The world-island of England – review of The Island by Stephen Walter


The Island: London Mapped

Stephen Walter, foreword by Peter Barber, London: Prestel, 2015, hb., 143 pps., £15.30

It is a cliché to say London is unlike the rest of England. It is original to take this trite conceit one stage further, and depict the Great Wen as an actual island, set in seas of hinterland, where streets have somehow become strands and landlocked places suddenly find themselves ports. Ballard famously imagined London as a Drowned_World, but for Stephen Walter’s purposes it is the rest of the world that may as well not exist. For both, it is a place of secret significances and hidden troves.

His odd island – or more accurately archipelago, because there are outcroppings of London protruding above the metaphorical main in such latitudes as Leatherhead, Grays and Tilbury, and even an American colonial outpost at Runnymede – is old, and multilayered. Its surface is almost completely covered with tiny, neo-primitive drawings signifying habitation from Roman times to now – battle sites, wells, plague pits, cathedrals, universities, roads, houses, bridges, railways, sports grounds, supermarkets, tower blocks, petrol stations, speed cameras, the national flags of immigrant groups. The names of suburbs are given, often in their Anglo-Saxon form, along with natural features, and historical snippets such as “(1709) William Derham records the speed of sounds using a pocket watch and telescope and a gun fired from Rainham”. This is the long and familiar tale of London as transmitted to us by writers and depicters stretching from Tacitus via Wenceslaus Hollar, Hogarth and Dickens to Christopher Hibbert, Peter Ackroyd, Ian Sinclair, and The London A-Z – all given a wry, post-modern twist.

There is room for romance too, such as “Ghosts of the 40 Douai Martyrs” etched across Ickenham, Middlesex (an allusion to a local school). There are more recent ghosts at Ponders End, where he records the “1977-8 The Green St. Poltergeist”. On Peckham Rye, “William Blake had a vision of an angel in a tree (1765)”. However, we also find (if we do not already know) the locales of unromantic, usually unrecorded activities – “Suburban Car Washing”, “Fish & Chips”, “Traveller Site (With Litter)”, “Hoodie Walkin [sic] Pit Bull”, “Ice Cream Popular Here”, “Road Rage”, “Alfresco Bonking”, and even “Use Hot Iron, C-Cold, M-Medium”. There are even tiny pints of beer, presumably to show establishments where the artist slaked his inner obsessive.

Deliberate misspellings, complex in-jokes and deeply personal notes are lavished across his highly idiosyncratic atlas. The white space that is Essex east of Ockendon is marked by a skull-and crossbones and the words “Rouge Tradesmen” (a simultaneous allusion to Essex girls’ over-love of make-up, the quality of Essex workmanship, the popular trash TV programme Rogue Traders, and the sociocultural make-up of the eastern fringes of London). Theydon Bois has turned into Theydon Buoy, and Carshalton Beeches into Carshalton Beaches.

A cafe on the way towards Potters Bar served (maybe still serves) “Rubbish food”, while Creekmouth where the Lea joins the Thames is “Pork scratchings country”. Poor Rayners Lane is dismissed with “Not a lot to say about the area” – although Barking fares even worse as “Arm-pit of the world”. Edmonton is “No more Green”, “Harsh Suburbia”, “Incinerator”, “Pumping Station” and even “Nu Trainerz – yu get me!”, beside a tiny outline of an apparently unreliable shoe. The artist feels the unlucky outlier’s Saxon founder “Eadholm would turn in his grave”.

Stereotypical net curtains twitch across suburban swathes, tower blocks beetle, lesbians swim in certain ponds, huge footballs show what most matters to the residents of West Ham or Arsenal. We wonder what he did or did not do in Belsize Park, because there he has inserted a note to himself – “You must do things properly here or you will get complaints”. More significantly, in Hadley the artist “Finally became friends with my mum”. The map is confessional and childlike, arch and at times overpowering, like the city itself when you start to walk it, wondering what on earth to look at first.

The personal cartography is interleaved with a political, which is more conventional. On the site of Buckingham Palace is a large crown and the words “One of the homes of the expensive family”. Finchley, inevitably, has “Thatcher Country! What a bitch”. In Winchmore Hill, “General Pinochet was here”. A nasty-looking dog yaps “BNP!” in Barking. He shows areas where there are “Many English flags”, with an implied sniff. His London is menaced by stock villains – the rich, developers, gentrifiers, Americans, Tories, Anglo-Saxon exceptionalists, racists – although he does scrawl “Dangerous” across un-rich, un-Tory, un-English, un-racist Clapton (a.k.a. “Crapton”). But these are attitudes rather than an agenda, and are only to be expected from an artist who glories in grit and whose work is democratic to the point of self-negation –

My own artistic expressions were becoming diluted in the mass of others and entering into illegibility.

