Field Notes: Walking the Territory
Maxim Peter Griffin, London: Unbound, 132pps, hb., £16.99
Several years ago, when I was thinking about writing a book about Lincolnshire, I found a strikingly original Twitter account. Almost every day, the seemingly tireless Maximpetergriff posted pictures painted during or after apparently endless walks across Lincolnshire, in all weathers and states of mind, showing the things he had seen in clear and luminous tones – birds, buildings, clouds, dogs, people, planes, planets, plants, pylons, rains, roads, skies, stars and suns.
These things had not just been seen, but also looked at – everyday things uplifted by a strong sense of their possibilities, made resplendent in modern hues. Nothing seemed beneath this observer’s notice, nothing predictable in this parallel Lincolnshire, his glowing images intercut with staccato captions about bats overflying, bridges crossed, dogs howling, insects hurrying, litter lying, people overheard, the smell from takeaways, strange stones picked up, waterways running slickly away under moonlight.
The images were small, apparently simple and spontaneous, but in truth were full of thought. This was a county beyond conventional depictions, a painterly psychogeography; here were Englands within England. This walker was plainly no pedestrian, but dashed off little-known vistas with verve, influenced by the likes of Nash and Piper while also being confidently contemporary; as he records, “two older ramblers look on the work with dismay”.
Some of these evanescent images have now been confined within the boundaries of a book, crowdfunded by those who liked this take on this territory. Field Notes’ freeze-frame cover suggests the unusualness of the author’s perspectives, and the élan of his approach. A redder than real sun stands in a yellow-brown sky, silhouetting black grasses. Geese power south from Scandinavia in a sky like a destroyer’s dazzle pattern. Suggestions of cirrus shadows spot Ravilious-reminiscent fields. Cruciform crows angle home over saltmarsh. White pylons overlay lands filled with decayed life-forms. On the inside back cover, where we expect an author photograph, we find a fugitive Everyman in a raincoat, painted from behind on a beach improbably alchemised from greens and blacks – the self-effacing artist as Sebaldian character, stepping out sturdily across the echoing east.
Griffin is sometimes sentimental, but never nostalgic; the book, like many of his Twitter posts, ends on the word “Onwards”. Yet he honours equally the mammoths that stomped drowned Doggerland (whose bones are taken up by trawlers), the antiquarians and eccentrics who discovered or dreamed our ideas of England, and today’s young English, heedlessly in the moment yet standing on the same fossiliferous foundations. Seams of gaseous Kimmeridge, outcrops of chalk, flint hagstones, the slimed tree-roots exposed at the lowest tides and the movements of muntjac are in a continuum with John Aubrey, boys on BMX bikes, exhausted seaside resorts and whooshing wind-turbines, while overhead ley-lines intersect with jet-fighter flight paths.
Field Notes is an account of one closely-noticed, deeply felt year in Lincolnshire, starting for the author (predictably, unpredictably) in October, with a Humbrol-hazed moon announcing the equinox, and the coming of the cold. “Look – the peak of autumn”, he marvels – with anthropophagical arachnids eating each other on barbed wire, RAF Chinooks, leaking boots, geological specimens arriving in the post, and ancient tracks to towerless churches passed over by Pevsner. “Look” again, he urges us, at the waning of the year, the chiaroscuros of clouds, the shadows of fences, the darkness under trees, the unlikely reds of earth, the arsenics and Prussian blues of limitless firmaments.
November brings branches waving against vastness, bleached bones in dunes, beachcombed sealskins and plastic bottles, deserted caravan parks, huge ships hove to off Spurn Point, memories of the drowned. An Airfix-coloured pillbox gives rigidity to the dynamic landscape, and a gun port leads into blacker than blackness. December holds the old names of ditches, mysterious murmurations, Mesolithic mirrors, thoughts of Raymond Briggs and memories of Mablethorpe Carnival Queens, the turning of this twelvemonth accepted as part of the epic, indifferent, unalterable cosmic churn; “The ocean will have us all – good.” Deep Time, East Midlandian history and today meet and mingle, even his cooking over campfires a sensory link with aurochs-eating, the crude charcuterie once carried out in willow-meads ages ago eaten by the waves.
Month by month, step by sometimes blistered step, sketch by swift sketch, we glimpse something of this arcane county’s blend of beauty and bathos, its grand desolations so often made mean by bungalows, car boots, leylandii, phone masts, and the demolition derbies of Skegness. There is grit in this Lincolnshire, some hardness and ugliness – asbestos sheds, chicken concentration-camps with humming extractors and the sharp stink of ammonia, algae-choked dykes, desperate biro notes found on the ground, rat-gnawed rubbish, washed-up whales, a man in an oxygen mask expending too much of his short time selling 1970s cassettes. But the overarching impression is deeply positive – room to breathe and self-realisation under the biggest of big skies, despite the oncoming storm-fronts of life.
Field Notes is filmic, impressionistic, and personal. It also manages to be unpretentious. In Griffinland, knowledge of the exploits of Alexander, Welsh poetry, Kurosawa, or “our pal Pieter Bruegel the Elder” co-exist chummily with pop blasting from cars, addicts passed out in hedges, shops selling tourist tat, and lost footballs floating out to the estuary. Phrases that from others might have been merely gnomic point towards places you’d want to visit. Even those who have some acquaintance with Lincolnshire will not be familiar with all the artist’s itineraries, and are certain to see new sights from his very particular vantage-points.
After long obscurity, Lincolnshire may be rejoining the mainstream of national history, with uncertain effects. This paean to little-known landmarks carries folk-memories forwards, while facing “Onwards” with equanimity. Ultimately, it suggests that whatever happens or is done, Lincolnshire has always been, and will always be, a land of graphic dreams.