A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel The Corner That Held Them (which I love with a passion – though it does divide opinion, as Bookfox Simon will attest) is set in the 14th century in a fictional community of nuns in the fenland convent of Oby. The medieval location is described so vividly that I can see it in my mind’s eye – the convent survives on a spit of ground mere feet above the marshland, and the stream that runs past it, called in the novel the Waxle, runs the mill when it chooses and not when it decides to to change course. The marshland around is untamed and almost impenetrable.
It never occurred to me to think that Oby was real. The convent certainly is imaginary, but I find that Oby is not. When I was doing my homework for a recent session of our poetry reading group on our chosen poet George MacBeth, I discovered that, on marrying the novelist Lisa St Aubin de Terán, they moved from London to the old rectory of Oby in 1979, which they took on as a restoration project. They did not live there for long, moving on in 1983 to restore another period house in Norfolk. But George MacBeth took enough inspiration from the place to publish a collection of Poems From Oby, inspired by his new marriage and strongly influenced by the landscape and its history, particularly its Viking past which is revealed in the -by place names they left behind.
Oby scarcely exists. It is classed as a lost village of Norfolk, with only a scatter of buildings. It lost its church in the 16th century and merged with the neighbouring parish of Ashby, which also lost its church, and now the focus for three settlements (population at the 2001 census: 69) is St Edmund’s church in Thurne. The images of Oby now are in strong contrast to the vividly described wilderness of The Corner That Held them. The Broads are a man-made landscape of drained fens and waterways, and Oby is a spot on the wide, navigable River Bure known for the iconic landmark of Wiseman’s Mill, an abandoned wind-pump and sawmill, on the river’s edge. I wonder if the visual inspiration for Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fenland religious community came from the haunting remains not far from Oby of St Benet’s Abbey, also on the River Bure, with the extraordinary sight of a wind pump, now ruined, built into and over the ruins of the gatehouse.
As I discovered when looking up George MacBeth, his poetry is neglected now, and his collection of Oby poems out of print. He was an editor and anthologist as well as a poet (I have his Bloodaxe collection The Book of Cats, so I believe him to be sound on important subjects), a revered BBC producer of programmes on literature, and a writer of crime novels. His marriage to Lisa St Aubin de Terán did not long survive their move from Oby, and MacBeth himself died before his time of motor neurone disease in 1997.
This tiny literary crossroads at Oby is testament to the power of landscape. We are all familiar with the concept of the sublime in landscape, generally signified by mountains and crags, ravines and waterfalls. But there is also compelling power in the flatlands, where the margins between water and land are contentious, where skies are huge, and light bathes the land, where a single ruinous mill can be the strongest landmark in a landscape of horizontals. Both Sylvia Townsend Warner and George MacBeth manage to conjure this power, both reaching back in their imagination to the time before humans drained and shaped the fens, when the land and sea were mingled. That this tiny, lost location of Oby is the focus for their imagination seems to me to be an extraordinary coincidence.
The images illustrating this piece come from the Flickr photo streams of Colin, Mark Casarotto, and Paul Blathwayt and are reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence. Clicking on the image will load the source page in each case.