In praise of Kathleen Jamie

October 2, 2020 2 Comments

The half of me that’s Scots lies buried, and usually dormant.  It comes to life when visiting Scotland.  But since my parents died, there’s less obvious reason to go, and we’ve not been there for a few years.  Sometimes I daydream about moving to live in a newly independent Scotland, released from bonehead, vicious British nationalism.  (An independent Wales would be even better, though it will be a longer wait).  I feel a similar magnetic pull northwards when I read the work of writers from Scotland.  At the moment there can be few Scottish writers as attractive as Kathleen Jamie.

Kathleen Jamie started out as, and still is, a poet.  I bought her first book of poems, Black spiders, after it came out in 1982 from Tom Fenton’s The Salamander Press in Edinburgh.  It’s a thin, handsome book, letterpress printed and sewn with thread.  There’s an enigmatic device on the cover.  Jamie was twenty and still a philosophy undergraduate in the University of Edinburgh at the time, but her book excited interest and won awards for its varied voices and sureness of language.  She’d thought of studying archaeology, and the buried past pokes through some of these early poems, as in ’Inhumation’:

No-one knows if he opened his eyes,
acknowledged the dark,
felt around, found and drank
the mead provided, supposing
himself dead.

In recent years Jamie’s found an even bigger audience for her collections of prose pieces: Findings (2005) Sightlines (2012), and now Surfacing (2019), recently out in paperback.  These share a particular flavour.  They’re highly personal, though not always autobiographical.  They reflect a life of travel, often to ‘remote’ parts, though they’re not travel books.  The natural world’s never far away – Jamie was the one who first broke the masculine grip on ‘new nature writing’ – but they’re not nature books either.  You can tell they’re the work of a poet, though the writing’s never clotted with versified prose.  Most of the pieces tell of The North, not from the perspective of a romanticising southerner, but from one who lives and works there.

Surfacing contains two long, similar pieces, ‘In Quinhagak’ and ‘Links of Noltland’.  Both describe visits to archaeological digs, one on the west coast of Alaska, the other on the island of Westray in Orkney.  We hear a lot about the excavating, the sites and finds, and the archaeologists (Jamie helps them out with their work).  What interest her more than anything else are the connections between the people who built and lived in the settlements – Alaskans 500 years ago, and Neolithic Orcadians – and their successors today.  She puzzles again and again about the ancestors’ lives and how they might be reconstructed.  But just as interesting is what significance the sites have for people now.  Jamie’s delighted to discover that the finds from the Alaskan site, Nunallaq, have sparked huge excitement among the villagers, because they give back to the community real, tangible evidence of its ancient material and cultural tradition, destroyed by the intolerant churches of the white colonists.  In short, their own, hidden history is being restored to them, for the first time.  (There’s a certain irony here: the archaeologists, beneficent and temporary colonisers, have come from Scotland.)  The finds may be small and basic – weights, harpoon heads, animal models, dance-masks – but they’re cherished, and in some cases are used to make replicas and revive lost crafts.

Kathleen Jamie spends plenty of time in the village and talks to many of its people (their way is to ‘think first, speak slowly’), but she doesn’t romanticise.  Making a living in modern Quinhagak – sea on one side, endless tundra on the other – isn’t easy.  Still, despite the ever-worsening effects of climate change, which makes winter travel more difficult, the 700 villagers, ‘hunter gatherers with a grocery store’, succeed in working in harmony with their environment.  Each season brings new ways of winning food and sharing resources.  It helps that they share the land – large expanses of it.  (From a Welsh perspective, Jamie has all too little to say about the fate of another precious resource, the Yup’ik languages.)

Links of Noltland is the site of a walled Neolithic village, less celebrated than Skara Brae but just as significant.  The site was exposed when winds stripped the coastal dunes away (another anthropogenic effect).  Again, Jamie helps on the dig, as the succeeding layers are peeled back to reveal yet earlier versions of the village.  She keeps a steady eye on both peoples, the anonymous Neolithic villagers and the current inhabitants of Westray – native island farmers (for whom cattle are as important as for the Neolithics), settlers from England and elsewhere, and temporary archaeologists.  This time it’s the archaeologists who feel the closest connection with the 5,000-year old villagers.  The locals tend to prefer the much more recent Vikings: bulls are often given the name ‘Eric’.  The star find of the dig, the ‘Westray Wife’, is a tiny, abstract stone sculpture, easily missed in the display at the heritage centre.  It seems the Vikings, just like the Alaskan colonists, caused the native cultures, and the memory of them, to disappear.  The dig is another act of restoration, of restitution.

There’s a gentle narrative to this piece.  It’s plainly told, with humour: on arrival at the dig: ‘archaeologists are accustomed to appraising what turns up; I felt duly appraised’; when a film crew arrives, the producer to the archaeologist, ‘Can you emote more?’.  From time to time the voice of the poet flashes out, in sentences like, ‘The working site had a raw, slightly wounded look, like skin after you peel off a sticking plaster’.  Or, of those buried in a chambered cairn, ‘ You would command miles, being dead, and the living could glance up at you from their fields, feel your presence, your authority, legitimising their place on the land’.

In the final, short section of ‘Links of Noltland Jamie summarises by addressing the Neolithic villagers directly, about of their experience of village life, based on the findings from the dig, and then overlaying it with our own ways of living.  It’s not all a story of ‘progress’:

Time is a spiral.*  What goes around comes around.  The box** is found again, but only after five thousand years have turned.  By now we number in our billions, have built mega-cities with instant global communications, and send spacecraft out to explore unknown shores.  We can live to be eighty, ninety, a hundred years old!  You early farmers were a success beyond measure.  But millions shrink in poverty.  Others build high walls and fabricate missiles.  Sea levels rise, storm winds are bearing down on us.  We are becoming ashamed of our own layer – plastic and waste.

Of course, we open the box, hoping for a token, a keepsake, even a message of some kind, but there is nothing inside.

*The spiral is a local Neolithic motif, best known from its repeated use on the ‘Westray Stone’, now in the Pierowall Heritage Centre, Westray.

**In the hearth of one of the houses the archaeologists found a small rectangular chest, of unknown purpose; there was nothing inside it.

The shorter pieces in the book show different kinds of ‘surfacing’.  Two are retrievals from personal memory, of time spent in a Tibetan village at the time of sudden tension, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. The first, ‘A Tibetan dog’, recounts a later dream, at a time of personal stress, which trawls up from the subconscious a long-ago incident in Tibet, recovered across the ‘undammed rush of life’, involving an unexpected bite from a dog.  The second, ‘The wind horse’, interweaves memories of the village people, transient visitors, political oppression and the quiet opposition to it by Buddhists and artists.  The penultimate piece, ‘Elders’, ends with the death of Jamie’s father – perhaps the beginning of yet another kind of surfacing.

The Anchorage Daily News is right, this is ‘entire jewel of a book’.

Comments (2)

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  1. Mairi Ann Cullen says:

    Hi Andrew
    I liked your article on Kathleen Jamie. Just letting you know she wasn’t the first Scottish woman to break into nature writing. I highly recommend to you the writing of Nan Shepherd. She wrote novels and poetry and wonderful prose about the natural world around her in the Grampians. Her work inspired Robert MacFarlane and others. Canongate publish all her books.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Many thanks, Mairi Ann. I discovered The living mountain some years ago, thanks to Robert Macfarlane, and found it a very striking book. I’m not sure anyone since has achieved the same effect – such a fierce concentration, by foot and by pen, on a (quite large) section of upland country. You’ve reminded me there’s more to Nan Shepherd than that one book.

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