A million acres, six thousand years

Roman Canal, Lincolnshire, by Peter De Wint

The Fens – Discovering England’s Hidden Depths

Francis Pryor, Head of Zeus, £25

‘Very flat, Norfolk’ drawls a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives – a supercilious condemnation of another character, and by inference all eastern England. Francis Pryor proves that while the Fens may be level, their gentle undulations and cubist planes hold stories as absorbing as anywhere.

Mr Pryor is well-known as excavator and interpreter of the massive prehistoric site at Flag Fen near Peterborough, and from television’s Time Team. In childhood the Fens were a tantalising grey-blue smudge on his horizons – then when he was studying archaeology at Cambridge, an intriguingly unknown landscape conveniently close to town. He has come to know the Fens from the inside out, and the surface down. For him, this is literally hands-on history – a deeply felt discovery of a million underestimated acres extending from Lincolnshire to Suffolk.

The author’s father scanned RAF photographs for V1 launch sites, and his son applies comparable care to the study of silts – sometimes almost causing accidents by swerving into the side of the road to fossick in drainage ditch upcast. He adores the Bronze Age, when the Fens were well-populated and highly-organised – the stains and traces of banks, boats, bodies, boundaries, drove-ways, fish-traps, middens, and sluices proof of complex adaptations to this environment where land was drier rather than dry. Through phosphate analysis, we can even tell where cow manure splattered thousands of years ago, and suddenly we smell the Age in imagination.

The Fens, with their huge and numinous firmaments, have always been a ritual landscape – perhaps once with many monuments like ‘Seahenge’, the upturned oak surrounded by a ring of 55 closely-set posts, salvaged providentially in 1989 from the shrinking shore at Holmes-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. The British Museum’s famous Witham Shield shows that for Celts fenland rivers were mystical as well as tribal frontiers. Ely Cathedral, Croyland Abbey, the Boston Stump and many other superb edifices were raised on long-hallowed ground, their soaring stone a defiance of uncertain earth. These attest to ancient prosperity; Boston and King’s Lynn once rivalled London, and 12th-century Peterborough was nicknamed ‘Gildenburgh’, city of gold.

Boudicca ruled roundabout, Hereward the Wake legendarily resisted the Normans around Ely, and feudalism never became firmly established. Mr Pryor speculates that local traditions of independence may help explain the later appeal of puritanism, Parliamentarianism and modern intellectual enquiry to both ‘Slodgers’ (southern fenlanders) and ‘Yellowbellies’ (their Lincolnshire equivalents).

Dissolution opened monastic estates to entrepreneurs, and encouraged agricultural improvements, turning piecemeal efforts to keep water out of particular fields into a vast geometry of reclaimed ‘dearbought’ land, and half-tamed waterways (the Ouse Washes are visible from space). Fenlanders resisted, and the author empathises, but he also finds this titanic engineering inspiring. In some places, he observes, people seem insignificant, but not here, because without humans there would be no fens.

But ‘improvements’ have had adverse consequences, symbolised by the Holme Fen Post near Peterborough, inserted with its top at ground level in 1848, but now standing over 13 feet above, thanks to the drainage of Whittlesey Mere, formerly England’s largest lake. Shrinkage and drying of primordial peats are causing carbon release, soil degradation and erosion, increasing flood risk, and wildlife loss – while rising sea-levels menace huge tracts of prime farmland, and Boston, Spalding and Wisbech. The author watches an overflying Lancaster bomber from nearby RAF Coningsby, and ponders today’s threats.

The Fens are trembling on history’s brink, but then they always have. For now at least, they retain much of their brooding, enigmatic character – and those who wish to understand their unique importance can now call on an articulate and avuncular guide.

This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

Living with Leviathan

The Last Whalers, Doug Bock Clark, Little Brown, 2019

Our relations with cetaceans have always been charged with danger and delight, represented by the extremes of Revelation’s “beast out of the sea”, and the frescoed dolphin-riders of Pompeii. Rare, huge, and unknowable, whales have traditionally been omens, or metaphors for improbability – “very like a whale”, Hamlet chaffs the cloud-watching Polonius. They were long chased by daring Basques, Icelanders and Inuit, and prized whenever washed up – they were declared “Fishes Royal” by Edward II – but then they met eighteenth century modernity. 

