Landscape/space/politics: an essay
© Doreen Massey
In the period over which the ideas for this project developed, the financial sector was in its pomp and discourses of neoliberal globalisation held sway; we were told that ‘the world is flat’. It was not monolithic, and there was some opposition. China was doing things its own way, parts of Latin America were asserting the possibility of more progressive alternatives, there was the Global Justice Movement and a host of local refusals. Inequality between people was also increasing dramatically, both between and within countries. And there were looming crises of climate change and of peak oil.
In the UK, these were the dog-days of New Labour. The Faustian bargain of backing finance and using the proceeds to fund a public sector which was itself in the process increasingly subject to the ways of the market was showing its internal contradictions. The refusal to address the spiralling wealth of the very rich meant that, however many projects and schemes were aimed at the poor, deep inequality persisted. As Adonis and Pollard (1998) argued: ‘The rise of the Super Class…is a seminal development in modern Britain, as critical as the rise of the gentry before the English Civil War and the rise of organized labour a century ago, and rivalled in contemporary significance only by the disintegration of the manual working class’ (p.67), and Williams likewise estimated that ‘This has been a period of elite consolidation for which there is no parallel in the country’s history’ (2006, p.217). The dominance of finance became self-reinforcing – it did not itself invest in other parts of the economy, and its short-termism and exchange-rate politics actually undermined other sectors (Massey, 2007/2010). Likewise its concentration into south-east England sucked all resources (professional labour, for instance) into the maw of that part of the country and made growth more difficult in other regions. The ‘North–South divide’ widened. And so forth. And all under the shadow cast by the invasion of Iraq and the continued genuflection it implied by ‘our country’ (a usage that will here be questioned) to the USA. It was in these times and amongst these ruins of the New Labour project that this research was conceived.
The ‘overall objective’ of the research, as spelled out in the application, was:
‘To identify, understand and document aspects of the current global predicament in the UK’s landscape, and explore its histories and possible futures by creating images and texts, and combinations of both, which together constitute a critique and a document of the UK’s landscape at a particular point in its history, in a period characterised by conflict and anxiety about the future.’
Prominent within this conflict and anxiety was the much-reported sense of displacement apparently generated by neoliberal globalisation. The dislocation of place that globalisation implied, the pressures for and of long-distance migration, the flows of cultural influence and power; all were frequently argued to be leading to a sense of displacement, and all continually and in a host of ways fed into and, we would argue, fed counter-arguments about belonging. There developed a counterposition that was self-reinforcing. Indeed, it can be argued that some (not all) of the most intoxicated proponents of an ‘all is flow’ view of the world (or at least of its current mode of being) achieve lift-off for their arguments by a critique of an absolute opposite that never in fact existed. Both Patrick Keiller and I had reflected on this. In 2005, I had argued:
‘Indeed the most excited embraces of flight, hybridity, openness and so forth depend upon, are motivated by, their implicit retention of a definition of closure, or authenticity, or whatever, which is anyway impossible. Thus Kaplan relates an “exilic, melancholic romance with ‘distance'” to “a strong attachment to its opposite – a metaphysics of presence” (1996, p.73). And Donald draws out a similar argument in his reading together of Raymond Williams and Salman Rushdie: on the one hand “Williams’s excessive investment in community” and on the other “Rushdie’s possibly equally excessive celebration of migration” (1999, p.150). “Each”, he suggests, “is an experiential and political strategy for dealing with the (more or less conscious) loss of the possibility of home with which we live” (p.150). That closure of the imagined ‘home’ is anyway impossible.’ (Massey, 2005, p.174)
Likewise, Patrick Keiller reflected that:
‘The project was prompted by what I described as a discrepancy between, on one hand, the cultural and critical attention devoted to experience of mobility and displacement and, on the other, a tacit but seemingly widespread tendency to hold on to formulations of dwelling that derive from a more settled, agricultural past. While the former was extensive, it often seemed to involve regret for the loss or impossibility of the latter, and hence to reinforce, rather than rethink, some questionable ideas.’ (Keiller, 2010)
Meanwhile, in relation to political strategy, Hardt and Negri (2004) were arguing for a politics of mobility that would undermine all those old certainties of containment that, they said, characterised modernity. And among these old containers of the imagination which they excoriate is place. (Yet, reflecting the argument above, and as we see in the film, struggles over place have not, over the ages, been at all ‘contained’ in place.)
By the time we came to carry out the project the capitalist world was in full-blown financial crisis. And it is with this, and the possibility that the immediate crisis might lead to a more profound political questioning, that the engagement with the landscape became most preoccupied.
Nonetheless, the questions of dwelling, belonging and mobility remained, in some ways exacerbated by the crisis. Indeed, their investigation turned out to raise conceptual and political issues that went far wider.
We live, we are constantly told, in an age of flow. Yet there is about the film, certainly on first encounter, a stillness. So let us begin there. And with the conceptual arguments which that very stillness raises.
* * *
The camera stays on the butterflies working the teasel for four minutes and 15 seconds. There are many such passages in this film. The camera while filming does not travel. And often, with the cowslips, say, or the marsh marigolds (with ducks), the rose and the bee, the white foxglove, and the butterflies with the teasel, there is not much movement in the image either. Certainly there is no movement in the sense of ‘mobility and displacement’ which is one aspect of what this project was supposed to be about.
But these long takes are not about stasis either. Stuff is happening. The plants are getting on with their business. The bees and the butterflies are working them. The air is busy with activity. ‘Robinson had once said he believed that, if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events, and in this way he hoped to see into the future.’ Just before we meet the teasels and the butterflies we have learned of the longer historical story: ‘a 40-year study of plants, birds and, in particular, butterflies in Britain had given a firm indication of approaching mass-extinction’. But the moments spent with the teasel tell of what it takes to survive, just to go on, from season to season. The work that has to be put in, for both the teasel and the butterflies. These long takes give us, in the midst of the rush and flow of globalisation, a certain stillness. But they are not stills. They are about duration. They tell us of ‘becoming’, in place.
In a previous piece of research (For Space, 2005) I had urged the need for a reconceptualisation of space. I argued at length against the characterisation of space as a ‘slice through time’ in which there is no dynamism. There is a long and persistent history of this counterposition of space and time, in particular through the conceptualisation of space as the absence of time/temporality. Henri Bergson is a particularly interesting exemplar, in part because he is currently so influential, in part because much of what he says is so invigorating, and in part because of his, characteristic, association of space with representation. Bergson’s passion was for temporality, for ‘duration’, and his commitment was to resisting what he saw as the deadening of time – the squashing of its continuity and flow. The culprit, for Bergson, was science and representation which, through their categorisations, their tying of things down, their fixing of things, deprived them of all vitality. In Creative Evolution he writes: ‘The more consciousness is intellectualized, the more is matter spatialized’ (1911/1975, p.207). And so the journey becomes the path and, we might add in the present context, the landscape becomes (reduced to), for instance, the map, or the photograph, or even the film. It is indeed impossible to produce movement/life/becoming out of a series of static cross-sections, even multiplied by infinity. ‘It is…because the continuum cannot be reduced to an aggregate of points that movement cannot be reduced to what is static. Continua and movements imply each other’ (Boundas, 1996, p.84).
So far so good. It’s the last part of Bergson’s observation that is problematical. For he calls this process, of taking the life out of things, spatialisation, and – yet more problematically – this is carried over into his implicit characterisation of space as such. In Time and Free Will, Bergson writes: ‘we cannot make movement out of immobilities, nor time out of space’ (1910, p.115, emphasis added).
It would be better to argue quite differently. Precisely because ‘we cannot make movement out of immobilities’ we must not conceive of slices through time as immobilities. Indeed such a slice can only be a representation. In nature, as Whitehead observed, there are no stills. If the instantaneous moment were not itself imbued with temporality there could be no temporal trajectory. Correspondingly, for time/temporality/becoming to exist, space has to be imbued with the temporal. As a slice through time, space is a dynamic simultaneity and that is quite different from a stasis. We must, then, re-write Bergson’s dictum. Rather than ‘we cannot make time out of space’, it is that for there to be time, space must itself be imbued with temporality. Space as a simultaneity indeed, but a cut through ongoing histories. Not a surface but a simultaneity of stories-so-far.
The characterisation of space as stasis and as a surface, then, derives from the long equation of representation with spatialisation. Representation as that business of setting things down side by side.
Take, for instance, Michel de Certeau, a writer much referenced in artistic and cultural circles. For de Certeau, the emergence of writing and of modern scientific method inevitably entailed the obliteration of the temporal. Space then becomes the given, the established. And the central burden of his book The practice of everyday life (1984) is to invent ways of reawakening that temporality. To do this he invents his opposition between strategies (space; established power) and tactics (time). And the romance of the little tactics of the street has been much taken up by cultural theorists. But it is based on a false opposition, between space and time, and the consequent misleading characterisation of space as the immobile realm of established power. All this from understanding representation as spatialisation.
Indeed, the very equation of representation with spatialisation might be questioned. What is at issue in representation is not in fact the spatialisation of time but the representation of time-space. This is as true of this film as of any representation. Moreover, its method is the assembly of pieces of film in a spatial sequence. But its form evokes space/place/landscape as alive with temporalities. And this, I want to argue, has political implications.
That long takes are not stills thus chimes with those philosophies, including Bergson’s, which insist that all is process. That Being itself is Becoming. It also chimes with that general understanding of the world in terms of its constitutive energy, an energy that is constantly formed and moulded into constituted things.
Now, for reasons no doubt not unconnected with the present globalisation, this general ontological stance has been, among many of those who have taken it up, transformed in two ways. First, it has become widely assumed that constitutive is to be preferred to constituted, even to the latter’s exclusion. An ontological understanding has taken on a normative form. Thus Hardt and Negri’s urging of us to abandon all those old certainties of containment – from nation states to trades unions but including most importantly here place and territory. In the oppositions between the uncontained and the contained, the smooth and the striated, the deterritorialised and the territorialised, the positive weight is now popularly put on the first term. And in recent years in much of cultural studies and the arts there has been a prioritisation of movement/flow above all else (and an apparent assumption not only that this is the ‘progressive’ thing to do but that doing this makes a work progressive). But this is to fall also into the second slippage. For what is a general ontological position has here been overwhelmingly imagined in spatial terms. Hardt and Negri are again only the most explicit advocates of this transformation: ‘This ontological relation operates first of all on space’ (2001, p. 361, emphasis added). For Hardt and Negri this reading results from a political assessment, but more generally there has evolved an imagination in which thingness, containment and constituted power are equated with place and territory while process and change are equated with geographical flow and migration. And it is the latter – flow, mobility, migration – that recently has been given political priority.
