It Wasn’t Anywhere You Knew

M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again

andrew key
11 min readJul 27, 2020

“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
(William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!)

I grew up in Shropshire, a large inland county on the Welsh borders, to the west of Birmingham. Until I was about five years old I lived in a variety of cottages, houses, and barn conversions in the south of the county, in and around hamlets with names like Seifton Batch, Corvedale, Aston Munslow. I don’t remember much of this time. Then my family moved to Shrewsbury, the county town, often called ‘a pretty little town’, with Tudor buildings lining the pedestrianised main shopping street, a one-way traffic system that — judging by motorists’ constant moaning — was designed purely to infuriate its users, a castle from 1070 tucked in a nook of the River Severn, a river which flooded every year until the council built flood defences which shunted the water further downstream, so other villages and towns could flood instead. Shrewsbury is the kind of town about which its older residents like to say it was ruined in the 1960s and ’70s, when a scant handful of modernist buildings were put up in the centre, including the Market Hall, with its 240ft tall red brick clock tower, habitually described as an eyesore or a carbuncle by residents.

Shrewsbury was my home for fourteen years, and I still go back to visit my mother who now lives outside the town, in a hamlet, near a small village, near a slightly larger village. My father grew up in Staffordshire, the next county over; he worked in Stafford and drove between the two counties almost every day for a good number of years. His mother lives in a small market town built up around a canal route once used to ship raw materials to the potteries. My mother’s mother lives in rural south Shropshire, in possibly one of the few cottages left in England that can’t be found on Google Street View. Over the years I developed a light familiarity with much of the county and its neighbours, through time spent in cars or on buses or trains, going to visit family, then later — as a teenager — going to visit friends scattered around the county or participating in the strange and small DIY music scene in the county: groups of disparate stoned adolescents drinking warm cans of Boddingtons, playing post-rock or screamo — a few hippies from Wales playing mushroom-inflected prog — in rented village halls in places dotted around the county called Bomere Heath, Wem, Bishop’s Castle. A few years later I started going to free parties out in the Welsh hills, hidden in woods and old farm buildings which felt miles from anywhere but which nevertheless always managed to attract the ire of local residents. “Who are these people — living here?” I would think, whenever I saw a furious middle-aged man in a Barbour, holding a torch, trying to make himself heard over thudding hardcore, surrounded by a mass of gurning teenagers.

Like anywhere Shrewsbury has its charms, and there are certainly far worse places to grow up. Mostly it’s boring, but boredom has its merits. I spent most of my adolescence planning on leaving. For the first few years after I moved away I found going back difficult, as if I was aware of how provisional my escape had been. I didn’t like to bump into people, especially people who had stayed in the town. I wanted to move on from Shropshire for good. That feeling faded, and my feelings about the county softened. It became just a place like any other; the memories dotted around the countryside felt less oppressive; it was just where my parents lived, and then it was just where my mother lived. The feeling of ambient provincial dread I had often felt as a teenager and in my early twenties was saved for my trips to visit my paternal grandmother in Staffordshire, getting the train through the dilapidated post-industrial gloom shrouding a place which still takes its main civic identity from an industry which flourished in the eighteenth century. There is a dim pride in much of the West Midlands: it’s the region which built the Industrial Revolution. That feeling is combined with a sense of betrayal, though perhaps not so sharp as the feelings of pride and betrayal in the North: the West Midlands’ sense of loss is a slower burn, a longer managed decline. Much of Shropshire is too rural, still too enmeshed in older structures of gentry and labourer, to feel this ire — this feeling of being forgotten (and, if anything, Shropshire welcomes being forgotten) — but the feeling is apparent in the shuttered high streets of the small towns of Staffordshire. The closer you get to Wolverhampton and the Black Country, the more you begin to feel it.