Soon they were harried almost to extinction by fleets from New and old England, France, Holland and Norway, seeking baleen for corsets and chimney-brushes, oil to light the lamps of the Age of Reason, and ambergris to fix its perfumes. Taxonomized by Linnaeus in 1758, the sperm whale came increasingly to Occidental attentions, its great head a-swim with spermaceti, its skin bearing scars of suckers of Kraken-like giant squid bested in black gulfs. Whaling museums from Hull to Nantucket display sad skeletons and scrimshaw, naïve scenes inked onto sperm teeth by off-watch hands. (A sperm whale from Holderness is mentioned in Moby Dick.)

As petroleum superseded spermaceti, Westerners started to see whales through warmer eyes. These were no cold fish but big-brained, long-lived, social mammals, and furthermore they ‘sang’ across seas of time and space. Pressure built to preserve them from modern Ahabs with unchivalrous high-tech harpoons. 1982’s moratorium on commercial whaling made exceptions for aboriginal whalers scattered around the blue planet from the Faroes to Alaska, who took whales in small numbers using ancient methods. These amphibious autochthons included the Lamalerans of Indonesia’s Lembata, an island so remote even Indonesians call it “The Land Left Behind”. 

Lamalerans made landfall on Lembata around 1522, even as Magellan was adventuring the archipelago – and commenced a hazardous, laborious dependency on the bounteous fruits of the Suva Sea. They hunted dolphins, rays, sharks, and sperm whales from lashless lug téna boats built without nails, copying the craft that had carried The Ancestors, incorporating old timbers, investing every rope with significance. Christianity came late, existing illogically alongside animism – the Mass of Lost Souls abutting the Ige Gerek, the Calling of Whales by the hereditary Lords of the Land. Lamaleran women still clean, cook, kill fowl, trek to market and, in rare spare moments, weave immemorial motifs into itak cloths, and men butcher, lop lianas, raise houses, careen keels, or occasionally war, while keeping “burning eyes” oceanward, and ears attuned for the shout “Baleo!” (the hunt is on). 

The author first visited Lamalera in 2011. Most outsiders move on swiftly, bored waiting for whales to blow, but he returned, and learned the language. Some quixotic side was captured by this community on the literal and metaphorical edge, as its anchors dragged, and its youngsters drifted off dismasted to jobs in the city, exchanging harpoons for mobiles, and sarongs for Hello Kitty T-shirts. He shows us this outpost in all its aspects, a village simultaneously enhaloed and smelling of fish. He relishes queasy details – messes of rays’ brains, fish-eye snacks – and the plangently attenuated, like the Spear of the Dragon which promised victory in battle, now a rusty walking-stick. 

His unjaded Lamalerans are more admirable than Westerners – angst-haunted, he aspires to be “a little less American” – still thinking in cycles and generations, seeing benefits as gifts from gods rather than human rights. He badly wants to believe community can be reconciled with opportunity, and conservationists can come to see very human folkways as wholly natural evolutions. To him, the jets overflying the archipelago emblematise uncertain escape, looking like harpoons with rope contrails – projectiles launched into space without anyone knowing where they’ll land. 

Vanishing venery, howsoever humanised or hymned, will not be universally appealing, but the real threats to whales lie far beyond The Land Left Behind. European bestiarists believed whales exhaled sweet odours to attract fish – now sometimes their great gapes attract shopping bags instead, dooming noble beasts to squalid ends, like the one found in March in the Philippines with 40 kilogrammes of plastic balled in its guts. No brave whaler could ever be so dirtily profligate. 

For a little longer, those few who persist in pursuing Physeter macrocephalus have the ultimate antidote to modern anomie, in moments when all pull together, or leap onto the backs of 60-ton titans, whose flukes flail death. Sometimes Indonesian Actæons go down for good, becoming phyloplankton, or phosphorescence on the face of waters mirroring the homeward-pointing Southern Cross and the star-showers of Cetus (named after the sea-beast beheaded by Perseus). Unrecovered bodies are interred symbolically, represented by nautiluses, suitably ancient-shaped, fragile but shining, like Jonah emerging from the abyss as eternal example. The Last Whalers should serve similarly as a tribute to this tribe, and all the others, foundering in or riding out the “typhoon of life”.

