Peter Davidson is the Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen, where he is also writing the history of the university's collections. He lives in the country in the north of Scotland. His most recent book was The Idea of North (Reaktion) and forthcoming is The Universal Baroque from MUP. He is beginning to sketch a book simply called Islands also for Reaktion.
Mark Thwaite: "Everyone has their own idea of the North", you say. Mine is my Liverpool home or, rather, the trip back up to Liverpool when I lived "down South". North from Stockport, where I live now, is the great metropolis of Manchester; South is, of course, the Peak District, which is North of where I used to go walking in the Cotswolds. I know your idea must be less provincial than mine - can you sketch your own personal idea of the North for me Peter?
Peter Davidson: Not easy: the north really does recede away from one towards the pole and the further north you go the more you realise that there is always another north to the north of you. In one sense, the north can begin with the Dolomites — all this depends where you are at the time — when I lived in England I used to feel quite precisely that the north began at Leek in Staffordshire, well south of your own norths.
Aberdeenshire feels like a true north at all times of year, and yet if you spend a weekend on the northern isles and come back, it seems quite verdant, rather like visiting Somerset. Stockholm and Copenhagen are splendidly northern cities— Baltic waters and the neo-Classical buildings just waiting for the snow. But the absolute north for me is Tromsø in Norway and the hills and shores around: water like clear grey mercury and the snow down to the tideline even in May when it hardly gets dark.
MT: The phrase "The Idea of North" is, to me, Glenn Gould's phrase. Are those radio broadcasts of Gould's where he investigated the North a passion of yours?
PD: I first came across the phrase written on a multiple artwork by the Scottish artists Dalziell and Scullion, a lovely object — a disc of grainy perspex with the words around a real compass set into the middle of it. So you can use the work to locate the north of wherever you might be at any moment. It was a while before I looked at the leaflet that came with the object and saw that it was called Homage to Glenn Gould, then I got the CBC recordings of the programmes and started writing about them. It was pointed out to me later that Philip Pullman uses the phrase, unacknowledged as Gould’s, as a chapter-heading in his Northern Lights (a book which I cordially dislike, by the way) Gould’s broadcasts are extraordinary, technically so sophisticated: they have dated hardly at all, only a few turns of phrase indicate that they weren’t made last year.
MT: It would seem a gargantuan task to write cultural history of an idea such as the idea of the North, what led you to wanting to write this book?
PD: Partly moving to the north of Scotland and wanting to understand the ways in which various artists and writers had made sense of the north. Partly a long fascinating with northern Europe and certain works of art — Schubert’s Winterreise, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, poems by Auden — which made most sense in a tradition of specifically northern aesthetics. And being moved myself by northern landscapes and northern townscapes and wanting to find out what other people had done with them.
MT: How do you see the general state of travel writing? Is it a genre you like or even see yourself as being a part of?
PD: Perhaps there’s a difference between travel writing in the sense of a narrative of one journey, and topography which is a more complex kind of writing about place. Hero travel books bore me, or else I’m afraid that I just find them funny: the popular type of book describing a journey through somewhere unspeakably disagreeable or dangerous. Is there still a genre of Topographic writing? If there is, I’d like to belong to it. I’m very fond of the topographers of the mid twentieth century (and indeed of their remote, giant ancestors, the topographers and antiquarians of the seventeenth century). I like those excellent Shell guides from the 1930s to the 1970s which which were written with passion about place, sometimes with an unexpected anger about what was being done to places (like the furious entry on Jarrow in the 1930s guide to Northumberland).
My book came out at the same time as Joanna Kavenna’s haunting book of northerly travels The Ice Museum — indeed I reviewed her in Scotland on Sunday that very week. She seems to me to write a new sort of travel book with all the virtues of the topographic tradition: led by ideas, able to write with feeling without a hint of over-writing, bullseye descriptions, never a word too little or too much. She’s so subtle in the way she relates to place: almost as if she’s inventing another way of writing about it.
MT: Have you been pleased with the book's reception?
PD: Astonished and chastened by the number of understanding and generous reviews. Perversely delighted to have — apprehensibly — annoyed the hell out of Tom Shippey in the TLS.
MT: Pope, Nabokov, Simon Armitage ... many writers and their work stalk your pages - is the idea of the North, then, a literary construct? Was it important to you to have all those writerly voices accompanying your own?
