Into the valley – Michael Wilding’s In the Valley of the Weed


Into the Valley

In the Valley of the Weed, Michael Wilding, Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016, $29.95

“Old radicals become quietist” a character in Valley of the Weed tells Plant, the appropriately-named private detective investigating the disappearance of a high-profile academic. “They stop socialising. Stay at home and surrender to the comforting millenarian conviction that change will come, but in its own time.” One who has not surrendered is Michael Wilding, ex-vanguardist of Australia’s 1970s “new writing”, a post-modernist before the term existed, but now through force of events transmuting into a kind of cultural conservative. Notwithstanding his differences with the Australia of forty years ago, he is anguished by its present etiolation, and detests the looming ‘rational’ robotism in which everything Western can be automated and alienated, commodified and controlled.

The establishment Wilding lacerated or lampooned was long ago captured by its enemies, and ideas then thought revolutionary have ossified into the intolerant orthodoxy of “The Cathedral”. But old enemies have returned, if anything in greater strength – censorship, conformity, ignorance and nastiness. Now the iconoclastic litterateur satirises P.C. pearl-clutchers and priests as gleefully as once he impaled mainstream politicians or real-life Edna Everages. Valley of the Weed is the latest of some fifty books by Wilding, all of them remarkably adding something to, or defending, the Western canon. This book is dedicated to Barry Spurr, one of Australia’s most eminent victims of the ultra-Left’s Two Minute Hates. (Wilding also paid tribute to Spurr last year, in an essay on Milton’s Samson Agonistes – another poetical thinker who fell out with his times – for The Free Mind, the Festschrift produced to protest that despicable defenestration.) This is the fourth novel to feature Plant, who is sketchily delineated, but seems in some ways a simulacrum of the author – cultivated, a disillusioned radical, an un-dogmatic observer of trends, and would-be righter of wrongs.

Plant is asked by a retired professor with links to the intelligence services to find out what has happened to Tim Vicars, a well-known academic who has been looking into whether marijuana ought be legalised, but is then vilified when some of his e-mails sent over his university server are published by a leftwing website. These contain “the forbidden words…racist and sexist and homophobic stuff”, so naturally the university fires him to show it shares the same “elevated values” as the students (and divert attention from controversial cost-cutting and department closures). “We have a word for everything” Plant notes stolidly, but there are some we are no longer permitted to pronounce. In an ostensibly ever-freer era, the cockily confident speech celebrated by Sidney J. Baker is ironically shrinking back into itself, its speakers looking increasingly over their shoulders in fear of a visit from the Australian Offence Forces.

Vicars’ banishment and vanishment brings to light a convoluted sexual life, and a mass of contradictions and enigmas about his character, modern academe, drugs laws, the secret state, civil liberties, abuses of the internet, media bias, the literary world, and political correctness – in short the whole tenor of 21st century Australia as it transitions from mateship to tense modernity. The ambiguity that engulfs everything is reinforced by Wilding’s technique of raising possibilities without offering answers, foresting action and dialogue with question marks. He also provides Plant with an interlocutor named Fullalove, who combines recondite knowledge and great articulacy with acute paranoia (exacerbated by cannabis use). Wilding has an interest in conspiracies going back to the 1970s, and a rare knowledge of arcana and esotericism as far back as John Dee, so every situation is open to almost endless interpretations, depending on one’s perspective, or perhaps the levels of tetrahydrocannibinol in their blood. Almost everyone in Plant’s un-Lucky Country is manipulated or manipulator, confused or cunning, mixed in their motives, in some way suspect.

Why was Plant asked to investigate in the first place? Why has Vicars taken such an interest in marijuana, and who stands to gain or lose by any change in policy? Why did he use those “frightful words” on a server he must have known would be monitored – misplaced humour, psychological safety-valve, or a deep plan to extricate himself from intolerable pressures? The “libertarian anarchist” editrix who doxxes Vicars has highly pragmatic politics, moving from Left to Right and back to Left, following the culture (or is she shaping it?). Who sent her the emails? Why did she take such prurient relish in publishing them? Has some secret part of her always wanted to say those words herself? Is she really interested in social betterment – or is it actually all about her? Even the weather at times descends to disorientate, Plant staring out from Vicars’ apartment into a fog where “even absence was obliterated”. He longs, like so many others, for a clearer view, some return to form and narrative, a move away from self-realisation to society, a recrudescence of meaning, the end of post-modernity and its post-truth by-blow.

All this may sound forbiddingly worthy, but the undoubted import is delivered with ease, bejewelled with sparkling imagery – “she looked up like an indignant bird, one of the smaller ones, interrupted in eating crumbs” – and mordantly witty insights into how we live, and a few of the reasons why. Raising possibilities includes raising the possibility of escape, but Wilding is non-prescriptive almost to a fault. He offers no neat solution to Plant’s case – and no easy answers to any problems, except to be aware of what is (or might be) happening, at most a turning off rather than on, a tuning out rather than in, and a dropping out, and off the grid. Luckily for lovers of good fiction and good societies, he will never pursue this quietist course himself, but keep on instead adding new new writing to our old, helping in his engaging, unpretentious way to reinvest the West with sorely-needed significance.

This review first appeared in the Spectator Australia in January 2017, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

Dr. Johnson in Scotland – An Englishman in his Near Abroad




Samuel Johnson was nearly sixty-four when he made an unexpected journey. One day in 1773, the internationally-renowned lexicographer, essayist, poet, and novelist, who somehow combined being one of the great thinkers of Europe with being a personification of bluff Englishness, suddenly switched his great gaze north, in search of a dream of youth. His one good eye ranged restlessly beyond the metropolis whose intellectual life he characterised and whose very language he had helped codify, over the midlands from which he had emerged, across an echoing border and still further north and west, until it lighted at last on certain storm-swept islands he had never seen, but which had long ago taken hold of his heart. He avers in his 1775 account, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited.

How, indeed?

The expedition took many admirers and friends by surprise, because what could there be in such outlandish outcrops to engage the interest of so lambent an intellect? Furthermore, the Great Cham of English literature was noted for anti-Scottish squibs, such as calling Scotland “a worse England”, or chortling that

The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!

He had also been one of the first to doubt the authenticity of James Macpherson’s 1760 Ossian epic poem cycle, which purported to be translations of ancient Gaelic texts, but which Johnson dismissed as being “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with” – a piece of brusquerie which earned him the resentment of many Scots seeking cultural compensation for political subjection.

Remote islands have an intrinsic fascination, and Johnson had read Pliny’s Natural History, the first text to mention the archipelagoes. In the course of a lifetime’s restless reading, he would have come across other allusions and references, ranging from Ptolemy’s Deucaledonian Sea to Thomas Pennant, author of A Tour of Scotland And Voyage to the Hebrides (1772). He may have read parts of the 14th/15th century fantastical-factual Scotichronicon, as well as recent historiographies – and had probably pored over the 1654 Blaeu Atlas, the first atlas of Scotland, but which drew on maps from 1583. If so, he must have been tantalized by The Westerne Iles’ convoluted coasts, scanty settlements, and evocative blue expanses broken only by tiny sloops, watched over by wind-spirits and bare-breasted Gaels propping up cartouches.

Johnson was always aware he had not travelled much, and which other locale within striking distance could be more divergent from modern England? What an adventure such an expedition must have seemed, for someone who always combined melancholia and gravitas with impishness – “frisking” through London in the smallest hours, exchanging abuse with Thames watermen, or rolling down a Lincolnshire hillside to the surprise of old friend Bennet Langton. Eldritch islands lost in mists of spray and tradition were the antithesis of well-lit salons. He was a man who clove to solidity – exemplified in his dismissal of Berkeley’s immaterialism (Johnson kicked a stone hard, and cried “I refute it thus!”).

He knew of scientific excursions by fossilists researching the new concept of “deep time”, and the 1772 trip of his botanist friend Sir  Joseph Banks, who had been awed by the basalt cliffs of Staffa. He also wanted to see something of “the ancient state of Britain” before it altered, and to hear Gaelic, long in decline and which most thought must soon disappear. For him languages were “the pedigree of nations”, that once lost could never be recovered. More specifically, as a young pamphleteer he had disparaged the Hanoverians and praised the Stuarts, so that some had thought him seditious. In 1739, he had published Marmor Norfolciense, which contained the lines,

Then o’er the world shall discord stretch her wings,

Kings change their laws, and kingdoms change their kings,

a sentiment interpreted dangerously by some as a “bloody Jacobitical pamphlet”.