This relates directly to our concerns with understanding landscape. For one thing, it has led to ‘the migrant’ becoming the iconic figure of our times (and above all indeed the international migrant since only they cross the boundaries of constituted space). What is happening here is that the couple stasis:change has been reduced to geographical settlement:geographical movement. Which is not what Bergson was getting at at all. The teasels are not migrating, but they are certainly ‘becoming’.
Reversing the terms of belonging
Just like the definition of becoming in Hardt and Negri’s ontology, the story of ‘displacement’ has in recent years also been cornered by those who would emphasise physical movement from place to place. It was in the context of this discourse associating displacement with global movement that our project was initially framed (we have lost our places and our placedness as a consequence of global mobilities). It was not long before we rejected its terms.
It is in no way to downplay the effects of mobility in this classic sense to argue that there is a bigger displacement against which it must be set, the recognition of which might bring together in common anger those whose displacement has happened through migration (or the geographical movement of others) in the now-classic sense and those who have been equally displaced while staying still, as the primroses by the roadside look set to be. You don’t have to move to be, or feel, displaced. It can happen through dispossession. In the film, the struggles over enclosure, for instance, are about just this.
At one point in the project, Patrick K and I decided it would be good to spend more time together in parts of the landscape he had engaged with. And so we set off.
The film, as we have seen, is a series of takes at particular locations. The camera comes to rest, and films. Of the journey between these locations we see nothing. Doing the journey on the ground, of course, we did. We went along smooth roads, and lanes, and through small contented villages. These are the elements of this landscape that are normally taken as iconic of this part of England. Indeed often enough as iconic of England tout court. There are none of these, and barely a glimpse of a thatched cottage, in the film. We had no desire to produce yet another easy critique of nostalgic iconography. But this side of the landscape that is not in the film brought me up against another of the concepts that were pivotal in the initial formulation of the project: belonging.
This is most easily told in personal terms. The landscape of these villages is supposed to stand for me, in the classic iconography of the nation. Yet I feel utterly and totally – and both wilfully and not – excluded from it. It is a matter, overwhelmingly, of class: I come from Wythenshawe, a large council estate in Manchester. (The Duchess of Somewhere once went there, in one of those TV programmes where those who are ‘more fortunate’ visit the benighted and try to gee them up. There were reports that ‘the locals’ were not best pleased. And David Cameron met his match here too: gliding through the place not long after urging us all to hug a hoody, or some such, he was photographed smoothly unaware that behind him a young denizen of this place, appropriately hooded, gave him a V-sign.) I may ‘belong to’ this other, comfortable, part of England in the sense that I am owned by it – must obey its laws, conform, more or less, to its customs and so forth, have been inculcated into its narratives, and may participate in its democratic processes however attenuated – in return for the not inconsiderable benefits of being one of its subjects (we cannot – yet? – say citizens), but it does not in any sense belong to me. This part of England, and its little villages and grander estates, represents (one face of) the enemy.
I had felt the same thing while at Oxford University and had the same wrestle there, agog at the beauty of Radcliffe Square in the lamplight at night and angry and alienated at what it stood for. Feeling like a space invader. These are the wrenchings of a displacement effected by class. They reverse the terms of the usual question of belonging in relation to place and landscape. Rather than that dwelling-saturated question of our belonging to a place, we should be asking the question of to whom this place belongs. Who owns it? Materially, and in terms of power, the ‘national’ working class (of whatever ethnic origin) has no more ownership than does the recent migrant. There is common cause here.
Robinson set off for the Pelican Inn, scene of the devising of the Speenhamland system, intending to arrive there on the 6th of May, the anniversary of that historic meeting. The Speenhamland system, argued by Polanyi to be crucial in the contradictory movements of market society in England and thus at ‘the origin of twentieth-century catastrophe’, ‘offered landless agricultural workers some protection from the displacement intended by the changes to the Settlement Act’ (my emphasis). Indeed. On the 6th of May 2010, the subjects of this country elected the most elite – in class terms – government in years. In the months before the election it was reported that entry into the professions was overwhelmingly confined to those whose parents were already of that class. In the months after the election, research for the Sutton Trust found that ‘parental background remains a much more significant determiner of children’s life chances in the UK than elsewhere’. One can legitimately ask to whom this place belongs.
* * *
This reversal of the terms of belonging is there in the film. Heidegger’s notions of dwelling and of simple oneness are a fallback desire, evoked perhaps by a well once ‘much resorted to by scholars’ and still visited today, or by the designers of food packaging (the dwelling evoked on the package may be in the Black Forest, while you buy it here in Lidl, a global company, in outer Oxford, and pick up your Putinoff vodka at the same time, but buying (into) that reference to authenticity is not without its charge). The house that Robinson initially haunts recalls in its neogothicism the conservative romantic mediaevalism of Pugin and the Oxford movement. It was in Oxford, around which Robinson circles, that was centred that defence ‘against the insidious inroads of liberalism, Dissent, secularism, agnosticism…’ (Eagleton, 2010, p.10). As Hobsbawm has it, ‘the architect Pugin and the ultra-reactionary and catholicizing “Oxford Movement” of the 1830s were gothicists to the core’ (1962, p.320). This house of reactionary romance is bit-by-bit restored, until Robinson has to leave, to find ‘another ruined dwelling’. This time, though, it is signalled by a pair of trainers slung from the overhead wires – which ‘he took to be a sign of hospitality to pilgrims’. The in-principle possibility of Heidegger’s notion of dwelling, and of that notion of belonging to place, or even its desirability, is undermined throughout the film.
On the contrary, Robinson keeps running up against exclusion and a landscape shaped and used by wider forces, experienced as absent presences: big systems, huge infrastructural networks, the military, the financial crisis itself, closing in as the spider weaves its web. The complexities of global capital; the pretensions and attendant subordinations of geopolitics.
Central here is the presence of the USA. The question hovers: does this landscape belong even to the United Kingdom? This could be read in a ‘Little Englander’ way, and set off an imagination of inside/outside. There is certainly a persistent hostility to the UK’s abject obeisance to the United States of America, and its military strategy around the world. But this is a particular politics, not a question of inside/outside. Indeed at a number of points it is clear that that other ‘outside’ – Europe – might be welcomed. Nor is this openness new: the opennesses of the past from the Romans on are liberally referenced. And it is about exclusion. The story of Greenham, for instance, and the return to commonland status. Or the detailing of the dispossession of the public through privatisation: that this piece of the landscape is now part-owned by a pension fund from Canada, for instance. By the second half of the film, the public is forced to rescue financial institutions from the disaster they and their markets have created. And people are taking their money ‘to the Post Office, and the Co-operative Bank’. This is not local protectionism but a critique of dispossession.
Even more significantly, this is a rejection of that protective localism which sees the local as simply good, to be defended against the global forces supposedly ranged against it. Here, on the contrary, in the heart of the Home Counties we face the complicity of the local landscape in damage and aggression beyond its confines, out in the global world – from area bombardment, to oil-intensive agriculture, to Libya and Iraq. The ‘openness’ of the local landscape goes both ways, and neither is simply benign.
The brief moment of explicit contemplation upon a possible alternative future focuses on reforming landownership and democratic government, and the development of a form of industry and agriculture less based on oil. The location for these musings is the quarry at Shipton-on-Cherwell, geographically right by, and narratively intertwined with the film’s preoccupation with enclosure – another form of displacement and dispossession. The rising by Bartholomew Steer and his fellows had been provoked by facts and fears of enclosure, the effects exacerbated by the scarcity of grain. And again this is no story of a romanticised (Heideggerian) localism. Steer had hoped that people would join in from a wide area round about, and Walter (1985) documents the numerous routes by which in those days news and plans might travel. This was about connections, not a bounded localness. Indeed the place that was chosen to be the centre of the rising was Bletchingdon, the focus of a ‘constellation of roads and ways…along which people and ideas could move’ (Walter, p.102). It seems significant in relation to the structure of the film that these roads and ways ‘all fed into the main London road running through the parish, bringing news of the city and knowledge of the 1595 disorders and later discontent upon which Steer set such store’ (p.102). This road is the B4027.
The B4027 runs through the film as well. We first meet it as ‘what had once been the coach road from London to Aberystwyth’, and Robinson spends a lot of time in its vicinity: ‘He was interested in the coach road. He sensed it might lead him to an important destination’; our first contemplation of wheat comes as Robinson lingers in the area – and the narrative voice speaks of a doubling in its price (‘There had been bread riots in Egypt, and several other countries’); and it is on this same road that Bartholomew’s rising failed to travel that the film ends: ‘the last images he made were of a milestone on the Aberystwyth coach road, which measures 58 miles to London’. Perhaps it is a road we should be taking now.
In its own immediate terms Steer’s rising failed (though it was to have historic repercussions). The man’s complete exasperation at the difficulty of getting others to join in has echoes down the ages. Perhaps the most famous cry from the Spanish Civil War is La Pasionaria’s ‘es mejor morir de pie que vivir de rodillas’. In Oliver Stone’s film South of the Border, about the recent rise of the Left in Latin America, Hugo Chávez insists…we have to do something, rather than live in servitude. His reference point is Che Guevara, who said the same. For Bartholomew Steer, on learning that in spite of the current suffering the people of Witney were probably not going to rise up and join in revolt, it was: ‘if all men were of [that] mind they might live like slaves as he did. But for himself happ what would, for he could die but once and…he would not allwaies live like a slave’ (cited in Walter, p.101).
The denial of ‘belonging’ in this sense runs through the film. E.P. Thompson, in the chapter on field labourers in The making of the English working class, writes of enclosure that ‘The loss of the commons entailed, for the poor, a radical sense of displacement’ (1968, p.239). Feeling you belong to a place in no way necessarily entails that it belongs to you. And the latter sense of belonging poses the bigger political question. Early on in the film, pondering Shelley’s expulsion from the University of Oxford, we are reminded of what he wrote in response to the massacre at Peterloo:
‘All things have a home but one –
Thou, oh Englishman, hast none!’
Ask not ‘do you belong to this landscape?’ but ‘does this landscape belong to you?’ This argument developed during the course of the project, and the making of the film was one of the ‘research methods’ through which it emerged. But there is in the film also the argument that the film itself can be an aid to reversing those terms of belonging. We see the landscape differently: not closed down into a familiar satisfaction but opened up to reinterpretation. The team that edited Robinson’s films was carrying out research ‘based on the transformative potential we attributed to images of landscape’, and in his notebook Robinson himself had written of ‘a Great Malady, that I shall dispel, in the manner of Turner, by making picturesque views, on journeys to sites of scientific and historic interest’.
