A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology by Stephen Prince
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If I’m not mistaken, all the content in A Year in the Country is available at the website, A Year in the Country. It’s a smorgasbord of strangeness and organized clutter, something like an old punk zine, but centered around the English landscape, the ‘60s and early ‘70s, folk music on the periphery, the subversion of idyllic notions of old Britain, collective mis-memory, and the sometimes-difficult-to-define realms of Hauntology. But reading what was constructed as a blog, now in the form of a (picture-less) book makes for a bit too much repetitiveness. If I see the term “left-of-center” one more time, I shall scream. I have no problems with the usage, and the phrase makes sense in the context of the places in which it is used. But the blog format more-or-less requires one to re-use terms to explicitly point the reader in the “right” direction. Since one almost never reads the entirety of a blog at once (oh, that I had the time), the author must include such phrases, and often their definition, on several different pages. Problem is, when you collate all of this into a book and don’t pare things down, these phrases become repetitive to the point of utter annoyance.
That said, it is rather difficult to effectively convey what we’ve got here in the form of a book, mostly because there is so much going on and so much overlap between (very short) chapters. And there’s no particular order to the book, either, since the blog format (there’s that word again) is really not much of a format at all, but, rather a dumping ground for ideas that spill out of the author’s head when the muse strikes, with no need for a relationship between blog posts that come before or after the post in question.
I’m making this sound much worse than it really is, but I’ve always been interested in questions of scope as it informs the way we look at the world. In fact, they fascinate me. But enough about the picture frame, let’s look at the picture.
A Year in the Country is intellectual goulash, meaning it’s messy, but very, very yummy. So here’s the recipe:
Underlying this whole work is a soft socialist narrative. It’s a fair look at the edge-lands of popular culture of the ‘60s through the early ‘80s. Having been a child at that time (born in Germany in ’69, graduated High School - in England - in ’87), I have memories of that time period (okay, well, not the ‘60s). Now I was raised in a military home. Dad was a veteran of the US Air Force for 26 years, 18 of which I was living at home. The first stirrings of politics I felt was during the Reagan years. Being young and dumb, I was a pretty staunch Reagan conservative. That has changed quite dramatically. Call me a Leftist, a snowflake, a democratic socialist, whatever. Times change and so have I.
And that’s the rub here. Times change. And when we look back on times, we tend to idealize or demonize what was happening “back then,” depending on our past and present proclivities. One thing I admire about this book is that it points out the seeming loss of the dream of a utopian society that was born in the ‘60s. The examples given herein show in movies and music, primarily, the decay of that dream as it is taking place. Such films as The Wicker Man and such television shows as Robin Redbreast are cited as examples of a Britain turning inward and re-examining the ‘60s view of an idealized Acadia, peeling back the pastoral glamor to look at the potentially ugly underside of rural life in the UK.
This idealization of rural life is posited by Rob Young as being the result of the Inclosure Acts from around 1760.
. . . common land was put into private ownership by government Inclosure Acts, forcing agricultural workers towards the newly expanding cities and factories . . . this displacement could be one of the roots of the British empathy with the countryside, with relics such as songs or texts from the world before this change having come to be revered as they seem to represent or connect to a pre-industrial “Fall” golden age.
Combine this with the fact that those who live in the cities were increasingly priced out of the market for open rural land, and one can see where the seeds of discontent were sown, seeds which started to grow in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but were ignored and left to dry up with the distraction of the glitzy ‘80s and Thatcher’s (and Reagans) Conservative government.
Much of A Year in the Country is taken up with the examination of music, particularly music that grazes in the interstices between folk and popular music. Another area that is examined in great detail is the rather esoteric realm of electronic music that is intentionally anachronistic and obscure.
For those of my age and older who lived in the UK for any amount of time, you will recall the ubiquity of bizarre background music on certain TV shows (I am talking primarily of British TV here, though there was a touch of this sort of thing in the US on some television commercials that I vaguely recall) and the strange electronic compositions that were sometimes used in the introduction of shows, accompanied by some abstract geometric shapes coming together to form the logo of some affiliate of the BBC or other government-sponsored sub-agencies who were responsible for producing educational shows, in particular. I suppose public television in the US had some of this, as well.