The youthful Johnson was certainly not immune to what Henry James would call “the most romantic episode in the world”, but as Boswell noted shrewdly,

Mr. Johnson is not properly a Jacobite. He does not hold the jus divinum of kings. He founds their right on long possession, which ought not to be disturbed upon slight grounds.

James L. Clifford summed up Johnson’s contradictions in Young Samuel Johnson (1957),

Tradition, orthodoxy, strict legitimacy of succession, had powerful appeals. The Stuart cause aroused in him deep responses. But by temperament he was also rational and realistic, placing common sense high in the scale of human values.

Late in life, Johnson remarked to Boswell that if he could have held up his hand to secure the victory of Charles at Culloden he was uncertain he would have done so. But in 1773 he still contained a residuum of chivalry; his reservations about Scots were always tempered by admiration for the dedication of many to their lost cause, their “King over the water”. On top of this, he had heard about injustices meted out to Highlanders in the wake of the ’45 which offended against his sense of natural justice.

Johnson also knew his span was running out. He had always been robust, notwithstanding childhood tuberculosis and scrofula (which had badly scarred his face), his eyesight, partial deafness, and Tourette’s Syndrome, which made him twitch, claw the air and gesticulate uncontrollably at times, and “blow out his breath like a whale” at the end of sentences. But now he was losing strength and starting to have difficulty walking, so there would be few other opportunities to make so demanding a trip.

Providentially, he had to hand thirty-two year old Auchinleck aristocrat James Boswell – energetic, desperate to give Johnson a better impression of his homeland, and himself curious to see the Highlands, which even to many Scots seemed like a barbaric foreign country. He was also understandably eager to show off his celebrated friend to his North British acquaintance – and to have Johnson to himself for an extended period, because he was meditating writing his Life. So on 6th August, Johnson left London on what would be a eighty-three day trek. Thomas Trotter made a now-famous engraving to accompany Boswell’s 1786 Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides – the Doctor in travelling garb, a shambling, awkward, but imposing figure, a large, bushy, greyish wig, sturdy boots, and what Boswell describes as

…a very wide brown cloth great coat with pockets which might almost have held the two volumes of his folio dictionary,

leaning on an oak staff with nails driven in at intervals of a foot and a yard. (Johnson admonishes expeditionaries “no man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.”) His luggage contained an un-bookish brace of pistols – although he left these in Edinburgh, once his fellow-traveller had persuaded him the Highlands were not infested with bandits.

At Edinburgh, Boswell introduced him to some of the leading lights of the “Athens of the North”, and showed him Holyrood Palace, the university, libraries, and courts, while hoping he would not notice the smells wafting from wynds. They visited the church of St. Giles which had been knocked about by Presbyterians, about which Johnson was silent until they arrived at the Royal Infirmary, where a board instructed visitors “Clean your feet!” Johnson turned to Boswell and said slyly,

There is no occasion for putting this at the doors of your churches!

Johnson was always saddened by the destruction of churches, and at St. Andrews he stood bareheaded within the former precincts of the cathedral. When Boswell wondered where John Knox had been buried, the indignant Doctor answered,

I hope in the high-way: I have been looking upon his reformations.

But Johnson was never inconsolably nostalgic. Boswell asked why he ate heavily after viewing shattered antiquities, and received the superbly practical reply,

When comparing a worse present state with a better that is past, you cannot but feel sorrow. It is not cured by reason, but by the incursions of present objects.

They travelled via Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Aberdeen (where Johnson was made a freeman), Inverness and down the Great Glen. They examined a wayside hovel, asking the ancient, Gaelic-monoglot inhabitant where she slept, which made her fear they wanted to bed her. Only Boswell had the effrontery to insist on seeing her bed-chamber. They visited the eminent jurist Lord Monboddo – dressed, comically, in “a rustick suit” and little round hat, and holding a specimen of corn from his fields – and the military commanders at Forts George and Augustus. Military commanders were still thought a necessity. Apart from the usual problems of policing a remote region (still occasionally fallen upon by Barbary slavers), it was just twenty-seven years since the Young Pretender had last left for France. He was no longer a threat, nor even “Bonnie”, sunk into dipsomania in Rome, while his religiously-inclined sole sibling had no worldly ambitions. But redcoats were nonetheless needed to enforce palpably unjust laws onto a poor and proud people, still smarting from the severities of “Butcher” Cumberland’s suppression. Johnson despised these laws,

…which, though they cannot be called cruel, have produced much discontent, because they operate upon the surface of life, and make every eye bear witness to subjection.

Under the “Clan Act” of 1715, the estates of Jacobite nobles had been forfeited, while tenants who had supported the crown were given two years rent remission (the Act was mitigated later). Hereditary posts were abolished, and carpetbaggers advanced – many connected with the aggressive Campbells of Argyll, execrated for the Massacre of Glencoe, and furthermore Presbyterian. Some whose septs had dominated the Highlands since time out of mind were still in exile, while others were marginalized. Symbols of old allegiances were also forbidden, aiding cultural amnesia. Highlanders were forbidden to wear tartan, on pain of six months imprisonment or transportation to the colonies. There were disarming acts in 1716, 1725 and 1747 (these “arms” included bagpipes).

But the advance of Enlightenment ideas  – Edinburgh was home to Adam Smith and David Hume – and mercantilism also called time on the clans. Chiefs became land-owners instead of lords, and wardholder clansmen became tenants. Chiefs’ power had ended, although prestige lingered like old perfume. In any case, chiefs had fewer potential followers. Proto-agronomists were introducing less labour-intensive crops, and advocating agriculture that favoured sheep over people. The Highlands, inhabited since the Mesolithic era, were emptying as the uprooted sailed for new shores, some gulled by tracts like one Johnson mentions, which claimed the climate of Nova Scotia was like that of Italy. The Clearances had begun – an insidious dispossession, cloaked in cant, which would carry on well into the 19th century, memory of which still envenoms Scottish nationalism (although many clearers were Scots). Johnson was indignant,

To hinder insurrection, by driving away the people, and to govern peaceably, by having no subjects, is an expedient that argues no great profundity of politicks.

Once off the military roads, travelling became slower and more laborious, often along sinuous heathery lanes scarcely more than sheep tracks. It was also often dangerous, with steep slopes and precipices, and at times they had to dismount from their ponies – doubtless to the animals’ great relief, as Johnson was unusually heavy. This is not to mention the firths, lochs, sounds and straits separating the islands from each other and the mainland – notoriously windy and rocky, with unpredictable weather, complex currents and seething undertows, of which the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the “Cauldron of the Hag”, was only the most feared. The landscape did not beguile the time. Johnson was not an admirer of rugged scenery for its own sake. He frequently referred to the dearth of trees (he exaggerated this, and there has been subsequent afforestation), more apparent the further west they wended. He wrote of the fêted islands of Loch Lomond that they

…court the gazer at a distance, [but] disgust him at his approach.

As for the deep Highlands,

…the appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours.

Dislike of this kind of countryside was the default setting of the 18th century; refined travellers sometimes closed the blinds of their carriages to avoid having to see such un-tailored topography. There was growing enthusiasm for “landskips” among artists and aristocrats, but for now  Johnson helped police the taste boundaries, once telling Boswell a mountain he had called “impressive” was only “a considerable protuberance”.

Had Johnson been dreamier, he might have liked it more. With a cultural geography combining trace elements of pre-Celtic ur-myth with Celtic Christianity, Pictish symbolism, Norse mythology, medieval Catholicism, and witch-suspecting Protestantism, the west was invested with uncanniness. Each tide-race was populated with fictive fauna, like the Mester Stoorworm sea-serpent, the seal-human hybrid silkie, or the tiny Blue Men of the Minch. Ashore, the eerie account was equally compendious, every lochan seemingly having its kelpie (water-horse), every tract of ling, rowan, or sliding scree its tricksy brownie or glaistig. Folk-tales were current of the People of the Hollow Hills, the Spirit of the Speckled Mountain, the Unseelie (unlucky) Court, the Little Weeper of Sorrow, the Washerwoman of Death, evil eyes, clan amulets, and midnight coronachs heard where no human piper could be playing. But although Johnson liked traditionary hazes on Tory principle, he treated superstitions with scorn. The only one he did not toss and gore was “second sight”, the supposed ability to see things from afar, or foretell the future. He quizzed believers (many educated) closely, and at last averred that disbelievers

presupposed more knowledge of the universal system than man has attained.


