Gloucestershire’s genius loci

Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape, Laurie Lee, Penguin, 2019

Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959) is a classic of English rural writing, lauded for its evocation of Gloucestershire’s Slad Valley in the early 20th century, and the last days of an intensely-experienced, millennium-old way of life. This slender but well-conceived volume revisits some of these scenes and themes, and adds new ones, through interviews conducted with Mr Lee in 1994, three years before his death.

We find ourselves again at the village pond with its swimming children and coots, and the corpse of poor suicidal Miss Flynn – exploring old ways across the hilltops, made impassable by ‘fallen trees and rocks, and abandoned cavaliers, cannon, armour’ – carousing in the Woolpack – superstitiously shunning slumped cottages, and sinister gibbets. We also encounter more of the valley’s eccentric inhabitants and some of Mr Lee’s closely-observed and unpretentious poetry: ‘

And the partridge draws back his string / and shoots like a buzzing arrow / over grained and mahogany fields.

The author embraced modernity even as he regretted its ravages. He relished James Joyce, jazz, travel, and even war, volunteering to fight Franco – but he was always aware of the brooding presences underlying daily life. Beneath Slad’s slopes lay deep sleepers, from the Stone Age to people he’d known in his youth. Behind the spinking blackbirds, stridulating grasshoppers and strains of Elgar, he heard timeless stories told in West Country dialect or the tones of the King James Bible. He read great books in the greenwood, and when he drank summer’s cider with the blooming Rosie, felt rooted in an English Arcadia, at one with the ancients.

This is a charming tribute to a genial and gifted author who blended darkness with light, and realism with romance, to superb effect, in the service of a special place – and all of England.

The review first appeared in the 22nd January 2020 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

A Home Counties St George

Hollow Places – An Unusual History of Land and Legend

Christopher Hadley, William Collins, £20

Early one 1830s morning, workmen were uprooting an ancient yew near Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire when the tree fell unexpectedly – exposing a huge cavity, and evoking superstitions of ‘Piers Shonks’, who slew a dragon and defied the Devil. So begins a sensitively intelligent excavation into Hertfordshire history, the English imagination and omnipresent myth.

The cavity is supposed to be the dragon’s grave – the first of many ‘hollow places’ explored in the earth, historical accounts, and ourselves. Mythology glides into geology and palaeontology as we visit Purbeck, where Shonks’ slab was quarried, and recall that dinosaur fossils were once seen as dragons’ bones.

Where there are monsters there must be champions, ergo Hercules, Cadmus, Beowulf, St. George – and Shonks, whose surname suggests great stature. Versions of the story make him a Christian knight, superhuman archer, or defender of ancient liberties, or all these simultaneously. His tomb is in the church’s wall, and this too makes him anomalous – a protector, or needing protection? Mythic motifs intertwine like foliage around the face of a Green Man, and ghosts stir even in the quiet Home Counties – an unsettling truth known even to those who tried to exorcise them in the name of God, or ‘rational’ modernity.

To conventional historians, Piers Shonks is a signatory to dull 13th-century legal deeds – yet he ‘survives’ outside such frames of reference, paradoxically preserved because of the impossibilities yoked to his name. The enchantment-hunting author traces the dragon-slayer’s progress through bestiaries, tree-lore, chivalric literature, county history, Norman law, trial by combat, the Dissolution, Puritan vandalism, agricultural ‘improvements’, and early antiquarians. He enlists Matthew Paris, John Aubrey, William Cowper, M R James, and others to show there is always more than one ‘reality’, or single story.

Myths, he finds, are really memories – they shaped history, and recur, holding truths about our deepest hopes and fears, perhaps especially in a post-Christian country when

We have lots of hollow places and less and less to put in them.

Piers Shonks lies in the grave but battles on forever, far beyond the borders of Hertfordshire and heavy bonds of earth.

This review first appeared in the 4th December 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

Spirit guide

Ghostland, Edward Parnell, London: William Collins; 2019, £16.99

‘Always the ghosts’, Edward Parnell remembers, looking back over his Lincolnshire childhood. After the daydreaming 1960s, the sudden uncertainty of the 1970s manifested itself in bitter tension and a fascination with all things folkloric and paranormal. Into an unsettling world of candle-lit houses and angry political noises off came the films Penda’s Fen, Wicker Man and Robin Redbreast, Tales of the Unexpected and BBC Christmas ghost stories, children’s series such as The Children of the Stones and sensations about demonic possessions, lake monsters and poltergeists. The author absorbed this atmosphere unthinkingly; since then, he has become even more haunted.

