Place-words: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, in which enchantment is practised to undo the injuries of modernity

[With grateful thanks to Radio NZ and Kim Hill for alerting me to this extraordinary book],-landscape-and-language

It is extremely hard to describe what Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane is, or more importantly what it does, but it feels to me like something rare and precious. Landmarks  is part of the current river of advocacy for the natural environment. But the book is not in the form of direct arguments for conservation. It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2015. But it is often poetry to my eye and ear, and I think it could be argued that the whole book behaves as if it were poetry.

In terms of structure, the book consists primarily of ten Glossaries , each one a collection of words particular to a certain aspect of land or water, for example Glossary lll Waterlands. Within that there are Subheadings.

Moving Water

Pools Ponds and Lakes

Rain and Storm

Riverbank, Riverbed

Springs and Wells

Swimming and Splashing

Water’s Surface


Within Wetlands are the following words :

allan piece of land nearly surrounded by water, Cumbria,

amod     green plain almost encircled by the bend in a river, Gaelic,

crannog    prehistoric lake dwelling, Irish,

doirling    islet to which one can wade at low tide, Gaelic,

eyot    small island, especially in a river, English,

feorainn    grassy area of riverside or shore, Irish,

baft   island in a pool, Midlands,

and halb, holm, peninsula, water-faesten, warth and ynys.

These glossaries contain words from Old English, Norn, Anglo-Romani, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, the Orcadian, Shetlandic and Doric dialects of Scots, numerous regional versions of English and the last vestiges of Norman still spoken on the Channel Islands. The place-words that Macfarlane collects and curates for us have been collected by scholars and members of the public, not just by him, so the Glossaries and the book have an inclusive quality. Words sent in by old ladies and children are treated with as much respect as words contributed by scholars. And perhaps this would be the right place to say that the words themselves are extraordinary for their sounds and the lyrical beauty of the things they describe.

The most obvious mechanism I can see is that Macfarlane directs the reader’s attention towards words about the land, which, for him, is the United Kingdom.

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George Orwell’s diaries: the archival impulse and how to ‘read’ current events

Over the last week I have been reading George Orwell’s diaries, edited by Peter Davison and published by Harvill Secker in 2009.  The diaries have made an enormous impression on me for several reasons, among them the relentless focus on the practical details of making a garden and living from it, in what Davison calls the Domestic Diaries and his detailed documentation of the earnings, housing and diet of the unemployed and low paid workers in the mines and on farms. I find both of these uses of writing inspiring.

These things are never simple though. The Orwell who put himself into doss houses for unemployed men and hung out for a few weeks with tramps and union organisers was an old boy of Eton and had other choices. There was a strong sense in which he did this to get things to write about. That is something which, as a writer, you have to stop and think about a bit. The boundary between his possible exploitation of the people he stayed with and his ability to write an exposé of subjects other people are ignorant of or are wilfully ignoring, is not straightforward at all.  Or at least I don’t think it is. It has been said too that he ‘stage-managed’ the writing in The Road to Wigan Pier to show himself subject to the same lice and hunger and cold as the families he was in contact with, when in fact he would shortly return to his own way of life, which was also cold and damp and had terrible food but was several steps more secure and comfortable than the lives he was visiting. All of these critiques notwithstanding I still think that writing about the lives of people who are getting a hard time from employers, landlords and whose suffering is being ignored, is a good thing for a writer to do.

Orwell’s domestic diaries, where he records every egg that his hens lay and how many potatoes he harvests and how many peat blocks he cut and how much gas the stove is using and how much meat he will get from half a stag, impress me from the point of view that he does not think the details of life are beneath his notice. To the contrary, he seems to think that paying attention to what you grow and what you need to survive, is as important a part of life as the writing he does or the thinking he does about world affairs. The domestic diaries do have a manic quality though, a hard turning away of his attention from certain things, to be partially achieved by this staunch focus on the details of the garden and the household economy.  Those ‘certain things’ include his own health and his emotions.

In the time immediately before the declaration of war on September 3 1939, Orwell kept two diaries.

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Creative Non-Fiction and The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2016

Last week I had the pleasure of going to the Award ceremony in Auckland. The Non-Fiction category, for which my book Lost and Gone Away was a finalist was  announced straight after the Best First Book awards. I had been telling everyone that I was betting on Witi Ihimaera’s Maaori Boy which I think is a landmark book on the New Zealand scene. And that is the book that won the Non-Fiction prize. I won’t say it is an easy book to read. It has so many stories within stories that sometimes I felt as if I couldn’t fit another one in my head, but that is the world it is telling us about. I think this is the only memoir I have ever read that contains the creation of the earth. That is how far back and wide it goes. And in-between the writer and the creation stretches a long long line of people whose stories influence the boy and what you might call his fate. I was pleased this book won the prize. I think we, Aotearoa New Zealand writers and readers , need more books about every aspect of the bi-cultural world so that we can learn about it, and also so students of writing can see what is possible.  Today I was writing an essay about Charles Brasch’s poem The Clear. That brought home to me how important it is to feel that you could belong in a piece of writing. When I read his poems I know that when he says ‘me’ he could mean me. Young Maaori writers deserve that too.

So my congratulations to Witi.