All along the way, and in whatever unlikely surroundings, Johnson emitted opinions and aphorisms on everything – defending Pope Sixtus IV for signing death-warrants on his death-bed, criticising Montesquieu for citing foreign practices to defend “strange opinions”, ridiculing Peter the Great for working as a shipwright to understand shipbuilding (“Sir Christopher Wren might as well have served his time to a bricklayer, and first, indeed, to a brick maker.”). Boswell was equally impressed by Johnson’s interest in medicine, distilling, milling, brewing, whey-making, coining, thatching, glazing, shoes, or potatoes. Eager to be informed – or to show off – Johnson interrogated everyone, to the extent some thought him a practitioner.

Much of the charm of Boswell’s book is showing Johnson in such unexpected guises – the literary lion un-proudly learning from the unlettered. Or the magisterial mind condescending into roguish wit or even clowning – Johnson astride a Shetland pony, brandishing a broadsword, wearing a large blue bonnet, or enjoying the bagpipes with his good ear pressed close to the drone. But he was always alive to indignity. Once, he was unguarded enough to say,

I have often thought, that, if I kept a seraglio, the ladies should all wear linen gowns, – or cotton…I would not have silk; you cannot tell when it is clean.

But when Boswell laughs, Johnson

…retaliated with such keen sarcastick wit, and with such a variety of degrading images, of every one of which I was the object…that I would gladly expunge from my mind every trace of this severe retort.

They came to Glenelg, on the mainland opposite Skye, after a day made tolerable only by having been informed there was an inn, “a house of lime and slate and glass”, which Johnson refers to wickedly as an “image of magnificence”. But they found a damp and dirty room, no food and only whisky to drink, and a smoke-blackened workman who leapt out of a “wretched bed” as the hungry travellers brushed past to their adjacent piles of hay. Johnson hated missing food (“He who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else”). In Scotland, he liked the breakfasts, but shuddered at the slices of cheshire cheese which “pollute the tea-table”. Boswell teased him by telling a hostess that Johnson liked cold sheep’s-head for breakfast, knowing Johnson would be offended to be offered it.

The Cuillin hills dominate Skye, and from them radiate the peninsulas of Sleat, Minginish, Waternish and Trotternish. Johnson and Boswell landed at Armadale (which they spell Armidel) on Sleat, to stay with Sir Alexander Macdonald, head of a clan that came somehow out of those centuries when, narrates the 13th-century Norse chronicle Heimskringla,  “…the hunger battle-birds were filled in Skye with blood of foemen killed.” Later Macdonalds crimsoned themselves with equal enthusiasm (although the clan stayed at home in 1745), and in peacetime devised such pragmatic schemes as selling superfluous Skye and South Uist peasants into slavery. But Johnson’s host, the 9th Baronet of Sleat, was Eton-educated, married to a Yorkshire heiress, and “entirely anti-Celtic” in his tastes. He had raised rents, forcing many tenants onto emigrant ships, and clearly found his antecedents an embarrassment. He showed surprise at his guest’s boyish rhapsodizing. “The Highland chief”, Johnson said, only half-humorously,

…should not be allowed to go farther south than Aberdeen – in general, they will be tamed into insignificance…Were I in your place, sir, in seven years I would make this an independent island. I would roast oxen whole, and hang out a flag as a signal to the Macdonalds to come and get beef and whisky…Sir, I would have a magazine of arms.

When the baronet protested,  “Sir, they would rust”, Johnson responded,

Let there be men to keep them clean. Your ancestors did not use to let their arms rust!

Johnson saw an otter at Armadale – almost his only reference to the animal kingdom. He would probably have been surprised by modern eco-tourism – and scornful of my pleasure in seeing golden eagles, or standing in gentle rain in hills above Tobermory on Mull, listening to an intimate colloquy of nesting ravens, “hunger battle-birds” at home in an ash.

Their McKinnon host at Coriatachan provided Gaelic songs, copious whisky, and a “numerous and cheerful company”. Johnson retired early, but he had clearly been over-excited by the atmosphere, writing an ode, part of which runs,

I roam through clans of savage men,

Untamed by arts, untaught by pen

Or cower within some squalid den,

O’er reeking soil.

They stayed at Coriatachan (now vanished) again, giving a delightful image of Johnson at his most relaxed,

…one of our married ladies, a lively pretty little woman, good-humouredly sat down upon Dr. Johnson’s knee, and, being encouraged by some of the company, put her hands around his neck, and kissed him. – ‘Do it again (said he,) – and let us see who will tire first.’

Johnson distrusted ships, and en route over restive seas to Raasay, Boswell records him “high on the stern, like a magnificent Triton”, muttering an Horatian ode Otium Divos rogan in patent, Prensus Aegaeo (“Peace the sailor prays, caught in a storm on the open Aegean”). But unease turns into Odyssean imagery in Johnson’s words as they neared land,

The singing of our rowers was succeeded by that of reapers.

Johnson loved Raasay,

Without is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm: within is plenty of elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance.… nor did ever fairies trip with greater alacrity.

Boswell conjures it in detail –

Rasay himself dance with as much spirit as any man, and Malcolm bounded like a roe….much jovial noise…It entertained me to observe [Johnson] sitting by, while we danced, sometimes in deep meditation – sometimes smiling complacently, – sometimes looking upon Hooke’s Roman History, – and sometimes talking a little, amidst the noise of the ball, to Mr. Donald McQueen, who anxiously gathered knowledge from him.

There is a 1970s photo of that room, the stucco flaking, the lath showing through the plaster, taken shortly before the house was demolished. Raasay has melancholy associations for many, conveyed exquisitely in Hallaig by communist-sympathising islander Sorley MacLean,

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood

There’s a board nailed across the window

I looked through to see the west

And my love is a birch forever

By Halal Stream, at her tryst

Between Inver and Milk Hollow…

Johnson respected the dead equally, Boswell recording his “striking appearance of horrour” at seeing uncovered human bones in a hypaethral chapel.

Back on Skye, Johnson met Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald. After Culloden, when the army was combing South Uist for the fugitive Charles, offering a £30,000 reward, Hugh Macdonald, captaining militia but secretly a Jacobite, put him in contact with his resourceful step-daughter. The voyage of Flora, the Prince (dressed as an unusually tall Irish maid), and several boatmen, “Over the sea to Skye” in an open boat has passed into song. Three miles out, a storm came up, but Charles helped maintain morale by telling stories and singing vainglorious anthems. Next day, they rowed for hours without making headway, the Prince’s offers to take his turn refused. They finally got ashore but were fired upon, and then Flora had to find a safe house. When at last they parted, Charles repaid money owed, gave her a miniature, and said he hoped to welcome her some day at St. James’s Palace – while holding four clean shirts, a chicken in a handkerchief, and a bottle each of whisky and brandy. Flora was questioned in the Tower of London, but no witnesses came forward, and she was reluctantly let go. She later went to America, where her sons fought for Britain, and her ship was attacked by the French, and she ruminated wryly that she had risked her life for both the Stuarts and the Brunswicks, for little return.

This was a high point for Boswell –

To see Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the isle of Sky, was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their motions, it was very improbable they should meet there.

The following morning, Boswell found in Johnson’s room a slip of paper on which his friend had pencilled “Quantum cedar virtutibus aurum” (“with virtue weigh’d, what worthless trash is gold”). Another Johnson tribute is incised on Flora’s monument in Kilmuir, at the northern tip of Skye,

A name that will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.

