“Like long barrow sleepers”

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Eric Ravilious, ‘The Long man of Wilmington.’

I return to the issue of myth, inspiration and the British landscape.  On the recent E17 Art Trail in Walthamstow, London, I visited an exhibition by local artist Henriette Monteiro. Her pencil drawings and water colours were imaginative illustrations of ancient sites around England, such as Avebury, Kit’s Coty House in Kent, Belas Knapp long barrow on the Cotswolds and Cymbeline’s Castle in Buckinghamshire.  She complemented the art with poetry, and I was thereby introduced to the work of Andrew Young (1885-1971), whom I had not previously encountered.

Here’s his poem A prehistoric camp, which has been used by TfL as a ‘Poem on the Underground’:

A Prehistoric Camp

“It was the time of year
Pale lambs leap with thick leggings on
Over small hills that are not there,
That I climbed Eggardon.

The hedgerows still were bare,
None ever knew so late a year;
Birds built their nests in the open air,
Love conquering their fear.

But there on the hill-crest,
Where only larks or stars look down,
Earthworks exposed a vaster nest,
Its race of men long flown.”

Eggardon-Hill-Dorset

Eggardon Hill, which is east of Bridport, Dorset, is an Iron Age hill fort, but there is evidence of much earlier use in the form of several tumuli or long barrows on its summit.  The presence of barrows within the defences is what interests me here: it is quite a common feature, as for example at Hambledon Hill further east in the same county.  The barrow within the ramparts at Hambledon provided scenes for my one of my ‘fairy tales;’ the conjunction of ancient sites and supernatural mysteries makes intuitive story telling sense.

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Also by Young is the poem ‘Wiltshire downs’ from which I quote here the final stanza.

“And one tree-crowned long barrow
Stretched like a sow that has brought forth her farrow
Hides a king’s bones
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.”

I like the verse, but I’d take issue with his depiction of the bones like broken sticks. Young has connected to a key feature of our landscape and folk lore, but he does not take advantage of the full mystery associated with these features.  Welsh poet and artist David Jones in his extended prose-poem concerning the first world war, In parenthesis (1931), described slumbering British troops in Flanders dugouts as being “like  long-barrow sleepers, their dark arms at reach.” He returned to this theme decades later in The Anathemata.  In the poem Sherthursday and Venus day Jones mentioned “the hidden lords in the West-tumulus.”  In the same poem he also recognised the intriguing mystery of hill-forts as well as barrows, imagining a climb “up by the parched concentric bends over the carious demarcations between the tawny ramps and the gone-fallow lynchets, into the vision lands.”

“Into the vision lands…” Jones intimately knew and worked with the legend and myth of the British Isles. Rudyard Kipling also drew on the deep wells of folklore and in his poem ‘Song of the men’s side’ from the book Rewards and fairies advised:

“Tell it to the Barrows of the Dead—run ahead!
Shout it so the Women’s Side can hear!
This is the Buyer of the Blade—be afraid!
This is the great God Tyr!”

In Kipling’s story The knife and naked chalk Puck introduces Dan and Una to a neolithic herder who tells a tale of “a Priestess walking to the Barrows of the Dead.”  He sees a girl he knows at a tribal ceremony- “I looked for my Maiden among the Priestesses. She looked at me, but she did not smile. She made the sign to me that our Priestesses must make when they sacrifice to the Old Dead in the Barrows. I would have spoken, but my Mother’s brother made himself my Mouth, as though I had been one of the Old Dead in the Barrows for whom our Priests speak to the people on Midsummer Mornings.”  The ancestors lie beneath the tumuli and their purpose is to advise and help their living descendants.  Perhaps that function is not yet exhausted…

A vital element of British folk stories (the so-called ‘Matter of Britain’) is the concept of the sleeping hero.  King Arthur, most commonly, is not dead and buried in Avalon but lies hidden beneath some ancient feature- a hill fort or cave, perhaps- awaiting the time when he is summoned to save the island and its people.  On the ancient heights of those tribal fortifications, warriors lie in wrapped in the dreams of centuries, patiently biding their time until the call is sounded and their slumbers are ended.

