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

Cuilinns

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 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.

Duntulm

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 danced 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.

Bish

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

Wayne Allensworth reviews A Modern Journey for Chronicles

Regular Chronicles writer (and soon-to be novelist) Wayne Allensworth reviews A Modern Journey in that journal’s September issue –

In his latest book, Derek Turner, author of Sea Changes and Displacement, takes his readers on a seriocomic journey with a latter-day Holy Fool.  Along the way, Turner takes aim at the insanity of political correctness, celebrity culture in the Twitter age, and the spiritual wasteland that results from a denial of truth.  A Modern Journey’s characters and themes bring to mind Flannery O’Conner’s half mad prophets seeking redemption, as well as the lost soul of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, pining for validation through proximity to media celebrity, a kind of dubious reality accessible to modern nihilism.  The novel’s protagonist is reminiscent of Chance the gardener of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There, an idiot mistaken for a genius.

Nevertheless, A Modern Journey’s readers may be left wondering whether Turner’s protagonist,  by all appearances an eccentric ne’er-do-well at best, a madman and faux visionary at worst, has, precisely because of his eccentricity and naiveté, been able to see something beyond the shallow society he lives in. Dubliner Ambrose Sheehy-O’Connor is mocked, hated and rejected by some, and elevated to the status of prophet and saint by others.  Such is the spiritual longing of Turner’s characters, an ensemble that includes Ambrose’s painfully conformist mother; Mary, a nun who is Ambrose’s aunt; a jaded priest wondering what might have been; a celebrity socialite living in genteel poverty; a marginal would-be counter revolutionary; a onetime schoolmate of Ambrose’s, now a cubicle drone of the managerial economy; Irish Travelers who proclaim Ambrose a miraculous healer; and a young woman who had previously rejected our hero, then gravitates to Ambrose as he becomes a media celebrity.  Turner’s characters are comic and grotesque, foolish and gullible, idealistic and cynical, and touchingly human.

Ambrose is a loser, a skinny, unprepossessing reject bullied by his classmates while at school. Jobless, he lives with his mother Fidelma.  Absorbed in computer games, Ambrose is a solitary figure, cruelly mocked by the object of his desire, Philomena.  On a stormy night, after a particularly humiliating encounter with Philomena and her friends, Ambrose climbs to the top of a promontory marked by a gigantic cross and has a vision. Transformed by the experience, the exact nature of which is unclear, Ambrose comically adopts stilted speech (“I must needs brook no delay…”) and the dress, look, and habits of a religious ascetic.  He fasts and goes about creating his new religion, an absurd mishmash of computer games (“Level 3” is the Ambrosian religion’s Hell), unfocused spiritualism, and Medieval Christianity.

This is the age of Twitter, Facebook, and virtual reality, so our hero begins a blog (“Ambrosenet”) that becomes his platform for proclaiming what he calls “the Great Renewal.”  Ambrose taps into a “childish yearning for the Truth” among an audience numbed by post-modern ennui, especially after he practices his own version of mortification of the flesh by publically driving a drill bit through his forearm, an act that is duly validated by an Internet video that “goes viral” (“trending on Twitter” as “#maddrillman”).  Ambrose is thereby certified in the eyes of viewers longing for “authenticity” as well as titillation.  An alleged miraculous healing cements Ambrose’s status as an object of veneration or, alternately, of mockery and ridicule.

Ambrose plays out his Holy Fool role in hilarious appearances on TV talk show scream fests. The newly minted Internet celebrity faces off against an obnoxious TV host (who takes Ambrose to task for voting against “equal marriage,” thus implying that “gays/LGBT/trigender/transqueer/cis*males are inferior”), “Daddy Jimmy” (the Irish Church’s “Apostle to the youth,” Daddy Jimmy is the author of Wicked Faith, a book whose cover depicts Jesus in hip hop/pop star regalia), Moslem mullahs (one of whom had “fully assimilated into Irish culture by developing a secret drinking habit”), and one luminary whom Ambrose moons on air, making the blogger cum spiritual healer an Irish reality TV star.

Would-be counter revolutionary Bosco Buggy, with dreams of the IRA’s glory days dancing in his head, contacts Ambrose and sets the stage for the new celebrity to call for a national rally on Easter Sunday, a day Bosco hopes he can use to spark a counterrevolution (“the Day We Saved Ireland”).   The novel’s denouement is funny, moving, and tragic.  Suffice to say that Ambrose, like Carson McCuller’s deaf mute John Singer, becomes the imagined embodiment of the wants and desires, aspirations and longings, and fears and hatreds of the other characters and the society they represent, a stand-in Christ figure for people who long for faith and redemption, as well as for those who “would hurt, or even kill, to extirpate anything that…hinted of any kind of Authority.”

Derek Turner has established himself as a writer worthy of serious readers’ attention. We can only look forward to his next book.

New review of Displacement, by poet Liam Guitar

The June issue of Chronicles contains a top-notch review of Displacement, by the poet Liam Guitar (whose Anhaga is just out, and highly recommended). Liam says,

“Turner’s descriptions of London are one of the highlights…The city becomes a character: old, vibrant, curled along its river, evoked in swift effective sentences creating precise and memorable images. The prose is a pleasure to read…Turner’s art allows for the messy complexity of life”

 

Highway maintenance – review of The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

HIGHWAY MAINTENANCE

The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mouth Athos

Patrick Leigh Fermor, London: John Murray, 162pp, hb

In 2011, Patrick Leigh Fermor became Patrick Leigh Former, and hundreds of thousands of devotees became doubly bereft. The first loss was the man himself, at 96 an antique in his own right, one of the last links to what feels increasingly like an antediluvian Europe, in which advanced civilization could coexist with medieval colour and high adventure. But perhaps even more than the man himself, who after all had led a long and charmed life, we rued the absence of The Book – the anciently promised concluding volume of what he had always envisaged as a trilogy telling of his traipse from Holland to Constantinople just before the Second World War.

We had more or less given up hope that there would ever be a companion-piece to A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). We knew that PLF’s powers were waning, even though it had been bruited breathlessly that he was teaching himself to type. As the years peregrinated past, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the notoriously painstaking stylist would ever be energetic or satisfied enough to release a definitive text. Yet there was always the faintest of faint hopes that just possibly, despite all odds, he might manage to muster one more flash of genius and transport his youthful self finally to his fabled destination, so allowing us to close his chapter with a sad but satisfied sigh. With the news of his death, it seemed we would always be stuck at the Iron Gates on the Danube, locked out of a private preserve.