They stayed at Dunvegan Castle, hosted by Norman MacLeod, the 23rd chief of that ilk. The castle stands on the loch-shore, surrounded by lichened gardens, through which courses a cascade called Rory Mór’s Nurse, because the 15th chief couldn’t sleep unless he could hear its tumult. Inside can still be seen things Johnson inspected – the Great Sword, a 16th century claymore (Johnson decided he would prefer a dirk), and the Faery Flag, a tattered silk good-luck talisman of unknown origin, which always had an hereditary custodian to carry it into battles; photographs of the Flag were carried by MacLeod R.A.F. pilots during World War Two. The 23rd chief’s wife was a moderniser, considering quitting the castle altogether, but Johnson disconcerted her by energetically arguing against, saying it was

…the very jewel of the estate. It looks as if it had been let down from heaven by the four corners, to be the residence of a Chief.

Boswell also records her being aghast at Johnson’s appraisal of humanity.

Lady McLeod asked, if any man was naturally good? Johnson – No madam, no more than a wolf. Boswell – Nor no woman, sir? J – No, sir. Lady McLeod started at this, saying, in a low voice, This is worse than Swift.

Johnson was disinclined to leave Dunvegan, but perhaps his hosts were relieved when he departed for Armadale, and thence across to Mull. They ran into a storm, of which Boswell gives a vivid account –

…what I never saw before, a prodigious sea, with immense billows coming upon a vessel, so as that it seemed hardly possible to escape.

A sailor with one eye steered them, the gunwales at times within an inch of the waves, the sails almost splitting, sparks flying from a burning peat held aloft as a signal. The travellers were seasick, but even in the throes of nausea and terror, Boswell could admire his friend, lying belowdecks “in philosophick tranquillity, with a greyhound of Col’s at his back, keeping him warm.” They abandoned ideas of Mull and instead after a dangerous struggle Col got them to safety on his island. “Col” was Donald Maclean, eldest son of the Laird of Coll, striving to preserve his coming inheritance through innovation. He told them stories while they were “stormstayed” – 500 years of Macleans, shapeshifting hare-women, and the “Religion of the Yellow Stick” (the Laird’s 1715 conversion of the Romanist islanders by the expedient of hitting one of them on the head with a cane and driving them to the kirk) – also of his many plans to enrich the island and avert emigration. Sadly, Col drowned not long after they had left his unusually optimistic island.

They got to Mull at last – a place of fossil trees, red granites, caves, rockfalls and earthquakes, standing stones and circles – another Maclean domain marked by their castles, and trawled around by prospectors hoping to drag up Armada bullion. They went onto the nearby island of Ulva, where Johnson slept in “an elegant bed of Indian cotton, spread with fine sheets” standing in a puddle on an earthen floor. On Inch Kenneth, they stayed with Sir Allan MacLean, head of the clan, and his daughters. Johnson rejoiced to find a road marked by cart-wheels, and

…this little desart [sic.] in these depths of Western obscurity, occupied not by a gross herdsman, or amphibious fisherman, but by a gentleman and two ladies, of high birth, polished manners and elegant conversation.

As so often, the travellers were struck by contrasts – wilderness and worsening weather outside, while inside were Latin books, and a girl playing a 1667 spinet.

The last island on their itinerary was also the most illustrious. Johnson, tiring of travel, allowed Boswell to persuade him into the mile-long voyage from Mull to Iona – a ferry route in operation continuously since the 6th century. But having been persuaded, he threw himself into the idea – literally, because whereas Boswell and Sir Allan were carried ashore by the boatmen who could not bring their craft alongside, Johnson leapt into the water and waded to land. In 563, the Irish St. Columba had likewise landed on the west coast of this little island of white sand, coloured stones, and puffing-holes, probably in the Bay at the End of the Ocean. It was the perfect land apart, and he promptly raised the Cairn with its Back to Ireland, and a cell. From these would come an abbey, a monastery, and a newly proselytising Christianity.


Iona grew until the Synod of Whitby (664), when its child, the Northumbrian church, opted for Roman dating and tonsures. But even in long retreat Iona was synonymous with sanctity and scholarship. Some of Columba’s remains were carried in the reliquary called the Brecbennoch of Columba, which was brought into battle to bring luck to Scottish arms as late as Bannockburn. This palladium could not prevent Vikings raiding and robbing Columba’s island, nor the massacre of 68 monks in 806, and the relics were sent to other churches  – but still the aura remained, and for centuries kings’ corpses (including Macbeth’s) would be ported along the Sráid na Marbh (Street of the Dead) to St. Oran’s burial place. In 1549, the High Dean of the Isles saw tombs for “fortey-eight crouned Scotts kings”, “four Ireland kings” and “eight kings of Norroway” – but a decade later they were smashed by iconoclasts, who also unroofed the abbey and destroyed all but three of 360 wayside crosses. Johnson repined,

The inhabitants are remarkably gross, and remarkably neglected…The island, which was once the metropolis of learning and piety, now has no school for education, nor temple for worship, only two inhabitants that can speak English, and not one that can write or read.

But he was glad he was there, striding bareheaded among half-walls and outlines of old buildings, visualising that island-universe. It inspired his Journey’s most-cited segment:

 Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

He would have appreciated the 20th century re-roofing of the abbey and reinstatement of some old monuments.

Finally to Oban, news-sheets from Edinburgh, letters from friends, and eastwards and southwards on, easing again into England, but often looking back. It had been, Johnson assured Boswell, “the pleasantest part of his life”, and “I got an acquisition of more ideas by it than by anything I can remember”. His Journey is suffused with a sense of achievement; he was inspired to visit Wales and Paris, and even pondered a history of Skye. Although he would still occasionally be called anti-Scottish, the visit of so respected an arbiter undoubtedly also helped bring England and Scotland closer together.

Looking out an Armadale window one day, he had marvelled –

I cannot but laugh, to think of myself roving among the Hebrides at sixty. I wonder where I shall rove at fourscore!

In 1777, he was still prone to wanderlust – “I am a kind of ship with a wide sail, and without an anchor.” But he would never travel again (except to friends’ houses), or even get to fourscore, dying in London in 1784. Hopefully during his final frightened hours, he saw again images of his odyssey, and remembered sudden insights and Raasay nights – times when he had been supremely happy, when he bestrode an alien landscape and made it almost his own.

This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Chronicles, and is reprinted with permission

Today’s book finds – Aeschylus, English letters, Hell Fire Clubs, Zweig…

An absorbing few hours today spent scouring old bookshops for anything interesting, with the usual mixed bag of long-sought books and serendipitous finds. First, the Seven Tragedies of Aeschylus, an 1843 edition of Prometheus Chained, The Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, Agamemnon, The Choephori, The Furies, and The Supplicants. Astonishing really to pick up a 174 year old book for 99p – quite apart from the fact that it will fill in some gaps in my knowledge. According to a pencilled inscription in capital letters, the book once belonged to “CORSON, 398 BADDON ROAD, CHELMSFORD, ESSEX”, and also contained a cryptic torn-off scrap of paper bearing the numbers 65, 64, 56 and 41.

Then there is Gilbert Phelps’ A Short History of English Literature (Folio, 1962), according to many something of an overlooked classic, and in any case a brilliant survey of the context of key English texts, giving us some idea why some famous books, starting with Beowulf and ending with D. H. Lawrence, appeared when they did, why there were written in the way they were, and how they were unique or ground-breaking.

Then there is Geoffrey Ashe’s 1974 Do What You Will – A Short History of Anti-Morality, which takes potentially lurid material (Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme, John Dee, Hell Fire Clubs, de Sade, Swinburne and Crowley) and shows them in context and with humanity, linking them to contemporaneous culture and politics. Who couldn’t get drawn into chapters with titles like “Occult Wife-Swapping”, “A Dukedom in Hell”, “Bubb and Fred” and “The Gothic Plunge”?)

As a coda, Stefan Zweig’s 1944 The Buried Candelabrum. I have only read his captivating essays before, so am looking forward to this novel about the last days of Rome, as decadent Romans await anxiously the pleasure of Genseric’s Vandals. This copy was a 1959 Purim presentation by the Federation of Synagogues (Bethnal Green Talmud Torah Hebrew and Religion Classes) to one Harvey Shenasky of Class 2 for good attendance. It feels slightly piquant to find this story about a vanished world presented by the elders of a community that even in 1959 was starting to vanish from the East End. I fear the owner has now himself joined the ranks of the vanished…

Old books!

Dubliners of a different kind – Dublin Seven by Frankie Gaffney



Dublin Seven, Frankie Gaffney, Dublin: Liberties Press, 2015, pb.