Landscape as stories-so-far
Shelley was writing after Peterloo, in Manchester. It was in these regions of the North of England that the new industries were growing in the early nineteenth century, and the new industrial capitalism. Distress and discontent were widespread in the country, and ideas from the French revolution, just a few years earlier, were feeding new demands for liberty among ordinary people, and alarm within the establishment.
In the agricultural regions of the South there was no opportunity for work in the new industries (horrendous as the conditions in the new mills were). Indeed, some domestic industries, such as textiles, were being lost to the new factories. As Hobsbawm and Rudé have it, in agriculture there was ‘a low-wage South and a not quite so abysmally paid or treated North’ (1969, p.19). Today’s villages of Berkshire and Oxfordshire lie on land which, in the early nineteenth century, was home to desperate agricultural poverty.
Pause for a moment, as the camera does, at the rural road sign. We have arrived here from Aldermaston and the sign reads, in shock red, AWE. We have heard the story of subordination to the USA, and of a women’s peace camp and contests over access to land. The sign also points to Thatcham, a contented-sounding name.
Thatcham was, as we are told, the place where not long after Peterloo the Swing Riots took off in Berkshire. The village was a nucleus of militancy (Hobsbawm and Rudé, p.81). Already in 1800 there had been a dispute there, when 300-400 labourers had gathered to ask for a rise in wages; either that or cheaper food. This raising of voices had led to riots around Newbury and thence ‘spread its influence deep into the Hampshire countryside’ (Hobsbawm and Rudé, p. 135). Now, in 1830, Thatcham was a starting point in the Home Counties for the movement of agricultural labourers known as the Swing Riots. In November that year the demand was for higher wages and work for the unemployed. This was a movement that was picking up on events in Kent and a scatter of other places in February of that year and that swept through the South-East, through Hampshire and the West Country, the Home Counties into the Midlands, and through East Anglia. The word spread, and ‘local people’ learned from other local people. (This was not local containment.) The context was international too. Everything had been fluctuating: the price of bread, the wages for labour, the very availability of work – changes brought about by unhelpful weather in part, but also by relations with France. ‘The country’ had been at (counter-revolutionary) war against the French and while during the war wages were higher and food more plentiful, both fell away dramatically afterwards, leaving destitution.
Though the direct influence of revolutionary ideas among the agricultural poor is difficult to trace, it was abroad in the land, and most certainly it fed the paranoia of the establishment. The demands of the people had been mainly (and merely) for better wages, for more food and lower prices, for more employment and for access to land. At Otmoor, which figures in the film, there were riots against enclosure. The news of the angry crowds at St. Giles’ Fair, and their rescue of the Otmoor prisoners, spread through the county and ‘an anonymous letter-writer, signing himself “Philo Fayette”…compared the “liberties” of Otmoor with those proclaimed on the Paris barricades in July of the same year’ (Hobsbawn and Rudé, p. 141). A submission to the Board of Agriculture for its report on The Agricultural State of the Kingdom was quite clear:
‘The morals as well as the manners of the lower orders of the community have been degenerating since the earliest ages of the French Revolution. The doctrine of equality and the rights of man is not yet forgotten, but fondly cherished and reluctantly abandoned. They consider their respective parishes as their right and inheritance, in which they are entitled to resort.’ (Agricultural State of the Kingdom, 1816, p. 25; cited in Thompson, 1968, p. 246)
Comments Thompson, in words that resonate with Shelley, and that raise again that two-sided question of belonging: ‘One recalls with difficulty that England belonged to the labourers as well’ (p. 246).
The retribution for this challenge to the traditional order of belonging was vicious. In Berkshire 78 Swingrioters were gaoled, 27 sentenced to death (though only one executed). In Oxfordshire 23 were gaoled. Fifty-eight people from these counties were transported. Of them, 40 arrived in New South Wales and 15 in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania today). Causes and consequences too well overflowed the local. As Hobsbawm and Rudé have it: ‘What began at Orpington and Hardres [in Kent] ended in the jails of England and the convict settlements of Australia’ (p. 91). Such was this part of rural England less than two centuries ago.
The methods the Swingrioters had used were various: threatening letters, meetings, riots, rick-burning, the destruction of machines. Threshing machines were destroyed in Thatcham and in the parishes round about. The movement initiated by the villagers of Thatcham ‘was taken over, and transformed in the process’ (Hobsbawm and Rudé, p. 136) by labourers from other villages, who marched from farm to farm demanding food and drink and higher wages. At 11 o’clock on the 17th they broke a machine at Aldermaston, and returned the next morning to break some more. ‘[M]ustering their forces that afternoon in Aldermaston Park, they boasted of having destroyed 33 machines in as many hours’ (Hobsbawm and Rudé, p. 136).
* * *
And now in the twenty-first century a new machine moves, indifferent, relentless, across the flat brown earth. Gulls take advantage of the moment. You would never know…
The very notion of ‘landscape’ seems to induce an effect of smoothing. The very fact of visual continuity implies a kind of present reconciliation (Massey, 2006). In this guise it resonates with that notion of space as a simple surface. We travel across landscape; we travel across space.
This film could be seen as such a travelling. It could seem to be precisely that form of representation as spatialisation. It spaces out the landscape. The camera films from a constellation of locations from which we can piece the landscape together. But the form of the film itself tells us that this is in no sense a simple surface. The camera does not film while moving. It films when it stops, and at each point when it does so, we dwell upon a story.
We pause at a horse chestnut tree. It has a history. These trees were brought to northern Europe, we are told, from Turkey (around the time, as it happens, when Bartholomew Steer was trying to organise his uprising, proclaiming the politics of Cockayne). They are also bound up in a history that led to ‘British’ support for Jewish settlement of Palestine. Bound up, in other words, in a region with an unknown and certainly contested future, yet to be made. An ongoing story.
We stop next at the Pelican Inn, site of the meeting at Speenhamland, key moment in the contested emergence to dominance in the UK of capitalist market relations, and then we stop at Greenham Common and at Aldermaston. At Silchester. And West Green House whose story links back to St. Augustine of Hippo, via Rabelais, and threads forward to Lord McAlpine of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, and neoliberalism. The camera stays still at each point; it concentrates; in some small measure it gives each its due. And at each point we are in the midst of an ongoing story.
This is not a journey across a surface envisaged as a smooth continuity. Landscape here is not allowed its smoothing effect, its subtle operation of reconciliation. The conventional continuity of landscape, and of the founding conception of space upon which it rests, is punctuated by a multiplicity of stories. This, for me, is the significance of the spatial assembling of these pieces of film, and of the fact that while filming the camera is still. It brings us the simultaneity of stories-so-far that really is that slice through time that is space. Not a stasis, but a dynamic simultaneity.
The space-times of this aspect of the construction of the film in themselves bear witness to a way of understanding landscape that coincides with this conceptualisation of space as imbued with temporality. First, this is a temporal narrative in the obvious sense that it is a journey. And the sequence of the film reflects the sequence of the journey; indeed the film has ‘chapters’ following the sequence of months, from January to November, of Robinson’s travelling. This forms a kind of temporal framework. But within the framework, both spatiality and temporality are quite complex. Thus, second, spatially this is not a linear ‘route’. The different forays Robinson makes cross-cut each other, turn back, revisit, set locations in different contexts. What we are given is not a spatial forward march to match the framing temporal one. Rather this is a constellation of locations within a larger landscape, which we are cumulatively enabled to construct. (This is even more the case in the DVD version where, perhaps even with map to hand, we can disassemble and reassemble the geography – and indeed the temporality – of Robinson’s wanderings.) Moreover, third, what the camera comes across is only rarely a wide picture of a ‘landscape’ but rather lots of distinct, though sometimes related, specific histories. Multiple temporalities. The structure of the overarching narrative of the journeys, in other words, is actually the fact of intersecting with a multiplicity of other stories. The temporality of the month-by-month exploration is not a classic ‘plot’ but a process of discovery of stories. The landscape, too, is a simultaneity of stories-so-far. Fourth, of course, this discovery of stories, and what they tell us, allows us to build a political argument.
Now, it is important to be clear what is not being said (or done) here, for there are many well-intentioned but perhaps too easy critiques of landscape with which it might be confused. First, this film disallows landscape’s effect of reconciliation, not because the stories we come across are so often ones of conflict, oppression, rebellion – that is part of another argument, about ‘content’, that we shall come to later – but because of the very form of the film and the (re)conceptualisation of landscape that it enables. Second, nor is this method that of the excavation of the exploitative history upon which the landscape is built (these empty moors the effect of clearances, this city built upon the trade in slaves). These are important moves, but they can have a tendency to leave the horror in the past (we don’t do that kind of thing now) and even to pacify us (feeling good for having acknowledged this past). Better still would be to address the present, for these are ongoing stories. Third, and relatedly, nor does the form of this film conceptualise the landscape as a palimpsest, in which layers of history simply overlie and partly obscure and erase ones that went before. There certainly are erasures here – there is no sign by which the passer-by might know the crucial role of the Pelican Inn in ‘the great transformation’ that brought us to today; Enslow Hill, where men were executed for daring to propose another way, is now not named on any map. It is also important that here the erasures we are asked to address are not only of oppressions that might provoke a retrospective guilt or, better, responsibility. They are also of the struggles of people who might have been us, over the making of this landscape. The story of our own dispossession. And this too is ongoing. Moreover, the relative invisibility of this struggle is an element in our displacement. Nonetheless, in relation to form, the imaginary of palimpsests is perhaps too horizontal (just layer upon layer); and perhaps again too easy (it allows ‘us’ to criticise ‘them’ for erasure, but it doesn’t really challenge us, now). In this landscape, in contrast, the stories shoot out of the soil, speaking to today. And finally, this is not the same as simply saying that the landscape is not static; that it is always ‘in process’, and so forth. Of course it is. The question is how we conceptualise that. What is at issue here is an insistence on the contemporaneous multiplicity of stories. It challenges perhaps that very notion of a landscape as a oneness. To walk across a landscape with any degree of awareness is to pick your way across the locations of a host of unfinished trajectories. Their unfinishedness addresses our today.
This, then, is about the very reconceptualisation of landscape and in a manner, I would argue, that is more demanding politically than the more usual critiques. It is in line with what Bergson later came to do, to acknowledge the duration in external things (not just one’s own consciousness), in the multiplicity of the world around us. It is about coevalness, the recognition of the contemporaneous co-existence of other things (and a refusal to reorder contemporaneous difference into temporal sequence – backward, developing, primitive, pre-modern, residual – and thus to the past – even when they are ‘ruins’). This is about the present. And it matters how we imaginatively reorganise all of this multiplicity of stories into a ‘landscape’. On the one hand there may be that smoothing operation that effectively evades the challenge of the multiplicities of space. On the other hand, as here, there is an acknowledgement of the temporalities of that space, which alerts us to potential questions for today.
