Saturday, 18 January 2014


Let’s hear it for the north

My mother claimed that the auburn-haired gene, which I inherited from her side of the family, proved Viking ancestry.  I’m not sure about that but I’ve always been drawn to the north and have gradually moved and holidayed further north over the years.

A Carcanet publishers’ email alerted me to Peter Davidson’s book Distance and Memory.  Non-fiction prose (or creative non-fiction as it is called now), after decades of languishing in the publishing doldrums, is at last coming into its own.  What attracted me to the book was Gillian Clarke’s comment, “This is a poet’s book, his mind wide open to the cultures of the world, especially the north ... the language is luscious, musical and precise, rich with quotation and the cultures of northern Europe.”  Distance and Memory has been compared with Gillian Clarke’s prose memoir At the Source.  It’s different but there is an element of – if you enjoyed that you will enjoy this.

Don’t be put off by the rather uninspiring cover.  When you have read the book you can see why John Watson Gordon’s “Portrait of a Gentleman” is appropriate.  Though I am not sure why it was necessary to bisect his face down the middle of his nose.

Peter Davidson is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen University and the cultural breadth of the book is fascinating and wide-ranging.  But above all he is a connoisseur of light.  Here he is writing about the distinctive feel to the light at the end of a short northern winter’s day – “evening afternoon” as he calls it, quoting from Sean O’Brien’s poem “November” – “Part of the aesthetic of the homeward journey is to see lives in lighted windows ... In some parts of northern Europe [the Netherlands] there is a social convention that curtains are not drawn at this time.”  (I always look out for the rooms which have book-lined walls, rather than the flicker of a big screen TV.  I would like to peer in, see if I could deduce something of the character of the inhabitants from the books on their shelves – not available on Kindle.)

“This is a poet’s book” wrote Gillian Clarke.  Peter Davidson, himself a poet (The Palace of Oblivion), has woven poetry into the cultural texture of this beautifully written book.  The book’s epigraph is an untitled wintry poem beginning, “The falcon flown, far in the starving air”.  There are Burns quotations and Scottish songs and the Scottish Renaissance writer, Alexander Hume.  Beyond Scotland he spreads his poetic net wide from Michael Riviere to Osip Mandlestam, amongst others.

In “Spring: Orkney” he quotes from Orkney Pictures and Poems, my favourite George Mackay Brown book – the poet’s wonderful collaboration with Scandinavian photographer, Gunnie Moburg.  I take it down from the shelf for another look.  It’s so big it only fits in sideways next to the Collected Poems.

 Poetry of the north would be incomplete without a reference to Auden.  “Auden wrote in the 1930s of lead mines in decline: ghosts of industry in remote country.”  This is in the fascinating chapter on the esoteric art of Spar Boxes, some of which are displayed at Killhope Mining Museum.  Killhope (pronounced Killup) is “the selfsame lead-workings of Auden’s early poem ‘Who stands at the crux left of the watershed ...’”  Peter Davidson admits to a (probably unrealisable) fantasy with artist Tim Brennan of making a film of Auden’s Paid on Both Sides set in the high Pennine watershed between County Durham and Cumberland.

Towards the end of the book he quotes John Ash:
                  “But if you don’t, on most days, love the place you live in,
                    as if it was the only place on earth, you had better get out.”
I don’t think Peter Davidson has any intention of getting out.  He clearly loves the north and celebrates it in this book.  Or, as Alan Taylor wrote memorably in his review in The Scottish Herald, “Distance and memory, darkness and light: what a cheerleader they’ve found in Peter Davidson.”

More about Peter Davidson and Distance and Memory at

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