Tuesday, 20 December 2016

South by Merlin Coverley

From the beaches of Tahiti to the streets of Buenos Aires, from Naples to New Orleans, Merlin Coverley’s wide-ranging study throws light on the ways in which the idea of the South, in all its forms, has come to exert such a powerful hold on our collective imagination (from the cover of South).

Coverley tackles this vast subject eloquently, breaking his book into six chapter (The Idea of South, Goethe’s Law, In the South Seas, Magic South, The Polar South and South of the River), in order to examine the concept of the South from a philosophical, geographical, cultural and literary perspective so as to demonstrate the complexity and fascination it holds for us. I shall be writing about ‘The Idea of the South’ (the introduction) and ‘South of the River’ here.

The Idea of the South

Being a cultural theorist the concept of ‘the south’ is particularly interesting to me (as are the other points of the compass, since they are often set in binaries and have values attached to them when set in opposition – for example the North/South divide in Britain). Coverley begins the introduction by showing us a 17th century map of the south pole and then describes the work by the artist Andy Goldsworthy entitled Touching North (1989) (see below). Touching North was situated at the North Pole, with the four individual parts of the sculpture facing each other and also outwards, with holes in the centre providing them with an opening which enabled them a space accessible from anywhere and everywhere. Coverley says that the sculpture “demonstrates how the directions of the compass may effectively be rendered meaningless: emerge through any of the four arches and one finds oneself heading south” (page 9). Thus Coverley launches the reader into the ambiguity of the term ‘south’ and in the introduction begins to explain how it developed.


South of the River

Having spent most of my working life in London the idea of north and south of the Thames means something for me, especially since I worked and lived only in the north of London during my time there. Coverley begins the final chapter by discussing Angela Carter’s novel Wise Children (1991) and how the protagonists live on “the bastard side of Old Father Thames” (Angela Carter), in other words ‘the south’. Coverley explains that he has lived in south London on and off for about twenty years and notes that this division is now “less distinct, as the process of gentrification refashions the city into the one we inhabit today” (page 224). I must say, this was also my experience. Having moved to London in the mid-1980s (at the beginning of the property boom) and having left in 2002, there was certainly a smoothing out in regards to what was considered, when I first arrived, to be “broad concentrations of wealth and power in the North at odds with the poverty and lack of political representation to be found in the South” (page 224). The urban development and rising property value throughout the capital during the time I was living there, eventually made this distinction redundant.


Coverley also mentions one of my favourite books about London Soft City (Jonathan Raban 1974) and quotes Raban talking about how when one lives in the north of London, visiting someone in the south can seem like a real trek when it involves crossing the river. So this is about the perception of the distance – broken by the river as a boundary - rather than the actual mileage.

Coverley’s latest book will have a wide appeal. I’ve only included a few of my own observations here (this is not a proper book review), but in the rest of the book he examines imaginary places such as Atlantis and books like Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and the concept of ‘the noble savage’ to the works of Iain Sinclair (let’s not forget Coverley is a psychogeographer).

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