You’ll know Simon Winchester from The Surgeon of Crowthorne, his mega-selling account of how W. C. Minor helped write the first Oxford English Dictionary while ensconced in an asylum for the criminally insane. That book contained a story with a capital S, one that enabled Winchester to discourse on the American Civil War, lexicography, alienism and much else besides, without any loss of narrative momentum.
Land centres on a less obvious conceit. Winchester begins with his purchase of 123 acres in Dutchess, New York. “Like all land and all landscapes, everywhere, mine has a story to tell,” he writes. That sentence encapsulates the text’s problem: namely, when everything tells a story, no obvious path emerges through the thicket of anecdotage.
We duly trace Winchester’s patch back through geological time, learning about the rise of the supercontinent Laurentia before the formation of the Americas, the coming of the Mohicans, the arrival of settlers from Holland, and the occupation of successive householders – the Philipse family, the Sicilian Vacrica, a man named Doll et cetera – until Winchester himself comes on the scene.
He then leads us into the development of land ownership in the Bronze Age, before moving on to measuring and map making, and the process by which “the great majority of the world’s land borders were fashioned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century”.
We learn how the disastrous partition of India in 1947 took place on the basis of a line ruled more or less arbitrarily on a map by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a London lawyer working in his drawing room. Land describes the carnage wrought by such colonial borders, where “in one particularly and unutterably mad instance, a village of undoubted Indian ownership was inside a piece of Bangladeshi territory that was itself inside an Indian parcel that had been somehow pinioned inside Bangladesh”.
Winchester possesses a nose for such striking details. He can also write, as his description of the gate-closing ceremony at Wagah, between India and Pakistan, shows: “Soldiers from both sides, selected for their height and their balletic marching skills and ability to kick their legs high into the air, march fiercely towards one another, stopping fast at the painted line on the road so they are almost moustache to moustache, while the crowds on bleachers on each side cheer lustily and, just being able to see one another, roar insults into the gloaming.”
With prose like that, the book’s individual episodes zip along nicely. The problem lies in where they’re going.
Winchester’s subtitle about “how the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world” positions Land within the field of what The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik once called “little-thing/big-thing books”, that genre of popular nonfiction in which a writer takes something prosaic – cod, nutmeg, the colour mauve – and uses it as the master key to unlock world history.
But when you choose land as your “little thing”, the map immediately threatens to exceed the territory. Land ownership so obviously shapes modern history that, without a strong thesis about how the relationship works, an account of the former bleeds into a cook’s tour through the latter.
For instance, Winchester devotes a section to battlegrounds, in which he chronicles the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Israel–Palestine conflict, the Ukrainian famine and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “The land remains at the heart of it,” Winchester tells us, by way of explaining the intractability of the conflict in Palestine.
Because humans are terrestrial creatures, land remains, in some sense, central to every conflict. But a narrow focus on the physical territory of the Middle East leads back to clichés about the disputed claims of antiquity rather than an engagement with, say, the strategic centrality of an oil-rich area to imperialist rivals.
The problem with Land isn’t, however, political – or, at least, not entirely. It’s more that Winchester lacks any particular argument to hold together the text’s sprawl.
He provides an account of the notorious experiment in rewilding marshland east of Amsterdam, a project that unleashed large quantities of red deer, Konik horses and Heck cattle on 12,500 acres and left them to their own devices. A harsh winter in 2017 resulted in mass starvation.
Winchester describes “huge demonstrations and attempts by fearless people – who had to cross high-speed railway tracks and risk the wrath of the law, for this was a wilding attempt backed by the full majesty of the Dutch government, and woe betide anyone who dared to interfere – to feed the surviving creatures, with four hundred bales of hay brought in illegally one dead of night”.
But he also acknowledges the more successful effort conducted by Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree south of London in Knepp, the centrepiece of the British wilding movement.
So should land be turned back to nature or does it require human stewardship? After posing the question, Winchester writes simply “the argument rages still” – and then proceeds to the next topic.
The impression isn’t so much of pieces of evidence adduced for a mounting case but rather individually diverting anecdotes shoehorned into some kind of loose order. The result is a book into which you might enjoyably dip, reading here about the efforts by the Dutch hydraulic engineer Cornelis Lely to reclaim land from the sea, there about the FBI’s raid (“Operation Desert Glow”) on the chemical plant that produced plutonium for American atomic weapons just outside Denver, and elsewhere about the advice offered by Gina Rinehart, the world’s largest private landowner, to ordinary Australians – “spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising and more time working”.
To put it another way, Land offers a pleasurable enough meander through its 430 pages, especially if you’re not too concerned about the distinction between wandering and getting lost.
HarperCollins, 464pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2021 as "Simon Winchester, Land".
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