The Island was featured in a 2010 British Library exhibition Magnificent Maps, and in his Foreword the Library’s Peter Barber writes of the purposes of maps, and the impossibility of objectivity even amongst cartographers who may really feel they are depicting reality. Thus Matthew Paris (the earliest maps of London are by him) showed a city centred on religious institutions, royalist mapmakers showed a prosperous and loyal burgh, and 1740s maps give us graceful Georgian facades but omit Gin Lane. More reliable maps came from seventeenth century merchants, then insurance assessors, statisticians and campaigners, like Charles Booth, whose famous late nineteenth century Poverty Map of London appalled Victorian public opinion and helped birth the Labour movement.

Walter’s map is much more playful than purposeful, but as well as making it more enjoyable it does not negate potential usefulness to future historians interested in the texture of early twenty-first century London as it slipped finally from Britannic capital to global city. Everyone’s London is different, but anyone who loves (or loved) the place will be able to find room for imaginative roaming even in the crowded continent of The Island.

This review was first published in Quadrapheme, and is reproduced with permission


New light on the magical realist – review of Dimitris Yeros Photographing Gabriel Garcia Marquez


ⓒ Dimitris Yeros (reproduced with permission)


Dimitris Yeros photographing Gabriel García Márquez

Dimitris Yeros, foreword by Edward Lucie-Smith, Bielefeld: Kerber, 2015, 136pps., 36 Euros,

Dimitris Yeros is a justly celebrated photographer and artist based in Athens. Edward Lucie-Smith is a highly-regarded poet and the author of authoritative art histories. And Gabriel García Márquez was – Gabriel García Márquez, “the greatest Colombian who ever lived” according to that country’s president, and often seen by the literary world as being “the voice of a continent”. This is a promising combination of talents, and this album does not disappoint.

Yeros’ images, explains Lucie-Smith, resemble Márquezian magical realism in that they

…present not just outer reality, but the operation of some kind of inner realm, linked to reality but somehow transcending it.

We see the eminent author in late life (except for a photo of a photo of him as a child), in a variety of moods and settings, in close-up and middle distance, in or around his houses in Mexico City and Cartagena, the latter an oddly boxy essay in burnt orange – not the kind of hideaway one might expect for so visionary a writer. His Mexican library is also highly functional – it seems he referred to it as his “office” – spotless and containing reams of reference books, the objects on his desk arranged and spaced with almost painful precision. (For all his vocal anti-Americanism, he had an Apple printer.)

Even his Mexican garden is rationally lawned (if naturistically planted), with almost the sole irruption of unreason an anguished-looking sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi, who bursts from a buttress clutching a book. There are also vistas from Cartagena, of colonial buildings and traditional characters who might just that moment have materialized themselves out of the pages of Love in the Time of Cholera.

The pictures were taken between 2006 and 2010, and Yeros gives closely observed detail about their encounters – how they met, the locations and their furnishings, the writer’s garb, his candour, his humour, his kindness (not least towards slightly awed Greek photographer-artists), his unexpected diffidence, his stiffness in front of aimed camera lenses – also his occasional inscrutability. This at times makes him sound almost menacing. He conducted detailed background checks (which he called “CT scans”) on would-be interlocutors –

‘I must tell you [he almost warns Yeros on their first meeting] that I get to know people in advance, who is suitable to be my friend and who is not’, he continued with a hint in his voice that I was unable to explain.

Images of geniuses are interesting even when dashed off by journalists, but Yeros probes more deeply than most. He understands not just technical framing, but also cultural framing, and the tiny flashes of significant beauty that illuminate every day, but which so few of us really look at – the shadows of furniture lying across a cool and ordered room, street musicians in scarlet, the shadows of wrought-iron lanterns, yellow roses in a clear vase, puddled streetlights in Cartagena Bay, Márquez’s gnarled hand holding a pen. He adds occasional apposite and typically counter-intuitive quotations from the author, accompanying just the right picture –

I am a sad and lonely creature. Contrary to appearances, this is typical of the Caribbean psyche.

As Lucie-Smith intimates, there seems to have been a real warmth between writer and photographer, and all kinds of shared understandings. Márquez’s language is famously visual, and he greatly admired Yeros’ paintings, which often feature small and lonely men racing through barren territories, stalked by outsized avifauna. Such motifs were always likely to attract an author interested in solitariness, escapes, and universes being upended. Márquez once observed he found his raw material in the gap between realism and nostalgia – and the same might be said of proud Hellenist Yeros, whose ultra-modern photos echo much older aesthetics. (On this subject of Greekness, I reviewed his earlier collection of images inspired by Cavafy here, including one he re-uses in this book, of the novelist gamely twirling an umbrella to illustrate Cavafy’s “Ithaca”.)