This review first appeared in the 27th April issue of The Spectator, and is reproduced with permission

Staffordshire – ‘England in little’

Horn Dance antlers in the parish church at Abbot’s Bromley

Staffordshire – ‘England in little’

Arnold Bennett opens his 1908 novel Old Wives’ Tale describing the “natural, simple county” surrounding his Five Towns – a quiet countryside containing “everything that England has”, from hideous industry to Arcadian tranquillity. Staffordshire, he emotes, “is England in little, lost in the midst of England, unsung” – and all the better for being unsung. Seven decades later, Henry Thorold restated the syndrome in his Shell Guide to Staffordshire

Except to the initiated, Staffordshire remains a mystery. Even to the initiated it reveals its secrets slowly…Its cathedral is under-estimated, its parish churches unknown. Its castles are unheard of, its great houses and gardens too little visited.

As in 1908 and 1978, so still.

Part of the ‘problem’ is physical geography. Staffordshire is landlocked, its boundaries marked by rivers in the north and east but elsewhere less obvious, surrounded by more celebrated counties, and at its southern end eliding into industrial West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton, that tranche subsumed in 1974 into the bland new ‘West Midlands’. Insofar as Staffordshire impinges on wider awareness, it is often in unedifying connection with Stoke-on-Trent, long sadly synonymous with mismanaged decline, or the Alton Towers theme park. But this underrated “England in little” has made many contributions to England in big.

Below the industrial and post-industrial, the county is quietly rural, sometimes archaically so. Palaeolithic axes, bone tools, Neolithic barrows, Bronze Age jewellery, and hill-forts suggest human habitation predated the last Ice Age. The dominant Celtic tribe was the Cornovii (probably meaning “People of the Horned One”), and they resisted Romans pushing slowly north through forbidding terrain, its gloomy physicality suggested by the Romans’ name for Lichfield – Letocetum, derived from a Celtic word meaning “grey wood”. “People of the Horned One” rings true as ethno-descriptor, as one of the most evocative sights to be seen anywhere in England takes place every September in Abbots Bromley.

Horn Dancers circa 1900

Although written accounts only go back to Robert Plot’s 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is unquestionably older. A twelve-strong troupe – six men bearing reindeer antlers, Robin Hood astride a hobby horse, Maid Marian, the Jester, a boy with a bow and arrow, a triangle-player, and a musician – take the antlers from the parish church early in the morning and spend the day making an exhausting eight-mile perambulation with many halts to dance at villages and houses, gathering money along the way for local good causes.

The horns, which have been carbon-dated to circa 1065, are mounted on carved wooden heads and supported by hand-staffs that rest on the shoulders. Support is necessary; the largest pair, borne by the lead Dancer, weigh 25 pounds and have a span of 39 inches. The antlers are also weighed down with ancienter connotations – divinity from Cerunnos and Pan up to the horned Moses, fertility, nobility, pride, power, protection, wilderness – psychic reverberations from the old impenetrable forest associated with Gawain and the Green Knight.

The totemic advances and retreats and sideways steps of the Dance, as the boy affects to fire arrows, are probably a pre-Norman reminder of the rights of the men of Needwood Forest. It was not only commoners who wished to conserve the trees; one impecunious Georgian Lord Bagot, asked why he would not sell £50,000 worth of oaks, replied proudly ”The Bagots are not timber merchants”. Other eighteenth century luminaries were less sentimental, and the Forest had almost all been enclosed and grubbed up by 1804, this process rationalised piously –

An extensive forest is not favourable to the virtue and industry of its poorer inhabitants; it affords temptations to idleness and dishonesty.

There is one extant tract, Bagot’s Wood, and descendants of its one-time defender still reside at Blithfield Hall, their coat-of-arms featuring appropriately another horned ungulate, the Bagot Goat, probably brought from the Rhône by a crusader Bagot, which persists in farm parks as a designated rare breed. The family’s motto is apposite – Antiquum Obtinens (“Possessing antiquity”).

Needwood still rustles in local toponymy, suffixed in Barton-under-Needwood, acknowledged at Marchington Woodlands, and honoured in absentia at Hanbury Woodend. Did Uttoxeter-born Henry Yevele (1320-1400), master mason at Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, have vague memories of Needwood leviathans in mind as he upreared Perpendicular columns to branching fan vaults?