In another of his poems, Rite and fore-time in the collection Anathemata, David Jones equated tumuli with altars, regarding both as places of worship and of burial of holy relics.  His analogy is perceptive and powerful.  The sleepers in the barrows are our ancestors, our predecessors on the land, and doubtless one element in their interment and the rites associated with their monuments was a reassertion of community links not only with those who had gone before but also with the landscape over which their remains now watched.  They had become both features in the landscape and guardians of that landscape.

Today campaigners declare ‘The Land is Ours.’  The barrows and stones carry the same message.  The land is a common inheritance and a common resource.  The long-barrow sleepers repeat and protect that message.  This is where we dwelt and where we dwell.

To return to Andrew Young, I must again demur from his description of Eggardon hillfort- “its race of men long flown.”    They, we, are still here.  They still speak, albeit faintly and only if you are attuned.  What’s more, in times of trouble, they may perhaps:

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.”

The sweetness of England

 

The Vale of the White Horse c.1939 by Eric Ravilious 1903-1942

The sweetness of England by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“And when, at last
Escaped, so many a green slope built on slope
Betwixt me and the enemy’s house behind,
I dared to rest, or wander, like a rest
Made sweeter for the step upon the grass,
And view the ground’s most gentle dimplement,
(As if God’s finger touched but did not press
In making England!) such an up and down
Of verdure, nothing too much up or down,
A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures, where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew, at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade,
I thought my father’s land was worthy too
Of being my Shakspeare’s.
Very oft alone,
Unlicensed; not unfrequently with leave
To walk the third with Romney and his friend
The rising painter, Vincent Carrington,
Whom men judge hardly, as bee-bonneted,
Because he holds that, paint a body well,
You paint a soul by implication, like
The grand first Master. Pleasant walks! for if
He said . . ‘When I was last in Italy’ . .
It sounded as an instrument that’s played
Too far off for the tune-and yet it’s fine
To listen.
Often we walked only two,
If cousin Romney pleased to walk with me.
We read, or talked, or quarrelled, as it chanced;
We were not lovers, nor even friends well-matched-
Say rather, scholars upon different tracks,
And thinkers disagreed; he, overfull
Of what is, and I, haply, overbold
For what might be.
But then the thrushes sang,
And shook my pulses and the elms’ new leaves,-
And then I turned, and held my finger up,
And bade him mark that, howsoe’er the world
Went ill, as he related, certainly
The thrushes still sang in it. At which word
His brow would soften, and he bore with me
In melancholy patience, not unkind,
While, breaking into voluble ecstasy,
I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use . . .the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold,
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
‘Twixt dripping ash-boughs, hedgerows all alive
With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
Which look as if the May-flower had sought life
And palpitated forth upon the wind,
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards. ‘See,’ I said,
‘And see! is God not with us on the earth?”

Train Landscape by Eric Ravillious Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

I have discussed the Romantics and neo-Romantics in earlier posts, and for me this poem, recently encountered for the first time in a volume provided for visitors in a holiday cottage, is an excellent example of the genre.  Those mythic oaks and the secret, hidden charms of misty nooks contain a meaning greater than their modest surface charm.  The landscape may be homely and charming, but it conceals druid groves and ghostly moths, a sense of mystery more powerful than the superficial prettiness suggests.

For the British (not just the English) consciousness of their Britishness has long been identified with and located in the land itself.  The regard in which Constable and Turner (and less popularly, Samuel Palmer and the brothers Paul and John Nash) are held is indicative of this instinct.  The landscape creates and validates the sense of attachment and belonging.

I use landscape here in the broadest sense of all features and artifacts of the national scene- not just the downs and vales, but Stonehenge, Avebury, the ruined castles and abbeys, the farmhouses and fields.  The natural land-forms are adventitious; the shaping of the land by its inhabitants is- perhaps- the deepest expression of their character- and in their landscape, I suggest, the British can find stability, reassurance and strength. There is a confirmation of continuity of culture and occupation; the passing from generation to generation of certain responses and ideals.

There is perhaps a danger of encouraging petty nationalisms- of artificial divisions into Cornwall, England, Wales and Scotland.  These should be rejected.  Even within ‘England’ there is too much variety for a single identity to have predominance.  The second and greater danger may be the risk of slipping into pastoral prettiness and arcadian charm.

