I love the blended beauty of everything Julia Blackburn writes, and this latest work is no exception. At its heart is the story of the creation, existence and disappearance of a country now called Doggerland, a huge and fertile area which once connected the entire east coast of England with mainland Europe until it was finally submerged by rising sea levels around 5,000BC.
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.
This is not a book about Brexit. However, given that it concerns itself with the once-inhabited landscape that for many millennia linked the east coast of England to the west coast of continental Europe – the Doggerland of the subtitle – and given that is has been published now, just as we are on the verge of leaving the European Union, it is impossible to read without Brexit in mind. It is a magical, mesmerising book – a book which makes you feel giddy at the thought of the deep gulf of history hidden just beneath your feet – and if it can be said to shed any light on the political tangle in which we find ourselves, it is perhaps this: that, while Brexit might seem like a big deal today, in the grand scheme of geological time it will barely register at all, beyond perhaps a gigantic queue of lorries, fossilized just outside Dover.
There is almost too much in this splendidly rich book, which eventually reveals itself as being, among much else, a ‘time song’ to Blackburn’s dead husband. I do not think that the poems and drawings scattered through it really work, but I admire the intelligence, the appetite for discovery and the shining imagination and perception that have gone into it. I am also pleased and surprised to learn that the familiar, cold North Sea is still today quite extraordinarily full of prehistoric, fossilised bones, which are routinely dredged up by fishing boats.
Knowing that some of her research on subjects such as anthropology and carbon dating are difficult and, perhaps, a little dull in summary, Blackburn has punctuated her narrative with a series of what she calls Time Songs, but are basically narrative poems, most of which are inspired by her background reading.
I must be honest: I was not sure about these. Some readers may appreciate their concision, and the change of pace they represent, but they seemed to me to be at once both plodding and a bit fey. I could have done without them.
There has always been a speculative, unsteady quality to Blackburn’s writing. She doesn’t so much research the past as think her way into absences: Goya, Napoleon, Billie Holiday, a partisan village in wartime Liguria. Practice work, she calls it, looking at the meadow behind her house and imagining the castle that was once there, or gazing out at the familiar grey waves and trying to will time backwards, the sea receding, the forests restored... But she also does something more subtle, an interweaving or drawing together of times, juxtaposing the now and the then until the gap contracts. Tenses shift abruptly, within the field of a paragraph. She describes a Mesolithic burial, a baby cradled on a swan’s outstretched wing, and then, casually, her own husband’s cremation, the way they painted the cardboard coffin with a jagged line of red ochre, for the mountains he loved, and crowned it with a circlet of ivy.