Luckily, two literary executors-errant have galloped into the breach, in a gallant attempt to supply something of what they rue as much as we do. They are the noted travel writer Colin Thubron, and Artemis Cooper, PLF’s biographer and editrix of Words of Mercury, a collection of his shorter prose pieces, who had known Paddy since her childhood. They have taken as their raw material a 1960s draft by Leigh Fermor, fortuitously found in 2008 in the John Murray offices in London – plus a diary about his first sojourn in Mount Athos, whence he repaired just after Constantinople.

Howsoever respectfully and intelligently executed, all attempts to finish another’s unfinished masterpiece, whether a book, a painting or a symphony, are bound to feel slightly anticlimactic to some. Yet Thubron and Cooper have carried out their duty admirably, and with great modesty. ‟The Broken Road”, they say with a soupçon of uncertainty, ‟may not be precisely the ‘third volume’ that so tormented him, but it contains, at least, the shape and scent of the promised book.” Quite so; it also adds depth to Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, because we can see from what yarn those even more richly-detailed tapestries were woven. The voice of The Broken Road is unmistakably that of its author, but when he was slightly less baroque. The editors have been careful to retain even the occasional ingenuous remark or cliché that the older PLF would doubtless have purged. These things having been noted, there is still plenty of the intellectual fire, descriptive brilliance, and fantastical profusion Fermorians relish.

The Broken Road does not actually carry Leigh Fermor all the way to Constantinople, but stops fifty miles short of the Turkish frontier. He left that fabled metropolis rather precipitately, leaving only a few diaristic scraps, none of which (rather astoundingly) describe the city’s embarrassment of antiquities. Yet the author was after all concerned with Europe rather than Asia. He might not have been a very sympathetic recorder of the Istanbul ambience anyway, and once said that he never left that city “without a lightening of the heart”. Leigh Fermor saw the Turks as “Oriental barbarians” who had “brought nothing but calamity” to Europe. These are not his only excursions into what is now often called ‘Islamophobia’, yet he is essentially fair-minded –

If one blesses the names of Charles Martel and Sobieksy for rescuing Western civilization from Islam, one must execrate the memory of the Fourth Crusade, and the greed and Christian sectarianism that sacked Constantinople, destroyed the Byzantine Empire and called down the doom of Christendom’s eastern half. It is as vain to blame the Turks for spreading westwards over the wreckage as it would be to arraign the laws of hydrostatics for flood damage.

He was also always sympathetically interested in the Ottoman outposts left when the Turkish tide last flowed out, admiring their architecture, and the kindness and ineffable dignity of the slightly shabby relicts. A generic fair-mindedness is in fact one of the author’s most attractive characteristics. The Bulgarian part of The Broken Road finishes in mid-sentence, in a six-word flourish of careful qualifications – “…and yet, in another sense, although…”.

Through the opened Iron Gates, then, with our revivified conductor – on a siren-booming steamer through what was then a seething gorge girt by cliffs (since drowned by dull dams), to make landfall for the first time in Bulgaria, to encounter a “rough-hewn and tough” people who “padded the dusty cobbles like bears”. We are once more launched on a footloose and flexible itinerary, which will carry us across that long-Turkicised territory (with detours into Romania) in quest of culture and colour, accepting of the incidents of the road even when unenjoyable – cold, hunger, weariness, homesickness, getting lost, having a rucksack stolen, rude locals, mysterious and slightly terrifying misunderstandings, and nearly dying of exposure during a freezing Black Sea night. Such hazards were amply compensated for by opposite experiences, such as the superb setpiece that ensues when he is rescued by troglodytic Euxine shepherds and fishermen, who belie their rusticity with dazzling displays of musicianship and Terpsichorean virtuosity.

It is rather remarkable how much warmth the young traveller generated from strangers along his odyssey, whether peasants or polymaths, gypsies or diplomats – but then the English traveller had a better reputation then than now. Moreover, the English were not embroiled in the contested histories of the regions he traversed, and in any case the author had a naturally ingenuous and generous nature which sparked counterpart qualities in others. Leigh Fermor brought abounding enthusiasm as part of his luggage – perhaps his single most important piece of kit.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the passionate excitement and delight that infected every second

he recalls wistfully of his thirty years ago-self.

There are unforgettable people to be encountered along The Broken Road, happily resuscitated after their overlong interment – and memorable events, ranging from Rabelaisian drinking bouts and rowdy nationalist demonstrations to solemn masses in eagle-height Orthodox ashrams. Two people from the preceding volumes we get to know slightly better – the author’s parents, with whom he exchanges letters as he travels. The author always felt more akin to his mother, feeling his geologist father’s “scientific passion for classification” to be utterly unlike his; yet was it that very different from his son’s romantic but well-ordered obsession with philology? (This supposedly distant father also had a gift for story-telling, presumably rather like that of Leigh Fermor fils.) The author can invest even the most cliched subjects with interest, such as sunset –

…leagues of gold wire, shoals and lagoons, berserk flights of cherubim, burning fleets and the slow-motion destruction of Sodom.

How we would like to have seen Bucharest as he saw it, a city on the modern make, where fur-capped shepherds bivouacked within sight of skyscrapers, and

A smart street of shops would shoot a brightly-lit ruler of radiance through the dark, and die away in a faintly discernible cemetery, a midden or a wood

The evolution of Bucharest could be said to typify the central tension of the journey – the tipping balance between old and coming, the author a product of liberal enlightenment, friend to cosmopolitan sophisticates, yet in urgent search of the fruits of ancientness and isolation before they shrivelled entirely. His retreats to Mount Athos were similarly counter-temporal – these visits would be described memorably in his 1957 book A Time to Keep Silence, a pæan to the monastic ideal published just as Europe was commencing its present orgy of self-preening. He belonged to a fine tradition of indefatigable folklorists who selflessly transmitted some savour of the past to a more homogenized posterity, and whose work will become more rather than less redolent as we continue on our own one-way journey away from the confident continent he knew. He – and now his faithful editor-engineers – deserve the gratitude not just of nostalgists, but all who are interested in the highways and byways of human experience.

