David Cooper is an academic whose work revolves around the relationship between writing and place. Our Editor Sam spoke with him about place writing and how it might inform our understanding of adventure. David’s thoughtful responses to a series of prompts, interspersed through the interview, also provide some fantastic reading recommendations.
What makes an adventure? There is no formula, but most definitions would likely include the act of moving through a physical environment in an uncertain or challenging way.
Early in our conversation, David Cooper - a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University interested, most of all, in the relationship between writing and place - confirms himself as an excellent person to discuss these features with. David’s first founding interest is literature - perhaps our primary medium for exploring questions, tensions, uncertainties. His second is geography, which offers “so much interesting stuff!” for understanding our relationship with natural environments, David says as he half-jokes about probably wanting to be a geographer really.
This adventurous combination - uncertain movement through a physical environment - opens an array of possibilities. Yet adventure narratives often fixate on physical challenges of athleticism or endurance. There is nothing wrong with this per se; hiking steep terrain, kayaking rushing rapids or surfing barrelling waves can all be exciting, enriching experiences. But focusing excessively on these narratives means the environment-challenge relationship too often becomes one of conquest, with the places we adventure through places to be bested. The most flagrant manifestation is the celebration of colonial exploration: arduous journeys of invasion, decimation and resource extraction construed as adventure. But contemporary adventure stories about dangerous feats, records or firsts can also stray into the territory of conquest, albeit with lower consequences.
What is a piece of place writing that has strongly affected you?
“If it’s OK, I might cheat by naming two books that have been published over recent years. The first is The Grassling by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett: a wonderfully difficult-to-define deep mapping of a landscape in Devon that explores – amongst many other things – family, grief, and soil. I read Burnett’s book shortly after the death of my own father and it was both a deeply unsettling and deeply consoling experience. The second is Ghost Town by Jeff Young: a brilliant (sorry, I’m exhausting the superlatives here!) exploration of the intersections of place, memory, and nostalgia. Again, I first encountered Young’s book just after my Dad’s death and I remember crying at the sense of pastness that permeates the text. I also have a deeply personal connection with Ghost Town as Young writes about Liverpool: the city where I grew up, where my Dad spent most of his life, and where my Mum and family still live.”
Adventure lovers should therefore remain open to anything that might lead to new forms of challenge, new ways to adventure. Things like place writing, perhaps.
The value of place writing is embedded in the term ‘place’. David recalls discussing the term with colleagues at Manchester Met, many of whom - from “urban psychogeographers to card-carrying nature writers” - had discovered place as a shared touchstone in their work. “In some ways [terminology] doesn’t matter,” he says, “but in some ways it matters a lot.” It matters because, without lapsing into academic navel gazing, different words encourage us to consider our environments in different ways. Although place is a throwaway word that can mean many things, considered carefully, against similar words, it can point us towards a more open-minded idea of adventure.
“Rightly or wrongly there was this sense that ‘landscape’ still has, in cultural terms anyway, a slight baggage: we thought, for example, of the objectification and distance associated with the history of landscape painting,” says David of the conversation with his colleagues. Instead of suggesting somebody standing back and looking out,“place, for us, was much more about the meshing of person and world” - a more complex, dynamic understanding of humans and our environments being inextricably linked.
Travel writing is another relative of place writing. But if travel writing generally implies moving far or going someplace new, David sees place writing as akin to “vertical travel writing”: the focus is on depth, not distance. A similar term, popularised by American travel writer William Least Heat-Moon in his 1991 book PrairyErth: A Deep Map, is ‘deep mapping’.
A piece of place writing that depicts a particularly unusual or intriguing place?
“For me, a defining characteristic of much place writing is the way in which it defamilarises the familiar and the everyday. A book that immediately comes to mind here, then, is Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts first published around fifteen years ago. Around that time, I was spending much of my working life in London and, as a result, I felt that it was a city that I knew well-ish. Sandhu’s book, though, underlined just how little I understood as he investigates the nocturnal city of flushers and mini-cab drivers and graffiti artists. London felt like a completely different city after I’d first read Night Haunts.”
'I was spending much of my working life in London and, as a result, I felt that it was a city that I knew well-ish. Sandhu’s book, though, underlined just how little I understood as he investigates the nocturnal city of flushers and mini-cab drivers and graffiti artists. London felt like a completely different city after I’d first read Night Haunts.'
