The hills are alive

I went to see God’s Own Country last weekend, and found it a rare treat.  It wasn’t just the same-sex love story at the film’s heart – though god knows it’s a relief to see a film where gay characters get to do more than nobly triumph over homophobia – but also the bleak but ultimately uplifting portrayal of family and subsistence farming in the hills of West Yorkshire.
Alongside the slow-burn relationship between taciturn farmer Johnny and Romanian hired hand Gheorghe, the film charts the physical decline of Johnny’s father’s, debilitated by two strokes, and shows the unsentimental despatching of sick animals. But the stolid landscape of mud, rock and moorland, the backdrop to these scenes of decay and death, endures in the watery spring daylight.  It’s beautiful, Georghe says to Johnny as they tackle the sisyphean task of repairing a dry stone wall, but lonely too.
A few years ago, recovering from illness but still fearful, I went walking in the Chilterns, the hills of my childhood.  Up above Princes Risborough, I felt a curious elation. These hills, these chalk markings, these beech trees that were here when I visited as a child, they would still be here after my death.  They were completely indifferent to my existence. But their indifference was not daunting, like the vastness of the universe, but comforting, of human scale, an assurance of a future beyond my life.
I felt something like that watching the film. The West Yorkshire hills would still be there when all the characters had gone, as would the dry stone walls and farm buildings. The landscape is indifferent, but not unaffected; the human touch is everywhere – either visibly in built structures or implicitly in patterns of cultivation. And perhaps it is in these landscapes, in the dry stone walls and the cairns assembled by walkers on hill paths, that we non-architects gain some measure of longevity, of immortality even, some sense of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph ‘si monumentum requiris, circumpsice’ – if you are seeking a memorial, look around you.

Magic and loss

Tread softly when you tread on a childhood.

I surprised myself, when I read reviews of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and when I saw the trailer. I felt angry, let down, even personally affronted.

One has to put away childish things, but Susan Cooper\’s sequence of novels were probably the most important books I read as a child. Dad read me The Lord of the Rings (del capo, one hell of a job), and Narnia always looked a bit naff. But The Dark is Rising was perfect. It was about a child growing up near the Chilterns, where I grew up, and the books were rich, humourless and terrifying in a way that only a kid can appreciate.

The supernatural elements were prehistoric and portentous: mutilated sheep, horses\’ skulls and sad sea hags, not muggles, recidivist billy-bunterism and magic spells. They alarmed, but also inculcated a curious supernatural patriotism, educating the 1970s child about British folklore, and its casual and persistent horror, like a cross between The Wicker Man and the didactic monotone of Willard Price\’s novels.

Susan Cooper has been chillingly polite about the film, acknowledging the need for novels to change, but also questioning why an 11-year old English child had to be changed to a 13-year old American child in England. Others have also noted that an evangelical Christian director has reduced an essentially pagan world view to one that is reassuringly Manichean (anticipating the row to come over the films of Philip Pullman\’s novels).

Interestingly, she also reveals that she wrote the books as an exile in the USA, conjuring a vivid image of a distant Britain that is even more lost today than it probably was even then. I probably won\’t watch the film. But the books still grip me, and haunt me when I walk, and when I imagine I walk, in the old hills of England and Wales.