Friday, 22 December 2017

English Eerie

The recently finished TV series Detectorists is a story of ambition, often thwarted and often ridiculed, of malevolent outside influences, of being true to one's nature, of the community of the living and the dead, and of the consolations of fellowship. It is both dynamically conservative and organically socialist. In its material concerns, it is of an ilk with Cash in the Attic and Escape to the Country, but it rises above cupidity and entitlement not simply through the dramatisation of solidarity and the deployment of wit but by knitting its themes into the tradition of the English eerie (historical echoes, revelatory nature, symbolic animals), which is in essence a meditation on historic property rights and dispossession. For all its bucolic charm, there are links here with the rural horror of Ben Wheatley's A Field in England and the desolation of Iain Sinclair's London Orbital. It is, I'd argue, not just one of the cleverest comedies to have appeared on British television in many years, but an essential Brexit narrative, combining self-absorption, resentment and a stoic acceptance of fate. This doesn't mean that it comes down on one side or another of the debate, but that it recognises the common deficiencies as much as the common decencies.

Though there are occasional villains (Lance's ex-wife) and moments of farce (the mayor's chain lost while dogging), the central thread is the ongoing contest between the two detecting pairs, Andy and Lance and "Simon and Garfunkel". This is not merely a struggle over the control of land (detecting permissions) but a clash of language. The latter two are not only uncertain in their own names (revealed to be Peters and Lee near the end of the second series), but they frequently change their club name, employing ever more pretentious and latinate forms, from AntiquiSearchers to Terra Firma. Peters is condescending, pedantic and given to florid terminology, not to mention the flourishing of legalistic pieces of paper. Andy and Lance are sarcastic, often mock-obtuse, and prone to laying verbal traps. This is Norman meets Saxon, which has an inevitable echo in remainer versus leaver. The end of the third series sees reconciliation against a backdrop in which Andy and Lance's separate homes are secured, suggesting perhaps that we can all get over Brexit so long as we fix the housing problem.

So what exactly is the eerie and why is it particularly English? It isn't the same as horror because it isn't directly threatening. The overriding sense is of something that has disappeared but left a reproachful memory. It is a haunting without a ghost. The eerie is also different to the uncanny. The latter is disconcerting because it is ambivalent - Freud defined the Unheimlich as something that is both at once familiar and frightening, like meeting your double (the quintessential modern form of the uncanny is the android). If horror is about threats to the person from without, and the uncanny speaks of the uncertainty of personhood, then the eerie is about an absent, historical other. It is also necessary to distinguish the eerie from the psychogeographical, which is part of a different (if detourned) tradition of the ruminative traveller in an antique land. Psychogeography is about the difficulty of holding onto the past: an aestheticisation of decay and the redundancy of the built environment. The eerie is about a past that is unwilling to let go of us, but which never gets round to actually making a demand on us. If the uncanny is an expression of an imprecise anxiety, the eerie is an expression of an imprecise guilt.

Some see English eeriness, particularly when it harks back to Saxon or Roman times, as an acknowledgement that the English are a nation formed by invasions and intermingling. Others see its sensibility of place as arising from a Romantic reaction to industrialisation and the emergence of an ecological consciousness: as people became aware of their own feelings independent of traditional hierarchies and communities, so they began to think of themselves as situated in nature. If fact, all these interpretations are attempts to project a modern sensibility backwards. For example, there is a big difference between the layered history of Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, which is essentially a defence of seizure and thus empire, and the modern "conquest" trope that seeks to claim the common victimhood of colonialism. Likewise, few Romantic painters or poets had any real exposure to the geographically limited early industrialisation of the late 18th century. This desire to conjure an ancient lineage is actually a postmodern technique, as seen in the inspiration that the Urn Burial of Thomas Browne (the antiquarian's antiquarian) provided for writers attuned to the eerie, such as Borges and Sebald. That both were foreigners is significant: the English eerie is about alienation, not nativist nostalgia.

Though eerieness has a long literary heritage, such as the ghost stories of M R James, the role of Pan in Edwardian art and literature (The Wind in the Willows, the stories of Saki etc), and the magical realism of G K Chesterton, the English variety (and it is very much Anglo-Saxon, the Celtic fringe offering a wholly different mythos and sense of place) really comes into its own during the postwar years, and is very much a product of location filming. True eeriness is audio-visual rather than textual. The foundation for this was the upsurge in sentimental interpretations of an England (and specifically the southern and eastern counties) facing imminent invasion that appeared in the early 1940s. This was a revival of the earlier invasion literature of the Edwardian era, filtered through the neo-romantic British art of the late-1930s. Though these were propaganda works directed at emphasising "what we're fighting for" (e.g. Listen to Britain) and encouraging US support by an appeal to shared heritage (e.g. A Canterbury Tale), the sense of both a demanding past and scores to be settled clearly owed much to the new salience of class (e.g. the squire's treachery in Went the Day Well) and property (e.g. the wild meadow threatened by development in Tawny Pipit).

The eerie would be given a fresh turn in the postwar years as the rebuilding of Britain encroached on the countryside in a manner far more systematic and intrusive than had occurred in Victorian times. New towns, motorways and airports radically shifted the boundaries of urban life at the same time that mechanisation depopulated the rural economy. We were simultaneously living in a collapsed past (the popularity of pageants and murals that mixed historical eras was noticeable over the century between the 1870s and 1970s, suggesting that the ahistoricity and pastiche of postmodernism had long modernist roots) and in a collapsed future (the competing claims of SF and apocalyptic literature). If the eeriness of the 40s had been nostalgic and conservative, but with an egalitarian edge, the eeriness of the 50s and 60s was uncertain and increasingly characterised by foreboding, reflecting wider social changes and a gloomy geopolitics. The tension between a nostalgic turning away from the wider world (Tolkein, White and Peake, in their varied ways) and the promise-cum-threat of high-tech modernity (from the Festival of Britain to the New Wave of SF) would be a major input to the cultural ferment of the 60s, but it also drove the reactionary and pessimistic cultural currents that would appear in a variety of forms in the 70s, from the ecological movement to the National Front.

