Archipelago: A Reader
Edited by Fiona Stafford and Nicholas Allen
“Archipelago offers the sea, overlappings of prose, poetry, image, familiar names and authors coming into strange constellations.”
What is nature writing?
What – let’s be more specific – is place writing, writing that aims to capture a sense of location, an individual place, an island, a journey? The two overlap: to talk about place is so often to talk about the nature of that place. It seems an inherently paradoxical task, sometimes. To draw in words, to write in images. It’s a preoccupation with a history, recurring movements like waves, as the recurring engagement with Thomas Hardy throughout this anthology suggests. When it works, it works. Or, as Robert Macfarlane (part of the crest of the ‘new’ wave of nature writers) puts it in a piece on Norman Ackroyd: “Suddenly the image emerges, like a plot resolving itself.”
Macfarlane’s essay is one of many in this anthology, which compiles work from Archipelago, a literary magazine edited by Andrew McNeillie which ran from 2007 – 2019. As the introduction tells us, “Each issue gathered a network of associations that together provided material for the deep consideration of particular places in relation to each other.” As a result, this collection is presented in “strands of association that trace imaginative journeys around the isles.” The sections run: Ireland, Scotland, Other Worlds, England, Wales.
Of the Other Worlds, it is perhaps Tim Dee’s opening text that captures something of the strange slippage between places and islands this anthology offers: “A chaffinch the last bird noted at the slip-road to the airport in London. A chaffinch the first bird heard on getting out of the car from the airport in Cape Town. A new hemisphere. The same species.” Same but different; recognisable but strange. Terry Eagleton writes as much in his piece, reflecting on how “space has a trick of obliterating time, or at least of homogenising it. In a tract of land, different strata of time are stacked spatially cheek-by-jowl, obscuring their divergences.” This seems as much a comment on an anthology as on the country around Lough Foyle which Eagleton is writing about: the reader can dive between islands of their choice, make connections and crossings and mappings all of their own.
Some of my favourite lines: “The bright insects / of helicopters drop to the decks”, from Derek Mahon’s ‘Insomnia’; “a raven rowed itself around my head as if describing my own halo”, from James Macdonald Lockhart’s ‘Raptor’ (his piece ‘On the Machair’ also deserves a mention, for the most exquisite description of an oystercatcher I’ve ever read); “I own the dawn the cockerel claims”, from Alice Oswald’s ‘Two Voices’. Of course, picking lines out is easy when you have almost 300 pages of rich and thoughtful writing to choose from, but it should at least give an indication of some of the images that populate these pages.
Ultimately, as McNeillie writes, “no geographical feature is more clearly complete” than the island. Archipelago offers the sea, overlappings of prose, poetry, image, familiar names and authors coming into strange constellations. The mark of a good editor is how natural it seems, how of nature.
Words: Alice Wickenden