Michel de Certeau, as we have seen, decried the deadening effect of scientific discourse, and called it spatialisation: ‘However useful this “flattening out” may be, it transforms the temporal articulation of places into a spatial sequence of points’ (p.35, emphases in the original). In this way, he says, ‘time, that fugitive element’ is controlled (p.89). In de Certeau’s view of space it is impossible to be surprised: ‘In this way, surprises are averted’ (p.89). With that view of space he could not find himself at West Green House in the middle of that story that stretches from St. Augustine, through Lord McAlpine, through now. In total contrast, openness to the surprises of space is the method (as well as an element of the meaning) of this film. And the recognition of this punctured character of space in fact, rather than asking space to stand for representation, points to the ultimate unrepresentability of space itself.
A confession – and a further point. In early viewings of the visuals, along with the script, I found myself restless in the detail I was offered of the history of Hampton Gay (we were right at the end of the film). But it was wrestling with that feeling that made me understand, not only (that it could be about) the need to give things their due (which of course we can never fully do; it is an attitude of mind, a stance, not a task to be completed), but also that my mildly irritated ‘so what?’ was part of the point (or, at least, it became so for me). All that detail is (part of) the story of the trajectory we have come upon. It is a story that has links to other stories in this landscape (the train crash harks back even to the experiments of Boyle and Hooke at Cross Hall, where the Shelley Memorial now stands…). But there are also threads that have no such links. Loose ends. This is not the closed coherence of a synchrony in which all elements are (already) connected to each other. This is space as open and in the making. So when occasionally the camera does step back to view a wider landscape there is an effect, partly because we already know some of its component stories, of disruption rather than smoothing. The stories we stumble across in this landscape are often entangled with each other, but they are autonomous too and lead off in other, unrelated, directions. There are always loose ends in space.
And those loose ends give space its openness to the future. This is not some comforting, already completed, holism. This is space as a dynamic simultaneity, always in the process of being made, and open to alternative ways of being made. It is a responsibility to make and there are choices to be made. The intertwining of times within the film presses the point home. The past as a resource for the future. The present crises of finance and of food intertwined with stories of old rebellions, the Failed Road of Bartholomew Steer right by a quarry where another road might be initiated…there are always alternatives.
Land and labour: fences and mobility
So stories spiral out of the landscape, and we shall pick some stories to follow. There could be others. We could follow the story of dispossession of the land under the Enclosure Acts through Thomas Spence and his call for parish ownership, and from there across the Atlantic, for example to Jamaica, where Cobbett’s Register was circulating among freed slaves and had published Spence’s Plan. Spence himself wrote in defence of indigenous landownership in the USA, and knew of the battles of indigenous peoples in Central America. These were the years of the many-headed hydra and the ‘revolutionary Atlantic’ (Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000). The question is what happens when we take seriously the ongoingness and multiplicity of the stories that puncture this landscape? It is not just the recognition of the oppressions and exploitations that have gone before. It certainly includes that: the robbery of the English landscape by an elite; that this is the foundation of these monied acres. But it is also the understanding that these stories have not finished. This is about today.
Land: Otmoor and Swing; 1830; The Great Transformation
There clearly were alternatives in 1830, the year of the rebellion on Otmoor, and a year that figures pointedly in the film. The year of the Swing Riots was also one of revolutions in France and Belgium, the Liverpool–Manchester railway was opened (and a meteorite fell at Launton, near Bicester). The wave of rural rioting that swept through this landscape then was ‘the last labourers’ revolt’ (Hobsbawm, 1962, p. 154). The focus of social conflict was moving away, to industry and the fast-growing cities.
The whole balance of class forces was shifting. By 1830 the new industrial bourgeoisie had thoroughly won out over aristocratic power in Western Europe. In Britain and France a new independent industrial working class was emerging, with the beginnings of political self-awareness. By the time of the revolutions of 1848 the fulcrum of social conflict in Europe was between capital and urban labour. This was the age of the establishment of empire too. ‘By 1848 nothing stood in the way of western conquest of any territory that western governments or businessmen might find it to their advantage to occupy, just as nothing but time stood in the way of the progress of western capitalist enterprise’ (Hobsbawm, p. 16).
And it was a period of opening up, of the breaking down of old hierarchies and fixed positions, of the beginnings of the refusal of old deferences (though we know, nearly two centuries later, how much of all this remains). It was the period of the birth of liberalism, of the belief in market forces and the self-regulating nature of a market economy, and of the mistaken view that we can separate the economic (seen now as a force of nature) from the political. (This we most certainly have inherited.) It was in the 1830s that ‘economic liberalism burst forth as a crusading passion and laissez-faire [became] a militant creed’ (Polanyi, 1944/2001, p. 143). The protestors at Otmoor, and the crowd at St. Giles’ Fair, were caught up in all of this.
For to secure this future of capitalism and market forces, land and labour (and money), like everything else in this envisaged utopia, had to be turned into commodities. Robinson knows of this utopian nightmare, for he has been reading Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, about just this period.
Land and labour can not be commodities like any other. Commodities, in the full sense, are not just things that are bought and sold; they must also be produced to be bought and sold. This is patently not true of either land (or, more broadly, ‘nature’) or labour (as Polanyi has it, ‘labor is the technical term used for human beings’ – p. 79). Both are given to the system from outside. They are ‘fictitious commodities’. Yet upholding this fiction is vital to the functioning of a capitalist market economy. And producing this fiction out of pre-capitalist traditional society could only happen through wrenching social change. That was what was going on at Otmoor.
Take land. The transformation of land into private exchangeable ownership began early in Britain. The enclosures against which Bartholomew Steer protested were part of the Tudor wave of such appropriations, the Enclosure Acts between 1760 and 1830 a fierce consolidation of a process already under way. Under these Acts, some 5,000 enclosures broke up about 6 million acres of common fields and common lands and took them into private ownership. As in the Tudor period, it was a process of ‘improvement’, an essential element in turning farming into an industry like any other, and in the later period of supplying the growing towns with raw materials and food. The old, uncommercial ways had to be swept away, whether these be the traditions of native Americans across the Atlantic (or of those in the new colonies to which the rioters were transported) or the common grazing rights of the people at Otmoor.
The reading of the Riot Act at Crookham House, the persistent discontents at Thatcham, the winning of higher wages at Speen, as well as the events at Otmoor, were thus small moments embedded in, and illuminating of, wider convulsions. Caught in the shift between social orders, these people were on the whole resisting change, wanting to cling to the older certainties (even if, on occasions, they appealed to French revolutionary liberties). And it wasn’t just the landless who resisted. Some of the owner-farmers and even, as we hear, the local yeomanry would make common cause against the destruction of old ways, against the threatening dominance of the new industrial capitalists. It was a moment of real dislocation. But that was what was necessary to make a social reality out of the fiction of land as a commodity.
The resonances with today are evident, and the intersections of historical times within the film enjoin us to explore them. There is, to begin with, one particular resonance to excavate – about political strategy and political rhetoric – which takes us back to this question of dwelling and mobility, and space.
Fences: Otmoor, with Aldermaston, Greenham, the Ridgeway and West Green House
The protestors at Otmoor were objecting to the enclosure of a wetland common and in doing so they ‘destroyed every fence and hedge that they encountered’. The battle against enclosure runs through the film, as does the struggle for access and for common land. At Aldermaston, for instance, and at Greenham. The wandering multiplicity of the Ridgeway paths up until the eighteenth century ‘was located in the era of parliamentary enclosure, to keep livestock out of newly cultivated fields’. The multiplicity was organised, regimented into one.
‘Horizontalism’ – the preference for the smooth as against the striated, for constitutive space as against constituted – became an issue for us too. The apparent freedoms of smooth space (‘Fay ce que vouldras’) chime perfectly with the supposed new world of flows. Should we abandon all notions of containment? It is a position that can be contested. And the debate is there in the landscape.
First, fences and borders can be protective too. The regimentation of the Ridgeway paths to protect the enclosed crops you may object to, but what of the invasion of the global South by multinational corporations, or of the forests of the Amazon by cattle ranchers? The word ‘protection’ should be rescued from the bad name it has been given, through the persistence of the dominant political discourse of ‘free trade’ in the era of neoliberal globalisation. And on a somewhat less epic scale, many of us today would equally object to the grubbing up of hedges – haven of birds and bees and biodiversity.
Second, what the people of Otmoor were wanting to reclaim was not just the common land but precisely the comfort of the old containers (though these had their own negativities and contradictions). This turning of land into a commodity meant they lost not only access to land but also ‘their other bonds’ (Hobsbawm, 1962, p. 187), and this was frightening. Of course, this desire for known securities meant that they were rarely revolutionaries, but it is not to be dismissed.
Third, anyway, as we have already seen these containers were never simply closed – the very opposition between total closure and total opposition is false. Territories are embedded in flows; and flows could not be without territories. Space, like landscape, is always striated. There will always be boundaries and borders (if not hedges). The real political questions concern their roles and functions and the degree and nature of democracy in their constitution. To call simply for an end to all fences is both to ignore the consequences for those who would thus be exposed, and to evade responsibility for their unavoidable construction. Remember that the people of Otmoor, who tore down the fences and hedges, also ‘walked the circumference of the moor, “possessioning” it, in accordance with a local custom’. The battle over enclosures was not about the abstract spatialities of smooth and striated. They themselves have no necessary political content. Rather, as indeed Polanyi writes, what was at issue in these particular enclosures was that they were ‘a revolution of the rich against the poor’ (p. 37). They were about power, and inequality, and the question of to whom this land(scape) would belong.
In fact, enclosure prompted its philosophical opposite – mobility. Territory and flow, movement and rootedness, constantly require each other. The enclosure of land in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries set the rural labourers free; deprived now of all other subsistence, they could move around the country in search of work.
‘Speenhamland’ was a crucial moment in the tortured societal negotiation that this entailed, between long-inherited social bonds and the liberty of migration. Robinson ‘had read that one of the factors that enabled industrial capitalism to develop first in England was the mobility of the previously settled agricultural workforce’. The Settlement Act in 1662 had pretty much bound the labourers to their parishes, establishing at the same time the systems of relations and responsibilities whereby they would be (minimally) maintained. By 1795 this settled system was under strain, and there was pressure from the urban industrialists for more workers, so the rural hierarchies and responsibilities were abolished, and labourers were free to move. But these were hungry years, and the ‘freeing up’, along with the abandonment of social bonds, presaged destitution and the break-up of the familiar rural society. In the face of dearth the gentlemen of Speenhamland had devised a system of poor relief: a sliding scale of subsidies in aid of wages, and linked to the price of bread. On his first foray out of Oxford, Robinson comes upon the sign for Newbury, where Speenhamland lies, and later the profile in lichen draws him to the Pelican Inn. Polanyi argues that Speenhamland was ‘society’s’ response to human suffering, while the creation of markets, such as the market in labour, was a deliberate act aided by the state.