Like the Romans, Anglo-Saxons battled through trees to conquer Staffordshire, taking it for Mercia. At first worshippers of Wotan – remembered in Wednesbury and Wednesfield – later they built churches at Ilam, Lichfield, Stafford, and elsewhere, and a frequently used palace at Tamworth. An estimation of seventh century importance can be gauged from the Staffordshire Hoard, found in 2009 near Lichfield, 3,500 pieces adding up to 15 pounds of gold and silver, the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered in England – a notably martial assemblage of bosses, buckles, gems, panels, rivets, studs, sword hilts, pommels and scabbards, and wire. But they were unable to resist the following century’s Danish “Great Heathen Army”, which captured and long kept central and northern Staffordshire, while the rest was subsumed into Wessex.

War passed across again – Wessexers-becoming-English against Danes, these new English against Normans, the rebellious shire feeling twice the mailed malice of the Conqueror, only becoming inured after 1070’s dread “Harrying of the North”. The Normans too transmuted, emblematised by the knight Ralph de Toeni’s rechristening as de Stafford, his descendants destined to play prominent parts in national history from the Hundred Years’ War on, marrying, supporting or subverting claimants or kings. By 1640, the heir to the earldom of Stafford had fallen into “a very mean and obscure condition”, and sold his title to Charles I for £800. Charles created a new viscountcy, but its possessor fell under suspicion during 1680’s “Popish Plot” hysteria, and was beheaded.

Between 1640 and 1680, there had of course been civil war, and Staffordshire’s religious divisions were complex. There had been sturdy resistance to Elizabethan reforms, imposed through such means as the 1588 martyrdom of Robert Sutton, who was (according to a local diarist) executed

in a most villainous Butcherley manner by one Moseley who with his axe cutt of his head (while he had yet sence and was readye to stand upp) through his mouth.

As late as 1620, Bilston was “much infected by popery and infested with popish priests”, while in 1624 Wolverhampton, hyperventilated a Puritan preacher,

Rome’s snaky brood roosted and rested themselves more warmer and safer and with greater countenance…than in any other part of the kingdom.

But the county had also been an early centre of dissent. Edward Wightman, the last heretic burned at the stake in England (1612), came from Burton-on-Trent – and there were strong Presbyterian, Baptist and Unitarian presences. George Fox visited Lichfield in 1651, and in his Journal recorded a vision he had, of blood flowing through the streets while he went up and down crying “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield”.

Lichfield Cathedral

Peers were naturally royalists, but the Protestant gentry leaned towards Parliament, while rank-and-filers followed the leads of landlords. A mob of desperately poor moorlanders armed with fowling pieces and clubs, and led by someone styling himself “The Grand Juryman”, failed to dislodge Stafford’s royalist garrison in February 1643. All were preyed upon and plundered by King and Parliament alike, and churches were desecrated, most notably at Lichfield, whose ancient three-spired church in red sandstone was captured in March 1643 by Parliamentary troopers, after a siege during which their leader Lord Brooke was killed, shot through the eye by a deaf-and-dumb sniper on the spire, appropriately on St. Chad’s Day (Chad is Lichfield’s patron saint, and an eighth century copy of his Gospels is still used for special services). Revengeful Roundheads subsequently

broke up the pavements, polluted the choir with their excrement, every day hunted a cat with hounds throughout the church, delighting themselves in the echo from the goodly vaulted roof, and to add to their wickedness, brought a calf into it, wrapped in linen, carried it to the font, sprinkled it with holy water and gave it a name in scorn and derision of the holy sacrament of baptism.

Following the Battle of Hopton Heath near Stafford later that month, Prince Rupert recaptured the city – the first use of a land mine in an English battle – and the King held it thereafter until the end of the war.

The end of the first phase was in 1648, its scene Uttoxeter, where the last major Royalist force in the field, commanded by the 1st Duke of Hamilton, surrendered to Parliament’s General John Lambert. Hamilton had always been more interested in Venetian paintings than British battles, who confessed he was “To Much Bewiched with Thoes Intysing Things”, owning 300 by 1643. It would have been better had he been less dilettantish; he was decapitated in 1649, and some of the Royalist volunteers captured with him were impressed into military service for the Republic of Venice, an ironic twist they could doubtless have dispensed with. In 1651, a Stafford man named Izaak Walton played a powerfully significant role after the Battle of Worcester, entrusted with custody of Charles II’s “lesser George” jewel, which he helped convey to the exiled monarch.