This review first appeared in Chronicles in September 2014, and is reproduced with permission

Too quiet flows the Don

TOO QUIET FLOWS THE DON

The stone head from the Iron Age glowers out of its glass case as if outraged by the indignity of imprisonment, its relegation from totem to tourist attraction. Not that there are ever many tourists in Doncaster Museum, especially on a unseasonably warm day when the sun-punished town seems full of the grit and stink of ten thousand cars, passing and repassing endlessly through the town on their way to or from the A1, the Great North Road that has stitched together London and Scotland since time out of mind.

The head is clinically divorced from its Celtic context, when such tokens were set above doorways to encapsulate divinity and warn of the significance of passing between zones, but it still holds a stern and saturnine power, linking directly to an unimaginably distant culture and its lost landscape – the soggy swamps that once made Doncaster a kind of island in a huge Central English sponge refreshed constantly by the Cheswold, Dearne, Don, Idle, Ouse, Rother, Skell, Torne and Went, and other watercourses too numerous to name.

The Celt who crafted the head was one of the tribe that gave the River Don its name, Dôn (“river god”) – the simplicity showing just how central to all considerations was this great waterway linking the Pennines to the North Sea. The Romans thought it worthwhile to found the fortified way-station of Danum here on this lowest crossing point of the river, part of a western diversion off Ermine Street which avoided the necessity of crossing the wide and dangerous Humber estuary. Constantine’s son Crispus commanded the garrison here, while his father lived at York. They also made the first known attempts at planting waving corn on the waste, and averting each winter’s wrath by an infinitely laborious process of blocking, bridging, channelling, culverting, cutting, digging, draining, dredging, embanking, filling-in, gating and sluicing the swirling torrents which carried fatality as well as fertility.

After the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Northumbrians and Danes waded, wandered and warred across the area – 633’s Battle of Hatfield nearby gave rise to the still extant Hatfield road Slay Pit Lane – betweentimes doing some small-scale and spasmodic reclamation. The great monasteries established by the Normans attempted large scale reclamation schemes, and even tried to placate the Don by building a bridge chapel at Rotherham upstream of Doncaster (the chapel is still there, a rare survival in England). But the riverine deity had his revenge in 1536, when higher than usual Don levels meant that “Pilgrimage of Grace” forces seeking to reverse the dissolution of the monasteries could not cross at Doncaster, and were obliged to come to terms with Henry VIII and Reformation.

Abraham de la Pryme, writing in 1699, described the area around Doncaster as “a continual lake and a rondezvous of ye waters of ye rivers”, and local place names bespeak damp desolation – Thorne Waste, Hatfield Chase, Humberhead Levels, Eastoft, Dirtness, Adlingfleet, Ousefleet, Goole Moors, Bykersdyke, Rawcliffe-in-Marshland, Snaith, Sykehouse, Fishlake, Hexthorpe Flatts, Levitt Hagg, Wath-upon-Dearne, Bessacarr (kjarr being Old Norse for “wooded marsh”). They are names that connect us in imagination to the geographically (and morally) marginal kind of landscape resorted to in the tale told by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath:

Down to a mareys faste by she ran –

Til she cam there, hir herte was a-fire –

And as a bitore bombleth in the mire.

In 1600, Elizabeth I had signed into law “An act for the recovery and inning of drowned and surrounded grounds and the draining dry of watery marshes, fens, bogs, moors and other grounds of like nature”, and Dutch and Huguenot engineers led by Cornelius Vermuyden arrived after 1626 to rationalize the bittern-booming mire. They revolutionized topography in the name of economic efficiency, and added a slew of muddy, marish monickers – like Boiling Basin, Cusworth Ponds, Intake, Dutch River and Swinefleet Warping Drain. Their vastly expensive efforts were not always successful, and were furthermore much resented by local people who had previously enjoyed rights of common. Satirical ballads were sung, like The Powte’s Complaint (“powte” is the old term for lamprey, a surfeit of which dubious delicacy is supposed to have killed Henry I):

Behold the great Design, which they do now determine,

Will make our Bodies pine, a prey to Crows and Vermine;

For they do mean all Fens to drain, and waters overmaster,

All will be dry, and we must die – ‘cause Essex calves want pasture.

There were disruptions and destructions of dykes and banks, and physical attacks carried out by both sides, some resulting in fatalities. This tension between rich and poor, foreign and English, came to a head in the Civil War, when Parliamentary troops broke the dykes and re-flooded much of the reclaimed land as a defensive measure, then reinstated some of the traditional rights of common. Cromwell was nicknamed “Lord of the Fens” by ecstatic “fen-slodgers”. After the War, physical violence augmented by a plethora of lawsuits persisted well into the eighteenth century. In his 1874 technocratic classic Lives of the Engineers, Samuel Smiles celebrates a legal counsellor named Reading who fought “thirty-one set battles with the fen-men” and who when he died in 1716 at a hundred years old, had passed fifty years “in constant danger of physical violence”.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the economic case for drainage of “wastes” was reinforced by a cultural case, as the “Augustan Age” got under way. Nature was uncouth and unreliable, and she needed to be kept in check through a combination of aesthetics, agriculture and architecture. Landowners not only wanted to profit from their estates, but also to make them conform to classical ideals of attractiveness. Pope celebrated classical control in his Epistles to Several Persons (Epistle IV, 1735):

Bid Harbours open, Public Ways extend;

Bid Temples, worthier of the God, ascend;

Bid the broad Arch the dang’rous flood contain,

The Mole projected, break the roaring main;

Back to his bounds their subject sea command,

And roll obedient rivers through the land.

Excavations around Doncaster have revealed a peat-tanned prehistory of huge tree trunks, hollowed-out canoes, the relict routes of causeways, postholes, fishtraps, animal bones and wizened bog bodies. The 18th century antiquary George Stovin took unscientific liberties with one of these latter, found by a man digging turf who became frightened when his spade chopped off a sandaled foot seven feet below the surface:

The skin was like a piece of tanned leather, and it stretched like a fine doe skin ; the hair was fresh about the head and privy parts, which distinguished the sex ; the teeth firm ; the bones was black ; the flesh consumed ; and she lay upon her side in a bending posture, with her head and toes almost together, which looked as though she had been hurled down by the force of some strong current of water…I took the skin of one arm, from the elbow to the hand, and shaking the bones out, it would have made a ladies’ muff. The other hand not being cut with the spade, as we dug for it, I preserved it, and stuffed it, first taking out the bones, which my son, James Stovin, now has in his possessionI showed the hand and sandal to my worthy friend Thomas Whichcot, of Harpswell, esq. knight of the shire for the county of Lincoln in parliament, who was pleased to put the sandal on before I sent them to the Royal Society.

