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  • Cultural Practices

The Function of the Unanswered Telephone in Contemporary British Ecogeographical Short Fiction

Paul Anthony Knowles


This paper will reflect on the diabolic symbol of the unanswered telephone in contemporary British short stories. Whilst also mediating my experience attending ‘The Integrated Objects: Critical Thinking with Things’ Conference.


In this article, I examine the function of the unanswered telephone in contemporary British Ecogeographical short fiction. It considers the following questions: What questions does an unanswered phone provoke? Who is calling? Why? Why does no one answer? When will the ringing stop? Will the caller call back?


Slide one from the Pecha Kucha Presentation


My research is based on the Ecogeographical short story collection, which I define as a collection set in one geographical location. These collections function to allow readers to consider different timelines, voices and perspectives from the human and the nonhuman world, for example, the Fens in Daisy Johnson’s Fen and Caerphilly in Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We Are Doing. [1]


Robert Macfarlane, in his article ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside’, identifies a new movement in contemporary art: using the countryside as a place of eeriness to unsettle dominant romantic pastoral discourses on the local landscape. [2] This is epitomised in the following quotation: ‘Landscape, […] is a realm that snags, bites and troubles’. [3] I argue that the ecogeographical collections in contemporary British short fiction act as chronotopes, allowing us to consider the past, present and future of landscapes supported by MacFarlane’s following quotation: ‘You’re turned outdoors into something more savage than you are […] among the shared landmarks of this terrain are ruins, fields, pits, fringes, […] falcons, demons and deep pasts’. [4]


Kenneth Olwig is a landscape geographer who identifies the importance of landscapes as: ‘Landscape therefore involves philological questions of how people understand and discourse about their world, shaping it on that basis’. [5] Olwig, in his 2019 book The Meanings of Landscape: Essay on place, Space, Environment and Justice, defines diabolism as ‘Diabol-, the root of diabolic, means to throw across, and thereby to confuse and mystify meaning’. [6] This is a key concept that I explore in relation to the symbol of the unanswered phone in ecological contemporary British short fiction.


Tim Ingold in his 2020 Book Correspondences develops Olwig’s ideas by suggesting that: ‘The fortunes of landscape and language are indissolubly bound, and in current day and age, they are equally under attack. For techno-science, words are a distraction. They get in the way and cloud our perception.’ [7] Tim Ingold identifies the danger of diabolism as a passing over of language and landscapes when he writes that: ‘Words are human things. They are the ways we have of making our presence felt, whilst also bringing into presence the persons, places and matters.’ [8] Whereas the diabolic symbol of the unanswered phone is dangerous as it functions to allow oversight in both its senses — ‘it overlooks and yet looks over, declines to attend to its referents while subjecting them to audit and control.’ [9]


Here, these concepts can be applied to two contemporary British writers: Lucy Wood and Jon McGregor. Lucy Wood is a Cornish writer, and in her two collections Diving Belles 2012 and The Sing of The Shore 2018, she explores the history, mythology, and future of Cornwall in the light of environmental change and coastal erosion. [10] Wood’s style has been called Cornish Gothic and Rural Gothic. ‘The Dishes’ from the collection the Sing of the Shore tells the story of a husband and baby who are mysteriously separated from their wife and mother. The mother has got a job listening to satellite dishes over the Atlantic coast, and they have all moved into a coastal terrace house in a bleak, damp winter. Significantly, the mother departs for her job and ultimately goes missing as the phone in the next house mysteriously rings, going unanswered.


The unanswered phone in ‘The Dishes’ becomes a symbol of disconnection from human connection, human relationships, and the landscape. The phone continuing to the ring becomes a diabolic symbol of the unknowable. My research suggests that Wood uses Diabolism in ‘The Dishes’ and in both of her collections to challenge anthropocentric hierarchies that exclude the nonhuman world. The unanswered phone, in my reading, becomes a dystopian symbol and warning of the loss of human voice and agency due to the destruction of the landscape wrought by anthropocentric behaviours.


Slide eleven from the Pecha Kucha Presentation


This theme is also made explicit in Jon McGregor’s story ‘I Remember there was Hill’. Jon McGregor is an experimental writer whose most famous works include: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and Reservoir 13. [11] McGregor, in the ecogeographical short story collection This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, sets the collection in different villages in the Fens to consider the past, present and future of the Fens which is being threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change. [12] ‘I Remember There was a Hill’ tells the story of a phone ringing in an abandoned village with military planes flying overhead dropping bombs on the nearby beach. In my ecological reading, the story acts as a dystopian warning on the erasure of humans brought about by an overreliance on techno-military solutions. McGregor explores the consequences of the removal of the human voice from the landscape. The unanswered phone, in ‘I Remember There was a Hill’, thus becomes a diabolic symbol of the unknowable/unaccountable damage that humans have done to the landscape through scientific and militaristic experimentation and exploration.