Yeros did not meet Márquez again between 2010 and his death four years afterwards, but even in 2010 Alzheimer’s was apparent – perhaps all the more dreadful when manifested in a man whose world revolved around retentive memory, imaginative élan, and endless subtleties of meaning. The author’s wife was always defensive of his dignity, and no doubt she was right that he would not have wanted to be seen, let alone immortalized, as an invalid, helplessly facing the greatest solitude of all. Yeros, ever the unsatisfied artist as well as considerate friend, regrets not having been able to capture even more aspects of this protean man. But he should not concern himself overmuch, because he has amply succeeded in producing what he hoped – “a tender and durable memento” of a passed past master.

Derek Turner is a novelist and freelance writer


Determinism by sea-area – review of The Edge of the World by Michael Pye

The Edge of the World – How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are
Michael Pye, London: Viking, 2015, hb., 394 pps., £25


I see the North Sea every day, and am used to its humours. In summer, I wade its frisping margins or swim surrounded by seals and terns. In the winter I complain and turn up my collar against the winds that have winnowed all the way from Siberia across shuddering Russian, Kamchatkan, Prussian and Netherlandish plains, and carry home lumps of boats to burn. I often range the wide beach and curlew-piping marsh by moonlight, watching far-out lighted ships heading to the Humber and wondering what and who they carry. I have traversed the Sea myself in ships like those (listening with necessary attention to the BBC Shipping Forecast), read histories about it, and even set a novel partly in it and along its edges. I naturally feel a proprietorial interest in The Edge of the World (Pegasus, June 2015) which aims to elevate the Mare Germanicum to the same world-historical status long ceded to the Mare Nostrum. As the author avers with brimming confidence, “This cold, grey sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible”.

Oceans are paradoxical, both barriers and highways, sealing off or allowing access, storming or smiling, indifferently casting up corpses or cargoes. Always astir, the air above them always ozone, they are a natural metaphor for restless change. And thus Pye sees the scanted story of this Sea, where Angles, Celts, Danes, Flemings, Frisians, Germans, Irish, Jutes, Norwegians, Saxons, Scots and others conflicted and commingled over the centuries from around 700 AD, in the process giving rise to all kinds of things we take for granted. These include, according to the author, the “reinvention” of coinage, commodity capitalism, joint-stock companies, market towns, the middle classes, abstract ideas of law, notions of freedom and rights, modern science and mathematics, even landscaping, fashion and the notion of romantic love.

His list of modern givens will give pause even to those who feel the North Sea is too often overlooked as a matrix. Surely capitalism long antedates the ‘Dark Ages’, and began in Sumeria or somewhere equally un-hyperborean? How does the trade of Baltic amber or Grimsby cod differ in principle from, say, trade in Cretan wine or Peloponnesian olives? Weren’t there codices of Roman law? Weren’t the first scientists, philosophers and mathematicians mostly Greek? Haven’t people in all cultures always competed to have the costliest clothes? Don’t ideals of romantic love stem from Provençal troubadours? The author is asking us to believe a great deal of what a twelfth-century Arab geographer dismissed shiveringly as “the sea of perpetual gloom”.

Pye has an easy writing style (although he is overly fond of the historical present tense). He raises all kinds of intriguing ideas, and amasses piquant anecdotes which alone make this book worth owning. His cast of colourful characters operating at this “edge of the world” ranges from saintly navigators and bloodthirsty berserkers via medieval alchemists and Antwerpian merchant-adventurers to Dutch drainers and chivalric hunters of harts. He cites texts ranging from Tacitus to The Heliand and the 16th century moralizing tract An Anatomie of Abuses. He succeeds in showing how this marginal body of water was gradually drawn into the European mainstream. He has read widely—but has he read deeply enough?

According to Goodreads, Michael Pye “has published ten books, and is proud of some of them”. The ones of which he is proud include a psychological thrillera Hollywood history and a book about New York. Whatever their qualities (I have not read them), they do not obviously qualify the author to be a marine historian. The books he is less proud of include Exposed, Uncovered & Declassified; Ghosts, Spirits, & Hauntings: Am I Being Haunted? and UFOs and Aliens: Is There Anybody Out There? The answer to both of these questions being so obviously “No”, readers of The Edge of the World might reasonably ask whether his vessel is watertight.

