on 5 February 2014
Hard to say how davidson achieves this effect: once you enter his realm in rural aberdeenshire it seems as if all that matters is the present tenseness of place, the now of where he takes us. A wonderful and exeptional book. Travelling through his year is not about passing through time but rooting around in a habitat of light and personal visions. An individual look at Scotland. But what a wonderful perspective of history, arts and landscape. If only there was more like this around.
on 22 June 2013
This is a book pervaded by the poignant sense of transience, fragility and loss that haunts human perceptions of the cultures and landscapes of the far north.
More than anything else, light and colour, shapes and textures, moments in time - present and gone - are the subjects of the book. The prologue ends, "The southern sky changed from overshadowed grey to cobalt half an hour ago, and the moon is rising while, to the north, the horizon still shows rags of cold azure behind the larch trees. But as I write, light and time and summer are unstill, and the instant has passed into memory even as it is described."
The ceaselessly changing weather is another constant theme. At the beginning of a chapter called Visits in Autumn, Davidson writes, "Wind rises in the dark, despoiling the gardens and sending needle-scratches of silver across the lake." How utterly different this is in mood to (in a later chapter) his account of the way a painting evokes, "... the first really warm day in spring , racing clouds high in the pale sky, and the water tinselled with sunlight."
The themes of Distance and Memory revolve around and spiral out from Davidson's own home - a remote house in Aberdeenshire. His acute observations of the seasons (it is the seasons that determine the structure of the book) are informed by an awareness of the quotidian stories woven into the landscape, and of lives, cultures and art-forms whose shapes and textures are dictated by a climate in which the brief plenty of a night-less summer alternates with protracted dearth, darkness and cold.
Underlying his sense of landscapes there is, too, an awareness of layer upon layer of history. "A back road, a Jacobite road," he writes, "from the end of the square at Rhynie curls upwards past the ruined tower and under the flat summit of Tap o' North, with the Pictish vitrified fort on the top, its walls burnt until they ran with natural silicates and fused and cooled into a glass castle."
Davidson's writing is at once evocative and arresting, yet sometimes achieved (appropriately enough) by the simplest, most economic means. A chapter on The Food of the North, written with Jane Stevenson, begins, "The flavours of the European north are mustard, horseradish, vinegar, sour cream and smoke," - a bald statement that nevertheless conjures up an entire way of life that was, till quite recently, unvaried for centuries.
What is true of the northern fastnesses is, as Davidson reminds us, true equally of those at the other end of the earth. In an eloquent antithesis, he describes Frances Walker's paintings of Antarctica as, "emotionally neutral, achieving their own disquieting serenity."
This strangely entrancing book is complemented by a shrewdly sensitive foreword by Rob Macfarlane. For anyone whose imaginative landscape lies in the north, or who enjoyed Davidson's The Idea of North, Distance and Memory is on no account to be missed.
on 28 July 2013
Distance and Memory is not light reading but a wonderfully thoughtful evocation of place. It draws seemingly disparate threads together to weave a rich, historical tapestry of the North East of Scotland. Art, music and literature are all explored to distil the essence of bittersweet living in the Buchan area. To my mind, the author has been uniquely successful in conveying subtle, intangible and nostalgic memories.
It is quiet, contemplative reading, of the highest quality, to be savoured slowly.