David is the first to acknowledge that these are blurred distinctions, not hard boundaries. But they do help explain why place writing as a genre has gained traction in recent years. In the publishing industry, David says, the term has come to describe books that don’t readily fit into existing categories like nature or travel writing. He attributes this emergence to a “cocktail of factors” that tell us something about how our cultural understanding of adventure is evolving.
A foundational long-term factor has been the emergence of more critical approaches to reading, travelling and analysing the world. Since the 1950s the social sciences have increasingly sought to question power relations, seeding a wider cultural drive to replace dominant narratives with multiple perspectives, fixed realities with floating uncertainties. The current debate over wokeism is the latest battleground of this war.
Place writing can be seen as part of this drive to unpick our assumptions - a process David calls “defamiliarising the familiar.” Developed partly as a critique of travel and nature writing - which, to the extent they can be seen as coherent genres, have struggled to shake their more traditional, uncritical reputations - place writing asks us to replace static landscapes with living ecosystems, to stop gazing upon landscapes and start thinking about our and others’ relationships with them.
This work goes beyond books and articles. Since the 1960s, David explains, maps have also been increasingly seen as problematic tools for spatial storytelling - ‘texts’ to be analysed, as the critical geographer J. B. Harley argued. David recalls that Lake District fell walker Alfred Wainwright, the inspiration behind Wainwright beer, once said maps were his favourite literature.
The growing embrace of more diverse perspectives, itself a part of this wider process, has particularly fuelled the emergence of place writing. Place writing sees value in stories from all places and perspectives, not just the famous and far flung. Given the colonial tone of much historical travel writing, the perspectives of people of colour are particularly noteworthy here. David references the emergence of the excellent Willlowherb Review, which publishes writing “on nature, place, and environment by emerging and established writers of colour.” Again the language here signifies blurred boundaries; but the inclusion of the word ‘place’ is telling.
A piece of place writing that feels new, fresh and exciting?
“For far too long, the field – as many of our students at Manchester Metropolitan University have rightly pointed out - has been dominated by white, male, middle-class voices. One of the most exciting and vital recent developments in place writing, then, has been the increasing prominence of previously marginalised voices. Under the editorship of Jessica J. Lee, The Willowherb Review is a richly exciting online magazine publishing new work by writers of colour. The inaugural issue featured extraordinary work by – amongst others – Amanda Thompson and Nina Mingya Powles; and, over subsequent issues, the magazine has included contributions by emerging writers alongside more established voices. Already, then, the publication of each new issue of The Willowherb Review is a significant event. In terms of books, Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here – published just a month or so ago – is an autobiographical text about intersectional identity, racism, landscape, and the North of England. We don’t normally place hardback books on our reading lists at Manchester Met as we’re conscious that students don’t have deep pockets; but we’ve made an exception for I Belong Here.”
'Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here – published just a month or so ago – is an autobiographical text about intersectional identity, racism, landscape, and the North of England. We don’t normally place hardback books on our reading lists at Manchester Met as we’re conscious that students don’t have deep pockets; but we’ve made an exception for I Belong Here.'
The deep, local focus of place writing is also telling. The “overarching anxiety of the climate emerency … hangs over all of this,” David notes. Place writing is the product of a heightened environmental awareness in the face of climate catastrophe - one that sees a need for more local, grounded ways of life and adventure.
But this return to the local is not just for environmental reasons. David also sees place writing as something of a riposte to the forces of globalisation and digital culture, both of which can, despite their many benefits, serve to homogenise and obscure the distinctions between local places, replacing independent stores with global chains and community centres with Facebook groups. Cultivating a stronger sense of place, whether through literature or new forms of adventure, may be a necessary corrective.
David doesn’t ignore the fact that this protective thread means place writing can be conservative as well progressive (perhaps even at the same time). The notion of preserving local places brings to mind some of the defining political issues of our time - notably Brexit and Trumpism. Both revolve around the question of what kind of place the UK or American is to be. These political developments, David says, have complicated (or perhaps ‘defamiliarised’?) the place-writing landscape. Competing senses of place seem increasingly to mediate between political ideals, and between values like discrimination and anti-racism.
