Marcel Kruger on walking, observation, global warming and the new flâneur in Rob Cowen’s Common Ground.
Rob Cowen, Common Ground (Windmill/Penguin Random House, 2015) 338pp
In recent years, many writers in the anglophone world have taken over the mantle of the walker-discoverer from the European flâneur of the mid-19th to early 20th century. Robert McFarlane, Rebecca Solnit, Ian Sinclair and many more have become the spiritual successors of Baudelaire, Robert Walser, Walter Benjamin and Franz Hessel. And that this new wave of walkers and psychogeographers should appear in a time of globalization and interconnectedness is no wonder. The intimidating mass of news these days, the sheer amount of opinion on everything from the skin colour of the new US president to life in the Swedish city of Malmö instantly available on Twitter, the negative aspects of globalization and consumerism felt by everyone, all have lead to a proliferation of the minuscule and a new literary awareness of the immediate surroundings of oneself. Whatever the chosen topic, from sunken roads to loneliness in cities, the uniting thread is looking inward while exploring one’s immediate surroundings and their place in history; quite often focussing on a specific place in the city, the country, or the area in between: edgeland.
Rob Cowen’s work is a recent addition to this canon of place writing and edgeland exploration, and a fine one too. Cowen, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster, had previously published ‘Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild’ together with Leo Critchley in 2012 before releasing ‘Common Ground’ in 2015. His book is about a patch of land outside our contemporary perception, to be precise about triangle of edgeland near his new home in the Harrogate suburb of Bilton. Charting his exploration of this area, bordered by an old Victorian railway embankment and the river Nidd, over the span of twelve months, from winter to winter, intermingling it with his personal memoirs of moving from London, loosing his job and the pregnancy of his wife, Cowen immerses himself in the area and gives voices to its many unseen inhabitants. His journey to the edgeland is also a journey of self-discovery: ‘in seeking to unlock, discover and make sense of a place, I was invariably doing the same to myself’.
As it transpires, ‘Common Ground’ also takes Cowen back to those areas where as a child he experienced moments of ‘condensed wildness’, such as an encounter with a grass snake. At the same time this is a book about transformation, about the power of these overlooked spaces, and the capability of observation and prose turning dirt patches into sites of mystery and discovery. At times however, Cowen overdoes the image of the outward-staring, inside-reflecting observer: these passages are full of metaphors and mixed similes, flying from bird to bee in one paragraph.
But that does not dimish the joy of reading this book. ‘Common Ground’ is written in the same vein as Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘Scarp’ and Gareth E. Rees ‘Marshland’, both works focusing on localized areas, the north Middlesex/south Hertfordshire escarpment in Papadimitriou’s case and London’s Hackney Marshes in Rees’ book. Both employ a variety of styles, media and viewpoints in their books, and so does Cowen. At times he is the reflecting narrator, a hungry fox, a young supermarket clerk on her 18th birthday, and an officer returning from the slaughter of the Somme in 1916. In addition, each chapter is devoted to a certain ‘spirit animal’ inhabiting the edgeland, and our interaction with or ignorance of it – foxes, tawny owls, hares, mayflowers, swifts, all are introduced by linocuts made by Cowen himself and described with fine biological details. Swifts, for example, sleep in the air and were first observed doing so by a French fighter pilot during the World War I.
This is no book for those relying on compartmentalization when choosing their reading material, and also not for those inhabitants of literary ivory towers tending to sigh deeply when hearing the words ‘creative nonfiction’. And it is equally not a book for those seeking solace in nature – the doom of the edgeland is foreshadowed throughout the book (it is to be built upon), and Cowen weaves in global warming and the ignorance of it in cruel detail: ‘These are dark days when those elected to run our world pour scorn on scientific consensus for short-term gain and to protect the interests of mining, oil and gas corporations.’
Instead, the majority of the book and its hauntingly fine prose are a testament to what place- and memoir writing are capable of. It also expands the boundaries of genre further, blurring the boundaries of memoir, natural and human history as well as the novel in the tradition of W.G. Sebald, who once said, when asked what label the publisher should apply to his works: ‘All of them.’
In the end, Cowen demonstrates that it is easy to open our eyes to richness of life around us instead of the one delivered through portable screens. Like his predecessor Walter Benjamin, who stated that ‘street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley’, Cowen shows us that the same applies to dirt patches strewn with litter, the dry twigs there hiding the young hares right next to the overgrown Victorian railway embankment, and their importance for all of us.
Marcel Krueger is a writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin who often writes about places and their history. His essays and articles have been published in the Daily Telegraph, CNN Travel, the Matador Network, Slow Travel Berlin and many more, and he also works as Book Editor for Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. ‘Berlin – A Literary Guide for Travellers’ will be out on I.B. Tauris in the UK in July 2016. More info about Marcel can be found at www.kingofpain.org