Stovin also records a wonderland of wildlife –

This waste is plenty of game, as hares, partridge, black moorgame, ducks, geese, curlews, snipes, foxes, &c. it affords plenty of cranberries, and an odoreferous shrub called Gale; some call it Sweet willow, or Dutch myrtle.

Perhaps in his day they were still occasionally conducting unusual blood sports, like the semi-submarine battue organized for Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1609:

His royal highness and his retinue turned out at Tudworth, for the chase, not on sprightly steeds, with hound and horn, but attended by a numerous assemblage, they embarked themselves in about one hundred boats, and having had driven from out the neighbouring woods and grounds some five hundred deer, which took to the waters, the little navy of sportsmen pursued their game into Thorne Mere, and there some of the party going into the water, and feeling such and such that were the fattest, either instantly cut their throats, or drew them by ropes to land and killed them.

The end of semiaquatic sequestration was coming. Stovin records satisfiedly:

The inhabitants of Thorne far exceed all their neighbours in their care and industry, for they have had the art to get estates out of fish-ponds; to make terra firma of pools and stagnated waters; to plough with horses, where a man, a hundred years ago, could not walk nor stand.

But the animal kingdom could still surprise as late as 1860, when a nine-foot long sturgeon was spotted in the Don at Doncaster, having swum up from the sea to spawn – only for a local publican to transfix it with a pitchfork and surf on the wounded fish’s back for thirty yards before being shaken off. The pop-eyed stuffed behemoth makes an especially mournful display in the Museum, because the fish are now absent from the Humber catchment thanks to floodgates, overfishing and the pollution caused by coal-mining, metal working and paper-milling – although a 200 pounder was caught in the estuary as late as 1953, and formally presented to the Queen in accordance with a statute dating back to Edward II and even earlier tradition. In 1994, a Doncaster entrepreneur sought to stock one of his fishing lakes with sturgeon, but he was refused permission, because the Environment Agency was worried that flooding could allow the fish to escape into the Don – which can now support fish again, despite spasmodic sedimentary releases of trapped dioxins and ochre from old industrial sites.

Ted Hughes would have felt saddened by such an unromantic refusal. The future Poet Laureate and feminist whipping-boy came to live in Mexborough outside Doncaster when he was seven, and explored avidly in all directions. Some of his first poems and stories were inspired by encounters around the area, like “The Thought-Fox” which he envisioned slinking through “this midnight moment’s forest” – a reference to the relict Barnsdale Forest, immediately north of Doncaster, celebrated in old ballads as the abode of Robin Hood. “Pike” was a fond remembrance of dreamy days spent sounding old waters at Conisborough:

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,

Whose lilies and muscular tench

Had outlasted every visible stone

Of the monastery that planted them –

Stilled legendary depth:

It was as deep as England.

Conisborough Castle

Conisborough’s striking Norman castle was the model for the castle in Ivanhoe, but more germane to the subject of fabulous fauna is the extraordinary 12th century tomb-chest inside the village’s even older church. Externally medieval, inside multiple massy Anglo-Saxon columns hold up the roof with apparent difficulty, and act as umbrella for a large horizontal tomb cover sporting England’s earliest-known representation of St. George’s encounter with the dragon.

The earliest known English representation of St. George and the Dragon

The terrible lizard with beautiful tail and wings has already run down one knight and is now writhing like some insatiable incendiary at the sole, out-of-scale chevalier still standing, who holds a wholly inadequate-looking sword and a bent stick. Behind him, a crozier-carrying bishop appears to be making a wise withdrawal. As if the odds weren’t stacked enough against the holy hero, an apprentice dragon is rushing at him from between the larger one’s legs. This teratological tableau is watched over sadly by a bishop with golden curls protruding from below his mitre, a fork-bearded Church Father receiving radioed divine light through his forehead, and a mournful Madonna with a lovely hairlined face – medieval glass in muted tones, reassembled with infinite care from the tinkling, glinting heaps strewn behind by the divinely-appointed destroyers of the 16th and 17th centuries. (The area to the south of Doncaster was fons et origo for many of the Pilgrim Fathers.)

Other mythical and semi-mythical animals still resonate in this area. St. Peter’s church in Barnburgh is locus for the legend of Sir Percival Cresacre, a 15th century knight who traditionally died during an epic struggle with a “wild catte” (contemporary hunting licences suggest there were still lynxes in the area in the 14th century) that attacked him in the woods, and fought with him all the way to the church. Cresacre and his “catte” are supposed to have died simultaneously in the porch of the church, where red oxides in the stones were long said ludicrously to be the ineradicable bloodstains.

Yet more remarkable beasts are commemorated back at Donaster Museum, where a small but satisfactory art collection centres on horse-racing, which has been held on the Town Moor since at least 1595 – featuring the Doncaster Gold Cup, inaugurated in 1766, which is the world’s oldest regulated horse-race, and the St. Leger Stakes (Doncaster’s sole claim to fashionability), which have been held since 1776. As well as J. F. Herring’s superbly vital (and endearingly naïve) 1827 Gold Cup study of mounts like Mulatto, Fleur de Lis and Longwaist two centuries since departed to some celestial fixture, there is an outré oil commissioned by the owner of nearby Owston Hall, who imported exotic animals to roam his parkland. Across that fanciful faux-Africa stalk distinctively African wildlife painted from the life at Owston – most poignantly, quaggas, an extinct sub-species of zebra.

