Forbidding, mysterious, and dramatic, moorlands have long captured the imagination of artists and writers. In a Durham Book Festival event, William Atkins, author of The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature, read from his work surrounded by the images and poems of the exhibition Heathcliff Adrift, which covers Heathcliff’s “missing” three years in Wuthering Heights. Alison McManus attended this haunting evening in Durham Cathedral.
As I made my way through Durham to the Cathedral for the Book Festival event, I reflected on how different the familiar cobbled streets looked at night. The sense of dislocation was magnified by a quiet form of whispering which rose indistinctly into the high stone beams of the Chapter of Nine Alters. Around a group of wooden seats was positioned a specially commissioned (but sadly very dimly lit) series of photographs by Nick Small, accompanied by Ben Myers’ poems, which together examine Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, as well as the Yorkshire landscape near Haworth, made famous by Brontë in Wuthering Heights.
These vast, empty landscapes have secured a particular place in the national psyche
First, however, William Atkins discussed and read from his new book, The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature; a personal and inventive examination of the role of the English Moors from perspectives which range across the literary, socio-economic, and scientific. Although he was raised in Hampshire, the idea of ‘the moor’ had a particular role in Atkins’ childhood; I found it easy to imagine young Will, with his boyish grin and dimples, exploring his local area of fenland, his arms stretched wide into aeroplane wings. As an adult, Atkins realised that these vast, empty landscapes have secured a particular place in the national psyche, and are as much cultural as well as geographical or physical entities. Searching for commonalities among moorland from Bodmin in the South to Northumberland, Atkins reflected on the meaning of these landscapes in literature, claiming that these spaces, or “voids,” suggested something darker to writers, who were forced to look for answers ‘either from within, or from above.’ His work references authors and poets but Atkins also collected stories from local and historical figures during his travels, in what he modestly calls a “collage of the words of others.”
He spoke also about the uses of this landscape, largely difficult to cultivate, and in some senses an environmental catastrophe as a result of intensive sheep grazing, mining, and other uses of what Atkins calls “our deserts,” or places where, as a society, we conduct secretive, hidden activities: think of Dartmoor Prison, Otterburn Military Training Camp. In fact, the land has been shaped by sheep grazing, originating with the monasteries in the eleventh century; perhaps the attraction of those wide, open spaces was a result of their notable similarities to the deserts of the Bible. In addition, modern uses include grouse shooting and hill walking; uses which are appreciative of the land and its openness, but of course there is also a sense of what has taken place until recently beneath the land, of the void left behind by mining.
In literature, the moor is often uncivilised, the space for escape, for outcasts, for criminals.
In literature, the moor is often uncivilised, the space for escape, for outcasts, for criminals. Perhaps no one knew this better than Emily Brontë. In his limited edition collection Heathcliff Adrift, Ben Myers reflects on not only the landscape of Wuthering Heights (which he considers to be the main character of the novel), but also the three years that Heathcliff goes missing from the narrative. In these, Myers uses Heathcliff as a cipher, and adopts his voice, rather than making him the subject.
Several of these new poems were read by actor Marc Graham, who inhabited Heathcliff well: brooding, angry, vengeful, lonely, and tragic. My favourites alluded specifically to Brontë, either by inverting Cathy’s famous words in Heathcliff’s voice, for example in “Weapons,” or by interrogating Brontë as a creator: “She made the girl who made me.” The imagined narrative of Heathcliff’s missing years was especially effective; I particularly enjoyed him fighting for his supper and his bed, or in hiding, ill, amongst the mice-ridden hay.
After the reading, there was a short discussion around the interplay between Small’s photographs and Myers’ poems, which centred on the idea of poetry “bridging the gap” left by the photographs. The images were powerful and haunting: dark hulking shapes, looming clouds, shafts of light. Some of the images were, at first glance, what I might have expected in an exhibition of the North Yorkshire Moors, for example, a lone hawthorn tree. But a closer look revealed a figure, unexpected, arms lifted in a yogic sun pose. In another, the quintessential sheep is photographed from below, and it is impossible to mistake the look of menace in the animal’s eye, which works well in conjunction with the poem with which it was paired.
All in all, then, an evening of the unexpected: another look at landscapes, characters, narratives and figures we think we know well, but which, when examined from a fresh perspective, still have the power to surprise.
Durham Book Festival 2014 ran from 6th to 20th October, with talks and topics ranging from politics to poetry, and fiction to feminism. For more literary events in the region beyond the Festival period, follow New Writing North or subscribe to our monthly English Events newsletter.