin’ filthy.’
‘I don’t want anything from you.’
He waved the biscuit in front of her nose. ‘Good clean muck can’t hurt.’
‘Muck’s not clean. That’s the whole point.’
‘You’ll catch something.’
She wanted to tie Gav to a kitchen chair and scrub his whole face with hard green soap until he was all foam; his eyes, his mouth, his ears, his nose. She wanted to smash the Dettol bottle over his head and pour it down his throat. Make him bath in it and burn off the sticky filth on his shin. She wanted him clean and safe. What was it Mum used to threaten?
‘You’ll get botulism.’
‘I’ll give you botulism!’ Gav sprang up and, before she could get away, he’d pinned her to the settee and crushed the biscuit against her mouth. She pressed her lips tight.
‘You’re chicken. Scared of a bit of muck. Just eat the bloody biscuit.’
She shook her head and tried to bat his arms away, but his full weight was on her. He squeezed her nostrils together until she opened her mouth, coughing. He laughed and squashed the wafer in. Oil and muck and sugar on her tongue.
‘I’m not chicken,’ she said, thickly.
‘Suck my thumb. It’s still got crumbs on it.’
She bit him, and he pulled his thumb out, laughing.
‘I’m not chicken, Gav.’
‘What are you then?’
Mum had always said she could trust her to do the sensible thing. Old head on young shoulders. ‘I’m sensible.’
And this is what made her sob, at last, until she couldn’t catch her breath and snot came out in bubbles. Gav put his arm around her. ‘Nah, you’re not chicken. You’re sensibubble.’
And that was what he called her, until ‘sensibubble’ eroded into ‘Bub’ and stuck, as if that had always been her name, and when she remembered the Night of The Pink Wafer, it was Bub who had been there, not the girl she was before.
Bub knows to look both ways and to keep looking, but she isn’t quite sure how to becross safely. She is facing her fears. She has driven on the motorway and petted large dogs. She has watched the opening credits of Tom Baker’s Doctor Whoon YouTube without covering her ears and eyes. And now she’s got to ‘Quarries’ on her list. She searches for the quarries she remembers in the books that frightened her – Annerton Pitand Stig of the Dumpand The Yonderley Boy– but can’t find quarries here, just mines and chalk pits and ordinary hills. Her memories slip like grit under her feet. The land slips and crumbles; she is in free-fall, like the old man who wouldn’t say his prayers, goose-flung over the bannister, face contorted in shock and fear. Mum taped up that page in the Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes when Bub was little, but then Bub got frightened of Cock Robin, not because it was inherently scary but because it signalled the approach of Goosey Goosey Gander, and then the pages before and after, until she had to hide the whole book under her bed where it lurked and hummed. She finds it in a box in the loft, with Gav’s jacket and Auntie Stel’s owl graduate. She peels off the browned and brittle tape and makes herself stare at the face of the old man, falling. She finds a ranger to take her and says it’s for a project. He points out the artificial osprey nests, the newt habitat, the rewilding, and while he’s not looking, Bub puts her hand into her pocket, pulls out a handful of pink crumbs, and scatters.