I did wonder though, later, after the merry-go-round had stopped and the music had died, whether there needs to be a re-think of the Non-Fiction category, and perhaps Creative Non-Fiction needs to be its own category. The books in this category were so different from each other in method and purpose that I couldn’t see a reason why they should be judged against each other. My pastiche Lost and Gone Away versus Rachel Barrowman’s scholarly biography of Maurice Gee? How does that make sense? Creative Non-Fiction is enjoying a flowering in Aotearoa at the moment. How about making space for that?


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Today I was asked to choose a poem for my son’s wedding

I think through my own meagre offering of poems and that doesn’t take long. There is nothing there about weddings or couples.

So now I’m looking for a poem about love. But it shouldn’t be too direct, because direct is not good when it comes to poems.

It probably shouldn’t be too religious, or at least not religious in any specific way, because the people there will not be singing from the same song-sheet religiously. It would be nice if it didn’t make anyone’s raw feelings over their own heartbreak any worse. And it shouldn’t sound as if it is a given that the marriage will be happy, or that it won’t be happy. It shouldn’t make it sound as though marriage, the patriarchal institution, is fine with me. And the couple shouldn’t cringe because the poem refers to breasts and penises. It would be a bonus if it contained references to the worlds of the bride and groom. Her hair perhaps or his way with a fried egg. Or maybe the world that they will soon be seeing, after they leave New Zealand.

Despite all these constraints, it has not been difficult and here are ten. OK, there is a series of 3 that might be a bit raunchy, and one that is way to cheesy, and the others. Poems I like tend to be on the austere side, but I’ve tried to depart from that at least some of the time. Personally I’d choose the Estonian Songs, but it is not my wedding.

3 poems from Estonian Songs by Jenny Bornholdt

Waking the birds

Wake birds,
the sky loses its dark
because of you, light
slowly coming around
the corner to surprise

A lion worries a bone
into morning
and berries come out
from behind their green

Boats in the harbour
planes in the sky
the wings and wheels of the
modern world are

Praising the cook

They say the sexual impulse
is like a fiery horse.

When you break an egg
one handed
into the frying pan
it sounds like distant hooves
crossing a dusty plain.

Instructing the newly-weds

Listen bride
listen groom
don’t be afraid.
At night, the dark trees at the end
of the street—how frightening
they seem, then
morning comes and uncovers
nothing but leaves.


Wedding Song by Jenny Bornholdt

Now you are married

Try to love the world

As much as you love

Each other. Greet it as your husband,

Wife. Love it with all your

Might as you sleep

Breathing against its back.

Love the world, when late at night,

You come home to find snails

Stuck to the side of the house

Like decoration.

Love your neighbours.

The red berries on their trampoline

Their green wheelbarrow.

Love the man walking on

Water, the man up a

mast. Love the light moving

across the Island Princess.

Love your grandmother when she tells you

Her hair is three-quarters ‘café au lait’.

Try to love the world, even when you discover

there is no such thing as The Author

any more.

Love the world, praise

God, even, when your aerobics instructor

is silent.

Try very hard to love

your mailman, even though he regularly

delivers you Benidicto Clemente’s mail.

Love the weta you find on the path,

injured  by alteration.

Love the tired men, the burnt

house, the handlebars of light

on the ceiling.

Love the man on the bus who says

it all amounts to a fishing rod

or a lightbulb.

Love the world of the garden.

The keyhole of bright green grass

Where the stubborn palm

used to be,

bees so drunk on ginger flowers

that they think the hose water

is rain   your hair tangled in


Love the way,

when you come inside,

insects find their way out

from the temporary rooms of

your clothes.

– Jenny Bornholdt –

Love Poem, by Bill Manhire

There is no question

of choice, but it takes

a long time.

Love’s vacancies, the eye

& cavity, track

back to embraces

where the spine bends

& quietens

like smoke in the earth

Your tongue, touching on song,

darkens all songs. Your touch

is almost a signature.

An Irish blessing ( the cheese)

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

May God be with you and bless you;
May you see your children’s children.
May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings,
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the warm rays of sun fall upon your home
And may the hand of a friend always be near.

May green be the grass you walk on,
May blue be the skies above you,
May pure be the joys that surround you,
May true be the hearts that love you.

Habitation by Margaret Atwood


Marriage is not
a house, or even a tent

it is before that, and colder:

the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back, where we squat
outdoors, eating popcorn

where painfully and with wonder

at having survived
this far

we are learning to make fire

This Marriage by Rumi

May these vows and this marriage be blessed.
May it be sweet milk,
this marriage, like wine and halvah.
May this marriage offer fruit and shade
like the date palm.
May this marriage be full of laughter,
our every day a day in paradise.
May this marriage be a sign of compassion,
a seal of happiness here and hereafter.
May this marriage have a fair face and a good name,
an omen as welcomes the moon in a clear blue sky.
I am out of words to describe
how spirit mingles in this marriage.


Years later they find themselves talking

about chances, moments when their lives

might have swerved off

for the smallest reason.

What if

I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?

What if you’d been out,

as you were when I tried three times

the night before?

Then she tells him a secret.

She’d been there all evening, and she knew

he was the one calling, which was why

she hadn’t answered.

Because she felt—

because she was certain—her life would change

if she picked up the phone, said hello,

said, I was just thinking

of you.

I was afraid,

she tells him. And in the morning

I also knew it was you, but I just

answered the phone

the way anyone

answers a phone when it starts to ring,

not thinking you have a choice.



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