Ness by Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood audiobook review – a sinister eco parable | Robert Macfarlane

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Orford Ness is a narrow shingle and marsh spit off the Suffolk coastline that “speaks gull, speaks wave, speaks bracken & lapwing, speaks bullet, ruin, gale, deception”. Now a nature reserve, it was previously the site of secret military activity from the first world war onwards, and retains the squat concrete structures that were used for military testing during the cold war.

Narrated with great seriousness and portent by actor Stephen Dillane, Ness – a collaboration between nature writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Stanley Donwood – is a wonderfully weird prose poem and ecological parable in which a group of scientists including the Armourer, the Physicist, the Engineer and the Ornithologist gather at the decaying concrete Green Chapel. There they sing a hymn of ruination called “The Firing Song” and plot the end of the world. Meanwhile, five natural forces called “it”, “he”, “she”, “they” and “us” converge on the chapel to reclaim the land and avert catastrophe. “She” comprises lichen, moss and fungi; “it” is drift, with plastic bones and a body of pallet slat and bottle tops held together with fishing line.

Listeners of Ness will miss out on Donwood’s eerie pen-and-ink drawings, but they gain a gently sinister score courtesy of composer Hugh Brunt, recorded at London’s Abbey Road studios. With its mythical atmosphere and rhythmic pleas to “Listen to the pasts of Ness. Listen inland to the long-gone wood, which rings with the cries of wildcat & brock, heorte & hind, doe & bocke”, this is a work that is best heard out loud.

Ness is available on Penguin Audio, 47 min

Further listening

The Sound at the End
Kirsty Logan, Audible Originals, 10hr 37min
An immersive story written exclusively for audio by the Scottish novelist and poet. A newcomer arrives on a remote Arctic research base to investigate a wrecked ship under the ice.

Unrequited Infatuations
Stevie Van Zandt, White Rabbit, 14hr 26min
The musician and actor“Little Steven” reads his memoir recalling his career as guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and playing Silvio Dante in The Sopranos.



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