England reputedly has more ghosts per square mile than any other country, as well as literary ghosts going back at least as far as Hamlet. A fusion of Christian, Germanic, Nordic and British beliefs, and a passionate interest in the past, have deposited thick supernatural seams. These were mined extensively in the 19th century, as conservative, Romantic and Theosophical thinkers reacted instinctively to changes that threatened to strip away charm and mystery and invalidate ideas of revelation and afterlives. As Peter Ackroyd observed in The English Ghost (2010): ‘The quintessential English ghost story is alarming but also oddly consoling’.

Parnell has an encyclopaedic knowledge of this eldritch tradition, from Victorian table-tappers seeking news of beloved dead to modern psychogeographers. With great lyrical power, he carries us by astral plane to bewitched backwoods from Alloway in Ayrshire to Zennor in Cornwall, noting coincidences, connections, time-slips and unifying motifs such as earthworks, labyrinths, lighthouses, open tombs, sleeping guardians and standing stones. Birds are hugely important to the author, because they are themselves ghost-like, and were to early Christians symbols of souls. His birds are airy wraiths, rare and restless revenants – whether choughs overflying megaliths, the kingfisher in A L Barker’s Submerged (2002), the owl he always sought in Dorset or the ominous ones on Alan Garner’s Owl Service (1967).

Bound up intimately with folk-tales, Gothic novels, Spiritualist tomes, tweedy Edwardian fantasies and Hammer horrors are closer ghosts, in the shape of the author’s brother, father and mother, stolen away by diseases as irresistibly malevolent as any entity imagined by Algernon Blackwood. His family’s actuality, the solidity of the country he and they inhabited, seem to him almost as illusions—a terrifyingly thin superimposition over a vast randomness as cold as the thing that sleeps beneath the Fens in John Gordon’s Giant Under the Snow (1968). Ghostland seems as mirage-ridden as Eliot’s waste, with even less possibility of escape. Where are the dead who loved us, whom we have loved? Parnell demands to know. He expects no reply, but nevertheless keeps knocking on the ground.

Memory may be the greatest ghost, fey, flickering, seductive, selective and unreliable. It is akin to the sensitivity that makes some see spectres and others remain oblivious. Which memories are real, which half-remembered, which assembled afterwards? What has been forgotten, what suppressed? In his earnest quest to understand, Parnell brilliantly enlists writers as unlike as Walter de La Mare and W. G. Sebald to plumb the pits and possibilities of personal (and collective) memory. Memories are illogical, shapeshifting, and often unnerving.

As with one of M. R. James’ over-curious antiquarians, the author can’t stop digging into his overthrown walls. He knows there may be dangers in delving too deeply, but it would be more dangerous to forget: ‘If I stop looking back everything that ever happened to us will cease to exist’. Time turns in on itself, everything alters and now, whichever way he looks across this haunted realm, he seems to see his family flitting in front.

This review first appeared in the 30th October 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

New Country Life and Quadrant reviews…

The 30th October issue of Country Life carries my review of Edward Parnell’s Ghostland – British eeriness seen through a deeply personal prism. Perfect reading for the season (or any other time).

The November issue of Australia’s renowned Quadrant carries my jumbo review of Philip Mansel’s brilliant Louis XIV biography, King of the World. Really ought to be owned by anyone interested in French, monarchical or C.17 history.

Territorial waters

The Way to the Sea

Caroline Crampton, Granta, £16.99

The Frayed Atlantic Edge

David Gange, William Collins, £18.99

Confluence of the Thames and the Medway, by J. M. W. Turner

Seawater pulses through the veins of our islands, the tang of open water reaching to the furthest points inland. Insularity has always been our destiny, determining daily life and deepest meanings even before Albion loomed out of the haze. Early Britons took to boats from necessity, but also from sheer curiosity about what lay behind horizons, whether markets for goods, countries for converting or lands of eternal youth.

These two books compare the Kingdom’s coastline in its vastness and variety, and show the marked contrast between ambiguous east and tumultuous west. Their longitudes are different, but both authors share a passion for re-orienting mainstream histories and making us look to our littorals.

Caroline Crampton’s source-to-sea exploration of the Thames starts in Gloucestershire, at the unexpectedly indeterminate spot where the river seeps forth from Stygian springs to start its 215-mile descent through the English imagination. The river gathers significance and strength as it passes William Morris’s Kelmscott, Oxford’s ‘lost causes’, Paul Nash’s Wittenham, Wind in the Willows country, Stanley Spencer’s resurrections, brooding Windsor, Magna Carta’s meadows, dissolved abbeys and Cardinal Wolsey’s hubristic Hampton Court, before even reaching London. There, it gains innumerable new tributaries before escaping out the Essex side, to flow through ever-widening flats until somewhere beyond Shoeburyness, where brackishness finally turns full salt.