Slide fifteen from the Pecha Kucha Presentation


I argue that McGregor, like Wood, uses Diabolism in ‘I Remember There was a Hill,’ and, in his widder collections, to challenge anthropocentric hierarchies that exclude the nonhuman world. The unanswered phone in my reading becomes a dystopian symbol and warning of the loss of human voice and agency due to the destruction of the landscape wrought by anthropocentric behaviours. This leads me to consider and ponder upon the two important questions: How does the unanswered phone become an eerie symbol that challenges readers to re-engage with landscapes? And does the unanswered phone become a dystopian symbol of the loss of the human voice?



Slides Eighteen and Nineteen from the Pecha Kucha Presentation


In these stories, this object becomes a symbol of the often distant relationship between humans and the landscape/environment, offering a way into understanding this disconnect whilst challenging or disrupting this separation from the outside world.


A Personal Reflection on the Integrated Objects Conference


The Integrated Objects: Critical Thinking with Things conference gave me the opportunity to meet and engage with like-minded scholars from a range of disciplines across the humanities to consider how the material objects of our everyday lives carry significance: literal, metaphorical, philosophical and symbolical, which shapes our perceptions and understanding of the world around us.


From the wonderful photographical archiving of the every day by David Johnson (who made me reconsider the entangled mesh of every day that inhabit our lives and how they become entangled with our sense of self) to Hanna Steyne’s haunting paper on how the finding of an ivory rhino figurine in the mud and filth of the embanks of London could help archaeologists trace the history of gentrification along the river Thames. The conference was truly impressive in the scope of the papers and topics covered, from the importance of museum exhibitions in helping people with down syndrome have an unmediated voice to the tainted history of Jade extraction in Burma and the function of calligraphy manual in the early modern Low Countries.


The importance of the Integrated Objects: Critical Thinking with Things conference was that it allowed scholars a space to formulate and give expression to the role of material objects in shaping our understanding of past, present and future worlds and the interrelated networks of people and societies that inhabit the earth’s landscape.


Footnotes


1. Daisy Johnson, Fen (London: Vintage, 2017); Thomas Morris, We Don’t Know What We Are Doing (London: Faber and Faber, 2015).

2. Robert Macfarlane, ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside’, The Guardian, (10th April 2015) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/10/eeriness-english-countryside-robert-macfarlane> [accessed 15 March 2021].

3. Macfarlane, para.18.

4. Macfarlane, para. 24.

5. Kenneth R. Olwig, The Meanings of Landscapes: Essays on Place, Space Environment and Justice (Oxon: Routledge, 2019), p. 28.

6. Olwig, p.17.

7. Tim Ingold, Correspondences (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2021), p.207.

8. Ingold, p. 210.

9. Ibid.

10. Lucy Wood, Diving Belles (London: Fourth Estate, 2012); The Sing of The Shore (London: Fourth Estate, 2019).

11. Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (London: Fourth Estate, 2017); Reservoir 13 (London: Fourth Estate, 2017).

12. Jon McGregor, This Isn’t the Sort of Things That Happens to Someone Like You (London: Fourth Estate, 2017).


Bibliography


Johnson, Daisy, Fen (London: Vintage, 2017)

Macfarlane, Robert, ‘The Eeriness of the English Countryside’, The Guardian, (10th April 2015) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/10/eeriness-english-countryside-robert-macfarlane> [accessed 15 March 2021]

McGregor, Jon, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (London: Fourth Estate, 2017)

McGregor, Jon, Reservoir 13 (London: Fourth Estate, 2017)

McGregor, Jon, This Isn’t the Sort of Things That Happens to Someone Like You (London: Fourth Estate, 2017)

Morris, Thomas, We Don’t Know What We Are Doing (London: Faber and Faber, 2015)

Olwig, R. Kenneth, The Meanings of Landscapes: Essays on Place, Space Environment and Justice (Oxon: Routledge, 2019)

Wood, Lucy, Diving Belles (London: Fourth Estate, 2012)

Wood, Lucy, The Sing of the Shore (London: Fourth Estate, 2019)

 

Author

Paul Anthony Knowles is a second-year PhD student at Manchester University. His research is on Haunted Pasts and Possible Futures in Ecogeographical Short Fiction: Crisis and Chronotope under the supervision of Dr. Anke Bernau and Dr. Robert Spencer. His research critically engages with formulations on the pastoral, especially in relation to the works of Ingold, Williams, Olgwig and Rebanks. Another critical concept his research engages with is Bakhtin's ideas on the chronotope. He is currently a member of the European Network for short fiction and has an article on care practices between the nonhuman and the human world published in the Esharp online journal.


Email: Paul.knowles-3@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

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