PD: Pope was really there just for that one unbeatable formulation about the “real” north always receding northwards away from you – he isn’t really writing about the north as such in those lines, it’s an extended simile for being relative about moral standards. Nabokov’s Pale Fire I can’t leave alone: not just as a wonderfully subtle piece of writing about exile, but also the description of an imaginary kingdom which is a composite and distillation of all of northern Europe.
Simon Armitage is a writer for whom I have a consistent admiration: especially for the way in which, from the start, he wrote unapologetically about northern England and forced people in this most metropolis-dominated of islands to listen to him. An enviable eye and an ear to kill for. But for parts of the book I was consciously going it alone. I suppose one of the lesser reasons why I wrote the book at all is that there’s almost no writing about remote rural Scotland that I can recognise – there are a very few exceptions – but, generally, between the wilderness books and the sentimental farming novels, there is still a vast territory for which there is almost nothing at all. What really interested me in such an architecturally beautiful northern Scottish town as Cromarty (as much as it did later in northern Norway) is the sophisticated urbanity which can co-exist with remoteness. And about life in almost unimaginably remote country towns (as indeed country houses) in Scandinavia as well as Scotland, there’s really very little written at all.
MT: It is Nabokov's Zembla that most fascinates me here. Can you tell us something more about the concept?
PD: Zembla is an imaginary Scandinavian/Russian kingdom, the obsessionally-detailed fantasy of the delusional narrator of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, who believes that he is the ex-King of Zembla, exiled in the United States. Of course the strategy of the novel is that it makes the northern fantasy land much more real, more detailed and more interesting, than the “real” reality of the American college town where the action takes place.
Zembla even has a language: made up, of course, but historically credible as a marginal Scandinavian tongue. I live in a household much given to languages, and we realised that Nabokov has given enough hints in the novel that (a crazy thing for any sane adult to do) you can even guess what the Zemblan word would be for things that aren’t mentioned in the novel at all. I was just wondering this morning how many people worldwide who know a bit about the history of language have walked into Nabokov’s trap and started inventing more Zemblan, beguiled by the remembered Zembla of the novel which is so concentrated, so persuasive, that it is almost possible to treat it (in however sophisticated a game with words) as real.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is the best thing you have read recently?
PD: Difficult: languages and literatures are part of what I do for a living. Can I make a distinction between the writers most admired and the writers most enjoyed. Most admired would have to be Homer and Virgil and the Latin Bible. Most enjoyed would, averaged over the years, have to be led by Auden, especially the poems from the 1930s. The rest of the list is a bit random: Apollinaire and Cocteau; ghost stories Icelandic or Victorian; the great fictional technicians — R.L.Stevenson, Borges, Firbank, Sylvia Townsend Warner. I think the best things I’ve read recently are the poems of the Elizabethan priest-poet Robert Southwell: I’m trying to prepare an edition of them and keep being pulled up short by the extraordinariness of lines like
He Pelican’s, he Phenix fate doth prove
Whome flames consume, whom streames enforce to die ...
MT: Has the internet changed the way you work/read? Do you read any literary websites? Any favourites?
PD: It’s changed everything absolutely. My university subscribes to a service which gives you online facsimiles of every book published in English before 1700, and I can access it here on the computer in the middle of nowhere in the north of Scotland. This is a condition of life which any prince of the renaissance might have envied.
And now you can move so much more easily beyond Europe, read the catalogues of libraries in South America, put “Ixtlilxochitl” into Google. It’s absolutely extraordinary what texts and works of art and architecture are on the internet. It’s like being a magician: having a library that contains more books than would fit into the house.
MT: What are you working on now/what is coming next?
PD: A series of essays for PN Review about times and seasons and the remote place where I live: this material might expand one day into a collaborative book about the north and the snow line with other people who write about such things — “the north star gang” as you might say. An edition of the Elizabethan poet and martyr, S.Robert Southwell is going to press with Carcanet/Fyfield in the Spring. I am about to set about writing the history of 500 years of collecting books and manuscripts at the University where I work — that’s roughly from an 11th century manuscript of Augustine to poem-cards by Iain Hamilton Finlay — and just about something of everything in between.
I’m starting another topographical book later in2006, about Islands this time, everything from the archipelago off Helsinki to islands in lakes in landscape gardens. I anticipate spending quite a lot of time in boats over the next few years. A friend in Venice has promised to take me exploring the most remote reaches of the lagoon to visit a building on a distant island called The Pavilion of the Ghosts, an excursion to which I’m looking forward very much indeed.