Lead book review

Fishing for meaning in vanished Doggerland

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

Somewhere deep in the water-thick layers of Time Song, Julia Blackburn says, funnily, that in Danish, ‘the word for book is bog’.And Time Song itself is a kind of beautiful bog, a memoir-cum-meditation focusing on the stretch of land that once connected Britain to the Continent but was drowned by the rising waters at the end of the Ice Age. It is a subject for now — where for God’s sake would Brexit be if Essex and Yorkshire were still parts of the lower Rhineland? — but Blackburn’s thoughts run deeper than that, to the long and subtle conversation between the present and past, to the preservations of time and its erosions.

Chapter by chapter she explores Doggerland, the past and herself, laying down one tissue-thin piece of time after another, each layer concealing the life that once lived on the surface, so that time itself becomes a kind of enclosing and preservative substance, but one that can be opened or washed away. And what was once preserved is again revealed, here in an English book or in a Danish bog, in the trawl nets of fishermen working in the North Sea over what were once the mammoth-grazed pastures of Doggerland, in the crumbling beachside cliffs of East Anglia or in Blackburn’s own memory.

Someone once told me about finding an aspen leaf deep in a peat bog and how the leaf emerged as perfect and fresh as the moment in autumn when it had dropped from the branch and settled on the surface of clear brown water, then sank and lay there unchanged for more than 1,000 years. As it was exposed to the air, the leaf in the hand of the person who picked it up turned pale and disintegrated and ceased to be.

Care and damage are intimates. Blackburn’s husband, the Dutch sculptor Herman Makkink, has died a year or so before the book opens, and he is everywhere in these pages, present but absent, preserved but living:

He has vanished and yet he remains close, beneath the surface as it were, so perhaps I am also trying to catch a glimpse of him within the great jumble of everything else that has been lost from our sight.

As with all other aspects of Blackburn’s extraordinarily quiet sensibility (‘quiet’ is her most approving and loving word; whenever people, places and atmospheres are beautiful, that is what she admires them for), this sadness is not lugubrious, but bright and tender, alighting on what she finds and hears with a vital clarity and exactness.

Makkink was ten years older than Blackburn, and this is not a testament on the fringes of her own death. It is an anatomy of melancholy; but she is often funny, and the eccentricity of the pursuit of the deep past does not escape her. Dutch palaeontologists live in houses that are barely habitable for the mammoth bones crammed into their loos and hallways. English fossil-hunters dive into garages full of odds and ends from the cryptozoic, the era of hidden life. As she sips their milky tea, she finds herself accepting almost anything these wonderful obsessives feel like giving her — all the old life picked from cliff and sand, handed on to her, much as the past itself has handed them on. She takes them home and lays them out on the long pale table in her husband’s room, where they look like silent music.

East Anglia, where Blackburn lives, is the round soft bulb of England. Even on a map it looks blurred and sea-moulded, its sea-edge a place for revelatory collapse. This was W.G. Sebald’s stamping ground in The Rings of Saturn, and like that book, Time Song is a natural history of destruction and erosion, the chance remains of worlds that have been swept away.

But Sebald’s deep nihilistic horror at the meaninglessness of things is not Blackburn’s. For her, as for him, reality is in flux. On those disintegrating beaches,

everything is shifting, nothing is fixed, there is no stillness, no silence, no place, just the rasping breath of waves on shingle, the wind, the accumulating sandbanks, the diminishing sandbanks.

But these places, because they have no beginning, also have no ending. They become a source of calm. This coming and going is how it is.

Blackburn has always written journals and diaries and made drawings, inventories of who she was and where she was, describing the life of her mind and what she has seen around her, memoirs of her troubled youth, her walks and discoveries in the valleys of Liguria, the lives of other artists and adventurers. And this long practice has given a kind of chamois-leather suppleness to what she writes. ‘Good teaching, like good parenting,’ Daniel Mendelsohn, the New Yorkclassicist and critic, wrote last year, ‘both arise from an acceptance of the inevitability of death.’

That may be true of good writing too, and it is at the root of the sense of wisdom in Time Song. Blackburn neither tunnels nor digs, but accepts and sifts. Rarely have I read a book in which there is such an entrancingly liquid and easy drift between the metaphorical and the actual, so that when she describes the ‘breathing’ surface of the North Sea, there is a crossing of boundaries in the phrase: breathing both now and in deep time, the ebbing and flowing of the sea across the land that for the moment lies beneath it, but will just as surely one day ebb again. It feels both Wordsworthian and Woolfian, accepting the dissolution of boundaries in a dynamic tidal psychic geography that becomes Blackburn’s description of the nature of being.

There is no transcendence in this, but a quiet sanity, and no grand orchestral performance. Instead, snatches of song and vision from the edges of destruction, almost a scrapbook from a journey into the past. One of her interleaved ‘Time Songs’ begins: ‘Footprints need soft sediment/ If they are to hold the memory/Of who passed by.’

Each chapter is headed with an ink drawing by the perfectly named Enrique Brinkmann. These are themselves intriguing boundary-crossers — sometimes fragmentary music, half-re-used scores from some Neanderthal midden; or blotched maps and notations of a forgotten country, left out in a few centuries of rain; or landscapes seen quickly and at speed from far off; ghost calligraphy from the edgelands; the lifetracks and desire-lines of cryptozoa dipped in ancient ink.

If the great Romantic love affair with loss is one of the presiding presences here, in which existence seems to be a pattern of eddies and back-turnings, an endlessly shifting density field in which identity and truth come and go, then a kind of rooty, rootling, materialistic Stig-of-the-Dump spirit is the other. The book loves the stuff the past delivers. In the prehistory storeroom of the British Museum, Blackburn fingers and feels the human artefacts from the palaeolithic, sensing

old wealth crammed into the darkness. Things that had been offered as gifts to the earth or to the water; things that had been buried to honour the bodies of the dead; things that had enabled people to hunt and to survive.

Time may be eating away at the shore, but erosion reveals precious things. The more that goes, the more appears. In this way, Blackburn says, she is learning prehistory ‘hand to mouth’, hunter-gathering in the leavings of the past, hearing that fishermen dream of the land that lies under the sea and walk over it in their dreams, loving ‘the pleasure of diving into one’s own uncertainty’ and sensing the stream of her own imaginative empathy pouring into the most ancient of containers.

This is not science or history (there are enough books like that) but understanding — so that in her hands the ancient Doggerland landscape of distant summers becomes filled again with scatters of sneezewort, with ‘Dryas octopetala, the stems woody and tortuous, the leaves glabrous above, tomentose beneath’. Where the air is

thick with the sound of the birds: curlews’ laments, whimbrels’ babbling in seven notes; the triple call of redshank and greenshank, the soft twickering of sanderlings, the rattle of turnstones.

And she imagines how those ancient moory meadows are overcome with the sudden enveloping darkness of an 8,000-year-old thunderstorm breaking over the aurochs and the red deer, half-camouflaged in woodland that is no longer there. This book is a wonder.

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