Five Questions for... Will Burns

Photo: Wendover Woods, courtesy of Will Burns

Photo: Wendover Woods, courtesy of Will Burns

We are extremely pleased to welcome the poet Will Burns to Elsewhere: A Journal of Place for the next in our series of “Five Questions” interviewers with writers, artists, practitioners and indeed anyone for whom place is central to their work, whatever that may be. You might have spotted Will on these virtual pages recently as we reviewed the new album Chalk Hill Blue that he made with Hannah Peel, a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of poetry and music rooted in the landscapes of Buckinghamshire where Will lives.

Named as one of the Faber & Faber New Poets for 2014 and the poet-in-residence at the wonderful Caught by the River, Will’s poetry evokes a strong sense of place and was praised by The Guardian for its “quiet intelligence and subtle ways of seeing”, a description that we can only wholeheartedly endorse. A regular live performer, Will has read at festivals around the UK including Port Eliot, Green Man and Glastonbury and you can catch him at a number of festivals this summer as he tours Chalk Hill Blue with Hannah Peel.

On with the interview...

What does home mean to you?

Like most people I suspect, ‘home’ is a bit of a complicated word for me. It definitely applies to Wendover, the village in Bucks where I live now and lived from the age of about ten until I left home. And even after I left I’ve always come back. Sometimes only for a few months or so, and sometimes out of necessity - but I suppose the point is it’s always there, which is a function of home I think. I have to say London too. I was born there, and  I’ve lived there, in various spots, almost as many years as Wendover, all told. But London’s such a big thing isn’t it? The little areas you get to know might feel like home for the period you know them, but change is so fast there that you leave and a year or so later it feels entirely alien.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

I’m going to say the Rough Trade shop on Talbot Rd. My Dad was one of the owners of the Rough Trade shops until about three years ago, and I grew up seeing him in that shop as a child. Then I ended up working there in my twenties. I was there a few days ago and I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, and I realised just how burned into my consciousness and imagination the place is. Some of the posters, the counter, the architecture, the smells of the place. What a strange contradiction a record shop is - it changes completely every week when a new batch of releases goes up on the walls, in the racks in the windows, and yet at the same time it’s not changed for thirty years.

What is beyond your front door?

The main high street in Wendover. Although that section is actually part of the Ridgeway, so you’re on an ancient path the moment you put a boot out the door. It’s a classic market town high street with an abundance of charity shops. We’ve resisted chains for the most part though, so it retains a sense of itself. Take the road left out of the door and up the hill and you follow the Ridgeway onto the scarp. Ten minutes and you’ve got views across the whole vale. Nobody talks about the Chilterns really but they are a very beautiful place.

What place would you most like to visit?

I’d love to go to Iceland sometime. I’ve always loved the Sagas and the history of Northern Europe. But India as well. My grandfather was born there and it was him who inculcated my love of wildlife, partly through his stories of India. It has sort of remained as an unscratched itch ever since.

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now?

A new album by my all time favourite band came out today, so I’ll be with that non-stop for the foreseeable future. That’s Union by Son Volt. My capacity for listening to them is pretty much infinite. And I’ve not really been able to stop reading One Lark, One Horse by Michael Hofmann since it came out. I’m one of these obsessive types I think who re-reads and listens to things once I’ve fallen for them.

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Will Burns website
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Sound of the times: Chalk Hill Blue by Will Burns & Hannah Peel

By Paul Scraton:

The final track reaches an end and the record stops. I pick it up and turn it over. Start again from the beginning. The music comes in waves, a fragmented, crackling, sweeping electronica that brings first to mind a desire path close to my mum’s in Yorkshire, where it passes beneath a huge, humming electricity pylon in the grounds of an old asylum transformed into a whole new village on the edge of the moors. But then I am taken, via a gentle voice, to the chalk landscapes of the south, and the stories to be found if we only “look beyond the intensive agriculture, the lookalike market towns, the wealth, the gold course and the four-wheel drive cars…”

Chalk Hill Blue is the name of a butterfly that can be found in those chalk landscapes around Wendover in Buckinghamshire, where the poet Will Burns lives and writes. It is also the name of the album Burns has created with the artist, producer and composer Hannah Peel, with his words and her music coming together to create a haunting, unsettling and strangely beautiful portrait of a place and its stories. Burns and Peel met in 2016 and two years later began working on the album. Sometimes the music came first, with Burns then selecting the poem that fit best with the sounds Peel was composing. Sometimes it was the poem that inspired the composition. The result was this album, released by Rivertones label of Caught by the River.

In a way this album is specific, telling as it does the stories of a particular place and of particular moments in time. The track titles themselves are rooted in location (Ridgeway), season (Spring Dawn On Mad Mile, Summer Blues), date (May 9th, February) and, of course, the local wildlife (Chalk Hill Blue). It is an attempt, as has already been mentioned, to look beyond the identikit everywhere of the 21st century world and find the real place that lies within or beneath. And it is a recognition that there are elements that have been lost. This might be true of the stories, which are now half-remembered, or the routines, work lives and traditions of the people. This loss it is most definitely felt when the album considers those other lives, the non-human lives, with which a place is shared. There is, Burns writes in the sleeve notes, “not as much as there should be, no, we must admit that.”

If stories, of people and other living things, of places and what they contain, exist only in memory then they become by nature fragmented and infused with loss. This atmosphere of change, melancholy and absence permeates Chalk Hill Blue and is perhaps why, on the second and third listen, I am taken away from Wendover once more and back to my mum’s Yorkshire village and then on, to the flat landscapes around Berlin or an empty square in a crumbling French market town. For while the album tells the fragmented stories of a particular place, it resonates because of the questions it poses for places far beyond:

What role does place play in our identity?
What does belonging mean?
How do we find our feet in an ever-shifting world?
How do we make sense of what has been lost?

There is a danger in these questions, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked. Questions of home and belonging, of the lost stories of place and an impending environmental catastrophe are key questions of our time. It is not possible to observe the movements that gave us Brexit, the rise of the AfD in Germany or the Gilets Jaunes of the French periphery without understanding how these questions link in. As we mop out our flooded towns and we try to protect our villages from raging forest fires, as we wonder where the bees have gone or why the cranes are staying through the winter, these questions return to us time and again.

These are uncomfortable questions, and it is to Will Burns’ and Hannah Peel’s credit that Chalk Hill Blue provokes us to ask them. We cannot ignore them. We have to find the answers to these questions and find the answers that are not rooted in nostalgia or the exclusion of others. There is no going back. However we find a answer, and one which rejects the dead ends of nationalism and nativism, the first step is to tell the stories. The first step is to know what is happening. How did we get here? It can be the role of music, of poetry and of art, to bring those stories to light. Through its thoughtful, thought-provoking poetry and beautiful, atmospheric music, Chalk Hill Blue does just that.

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Will Burns & Hannah Peel will be performing Chalk Hill Blue live at dates around the UK. More info on Caught by the River here. The album is released by Rivertones and is available on CD or 12” Vinyl here.

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His debut novel Built on Sand is published by Influx Press in April 2019.