This need not be though.  In his recent Guardian newspaper review of D C Moore’s new play Common at the National Theatre, Michael Billington remarks that Moore is working to create a “radical pastoral environment that shows the privatisation of land as a pivotal moment in our nation’s history.”  In seeking to achieve this, the play draws upon the countryside’s pagan past as well as on the politics of resistance as embodied by Captain Swing.  The land is central to our national character and its protection and preservation has been one important forum for class conflict.  Landscape (as well as land rights) can be a source of power- and also of inspiration.  Radical pastoralism need not be a contradiction in terms, then, as I have also argued in the course of the story in Albion awake!

In art, literature, in political discourse and in the shaping of aspirations, powerful affection for and attachment to our landscape are vital motivations.

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Celebrate Burford Day!

levellers

(Admittedly a little late)- but let us recall and celebrate the first stirrings of popular democracy in England.  The Levellers were a movement amongst the ranks of the New Model Army and the populace who believed that the whole point of the English Revolution had to be an extension of the franchise to every adult male (although women were very active and vociferous in the movement too).  Such a radical platform was opposed by Cromwell and his allies, whose real agenda was not reform but the substitution of one ruling class for another- of one body of property owners for a slightly larger and slightly less wealthy interest group.

They had opposed the radicals at the Putney Debates in 1647 and at Burford in May 1649 they finally and decisively suppressed the Leveller party.  The ideas and the words survived, nonetheless:

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sir, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.”

Thomas Rainborough

Leveller’s Day is celebrated in Burford this coming Saturday, May 20th.

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The Britishness of British film

Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

In the last fortnight I have seen two newly released British-made feature films, Their finest, starring Gemma Arterton, and Mindhorn, with Julian Barratt.  Both struck me with features and themes that seemed typically British (or perhaps even English- except Mindhorn was set mainly on the isle of Man).

One key feature of both screenplays was a kind of amateurish battling through.  In Their finest this was evoked through Britain standing alone against Nazi Germany, making do and mending, coping with bombing and meagre resources, keeping a stiff upper lip and bearing up in defiance of Mr Hitler.  Battle scenes were recreated with model planes, painted backdrops and a swimming pool.  In Mindhorn,  a has-been TV detective is given a chance to redeem his failed career- something he achieves by accident and in spite of his incompetence, arrogance and self-obsession.  It all comes right in the end, against the odds and against all expectations.

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Secondly, both films displayed a powerful nostalgia.  The drab austerity of the Second World War still had a homely attractiveness about it- warm beer and songs in the pub, fish and chips by the harbour and smoky rooms filled with the clatter of typewriters. In Mindhorn, the tatty glamour of the 1980s, the on-the-cheap TV series and tacky merchandising were all lovingly evoked and tacitly preferred over contemporary success and prosperity.

In both cases, this nostalgic approach tended to blend into the third typical national trait- self deprecation or mockery.  This was most evident in Mindhorn: in one respect the film was a 90 minute tourist ad for the Isle of Man, but at the same time the island of 2016 was presented as run-down and stuck in the 1970s with unrefurbished hotels and police stations and with a half-hearted celebration of ‘Manx Day’ that was inferior to most village fetes.  In Their finest a government minister recites Shakespeare and everyone is embarrassed by the national bard; the perky Cockneys in the Blitz are recalled with fondness and with a gentle humour.

Both films are worth seeing.  Their finest plays on your emotions shamelessly, but is a well told tale.  Gemma Arterton is very good (as ever) but Bill Nighy steals the show.  There were only two of us seeing Mindhorn in my local cinema on a Thursday night- it’s a laugh from start to finish and deserves better than that!

‘Etruscan tombs’- some thoughts on a Victorian poem and an ancient people

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“O wise Etruscans, faded in the night
Yourselves, with scarce a rose-leaf on your trace;
You kept the ashes of the dead in sight.
And shaped the vase to seem the vanished face.”

Etruscan tombs, by Agnes Mary Robinson (1857-1944)

Searching in my old, browned copy of the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse for something else entirely, I came across the poem ‘Etruscan tombs’ by Agnes Mary Robinson.  It stirred in me my semi-dormant love for Etruscan art, archaeology and the Etruscan language.

What has always fascinated me about the Etruscans is that a non-Indo European speaking culture could be found at the heart of the classical Roman world.  They were an anomaly and remain largely unexplained.  Somewhat like Basque, the status of their language remains unresolved.  Are they remnants of an older and more wide spread language family; do they represent, perhaps, what our Neolithic ancestors might have spoken?  These are fascinating, if unanswerable, questions.