Sadly, it has as many holes as the most vermiculated wreck lolling on the sandy shelf of the Dogger Bank. The author claims much too much. Try as he might, he never succeeds in proving that there is anything uniquely Northern about the cultures that emerged around the Sea and subsequently exported themselves from Vinland to Byzantium. All of them are outcroppings of European civilization, albeit tempered by exigencies of distance and climate. All were affected in differing degrees by classicism and Christianity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, although clearly the peoples surrounding the North Sea were more open to Protestantism and consequently individualism and liberalism. The author would have been in safer, if already well-charted, waters if he had focused on the connections between the ‘Protestant work ethic’ and our present idea of modernity.

Adam Nicolson torpedoed many of Pye’s central assumptions in his Spectator review:

A professionalised, urbanised and commercialised world is the grand legacy of the Mediterranean […] The success stories of early modern capitalism, from the Hanseatic League to Venice, Antwerp and Genoa, are all part of the same set of understandings. Everything about them is European; nothing in that list distinguishes north from south, except perhaps for the lateness with which it made its way north.

Nicolson furthermore notes that the author does not understand such key factors as how square-rigged ships could sail, nor how North Sea currents and winds swirl through the seasons. The truth is that North Sea natives, world-shaping though they have been, never had and do not have a monopoly on innovation—let alone gardening, town-planning, the fashion industry, or such annoying intangibles as “show and debt and bluff”.

Oddly for a would-be celebrant, the author seems not to be fully in love with his subject. He feels excluded from and personally slighted by the Nordic culture which has always dominated these latitudes, saying bitterly that

[…] it all too easily degenerates into a claim on Northern superiority, one in which […] long, thin, blond people are meant to rule short, stocky, dark people. As a short, stocky, dark person from the North, I am unhappy with this; the fact that Nordic saga-writers made all their thralls and slaves look like me is infuriating.

He does not even much like the idea that Nordic cultures formed distinct communities:

Instead of the dark mistakes about pure blood, racial identity, homogenous nations with their own soul and spirit and distinct nature, we have something far more exciting: the story of people making choices.

But while Nordicist notions led to horrors between 1939 and 1945—to the disgust of J. R. R. Tolkien—this does not mean there are not unique genetic clusters cemented by culture circling the Sea, and that these often acted as especially dynamic tribes. And even if it were true, is the idea of insular individuals “making choices” really “exciting”?

Pye’s un-magical underlying assumptions nearly render this superb subject bathetic. Intending a tribute, his approach in fact runs the risk of instrumentalising this imaginative expanse. A less ambitious thesis would have been more convincing, and more numinous.

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



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, 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


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


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

A paean to pasture – a review of Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel


Meadowland – The Private Life of an English Field

John Lewis-Stempel, London: Doubleday, 2014, hb., 294pps

To a town-dweller in transit to another town, or looked down on lazily from a plane, the English countryside can still look green and biodiverse. It would be easy and pleasant to assume that whatever about England’s altering cities, the hinterland continues much as always, a place with traditional rhythms and balances, where wild things cling and co-exist with each other, and careful human custodians. Meadowland simultaneously celebrates this Romantic ideal, and reminds us that that kind of rurality is now the exception rather than the rule. It is a paean to pasture, but it is also a plaint for a critically endangered habitat.

John Lewis-Stempel is rooted in a way few Britons are now rooted, inheritor of a small parcel of the Marches that has belonged to ancestors for so long they are almost antecessors, and with whom he feels an unusually intimate connection. His few acres of Herefordshire might be in Arcady – small, chemical-free fields browsed by tail-flicking livestock and mown for hay, strewn with wildflowers, wandered over by wildlife, and stewarded by a shrewd idealist. Landscape like his has inspired Georgics and melodies – but also murderous covetousness during the long Welsh-English wars, while in more recent history it formed an integral part of the patriotic photo-library impelling Englishmen to kill or die in its defence. Many of the officers whose lives were cast away a century ago on the Western Front – Lewis-Stempel has written admired books on this doomed cadre – will have carried memories of once-traversed meadows along with their pocket copies of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as they dashed gallantly through the storm of steel to become compost for Flanders. Disgracefully, the dreamscape they died for has been largely destroyed, with 97% of meadows erased since the 1930s, sacrificed to expediency, greed, mismanagement and myopia. Even as Stanley Baldwin emoted “For me England is the country and the country is England”, the engines were revving up for ripping up.

Meadowland is the monthly record of what the author sees, hears, thinks and feels during the course of a year as he husbands livestock, mends fences, harvests (by hand), watches wild creatures, or simply leans over a gate, staring west at the wall of Wales, wondering what the weather will bring. His twelvemonth teems with piquant facts. Kestrels track voles by their urine trails. “Wren” stems from the Old English wrœnno, meaning lascivious. The delicate yellow cowslip, harbinger of spring, is named after its favourite nutrient, cu-sloppe – cow-slop or cow-shit. The collective noun for buzzards is a wake. The musket was named in honour of the male sparrowhawk. The green woodpecker was the object of a Neolithic cult.

