Aerg! Eeriness in the English Countryside

April 16, 2015 § 5 Comments

Robert Macfarlane’s essay on the ‘eerie’ in the Guardian Review attests to the current focus in landscape aesthetics on ‘unsettlement and displacement’ which is rooted in two key facets of late capitalism: environmental damage and austerity politics.  The former has resulted in the countryside being considered in terms of what is missing, and a return of the repressed; the latter in a cloaking of injustice through the re-emergence of the pastoral ideal, typified by what Joe Kennedy has described as the ‘cupcakification’ of England.

Macfarlane uses a story by M R James, ‘A View from a Hill’, to describe the phenomenon of ‘eeriness’.  Viewing a landscape in south west England through a pair of binoculars (made using the bones of executed men), the protagonist sees a transformed place: a wooded hill is made bare, topped with a gibbet from which a body hangs; other bodies lie in a cart beneath.  Later visiting the hill, he gets the feeling he is being watched, and flees in dread.

The etymology of ‘eerie’ is not, as I expected, the sensation of unease: it derives from aerg, an Old English word meaning timid or cowardly – and therefore describes a response to that sense of unease: the flight as opposed to the stricken reaction that typifies our comprehension of the horrific.  In this sense, the story’s effectiveness derives not just from what the binoculars reveal – or even the sense of unease the protagonist Fanshawe gets on visiting the hill, causing his flight: it is the implication that something awful might be hidden in every landscape – what Macfarlane calls ‘the skull beneath the skin of the English countryside’.

He argues that the violence committed on the rural English landscape, whether by corporations fracking the shale beds and their CEOs churning moor and meadow with their Range Rovers, or through the cloth-of-gold pageantry of heritage-craft manque baking shows, has led to an increasing interest among artists in the violent turbulence of the Civil War, whose bones and axes lie just beneath the surface of the landscape, and which offers an effective metaphor for current disruptions / dislocations.  I think this is fair enough.  However, I’m less certain about another contention which I think is being mooted within the article, in which the English countryside, as a result of past violence, is in some way inherently unsettling, even terrifying.  He refers to Ben Wheatley, the director of A Field in England, who described in an interview his ‘eerie’ relationship with the Essex landscapes of his youth:

‘somewhere in which violence was always imminent. “There was something in the land-scape,” he said, “that plainly terrified me … If you went out into it you could just be killed.” His comments echo those of Sinclair, who invoked King Lear on the heath: “You’re turned outdoors into something more savage than you are, and you know something terrible is going to happen.” ‘

My sense of countryside was, and remains, a place of freedom rather than threat: the English rural landscape does bear the scars, or wears the wellies and mascara, of capitalism; but my sense of aerg derives from current metropolitan savageries rather than glimpses of the chthonic.


§ 5 Responses to Aerg! Eeriness in the English Countryside

  • Damian Smyth says:

    Hi Rob,
    The article was interesting in that it drew attention to certain characteristics which are seen quite frequently in contemporary writing, versions of which have been aired on this blog before and elsewhere – the ‘countryside’ rediscovered by urban writers as a form of weekend break, where the ‘eerie’ is just unfamiliarity. The civil war elements are potent certainly, but maybe more attractive to radicals because of the idea of a buried or defeated radicalism – the anti-royalists asleep in the ground.
    All that is very rich stuff for the imagination – but no more so now than it was for Hardy in Tess or for Southey in ‘after Blenheim’ or even that old skull turned up in Hamlet. You can follow ideas of mortality and waste as graphic as that right through literature & through England.
    The ‘need’ for bodies and skulls is interesting also. The biggest loss of life in Ireland over the centuries was the Great Famine, but there is a deficit of bodies or interments connected with that. Cholera mass graves, yes – even in the heart of Belfast. The recent unearthing of the bodies of dead children in Tuam (from the first half of the 20th century) gave a real sense of the power of such discovery and the violent ethical emotions it can unleash.
    What there is in abundance though, in Ireland anyway, even in my patch in the north, are vast populations of ghosts. That’s not to be cute, either – there have been reports of ‘sightings’ around Warrenpoint, the site where 18 soldiers and a civilian lost their lives in 1979. That’s relatively recent, but conflict-related with something of ‘the nation’ at stake, and a considerable deal for locals (inhabitants’) to consider in the now.
    What generates that sense of association between a place, its happenings and those who inherit it, as it were, or who stumble across it, is what is of interest. The most effective pattern of these tales is from those who apparently ‘know nothing’ of the local history but who still report the uncanny in some form.
    Bearing in mind that – as we logical positivists all agree – these intuitions are entirely illusory, the question is about discovering why abandoned places, for example, or disused routes and pathways, or wrecks, or rotting factories, whatever, exercise such a grip even on the popular imagination which will people them with shades and echoes. Maybe it’s all we’ve got left of mystery. Maybe the wrecks of industry or labour or common action, whatever they may be, are all that’s been left to us, as ordinary folk. That’s your lot, that’s all you’re getting. And we give to them some version of afterlife where they can still hold sway. But it’s their death, their termination and the very completeness of it, which is difficult for us to face.
    If one is interested in these things, such things, it’s a way of avoiding the fact that we are beaten before we start.

    • Rob says:


      You’re dead right, I think, on the willed vision that derives from a sense of social injustice. My ‘Spence Broughton’ sequence came from that place; and I think poems like Heaney’s ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ has the same sensibility (the barley growing up out of the graves another return of the repressed). Perhaps we are beaten before we start: though at least we can give voice to that fact. Then who knows?

  • […] some of the assumptions that appear to underwrite the aestheticisation of the ‘eerie'; click here to read ‘Aerg!’. His two recent posts on the manufactured, yet inhuman, horizons of the […]

  • Matthew Clegg says:


    Thanks for these thoughts. All very resonant. Growing up on the edge of East Leeds, as a child I wandered into both a sense of freedom and of the ‘eerie’ – and I acknowledge that I was probably hungry for both, long before I knew anything of bones beneath the turf.

    I’m sure these intuitions are more than merely ‘illusory’, unless I’m projecting a dismissal onto the idea of ‘illusion’ that wasn’t meant. I can concede that ‘eerie-ness’ might be born out a of sense of threat – and also that it can be born out of a sense of standing on the brink of what we don’t know – a residual filling-in of the blank, or a joining of the dots, supplied by the nerve-endings and the instincts.

    Of course, I’m sympathetic towards the political ideas expressed here, but those signals from the nerves and instincts seem to belong as much to human genes as they do to human memes, and it’s the only way I can explain feelings that I felt long before I received the knowledge and education I’m so glad to have received later in life.

    I probably need to read MacFarlane’s essay.

    Thanks to both of you for giving me something to think about…


  • Rob says:

    Thanks Matt

    And perhaps in retrospect my final assertion that ‘My sense of countryside was, and remains, a place of freedom rather than threat’ isn’t entirely accurate. As a child, too, I experienced the same ambivalence in foraying into rural places. However, growing up in a village – between rural and urban – both woods and alleys had a similar sense of threat: not what might be lurking, but who. The distinction, perhaps, lay in the fact that my sense of ‘aerg’ was elicited by the unfamiliar darkness in the midnight wood, as opposed to the familiar shadows of the midnight alley.

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