The author’s parents owned a yacht in the Medway and many of her youthful days were spent between places and states of mind, channel-finding, watching ships and seeing the banks change, tacking and thinking, yawing and yarning. She saw the Docklands ‘regenerated’ and learned indignantly of earlier displacements of superfluous communities. Her Thames is tainted with secret shames, its course a palimpsest of lingering class resentments, its estuary a repository of industrial toxins, unmarked graves and unexploded bombs. But she also finds treasures, such as aquamarine 5th-century glassware retrieved from sucking ooze, discovers fascinating stories, and recalls enchanted hours when sea, shores and sky combined in brilliant tableaux. 

Duntulm in the Inner Hebrides. Picture: Derek Turner

Like his chosen coast, David Gange’s book is harder-edged. He resorts courageously to a kayak, entrusting this cockleshell to the rigours of the Atlantic, from Out Stack to Land’s End. By day, he combats cross-currents around the feet of Scylla-like cliffs, creeps awestruck through sea-arches reminiscent of cathedrals, is glared at by gannets, meets whales uncomfortably close to and tries not to turn turtle, until his shoulders and torso ache with tiredness. At nights, he reads and rests beside desolate tidelines or casually ascends some summit, almost as if he believes he might wake to the sight of Avalon. Orcadian navigators, Irish saints and Welsh pilgrims paddle out from his pages, taking us to reaches that were roads when London was a rumour.

He conjures up cruelty and ‘dark histories’. This is an intensely political book, ruing the ‘urban, inland ascendancy’ that has made the far west culturally as well as geographically marginal, in the interests of commerce and the name of modernity.

But there is also uncomplicated beauty, and wonderful descriptions of elemental moments when survival depends on skill and the boat becomes the author’s homeland. His sea is stormy, but it is also ‘a great heart’, its islands wombs as much as tombs. Strewing poems in his wake, he finds keening sadness along these frayed fringes, and causes for righteous anger, but also optimism in a world wanting landfall – new ways of living and of viewing the future, with more space for small communities and individual freedom. As he struggles to stay afloat, he dreams of a time when the wave-battered west is less a land of legend than a launch-pad into immensity.

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

A million acres, six thousand years

Roman Canal, Lincolnshire, by Peter De Wint

The Fens – Discovering England’s Hidden Depths

Francis Pryor, Head of Zeus, £25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Song by Julia Blackburn

DOGGERLAND DREAMTIME

Time Song, Julia Blackburn, Vintage, £25

Something in East Anglia encourages spectral visions, deep thoughts about time. The 14th-century seer Julian of Norwich dreamed of submarine realms, going

…downe into the see-ground, and there I saw hill and dalis green, semand as it were moss-begrowne, with wrekke and gravel.

In 1658, Sir Thomas Browne published Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial, inspired by Roman remains. M. R. James’s A Warning to the Curious told of supernatural vengeance visited on a man who steals an Anglian crown. Rowland Parker paid tribute to a whole sea-taken town in Men of Dunwich (1978). In Rings of Saturn (1995), W. G. Sebald’s narrator concludes ‘The east stands for lost causes’. John Gordon’s children’s tales Giant Under the Snow and Fen Runners reveal disquieting presences in the east’s slow rivers, slimy mudflats and rabbit-gnawed heaths.

For many, eastern England is a place of indeterminacy and loss, characterised by vast skies, huge churches in decayed villages, flitting birds and coasts crumbling away forever into insatiable ocean. Julia Blackburn has now added to this mordant corpus with her informative and sensitive conjuration of Doggerland, which drowned millennia ago yet still makes its presence felt, like a ghost pain from an amputated limb. 

Britain was not always Shakespeare’s ‘fortress’; the North Sea conceals a vanished country that linked Kent to Calais. The Shetland Islands were formerly hills where Mesolithic hunters mislaid arrows, and the Outer Silver Pit off Flamborough Head, where Dutch dogger trawlers delve, a great sweet-water lake. ‘The land is a sea in waiting’, Matthew Hollis says in his poem Stones (2016), a bitter truth for millennia of West Doggerlanders/East Anglians. Some trawlermen claim they can sense the differing depths below them, ‘seeing’ the old courses of the Dee, Elbe, Ouse, Rhine, Thames, Tweed and the obscurer Bytham and Urstrom. Doggerland alternated between tundra and temperate steppe, reconfiguring itself when relieved of the weight of ice, only for the ice to return in rising sea-levels, until the link to Europe was lost 8,000 years ago.

