Saturday, May 29, 2010

Locus Focus - A Remote Valley

(Update: I overlooked something so have removed unnecessary excuse-making)

For this Locus Focus I took Hills and the Sea down from the shelf.

The essays are generally concerned with the places that Hilaire Belloc, the writer of the essays, travelled. As the title suggests, each essay is vitally connected to a concrete place - the inspiration for each essay deriving from them, though not every essay is solely about the place.

Belloc's portrayal of these settings almost always goes into the mythical, whimsical and the fantastic (not to mention the historical, the political and the philosophical). The places that Belloc describes therein are vividly envisioned and become places the reader would like to, or wouldn't mind, visiting and exploring (preferably back in 1906).

At first I thought I would randomly pick a title from the index and go with that one, since I haven't read this collection for a while. But I read through a few essays. Now, I could go into the essay that talks about a town whose entirely unique, present-day layout was developed over time by the negative spaces that drying fish nets happened to make as they were haphazardly laid out on the ground - the buildings slowly growing over the centuries between and around the placement of the drying fish nets. A town born of its trade if there ever was one.

But the essay that reclaimed my attention was one called, The Mowing of a Field. Belloc is here returning to some place of his childhood. The essay begins:

There is a valley in South England remote from ambition and from fear, where the passage of strangers is rare and unperceived, and where the scent of the grass in summer is breathed only by those who are native to that unvisited land.
Belloc the cosmopolitan was big on non-cosmopolitan places. He continues:

The roads to the Channel do not traverse it; they choose upon either side easier passes over the range. One track alone leads up through it to the hills, and this is changeable...The woods grow steep above the slopes; they reach sometimes the very summit of the heights, or, when they cannot attain them, fill in and clothe the combes. And, in between, along the floor of the valley, deep pastures and their silence are bordered by lawns of chalky grass and the small yew trees of the Downs.
The clouds that visit its sky reveal themselves beyond the one great rise, and sail, white and enormous, to the other, and sink beyond that other. But the plains above which they have travelled and the Weald to which they go, the people of the valley cannot see and hardly recall. The wind, when it reaches such fields, is no longer a gale from the salt, but fruitful and soft, an inland breeze; and those whose blood was nourished here feel in that wind the fruitfulness of our orchards and all the life that all things draw from the air.
In this place, when I was a boy, I pushed through a fringe of beeches that made a complete screen between me and the world, and I came to a glade called No Man's Land. I climbed beyond it, and I was surprised and glad, because from the ridge of that glade I saw the sea. To this place very lately I returned.
Belloc has returned to this place in late evening. The next morning he wakes up:

…before it was yet broad day, I awoke, and thought of mowing. The birds were already chattering in the trees beside my window, all except the nightingale, which had left and flown away to the Weald, where he sings all summer by day as well as by night in the oaks and hazel spinneys…The birds and the thought of mowing had awakened me, and I went down the stairs and along the stone floors to where I could find a scythe; and when I took it from its nail, I remembered how, fourteen years ago, I had last gone out with my scythe, just so, into the fields at morning. In between that day and this were many things, cities and armies, and a confusion of books, mountains and the desert, and horrible great breadths of sea.
The author describes in detail the proper way of sharpening a scythe. He then describes the proper way of mowing the grass, and the proper time to do it. He has many swathes already cut before the time for the Angelus. Later, a man comes to help him for a wage. Belloc brings out some small ale for them to drink, and later some lunch…

Evening comes. The entire two acres are finished and the two men agree to meet again next morning to gather up the swathes.

One could venture to this nurturing, balmy place just to do the simple things Belloc did there, or else one feels he could go there to die.


Belfry Bat said...

I don't see why imaginative non-fiction should be objectionable. Setting is as much the product of good writing as any solid-world inspiration for it. There have certainly been books that are nominally set in real places, whose natives or amateurs say on reading "that's nothing like the Place I know!"

Whether an author should be miffed or pleased at that kind of reaction depends, I suppose.

I'm not sure what to make of essentially secluded places being made famous in good writing --- if the writer is too appealing and his readers sufficiently tasteless, they might destroy its seclusion with their tourism; and then the setting is gone. I suppose it becomes an exercise in prudence.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, the "rules" of the meme are pretty flexible, and I did state that descriptions of real places in non-fiction writing are perfectly welcome!

I haven't read Belloc as much or as often as I've read Chesterton, but he always did have a great sense of place--as any good traveler should. He is almost a connoisseur of places, I think, and one who understood that what one brings to a place is as important as what one finds in the place.

Paul Stilwell said...

Belfry Bat, yes, I'm not so sure myself. Taking a real place, putting it into the furnace of imagination and turning it into a different fictional setting is what appeals to me, and may in fact be more truthful in getting at a place's essence, or essence as perceived by an author's own slant.

The thought of going to a place made famous in someone's writing only for that reason, and thus destroying it as you mention, with tourism, gives me the shudders.

Enbrethiliel, I've only read The Path to Rome, a bunch of his poetry and essays, and of course, Hills and the Sea. From my recollection of The Path to Rome, he does indeed have a great sense of place. And I realize now that he has that in his writing because he was, in a sense, first and foremost a traveler, an adventurer - before being a writer. I remember an ancedote about him getting Chesterton to come over to his house for a day to draw him a bunch of drawings for his book. But not a word of the book had been written, and the reason was that he found he could only write the thing once he saw the drawings first.

Meredith said...

I love that essay; thanks for posting about it! Belloc will always a have a place of honor in my heart.

Paul Stilwell said...

Your welcome, Meredith. :)

My next reading of Belloc will be The Servile State.