Adequacy is for archangels: an interview with Tim Robinson

Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, the first volume of Tim Robinson’s comprehensive account of Árainn, the largest of the Irish Aran Islands, was first published in 1985, followed in 1995 by Stones of Aran: Labyrinth. It was not, however, till the reprinting of the volumes in 2008 and 2009 respectively that the books really began to gain traction, establishing Tim’s reputation as one of the greatest living chroniclers of landscape. His more recent oeuvre includes several books about Connemara, also in the west of Ireland. Now ten years on from the re-issue of Pilgrimage we are pleased to feature on the blog a previously unpublished interview with Tim, carried out via email in May 2014 by Land Lines research team member Pippa Marland.

Adequacy is for archangels: an interview with Tim Robinson

PM: You and your wife ‘M’ left London in 1972 to settle on the largest of the Irish Aran islands, which became your home for the next twelve years – can you explain a bit about why you left the metropolis, and what it was about Árainn that so attracted you?

TR: Believing that art is the opposite of money, disconcerted by the turbulent attraction of opposites, I felt adrift in the rapacious London art world, and my art withdrew into privacy and near-invisibility. Then landlord/tenant troubles arose. One day I returned from the search for an alternative to our pleasant West-Hampstead flat, and announced, ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in tedious comfort.’ We took off to Aran, thinking to stay for a month or two while we reinvented our future; but then the islands hi-jacked me, and I spent most of the next twelve years there. It was to say the least an odd thing for us to do, in the middle of life’s road.

PM: One of the main motifs of the Aran diptych is the idea of the ‘good step’ – an ideal integration of self and world, which you symbolise beautifully as “taking a single step as adequate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin’s arc to its wave”. Can you say a little more about what constitutes adequacy in this context?

TR: Adequacy is for archangels; for the rest of us it is a delusion only dispelled by exhausting oneself in its pursuit. I wore the network of tender little fields and bleak rocky shores of Aran into my skin until I could have printed off a map of them by rolling on a sheet of paper, but I was always aware of the infinity of ways in which the place exceeded my knowledge of it. Never mind! – the attempt at comprehensiveness supplied the fodder for three editions, ever more detailed, of my map of the islands, and the two-volume study, Stones of  Aran.

PM: You state with some vehemence that the ‘good step’ is not to be confused with the idea of roots – a ‘concept which is […] unacceptably vegetable’. Can you say a little more about your objection to the concept of roots?

TR: Roots spread out from a centre they themselves fix in place, lay claim to a territory, suck up historical and political poisons, limit the access of nomads, passers-by and explorers. I exaggerate, of course, and there is much to be said for settled communities in their familiar old places, but as a human being I claim the freedom of the globe’s surface and accept responsibility for it.

PM: Some of the most powerful and moving moments in the Stones of Aran books come when you express the difficulties you encounter in trying to ‘be’ adequately in a place. How important is it in writing about place to divulge moments of disorientation and dislocation?

TR: Steeps of weariness and mists of despair are part of the topography of the merely human. There were many psychologically challenging times in the exploration of the three terrains I have undertaken to map and write about. But such joys too. In my written expressions of all this, the negative frames and enhances the positive.

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Tim on a boat to Deer Island, 1984

PM: The Stones of Aran diptych has quite rightly become recognised as one of the great achievements of 20th century landscape writing but there are some quite polarised views of what that achievement constitutes – from Robert Macfarlane’s review of the books as “an exceptional investigation of the difficulties and rewards of dwelling” (‘Rock of Ages’, The Guardian, 14th May, 2005) to John Wylie’s view that “A clearer disavowal of dwelling, of a correspondence of land and life, is hard to imagine” (‘Dwelling and Displacement: Tim Robinson and the Question of Landscape’ Cultural Geographies ). Can you comment on your own notion of dwelling and its possibility or impossibility?

TR: There is some discrepancy between the human being and the world in which we are urged to dwell. Perhaps it is that dwelling and world-wandering equally end in exile. Mystics and serenity peddlers would have us dwell in time as well as place, but I am too restless to sink into the moment for more than a moment at a time. Horizons beckon, and what’s beyond them.

PM: In the Connemara film you talk about a mantra you adopted while mapping and writing – ‘While walking this land I am the pen on the paper, while drawing this map my pen is myself walking the land’. This implies that there is a strongly embodied connection between the landscape and your writing and drawing. How vital is the act of walking to the creation of your work?

TR: ‘Walking’ has been competently anatomised by several cultural theoreticians recently. Leaving those analyses aside, the practice has been essential to my method. Once a wealthy friend with a big car offered to help me in my explorations of Connemara. Since I wanted to revisit a few remote glens I accepted, and we roared off. Then, ‘I must call in at that cottage,’ I said, and we squealed to a stop. I knocked at the door, but apart from a twitching curtain there was no response – whereas if I had sweated up the hill, fallen off my old bike at the gate, asked for a bucket of water to mend a puncture, etc., all the lore of the valley would have been forthcoming over tea in the kitchen. But even bicycling is inferior to walking in this context. To appear out of the thickets behind an Aran cottage, or scramble down from the bare moon-mountains of the Burren into a farmyard, is, I find, a disarming  approach, introducing me as obviously unofficial and dying for a cup of tea.

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Tim on the way to Inis Meáin in 1982

PM: In Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara you write “‘Landscape’ has during the past decade become a key term in several disciplines; but I would prefer this body of work to be read in the light of ‘Space’”. Could you explain a little more about this?

TR: ‘Landscape’ implies a perspectival, if not proprietorial, overview; the ideological stuffing of the term has been well thumped out of it by the cultural geographers. I hope that my readings of particular terrains, although naturally couched in terms of human scales, those of my own limbs, eyes, breath etc., are suffused by an awareness of almost inconceivably greater and unimaginably smaller physical dimensions, not to mention those of the flowery fields and terrible cliffs of dreams.

PM: It seems important for you to resist the temptations of transcendental responses to landscape. At the end of the passage ‘A Difficult Mile’ you write that, ‘honouring ourselves as dust’, even if there were any extra-mundane answers to the riddle of our lives on earth, we should refuse them. How important do you think it is for us as humans to recognise our mortal, material nature?

TR: The notion of a disembodied afterlife strikes me as blasphemous. If mentality can be sustained without matter, then the vast fantastic fabric of material existence, from the atomic particle to the neuron to the galactic cluster, which it has been my deepest delight to learn something of, is a waste of space and time.

Featured image: part of one of Tim’s maps (close up of Árainn)

All images kindly provided by the Tim Robinson Archive, held at NUI Galway Library

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