The book is also full of striking and suggestive imagery. Winter trees and hedges are “X-rays of their former selves”. Herons “trail ancientness behind them”. Even a pared-down sentence like “A blackbird spinks in a far-away hedge” feels full of expansiveness, as though his blackbird somehow sings for all, and that January afternoon stands for all  January afternoons that have been or will be.

As well as an elegantly Parnassian it is also an acutely personal chronicle, down to lists of flora and fauna observed, which in themselves constitute a kind of folkloric poetry. He includes his “Meadowland Library”, which as well as agreeably outmoded textbooks on sheep management features Adams, Clare, Cobbett, Hudson, Jefferies, Seymour, White and Williamson and many others, some less predictable – like Orwell and the Anglican mystic Thomas Traherne. He lists favourite music, ranging from Tallis via Purcell to the appropriately named Supergrass, and in his acknowledgement even thanks “the flowers, grass and trees” along with his family, agent and publisher. He denounces unnecessary artificial light, and believes that putting cabs on tractors destroyed the spirit of agriculture by placing a barrier between the farmer and the outdoors. He is angered by the red kite that takes a lamb, and agonizes over the death of a favourite cow. He brings down pheasants for the pot, then bathes in guilt.

He anticipates accusations of sentimentality, reminding us that country people are sometimes the most sentimental of all about animals, and that kindliness need not preclude commonsense. He takes on the “science Puritans”, joyless counters and classifiers, for whom the environment is a resource rather than a repository. Operatives of this kind always snort at anthropomorphism, however closely observed or scientifically sound – but perhaps it is they who are the most sentimental, by striving to set us apart from other beings, and from the animal side of ourselves. He asks, reasonably,

Is it really so difficult to enter, in some slight degree, into the mind-frame of an animal? Are we not all beasts?

Reductionists would also be impatient of or even offended by Lewis-Stempel’s aesthetic sensibilities, which they would regard as irrelevant, or even some slightly sinister class construct. Yet human beings live in the countryside too, and their imaginative needs should surely be considered. To love your country, as the Burkean saw goes, your country must be beautiful. Surely at some level it does matter if farmers work on rather than in their fields, if nights are broken by bathetic light, if vistas are marred by insensitive development, if roadside Ice Age floral islands are mown into billiard-table baize by residents hankering for suburban bungalows?

Severe critics would be even less approving of his meanderings into place-specific myth and metaphysics, his linkages between family, fields and faith. For him, the natural world is inseparable from the supernatural, and everything is simultaneously earthy and uplifting. So far as he is concerned, responsible agriculture is an act of piety, while the phraseology of the King James Bible wafts across everything he sees. He is clearly thinking of his own meadow, his own pastoral care, when he cites Isaiah –

All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field…surely the people is grass.

There is (or should be) “no difference between the cathedral and the field”. November days possess “cemetery eeriness, and the churchy smell of damp musting leaves”. Starry nights stun with their immanent immensity, he traces stellar patterning in the plumage of starlings, and finds cause for awe in the curve of an earwig’s pincers, and the amber of its carapace. Summer birds remind him of human impermanence –

“The willow warbler is passing through, but then we are all passing through.”

Succumbing to “a bad case of tradition”, he goes wassailing by himself, a shotgun-toting shaman firing into winter apple trees to scare away infertility. Foxes pounce as their fossil forebears pounced on the same spot, his cows alternately look like aurochs or make him think of Constable, while an Elizabethan ancestor’s effigy eerily resembles his grandmother. In his universe, the soil is sentient, the dead lean on the living, and his children stretch part of a national chain-of-being towards the eternally recurring seasons of the future. His pasture is also his patrimony and patria, and he is one of the rare contemporary ecologists who comprehends these connections, and can convey them in quietly ecstatic prose.

A slightly shorter version of this review was first published at in November 2014, and is republished with permission


In the ultra-West


Derek Turner

Drowned drumlins swarmed in the brilliant bay, and ravens like those that plagued Saint Patrick croaked from the chasm below my feet as they rolled lazily half a mile above County Mayo. The ravens’ harsh call was an onomatopoeic reminder of my present eminence, Croagh Patrick, the 2,510 foot cone that dominates the great inlet of Clew Bay – not Mayo’s highest mountain, but indubitably its most famous, as a focus for reverence for 5,000 years, but especially since 441 A.D.