Believe it or not, there is an entire subgenre of music of this type (or derivative of it) that is being composed and released today. I’m listening to some right now as I type up this review. I quite like it. Your mileage may vary.
Again, this is rife with political implications. The music was primarily composed and performed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Given the tension between the BBC and conservative political elements at the time, one can see why this music would now, in this day, be lauded as anthemic, “left-of-center” (augh, that phrase!), socially-conscious, publicly-owned music.
And here we intersect with that slippery notion of hauntology, that our present remembers the past as we want to remember it, rather than as it really was. In fact, the whole notion that we can even possibly remember the past as it really was is called into question. We idealize, we decontextualize, we recontextualize, and we celebrate a past that never was, longing for the faint wisps of a dream from our childhood-that-never-was.
But isn’t there something wonderful in this? I listen to a lot of what’s called “retrowave” or “synthwave” music – music that emulates the synthesizer music of the ‘80s, but is being composed now. I admit that when I allow myself the luxury of listening to this music, it “takes me back”. But back to what? Let’s face facts: Middle school sucked. I hated it. I tried to kill myself once at that time. My home was a bit of a wreck. I self-medicated to cope. Really, it was full of all kinds of suckitude. And yet, there were happy, good times, as well. When I listen to this music, it brings me back to the good times, not because those songs were real when I was young – they hadn’t even been written – but because it emulates the ideal ‘80s, the storybook Breakfast Club ending, where everyone is cool and “in this together”. This idea only exists in my head.
Isn’t that the wonder of imagination? That it can, over time, heal the soul, if we let it? Call it a survival mechanism, call it escapism, call it what you will – it works for me, and makes my present that much more bearable.
I am not much of a cinephile. I hardly ever watch TV any more. Outside of the occasional show that I come to love (Hello, Stranger Things!), I really haven’t watched much since, oh, about 1987 or so. And when people start conversing about actors and movies, I’m out. I just don’t have the brainspace to remember all the actors. I’m much more into reading and experiences than TV or movies.
When I do watch movies, I tend to have strange tastes. I love experimental film. Give me The Brother’s Quay and David Lynch all day long.
A Year in the Country gave enough references to strange (sometimes experimental) movies and TV to last me a very, very long time. You can take a look at the website to see those pieces referred to in the book. I don’t have any kind of exhaustive analysis of the analysis of the role of movies and television in this book, but you’ll find said analysis interwoven throughout. The last two chapters on “Zardoz, Phase IV, and Beyond the Black Rainbow: Seeking the Future in Secret Rooms From the Past and Psychedelic Cinematic Corners” and “Winstanley, A Field in England, and The English Civil War Part II: Reflections on Turning Points and Moments When Anything Could Happen” are particularly compelling.
One of my favorite things to do as a child and, particularly as a teenager, was to explore. I had the luxury of living outside of my native country for a good portion of my life. About ten of my first eighteen years of life were spent outside of the US. And since I lived in an age where bicycle helmets were optional, no one could call me on my cell phone, and parents believed that it was good for children to get outdoors, I was able to wander quite a bit. From World War II bunkers on the Italian coast to Roman pillars in far-flung artichoke fields to abandoned churches to a 12th-Century English priory that we broke and entered numerous times (ah, the parties we had in the wine cellar and the secret passageways we discovered!), I saw much that kids in the US didn’t get to see, and many of them never will, which is unfortunate. I count myself lucky.
One thing that I learned in Europe is that the sheer age of a place seems to hold a mystique, a “spirit,” if you will. The priory mentioned above was supposedly haunted, and I saw and heard some strange things there. Granted, me and my mates had been drinking a little and were probably over-excitable, since we had illegally broken into a “protected” (not very well) historical site. But I swear there were some things that were just plain unexplainable and seemed to arise from something beyond nervousness, a buzz, and coincidence.
