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


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

The glossarian as moralist – review of Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane


Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2015, 387pps, hb, £20

Robert Macfarlane is one of the most lionized of contemporary British writers, somehow combining a Cambridge career with producing a celebrated sequence of unusually literate explorations of landscape. First was 2003’s Mountains of the Mind, about Occidental attitudes towards high places – followed by 2007’s The Wild Places, in which the author toured representative relict British landscapes, and 2012’s The Old Ways, in which he walked ancient paths in several countries. To add to this already impressive collection along comes Landmarks, the goal of which is to help re-invest the landscape with meaning by assembling a “word-hoard” of descriptive terms at imminent risk of disappearance. It is his fervent hope that the modest act of recording these unique words will help us re-appreciate places and phenomena we too often take for granted. He reminds us,

Intense attentiveness is a form of moral gaze…if we attend more closely to something then we are less likely to act selfishly towards it

These descriptive terms are for the most part highly specific, but he also cites the barbarized 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, which culled many presently common words on the grounds that they are irrelevant to modern children. These include everyday words which may in consequence become rare, like acorn, adder, heather, heron, otter and pasture, excised in favour of celebrity, cut-and-paste and MP3. This is admittedly an extreme (if especially ominous) example. More typical than such brutal acts of amputation is simple omission, as capital, urbanization and homogenization poke into every last corner of the countryside and old observers-users die out, their idioms largely unrecorded, their intimate topographies slurring into undifferentiated spaces. The author is fighting a war of the world-words against a blind behemoth – standing athwart “the torrent of daily forgetting – the black noise that pours always over the world’s edge”.

Macfarlane loves words for themselves, but this is no idle exercise – because “language deficit leads to attention deficit”. In other words, the less differentiated and distinctive a landscape seems the less we will care for it. By losing words for places, we are weakening our ability to understand and defend them. Even career Greens can be guilty of what the author calls “instrumentalizing nature” – viewing it as dull “standing resource” rather than numinous source of wonder. Our ignorance and inarticulacy weaken and impoverish our countryside – and thereby our culture and national character. The author coins the sad but useful word “blandscape” to betoken the steady evaporation of memory and meaning from so many once special places. But then to really comprehend a place is a vast commitment – Macfarlane cites the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh,

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience

As the cliché so often reminds us, Eskimos “have fifty words for snow”. But so too do (or did) the British – and for every kind of weather, every lump or lesion in their local landscapes, every combination of vegetation, and every indigenous creature that lives in these. So once did everyone who ever lived in close proximity to nature, dependent on it for sustenance and in rare leisure moments taking interest and pleasure in it for its own sake. The terms gathered in Landmarks, cumulatively impressive as they are, are just a morsel of what might have been gathered, and could still be gathered if only there were more Robert Macfarlanes peregrinating interestedly around the shires, notebooks (or MP3s) in hand.

These terms are not all old, and some are still in fairly common usage (e.g. speleological). Other terms are always being invented, or entering from other languages. But the most piquant of these colloquialisms are those anchored in hard old necessities – Geordie coalminers used to speak precise “Pitmatical”, Atlantic trawlermen yarned in “coddish”, and eastern English farmers needed to know the difference between a skradge (a small bank raised on an older one to prevent flooding) and a smeeth (level space). They are often earthy – one name for the kestrel was wind-fucker – or perhaps one should say peaty, because one of the sources for this book was a Peat Glossary compiled as a “counter-desecration phrasebook” by lateral-thinking Hebrideans fighting off a wind-power station proposed for Lewis.

Other terms are closely observant, like fox-fire, a Lincolnshire term denoting phosphorescence emitted by decaying timber – or calmly accepting, like mole-country, a Suffolk synonym for graveyard. There are hints of ancient annoyances in mall (Welsh for bad or quaggy land) and flinchin (Scots for a deceitful promise of better weather). There are reminders of former dark imaginings in gallitrop (a fairy ring in the West Country) and the Old English wæter-egesa (water-terror). One can imagine trying to avoid an aigrish (sharp, cutting) Essex wind, or being frightened by the swelk of a Pentland Firth whirlpool. But there is also sheer exuberance in words like flinks (to wander like a frolicsome Shetland girl) and zwer (an onomatopoeiac Exmoor term referring to the noise made by a covey of partridges as they take flight).

Each landscape-specific chapter (Flatlands, Coastlands, etc.) ends with a glossary, the last democratically left blank for our own overhearings or inventions. But the book is only democratic up to a point – one suspects that few landworkers will read Landmarks, let alone add to it, and that if they did read it they would find it rather precious. But then the book is aimed at a wistfully-inclined middle-class audience, of the kind that formulates culture and ultimately policy. As did Diderot, the author understands the transformative power of accumulating, selecting and disseminating knowledge.

Landmarks is wonderfully littered with writers ranging from Aristotle via The Kalevala, William Cobbett and Gerald Manley Hopkins to John Muir, saviour of so much of the American West, although he was “disturbingly unwilling” to include Amerindians in his vision of wilderness – and A Land author Jacquetta Hawkes, even if the author finds her ethnic asides “queasy-making”. More modern inspirations include Cairngorm chorographer Nan Shepherd, wild swimmer Roger Deakin, and J. A. Baker whose fierce love for the peregrine falcons of the Essex coast in some way compensated for his own cramped and pinioned life. Maybe occasionally at the outset there are too many writers cited, interrupting the flow with short quotations that could have been at least as well-expressed by the author. But even these signpost new readings, and demonstrate hearteningly that Macfarlane is part of a larger movement, and one that extends beyond Britain. He also takes care to marry insular idiosyncrasies to universal principles. (A happy term in this regard is the Northamptonshire expression for highly localized rain, which is said to fall in “planets”.)

In a slightly fantastical Postscript, Macfarlane records receiving a letter as he was finishing Landmarks from a (never named) Qatar-based folklorist-philologist, who has for fifteen years been compiling a global glossary of landscape words, an astoundingly ambitious task which eerily echoes the author’s fantasy of a landscape lexicon so unlimited it could almost constitute a library. At such a level of detail, the mundane suddenly becomes magical realist, the humdrum huge, and he and we are awed to see how apparently simple namings of apparently simple things add up to something that is both unexpected and enchanted.

This review was first published at quadrapheme.com, and is reproduced with permission





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


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