This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by Jim Stewart 22nd October at 2015 Dundee Literary Festival for DURA. The interview can be viewed by clicking on the image above.
Jim Stewart: It’s a pleasure to introduce Peter Davidson – a fellow of Campion Hall, University of Oxford. Peter has written poetry, and he has discussed the idea of North, most famously ten years ago, I think that was. So, perhaps, he will speak to us today about some of these matters. Thank you Peter, for being willing to be interviewed….
Peter Davidson: … a pleasure!
JS: Can I kick off by asking you a few things about North and Northern-ness? Can I kick off with a political point? The current Chancellor of the Exchequer makes much of his “Northern Powerhouse” idea, which applies to the North of England. By “the North”, he means the North of England.
PD: That is simply a traditional designation in English politics for that part of England which was ruled by the Council of the North.
JS: Yes. I just wonder how that you think the present government imagines Scotland – which is even further north – and whether they can imagine it. Under what terms do they imagine Scotland?
PD: I really don’t know. I mean, I think that you’ve got to be very careful and respect people in the North of England. That is an absolutely proper and traditional term; the “North Country man” is used way back into the seventeenth century, and there used to be a sort of regent or sub-governmental group sitting in York called the Council of the North. So, really, if you talk about the North in terms of England like that, you’re using a wholly valid, very ancient description.
I’ve always felt you have to kind of start again with Scotland, because there is so much in the Borders, Fife, and the Lothians that had been written about traditionally as a sort of Arcadian, very plentiful farmland, especially by Scottish writers like Allan Ramsay. And, see you’ve – in a sense – got a plentiful South. But then, in Scotland, you’ve got a kind of inversion of North and South, because you then start again in Aberdeenshire with that kind-of tolerant, cosmopolitan society, very strongly linked with Europe. So, it’s all fascinating. I mean, I think what is true is this is all very historically conditioned, the way we think about North and South, and British. And I don’t know how, particularly, any government thinks of any particular part of the country. I suppose that we all think impressionistically.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way that the old patterns of thinking about places and territories persist. I mean, people that live in Berwick-Upon-Tweed do their shopping in Newcastle, apparently not in Edinburgh. Though, actually, Edinburgh would be nearer, I would have thought. But, apparently, people do their shopping in Newcastle. I’m told this by friends in Berwick[-Upon-Tweed]. So, I think it’s quite interesting, whether this would apply to old visions of East and West, I don’t know. There’s a complicated answer to a simple question.
JS: Oh, I don’t think it is a simple question. It has puzzled me for some time. You often hear a complaint in Scotland, especially from nationalists, that the Westminster government simply cannot imagine how it feels to be Scottish.
PD: I often wonder how much people realise about Scotland having that, kind-of, international Enlightenment, civil-codified law code, as opposed to having cardinal law like England. It always seems to me that that is one of the great acts of imagination you have to make when thinking about Scotland, that there is this completely different tradition of trust, based on essentially, sort-of, rather liberal, Dutch interpretations of Royal law. And that the intensity of connection with the Low Countries is such a defining factor in the way that Scottish institutions came about. It’s a long, very deep connection. It was very easy to sail to the Low Countries, when your own transport – North to South – in the British Isles was very tricky.
JS: You made an interesting comment – many interesting comments – in The Idea of North, about the North being viewed as masculine, as opposed to the South being viewed – traditionally, in some contexts – as feminine. Why do you think the North is masculinised in this way?
PD: It’s masculine in certain places, though, of course, once you’re up into Scandinavia, I think you have a lot of legendary figures of the Far North who are actually female. Meaning, Andersen’s fairy tales…in quite a lot of traditional stories and songs in Scandinavia, you’ve got a female Far North; a female principle who is at the North, where the magic is, and the Northern Lights are. Masculine…I suppose, that the North in the mid-twentieth century Europe is simply seen as somewhere that you go for those recreations that come into being at the beginning of the nineteenth century: climbing, hillwalking. Still, actually, by the mid-twentieth century, there are fantastic, formidable women climbers. I knew Dorothy Pilley when I was a student. I would not have crossed her for the world. She was an amazing person, a great force.
But – though there were many women climbers, rather distinguished women climbers – it is still seen as a rather masculine activity, as is hillwalking, as – of course – is shooting and stalking. I think, it is seen that you go north to do those particular things, and out of those particular things has come a sort-of tradition of adventure stories that are set in the northern parts more generally. You know, in quite late John Buchan, you go further and further north to the Faroe Islands, and then you have the Arctic. Start with Scotland, then you have the Faroes, the Artic, and Canada.
JS: Is this linked in any way, do you think, to the austerity of the North?
