The Idea of North

In medieval times, geographers located ultima Thule as lying somewhere beyond the borders of the known world, as on the Carta Marina of 1539 (above), where it is shown (named ‘Tile’) located to the north west of the Orkney islands, with a ‘monster, seen in 1537′, a whale (‘balena’), and an orca nearby.

When I went north to Arran recently, I took with me Peter Davidson’s book, The Idea of North.  Davidson, Professor of English at the University of Aberdeen, begins with the object that lies before him on his desk and which inspired the book: a compass.  As with the compass needle, he suggests, so people have always been most powerfully attracted northwards.  In his introduction he repeats, like a mantra, the declaration that ‘everyone carries their own idea of north within them’. The Idea of North is a study, ranging widely in time and place, of some of the ways in which these ideas have found expression.

Arctic continent on the Gerardus Mercator map of 1595 (Wikipedia, click for detail)

Davidson’s book begins by facing up to a glaring inconsistency in the concept of ‘North': unless you’re at the Pole, at every point in the hemisphere there is going to be somewhere more northerly that might fuel the imagination. That imagining has generated a kaleidoscopic variety of norths, ideas of place that are quite confusingly anomalous. The north is frighteningly bleak and a killer, but it is also a region of wonders, marvels, and wealth. Evil comes from the north, but it is also the golden land of the Hyperboreans.

In Greek mythology the Hyperboreans were a mythical people who lived far to the north of Thrace. The Greeks thought that Boreas, the North Wind, lived in Thrace, and that therefore Hyperborea (‘beyond the Boreas’) lay beyond the north wind. It was a perfect land,  where the sun shone twenty-four hours a day.  It was depicted on maps until well into the middle ages (above).

Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labor and battle they live.
– Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode

Pindar also cautioned about the difficulties to be faced in seeking out the exotic north:

Neither by ship nor on foot would you find
the marvellous road to the assembly of the Hyperboreans.

Peter Davidson divides his book loosely into three sections: histories, imaginations, and topographies (it’s published as one in series entitled Topographics by Reaktion Books). The first section deals with various ideas of the north from antiquity to the 20th century, from the Hyperboreans to Caspar David Friedrich’s 1824 painting, Arctic Shipwreck, allegorically representing, Davidson suggests, the wreckage of hopes, the powerlessness of the human individual against absolute (and absolutist) forces.

An important part of the perception of the north, Davidson argues, was (and still remains) that it is a place of treasures and marvels – the prime reason for undertaking perilous voyages north.  I found his discussion of the trade in amber in this context particularly interesting.  He observes that Baltic amber beads were found in the pyramid of Tethys (3400-2400 BC) and that Schliemann found amber beads when excavating the site of Troy.  Amber was valued for its beauty and its rarity.  The ultimate example of the obsession with amber was the building of room panelled entirely in amber by the Prussian ruler Friedrich Wilhelm I in 1713.  He later gave the room panels to Tsar Peter the Great of Russia; they vanished in 1944 and have not reappeared.  In 2003, work on a reconstruction of the Amber Room by Russian craftsmen was completed, and the new room was dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The amber trade is just one example of the pursuit of valuable commodities in northern reaches which Davidson discusses: others are sea otter fur, beaver skins, and ivory from walrus and narwhals.

The reconstructed Amber Room

The ‘Imaginations’ section explores various speculations on north, ranging from the preoccupation of British writers such as WH Auden and George Orwell in the 1930s with the north as being symbolic of the crisis of capitalism with its decaying industries and poverty-stricken towns.  Davidson traces how the north became central to Auden’s work in this period – a blend of obsessions with the mining and geology of Cumberland and the northeast that he had known as an adolescent, with the sagas and landscapes of Iceland.

Eric Ravilious also had an idea of north that he carried with him all his adult life. It was fostered by books on the Arctic and the dramas of polar exploration. As a war artist, Ravilious sailed north in 1940 to the Arctic, and died in 1942 on an RAF air sea rescue flight from Iceland.  He left behind paintings that evoked what was, for him. the magical experience of sailing into the Arctic Circle and seeing the midnight sun.

Midnight Sun 1940 by Eric Ravilious

This extremely diverse section of the book also includes an extended analysis of the symbolic content and aesthetics of ice and glass, a discussion of the impact of  the northern summer on film makers such as Ingmar Bergman (in Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries) and artists such as the Norwegian Harald Sohlberg, and much else besides, including Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and ghost stories from Scandinavia to Japan.

The last section, Topographies,  touches on ideas of north in Scandinavia, Japan and China, Canada, and in northern England and Scotland. The discussion ranges from Scandinavian images of Greenland (for example, in Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) to the films of Norwegian director Knut Erik Jensen and the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi:

These paintings of dimmed interiors, with their ‘symphonic range of greys’ in which ‘even the furniture seems to have a soul of its own’ are precise realizations of an idea of north: twilit panelled rooms, rain light, a balance of serenity and melancholy.

Hammershoi: Interior with a Woman Sewing 1901

In this last section of the book, Davidson traces a northward journey, describing northern rural England, industrial sites, and the  emptiness of the borders, Scotland and the Highlands. On the way his discourse takes in Mass Observation, the photography of Humphrey Spender and the paintings of William Coldstream, the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin and Simon Armitage, and Remains of Elmet, the collaboration between Ted Hughes and photographer Fay Godwin.

If this seems a ragged journey, it is. Davidson pulls together so many differing concepts and examples that the reader is, at times left a little bewildered.  Though there is much that is fascinating, there are also longueurs (which will vary, perhaps, for each reader, depending on their individual interests).  The problem is that Davidson offers no overarching argument, but seems determined to include as many examples as he can muster of  ‘the idea of north’. But is there one unifying idea of north? Is there a specific relationship between people, culture and place that characterises all northern regions, whether in Europe, Canada or Japan?

Of course, Davidson’s selection is personal, but there will always be those who will criticise the omissions in a work like this.  For example, apart from a brief discussion of Mandelstam, I’m pretty sure there was little on Russia (it was difficult to check back because there is no index – a glaring omission in a book of this nature), and in any discussion of northern-ness in an English context, surely there should be reference to the British new wave films of the 1960s, and the novels from which they were adapted?  Music was a great absence, too: Scandinavians from Sibelius to jazz musicians such as Jan Garbarek and Terje Isungset with his ice music have produced their own deep responses to Nordic landscape and culture.

The ending of the book is magnificent. In a short epilogue entitled ‘Keeping the Twilight’ Davidson gives a beautiful description of the fading light in his study on a northern winter afternoon. He ends with two sentences that could be an abstract painting or expressionist photograph of somewhere northern:

A block of dusk above a block of moor. A smear of dark above a line of snow.

James Hamilton-Paterson drew a nice conclusion in his review for the London Review of Books:

In one sense Thule was never more than somebody else’s Timbuktu or even Atlantis: more a repository than a place on the map. Like any legendary place, it depended for survival on remaining undiscovered. As Seneca foresaw, when there was no part of the planet left unexplored, Thule would vanish. What Seneca did not foresee was global warming, which could put paid to the polar icecap within the next half-century, thus literally removing Thule’s last foundations.

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4 thoughts on “The Idea of North

  1. Not a discussion of international north (ern-ness) but of a British, or more properly, English Northern-ness, there will be a NORTH DAY on 28th September, as part of Wakefield Literary Festival. Paul Morley will discuss his latest book ‘The North’, and there will be a Panel Discussion. For further details, http://www.wakefieldlitfest.org.uk

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