Depriving people of all access to survival other than the wage was to turn them too, as labour-power, into a commodity. But, like land, labour is a fictitious commodity, and the social misery entailed in the effort to produce that fiction was part of what provoked society’s responses: ‘the commodity fiction disregarded the fact that leaving the fate of soil and people to the market would be tantamount to annihilating them’ (p. 137).
To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment…would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity ‘labor power’ cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity. (p. 76)
The way that argument is often read today is that the market may be barbarous but it exists, and so we must intervene in it, to soften its impact. (There are, of course, some who argue against even this.) But this is to get things all wrong. It is to accept the background implicit assumption that market forces are somehow natural – precisely, as we have seen, a theory that took hold in the time of Otmoor, and that continues to be repeated and repeated endlessly today so that it has become our common sense. Polanyi argues the opposite: market forces and all those ‘freedoms’ that are said to spring forth in the absence of ‘regulation’ are themselves the product of state action. The market is no more natural than what, in our disingenuous linguistic entrenchment of this peculiar view of the world, we call intervention. We witness the imposition of market forces today as the IMF and the WTO prise open the economies of the global South – in the name of the mobilities of free trade. ‘There was nothing natural about laissez-faire’, writes Polanyi, ‘laissez-faire itself was enforced by the state’ (both p. 145). Historically indeed the introduction of laissez-faire was accompanied by enormous increases in state activity, in rules, regulations and administration. And ‘the market has been the outcome of a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society for noneconomic ends’ (p. 258). That last bit is particularly telling…‘for noneconomic ends’. The social purpose to which economic theories are put (and in the context of which they are often developed) is sectional interest – they are mobilised by those who stand to gain. Trotted out when needed to legitimise some policy or other, they are quietly ignored when not. We hear it in the film, as the financial institutions are rescued by the public purse. But this bailout of the banks was only a particularly noticeable manoeuvre of this ilk.
The State: alternatives in the landscape
‘The state’ keeps cropping up throughout the film. Those who would tear down all fences also often subscribe to the notion that the state is necessarily the enemy; that it is constituted power, rigidly oppressing the natural energy and flow of the constitutive. (There are resonances here with de Certeau’s sharp distinction between the spaces of power (bad) and the little temporal tactics of the resisters.) It is yet another thread in the debate over horizontalism. Even in this landscape of privilege (on the whole) that Robinson investigates, the state is an ambiguous presence. In this soft and gentle countryside of the Home Counties the state as the military is massively present, and is aggressive and excluding. But then, we seem to be asked to bristle at the privatisation of so many public assets (state stewardship would be better). The ‘community’ near the car works, blighted by unemployment, child poverty and sickness, and modelled as ‘Together’ in heterosexual family form by a local artist, elects members of the Independent Working Class Association and resolves, in the face of cuts, not to plead for the state to come back but ‘to fill the void both socially and politically’. Yet it is the public sector that must step in as the financial crisis deepens. On the one hand the military state keeps its enclosures enclosed, on the other Newbury District Council opens up Greenham Common once again to public access. What is at issue, it seems, is the form of the state and to whom that too belongs. And returning to the lichen which pointed him on his way Robinson muses upon the possibilities of mutualism.
* * *
Anyway, what was created in the early nineteenth century in England was a national labour market. Or that was the intention; the resistance to movement, whether for social reasons of place-basedness or of economics – maybe you can’t afford to move from the North to live in the South East – remains pervasive. The mixture of derision and hostility in which Norman Tebbit’s exhortation to get on your bike is held is telling. Why should ‘labour’ (only fictitiously a commodity) move at capital’s behest?
This could make one think a bit differently about international migration. One of the places from which this project started was a curiosity about the amount of cultural and critical attention given to experiences of mobility across the world. The comparative lack of attention, from the commentators’ bases in ‘first world’ cities, to rural-urban migration in the global South is notable. It is a vast process of displacement, mobility, and cultural disruption. It has been estimated that two billion people (one third of humanity) are currently moving from rural to urban areas (Pearce, 2010). This is the creation of markets on a global scale, uprooting people from previous more complex modes of survival, and their transformation into free labour. Inter- and intra-national migration go together: a vast reorganisation of human beings into a new, potentially global, market for that fictitious commodity ‘labour’. There are those, as in the nineteenth century, who hail this as progress for humankind: ‘this last great migration [is] “a force for lasting progress, an end to poverty, a more sustainable economy, a less brutal existence”’ (Pearce, citing Saunders, 2010). And as in the nineteenth century also, there are those (such as Davis, 2006) who document the suffering involved. Either way, one might note, once again, Polanyi: ‘To separate labor from other activities of life and to subject it to the laws of the market was to annihilate all organic forms of existence and to replace them by a different type of organization, an atomistic and individualistic one’ (p. 171).
Crises: finance and ecology
But labour and land are not the only aspects of our existence that an ambitious capitalism has fictitiously commodified. Two great arching crises shadow the film: crises of finance and of ecology. Neither can be simply detected in the images. Here it is two sets of juxtapositions that do the work – or, better, ask us to do some work: the juxtaposition of image and voice, and the juxtaposition of temporalities.
In the text that Robinson had been reading, Polanyi had already written, in the context of the debate about the Gold Standard, about the commodification of money. It was the third of his three fictitious commodities. But less than half a century later, from the 1970s onwards, a whole new wave of financial commodification began to take hold. The post-war social-democratic settlement that had been negotiated, in some countries at least, was under challenge, not least from the gains that had been made towards narrowing inequality. The gains made by labour, and its growing sense of entitlement and its organisational strength, were threatening the profits of capital. What emerged, as we know, was a neoliberal globalisation underpinned by a rhetoric of free trade, market forces and privatisation, and a hugely dominant finance sector.
As profits from investment in non-financial production sectors declined, this expanding finance sector looked instead to assets (land and property, commodities, and finance itself) as an opportunity for profit. That is, its money went not into production of new things but into bets on existing things in the hope that prices would rise. And rise they did, contributing to the massive redistribution upwards towards the already rich that occurred all over the world but which was especially marked in those countries that had most enthusiastically adopted this ‘neoliberal’ model. Thus was created that stratum of the super-rich that Adonis and Pollard see as being ‘as critical as the rise of the gentry before the English Civil War’ (see above). While there was, indeed, much comment on the grossness of all this, and in spite of the widening inequality, most people kept quiet, and kept spending. For the regressive redistribution was covered over for a while by credit, a borrowing spree throughout the population that allowed those not amongst the super-rich to continue to consume. The precariousness of it all was made brutally evident when the ‘sub-prime mortgage market’ (a technical term that erases the structural social conflict that underlay it) crashed in the USA. All that is a well-known story.
But also at the heart of the financial crisis that overarches the film was the financial sector’s investment in assets that it had produced itself. The constellation of globalisation, the abandonment of exchange controls, and the fluctuations induced by privatisation and deregulation, produced a world of uncertainty and flux. And in a double move, first to contain this uncertainty (an effort that was in vain) and second to invent more assets in which to invest, risk itself was commodified. As Lohmann has it:
After the 1970s…Uncertainty and indeterminacy were commodified on a scale, at a speed, and with a half-conscious recklessness that bear comparison with those associated with the commodification of land in early modern Europe or the rest of the world at any other time. (2009, p. 6)
Chief among the commodities that were invented to be traded in this way were, of course, derivatives. Through them, uncertainties and risks were separated off from the underlying material assets, and also from their social and political contexts; they were ‘repackaged, made commensurable with new things, mathematised, “liquified” and sent through commodity circuits’ (Lohmann, p. 7). As Lohmann argues, just as did the commodification of people and land in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this new wave entailed social transformation. Just as land and people had to be made commensurable and mobile (tradeable), to be transformed into real estate and labour, in order to be exchangeable on a market, so too risk and uncertainty had to be universalised and mathematised into a ‘thing’ that could be traded around the world. (Once again territory and flow are mutually constitutive.) One risk had to be made measurable against another.
As in the earlier period too, these new commodities and their markets had to be actively produced. ‘Polanyi’s famous dictum “laissez faire was planned; planning was not” holds as good for the finance of the turn of the 21st century as it did for the labour and land markets of the turn of the 19th’ (Lohmann, p. 15). (And, as ever, the finance sector of London was an active participant in this process.)
So the same forces that provoked the anger of Bartholomew Steer and the rioters of Swing lie behind the financial frenzy, and collapse, that counterpoints those stories through the narrative voice of the film. And crucial to this process of making things liquid, of freeing them to flow, was disembedding them from the specificity of the world on which they were, ultimately, based. Disembedding them, in particular, from the particularities of the material landscape, the place, on which in the end they depended.
Indeed, the commodity ‘land’ (and property) was crucial in this dynamic too, and in its collapse. The sub-prime saga is iconic evidence of that, but so is the fact that in the UK, the US, Ireland and Spain homes became houses became real-estate became buy-to-let (and the inequality increased yet further), and so too the spectacle of postmodern urban regeneration (city centres only) around the world, to house and celebrate the newly rich. Land and property, and the derivatives that were calculated out of them, were assets everyone wanted. Multinational corporations, and states too, bought up land in continents they barely knew. It was a spiralling out of control of that first move to make land a (fictitious) commodity. It was fuelled by, and further fuelled, the credit cycle. In Latin America, battles over landownership, and especially over alternative forms of landownership (collective, private, common…) have long been central to the larger historical struggle. At issue, as ever, is that question of belonging and its awkward partner ownership.
* * *
The drive towards commodification, and the search for places in which to turn a profit, is relentless.
From about late 2006, a lot of financial firms – banks and hedge funds and others – realized that there was really no more profit to be made in the US housing market, and they were looking for new avenues of investment. Commodities became one of the big ones – food, minerals, gold, oil. And so you had more and more of this financial activity entering these activities, and you find that the price then starts rising. And once, of course, the price starts rising a little bit, then it becomes more and more profitable for others to enter. So what was a trickle in late 2006 becomes a flood from early 2007. (Ghosh, 2010; cited in WDM, 2010, p. 12)
Swings in the prices of food and energy, especially wheat and oil, track through the film. The Speenhamland system was pegged to the price of bread. As we meet a field of standing wheat we are told that its price had doubled and that there had been bread riots in Egypt. That was in 2008. As I write this in 2010, a headline reads ‘Global food crisis looming, UN is warned’ (Vidal, 2010). In 2007-8 a near doubling of the price of many staple foods led to rioting in more than 30 countries. This month there have been riots in Mozambique. In the capital, Maputo, people have taken to the streets and burned tyres and looted shops. Bread prices there have gone up by 30%. Police fired on the demonstrators. ‘Up to 10 people have died so far’ (Guardian, 3rd September, 2010, p. 7, from Reuters Maputo). The Food and Agriculture Organisation reported in June 2009 that over 1 billion people were chronically malnourished. The title of the report was ‘One sixth of humanity undernourished’ (FAO, 2009).