This uncompromising story about Dublin drug-dealers was published to acclaim in Irish literary circles, although this is the first UK review. Though the subject may seem parochial and is at times squalid, like Trainspotting (with which it was inevitably compared), Dublin Seven transcends period and place to offer a tale of universal interest – the progress of someone born in a sociocultural cul-de-sac who strives to rise out through native wit, and sometimes succeeds.

There may be a degree of nostalgie de la boue in the critics’ reception, but if so there is also a generous desire to see an unfortunate triumph against an unfair order. That the first-time author has educated himself out of a working-class background, and is pursuing a fellowship at Trinity College, makes for a perfectly 21st century literary package – a modern morality tale about opportunity through education, categories surmounted, authenticity, fulfilment through imagination. The protagonist, Shane Laochra – his surname Irish for hero, and serendipitously the name of a Celtic goddess, symbolising unrealised potential – might almost have been a portrait of the author as a young man, had the author been less lucky. (He credits reading with saving him.)

Shane is 18, with little to show for school, and few prospects. He is from the ‘wrong’ side of the Liffey, and the equally persistent east-west line, in a city where old authorities have been circumvented or subverted. Even his physically formidable father is ludicrous, unable to maintain a marriage, popping Viagra, working as a nightclub doorman, and campaigning futilely against drugs.

Shane soon notices the contrast between his life of penny-pinching and pointless training courses and that of drug-dealer Griffo, who sports desirable labels and moves besides in an exciting outlaw aura – a man dangerous to know but delightful to be acknowledged by. Shane’s experiences with drugs have been positive, the narcotics hazing injustice and ugliness. Why shouldn’t he bring pleasure to others, and make money so doing? Soon he is en route to profits – and perdition.

Dublin Seven is an allusion to Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” (As You Like It) rather than necessarily the Dublin 7 postcode – but that inner-city locale, with its ancient echoes of exile, grim law-making, marginality and meat-markets, is an obvious locale. It is surprising the synchronicity-seeking author did not fully embrace the psychogeographical possibilities. More might have been made of the contrast between stately monuments to discredited powers – the Four Courts, and the fortress-like St. Michan’s Church, with its famous mummified bodies – and the mess of dilapidated if gentrifying streets and estates stretching back to bleed into the badlands of Finglas. Yet there are fine touches, and anyone who knows Dublin will be able to conjure Shane’s scruffy stage-set of pebble-dashed low-rises, Seventies flats, overpriced new-build apartments, booming traffic interchanges, bars, and branches of Macdonald’s, with magnificent Georgian terraces and long views of distant heights as ironic counterpoints.

As well as Shakespeare’s seven, the book has other connections with that talismanic number, as Gaffney told the Irish Times

…seven deadly sins, seven holy gifts, seven Biblical plagues, the seven Egyptian souls…the seven traditional colours of the spectrum, and the seven ancient Vedic deities/planets.

There exists a detailed “Key” to the book, in which seemingly casual incidents are revealed as larded with symbolism. This may sound off-putting, but it is lightly done, and lends fascinating layers to what might otherwise have been a latter-day Newgate Calendar. Painstaking construction is masked by unrelenting action, including coke-sniffing, corybantic clubbing, E-dropping, involuntary bowel-opening, sexual liaisons, beatings and sordid deaths, as Shane barges from one largely meaningless meeting to another in a maelstrom of redolent slang. Shane is heedless, sensate, never considering that he is enriching himself by impoverishing society, battening even on his own class, for whose quiet misery he ought to have empathy. When he starts to spurn these customers in favour of middle-class Southsiders, it is not out of compunction, but because Southsiders are more profitable.

The author describes himself as “Lefty”, but social critique in the early chapters is largely implicit – subtleties, such as when schoolboy Shane contemplates his set reading –

What did they have to study Jane Austen for? She had nothing do with anything.

Gaffney wisely lets Shane live in his moment, just as the contemporaneous country was living in its “Celtic Tiger” bubble. That decade seems for Shane an epoch of hope and change – and in certain frames of mind, he might see himself as just another businessman, no better, little worse than the kickback-taking planners, the tax-advisers and corporate scammers, the bullying Gardaí, and the Southsiders and ‘culchies’ running the economy and politics. The critique becomes overt when Shane encounters vigilantes, whose frightening yet somehow farcical activities are likened to the criminal justice system, sonorous Latin legalese subheadings pointing up the vigilantes’ clumsy questioning, these men in contempt of justice while believing they are complementary. In this Hibernian City of Men, do-gooders can do bad, and bad-doers are not as bad as is made out. Inner-city drug-dealers wreak harm – but on themselves too, and they are in some respects merely reacting to their class’s long betrayal by serried cultural, economic and political forces.

Shane reads horoscopes, but he takes little practical interest in the future, rarely thinking even of the proximate perils posed by the harder-boiled, like aptly-named Paddy Lawless, whose principal intoxicant is hurting those who get between them and their profits. Shane revels in “rebel songs”, and sensational accounts of true-life criminals; he does not see that these stories are better to leaf through than live through. Disillusionment nevertheless creeps on him, as he finds himself doing the same things over and again, the drugs work less well, and he begins to notice that time is passing. Griffo is revealed as another creep, and the ostensibly Robin Hood-like life as nasty, brutish and often abridged. Drug-dealers, Shane finds, may never experience all seven of their allotted ages.

He remains essentially unrepentant, still in search of “…the power – to be feared, to be known by the whole country as someone you couldn’t mess with”. But always inside the Moriarty-manqué is a small boy born into a bad world – always afraid, blind to his failings, impulsive, maudlin, haunted by fear of celestial as much as temporal punishments. As a big-timer, he might have been like the Mafiosi, or Mesoamerican narcogarchs, squaring cops and politicians, syncretising social harm with private acts of charity, ordering murders while endowing churches.

Dublin Seven is sad but salutary, illuminating ignoble aspects of today’s Strumpet City, this capital gone awry, with its bad faith and betrayals, its broken communities and corruption, its greed and gullibility, missed chances and myopia, and shocking but inevitable violence. The author made it out, but stares back still in anger, knowing what he might have become, remembering all the Shanes he knew, and those who are still there.

This review appeared in Spiked in December 2016, and is reproduced with permission

“Pity Poor Bradford”


“Pity poor Bradford”

Bolling Hall has squatted on its plot since the fourteenth century, hunched against the wind and rain of the West Riding – a North Country architectural essay in dark yellow sandstone looking warily down a steep hillside onto Bradford’s vale. Old though the building is, the estate’s foundations go deeper than Domesday, when Conqueror companion-in-arms Ilbert de Lacy abstracted it from someone called Sindi, his reward for sanguinary services rendered during the Norman invasion and the subsequent Harrying of the North.

De Lacy’s motte-and-bailey has been overbuilt, and his line is long extinguished, but other owners likewise felt the need to guard against restive locals, rival families, religious opponents, apolitical marauders, wolves, the Great Boar of Cliffe, or whatever other elementals might watch and wait from tangled woods, stony slopes and bog-cotton dancing moors. The family crests of manor-holders, scratched in black-and-white onto a window lighting the stairs to the Ghost Room, constitute a subfusc sort of heraldry, one informed by everyday sights as much as classical or chivalric conceits. There are martlets for the Bollings and Tempests, oak trees for the Thorntons, owls on a bar sinister for the Saviles, cudgel and shield-bearing wodewoses for the Woods, hunting horns and chevrons for Bradford. They feel like the arms and achievements of provincials attuned to rurality, and modest in their pretensions – although Robert Bolling overreached himself during the Wars of the Roses and was temporarily deprived of the estate. (A later Bolling, Edith, married Woodrow Wilson.)

The oldest part of the present building has been identified as a pele tower, although these are more usually associated with points yet further north, in the “Debatable Lands” between Scotland and England. Yet pele towers are likely enough in this valley long accessible only from the north, where the laws of London or even York held only spasmodic sway. Even with later fenestration which streams greyness into the Great Hall, and Adam-style remodelling, Bolling keeps a fortress feel, a sense augmented by dark Jacobean panelling cut deeply with cut geometric patterns, strapwork, acanthus leaves, flowers, birds and lions’ heads, interspersed with rubicund oils of English faces, and even a death mask of Cromwell. The Hall possesses what the poet-topographer Peter Davidson calls “northern rooms, rooms that expect nothing of the weather”. It could be a Hollywood haunted house, and indeed there is a legend attached to the Duke of Newcastle who slept here in December 1642 on the night before his planned attack on the almost defenceless Parliamentarian town. Bellicose before retiring, he came down palely the morning after, claiming he had been visited by the apparition of a weeping woman begging him to “Pity poor Bradford”. Whether genuinely believing he had seen a spectre, or just hung over, the Duke’s martial descent of that day was marked by relative restraint, with just ten deaths recorded.

