Time Song, Julia Blackburn, Vintage, £25
Something in East Anglia encourages spectral visions, deep thoughts about time. The 14th-century seer Julian of Norwich dreamed of submarine realms, going
…downe into the see-ground, and there I saw hill and dalis green, semand as it were moss-begrowne, with wrekke and gravel.
In 1658, Sir Thomas Browne published Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial, inspired by Roman remains. M. R. James’s A Warning to the Curious told of supernatural vengeance visited on a man who steals an Anglian crown. Rowland Parker paid tribute to a whole sea-taken town in Men of Dunwich (1978). In Rings of Saturn (1995), W. G. Sebald’s narrator concludes ‘The east stands for lost causes’. John Gordon’s children’s tales Giant Under the Snow and Fen Runners reveal disquieting presences in the east’s slow rivers, slimy mudflats and rabbit-gnawed heaths.
For many, eastern England is a place of indeterminacy and loss, characterised by vast skies, huge churches in decayed villages, flitting birds and coasts crumbling away forever into insatiable ocean. Julia Blackburn has now added to this mordant corpus with her informative and sensitive conjuration of Doggerland, which drowned millennia ago yet still makes its presence felt, like a ghost pain from an amputated limb.
Britain was not always Shakespeare’s ‘fortress’; the North Sea conceals a vanished country that linked Kent to Calais. The Shetland Islands were formerly hills where Mesolithic hunters mislaid arrows, and the Outer Silver Pit off Flamborough Head, where Dutch dogger trawlers delve, a great sweet-water lake. ‘The land is a sea in waiting’, Matthew Hollis says in his poem Stones (2016), a bitter truth for millennia of West Doggerlanders/East Anglians. Some trawlermen claim they can sense the differing depths below them, ‘seeing’ the old courses of the Dee, Elbe, Ouse, Rhine, Thames, Tweed and the obscurer Bytham and Urstrom. Doggerland alternated between tundra and temperate steppe, reconfiguring itself when relieved of the weight of ice, only for the ice to return in rising sea-levels, until the link to Europe was lost 8,000 years ago.
Blackburn hymns the deluged land’s history from geology’s ‘Deep Time’ to today’s fragmented littorals, in 18 blank verse ‘time songs’ of uneven quality, and 45 excellent chapters that wander pleasingly between science and suggestiveness. She digresses as distantly as Neanderthal caves in Gibraltar, Arctic hunter-gatherers, and sacred grottos in Jerusalem to hint how Doggerland’s human inhabitants may have viewed their land, and cosmic lot. She is transfixed by ‘uncorrupted’ Tollund Man, sacrificed to bog gods 2,400 years ago, whose ‘private smile’ conveys the essence of prehistory.
She stopped writing fiction because she disliked ‘wide and un-signposted landscapes’, but Doggerland is wide and un-signposted enough, albeit based on accumulating evidence. We read of Happisburgh’s hominid footprints, warehouses of mammoth bones, Holme-next-the-Sea’s ‘Seahenge’ and antler harpoon points dredged up by drillers. She is fascinated by things out of time—fossils, wrong clocks, an attraction called Futureland, even a satnav’s ‘and then’. Even old rain can be remembered, through 7,000 year old pockmarks on storm-exposed sands.
Her late husband (sculptor Herman Makkink) accompanies her in imagination as she ponders extinctions and rebirths, the change and return of things, ‘intimations of things unseen’. Death to her is pure, a process rather than an end; her cremated husband was wafted skywards as surely as the Mesolithic baby in Vedbaek, Denmark, buried cradled in a swan’s wing. She ate her husband’s ashes ritualistically, their grittiness evoking evolution’s endless interments. At 71, she looks forward calmly, seeking comfort in life’s ’crowdedness’, the sentience of sediment, and the boundlessness of the sea. While she waits, she has found release by adding to our understanding of this restless realm.
This review first appeared in the 30th January 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission