Inchoate Coast, and the eerie countryside

There was an excellent essay by Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian last week about the ‘eeriness of the English landscape’, and the way the new forms of nature writing were beginning to morph into a more numinous field (excuse the pun) that was concerned with wider and wilder ideas about the uncanny, about the disruptions and contested energies in the English countryside. This ‘occulture’, as Macfarlane calls it, is deeply committed to a ‘magnificent mash-up of hauntology, geological sentience and political activism.’ It’s a brilliant essay and well worth a read, and the central thesis is certainly one that chimes very strongly with the fringe elements of my own writing.

Although I realise that the moment a trend or school is identified and written about in the mainstream press is the very moment it becomes obsolete, I still found the piece thrilling to read and a real spur to those aforementioned fringe elements. A while ago I set up a Google Sites blog called ‘Inchoate Coast’, a sort of ongoing palimpsest of ideas and notes about the coastal landscape between Edinburgh and Fife, based on observations and researches I’d made during several long walks in the area, with my good friend and colleague Martin MacInnes. In 2012 we walked from Leith out to Edinburgh airport and around the perimeter fence, and then the next year we took two walks: one from Leith to Burntisland in Fife (30 miles – I could barely walk by the end of it); the second from Leith to the Grangemouth oil refinery. Injury prevented any walks in 2014, but I wrote up some of the notes on the Inchoate Coast site and I’ve been adding to it over the week since reading the Macfarlane essay, which, if it did nothing else, reminded me how much this peculiar part-estuarine, part-seascape coastline fascinates me. I’m particularly interested in the idea of it as a denuded landscape, stripped of industry and of what was once a powerful military presence, a landscape where the traces of those industries remain. The coastline is littered with rusting pier points, scrap metal yards, isolated stately homes, and strange marine terminal complexes like the one at Hound Point, which takes crude oil from the Forties pipeline for export. Hound Point, with its legend of a spectral dog mourning the death of its master in the Crusades, will be the focus of the next short walk I’ll make later in the spring, and later in the summer I’m planning on another long walk with Martin from North Queensferry past the naval base at Rosyth, and on to Alloa. At some point I want to walk upriver, following the trail of the Forth, if not quite to its source then certainly as far as Stirling.

Landscape and nature writing has become a bit of a publishing phenomenon at the moment, and although there are some genuine exemplars (Macfarlane, obviously; Helen Macdonald and her superb ‘H is for Hawk’ more recently), it does seem to tend towards the formulaic – the personal quest memoir linked to the biographical unpacking of a neglected literary figure, or the microscopic temporal analysis of a very particular bounded space. The Inchoate Coast project (to perhaps over-dignify it!) is at its heart about topographical effacement and temporal layering, and as such I don’t feel there’s any place for me in there. The original idea in fact was to open it up to other contributors, once everything was in place. I’m not sure how likely that is now, but I’m going to continue adding to and subtracting from it over the summer anyway, and will update as and when. Take a look if you’re interested …


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