Brexit Weathers: isolation, ice and ‘The Wanderer’

What follows is a section of my upcoming book Spectral Weathers: on grief, place, and self in English Landscapes that didn’t quite make the cut, tbh. It didn’t seem to quite fit anywhere, and whilst I’ve cut it I thought it might find a home here!

Weather is written into the surface of English landscapes; even from the first English writings there seems to be a preoccupation with it. As Alexandra Harris writes in her text Weatherland: ‘English Literature begins in the cold.’ The wet and dismal stereotype of English weather haunts us from the 9th century, where ‘The Wanderer’ is exiled into an icy ocean to be haunted by the memories of a life before banishment. In a way I feel like we’re reenacting this process of banishment and exile, albeit semi-willingly, by trying to enforce a new kind of national isolation on the whole of the UK – England, dragging Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland out by their bootstraps to the seemingly vast amusement of the rest of the EU. All of us hanging on by our fingertips to the edge, before jettisoning out. ‘The Wanderer’ contrasts the warmth of home and hearth with a ‘wretched solitary landscape’, and whether or not the poem’s protagonist is truly rowing through ‘frozen waves’, or those frozen waves stand as a metaphor for the totality of his isolation (or ice-olation) it is impossible to say. Even in England’s first written text there is a duality of landscape and loss, and here earth, sky, space, place, and memory are all intertwined to give the sense that there is a very large something missing – and in its absence from the wanderer’s life, he is almost haunted by it. His frozen exile is all the icier because of the absence of the warmth he had once known.

I have always read this as something of a warning against conscious isolationism, the choice to separate oneself from others. The plight of the Wanderer, cut off from his family, and from all those who can help him, seems suffused with an awareness that ‘every modern society is aware of its own ephemerality’, haunted by the fleeting nature of what it means to be a nation, a populace. I wonder if we should be more comfortable with this notion of ephemerality due to the changeable nature of our weathers, and the inconsistency of our landscapes. Despite a seemingly national urge to turn back the clock, and plunge ourselves into isolation in much the same way as the wanderer rows out to sea without tethers, I think the cultural scene of England, when it is actively engaging with itself, is, like most other places, one defined by changes and shift. England is often seen as stuck in a time warp; yet historically it has been a place characterised by great social change, and shift – despite its lack of revolutionary drive as seen in its close neighbours.

Only time will really tell how this will work – but if, at its core, English landscapes are defined by a sense of variety, perhaps its people might learn to unanimously accept that variety in its culture too. For a place that has, for so long, sought to align itself with the sky, it strikes me as odd that we would spend so much time looking at our feet, and arguing about who shares that small space with us. It would be folly to follow the wanderer into his boat as a systematic objection to the connectedness of globalisation. Or, at least, I think so.

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