The defences of Bolling never needed to be tested but enemies of an odd kind came upon it anyway, creeping up its hill in increments of meaner dwellings, so that now two aspects of the Hall look onto semis and a car park, and there is a noise of traffic where once there would have been bleating or birds. But this civic slight is in its way appropriate, in this region where melancholy falls as readily as rain.

Sometimes it seems almost a requirement to portray the North of England as  a single vast and tragic landscape. The imaginative equation of North with dearth goes back as far as Roman legionaries tramping gloomily up the Great North Road to garrison the edge of the empire at Hadrian’s Wall (although Septimus Severus died at York, and Constantine took the purple there). It gathered pace as the locus of English power slowly migrated south, as monarchs roamed their realm less frequently, ecclesiastical power centred on Canterbury, and parliaments fixed at Westminster. The great families of the North found themselves becoming provincials – and slightly untrustworthy ones. From the London point of view, they had too often been kingmakers or breakers, too often Catholic, too rich, too swaggeringly insolent, and their centres of learning at York and Durham were cultural as well as temporal rivals.

The Tudors unroofed the great Cistercian abbeys of Jervaulx, Rievaulx, Fountains and Byland, gelded the Prince-Bishops, started to centralise the legal system, and house-train the Percys, Howards and Cliffords. The North was just too close to Scotland to feel fully safe, and even after the crowns were united in 1603 longstanding fault-lines remained. Well into the eighteenth century, the North was seen as marginal, outside the English mainstream, a redoubt of recusancy potentially sympathetic to Stuarts, its untrammelled nature offending against both the logic of the Age of Reason and the aesthetics of the Age of Taste. Even when the beauties of Lakeland began to be discovered by poets, aquatinters and garden designers, they were slightly shivered at, seen as unreal, unpeopled, dubbed “Horrid” or at best “Picturesque” – places to be looked at rather than lived in.

The Industrial Revolution eventually made the North central to the English economy, making vast amounts of new money whilst undermining the aristocratic order – in a few cases literally, with landowners mining coal almost under inherited houses. When the borough of Bradford came into being in 1847, it contained no fewer than 46 coal mines. Encouraged by the Calvinistic municipal motto Labor Omnia Vincit, furnaces blasted day and night, chimneys choked, hammers clanged and cogs clicked, mills clattered and drifted lung-filling fibres – and 30% of all children died before attaining their teens.

The ugliness associated with industrialisation actually reinforced Southern notions of the North as a place apart. Seen from the safe South, Northern towns were increasingly seen as the haunts of grim-visaged Gradgrinds, building themselves vulgar villas while turning sturdy peasants into sickly slum-dwellers. Beyond the ragged edges of the ever-expanding towns, the savage scenery of moors seemed perfect habitations for Heathcliffs, ideal locales for a hundred Dotheboys Halls. The Devonshire-born Nicholas Nickleby’s reaction upon first seeing Wackford Squeers’ appalling academy is one of a Southerner feeling suddenly very far from home  –

As he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.

The names alone of places and people sound stark – Blubberhouses, Mytholmroyd, Uriah Woodhead, Savage Crangle, Hardcastle Crags, the ominous Nab Wood Cemetery and Crematorium, and countless others. Wanderers are furthermore constantly being arrested by disquieting associations, such as the plaque in smart Skipton that indicates the Bull-baiting Stone, or an antlered bronze demon looking saturninely out of a sunny New Age shop window in the same town, faintly disturbing among the trash of tarot. Such things can be seen in the South too, but they seem to have an extra level of significance when backdropped by low-lit moors and sharpened by frost.

Nouveau-riche mill-owners, mine-managers and middlemen aped aristocratic manners and manors, attended ostentatiously at chapel or Low Anglican services, endowed and administered charities, but were always seen as bumptious, unlikeable and unscrupulous. However irreproachable many may have been, even when they were like Titus Salt, they were easy targets for either snobbish satire or socialistic critiques such as the Bradfordian playwright J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, in which a mysterious detective turns up late at night to quiz the inhabitants of a huge new house about the suicide of a local girl, exposing the callousness of the family and their recently-risen class.

Even now, with the old industries at last starting to be replaced, to the Southern English mind, the simple words “The North” as glimpsed so frequently in Transport Medium typeface on roadsigns connote both stonewalled fields and urban decay, poverty, grimness and lostness – to which can now be added vague but not unfounded notions of dangerously alienated Muslims. Anyone who ventures north of the significantly named “Home Counties” soon realises that this stereotypical view effectively means West and South Yorkshire, and Lancashire and Tyneside conurbations. The vaster Yorkshire comprising the lonely landscapes of the North Riding, and the semi-submarine East Riding with its drowned towns and dreams of the Hanse, not to mention history-clogged York itself, does not really enter into this equation. Nor do the Lakes, Durham Cathedral, the walls and rows of Chester, Carlisle, Liverpool, Newcastle, or Northumberland – all of them of course in the North, but not intrinsic to that particular understanding.

The Industrial Revolution itself has become the object of nostalgia as its rawness mellows into Grimshaw and Lowry tones, and the uncompromising communities that coalesced around milling, mining or steel are seen through a prism of foxing monochrome stills from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Guardian journalists still (and with justification) bewail the economic hollowing-out caused by Thatcherism, the once-powerful industries sacrificed to City speculators, steel, mining and milling workers fly-tipped into an abyss of welfare dependency and social squalor. Leftists take a special interest in the town because of its exploitative past, its innovations in education and medicine, and its role in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1893. (The present government is trying to make political inroads hereabouts by talking of “Northern powerhouses”, with devolved powers and better railways – suitably Victorian solutions for a town of phlegmatic traders.)

Leftists who emote about the North rarely have practical ideas as to how global economic trends can be reversed, and also tend to be uninterested in the Immigration Revolution that accompanied de-industrialisation and exacerbated the area’s social splintering. To them, it seems of little consequence that a quarter of Bradford’s 523,000 residents are Muslims, many cleaving to ultra-orthodox interpretations. Perhaps somewhere now in the city there are a few more idealists like Tanveer Ahmed, who in March went all the way to Glasgow to murder an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had “disrespected Islam” by wishing Happy Easter to Christian customers. Immigrants have long been attracted here by the wool-trade, which once made Bradford “wool capital of the world”, but had gone into irreversible decline by the time the first Asians arrived. The new immigration was therefore badly-timed as well as different qualitatively from the European incursions of the mid-19th century onwards (whose most unlikely product must be that composer of lush tone-poems Frederick Delius, who lived in the district still called Little Germany).

To a certain Panglossian kind of commentator, the race riots of 1985 and 2001, and the public burnings of Satanic Verses in between, were passing epiphemonena, regrettable but understandable products of low education, unemployment, Tory cuts, and social segregation caused chiefly by white racism. They would rather focus on such heartening factoids as that Bradford was declared “Curry Capital of Britain” in 2013 – that nearby Hebden Bridge is louche home to an unusually high number of lesbians – that Heathcliff was a victim of anti-Roma prejudice, and his creator of gender inequality – that the town had critical ethnic mass to host the 2007 International Indian Film Festival awards.

They would also be largely indifferent to the epic echoes of the pre-modern county, its still visible castles, churches, halls and houses, its mental habits and myths. If they were to visit Bolling, they would be most interested in the working conditions of turnspits. At Skipton Castle, they might glance up at the grand gatehouse, with its forward-looking family motto Desormais (“Henceforth”), but they would not find it strangely sad that Lady Anne Clifford, who placed the hopeful word there circa 1649, would be the last representative of a dynasty that had once commanded allegiance

From Penigent to Pendle Hill,

From Lenton to Long Preston

And all that Craven coasts did tell

They with the lusty Clifford came

Well brown’d with sounding bows upbend

On Clifford’s banner did attend.