I often felt that I wasn’t really from anywhere in particular; that Shropshire had no real identity of its own. There isn’t much literature about the county, I’ve found. The obvious place to go is A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, morbid poems about blue hills and the loss of beautiful young farm labourers in pointless wars. When I was younger I couldn’t imagine anything more boring than these poems, but I wasn’t able then to decipher the murky and complicated admixture of erotics and death in Housman’s stolid Edwardian verse. I’ve read A Shropshire Lad a good few times now, and I can recognise parts of it when I come across it, but I can only remember the first stanza of one poem from the collection, which I learned by rote years ago: Far in a western brookland / That bred me long ago / The poplars stand and tremble / By pools I used to know. I can never remember the other three verses. Of course, Housman didn’t ever live in Shropshire, he grew up in Worcestershire, and he wrote the poems while he was living in London. As a child he looked out of his windows at Shropshire on the horizon. Housman’s Shropshire is the land of lost content: an imagined dream-space composed of nostalgia and false rural simplicity, permeated with death and absence, structured by something which has been lost forever.

Other than Housman who is there? Mary Webb, who wrote Hardyesque novels that nobody reads anymore. Powell and Pressburger made a film of her novel Gone to Earth, which was shot on hills that I recognise from my childhood, but this is probably one of the least well-known of their films: when I went to see it during a retrospective of their work, in a cinema that had been packed every other night of the series, there were only three men in the audience, all dripping from the rain, all alone, myself included. The Old Curiosity Shop by Dickens has scenes in Tong, just off the M54 between Telford and Wolverhampton. D. H. Lawrence’s novella St. Mawr — one of his most distilled works — uses a country house in Shropshire as a model for a dull and oppressive atmosphere that needs to be escaped. In W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Austerlitz spends some time on the Welsh borders near Oswestry as a child: another oppressive space to be left behind. I don’t know any other examples. Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill takes place on the border between Herefordshire and Wales, further south. Raymond Williams’s novels are set further south again, in and around Pandy. Coalbrookdale, in the east of Shropshire, the site of the first cast iron bridge in the world, gets a mention in Walter Benjamin’s sprawling Arcades Project. When I came across this reference in a graduate seminar in which we read all of that book, I tried to explain why it had stirred something in me, seeing that name somewhere I didn’t anticipate: not just in Walter Benjamin, but in California. As though I hadn’t understood that the idea of Shropshire could exist outside of its regional boundaries, as though I hadn’t quite grasped that it was in fact a place like any other.

Much of M. John Harrison’s new novel, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, takes place in Shropshire. It is the first and only book I’ve read which captures the feeling of ambient decay, provincial listlessness and gloom that I felt so strongly growing up and which is always at risk of surging over me again — not just when I go back, but whenever I go to small towns anywhere in the Midlands. Harrison’s is an imaginary Shropshire, of course, one invented by the author from a composite of various towns and locations in the county, but for those who grew up there and who know the area, many of the sites are easily recognisable. I was deeply aware while reading it of my own projections: even though the geography of the novel is fictionalised, it was irresistible for me to find real referents for the places Harrison writes about. Elements of Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Ironbridge appear in the town to which which one of the two protagonists of the novel, Victoria, moves after her mother’s death. In the second part of the book, focused on this town, Victoria spends a good amount of time in Pearl’s café. Pearl’s café is a fictional café, but while I was reading these chapters I could only envisage it as a particular café in Bridgnorth, the name of which I don’t know and won’t look up, if it even still exists, where I once sat while my maternal grandmother argued with a waitress over something, and — to throw her weight — said that she (my grandmother) knew the café’s owner, had known him for years, he used to drink in her pub. At which the waitress, nonplussed and calm, said she’d never heard of the man my grandmother was talking about, and put the bill on the table, while I stared at my feet, crimson.

Childe Beckwith, a fictional estate in the novel, with lakes and landscaped gardens and a garden shop which specialises in the roses of the family, is also a composite location. As soon as I read the name of some of the roses sold there — “Shropshire Lad”, “Shropshire Lass” — and the description of the “spindly legged Italianate tables” in the café, I see the David Austin Roses Centre near Albrighton, where, after the death of my father, my partner and I went with my mother to help her choose some roses for her garden. (Shropshire Lad was one of them, of course.) When Victoria visits this location again, later in the novel, around Christmas, Harrison demonstrates in a single sentence the ease with which he traverses the knotty histories of power and domination embedded in the English landscape:

There she found the car parks deserted, the manor house closed up, the family in Barbados — as they had been every Christmas since 1956 — renewing themselves even as they renewed their ties to the old slave and sugar assets, while at home the cedars closed over darkening lawns and the wet, lucid sandstone flags reflected skies a Roman legionary would have recognised.