Quaggas in the grounds of Owston Park

Despite all of man’s attempts to reorder the waters, the Don is still a force in this vicinity. In 1864, 270 people were killed in flooding, and there was extensive flooding and two deaths as recently as 2007. Attitudes to flood management, and to wetlands, have changed radically, with what were once called “improvements” now regarded in quite the opposite light. The remaining expanses of peat moorland store huge amounts of carbon, and even now new species of flora and fauna are occasionally discovered. There are heartening attempts to link together some of these surviving scraps by creating new wetlands which will not only benefit wildlife (and thereby people), but be much more efficient as floodwater soakaways than industrial farmland. There is resistance from the unimaginative, but at last culture has started to flow in the opposite direction, with growing appreciation of the beauty as well as utility of such places. We cannot recreate the cosmos of the Celts, even if we wished to – but how superb if one day we could again look seawards from south Yorkshire and see rivers instead of roads, and a wilderness of whispering reeds rather than a plain of waving corn.

Headlines from the local Doncaster newspaper

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

 

Early promise – review of Morning Crafts by Tito Perdue

EARLY PROMISE

Morning Crafts, Tito Perdue, Arktos, London, 2012, 163 pp

Way back in prehistory – 1991, or thereabouts – a promising Alabaman author started to register on readers’ radars, thanks to lambent reviews from Northern litterateurs surprised to discover that there was at least one Southron who could not only write, but write as though an amphetamined-up James Joyce was simultaneously charioteering Jonathan Swift, Flannery O’Connor and John Kennedy Toole.

Lee, Tito Perdue’s story of the deeply misanthropic Lee Pefley’s flailing progress through flaccid late-modern America, execrating and excreting as he lashes and limps, displayed “magically evocative descriptive powers, pungent wit and [an] iconoclastic point of view”, marvelled Publishers’ Weekly. Its author, the New York Press opined of a subsequent book, “should certainly be considered among the most important American writers of the early 21st century”. Even the New York Times Book Review noted that there was a “vitriolic and hallucinatory” stranger in town. Educated eyes swivelled South, breaths were inhaled, another Yellowhammer breakthrough (the new Harper Lee?) into the East Coast big-time was eagerly expected…

And then something happened – or, rather, did not happen. The author kept producing equally dashing novels about Lee at different stages of life, pre-life and after-life. These were published by well-known firms, and attracted top-drawer admirers, like Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming –

Tito Perdue has written some of the best satire on contemporary America, and he has put his criticism in the form of novels which can hold their own with the best postmodern fiction

Yet whatever sales there had been slowed, and the briefly-proffered palms and plaudits were pulled back – and eventually the author retreated back to his Alabaman ashram, from where he could see but no longer hope to scale the Parnassian heights swarmed over by assorted Updikes, Mailers, Vidals, and lesser imitators. Who knows quite why? Maybe his publishers did not market hard enough. Or maybe rumours started to spread among the kind of people who type reviews for ‘prestigious’ journals – that Lee Pefley was not wholly abstract, a monster to be hated/chortled at, and then safely locked away between cardboard, but was in fact a distorted reflection of the author, with a licence if not quite to kill, then at least to cudgel, raining down reactionary isms on the pates of book-buying innocents. These rumours, which had always been current, could not but have spread, given Lee’s constant worrying at the fallen carcass of the old America, his wicked adherence to difference over sameness and quality over quantity, his rancid rejection of all the old nostrums in favour of infinitely older ones. Manhattan, which had briefly paused, sighed and passed on.

But Perdue kept writing, in a kind of fever, sequestered in the hind part of his ex-nation like a Dark Ages mystic – books incandescent and dangerous as the volcanoes which dot his imaginary Alabaman horizons. And after a time, he made new, less fickle, less easily frightened friends, who felt it reflected extremely badly on American letters that so distinctive and persistent a stylist had been left so long in the wilderness. So he has slipped quietly back into print through small presses, not a late flowering but a careful bringing-out of a sunlight-starved prize specimen from strangling surrounding vegetation. First was The Node (midwifed by Nine-Banded Books), now comes Morning Crafts – and soon Reuben will attempt to strangle snakes in the cradle.

The cover of Morning Crafts, painted by Alex Kurtagic, features a dungareed, plaid-shirted, straw-hatted bumpkin viewed from behind, as he stares (doubtless slack-jawed) at hills beyond which two smoking volcanoes promise both excitement and extreme peril. In his hand is a book – and not just any book, but a proper book, old, large, thick, hardback, probably dusty, almost certainly without any pictures whatsoever. And it is more than even a proper book. It is also a key – the key to the picture, and to Perdue’s passions – the great glories of Western civilization, the wonders of learning and life, the endless igneous possibilities that lie beyond “them thar hills” for a strong-minded minority that takes the trouble to explore.

To begin with, Morning Crafts’ Lee is a slightly reluctant quester for high culture. We meet him first as a 13 year old, a bucolic cub seemingly content with hoicking harmless bream out of little lakes, and gawping at strangers – like the besuited man who spots something others have not, and asks Lee whether he wouldn’t like to try his piscatorial skills elsewhere “Where the prey is larger, and the depths so much deeper.” The urchin is inquisitive, and he follows the man, slightly foot-draggingly, entangling himself and the man in questions, but eventually abandoning his prized catch as the man leads him onto new territory. Eventually, they come to a kind of secret and rather Spartan sort of academy, where Lee’s guider and others labour against incredible odds to impart Western Civ., hard science, and antique mores to a small group of young Americans of raw intelligence but less application. And it is more than just education that is imparted at this establishment; one of the tutors tells him,

…advanced instinct is what we seek, refinement without end and the promotion of beauty above everything else

At first, Lee resents having been “abducted” (as he sees it); he misses home and nostalgically recalls days of noble savagery far away from Greek verbs or astrophysics. He makes breaks for freedom – but some inner demon always dogs his fugitive feet, drags him back to the academy. It occurs to him as he looks down on the roof of his father’s farm, that he has been away too long, seen too much. As Thomas Wolfe could have informed him – had Lee stooped to reading modern novels when there were so many neglected classics – You Can’t Go Home Again. What Lee has done and discovered has set him fatally apart from his family and old acquaintances – and also from all of America, which so dislikes all non-financial forms of hierarchy, individualism, or quality.

But he finds he does not mind. Furthermore, he would not have minded even if he had known (as we Perduvians know from the other books) that superiority will never bring contentment – although it will bring him at least one great emotion denied to the dwellers on the plain. However high the personal price, it is one Lee has become willing to pay – just as his creator has (presumably) become accustomed to his lack of lionization by the literati.