Two years later, Walton published an utterly un-military masterpiece, The Compleat Angler, the second most reprinted book in English. Walton, who had already attained celebrity as biographer of Donne and Wotton, and knew Aubrey, Browne, Evelyn, Jonson, Milton, and Pepys, kept editing and reissuing the book for 25 years. The consolidated text starts in the Home Counties, its protagonist (Piscator) stretching his legs “up Tottenham Hill” to strike up conversation with a falconer (Auceps) and a huntsman (Venator). They dispute good-naturedly about the merits of their pursuits to delightful effect, retreating into rusticity as antidote to 1642-1651’s horrors. Walton’s advice is often of doubtful utility, but as literature it is priceless; as Venator remarks to Piscator, “Your discourse seems to be music, and charms me to an attention”.

In Part II, the scene shifts to the River Dove, “one of the purest crystalline streams you have ever seen”, which delineates the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border. The Dove, famous for trout and grayling, was also haunted by Walton’s young friend Charles Cotton, who raised a Fishing Lodge on its brink, with his and Walton’s initials intertwined above its door, and contributed a section on fly-fishing to the expanded Angler. Walton had in 1644 bought land at Shallowford, on the Meece Brook near Stafford, although he had to spend much time in London (and would be buried in Winchester). His house, which he left to the people of Stafford, its rent to be used for the poor, burned twice but was restored by the town. It is now a museum dedicated to the biographer’s own life, and the history of fishing, its sequestered appearance sadly affected by the rush of trains running between Stafford and Stoke – urgency at odds with his limpid placidity.

The Dr Johnson memorial at Uttoxeter – detail

Staffordshire’s most brilliant product was an admirer, engaged by Walton’s personality, struck by his skill, and sympathetic to his politics. Samuel Johnson emerged disconcertingly silently into life in Lichfield on 18 September 1709, and was baptised hastily at home in case he did not live. Soon his bookseller father and doting mother realised their son was not only physically resilient, but even a child-prodigy.

Johnson was bored by his father’s trade – so absorbed in perusing the books that he ignored customers, and on one occasion refusing to man his father’s stall at Uttoxeter market. This pricked at his conscience for decades, as he confided in 1784, impelling him to make a solitary penitential journey to Uttoxeter, around 1780, where he stood in the market square for several hours, hatless with his head down in heavy rain, seemingly oblivious of public curiosity and impervious to the elements. Did the goggling locals know that the large, ungainly lunatic was “Dictionary Johnson” of European fame, doyen of English letters?

Whatever his feelings about his father’s business, Johnson returned to Staffordshire after Oxford, to open a school at Edial. One of his three (!) pupils was another Lichfielder, David Garrick, who persuaded Johnson to swap provincial pedagogy for a wider stage. But Johnson often returned, and retained his accent; Garrick would mimick him, Boswell relates,

…squeezing a lemon into a punch-bowl, with uncouth gesticulations, looking round the company and calling out, ‘Who’s for poonsh?’

It is also surmised that the Happy Valley in Rasselas was inspired by Dovedale. Lichfield is proud of him, his birthplace a museum, outside which is a bronze of Johnson seated as if enthroned, with plinth panels showing him at mythologised moments – the three year old on his father’s shoulders listening fixedly to firebrand Cannock clergyman Henry Sacheverell, raised on other shoulders as scholar, by admiring classmates, and in1780 at Uttoxeter, when for a change the world weighed heavily on him. I bought a secondhand Oxford University Press Greek-English Lexicon in his birthplace’s bookshop, provoked by Johnson’s parapsychological proximity into some vain hope of self-improvement.

As Johnson was setting the way we spoke, smoke came to Stoke. Pottery had always been made thereabouts (there are Bronze Age beakers in Stoke museum) thanks to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal. But now, Stoke and nearby villages started to become an entity, “The Potteries” – a choking sprawl of grimy factories and bottle-shaped chimneys issuing an endless variety of crockery, from naive earthenware flat-backs for cottage mantelpieces to exquisite neo-classical designs coveted by royalty.