What could neo-Puritans comprehend of the experiences or motivations of an Anne, who held the Castle three years for the King, or even bloodier-minded ancestors like Robert Clifford who entertained Edward I, and who chose to live in this dangerous zone so that he would never miss an opportunity of fighting the Scots? Another was  John Clifford, who had already earned the nickname “Black-faced Butcher” by the time he fell at Towton aged just 26. Even the most peaceable of the tribe, Henry (called by Wordsworth the “Shepherd Lord” because of his long exile in the hills) led the Craven contingent to victory at Flodden. No doubt all these would be adduced as arguments for historical inevitability, products of the irrational military-aristocratical complex, yet more reasons that order had to end. As for the Saxon high crosses in the church at Ilkley, with their writhing beasts and worn Jesus, they would be seen as stelae marking the resting-places of ancient delusions – a disdainful sort of analysis for some reason never extended to the ideas expressed in the West Riding’s mosques.

And what would urban chatterati make of Yorkshire’s underlying nature, its hard-edged pastoralism, its sudden stabs of beauty, more evident again now that mines have been backfilled, mills become apartments, and waterways transport fewer toxins? What would they think of if they were to walk under the sky-supporting arches of old abbeys drowsing along peaty rivers, knee-deep in summer flowers, their hedges silver-spangled with cobwebs on frosty mornings? Probably just that this was the inevitable end of an unsustainable system. They might smile at Geoffrey Hill’s playful poem, “Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654”, which subverts urban and proletarian associations by projecting Arcadian and Renaissance imagery onto a winter’s day during the endless-feeling English interregnum –

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.

Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.

The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don

bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages

from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun

swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.

We live like gleaners of its vestiges

knowing we flourish, though each year a child

with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down

for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors?

But the best known poet celebrant of Yorkshire is Ted Hughes, whose most relevant collection for these purposes is his 1979 Remains of Elmet, honouring the little kingdom that rose and as unostentatiously expired in what is now West Yorkshire some time between the fifth and seventh centuries. The collection is as elegiac as the title suggests, and in some respects is itself rather dated. But “The Trance of Light” both looks back on a semi-mythical shire where small kings and Great Boars really did co-exist, and forward to a day when the last looms and Low Churchers go down to join the ancient Britons, the pinched life ends, and his beloved hawks can once more clutch creation in their claws –

The upturned face of this land

The mad singing in the hills

The prophetic mouth of the rain

That fell asleep

Under migraine of headscarves and clatter

Of clog irons and looms

And gutter-water and clog-irons

And clog-irons and biblical texts

Stretches awake, out of Revelations

And returns to itself.

So superb to think that it might, and that something substantive remains among all these layered remains.

The article appeared in the June 2016 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

John Aubrey – remembrancer, romantic and forward-thinker – John Aubrey, My Own Life by Ruth Scurr



John Aubrey, My Own Life

Ruth Scurr, London: Chatto & Windus, 2015, hb., 518pp, £25

Just as English painting is renowned for portraiture, so English letters have been illuminated by some of the greatest biographers ever to burnish world literature. After Boswell, the best-known is John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose Brief Lives broke through deferential and stylistic boundaries to leave us vivid vignettes of historical figures of a kind that had previously been buried with their subjects, omitted from epitaphs, lost in posthumous politesse. Ruth Scurr seeks to remind readers just how original and engaging he was, and how fascinating his era.

Brief Lives is a congeries of notes and random jottings that was never intended for publication as a whole. It contains over 500 character studies, few of them complete (one consists of two words – “Simple man”), and many of the subjects were obscure even then. But taken as a whole, they amply bear out John Fowles’ opinion,

Not even with Pepys are we closer to an existential awareness of what it was like to be alive then.

Brief Lives throws open a casement onto the tumultuous country Aubrey knew, in all its violence and eloquence, bawdiness and loftiness, wistfulness and war, ignorant iconoclasm and soaring intellectualism. It is, in fact, just as well the text was never prepared for publication, because all kinds of piquant details would never have made the final cut. As Aubrey wrote to Anthony Wood, the peevish antiquary who had imposed on him the “Taske” of writing the book,

Now these Arcana are not fitt to lett flie abroad, till about 30 years hence; for the author and the Persons (like Medlars) ought first to be rotten.

We learn from him (and only from him) that the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling practised card-sharping in bed. The seventeenth Earl of Oxford was so embarrassed by farting when bowing to the Queen that he went abroad for seven years (when he returned the Queen told him she had “quite forgot the fart”). We are told what happened when a loose stallion scented the mare being ridden in a church procession by a “mighty pontifical prowd” Dean of Hereford – that the jurist Sir John Selden “got more by his prick than he had done by his practice” – and that the funerary bust of the rather too “tractable” society beauty Venetia Digby, which had survived the Great Fire but lost its gilding, was for sale ten years afterwards on a market stall. One does not find such irreverent immediacies in Walton’s Lives or Fuller’s Worthies. As Aubrey said himself,

How these curiosities would be quite forgotten, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down!

Aubrey was clearly a quidnunc. He was also an astrologer, and the only book he published in his lifetime was Miscellanies, a gazeteer of omens and superstitions retailed as fact, with engaging anecdotes, such as Arise Evans who rubbed his “fungous nose” on Charles II’s hand. Yet he was also, as Anthony Powell noted in John Aubrey and His Friends (1948),

…one of the most arresting figures of the seventeenth century.

This stargazer and teller of tattle (Powell defends him against the charge of excessive credulity, saying he always wrote half-humorously) was simultaneously a noted antiquarian, who as Alain Schnapps opines in The Discovery of the Past, “ushered the antiquaries into a new world”, through pioneering the typological-chronological classification of monuments. Aubrey’s childhood of “eremetical solitude” in the haunted “thin blew landscape” around Stonehenge (he was the first to survey Avebury) lent impetus to a lifelong melancholia. His concern for the future of old monuments  and documents (it was common for medieval manuscripts to be used to clean guns, line pie-dishes or bung beer barrels) mirrored his concern about whether his writings would survive him; in a touching aside, he records watching the covers of his notebooks turn mouldy in the damp downland weather.

Unusually, the discoverer of the past was also a finder of the future, fascinated by developments in science, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, education, and the arts. He knew Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Browne, Edmund Waller, Edmund Halley,  John Locke, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, Robert Hooke and scores of others, from experimental chemists to poets, cartographers to politicians. He played an active role in the Royal Society, and wrote “tumultuarily” among all the noise of Civil War, Protectorate, Restoration, plague and Great Fire, legal tussles, bailiff-dodging, and endless money problems. He spent twenty years living in friends’ houses, carrying on voluminous correspondence and indefatigable researches from spare rooms. That he was able to do this for so long without falling out with any of these friends attests to his agreeability; one of the very few who spoke ill of him was, ironically, the ingrate Anthony Wood.

Although instinctively conservative, Aubrey’s non-doctrinaire outlook enabled him to form friendships with Royalists and Roundheads, Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics, give credit when due, and report foibles with amused tolerance. So unassuming was he that he almost disappeared from history, despite constant fretting about whether his writings would survive him. Powell observes,

He contemplated the life around him as in a mirror – the glass of the Lady of Shalott – scarcely counting himself as one of the actors on the stage.

The only nod Aubrey made to a putative Boswell or Lockhart were a few notes, fit only, he said with what feels like genuine modesty,

…to be interponed as a sheet of waste paper only in the binding of a book

Powell’s profile of Aubrey set a standard unlikely to be surpassed – although he concentrates on Aubrey’s nostalgia and scants his neophilia. Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr has sensibly done something quite different – consider how Aubrey might have chronicled his own career had he had the leisure and inclination, using his words when possible, and filling in lacunae with empathetic imagination. Some might term this infotainment, but that always implies shallowness, whereas she succeeds admirably in adding to rather than taking away from Aubrey’s reputation. From the front cover illustration onwards she displays both deep sensitivity towards her subject and knowledge of his context.