The book stops, sated with its own weirdness and wit, as the rapscallion turns 14 – already unfitted for just about everything the unfit mainstream esteems. He is not yet a man, but he has already become a tragic hero – tragically acclimatized to excellence, to reading by himself in the forest, hearing great sounds, stalking the universe one star at a time, his brain always awhir, “ruining itself on beauty, aroma, wisdom and the world”. He has just set out on his lifelong progress (which has also been his author’s) towards becoming “naive” in the eyes of an era which knows an awful lot about awful things, but almost nothing else. And even though we know what a terrible, and terribly unhappy, man he is marked out to become, we cannot but wish him well.

This review was first published in the February 2014 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

 

Rise of the Dominatrix – review of Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning by Charles Moore

RISE OF THE DOMINATRIX

Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2013, 859pp

When Margaret Thatcher died last April, the obsequies were at times almost drowned by vitriolic voices celebrating her demise. There were howls of joy from old enemies, street parties, and a puerile campaign to make the Wizard of Oz song, “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead!” the top-selling pop single (it failed, narrowly). The extravagant hatred evinced by some shocked some, but it was in a way an entirely suitable send-off for a woman who always loathed ‘consensus’. She may be the last Conservative whose demise will evoke more than a yawn.

This is former Spectator and Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore’s first book, but it is an assured production, steeped in its subject, judicious in its handling of history, coloured by his journalistic instinct for revealing and amusing anecdotes. In this first of two volumes, he follows his heroine from birth up to what “may well have been the happiest moment in her life” – the October 1982 victory celebrations after the recapture of the Falklands. His heroine she may have been – and this is why she approached him to be her biographer, on the understanding that publication would be posthumous, and interviewees knew she would never read what they had said – but he maintains critical distance. There are 54 pages of footnotes referring to innumerable interviews, and a seven page bibliography, assembled over 16 years of what must have been at times an all-engrossing project, whilst incidentally editing Britain’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper. We will need to wait until the companion volume, Herself Alone, to get Moore’s assessment of her legacy, but for now, Not for Turning equips us admirably to understand what she was like as person and politician, why she was the way she was, and suggest why she would succeed in many ways, yet fall short in others.

Moore’s researches were at times made more arduous by his subject, a naturally private person who was always, as he reflected in the Daily Telegraph after she died, “keen to efface the personal”. Her memoirs gloss over emotions or incidents about which we would like to know very much more, or lend “Thatcherism” greater coherence in retrospect than it possessed. But luckily she was intrinsically honest, and Moore early learned to read subtle signs –

All politicians often have to say things that conceal or avoid important facts. She certainly did this quite often; but she did it with a visible discomfort which often undermined her own subterfuge.

This complex personage pushed into the world in 1925, and lived above a commercial premises in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a town even now a byword for provincialism (despite having been Isaac Newton’s hometown). It was one of two grocery shops run by her father Alfred Roberts, who when he wasn’t selling sausages to Midlandian burghers was Mayor and a Methodist lay preacher. “If you get it from Roberts’s – you get the BEST!” was the shops’ slogan, and her parents’ rectitude, work ethic, and attention to detail would stay with their daughter.

School was preparation for a life of application. A contemporary remembered – “She always stood out because teenage girls don’t know where they’re going. She did.” She unsurprisingly excelled in declaiming from sturdily middle-brow poets – Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling, Whitman. Serious, too, was her sojourn in Somerville, regarded as the cleverest of the female colleges in Oxford, where she read Chemistry and thrived even under a Leftist principal.

The young Margaret Roberts, notwithstanding the pervasive progressive miasma, was already obstinately Conservative, although she had not yet refined her particular brand. She joined the Oxford Union Conservative Association (OUCA) and became its president, and co-author of a pamphlet destined to be combed over by obsessives in later years. At that time, the Conservative Party was a mass movement, and a means of social mingling, and many joined for social as much as political reasons, or simply to find a spouse of the right Right type. Moore suggests that she likewise saw OUCA as an “opening of the door”. She took elocution lessons, and met as many influential people as possible, always inveigling herself somehow onto the top table at dinners. Yet her letters to her parents and older sister Muriel are often apolitical, rarely even mentioning the War, unexpectedly spotted with spelling mistakes, full of family, clothes and rare romantic interests, the latter discussed in briskly British terms. When she first met Denis, her husband-to-be, she told Muriel that he was “a perfect gentleman. Not a very attractive creature”. (He remembered her almost equally coolly – “a nice-looking young woman, a bit overweight”.)

After graduation, she worked in industry, and in 1950 stood for Parliament for the first time, in the solid Labour seat of Dartford in Kent. She conducted a dynamic campaign, characterized by her contribution to a debate hosted by the United Nations Association, which featured her Labour opponent Norman Dodds and other speakers even further Left:

I gave them ten minutes of what I thought about their views! As a result Dodds wouldn’t speak to me afterwards and Lord and Lady S. [Strabolgi – an old Scottish title Italianized in the 16th century] went off without speaking as well.

She made an impressive 6,000 dent in the Labour majority. It is characteristic that at the count she told her activists that the next campaign would start the following morning.

She married Denis in 1951, the start of a quietly contented partnership that lasted until he died in 2003. As well as his earning capacity and a business brain useful whenever his wife needed to comprehend company documents, he brought to their alliance some social status, a large fund of commonsense, and a willingness (even now rare for men) to take a back seat. Performing household tasks – she cooked when she could, and enjoyed tidying (an everyday application of what Edward Norman called her “pre-existing sense of neatness and order in society”) – assuaged the faint guilt she clearly felt at being something of a Bluestocking.

Needing to earn more money, she trained for and practised at the Bar, and the experience added to her near-mystical respect for law of all kinds. She later systematized this passion for precedents –

As a Methodist in Grantham, I learnt the laws of God. When I read chemistry at Oxford, I learnt the laws of science, which derive from the laws of God, and when I studied for the Bar, I learnt the laws of man.

Between work and family, she politicked tirelessly, resenting even holidays as wasted time. (There is a telling photo of her in this book, on holiday in the Hebrides in 1978, walking in business clothes along a beach, staring at her watch.)

