Referring to the photography of Marc Atkins whose contributions are central to the whole narrative of disappearances in two of Iain Sinclair’s books Rod Mengham writes:
“Photography is often thought of as a medium that fixes the moment, cryogenising it for future generations, but it can also become the means of showing how nothing is ever fixed, how the moment will always elude us, how all that can be recorded is irrevocable loss.”
Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is divided into two separate sections but as one reads more of the second half one realises how connected they really are. The first section looks closely at Conan Doyle’s novella from 1901, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the second larger section is comprised of twenty-nine short essays on different cultural habitats. Both sections focus on the elusiveness of reality and I am put in mind of Lewis Carroll’s 1872 publication, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There:
“The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things – but the oddest part of it all was, that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty: though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold. ‘Things flow about so here!’ she said at last in a plaintive tone, after she had spent a minute or so in vainly pursuing a large bright thing, that looked sometimes like a doll and sometimes like a workbox, and was always in the shelf next above the one she was looking at.”
In writing about the Sherlock Holmes story, much of which takes place on Dartmoor, Mengham writes convincingly about the satisfactory nature of the detective tale by suggesting that its allure is the “harmony” it gives “to seemingly discordant elements; the underlying pattern that Watson gives voice to”. In a way this “harmony” is a piecing together of language in which its reconstruction “is what loosens the story’s tongue”. Language becomes a souvenir of a specific history. With a close examination of Conan Doyle’s story Mengham identifies some of the roots of this form of communication by alerting us to the fact that the murderer’s wife, Mrs Stapleton, is discovered bound round the throat and the hound itself attacks the throats of its prey:
“The legend reaches its climax with the spectacle of the giant hound standing over Sir Hugo Baskerville and ‘plucking at his throat; the Sherlock Holmes story leads to the same point: ‘I was in time to see the beast spring upon its victim, hurl him to the ground and worry at his throat’. Up until now, the hound has been heard but not seen, with its ‘muttered rumble’ seemingly dislocated from its source in the animal’s throat. Both in the legend and in Watson’s case history, the immediate object of the hound’s attack is the victim’s throat and the root of the tongue; which is where the voice originates; where language is housed.”
Given this context it is highly appropriate that in the old stone hut which is used by Holmes as a hidden lair there are a few items on the flat stone which serves as a table and they include a loaf of bread, two tins of preserved peaches and, notably, “a tinned tongue”. For the detective as things take shape they become coherent and the historian pieces together a version of the truth. However, as Julian Barnes pointed out “History isn’t what happened, history is just what historians tell us” and in his novel Flaubert’s Parrot Barnes’s narrator recalls the difficulties of seizing the past when he tells us of his experience as a medical student when “some pranksters at an end-of-term dance” released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease:
It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.”
When he writes a short essay about the photography of Marc Atkins in 2003 Rod Mengham brings to our attention the artist’s focus upon urban iconography. The photographs of Warsaw record a “city of disappearances” which also brings to mind the terrifying dystopia revealed in Paul Auster’s novel In the Country of Last Things. For Mengham the city brought to light by Atkins reveals a history “leaching out through the stone and brick of a fabric that could not be more distressed, whose patched and stained facades offer maximum resistance to the wipe-clean surfaces of modernity”. This is a city “whose foundations lie in sands and gravels” where the archaeology is all “above ground” and the record of past conflicts appear “only skin-deep beneath a thin layer of badly mixed plaster, apparently designed to fall away in time for each generation to have to rehearse its own strategies for oblivion”.
Grimspound and Inhabiting Art is a fascinating read that invites one to return to it time and time again as the roots of language feel out towards the conversation which had been “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries” (Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’).
Ian Brinton, 13th July 2019