By way of example, David references the book he is currently reading, Anita Sethi’s I Belong Here, which recounts the author’s decision to walk across The Pennines, the ‘backbone of England’, after being racially abused on a train. Through the medium of a long walk, the book explores the relationship between identity and belonging (the challenge) and The North of England (the environment). The character of this contemporary high-stakes adventure narrative seems better understood through the idea of place (“the meshing of person and world”) than through travel or nature writing, even though the book is surely an example of all three.
A piece of place writing that depicts a battle between competing ideas of what a place is or should be?
“The book that immediately springs to mind here is Julian Hoffman’s Irreplaceable. Hoffman’s first book, The Small Heart of Things, is a beautiful book about perception, place, and wonder. His second book, Irreplaceable, picks up on these preoccupations by focusing on a series of places – around the world – that are threatened by human intervention. Over its eleven chapters, Irreplaceable illustrates the competing ideas that humans can have about the futures of particular sites. Throughout, Hoffman’s prose is beautiful and the book is rich with memorable sentences about place and its many meanings; but, at the same time, the book is underpinned by a passionate political commitment to saving ecosystems that are at risk of being destroyed forever.”
Posing questions about the relationship between humans and our environments needn’t be an academic exercise or a grandiose political statement. It is something we can all do, and can simply serve to make our adventures and lives richer and more enjoyable. David finds that once they start asking new questions and looking at places in new ways, students are consistently surprised to find interesting and novel angles on places they previously saw as familiar and even mundane. Place writing, David says, involves “not just representing the world,” but being “in the world.”
This discovery of the once unknown - this defamiliarisation of the familiar - is surely exactly what adventure should be. Which begs the question: what might happen if we approached our next adventure in the spirit of a place-writing field trip? If as a group of friends we dug beneath the unifying ‘purpose’ of our adventure and exchanged some of our standard climbing, surfing or hiking chat for questions about our respective perspectives on our environment and the activity at hand, what differences might emerge? What might we learn?
A piece of place writing that is adventurous?
“At the risk of evasiveness, my immediate response to that question is to problematise – to use a frankly ugly verb - ‘adventure’! I guess, though, that three books immediately spring to mind.
The first is Robert Macfarlane’s extraordinary Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Over the past two decades, Macfarlane has done so much to celebrate and promote and champion the kind of writing to which I find myself drawn; he is also the most supremely gifted of writers. In his latest book, he digs deep, offering a vision of the Earth’s underworlds for ‘Generation Anthropocene’. As with all of Macfarlane’s writing, Underland is a book that is rich with passages of profound lyricism as he records his adventurous physical descents into a range of subterranean spaces. Crucially, Macfarlane also documents the extreme claustrophobia that he sometimes experiences in these spaces and, for me, a defining characteristic of the book is the vulnerability that is threaded through these first-person accounts. Underland may be a book about bodily adventures; but, perhaps more than anything, it is a book about uncertainty.
The second - very different - book is Rodinsky’s Room written by my friend and colleague, Rachel Lichtenstein, in collaboration with the psychogeographer Iain Sinclair. First published in 1999, the book documents a shared obsession with an abandoned room in East London once inhabited by David Rodinsky: an orthodox Jewish scholar who had mysteriously disappeared in the 1960s. Moving between the two distinct authorial voices, Rodinsky’s Room can be read as a quest narrative as Lichtenstein and Sinclair try to piece together the fragments of Rodinsky’s (after) life. The sense of quest operates on two levels as, through her pursuit of the ghost of Rodinsky, Rachel undertakes multiple journeys in an attempt to interrogate her own Jewishness.
'For me, the ‘adventurousness’ of The Outrun lies in the riskiness of the writing as Liptrot gives so much of herself on the page.'
The third, and final, book is The Outrun: an astonishing memoir in which Amy Liptrot reflects on her addiction to alcohol. As with Underland and Rodinsky’s Room, The Outrun is a book concerned with place and landscape as Liptrot records returning to her native Orkney in an attempt to reconstruct her life after several years in London. It is a book, then, about locatedness and community, digital lives and the surveying of corncrakes. For me, the ‘adventurousness’ of The Outrun lies in the riskiness of the writing as Liptrot gives so much of herself on the page.”