In 1958, she applied for selection in the north London constituency of Finchley, where the electorate was approximately one-fifth Jewish. This suited her, perhaps predisposed to philo-Semitism by her Nonconformist upbringing, certainly always admiring of law-abiding, hard-working people, and she impressed from the start. At one selection committee meeting, one astute member whispered to another, “We’re looking at a future Prime Minister of England”. Later, she would be strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman, and was a strong (if not uncritical) supporter of Israel. Macmillan once joked that her Cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians”.Yet she also came under fire from constituents for upholding Oswald Mosley’s legal right to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. She was of course selected, then elected in the 1959 election, and in 1961 got a junior ministerial post as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Her anxiety to prove herself and achieve something was immediately evident, with her Minister grunting to the Department’s top civil servant “She’s trouble. What can we do to keep her busy?”

As the Kingdom lost its Empire it also lost its way, and her Party drifted directionlessly. Quite apart from the threats to order and freedom posed by different kinds of socialism, ranging from Soviet-funded Marxism to saccharine egalitarianism, the economy was dominated by sclerotic state-owned concerns, with attempts at reform usually stymied by ultra-Left trade unionists. There was a decline syndrome of spiralling spending, ballooning inflation, inbuilt inefficiency, and industrial (in)action. The Conservatives seemed powerless to act, or even to think, although monetarism was gaining ground among cleverer Conservatives. Thatcher was frustrated by the Party’s unwillingness to engage in what she could see was an ideological rather than a mere electoral battle. Emblematic of Conservative complacency was the reaction of the free-market Economic Dining Club, whose members were reluctant to let her join, fearing she would dampen their masculine conviviality, and compel them to engage in discussions before dinner.

On other matters, she was more old school – in favour of corporal and capital punishment, against pornography, drugs and easier divorce. But she was never a reflexive moralizer, voting to legalize both homosexuality and abortion (the latter because she had met a despairing disabled child). Whatever her private views on any subject, she was then (and would always be) “trapped in moderation”, to borrow the title of one of Moore’s chapters – compelled to work within a framework where the odds were always against her.

Natural allies lacked stomach – for example, businesses refused to help in the fight against the closed shop, because they wished to avoid unpleasantness, and the alternative would be too complicated. Again, in the 1960s and 1970s, even many Tories wanted comprehensive education, and although she managed to save 94 grammar schools while Education Secretary (1970-1974), she was compelled to allow 3,286 comprehensives. She hated the egalitarian educational orthodoxy, although sometimes she would have to defend it publicly. Moore cites one interview in which she claimed that primary schools were “much better…much more progressive”, while she was saying privately to aides that all those schools offered was “rag dolls and rolling on the floor”.

She had learned how to combine being a conviction politician with being a pragmatic politician – and to ensure that when she had been bounced into a course of action she should make her unhappiness known to the Right-of-centre grassroots. She was sincere, but she was also a superlative Party manager. Yet she really tried. “You came out of a meeting with her”, one Education official remembered, “feeling that you’d had three very hard sets of tennis”. He nevertheless remembered her fondly, because she was unfailingly kind and generous to staff.

Good luck came to her aid when Ted Heath refused to take her leadership challenge seriously, and in 1975 she took his place as Conservative leader, the first woman to lead any major Western political party. She revelled in the attention, and did not mind being hated – “The day that I am not causing controversy, I shall not be doing very much”. She was the last Conservative leader willing to endorse inequality – “Equity is a very much better principle than equality”. She attracted contumely even from her own advisers for supporting Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Zbigniew Brzezinski was astounded to learn that she was “inclined to favour the white position”; in one speech she even said “The whites will fight, and the whites will be right.” In the end, on Rhodesia as on so many other matters, she bowed to inevitability – but arguing fiercely as she retreated. (Moore notes laconically, “What happened much later in Zimbabwe…was to confirm Mrs. Thatcher’s pessimism”.) She attended what despairing F.C.O. officials called “disturbingly right-wing” meetings in America, building bonds that would be of material benefit during the Falklands War (although Moore is at pains not to hyperbolize the ‘special relationship’). In a famous 1978 interview, she infuriated the Party establishment by speaking on immigration, a subject on which she had said little before, saying that many Britons feared “they might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. But she hoovered up votes that would otherwise have gone to the National Front, then on the cusp of breakthrough, and delivered huge swathes of the white working class into the Conservative camp. (She would never do anything substantive about immigration, although the numbers approved for citizenship dipped during the Eighties, from circa 72,000 a year to around 54,000.)

The incompetence of opponents also helped propel her over the Downing Street threshold in 1979, “undoubtedly”, Moore writes, “ the most truly conservative person…ever to reach No. 10 in the era of universal suffrage.” She was also almost certainly the last PM who would pay no attention to popular culture, or even the media – and who was so innocent that she once gave TV cameras the two-fingered V for victory sign the wrong way round.

Although she faced great resistance from within her own party – the so-called ‘Wets’ who regarded her as vulgar – their intellectual incoherence gave her a great advantage. At times, however, she missed opportunities, perhaps partly out of relict deference to these grandees, certainly because she often acted intuitively rather than strategically. Her intellectual influencers rarely combined political intelligence with their incandescence, so she had to rely on less ‘sound’ careerists who watered down her wishes – not that she was ever the anarcho-capitalist many wailed she was. Little happened on the economic front until she and Geoffrey Howe pushed through the 1981 Budget, largely against her Cabinet and ‘expert’ opinion, but as this book ends the economic battles that would define her mostly lie ahead.

She was also under fire, almost literally, in Ulster. She patrolled in uniform, Boudicca-like, with the troops in South Armagh’s “Bandit Country”, and would send handwritten letters to the families of killed soldiers – her Unionism all the more impassioned because she had lost one of her closest friends and allies, Airey Neave, to an INLA bomb. She found herself having to deal with rampant terrorism, hunger strikers, the oleaginous Charles Haughey, international opinion, and her own diplomats – and one can see how just a few years later she would sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement against her own instincts.

Moore provides other portents of future failures – such as her relative lack of interest in the EU, and her reaction to the Brixton riots of 1981, a typical Thatcher combination of strong rhetoric, followed by appointing a leftwing judge to conduct the enquiry. Not just trapped in moderation, she was also becoming trapped in political correctness. She was also making enemies of many senior Tories through sheer brusquerie. The scene is being set for eight years of effort and isolation, leading to treachery, talismanic exile, finally sad dotage when she would appear only infrequently, a tiny ex-titan towered over by men who affected not to notice that her famous features had fallen on one side, and her lipstick was askew.