This sentence is masterful, covering as it does two thousand years of British history. The closed and deserted rural day trip destination; the economies of violence of colonialism; the feeling of unchanging weather patterns going back to the Roman conquest. Closed houses, closed trees, darkening lawns, set against the continued renewal of the wealth of the gentry, the wet lucidity of the sandstone terrace.

In the fourth chapter of the novel, Shaw — the other protagonist of the book, a man who in the midst of a crisis has found himself in a job that he doesn’t understand — is sent by his employer to observe the progression of a trial in a Midlands town. I had a feeling of unease reading these pages, as if I knew something unpleasant was coming. When I turn the page, and see the words “Dogpole” and “Grope Lane”, and see Shrewsbury emerge from the composite like the image embedded and hidden in an autostereogram, I feel a kind of squirming mixture of displeasure and pleasure. Why, I wonder? As soon as I recognise Shrewsbury in the description, I remember a similar feeling — another uncanny moment of recognition: the first time I went to the California Theatre, on Kittredge Street in Berkeley, as I was walking upstairs from the lobby to the screens I had a feeling of uneasy familiarity, before realising with a shudder that it was because the layout of the cinema was identical to that of the Majestic in Bridgnorth, where my maternal grandmother sometimes took me as a child, where I saw Brokeback Mountain, where I hadn’t been — or thought of — for years. The Majestic was built in 1937; The California Theatre in 1913. The exteriors are different — The California is Greek Revival, while the Majestic is Art Deco — but the interiors are the same. Or, at least, they felt to me to be the same. This was an involuntary memory. Not quite an involuntary memory in the Proustian sense of the phrase, because it didn’t exactly open me up to a new sensory awareness of the past — it disoriented me, and made me so distracted that I can’t remember anything about the film I was there to see.

Of course, what I’m circling around here is Freud’s description of the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” In his well-known essay from 1919, Freud writes about the “involuntary return to the same situation” which results in a feeling of “helplessness and something uncanny.” “As, for instance, when one is lost in a forest in high altitudes, caught, we will suppose, in mountain mist, and when every endeavour to find the marked or familiar path ends again and again in a return to the same spot.” Freud tells us that “if psychoanalytic theory is correct in maintaining that every emotional affect, whatever its quality, is transformed by repression into morbid anxiety, then among such cases of anxiety there must be a class in which the anxiety can be shown to come from something repressed which recurs.” This morbid anxiety is the uncanny, something familiar and established in the mind which has been estranged through repression. I won’t now go into the relation between forgetting and repression in Freud, or in my own personal history; I won’t get into what exactly it is about Shropshire that I might have forgotten, and what I might have repressed.

How to characterise this novel? It is not quite genre fiction, as far as I understand that term. It is not quite realism, either, even though there is a lot of reality in it — too much for me at points. It is a writing of the provincial everyday uncanny; a novel about the return of the repressed, about feeling lost and unable to find your bearings, about the sense that the world and other people in it are engaged in an incomprehensible and indecipherable task, which you can relate to only abstractly, a task about which at times you feel the risk of being caught up in like an eddy, and, at other times, you feel as though it is something that will always be inaccessible to you. One of the important geographical images in The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again is the Aqualate Mere, which — despite being the largest body of water in the Midlands — is at no point more than one metre deep. This is a few miles from the town where I spent a few years at school, travelling an hour or so on the bus back and forth each day through small villages that I soon couldn’t stand to look at anymore. The Aqualate Mere, large but shallow: this seemed to me to be what Shropshire was like when I was growing up there. But The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again has unlocked something about the county for me; something inchoate, unsettling, familiar. “Places,” Harrison reminds us, “force you to live the life that goes on there.”