The author cleverly interlards likely day-to-day worries – money, health, lack of success in amours, footpads, menacing politics, the perennial peevishness of Anthony Wood – with longer-term preoccupations about posterity and progress, and of course colourful anecdotes. All are rendered with an excellent ear for his gossipy language, including some words lamentably fallen into desuetude. She transmits an acutely alive and likeable personality – one who was kind in a cruel era, constructive among a mass of destruction, sane in a sea of “fanatiques”, appreciative of brilliance whoever its originator and engirdled by whatever “inurbanitie”.

She wrote My Own Life, she tells us in her foreword, “playingly…but with purpose”, drawn to his quiet conservatism by its marked contrast to her previous biographical subject, the wholly antithetical Robespierre. Her tribute may be lightly written but it is not lightly conceived, and must surely bring new readers to the Lives, and new attention to that redolent, revolutionizing England.

This review first appeared on, and is reprinted with permission

Testing for humanity – The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams



The Plague Dogs (book 1977, film 1982)

I came across by chance recently a DVD of The Plague Dogs, a 1982 animation of Richard Adams’ bestselling 1977 novel. I was catapulted immediately back to childhood, when I had read the book shortly after publication, with a sense of distress and anger I can still taste. It had seemed to me an unusually powerful story, and I was surprised I had not known of the film’s existence. In general, the film seems to have been unduly neglected, notwithstanding a notable voice cast – including John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, James Bolam, Warren Mitchell and Bernard Hepton – and superb painting and animation. I accordingly purchased a copy of the book to remind myself why it is considered an anthropomorphic classic, on a par with Bambi (the book – although the Disney travesty has probably been more influential), Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, and Adams’ own Watership Down.

For most of their respective lengths, book and film follow the same storyline. Two dogs – Rowf, a large and fierce Labrador cross, and Snitter, a fox terrier – escape from a government animal research establishment in the Lake District. Rowf has been used to study physical endurance, and to this senseless end has been forced to swim daily in a water tank, while scientists monitor his functions and time his staying power. They always leave him in the tank until he starts to drown, only retrieving him when he sinks to the bottom. Snitter has been used for complex brain surgery, designed to make him confuse the objective and the subjective – and this has been all too successful.

Snitter is especially pitiable, because unlike Rowf he has known security and kindness from humans. He is only here because he was responsible for his master being knocked down by a lorry, and was subsequently sold to the institution by his master’s loathsome sister. He has frequent flashbacks to his old life, and this sharpens his confusion and sense of hurt at the latex-gloved hands of the ‘whitecoats’.

Nevertheless, Snitter has retained sufficient acuity to be able to spot an opportunity for he and Rowf to escape, and the two animals pass fearfully and uncomprehendingly at night through seemingly endless, Moreau-esque laboratories silent except for the subdued whimpering and fidgeting of animals deprived of one or other senses or body parts. They escape at last through a vent in the wall of the establishment’s incinerator, after resting for a time among the sharp bones of even less lucky inmates.

They find themselves at large in one of the very few places in England escaped dogs could hope to remain at large for lengthy periods – the sparsely-populated and barren Lake District, with winter coming on. Both book and film convey the spirit of this locale extremely effectively, the film unusually beautiful with its muted North Country palette, the novel featuring drawings by the renowned Alfred Wainwright, and both strewn with regionally-specific topography, nomenclature, flora, fauna, dialect and history. The fells, screes, becks, tarns and abandoned mines form a magnificent, merciless backdrop, and the animators shot most of the action from low-level, so that one gets the sense of painful progress along unyielding contours. Director Martin Rosen – who also directed the film of Watership Down – opted for a dog’s-eye view of the action, with human faces and expressions usually obscured or out of shot, adding to the meaningless nightmarishness.

Snitter is unusually intelligent and Rowf unusually strong, but they are also unaccustomed to fending for themselves, and with understandable behavioural problems – Rowf terrified of bodies of water, clearly at a disadvantage in this District, Snitter spasmodically hallucinating. The dogs nearly starve, but eventually contrive to kill and eat a sheep. They then fall in with a fox – the choice of James Bolam as “the tod’s”  voice was inspired – who offers survival tips if they share further “yows” with him, and for a while the uneasy alliance works. But farmers quickly notice their depredations, and the connection is soon made to the research establishment, despite bland official denials. A publicity stunt hunt for the sheep-killers is organized by a local businessman, but he is a kindly man haunted by the Holocaust, and when he sees the hideously scarred Snitter takes pity on the delighted dog, only to be killed by terrible accident when Snitter gets tangled in the trigger of his gun.

An irresponsible newspaperman (a woman in the film) discovers that the establishment has a secret military section, where a former Buchenwald doctor is researching germ warfare – and in true tabloid fashion suggests that the dogs could have come into contact with bubonic plague fleas. Of course the dogs had not, but the suggestion naturally causes a frenzy. When the gaunt dogs devour the corpse of a fallen man (this scene was cut from most original releases of the film), public revulsion wells up. Soldiers are sent to the area to exterminate the dogs, and the wily fox’s luck runs out when he is killed by hounds.

The dogs manage one last lucky escape, by stowing away on a tourist train that carries them unseen through the military cordon, all the way down to the sea at Ravenglass. Here they are trapped between the terrifying and icy Irish Sea and the advancing soldiers, and eventually strike out to sea in a panicky attempt to find Snitter’s mythical “Isle of Dog”.

At this stage, the book and film diverge, but unusually the film is truer to the author’s intentions than the book – because the publishers prevailed upon Adams to alter his original ending. The film ends with the dogs still just afloat as Rowf’s strength ebbs for the last time and cold chews into their bones, while far out in front flickers a mirage of the green land they will never reach. This lump-swallowing outcome would probably be upsetting for most adults as well as children, and must be why the film never really caught on.

By contrast, in the book as redacted by the publisher, it transpires that Snitter’s master is not dead after all, but merely seriously injured. Recognizing one of the fugitives as his beloved terrier, he contacts the newspaperman, who had in any case been hoping for an uplifting end to the saga. The journalist castigates the master’s sister, and rushes Snitter’s owner to the beach at Ravenglass. Real-life naturalist Sir Peter Scott sails providentially into the bay, with just enough time to haul the foundering beasts aboard. Snitter is reunited with his owner, who also gives Rowf his first home. In both book and film, there is redemption for a young scientist who realises the awfulness of his employment and quits, liberating a test monkey and taking it home.

Reading it again now, this last chapter feels highly contrived, and tacked-on – but one can easily understand why a publisher in this (to use a tabloid cliché) “nation of dog-lovers” would have wanted such a conclusion to so unrelenting a story. Some earlier segments also seem heavy-handed – especially those to do with the media and politicians – and there are even a few Victorian-style examples of “Dear Reader…” But these things are amply compensated for by the moral and social significance of the subject, and Adams’ evocations of sensate animality – as the dogs wander and chase down prey or talk to the shrewd tod, they seem to transmute at times into the wolves that loped up and down Lakeland as recently as the 14th century. (There is a tradition that the last English wolf was killed in 1390 on Humphrey Head, an outlying fell of the District.)

As Adams notes in his introduction, Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (with its ponderously jocose acronym) is unlike real establishments, because too many different kinds of experiments on too many different species are carried on there. Yet all the experiments described in the book were or are still carried out on real animals, and the sheer superfluity of many of these experiments shock and sicken now as they shocked and sickened in 1977. That the two central characters are dogs makes the story particularly poignant, because dogs have the closest relationship with men of any animal, and are bywords for trust and loyalty.

In the UK, vivisection has been pared back in recent decades, largely in response to hostile public opinion as formed by Adams and others, with companies that had carried out non-medical research often being pressurized into discontinuing (sometimes through violent direct action). This public opinion is fickle and at times hypocritical, because many who detest vivisection yet benefit from the medical advances that stem in part from these practices. In 2009 3.6 million procedures were carried out on live animals in British laboratories (1). While these things may make us “sick with horror” (to use Darwin’s words about animal experiments), it seems clear that sometimes there is no alternative, and that animal testing will be with us into the foreseeable future. Always in the background, powering our guilty emotions will be Adams’ story of harried innocents in one of England’s last wildernesses, which even if dated in specifics, still adds something to great, ongoing questions – about what it means to be an animal and, even more importantly, human.


1. The official UK figures for 2009 may be found by following this link. The global figure is estimated as anything between 50 and 100 million vertebrates. The number of animals used is expected to rise again across the EU, in order to comply with ever more stringent food and medicine safety laws