It was then, Hibernian hagiography claims, that an expatriate Welshman ascended this quartzite landmark, then called Cruachan Aigle (Eagle Mountain), to fast for forty days and nights – and it was while he was here, beset by demons in the guise of black birds, that he stood on the edge of this same abyss and rang his fabled Bell to banish all venomous beasts from Ireland, and win God’s promise that, as Caxton Englished it in The Golden Legend, “…none Irish man shall abide the coming of the Antichrist.”

If he really did essay this ascent, like me he probably paused a quarter of the way up, then a third of the way up, then been grateful for the relative ease of the “saddle” that succeeds the first steep phase – before turning to the arduous last slope, with the loose scree scraping and sliding beneath his feet, threatening to precipitate him face-first onto unforgiving edges, or perhaps roll him right down the jagged sides and out into air. Unlike me, he probably paused for prayer, or muttered sotto voce sacred texts – like the trio of elderly men I overtook, toiling knee-clickingly upwards to make what looked like it might be their final peace with their personal and national saint.

The pilgrims’ way was surprisingly busy compared with the rest of this echoing county – although not as busy as on the final Sunday in July, the annual pilgrimage of “Reek Sunday” – “The Reek” being the locals’ respectful nickname for this mountain, where fog frequently descends in seconds, misleading pilgrims into physical if perhaps not spiritual peril. There were many solitary walkers like me (if you exclude Skitter, my Jack Russell bitch who will follow me, but that day sometimes seemed to wonder whether she’d made the right decision) – and I exchanged expressions of sweaty solidarity with people from Ireland, England, France, Germany, Spain,  America and Australia. I met a Dubliner making her 35th ascent, and a local who climbs the Croagh every Christmas Day. There were few overtly devout climbers, but there was little doubt that most saw the mountain as being in some way above the mean sea level of life.

So they should, because even the most profane, the most lost, must marvel at the panorama from the top on such a day as that one. Standing with your back to the little white chapel erected with great difficulty in 1905, you feel you command the West.

Look north, and there is Clew Bay, Thackeray’s “miracle of beauty”, studded with an enchanted archipelago of low sandy islets stoss-ended to the sea, and stains of varying blues where deep pools suddenly cede to shallows or shifting sandbars and back again. This was the ancestral domain and natural habitat of “Granuaile” (or Grace) O’Malley, “Ireland’s Pirate Queen”, around whom nationalist and now feminist myths cling like kelp to a keel. She was a beneficiary of the greater freedom for women allowed under Brehon Law, and some of the stories are almost certainly untrue, but she was clearly a woman of extraordinary character. Born circa 1530, she was the brave and cunning representative of an ancient sept of freebooters called “lions of the green sea” by a fifteenth century versifier. She captained warships, preyed on shipping from Stornoway to Finisterre, vanquished Barbary corsairs, captured and defended castles, made advantageous marriages, avenged herself murderously on enemies, fought the English invaders, and in 1593 – despite being officially described as “nurse to all rebellions for forty years” and “a director of thieves and murderers at sea” – sailed her own ship from Clew to Greenwich and stood bravely before Elizabeth to ask that the English Lord President of Connaught liberate her sons and brother, and restore her property. No official record of this meeting between two such mould-breaking women has survived, so tradition has confabulated the encounter – that Granuaile towered over Elizabeth, that she was barefoot, that she refused to bow, that they conversed in Latin, and that she offended against palace protocol by showily discarding a handkerchief she had been given personally by the Queen. Elizabeth agreed to her entreaties, but only after exacting a promise from Granuaile that “she will fight in our quarrel with all the world” – a promise that rather undercuts Irish nationalist romance.

On the far side of Clew is piled the Nephin Beg range – bleak, boggy, brown, acidic, infertile, impoverished, but enameled with loughs and gleams of improbable green, hinting at past productivity. Five-and-a-half millennia ago, Stone Agers tilled the Céide Fields before they turned into turf, depositing everyday household goods as simple as they are sculptural, as observed by Seamus Heaney in Belderg:

One-eyed and benign

They lie about his house,

Quernstones out of a bog.

To lift the lid of the peat

And find this pupil dreaming

Of neolithic wheat!

Céide constitutes the largest Stone Age site in the world, attesting to an intensity of agricultural activity difficult to reconcile with today’s unfruitful acres.

In recent centuries, Mayo has been at times a byword for poverty, and a stronghold of nationalist resentment and Land League activism – the word “boycott” derived from Captain Boycott, agent for a local absentee landlord, whose 1880s attempts at gathering rents and evicting non-paying tenants at a time of great hardship led to his utter ostracism. The county’s motto Críost Linn (Christ help us) has a despairing as well as a devotional quality. A graphic reminder of still-bitter harvests is John Behan’s Famine Monument between the foot of Croagh Patrick and the shell of the O’Malley’s Murrisk Abbey – a landlocked bronze three-master without sails but rigged with interlinked skeletons, a reproachful remembrance of one of England’s un-finest hours.