PD: It depends what you mean by austerity. Weather? Rough weather? I think it is. Rough weather is often perceived. It’s a question of how you perceive it. I mean, the way that northern painting begins to respond to – let’s use nice neutral word – adverse weather from Caspar David Freidrich and Baltic Germany in the early nineteenth century onwards. You can often see adverse weather as very beautiful. And that is the first time that anyone starts painting the North for the North. And, actually, seeing great beauty, a kind of spiritual immanence in stormy, more austere lands. So, there is a kind of education of the eye in the beauty of North, which begins in the early nineteenth century. And, I think, changes the way that you see northern landscape. I mean, up until then, the standard of Europe has always been Aristotle’s standard of the temperate Mediterranean, whose temperateness is getting a little bitter. I mean the shores of the Mediterranean are getting a little hotter, and, maybe, are a little less temperate. They feel a little less balanced than they did. The North of Europe is seen as barely warm enough to support life.
JS: So does the North, in its more extreme forms, represent a version of the sublime?
PD: Oh yes. I think almost entirely for the first deliberate travellers in northern parts. I mean, until the middle of the eighteenth century, there’s less of an inclination to go and look at landscape for its own sake. It’s a loan word. It begins by meaning a depiction of owned land, cultivated land as far as I can see, first used of cultivated land in the 1650s as a loan word in East Yorkshire. But, the idea of going to look at mountains is very much a product of European travel being closed down by the Grand Tour – though the crossing of the Alps is a part of the mid-period Grand Tour, and the experience of crossing the Alps is a sublime experience associated with ideas of pleasurable horror.
But, I think there is a poem in English about an alpine landscape, written in the late 1580s or early 1590s by Saint Robert Southall – Jesuit poet and martyr. The poem is called “A Vale of Tears”, which seems to be about a high alpine landscape, a landscape of absolute desolation. Though used metaphorically, clearly in the landscape of high mountains a sixteenth century eye sees only horror and absence. Whereas – by the time you get to the late eighteenth century – there is pleasurable horror, because there is an inn to go to at the end of the pleasurably horrible day. And, duly, such conveniences make the appreciation of the sublime a great deal easier.
What is very much harder to convey sometimes to people in Southern Europe, is the intense level of civilisation in Scotland, particularly northern Scotland – that very direct connection to the Low Countries, the kind-of laboratory of modern society. A very direct connection to Rome, actually, particularly after the Jacobite Risings. There were lots of Scots living in Rome. There were lots of connections. Lots of the serious tastemakers in Rome are Scots. That’s a society that is rather forgotten: they lived most of their lives in Italy, and it is often forgotten that they are Scots with very strong correspondences and connections, particularly in Jacobite northern Scotland.
They were intensely cultivated. I mean the fact that there is a separate tradition of learning in Scotland from other parts of the English speaking world is quite interesting as well. A very, sort-of, Dutch related, Northern European Enlightenment tradition. That’s very strong. It’s a very profound connection that goes over decades, or centuries – a kind-of direct access to the very most progressive and advanced learned society. There are copied lecture notes from the University of Leiden arriving in Aberdeen the year after the first lectures. You know, the real revaluation of Classical Antiquity under the beginnings of what we would now call archaeology? The lecture notes are in Aberdeen a year after the lectures are given in Leiden.
It’s one of those ways in which knowledge travels that nobody studies. There is so much there that some bright person ought to look at some day. Because there are a lot of them surviving in Scotland, and they show the way in which the very latest things from the universities of Europe are making their way to Scotland very, very quickly.
JS: I was teaching Virginia Woolf last week – as I often do – and the novel was To the Lighthouse. There is a famous passage in which Mr Ramsay is trying to solve a philosophical problem. He has symbolised his mind by the alphabet. He has got as far as “Q”, but cannot quite get to “R”. His fantasy of the qualities it will take him to get to “R” are those of a polar explorer, who is leading an expedition and has to inspire his men, and will – in fact – die in the attempt….I just wonder why Woolf reached for this metaphor, and planted this fantasy of Polar expedition.
PD: I give the honest man’s answer: I don’t know. Certainly those expeditions were sent off with the most awful presuppositions of what the North was going be like. Awful, in terms of wild, unjustified optimism. They had this idea that, beyond the known arctic zone, there was going to be a temperate region. And that was believed until the 1840s, after the catastrophic Franklin affair. They really thought it was open paradise there, and this was actually on the charts. It was admiralty policy to believe in the Open Pole, because the midnight sun would melt the ice. And they believed this until the absolute Franklin catastrophe.
I don’t know the year in which the admiralty finally abandoned this, but it’s pretty worryingly late. And, there is something very interesting, an analysis of the economics of polar exploration. I’m suggesting quite strongly that after the Napoleonic Wars there is nothing to do with the navy, because they have kind of won. I was just thinking about that the other day – the naval officer in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Obviously, I think that Jane Austen is thinking that her heroine will get a good deal, but not a very good deal, at the end of that book. Whereas, in fact, he will be on home posts for a very long time; there is nothing really to send him off to do after the end of that book. But then, a little bit later, they start sending their very high-powered, but slightly unemployed, navy off on polar exploration, because they think they might just seize a trade route through arctic Canada. Which wasn’t there, though it is now.