There are many causes for these swings in food prices, and volatility itself is as much of a problem (for the small producers around the world) as the rises are for those who need to eat. There is the weather, though you can buy a derivative (a weather derivative) and bet on that risk (Pryke, 2007). There is the shift to biofuels. But central to the new volatility is speculation in commodity index funds (WDM, 2010). It is these, not food itself, that are the commodities that are bought and sold. ‘Disembedding’ again.
Back in the fields themselves, we watch a machine harvesting wheat. We are told of the history and uses of the crop. We are told also of the calculations that have to be done if this crop is to be economically viable: ‘The better-prepared had pre-sold part of their crop already, when prices were higher, earlier in the year’. This is the local farmer joining in the commodification of risk. It is more than a story of economic calculation though; it’s about the material enrolment of a people (here a farmer) into finance’s logic of life. It alters the landscape; it shifts the way the farmer – and perhaps we – see the fields. It is the extension of a view of the world, a changing of heads, the deepening of a hegemonic ideology. (There was such a farmer on the radio this morning. He had already sold some of next year’s crop, not planted yet. If there’s going to be a global food shortage… He said he was fed up – if you don’t sell and the price goes up you kick yourself; if you do sell and the price goes up you wish you’d sold more. What he wanted to be was a farmer.) All this as the machine comes back, again, carving through the standing grain. These fields, I happen to know, are in the villages around Otmoor. The camera gives us time, if we will, to continue the stories of Otmoor and Swing, to the present financialisation of our imaginations, and to Maputo, Mozambique. Landscape as stories-so-far.
* * *
And there is one more thread to the story. In Oxfordshire the combine harvester runs on oil, and the farming is fed, as the narrator tells us, by fertilisers (most likely based on oil) and fuel which must be paid for. And prices are rising.
In Mozambique, the immediate cause of the protests was the rise in the cost of bread. But that came after rises in the price of electricity and water. ‘The action on the streets isn’t simply a protest about food, but a wider act of rebellion’ (Patel, 2010). And it is bound up with climate change. The fires raging in Russia had sent wheat prices up still further. As Patel argues: ‘Look…to the deaths and burning tyres in Mozambique’s “food riots” to see what happens when extreme natural phenomena interact with our unjust economic systems’. His title is: ‘Mozambique’s food riots – the true face of global warming’.
And how is it proposed that we address this? From big business, from the financial sector, from the governments of many of the richer nations of the world (and some others too), from what Lohmann calls ‘middle-class environmentalism’, has come an answer. Let’s create yet another commodity.
Carbon. We could make it tradeable. Carbon markets!
After roughly doubling in size each year from 2005 through 2008, they are set for a further explosive expansion in the US under the Obama administration, as elsewhere. While the carbon trade’s current volume of over US$100 billion cannot yet compare to the half-quadrillion dollar-plus nominal value that the overall financial derivatives markets reached in 2007, it is being heralded as the ‘world’s biggest commodity market’ and prospectively ‘the world’s biggest market overall’, with ‘volumes comparable to credit derivatives inside of a decade’. (Lohmann, p. 2, citing Kanter, 2007a and b and Harvey, 2008)
And so a new ‘asset’ has been created, and a new market. The parallels between the commodifications behind the financial crisis and this new commodification of carbon (and associated ‘things’ such as ‘offsets’, and the derivatives markets balanced on top) are close, and have the same possibility of ending in implosion (Lohmann, 2010). Once again there is that process of disembedding, as carbon is abstracted – in order to be measured and exchanged – from the particularities that give rise to it, the unsustainable means of the generation of energy, the means of mobility, the oil-intensive agriculture. The business in the trading rooms ignores the material fact: ‘Most unmined coal, oil and gas…is going to have to stay in the ground’ (Lohmann, p. 32). ‘There is so much carbon buried in the world’s coal seams that, should it find its way back to the surface, it would make the planet hostile to life as we know it’ (Flannery, 2005). Just commoditising the problem will not solve it. What it will do is produce winners and losers. The losers look set to be the global South and poorer communities the world over. And the winners are the producers of pollution, and those who profit from trading in it. ‘According to Citigroup research, the main winners from the EU ETS have been, in order, hedge funds and energy traders; coal and nuclear generators; and all generation-based utilities, with consumers the biggest losers. Profits have increased, but no policy goals have been achieved’ (Lohman, 2010, p. 37, citing Wysham, 2008).  And:
A leaked document suggests…that one reason that the British government is reluctant to pursue renewable energy targets is that they would threaten EU ETS carbon prices and the survival of the London financial district’s growing carbon trading industry (Lohmann, p. 37, citing Environmental Data Service Europe Daily, 2007).
* * *
Just one more riff on this disembedding question. To say that things are disembedded from the particularity of their original existence does not mean that the mobile thing created (labour, derivatives, carbon) becomes entirely free-floating. On the contrary; they are re-embedded in other realities and other discourses that once again constrain and further mould them. In the theories of neoclassical economics, in the reality of carbon markets, in neoliberal economic policy. And in our framing imaginations of the world, in which everything is exchangeable and has a price.
Maybe this context is important in explaining the current cultural and social scientific obsession with liquidity and movement. It chimes with the times. It chimes also with the economic dominance of finance, and the tales of neoliberal globalisation.
A place on the planet
Returning to the soil might seem to be to go to the opposite end of an imaginary spectrum. It might evoke that opposition from which this essay began, between mobility and a Heideggerian notion of dwelling, and the dissatisfaction with it that was one of the provocations from which this project took off.
Yet one of my instinctive practices when thinking about a particular place is to get out the geology map. It was thus that I found myself tracing the intermittent outcrops in our area of a sometimes rubbly limestone called Cornbrash. Let us for a moment pause and, as with other stories in this landscape, give Cornbrash its due.
The name itself is arresting, unlike some of the more scientific-sounding names of many geological strata. It is the old name, coined by William Smith (1769–1839), the ‘Father of English Geology’, who made the first national geological map. It was Smith who first understood the connection between fossils and the strata they were in and thus revolutionised the spatio-temporal dimensions through which landscape might be imagined.
Smith was not, however, a member of those social strata who owned the land the formation of which so engaged his enquiries and imagination. Nor was he of those gentle social strata who collected fossils for display in cabinets, nor easily at home among the established gentlemen who were to found the first Geological Society in London. He was not among those invited to join this founding group. And for years his work was plagiarised and his contribution disregarded. As Winchester notes: ‘Smith was not alone in regarding himself as a victim caught in the crossfire of a British class war’ (2002, pp. 202-3).
Smith worked on the ground. And the ground was opened up to him and his imagination by his engagement in the new industrial advances of his time. As a surveyor he plotted routes for the digging of canals, investigated the complexities of rocks in newly opened coal mines, and worked on drainage schemes for landowners who had newly enclosed the fields and wished to improve them. He learned from colliers and quarrymen. (In the film, the limestone quarry, by the cement works where Robinson had his ‘experiential transformation’, had been known for its fossil reptiles since precisely this period. Maybe William Smith knew of it…). It was, according to Winchester, during the late summer and autumn of 1795, the year of Speenhamland and the changes to the laws of settlement, and while he was working on the Somerset Coal Canal, that Smith put together his revolutionary understanding of the geology of the landscape. And the stratum he called Cornbrash is an important datum in this geological understanding for though only thin it can be traced from Dorset to Yorkshire, and even further afield (Wells and Kirkaldy, 1959, p. 257).
But to return to the name. William Smith called it Cornbrash because you could grow good corn on it (Toghill, 2007, p. 138). There is much corn in the film. I telephoned Patrick. ‘Where, exactly, was that first full shot of ripening wheat taken?’ Following the film I had an idea where it might be: there was a little string of inliers of Cornbrash running north-east from Islip, somewhat to the north of Otmoor. ‘Noke’, replied Patrick. The wheat seemed to be on Cornbrash, but we couldn’t be sure without finer detail. We went exploring. In the end we spent ages, with geology maps of different scales, a host of books, and in the landscape itself, trying to pin it down. And I’m still not absolutely sure if that particular field is precisely on the Cornbrash.
What interests me now is why it seemed to matter so much. Partly it was the simple fun of the chase. Partly, maybe, there was an element of wonder at the serendipity – or perhaps in more theoretical terms the psychogeographical coincidence – that our method had thrown up. But more than anything else, there was something deeply satisfying about the possibility of such a continuity in the human-nonhuman relation. Philosophical and political warning lights immediately flash. Is this a return to the soil in the sense of rootedness, authenticity, and all those evocations of the eternal cycles of dwelling that we have learned so well to reject?
The power of the nonhuman is strong in the film. It’s in those long concentrations: the cowslips, the lords and ladies, the teasels. Perhaps above all the white foxglove. These passages of film force you to look. What’s more, these moving images do not give me ownership. Quite the opposite. They force me to submit, to the foxglove’s implacable otherness, to its vulnerability to human actions, yes, but also to its utter indifference to us – to the camera, to the person behind the camera, to us watching the film. The other side of the vulnerability, and the danger of anthropogenic ecological collapse, and counterpointing the marginality of the locations to which these plants have been restricted, is, perhaps, the marginality of the human in relation to the planet.
* * *
The rubbly Cornbrash was laid down about 175 million years ago, on a planet already more than 4,000 million years old, in the geological period we now call the Jurassic.
In the middle of the Jurassic are found those honey-coloured rocks that have so often figured in English national iconography: the oolites (the Cornbrash lies just on top of them). Thus Simon Winchester writes of Cotswold Stone that it
is, quite simply, beautiful. The humblest of workmen’s cottages, if fashioned from a Cotswold oolite, is a lovely thing to see – and a huddle of the warm-looking Jurassic stone houses, clustered amicably in some river-carved notch in the meadows, can be so lustrously perfect, so quintessentially English, that seeing it brings a catch to the throat. (2002, p. 187)
William Smith was born on the Jurassic, at Churchill in Oxfordshire (‘among the small muddle of warm-coloured stone cottages, with their thatched roofs and climbing roses, with the village green and the inn and the duckpond and the old steepled parish church’: Winchester, p. 20) and the rocks of this period were his great love and the spark to his re-imagination of the history of the landscape. It is also the Jurassic that marks that distinctive swing in the geological map of the country, from south-west to north-east, from Exe to Tees. The Tees-Exe line is the real boundary line between North and South in England, the marker of the North–South divide. To north and west the rocks are older, more complex in their pattern, many of them contorted and metamorphosed. To the south and east the layers of younger sedimentaries slope away in smooth chronological order. It is on the latter side that lie the nationally iconic rocks, in this arable southern and eastern England of the post-Carboniferous.
