UEA Spring Literary Festival 2015: Robert Macfarlane

Yesterday evening, Wednesday 11th March, I visited the University of East Anglia (UEA) to see Robert Macfarlane in-conversation with Steve Waters as part of the university’s Spring Literary Festival. Macfarlane is a British writer and academic, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

His previous works include a “loose trilogy” of books comprised of Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Wild Places (2007) and The Old Ways (2012). Macfarlane has also written Original Copy (2007) and Holloway (2013), as well as numerous introductions for books by other writers. Landmarks, his latest work, has barely been out for more than a week yet has already become a feature on the best seller lists of Amazon and Waterstones among others.

Landmarks explores the connections between literature and landscape, uncovering the power of language in shaping our sense of place, shining a light on Macfarlane’s literary predecessors and the importance of retaining the language of the natural world. It is simultaneously a book about the precision in the art of writing and the mystery that pervades the landscape, reminding us that we can never know everything about a terrain.

Yesterday Macfarlane read passages from Landmarks, engaging the audience with his witty personality. His humour shone through the conversation as he made jokes and shared anecdotes, making the event extremely enjoyable to witness. He also answered stimulus questions from Steve Waters, a fellow writer. A short Q&A followed the conversation between Waters and Macfarlane, allowing Macfarlane to respond to three questions. I asked the final question, enquiring about his favourite Edward Thomas poems (N.B. his favourites are ‘Roads’ and ‘Aspens’, which I also think are extraordinary).

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Landmarks is the extensive use of glossary. Glossaries follow each chapter, consolidating the unusual and often archaic language of the natural world in the reader’s mind. There are also some blank pages at the end of the book, encouraging readers to create a glossary of their own. It is this addition to the book that prompts reader participation, making Landmarks not just a piece of scholarly and captivating writing, but an experience.

Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us. Sometimes these traces are so faint as to be imperceptible – tiny shifts in the weather of the spirit that do not register on the usual instruments. Mostly, these marks are temporary… Certain books, though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates.

(Landmarks, ‘The Word-Hoard’. p. 12)

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