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234 × 156 × 20 mm
272 pages
22 illustrations
01 Nov 2004
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The Idea of North Peter Davidson

As with the compass needle, so people have always been most powerfully attracted northwards; everyone carries within them their own concept of north. The Idea of North is a study, ranging widely in time and place, of some of the ways in which these ideas have found expression.

Peter Davidson explores the topography of north as represented in images and literature, taking in Netherlandic winter paintings of the Renaissance, German Romantic landscapes, Scandinavian Biedermeyer and twentieth-century topographical painting and printmaking. He examines a bewildering diversity of mythologies and imaginings of north, including The Snow Queen; Scandinavian Sagas; ghost-stories; Moomintrolls, Arctic exploration; the fictitious snowy kingdoms of Zembla and Naboland; Nabokov’s nostalgias; Baltic midsummer; rooms in winter light; compasses and star-stones; hoar-frost; ice and glass.

The book also traces a northward journey, describing northern rural England, industrial sites, and the long emptiness of the borders, Scotland and the Highlands. He looks at the region far north of Scotland, then moves to the Northern Netherlands and Scandinavia to explore their identifiable northernness. The last visited place is Iceland, identified by W. H. Auden and Louis McNeice in 1936 as ‘furthest, most remote, most distant, most northerly’.

An engaging meditation on solitude, absence and stillness, The Idea of North shows north to be a goal rather than a destination, a place of revelation that is always somewhere ultimate and austere.

‘one of the most beautiful books I've read . . . Davidson's taste is both baroque and ascetic his prose is correspondingly extravagant and refined. This is cultural history at its very best, unfolding new maps of imagination.’ — Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherland

‘A masterpiece . . . The Idea of North reminded me of Paul Fussells The Great War and Modern Memory in taking a vast and shifting subject and reducing it to clarity, radically changing the way we look at a history . . . it is hard to imagine writing a better book within the terms Davidson has set for himself . . . beyond being merely clever or wise: a beautiful book. He ends with a magnificent couple of pages entitled Keeping the Twilight a description, from his study, of the fading hours of the northern winter day. His last two sentences are perfect abstract expressionist description of North.’ — Scottish Review of Books

‘[the north] is roamed in fascinating, suggestive fashion . . . Davidson is as interesting writing about snow sculptures and 17th-century paintings of the Arctic as he is about Auden, and his reading of the imaginary land of Zembla in Nabokov's Pale Fire as an eternal, symbolic north is highly evocative . . . [a] lovely book’ — The Guardian

‘From the Old Norse sagas to the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, from the films of Bergman to the paintings of Eric Ravilious, from Nabakovs Zembla to Simon Armitages Yorkshire, [Davidson] finds that the north is a breeding ground for ghosts, a place of exile and punishment, the antithesis of the human. Yet its bleak landscapes have inspired poetry of great beauty: ice, crystal, diamond and glass all blur in recurring images . . . Davidson never lets his learning cloud his enthusiasm for this wide and protean subject and his writing shares the awe of the poets who preceded him on this journey.’ — The Observer

‘Beside being a discriminating critic, Davidson has an arrestingly personal voice . . . The Idea of North is one of those books that have you making a long list of references you want to follow’ — The Independent

‘The nearer he gets to the North of England and Scotland the more deeply felt his writing becomes. . . . Marvellously sensitive.’ — London Review of Books

‘This is a book about poetry, myth, and art, and the myriad ways in which artists, poets, and explorers have filtered the north's stark natural splendor through their imaginations. . . . Davidson has compiled an extraordinary catalog of the shapes the north has taken in the minds of humans . . . A work of genuine erudition, guiding readers northward out of their home ground and into unknown territory.’ — Discover

‘Provocative . . . Davidsons evocative prose and sensitive analyses of an impressive range of sources heighten the readers appreciation of the rich complexity of humanitys imagined Norths.’ — Times Higher Education Supplement

‘[a] delightful work . . . beautifully written . . . an esoteric but important gem original treasure from the north’ — The Herald (Glasgow)

‘[A] gifted prose writer’ — Scotland on Sunday

‘There are indeed a lot of norths to cover, and the charm of the book is it exhaustiveness, zooming into a variety of touchstones to show how theyve influenced global culture in sly, often surprising ways . . . Davidsons north is an enormous, challenging land: humbling, shifting, austere, empty, fragile, desolate, desolating, marginal, authentic a place, as Davidson perfectly puts it, forever suffused with absolute, difficult beauty.’ — Ruminator Review (USA)

‘An interesting meditation’ — TLS

‘A truly stunning assessment of the concept of "north" in literature, legend, history and the psyche of "Northern" people . . . Davidson writes with an incredible sense of place’ — Aberdeen Evening Express

‘Mesmerising cultural history . . . Davidsons style achieves a lyric expression of phrase. In several passages of personal recollection . . . he achieves a marvel of descriptiveness that is moving as well as expressive’ — The Scotsman

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Peter Davidson is Fellow of Campion Hall, University of Oxford. He has taught at the universities of Aberdeen, Leiden and Warwick. He is the author of a book of essays about northern culture, The Idea of North (Reaktion, 2005), Distance and Memory (2013), a collection of verse, The Palace of Oblivion (2008) and The Last of the Light: About Twilight (Reaktion, 2015).

Introduction: True North
I. Histories
—Ideas of North from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century
—Treasures and Marvels of the North
II. Imaginations of North
—Ice and Glass
—The North in the 1930s: Auden and Ravilious
—Imagined Northern Territories
—Northern Summer
—Northern Exile
III. Topographies
—Japan and China
Epilogue: Keeping the Twilight
Photographic Acknowledgements