Indeed, when these layers of the Jurassic were deposited, the land that is now this country was even further south (at about 35° north of the equator) and just an indistinguishable part of the supercontinent of Pangea. Pangea itself was slowly drifting northwards and beginning to break up. In a nice touch, given the focus in the film on subordination to the USA, it was in the Jurassic that something that would come to be called the Atlantic Ocean began to open up. It began in the south, leaving the well-known fit between the coastlines of South America and Africa. The north Atlantic began to split open in the Cretaceous, the period of chalk, the rock of the Ridgeway.
So what? Well, in the context of the present exploration it could provoke two ruminations. First, it reinforces the argument that the whole notion of landscape produces a smoothing effect. Beneath these settled acres lies a history, encoded in the rocks, of force and movement and crashings and riftings of an immensity almost unimaginable.
And second, and following on from that, it tells us that there is no recourse to a settledness, no final still point. That nature itself is no secure foundation. In some ultimate way, this going back to the soil ironically itself problematises such a notion of rootedness. What does it mean to say, as is so often said, that there used to be crocodiles in Oxfordshire (the crocodiles whose fossilised remains are now to be found in a quarry at Shipton-on-Cherwell)? What’s Oxfordshire here? Indeed, where is here?
Landscape in that wider sense is provisional. It changes and it could be otherwise. Those pieces of film that linger on cowslips or foxglove aim to awaken us into imagining the possibility of a landscape that is different.
During the middle Jurassic, when the oolites were laid down, ‘Oxfordshire’ and ‘Berkshire’ and other parts of southern England were covered by a shallow warm sea. Reading descriptions of this sea, and exploring the paleogeographic map of the period put me in mind of Patrick’s frequent references during our project conversations to a book by Richard Jefferies – After London: wild England (1885/1980) – in which, also, much of southern England is under water. For Patrick one of its main attractions lies in the notion of a fictional geography – the idea that the landscape could be otherwise.
But the conjoining of her words to important world events is nothing new. It was Morris who broke the news that a British-led expedition had conquered Mount Everest the day before the Queen's coronation in 1953. Then working as a young reporter on the Times, Morris describes the assignment in the Himalayas as, "an exercise in splendidly old-fashioned journalism". Final preparations included packing a new ribbon for the typewriter and collecting a pair of corduroy trousers from the cleaners. But allied to physical courage in getting down the mountain and a dogged resourcefulness in getting the news home, Morris scooped the world and was launched on one of the most remarkable literary careers in the second half of the 20th century.
As a foreign correspondent in the 50s, Morris chronicled the rolling back of the British Empire from north Africa and the Middle East. It was Morris as star reporter who delivered set-piece reportage from Adolf Eichmann's 1962 Jerusalem war-crimes trial. The early travel books about America, Oman and South Africa were all well-received before the publication of a cultural and historical study of Venice in 1960 elevated Morris to the first rank of writers. The book has become a classic, never out of print. Equally acclaimed studies of Spain and Oxford followed, as did the Pax Britannica trilogy, encompassing the rise and fall of the British Empire from Victoria's accession in 1837 to Churchill's death in 1965. Later still came a Booker short-listed novel, a fiercely patriotic series of articles and books about Wales and a continuing stream of journalism and criticism.
Alistair Cooke dubbed Morris the Flaubert of the Jet Age and Rebecca West hailed, "perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time". But what makes this body of work unique is the story contained in an autobiography, Conundrum, published in 1974. As one reviewer pointed out, "no writer of such intelligence, humour and sensitivity has ever undergone a complete sex-change and written about it so well". James Morris, as she was until then, was not only an extremely famous writer, but was also married and had fathered five children. The publication of Conundrum was a source of intense public interest as well as one of the major cultural events of the 70s.
Nearly 30 years on, Morris declares herself "bored to death" with her sex-change, but she did speculate in 1978, reluctantly, one suspects, that in its aftermath she became a writer of "changed sensibilities, of a softer prose style". One critic notes that while James's early books convey exotic parts of the world almost through adventure stories, "Jan hasn't really written that type of book. Hers are more leisurely strolls." The writer Simon Winchester, a longstanding friend, says the "brilliant foreign correspondent, reporter and raconteur rather left her reporting roots behind. She began to get much more imaginative both in her writing and thinking."
These developments have not been to everyone's taste. Rebecca West cuttingly claimed that "he was a better writer than she", and others have complained about a flowery prose style and tendency to feyness. The criticism of Jan's increasingly personal approach to her subject matter reached a peak two years ago with historian Andrew Roberts's review of Morris's biography of Abraham Lincoln. "The 16th president gets only an occasional look-in, and readers will discover more that is factual about him from a Ladybird book than from this fantastically self-indulgent concoction of suppositions," wrote Roberts. "Jan Morris, who has some fine works of seri ous, evidence-driven history to her name, should have known better."
Morris, who has been known to write aggrieved letters to hostile reviewers, was not only taken aback by the comments, she also tended to agree with them. The upshot is that she says her latest book, about Trieste, which is out this month to coincide with her 75th birthday - last Tuesday - will be the last she publishes. "But I have decided to end with a bang and make it the most self indulgent of the lot," she laughs. And indeed, the part history, part memoir of the "ethnically ambivalent, historically confused" Adriatic seaport is typically full of personal flourish.
As a soldier Morris was posted to Trieste just after the war and has returned regularly ever since. Her leisurely and apparently free-wheeling approach to the subject captures its strangely shifting geographical and cultural significance. But underlying the book is a strain of melancholy, and at one point Morris compares the city to a "specialist in retirement", no longer reading the journals because they make him feel out of date, pottering about the house trying to keep himself busy while all the time knowing that, "the fascination of his calling that has driven him with so much satisfaction for so many years, is never going to be resumed". It begs the question about her withdrawal from publishing.
"I will be writing other things, but that review of Lincoln did hit home," she says. "It does seem that almost everything I write comes back to me. When I write about a city I'm writing about my response to the city, my invention of the city in a way. There are a few exceptions - I think the empire books were more detached - but many of the others have been concerned with myself and I'm getting a bit tired of that. But having said that, and you must forgive me for this, all this is because if you look at it, my life has been interesting."
James Humphrey Morris was born in Somerset in 1926. His Welsh father was an engineer and his English mother a pianist who had studied in Leipzig and went on to give recitals for the fledgling BBC. Morris has two brothers who were also musical; one became head of music publishing at the Oxford University Press and the other, a flautist, also had a role in the family input to the coronation by playing at the Westminster Abbey ceremony.
Although Morris won't talk about her family or childhood beyond saying that it, "was entirely happy", it is said that some members of her immediate family took many years to accept her change of gender. But she says she knew from the very beginning that she had been born the wrong sex. When aged three or four Morris remembers sitting under the piano as his mother played Sibelius, thinking he should really be a girl. By the time he was five this notion was "profoundly ingrained".
At nine, he was sent to Oxford to be a chorister at Christ Church. Five years later he began boarding at Lancing College, West Sussex, where she recalls in Conundrum, in one of the rare passages she has written about sex, that it was, "fun to be pursued and gratifying to be admired," by older boys. But he never felt homosexual, always regarding himself as, "wrongly equipped". Even as an adult, she says, his "libidinous fancies" were always far vaguer than his contemporaries', being "more concerned with caress than copulation".
His first job in journalism came, when he was 17, with a six-month unpaid stint for the Western Daily Press in Bristol, where early career coups included interviews with James Cagney and Cary Grant. Despite claiming to have been "frightened" by the strictly hierarchical disciplinary regime at Lancing, Morris then enrolled at Sandhurst before joining the 9th Queen's Royal Lancers, where he served as an intelligence officer in Italy and then Palestine. Surprisingly, he had a wonderful time.
"I was rotten military material," she now recalls. "I arrived in the Po Valley, fresh from Sandhurst all weedy and hopeless, at one of the best and grandest regiments in the British army. I walked into the commanding officer's tent and to my astonishment this war-worn, very distinguished colonel rose to his feet to greet me. And from that moment of courtesy I knew life in the army was going to be OK. At last, in the army of all places, I felt I was free." After demob in 1949, he took a course in Arabic back in England then returned to Cairo to work as a reporter for an Arab news agency before returning to Oxford where he read English and edited the student magazine, Cherwell. "I loved Oxford but didn't much like academic life," she now says. "Really, I just read books, which is what I would have done anyway."
By this time Morris had married Elizabeth Tuckniss, the daughter of a Sri Lankan tea planter. Tuckniss had been in the Women's Royal Naval Service and they met in London while Morris was on his Arabic course. They went on to have five children, born between the early 50s and early 60s, one of whom, Virginia, died aged only two months. Of the others Mark, who edited an encyclopedia of 20th- century composers, lives in Canada, Henry is a musician and teacher living in Devon, Susan is a mature student at the university of Wales reading Celtic studies, and Twm, an acclaimed poet in Welsh, also makes television programmes.
There has been much speculation as to how the children responded to their father's sex-change. Morris has written about how supportive the family have been and, indeed, Mark provided the art work for Conundrum's cover. Twm, now a close neighbour, was also quoted a few years ago as saying that, "the effect on me has not been unhappy. On the contrary. It is fascinating. For Jan it has been a kind of journey, which few people, except in myths, have undertaken." Two of the children have adopted the Welsh spelling of their name, Morys, and Jan says she'd have done it if she was a bit younger. She began to learn Welsh in 1960 and says she can read it adequately but speaks only pidgin-Welsh.
Jan and Elizabeth divorced, but today they still live together, sharing a converted stables with a cat called Ibsen in the small north Wales village of Llanystumdwy, just up the road from Lloyd George's old home. Their relationship is, of course, by any standard remarkable. Elizabeth knew of Jan's belief that she was a woman from the outset and observers claimed that, if anything, Elizabeth accepted the inevitability of the sex-change before Jan did. Watching them now when they are together, preparing lunch or prompting each other with old stories, they are a touching mixture of old friends, sisters and, still, husband and wife.
Trieste, like many of Morris's other books, is dedicated to Elizabeth, and Morris has already taken possession of the headstone that will go on their joint grave on a small island on the River Dwyfor behind the house. The inscription will read, in Welsh and English, "Here are two friends, at the end of one life". "It was a marriage that had no right to work," claimed Morris in Conundrum, "yet it worked like a dream, living testimony, one might say, to the power of mind over matter - or of love in its purest sense over everything else."