But for now, we close the book and the curtains on Act I with her finest hour – those 74 days between April and June 1982 when the Falklands were in global play, and the PM was thrown upon her inner resources and not found wanting – guided to victory by her personal compass, and her willingness to trust to the courage and skill of the armed forces. At the memorial service at St. Paul’s that October, she stood funereal and indomitable beneath Wren’s great dome, determined that the military, not she, should take the credit – while the Whispering Gallery within the Cathedral and outside was alive with patriotic approbation, the Iron Lady as evocation of Elizabeth I, personification of a patria both beautiful and doomed.

This review first appeared in Chronicles in April 2014, and is reproduced with permission

Borderline personality disorder – a review of The Education of Hector Villa

BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER

“Roads fade out before you reach the line,

And the signposts disappear”

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Borderland

The Education of Hector Villa

Chilton Williamson, Jr., Rockford, Illinois: Chronicles Press, 2012, pb. 208

Native New Yorker Chilton Williamson, Jr. has an impressive pedigree as conservative intellectual, as former history editor for St. Martin’s Press, literary editor for National Review and, for the last twenty-five years, senior editor for books at Chronicles. He also pens the latter journal’s What’s Wrong With the World column – not to mention a plethora of reviews and essays, often celebrating the Old West, and highly-regarded books of both fiction and non-fiction. The Education of Héctor Villa is his fourth novel.

The protagonist is a Mexican-American who came illegally to New Mexico two decades prior to the book’s opening, but who has almost forgotten this awkward technical detail in his earnest desire to embrace El Norte. He is, as one might expect, thankful for the economic opportunities which have allowed him to make a very comfortable living repairing computers, and support his wife and two children in a way that would have been out of the question in old Mexico. He appears to have embraced almost completely the mainstream modus vivendi of hard work, adherence to the law, participating in elections, SUVs, Walmart, overindulgence, personal debt, and occasional forays to Vegas – a city which for him epitomizes the dizzying vitality he border-crashed to find. The family quit the Catholic church after the priest refused to baptize their daughter Contracepción, and they now attend a typically suburban evangelical church instead. They are, in many superficial ways, almost indistinguishable from millions of other Americans. Hector would like to think of himself as ‘fat, dumb and happy’.

Yet in some recess of his mind, he is not fully assimilated, and suspects he can never be. The front yard of their Belen home sports certain Mexican-inspired ‘ornaments’ which early fall foul of zoning laws, to Héctor’s hurt bafflement, and giving his wife palpitations about being sent back to Namiquipa. They watch Spanish-language TV. His chief friend is a prickly race-proud Rio Abajo New Mexican. His personal hero is Pancho Villa, from whom he claims descent, although his loyalty to the “Centaur of the North” does not entail much more than occasional boozy soirées. And in his pleasant heart he does not much like the eroticised, glitz-to-garbage culture to which – lo que una victoria! – thirteen year old Contracepción is as beholden as any of her Anglo friends.

Existential unease may be why he has started to over-identify with his chosen country, wilfully ignoring its obvious faults, absorbing a neoconservative narrative through Fox and the pulpit of their Assembly of God church – the parable of a plastic proposition nation defined only by bloodless ‘freedoms’. He has even developed a bizarre and rather unhealthy admiration for George W. Bush, to the extent of burdening his infant son with the Christian name Dubya. Even his mailbox is painted red, white and blue. This impels him at last into running on the GOP ticket for the House of Representatives, and so commences a series of events that will cause him great embarrassment and expense, and undermine all his ideas of America’s avuncularity.

Many of the incidents that ensue are grotesquely comic – a muddle about jihadis-who-weren’t, a car-crash of an election campaign, sponging illegal relatives who turn up unannounced, brushes with anti-immigration patrols, Contracepción’s infatuation with a Muslim who is supposed to convert to the Assemblies of God but never does, an extra-marital affair that is never consummated, an arduous treasure-hunt that of course turns up nothing (an allegory of poor, puzzled Héctor’s hunt for the American chimera). All these incidents are recounted to excellent sardonic effect.

But the overall result is a deeply serious critique of today’s America – the perverse immigration and foreign policies, the facelessness, heartlessness and incompetence of government, the distrustfulness of diverse societies, the ugliness of popular culture. It is not for nothing that the title evokes The Education of Henry Adams, because it is likewise an indictment of an entire era. It is also, importantly, an indictment without biliousness, levelled by a man as kindly as he is cultivated. Furthermore, the outdoorsman author knows the landscape well, and can conjure it onto the page with ease.

The author was concerned about diversity and its discontents long before the subject registered on the extremest edge of the Overton Window, and sympathetic knowledge radiates from the plot as Héctor wars within himself, as do all others caught up in this fluid and fractious America. Anything and everything can become racially-charged at any time, and every group has been at different times occupier and occupied, oppressor and oppressed. The disputed desert is strewn with rubbish, used condoms and occasional corpses left behind by wannabe American citizens – the detritus of “an intergalactic rainbow of aggressively importunate human cultures”. Old grudges run deep and sore, power tilts one way and then the other, and ghostly galloping ‘Centaurs’ seem to be always refighting spectral Pershings just behind all headlines. Héctor’s sole point of disagreement (but it is an important one) with George Bush is that the Head Honcho of State does not comprehend the reckless reality of his administration’s invitation to the world. The author navigates these shoals with subtle skill.

At the nadir of his disillusionment, Héctor decides it would be in the family’s best interests to relocate to Chihuahau, and so they sell up and repatriate themselves. For a time, this works well – he enjoys the sense of historical continuity so lacking in America, and finds Mexico’s lack of diversity deeply refreshing. But a terrifying assault on his son puts him once again on edge, and as the book closes, we find him (now in possession of U.S. residency papers) pondering Vegas, and rebooting the old American Delusion –

The Dream had stepped forward in his mind once more, a Lady clothed in green and bearing aloft a flaming torch, and he understood that, where they were going, it really was morning again, every day of the year.

His optimism against all experience is in its way a truly American trait, and we cannot but wish poor Héctor well. We also know that if and when he returns he is bound to be disappointed all over again.