Keep in mind that, while overseas, most of my time was spent living on a US Air Base (except in Italy, where we went native and lived in downtown Brindisi). I was surrounded by the Cold War. That war was my Dad’s business (the stories I can tell – well, the ones he told me before he died), and the accoutrements were all around. At the bases I lived at in Italy and England were antenna arrays called “Elephant Cages,” for example.
Now that the Cold War has ended (though I suspect round two is around the corner), many of these structures were left derelict. Since the threat of nuclear annihilation has subsided (for now), there are old, decommissioned structures that remain as a sort of temporal signpost for the war-that-never-was. Here again we slip into the realms of hauntology.
These empty shells where (classified) activity was frantic and fearful exude a sort of past paranoia for a coming apocalypse that didn’t come. But one wonders if the sense of fear that must have drenched such places didn’t rub off a bit, a’la Nigel Kneal’s The Stone Tapes (also mentioned repeatedly in this book). For that matter, since I’m referring to The Stone Tapes, couldn’t any place, any structure, be saturated with the psychic echoes of the past? This is the whole notion behind haunted houses, so there’s some precedent for this in the popular imagination, at least.
This idea of places having a certain “spirit,” combined with the earlier-mentioned flux between population centers from rural to urban areas (and the desire to get back to an idealized rural life again) speaks to me. Here’s why: I lived on the edge of several worlds as a child. I was mostly a loner, and I loved to explore those “edge places” between the city and the country, when suburbs were much less of a soft boundary between the two environments. I recall being fascinated by abandoned lots on the edges of farm fields, for example. While in England, a few of my English mates and I explored an abandoned, shutter-boarded school on the edge of a town (I can’t remember which town, though it was likely in Bedfordshire). You could stand with one foot on the cracked asphalt of a playground and another foot on a farmer’s field that stretched off into the hills, as far as the eye could see. I admit that I loved these interstitial spots, where one could almost feel a break in the psychogeography of a place. Furthermore, I was an American living overseas for most of my childhood – caught between two worlds. And even when I was in the US, I felt the clear distinction between civilian kids and us military “brats”. I find myself comfortable in that uncomfortable space between social circles. Which has, ironically, helped this self-avowed loner to learn to reach out to different people in different ways, according to their likes and needs. I am, if nothing else, a chameleon.
Or, at least, I remember being that way. Now that I’ve settled into life a bit more, my parents have both passed away (earlier this year), my children are adults, and I’ve lived in the same location for twenty-odd years now, perhaps I’ve lost my touch. I hope not. I seem to be able to take two sides of a given argument and at least give fair thoughts to both (though I have my opinions and am not afraid to state them, bluntly, at times – c.f. Twitter). I don’t really ever want to lose the magic of being on the edge between two worlds, whether sociological, cultural, or geographical. I’m comfortable in the spaces in-between. Maybe that’s because I have two or more potential escape routes!
This whole idea of hauntology has, pardon the horrible “dad pun”, haunted me since I’ve discovered it. My memory is not what it used to be, and I recently watched my father lose his capacity for memory in the months before he died. My biological aunt, my father’s twin, has suffered from dementia for some years now. Guess I have something to look forward to. In the meantime, my emotional rear-view-mirror has become a bit idealized. Yes, I remember some heartache, but the good times are more vivid in my memory than the bad times: Being with friends, discovering the world, falling in love, the opening of new vistas (visually, intellectually, emotionally). There is a certain sadness, some grieving for lost friends and relationships, for permanent changes to places I once knew and loved. But I embrace that grief. It’s a part of who I am. I don’t wallow in it, but I embrace it. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic old fool in love with his own imagination. If so, fine. Leave me to it. I’m not living in the past, but I’m coming to peace with it and with the changes that come from its loss and mis-memory. In Stephen Prince’s words:
. . . we are possibly going through a period where there is a sense of loss of loss. This is a side effect of the contemporary endless and precise archiving and replication techniques which are available via digital technology, which is in contrast to previous eras . . .
So, let the past decay! I don’t much care about the idea of the “true” past as a whole (and I’m a historian, by academic training). My memory of the past is truth, for me. And it’s quite enough, loss and all.
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