JS: Of course Frankenstein opens with…
PD: Precisely the admiralty line is what the captain in Frankenstein is putting forth: “We’re off to the Open Pole, you see? It will be a region of fertility and everything will be fine. There will be land.” I don’t think that they knew about the ice mass at this time: “There will be land. There will be warmth. There will be a warm summer because of the midnight sun.” And they think they are going to break through into another temperate zone, which is not… It’s warmer there now than it ever was.
JS: Climate change? Peter, you’re also a poet, besides writing these wonderfully suggestive prose books. I’ve read The Palace of Oblivion, and what strikes me about your poems is that you’re not afraid to write a very long line. There are iambic octameters, if that word exists.
PD: They really are a kind of accentual hexameter. They are mostly, I think. They’ve got that, sort of… There are very long lines. You get complaints about that from printers, because of the long lines.
JS: There are some very beautiful rhythms in your poems.
PD: They are really just lifted from a long, fascinated reading in Latin literature of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, as well as classical literature. Most of the metrics are from the accentual, pattern-variable line of the Latin language.
JS: Well, I got to the point where I didn’t care what you said. I was so taken with how you said it.
PD: Oh, that’s lovely! That’s lovely.
JS: You’re also not afraid to plant a poem in Latin, bang in the middle of your collection.
PD: There is an awful lot of Scottish literature in Latin. Keep the flag flying…
JS: I wondered if this was part of the strategy.
PD: No, no. I’m very conscious of… I used to go into the bakers in Leiden when I taught there, you see. There was this great, rather elderly professor of theology who had studied one year in Edinburgh immediately after the year. I think – poor chap – he got the proverbially “cold winter” of 1940, and he remembered Edinburgh as this great ice cap, snow-covered. He was an absolutely enchanting, very beautifully learned man, a senior colleague, but he always used to greet me in the baker’s line on Saturday morning as ‘Dutch’, ‘the countryman of the distinguished George Buchanan’, which I though was a wonderful sort of last touch of the old European republic of Latin. George Buchanan, the great Scottish poet of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. One must remember the two bestselling authors, you know? John Barclay wrote the bestselling novel of the seventeenth century – far outsold almost any other circulated letters – from near Turriff in Aberdeenshire. I have, sort of, tried to read it. It’s a romance, a bit like The Arcadia. It was obviously what people liked very much at the time.
JS: Well, The Arcadia is a door-stopper.
PD: It’s more of a doorstopper. I think it’s longer that The Arcadia. I must say that the work of Scottish writing I’m really excited by – written in near-Latin – is an Angus poem of the seventeenth century, about the deeds of Graham Claverhouse in 1689.
JS: ‘Bonnie Dundee’?
PD: Yeah. It’s one of the most beautiful near-Latin poems. I mean, there are moments in it that are genuinely Virgilian and very, very Scottish: there is a winter journey to the Highlands; there’s a kind of master of clans, like the master of the heroes in Homer. It’s wonderful, but nobody seems to read it. It’s one of the greatest literary achievements of the seventeenth century. Wonderful…
JS: I’m interested in your poetry. It’s very rich, and, again, very suggestive. Beautiful rhythms. Something was going on in the back of my mind about Virginia Woolf, and I remembered a comment she made in her diary – I think – when she was still a young woman, that we needed to recover the rhythms of the Greeks and the Latins…
PD: What I draw on very extensively, really, is seventeenth century Spanish poetry, in the way I try and make images work. I read them a lot. They’re not read much, I don’t think, in English speaking countries. They are very wonderful, though quite strange. They are a very, sort-of, accomplished, finished poem. They are very, kind-of modern, in a way. A very, sort-of beautifully controlled, very elaborate poetry. It’s great stuff.
JS: So your poetry making starts from metre? You’re looking for an exploration…
PD: Well, yeah. I think it’s from what I did my PhD on. I did my PhD on a great Latinist of the seventeenth century, who was the first person to translate certain Southern European baroque poetry into English. I mean, I’m not very much one to move from one thing…it has, sort of, stuck with me, in a sense….
JS: Are you still making poems? I mean, I’ve read The Palace of Oblivion, but I haven’t kept up.
PD: There’s another collection of verses in eighteenth months or so….
JS: You’re going to read a bit of prose for us?
PD: I could read a bit of prose, if I put my reading glasses on. What shall we have? I’ll read a real sinker about a painting by Grimshaw. I mean, what I do spend a lot of my actual working life doing is thinking about painting. This is writing about a picture of Grimshaw’s, painted in 1878, which Grimshaw – North of England painter, Leeds based – was thinking of as romantic Old England. But, actually, it kind-of gives its date away, because of the industrial pollution in the sky.
[Reading commences; click here to link to a transcript.]
(transcribed by Patrick Adamson)