While this tension produced much that was essentially decadent (from Dan Dare to The Silmarillion), it would also produce some genuinely memorable eerie cinema that explored the themes of social change and communal revenge, such as Quatermass and the Pit and Village of the Damned (the latter based on John Wyndham's The Midwich Cukoos). Though this was hardly avant garde (Brian Aldiss memorably referred to Wyndham's books like The Day of the Triffids as "cosy catastrophes"), it is important to remember that the English eerie is an essentially middle-brow form concerned with the eruption of ancient antagonisms in a conventional setting. Despite being about an alien invasion, and thus perhaps playing to contemporary worries over immigration, Village of the Damned centres on a generational threat and the necessity of extermination (and incidentally the destruction of the big house) to secure order. Michael Reeve's 1968 film Witchfinder General is often cited as an eerie classic, however it also marks the beginning of a turn towards an older horror tradition in which the rural is equated with ignorance and disruptions in the social order are due to a feral underclass and outside agitators. Even in a contemporary setting, "folk horror" doesn't usually speak to our times beyond a banal projection of class anxiety. The territorial concerns of the eerie are lacking.

Robin Hardy's 1973 film The Wicker Man is perhaps the last major cinematic work in the tradition of the 1940s, though it achieves its effect by going so over the top that it's impossible to imagine a credible sequel. It's power lies not just in the dramatic tension that arises from delaying the key revelation, but from the way the utter illogicality and implausibility of the plot reinforces the eeriness of the setting. It transplants an English village and squire that would not have been out of place in an Agatha Christie novel to a Hebridean island that, in its culture and climate, is as far away from the Todday of Whisky Galore as you could imagine. During the 1970s, the themes of a vengeful countryside and an increasingly dilapidated city would become little more than a parody of older Edwardian tropes about hostile natives and metropolitan decadence, such as in Straw Dogs. By the early 80s this had been recycled into both the neo-Jacobean camp of Derek Jarman's Jubilee and the gory humour of An American Werewolf in London (which owed as much to Cold Comfort Farm as Lon Chaney Jr). Eeriness in English-set films had been reduced to little more than a stylistic affectation.

Where eeriness lived on during the 70s was on British TV, a medium that was now able to technically compete with film in its presentation of the outdoors. If M R James is today considered eerie, this is largely because of the impact of A Ghost Story for Christmas, not because of an independent revival of interest in his books. While much of this output employed the usual tropes of rural mystery and an unquiet past, such as in Penda's Fen or Children of the Stones, eeriness was as likely to be found in the brutalist architecture of new towns and on apparently deserted suburban estates as within the vicinity of Glastonbury. As heavy industry started to visibly decay, rusting plant and machinery became as striking as long barrows and gnarled trees, proving that eeriness is about loss of purpose and changes in ownership (all empty houses, no matter their age, are eerie). Today, the 1970s have come to be characterised as a second Dark Age for some conservatives: an era not only of accelerated decline but of existential dread, which in turn provides a template for the pessimism of contemporary liberals. This is to misunderstand that the eerie tone of that decade reflected accelerated change: the number of kids who woke in a new bedroom in an out-of-town estate and saw alien fields outside their window.

During the 80s, the older tropes of eeriness tended to be subsumed into an increasingly commodified neo-paganism that would eventually turn into little more than a marketing channel for the music festival industry. The eeriness of deindustrialised areas was gradually over-written by retail sheds and call-centres, though these were soon to be identified as a new form of eerie in their own right via the concept of "edgelands". Beyond these, little of the old eerie remained as the 90s and 00s saw the physical and cultural distinction between town and country steadily eroded. As Nick Groom puts it: "Country towns, villages, and farming are being colonized by urban economies that create clone towns and clone countryside. The high streets of market towns are homogenized, and rural England disappears under out-of-town developments and industrialized agri-business". This artificiality has something of the uncanny about it, but it has bleached eeriness out of the landscape. Increasingly, the countryside is just an area with a lower density of housing (hence the intellectually dishonest equivalence of the Green Belt with the rural). Detectorists may herald a revival of the English eerie as a dramatic approach to the issues of property, or it might just encourage more people to move to Essex. Whichever, it was a joy to watch.


  1. Nice shout out for "Detectorists". Quality TV.

    Just in case thousands of your readers are about to up sticks and move to Essex, "Detectorists" was filmed in Suffolk (Framlingham).

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment29 December 2017 at 16:08

    "but from the way the utter illogicality and implausibility of the plot reinforces the eeriness of the setting."

    Hmmmm. Show me an illogical plot and I will show you a great movie! As horror films go I guess Wicker Man is one of the most plausible! It's genius lies in its comparison to the remake, you just can't magic atmosphere by making the characters a bit creepy.

    And if you want implausible plot try Hitchcock. I mean a crop duster! North by Northwest is utterly ridiculous from start to finish, but wonderfully so!

    As for a Brexit narrative, forget the bullshit about lets come together. For the leavers it is lets all join hands but if your skin is dark you can fuck off, you ain't holding my hand you dirty disease ridden lazy ne'er do well.

    Leavers can fuck off and die for all I care!

  3. Interesting, I'm less inclined to read Brexit into everything, (I've only just watched it) and more inclined to read a conflation of nostalgia for 70s TV and hauntology commbined with the eerie: this is Mark Fisher meeting Patrick Keiller via James etc. Your line about fields outside the window reminds me that Ratcatcher sits within these categories.