These fossilized fields slant down northwards to one of the loneliest roads in Europe, a chevaux-de-frise of cliffs and, to the northwest, a drunkenly dented coast, along which nine of Philip II’s ships foundered, ill-equipped like the rest of that misbegotten expedition, relying on outdated charts and at the mercy of the untrammelled Atlantic. They could have lain securely at anchor at Broad Haven or Blacksod Bay in the lee of Belmullet had their captains known these existed, but instead they were doomed to ride out the storms for what must have seemed like an æon, standing out from the land like the swan-semblanced Children of Lir, knowing that if they came to the shore they would die.

A later incursion would be briefly more successful – 1798’s “Year of the French” when General Humbert took round-towered Killala, dashed down its Bay past the curlew-cried, seaweed-stained remains of Moyne and Rosserk friaries and still-used holy wells, defeated the British garrison at Castlebar so spectacularly that the debacle was dubbed “The Races of Castlebar”, and announced a “Republic of Connacht” that lasted a dozen days before the English General Lake drowned it. Beyond Killala Bay lie the Ox Mountains, bordering on the Yeats brothers’ dreamily-delineated Sligo, and beyond that again an azure suggestion of Donegal.

Look east, the direction Patrick presumably looked most frequently, and today there is tiny, tidy Westport, an incongruous urban appendage to the Augustan Westport House, home to the Marquesses of Sligo then and now. Beyond this pocket Palladianism stretch the “plains of the yew tree” (Maigh Éo) which give this mostly mountainous county its unlikely name; the English expropriators who brusquely “shired” the nine Norman-Irish baronies were heedless of toponymy, and simply named their new toy after a tiny hamlet in the county’s east that was one of the first places they came to. But the county identity has by now embedded itself, as when we were there almost every house and car seemed to have sprouted the red-and green chequerboard and county crest in honour of Mayo’s strong showing in the Gaelic Athletic Association championships – a shield surrounded by yews, divided by a bar sinister, green hills and crosses above,  below a small ship (perhaps a tribute to Granuaile) riding on white water.

Beguilements beckon in the blue blur that way – Ballina’s historic document archive – the River Moy, famous for salmon – Lough Conn, for pike – Foxford, for weaving – and Knock, with its basilica and airport, prosaic and ugly, but built for magical purposes – to bring believers to view the church gable end on which apparently one rainy August evening in 1879, the Virgin, SS. John and Joseph and sundry seraphs disported themselves for two hours before the awed eyes of fifteen villagers of unimpeachable respectability.  Then the highway quits the county, unravels through lowlands and bridges the Shannon, rolling via counties Longford, Roscommon, Westmeath, Meath and Kildare all the way to Dublin.

Look southwards, then, from the top of the mountain, to see the Sheefry Hills (“Hills of the Wraith”), the Mweelrea, Partry and Maamturk Mountains, and as if these were not elevations enough, behind them all Connemara’s Twelve Pins – every peak with its own stories and significance, every sedge-fringed lough holding its own lurking beast. In between are spry sheep quartering springy heather, and the dark stripes of turbary, where generations with slanes have sliced away oblongs of turf to dry in mounds, eventually to lend the Irish winter air that most characteristic of Erse odours – sweet smoke on the edge of ice.

Acting as reservoirs for all the rain runoff are lovely Loughs Mask and Corrib, linked by a canal that took five years to build, but whose limestone bed could not hold water and whose dry trench survives as a monument to engineering ineptitude.  Along the adjacent Castlebar-Galway road is Ballintubber Abbey, a stripped-down barn of a place set off by roofless cloisters and powerfully suggestive 1960s Stations, which takes pride that it has celebrated Mass every day since its foundation by a 13th century king of Connacht – notwithstanding fires, the Reformation, Cromwell and the  notorious “Seán na Sagart” (John of the Priests), an eighteenth century ne’er-do-well who avoided being hanged for horse theft by becoming a sniffer-out of Roman Catholic clergy who had not taken the Oath of Abjuration. He received a sum for each he entrapped or killed, ranging from ten pounds for a teacher to a hundred pounds for a bishop. It was said he would feign serious illness, and then draw a knife on priests who came to administer the Last Rites. Unsurprisingly, after a short career he was murdered, and interred in unconsecrated ground hereabouts. There is a very unhealthy yew in the graveyard with his name affixed to it, but whether the tree’s nickname came before its sickness or the other way around depends on one’s credulity.