Blackburn hymns the deluged land’s history from geology’s ‘Deep Time’ to today’s fragmented littorals, in 18 blank verse ‘time songs’ of uneven quality, and 45 excellent chapters that wander pleasingly between science and suggestiveness. She digresses as distantly as Neanderthal caves in Gibraltar, Arctic hunter-gatherers, and sacred grottos in Jerusalem to hint how Doggerland’s human inhabitants may have viewed their land, and cosmic lot. She is transfixed by ‘uncorrupted’ Tollund Man, sacrificed to bog gods 2,400 years ago, whose ‘private smile’ conveys the essence of prehistory. 

She stopped writing fiction because she disliked ‘wide and un-signposted landscapes’, but Doggerland is wide and un-signposted enough, albeit based on accumulating evidence. We read of Happisburgh’s hominid footprints, warehouses of mammoth bones, Holme-next-the-Sea’s ‘Seahenge’ and antler harpoon points dredged up by drillers. She is fascinated by things out of time—fossils, wrong clocks, an attraction called Futureland, even a satnav’s ‘and then’. Even old rain can be remembered, through 7,000 year old pockmarks on storm-exposed sands.

Her late husband (sculptor Herman Makkink) accompanies her in imagination as she ponders extinctions and rebirths, the change and return of things, ‘intimations of things unseen’. Death to her is pure, a process rather than an end; her cremated husband was wafted skywards as surely as the Mesolithic baby in Vedbaek, Denmark, buried cradled in a swan’s wing. She ate her husband’s ashes ritualistically, their grittiness evoking evolution’s endless interments. At 71, she looks forward calmly, seeking comfort in life’s ’crowdedness’, the sentience of sediment, and the boundlessness of the sea. While she waits, she has found release by adding to our understanding of this restless realm. 

This review first appeared in the 30th January 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission 

Animal: Exploring the Zoological World – introduction by James Hanken

 A TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY BESTIARY

Animal: Exploring the Zoological World

Introduction by James Hanken, London: Phaidon, 2018, hb., 352 pages, £39.95

Any volume examining ‘humankind’s fascination with animals’ can only hope to be a conspectus, but Animal is unusually ambitious and thoughtful, handsomely produced and with an introduction by a Harvard zoologist. It ranges far and wide, from prehistoric paintings to 2018’s XROMM technology, which allows us to watch animal skeletons in action. 

Images are paired cleverly, sometimes touchingly, to show how our fascination evolves – Francisco Goya’s void-falling bulls with a 1906 image of deer startled by a camera flash – a Greek Bronze Age fresco of introduced monkeys with a 2016 photo of Japanese snow monkeys naturalised in Texas – the puissant monkey-god Hanuman with Francis Bacon’s caged and screaming baboon – Eugène Delacroix’s sensitive dreaming tiger with today’s ‘unorthodox taxidermy’ in which animals are arranged in death-like rather than life-like poses. Nematodes’ swirling imprints echo Aboriginal cosmos-creating lizards, William Blake complements Grayson Perry, and twitching jerboas face onto pitifully chained goldfinches. 

Many of the illustrations are part of common cultural zoogeography – Pablo Picasso’s bull, Uffington’s White Horse, Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros, Walt Disney’s orang-utans, Tutankhamun’s scarabs, Robert Hooke’s flea from Micrographia, King Kong, Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom – but intelligent captioning offers new angles even on these (Edwin Landseer’s Monarch is really a royal stag, with only 12-point antlers).

Many others will be less familiar, and some strikingly new – huge 6,000 year old giraffe carvings from Niger, Papua’s Ambum Stone, Aztec anthropomorphic myth as depicted for the conquistadores’ far-off King, Charles Le Brun’s human-animal phrenologies, John Ruskin’s kingfisher, a harvestman stalking a night-time pine forest, and four artworks created for this book. 

Animal captures admirably two interlocking intoxications – the thrill of ever expanding zoological knowledge and the sheer joy of looking at animals, who look right back and into us in challenge and entreaty. 

This review first appeared in the 7th November 2018 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission 

My Country Life review of Animal: Exploring the Zoological World

The 7 November issue of Country Life carries my short review of Animal: Exploring the Zoological World (introduction by James Hanken, published by Phaidon) – “Animal captures admirably two interlocking intoxications: the thrill of ever-expanding zoological knowledge and the sheer joy of looking at animals, which look right back and into us in challenge and entreaty”