These latter were produced by Burslem-born Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), capitalising cleverly on the 1760s revival of interest in classical antiquity, combining romantic retrospection with new materials and glazes, and pushy sales techniques. His Etruria works poured out boxes, bowls, candelabras, cups, dishes, plates, reliefs, and vases in generic Hellenic vein on a variety of materials, famously ‘black basalt’ and jasper, and plaques representing “Illustrious Moderns”, including Johnson. (A less modern claim to fame was the White Rabbit of Etruria, a ghostly lagomorph that was seen in a secluded grove, accompanied by human cries for help – popularly supposed to be the revenant of a murdered 14 year old.) Many of Wedgwood’s designs stemmed from Sir William Hamilton, art-obsessed ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, husband of Nelson’s Emma – and distant relative of Charles I’s equally aesthetic Duke of Hamilton.

The fortune Wedgwood amassed cascaded down descendants, and would allow a grandson, a certain Charles Darwin, leisure time to formulate his ideas. Entangled in here are faint echoes of cauldrons, pots and vessels, ancient symbols of life – and clay, from which men were once thought to have come. There were revolutions rather than evolutions when we visited – a young man was performing parkour in the centre of town, as oblivious to passers-by as Johnson had been at Uttoxeter, they as unheeding of the daring athlete as the peasants of the dying aeronaut in Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Trentham near Stoke must be the only place in England where one can walk among Barbary macaques, 140 of them living semi-ferally among tangled trees at the edge of a Capability Brown dreamscape, disconcerting as monkeys always are in their similarity to and utter difference from us. Where monkeys now search each other for lice or look dignifiedly into futurity, was once a ducal palace, home to Leveson-Gowers from 1540 to 1907, rebuilt by Houses of Parliament architect Charles Barry – “in its own way architecturally as important”, concedes the difficult-to-please Nikolaus Pevsner. Trentham’s owner, the Duke of Sutherland, was so rich that in 1873 the Persian Shah told the future Edward VII, only half-humorously “you’ll have to have his head off when you come to the throne”. Yet by 1907, the house was unliveable, because of the stench from the industry-defiled Trent, a victim of Stoke’s success. The family decamped, the contents were sold, and most of the structure demolished, leaving a great emptiness in manicured space – and on the Stoke road a great gateway to nothing, and an 1807 mausoleum in the severest Greek style, a suitably Wedgwoodian coda.

More everyday evolutions than Darwin’s were seen in Tamworth, where Sir Robert Peel was M.P. from 1830-1850. His 1834 Tamworth Manifesto is credited with reviving the Tories after the 1832 Reform Act – a politic blend of accepting reforms with restated antidisestablishmentarianism and opposition to what Peel called “a perpetual vortex of agitation”. Peel was calming the country – the opposite objective of Shakespeare’s Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII), in King Richard the Third, who while encamped outside Tamworth, exhorts his “Fellows in arms, and my most loving friends, / Bruis’d underneath the yoke of tyranny” to rise against the “foul swine” occupying the throne. Peel was interested in actual swine – the Tamworth pig, whose bloodline the two-time P.M. oversaw in rare spare time at Drayton Manor.

Even more unusual animals are reported from Cannock Chase, a 26 square mile expanse of heathland southeast of Stafford – lonely despite the proximity of large villages, traces of centuries of mining, grazing and army training, and many visitors. When I traversed it, for hours I saw no-one, and had long silent moor tracks, soughing Scots pines, odd rock formations, brown ponds, small valleys, and seven foot high bracken to myself, two dogs, and fallow deer (thoughts of Abbots Bromley). In under suffocating bracts and contorted trees, I found a ‘face’ in birch bark. Signs warn of “sudden mining subsidence” and names like Camp Field, Dumps Covert, Dark Slade, Cold Man’s Slade, Dick Slee’s Cave, Gospel Place, and Deadmans Walk suggest crepuscular history.

There is shadow indeed – a model World War I battlefield constructed by prisoners-of-war and briefly exposed in 2013 before being reinterred, a German cemetery, a Katyń memorial, and the ruins of the Pagets’ aptly named Beaudesert. There is also folk horror, oddly comforting eeriness – the wolves that padded here into the 1280s transmogrified into werewolves and Gabriel Hounds, tales of the Wandering Jew, big cats, black-eyed children, a mini-Sasquatch called the Man-Monkey (thoughts of Trentham), will-o’-the-wisps, knockings in mines, spaceships, murders, satanism, vanishings and appearances – like at the Four Crosses, hyperbolised by the Daily Star in 2014 as “The haunted pub everyone’s too scared to buy!”