Along that same road is another remarkable monument, un-signposted, brooding under trees near the shell of a Georgian mansion in a waste of luxuriant grass – “The Gods of the Neale”, a whimsical 1753 limestone confection, against which local yahoos have smashed dozens of bottles. There are three small medieval panels – a unicorn, a saint and a lion – set on a massy, mossy plinth with an inscription that is being erased by time and epiphytes, but whose meaning would have been obscure even when newly cut. The legible fragments combine elements of antiquarianism, mythology, and a coded numbering system –

…impower that in this cave we have by us the Gods of Conns Boro…let us follow their stepps of love with full Confidence…these Images were found in a cave behind the Place they now stand and were the antient Gods of the Neale…AM 2577 PD 927 TC 1496 2994 AD…

and much more in similarly Da Vinci Code vein. Seen under the darkness of the trees with the sun streaming from behind, the smell of damp earth, and with that dangerous carpet of shattered glass, it is oddly powerful for what had been simply an example of Garden Gothick, contemporaneous with the follies and fake ruins erected by the score in England by aristocrats anxious to alleviate the “Age of Reason”.

The Gods of the Neale

That same road barrels south through the legendary Plain of Moytura – where according to epic Nuada’s Tuatha Dé Danann fought Sreng’s Fír Bolg to an honourable truce – to Cong on the border with Galway. Cong has never forgotten the visit of John Wayne to make The Quiet Man (the film crew also brought the town its first electricity) – but it is even more notable for its ecclesiastical history, harking back to the alliterative seventh century saint Fechin of Fore, the 12th century Cross of Cong (one of the chief treasures of the National Museum in Dublin), and the redolent re-foundation of the Abbey that same century by Roderick O’Connor, last King of all Ireland, who died there in 1198. Some of his crisply carved cloisters survive, and there is a grand avenue of yews sweeping to the pellucid Corrib, where monks would angle from the extant fishing house, and doubtless look over at the densely wooded demesne on the far bank.

There is more melancholia at nearby Shrule, also on the border. Its being on the border mattered because it marked the limits of the authority of Lord Mayo (a diminished descendant of Grace O’Malley), who had guaranteed the safe conduct to Galway City of a hundred gentry and clergy who had surrendered to the Confederate Catholics when they took Castlebar in 1641. As the refugees reached the aptly-named Black River, they were set upon without warning, and almost all were massacred. The shouts of Gaelic football fans spilling out onto the road from the overflowing pub seemed to echo with sad significance, as if they were somehow channelling ancient shouting. The Clanrickard castle opposite still looks as uncompromising now as it must have then, although ivy is slighting it, cattle rub itchy flanks against its sides, and when you stand inside the dung-carpeted bastion and look up there is no roof – just warm damp fizzling down and mountain ash saplings living up to their name, rooted in crevices forty feet above the ground.

Finally then, turn and look west from the Croagh, the Celts’ favourite direction, where suspended spray catches all light and throws it back as an effervescent curtain that shimmers with ozone and islands. This is a vista that has always captivated, from the pre-Christians who descried the shining continent of Hy Brasil on the verge of vision, to St. Brendan the Navigator who saw the horizon as a veil to be pierced, and painters like Paul Henry, who lived over there on hulking Achill Island – dashing out-of-doors between downpours to observe how Ireland’s fitful Phoebus plays on the peatlands, stripes the sands and colours the cliffs, accentuates the outlines of abandoned houses, and gleams on the backs of basking sharks patrolling for krill in Keem Bay.

Just a few days previously, I too had wandered on Achill, oblivious to time, and picked up as souvenir a sheep’s skull on a shingle bank above a beach hemmed in by hills – ancestor to the animals that prospect year-round between land and Atlantic, beige as the bones of the island, printing their precise hooves between names and dates spelled out in stones by vainer visitors. On a slope near the deserted village of Slievemore stands a megalithic chamber tomb, from some angles difficult to distinguish, but from the front unmistakable and uncompromising, a quartzite container for someone who was once worth taking such trouble for, but who has long since been taken up as numinous vapour.  A new house nearby, ugly as all new Irish houses seem to be ugly,  offers “emotional release therapy”, a concept rendered ridiculous by the tomb’s mystery and melancholy, the soft sound of the breeze soughing over rock, the sharp smell and gentle grumblings of sheep, and a hillside that tumbles past twitching bog-cotton to a misty impression of inlets and islets. Yet ecstatic escapes of all kinds are a natural tribute to this ensorcelled ultra-west, where epic and history, fable and fact, blend and bleed to the touch, and everything seems somehow subordinate to the massiveness and mystery of land and sea stretching forwards and back for ever.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in January 2014, and is reprinted with permission