But even without the sex-change, Morris's extensive travelling meant the marriage was never a clichéd suburban arrangement. Elizabeth would be left holding the baby, literally, so their son Henry was born when James was on Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary is his godfather. Morris had gone to the Times straight from Oxford and within two years was being vetted by Everest expedition leader John Hunt for his suitability to make the trip. "Hunt had been Montgomery's staff officer," Morris explains, "and he had the same attitude. Instead of 'this fellow Rommel is a nuisance', it was 'this mountain Everest is a nuisance, let's fix it'." Morris says he would have done anything to get the story. "I was a sucker for the romance of newspapers, especially for a huge story like that. If someone had turned up with a radio I would have happily smashed it up if they were going to get the story before me."
Morris's first book came in 1956, when he published Coast To Coast, about a journey across America. It was ecstatically reviewed, particu larly in America where her reputation has been, if anything, greater than at home. His journalism was in huge demand and one friend recalls Morris buying a car on the proceeds of one article. She has subsequently spent more time in America than any other country outside the UK.
The book of the Himalayas expedition, Coronation Everest, was not published until 1957, by which time Morris had left the Times because the paper would not allow its journalists to write books. His family moved to a home in the French Alps from where he intended to be a full-time writer and in the next two years he published first Sultan In Oman then The Market Of Suleika, which was a political tour d'horizon of the Middle East; a book of reportage about apartheid called South African Winter; and a history of the Hashemite Kings. But he was again working as a journalist, this time for the Guardian, which had lured him back to cover the Suez crisis, offering him the chance to work six months of the year for the paper and six months on his books. This arrangement lasted five years, but Morris says he was never really comfortable, complaining that, "the paper had its roots in northern non-conformism, not a faith that appealed to me".
A proposed move to the Observer was abandoned after a disastrous interview with then editor David Astor. Morris had just covered the British withdrawal from Iraq and Jordan for the Guardian and Astor asked him his opinion. "I said I think the British empire, although in retreat, is on the whole a force for good in the world, and therefore I think that fighting a rearguard action is the right and honourable thing to do," recalls Morris. "Of course this was the exact opposite of what the Observer thought, so I didn't join the paper."
The journalist and television presenter Alan Whicker, then a fellow war correspondent, first met Morris when they shared a flat in Egypt. Morris was already a star because of Everest, and Whicker says "he was easy to admire as a colleague. He was quite quiet, very neat and rather a prim young man, although also laconic and funny. She is patently very nice now and he was too, although he was a little waspish at times, and I think she has retained just enough acerbity to avoid boredom."
Morris's period of dissatisfaction with his newspaper career ended in 1960 with the success of Venice, which enabled him to write full-time. The book was written while the family were living in the city during six months away from the Guardian. "It didn't seem like a key moment at the time," Morris says now, "but it was. It was better than anything I'd written before, and some would say better than I've written since." She says it was less a case of finding a voice and more the voice finding something that was right for it. By the mid-60s it had been followed by studies of Spain and then Oxford, which cemented his reputation.
Paul Clements, who has written an insightful, critical study of Morris, says the strength of these books, all still in print, is that "James Mor ris's writing is almost impervious to time. Venice, Oxford, and Spain are timeless books. Even if the buildings change, the way he describes, for instance, the sound of a place, makes it still fresh.."
Simon Winchester also commends Morris's use of the narrative periphery. "She is great with the little charming and tangential footnote. She can tell a ripping story but then attaches to the main core so many little asides and adornments that you feel constantly rewarded by her writing."
Morris says that Pax Britannica "is the best thing I've done. I'd been reading Gibbon and I thought how wonderful it would be if some Roman centurion in the last days of the empire had written not only a description of the empire, but also something about his own feelings as well. Then I thought, 'here I am, on the collapsing frontiers of the British empire, why don't I do it?' I hope that's how it is read in 100 years, as being by someone who was actually there."
The three parts of the trilogy were published in 1968, '73 and '78. All were initially published under the name James Morris, although subsequent reprints have used Jan. Morris's physical transformation from man to woman had begun in the early 60s, when he began taking female hormones, and was concluded with an operation in a Casablanca clinic in 1972. Morris will publish a new edition of Conundrum next year, 30 years after she became a woman. "Some of it now reads as very dated," she says, "particularly passages about the attitudes of men to women, but I've decided to leave it, it's such a period piece."
Morris has endured constant physical scrutiny ever since. People comment that she drives her sporty cars like a man and that she whistles, an apparently male trait. The writer Paul Theroux, who says he doesn't "think there is a writer alive who had Jan Morris's serenity or strength," ended an account of a visit to her home with a reference to Tootsie, the 1982 film in which Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who pretends to be an actress. Whicker speaks for many when he says how uneasy he was about their first meeting after the operation. "I was staggered to learn that he had gone to Morocco, and was nervous about meeting her afterwards. Do I shake her hand or kiss her cheek? Do I buy her a beer or a plate of cucumber sandwiches? A few years later I was in Hong Kong and out of the street maelstrom I heard someone shouting my name. Jan came over to me all smiles and said I hadn't changed a bit. I could n't say the same for her."
Robin Day, an Oxford contemporary of Morris, claimed the most embarrassment he ever felt on television was when asking Morris about her sex life. "I was reduced to a gibbering incompetent mess," he recalled. "I said , 'Do you?... Can you tell us how often? Can you live a f-f-full life?' Of course, she knew exactly what I was getting at. She pulled herself up and said it was the most disgracefully intrusive question and that she would be complaining to the director-general."
Sir Patrick Nairne, a former senior civil servant, first met Morris as a neighbour in London nearly 50 years ago. He praises her bravery in every aspect of her life. "The descent down Everest was exceptionally dangerous; it was just one example of the courageous commitment to exploration which, I have sometimes thought, led Jan Morris to face the dangers of fulfilling what she had always felt - that she was really a woman, and then to go through with it alone in North Africa."
Morris acknowledges that "I do like a bit of danger and I don't get much now," and says she mostly enjoyed the social dangers of the sex-change. "There was a spice to it as there is in any undercover work. For a time I was a member of two clubs in London, one as a man and one as a woman, and I would sometimes, literally, change my identity in a taxi between the two. Anyone would be entertained by that." Nairne says that a couple of Morris's own lines about one of her heroes, Admiral of the Fleet Jackie Fisher, who was first sea lord at the outbreak of the first world war, could equally apply to her. "She wrote that the 'greatest of his gifts was an ageless genius for delight'," recalls Nairne, and that, "'he played life as an artist might play it'. I think that is also true of Jan."
Morris has said that her first ambition was to be a novelist but she was ruined by journalism: "I thought journalism was the route in because I'd read people like Hemingway and Steinbeck, but I don't think I was right." However, Last Letters From Hav, her debut novel published in 1985, made the Booker short list, although Morris was dismayed that her notes from the imaginary city of Hav were assumed to be an orthodox travel book: "The map room of the Royal Geographical Society asked for a copy." A second novel, Our First Leader, was published last year. It is a satirical account of an independent Welsh state being established by a victorious Adolf Hitler following the second world war.
Morris claims that the idea of Wales was there from childhood, although it played little part in her upbringing. "I knew it was my dead father's country, and so properly mine too." The distinguished Welsh writer Emyr Humphreys praises Morris for making, "a considerable contribution to Welsh cultural and literary life. She has always backed the language in a very positive way and she lives in a sort of a Welsh Shangri-la centred round Portmeirion, where there's quite a circle of people who write and are interested in the arts."
She was awarded a CBE in 1998 but calls her 1992 election to the Gorsedd of bards - the assembly of poets, musicians and other representatives of Welsh culture - her proudest honour. She is a member of Plaid Cymru, although currently out of sorts with a leadership she regards as seeking votes in the English-speaking south Wales valleys at the expense of its traditional Welsh-speaking supporters in the north. One observer says "a lot of English-speaking Wales would look a little askance at her. They would see her as a romantic nationalist who has come from the outside with a selective and distorted view of Wales based on a too-passionate identification with a small, marginal and reactionary part of it."
Simon Winchester says, "I was reading Decline And Fall the other day and there is a paragraph in that from the hero, who loathes the Welsh. I realised I couldn't even bring myself to read it to Jan because she'd be so furious." A hint of how mainstream her views are in the culture in which she lives is that in what some would see as a socially conservative region she has never lost a friend because of the sex change.
Professor M Wynn Thomas, director of the centre for research into English literature and language in Wales at the University of Wales, Swansea, says: "You could say she has gone native, but a kinder, and more accurate description, is that she is an elective Welsh person, in a distinguished tradition of writers who have chosen Welshness. These people imaginatively reconstruct Wales as much as they discover it."
Morris goes out of her way to draw a careful distinction between nationalism, "with its implications of chauvinism and aggression, and a patriotism that respects language and tradition and national traits". She has been a long-standing and idealistic supporter of a European union project that is not a melting pot, but a framework for coexistence between independent and distinctive cultures. At its most benign, this could also be a description of the old British empire, but the attack on America has shaken her hopes and beliefs.
"Last summer I travelled round the world sort of looking for the new zeitgeist," she explains. "I always thought one of the most hopeful things about my century - the last century - was that people and cultures were coming together. But travelling around, even before New York, it seemed to me that this really wasn't working. Everywhere I went people were either fed up with being bullied by other cultures, or of other cultures coming in.
"I was in Sydney when the Afghans were on that freighter. And even in the Australians, whom we thought had at last come to terms with the aboriginals, all the racism that was instinctive and intuitive came out again. You can see it here as well, with the response to asylum seekers and the religious or race riots in Bradford. I was going around thinking about the zeitgeist and getting pretty gloomy and then on the day I got home there was the World Trade Centre. The zeitgeist had declared itself."
Life at a glance James Humphrey Morris
Born: October 2 1926, Clevedon, Somerset.
Education: Chorister at Oxford University; Lancing College; Sandhurst; Christ Church, Oxford.
Family: 1949 Marries Elizabeth Tuckniss (five children).
Career: 1945-'49 British Army; '51-56 staff reporter the Times; '57-62 staff reporter the Guardian.
Some books as James Morris: 1956 Coast To Coast; '57 Sultan In Oman; The Market Of Seleukia; '58 Coronation Everest; '60 Venice; '64 The Presence Of Spain; '65 Oxford; Pax Britannica Trilogy ('68 The Climax Of Empire; '73 Heaven's Command; '78 Farewell The Trumpets).
Some books as Jan Morris: 1974 Conundrum; '84 The Matter Of Wales; '85 Last Letters From Hav; '87 Manhattan '45; '88 Hong Kong; '89 Pleasures Of A Tangled Life; '94 A Machynlleth Triad; '97 Fifty Years Of Europe; '99 Lincoln; 2000 Our First Leader; '01 Trieste.
Trieste is published by Faber and Faber at £16.99.