We have re-read Mark Cocker’s article in the New Statesman 17/06/2015, and there seems little doubt that he wrote it partly with the intention of slighting Robert Macfarlane: as to a possible motive, we touched on this in our previous post.
As well as the points we had already noted we saw that a photograph was captioned ‘Wild thing: Robert Macfarlane, the genre’s figurehead, has been criticised for being an excursionist.’ Is this really so? By whom, we wonder? What is certain is that as Mark Cocker had written somewhat pejoratively about the ‘New Nature Writers’ — in itself a phrase well over-used — yet it was to this ‘genre’ that he referred in his caption and to further state that Robert Macfarlane had been ‘criticised’ as an excursionist seemed disingenuous; even spiteful.
Intrigued by Mark Cocker’s claim, we decided to read Kathleen Jamie’s review of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places in the London Review of Books, 06/03/2008 — from which he had quoted, and discovered it was not she who used the term ‘excursionist’ of Robert Macfarlane but Mark Cocker himself who thought fit to write (of her review) that ‘she encompassed the notion that the nature writer is also an excursionist who visits, then retreats back to the city.’ and he connected this, in his text, to her caricature of Robert Macfarlane:
‘What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middleclass Englishman! A lone enraptured male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering’, etc. etc .’
Kathleen Jamie, on her own admission, had not meant that kindly, nor did Mark Cocker, when he quoted her. (And yet her own journey to St. Kilda was surely, if the word is used correctly, such an ‘excursion’?)
Why should it be that those who have written about nature — past and present — are placed in categories? It does seem that too many people are intent on this demarcation with, apparently, the consequent opportunities for contention.
Nowhere, so far, have we found the ‘criticism’ of Robert Macfarlane which Mark Cocker ‘repeated’ as a fact.
Iain Sinclair, in his book ‘Ghost Milk’, mentioned him — but by no means unflatteringly — however what is of interest is that only two lines further in his text he quoted Jerome K Jerome in this sentence — ‘But Streatley also trades in the more indolent literary tradition of messing about on the river: Jerome K Jerome’s trio of incompetent excursionists… came ashore to stock up on provisions.’ The excerpt may be found by Googling: ‘Iain Sinclair/excursionist/Robert Macfarlane’, where it is clear that no link was made or intended between Robert Macfarlane and Jerome K Jerome’s excursionist heroes. We have discovered no other likely sources for Mark Cockers assertion. The negative implication in his use of ‘excursionist’ shows a certain meaness and his choice to include the photograph gave him the opportunity for the sophistry of this gratuitous caption — on a par with the other insinuating content. It really was not fair play.
Others besides ourselves took issue with Mark Cocker’s article, as according to Jason Cowley’s own diplomatic description there had been amongst the readers ‘a heated debate’. By way of right of reply he published Robert Macfarlane’s response Why we need nature writing, on 02/09/2015. Measured, lucid and elegant his article was the perfect antidote to that written by Mark Cocker…