The Anti-Canon Series: This Green and Unpleasant Land by Rowena Macdonald

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

‘On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.’ Raymond Williams wrote this in his 1973 book The Country and The City which explores urban and rural settings in literature. This pastoral ideal, the concept of a lost rural idyll, is still the predominant view of country life in Britain, which is remarkable since it originated in the Greek Empire during the 3rd century BC in the Idylls, the poems written for the Alexandrian court by Theocritus. These poems were based on the song competitions held by shepherds in Theocritus’ native Sicily and present an idealised and nostalgic vision of a simple life in contact with nature. They have retained a place in Western culture through the Roman poet Virgil’s reworking of these themes in his Eclogues and Georgics.

The Virgilian idea of the pastoral is an urban construct, an antithesis of the dominant metropolitan way of life, and incorporates tensions between the town and country, idealisation and realism, celebration and regret. The simplified notion of what has come to be understood as ‘pastoral’ has become a pejorative term, implying sentimentality, reactionary complacency and unrealistic irrelevance. The countryside has been tainted with this brush, so the literary world tends to view country settings as insipid and at odds with the grittiness of modern life. The superficial notion of the ‘pastoral’ has denied a proper engagement with the complexities of rural life because it proposes an idealised view of country life.

SHEEPSHAGGER
SHEEPSHAGGER

Niall Griffiths and Magnus Mills, have veered away from the well-worn metropolitan path and set their novels amid rural squalor that subverts the contemporary idea of pastoral, which, in itself, is a paradoxical fantasy that needs the urban contrast to exist. The rural settings of their novels, Sheepshagger and The Restraint of Beasts respectively, are part of what makes these novels original and arresting.

Magnus Mills draws the reader into a story about very dull manual labour performed by two very dull Scottish fencers and their slightly more intelligent English foreman, who narrates the novel. The repetitive nature of building high-tensile fences to ‘restrain beasts’ is mirrored by the repetitive nature of the fencers’ existence. At one point towards the end of the novel, two pages from the beginning are repeated, to hammer home the point that the characters are stuck in a never-ending cycle of working, drinking and debt.  The characters are placed in rural backwaters which hover eerily between fiction and reality—Tam, Richie and the unnamed narrator live ‘in a quiet place on the road to Perth’ and are sent down to build fence for a fanner in Upper Bowland, a fictional village confusingly below Lower Bowland, in ‘the county of Hereford and Worcester’.

The landscape is generally obscured by the rain or the dark and is only ever glancingly described in deadpan practical terms: ‘It was one of those hills that you get here and there in the countryside, thrust up by some geological accident millions of years ago and responsible for the term “rolling landscape.”’ The ambiguity of the backdrop gives the novel a Beckettian quality—it has the same disquieting featurelessness as the place where Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot. And, like Vladimir and Estragon, Tam, Richie and the narrator are always waiting for something unknown that never quite happens, though the novel ends just at the point when it seems something terrible is about to occur.

The setting of Niall Griffith’s Sheepshagger in the mountains of west Wales is more lengthily and vividly described but has a similar mysteriousness. Sheepshagger is the story of Ianto, a feral inbred semi-autistic young man, brought up in the mountains by his grandmother, who murders three English tourists in a crazed act of revenge, after his grandmother’s cottage is repossessed by bailiffs and turned into a second home by English yuppies.

The build-up to the murders is intercut with scenes from Ianto’s childhood in which he observes the horror and beauty of nature, and stoned conversations between his dropout friends who try but fail to understand who Ianto was and why he turned into a murderer. Like the mountains, which are described in visionary, almost Biblical terms, Ianto is an enigma. He is a part of the land and it is the only place he feels at home—he roams through the mountains, shitting in the bushes, sleeping in the undergrowth and drinking from the streams like an animal. ‘This land has always been his and always he its; take one from the other and it will wither.  Before Ianto was this land was, forming and flowing and forever awaiting its wearer.’ His rage against the English stems from his belief that they have robbed a vital part of him.

Restraint of Beasts
Restraint of Beasts

The rural settings of The Restraint of Beasts and Sheepshagger give them an off-centre feel. As the majority of Britain’s population is urban, the countryside is unknown and marginal and its inhabitants often feel overlooked by the metropolitan policy-makers who run the country. Sheepshagger is set against the lead-up to the formation of the Welsh National Assembly and part of the political message of the book is that Wales has been subjugated by Westminster. The characters rage against English ‘colonialisation’ but curse their country’s apathy for not bringing about independence sooner and for accepting a watered-down form of devolution: ‘It’s all bollax, mun, devolution  won’t  change a fuckin thing. Still be answerable to Westminster...If yew got a fuckin big saw an separated the country down Offa’s Dyke and let us float out to sea we’d still be in their fuckin power.’

In The Restraint of Beasts, Tam and Richie have a more hazily defined opposition to the English, whom they regard as soft, citified and ‘pathetic’. At one point Tam drunkenly rears up in a pub and shouts ‘C’mon, English bastards!’ The narrator says, ‘As far as I knew I was the only English person in the place... “English bastards!” Tam screamed. It was odd the way he kept going on about “bastards” in the plural. This suggested it was nothing personal.’

Using the landscape to convey emotional states brings into question another construct about the countryside—what Ruskin berated as the ‘pathetic fallacy’. He believed second-rate writers were inclined to egotistically infect portrayals of the natural world with their emotions rather than present it truthfully. Ruskin’s disapproval was aimed at a kind of affectation, but the landscape as a reflection of human emotions has a respectable history through writers such as Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy.

Griffiths’ landscape imagery is heightened to the point of grotesqueness. It reflects the tortured feelings churning inside Ianto’s head. The storm-torn mountains are crawling with sheep deformed by Chernobyl radiation fall-out, butcher birds which impale beetles, grasshoppers and lizards on thorns and crows which pluck out the eyes of new-born lambs. Blood and gore are more apparent in the countryside. Griffiths’ descriptions show the power the landscape has over Ianto; that he is overwhelmed by his ‘ancestral land’ and it has fed the madness that leads to his killing spree.

By contrast, the landscape in The Restraint of Beasts is powerful because of its absence. The fact that Mills only suggests it as a vague darkness lurking beyond the squalor of the fencers’ caravan makes it seem part of the unknown horror, possibly involving a sausage machine, that they are about to encounter at the end of the book.

Mills and Griffiths are anti-pastoral, a reaction to pastoral which focuses on its inauthenticity. This has taken various literary forms, from Goldsmith’s Deserted Village of 1770 which was a politically motivated poem sparked by the enclosures of common land, to Stella Gibbons’ satire Cold Comfort Farm of 1932 which mocks the self-consciously rural novels of Mary Webb, popular in the 1920s. More recently, Ted Hughes insisted on the darkness and violence of country life; with relish forcing readers to learn of the brutalities of animal husbandry. Anti-pastoralists are united in the desire to face the reality of the countryside and show that it is more than a mild antidote to the excitement of the city. Political issues, government interference, unemployment, deprivation and tough working conditions have always been as much a feature of country life as the urban experience. The Restraint of Beasts and Sheepshaggers (a particularly anti-pastoral title) both suggest that, far from being a peaceful, innocent place of simple virtues, rural life has its own harsh drama.

Rowena Macdonald wrote the story 'Entreprise Bêtise' for the Influx anthology Connecting Nothing with Something . She is the author of Smoked Meat (Flambard Press) and stories published in Unthology, The Warwick Review and Red Room.