Postmodern creepypastas, premodern leitmotifs of belonging and loss, old wives’ tales and Prometheanism – I thought as I walked through a net-curtain of rain that Staffordshire was neither “natural” nor “simple”. But Bennett was right that it could stand for all England – anomalous, engaging, indeterminate, wrapped up in irony and understatement.


The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen

Gothic architecture

The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen

Introduced by Kevin Cramer, translated by J. A. Underwood, Penguin, 2018, 462 pps., £12.99

On 23 May 1618, Bohemian Protestants pushed two Catholic governors and their secretary through the windows of Prague Castle, in protest at the anti-Protestantism of Bohemia’s King Ferdinand, soon to be elected Emperor Ferdinand II. The defenestration was only injurious to dignity, and had farcical aspects, a rebel shouting ‘We shall see if your Mary can help you!’, only to exclaim ‘’By God, his Mary has helped!’ to see the men land in a midden.

This sparked what C. V. Wedgwood termed “the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict” – the bloodiest campaign ever waged on German soil. It was long thought 70% of Germans had died during those decades, particularly 1630-1638’s ‘years of annihilation’; recent scholarship favours 33%, even that equating to 6.5 million fatalities. ‘Fire, pestilence and death my heart have dominated’, Andreas Gryphius repined on behalf of a continent, in Tears of the Fatherland, Anno Domini 1636.

A troubling trace-memory persists in German minds, recalled in re-enactments like at the little Protestant burg of Memmingen, where Catholic field-marshal Wallenstein pitched ominous camp in the summer of 1630 – art by Wouwerman, Callot and others – folk-songs like Wenn die Landsknechts trinken (‘When the Mercenaries Drink’) and Das Leben ist in Würfelspiel (‘Life Is a Game of Dice’) – and Simplicius Simplicissimus, seen as the first great German novel. This subtle translation has returned to the 1669 original, restoring immediacy, making it oddly modern.

Simplicius went into seven editions in Grimmelshausen’s lifetime. That the author was respectably obscure – it was not until 1838 that he was established as author – did not lessen its‘realism’, because clearly the author had really seen some of the mayhem he describes. It borrowed from wider mock-heroic and picaresque traditions, but added elements now called ‘Gothic’ – coarse humour, deep forests, fantastical incidents, gore, grotesquerie, and introspection. It influenced Defoe, Schiller and Manzoni, and is held to herald the Bildungsroman, and masterpieces like Good Soldier SvejkCatch-22, and Brecht’s Mother Courage. Always in print, it was seized upon by nineteenth century Romantics seeking a Volksschriftsteller (‘writer of the people’) to codify pan-German consciousness, and has since been utilised by propagandists willing to overlook earthiness and subversiveness.

Protagonist ‘Simp’ is a ten year old churl, whose sole accomplishment is being a ‘fair bagpipe-player’. When his family is erased by Swedish soldiery, a hermit educates him, and inculcates religion. Then Imperialists impress him, and he is carried off to multiple fronts and no-man’s lands, whirled through an upended universe where preachers mingle promiscuously with princes, prostitutes,  psychopaths, quacks, starvelings, thieves, and witches (and mermen, and Jupiter).

Meanwhile, chancellors and counsellors constantly rearrange all geo-strategic pieces, and kings can fall to musket-ball, like Gustavus Adolphus at Lützen. Simp adapts to survive – trooper, gigolo, mountebank, highwayman. But he is always armoured with simplicity – ignorance counterbalanced by innocence that lets him blunder through all trials, and at the end find
absolution, albeit in a Europe still at war.

This review first appeared in the 31st March 2018 issue of The Spectator, and is reproduced with

My review of Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’

My review of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland

My short review of Robert Macfarlane’s absorbing and intelligent Underland is in the 7th-20th June issue of The Lady – not online, but in all the shops today.

The book wasn’t always comfortable reading for semi-claustrophobes like me (I don’t even care for lifts), but it’s often good to force yourself into places you’d really rather not go. It makes an interesting counterpoint to Norbert Casteret’s 1940 classic Ten Years Under the Earth – which is more audacious as well as grittier, as you would expect from the period and the World War I experiences of the author, but lacks Macfarlane’s articulacy.