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Recent genetic work by Tasso, Ghirotto, Caramelli and Babujani has questioned the theory that the population travelled from Lydia and the region of Troy, as had once been suggested.  Although there are some similarities between the DNA of modern Turks and Tuscans, there is very little genetic material shared between the modern inhabitants of Tuscany and their Etruscan predecessors. Overall, the DNA evidence does not indicate a wave of immigration from Asia Minor leading to the start of Etruscan civilisation in Italy.  These conclusions coincide with the view of most contemporary archaeologists (as well as Dionysus of Helicarnassus) who argue for an indigenous origin, and contradict the immigration theory of Herodotus. (See American Journal of  Physical Anthropology,  vol.152, 2013). Nonetheless, this research, whilst it does not substantially advance our understanding of their racial origins, does not contradict much else of what we know.

Later in her poem Robinson directly addresses what is for me the most intriguing aspect of the Etruscan people.

“A carven slab recalls his name and deeds,
Writ in a language no man living reads.

IV.
Here lies the tablet graven in the past,
Clear-charactered and firm and fresh of line.
See, not a word is gone; and yet how fast 45
The secret no man living may divine!

What did he choose for witness in the grave?
A record of his glory on the earth?
The wail of friends? The Pæans of the brave?
The sacred promise of the second birth?

The tombs of ancient Greeks in Sicily
Are sown with slender discs of graven gold
Filled with the praise of Death: “Thrice happy he
Wrapt in the milk-soft sleep of dreams untold!”

They sleep their patient sleep in altered lands,
The golden promise in their fleshless hands.”

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Their art exists for all to see, still, and is one of the great monuments of the Etruscan culture. Furthermore, their language is less impenetrable than it was when Robinson wrote, but our comprehension is still limited and probably always will be.  The bulk of our sources remain funerary, giving a very skewed and limited vocabulary from which to work.

For those fascinated by both the linguistics and the culture, you may find some interest in my small book, The Etruscan language- a brief introduction.  This examines the language in the context of our knowledge of their rich culture and was published by specialist language publisher Joseph Biddulph in 2008; you might find an old copy through Amazon (try Temperley Texts for example).

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Divisions- the sickness of Albion?

jerusalem.e.p85-Vid-del-Antrhropos-en-William-Blake

Britain has been plunged into a new election.  Is this the time for the Children of Albion to speak up for unity and and a new way and to reject the old politics?

We are faced with division and separation on all sides.  Brexit has of course motivated the poll, but we will hear much of the politician’s favourite imaginary unit, “The Hard Working Family” over the next few weeks.  Surely it’s now time to reject these attempts to divide and conquer?  What about the retired? the disabled and sick? what about single people? childless couples?  what about the unemployed- or even those who work just enough to live but won’t slave more for their employers?  All of these, seemingly, are excluded from politicians’ consideration by tedious and automatic repetition of this meaningless phrase.  We’ve heard too much of it over the last few years, but it has become ingrained in our stagnant political discourse.

We are encouraged to accept and subscribe to difference on all sides- between Britain and Europe, England and Scotland, working and non-working, native and immigrant, ‘family’ and ‘non-family.’  Division and distinction are the sickness of Albion and Albion is sick of it.  It’s time for a new way.  It’s time for a new aspiration.

Albion is for the rejection of what has gone before.  Albion is for unity.  William Blake wrote:

“Awake! awake oh sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand! I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine.  Fibres of love from man to man through Albion’s pleasant land.  In all the dark Atlantic vale down from the hills of Surrey, A black water accumulates.  Return, Albion, return!” Jerusalem I, 1

“They walked before Albion, In the Exchanges of London, every nation walked.”  Jerusalem, I, 24.

Is it time to create an Albion where everyone can share mutual love and respect- or shall we perpetuate and aggravate separation and division?

Festivals of Albion? the start of a new people’s calendar

beanfield

“It’s not made by great men” The Gang of Four

Here’s the beginnings of a list of suggested new dates for national festivals for the children of Albion to celebrate:

March 31st– in 1990, the date of the Poll Tax Riot in Trafalgar Square London.  A violent conclusion to the popular protests against the community charge (poll tax) which led within 8 months to the resignation of Mrs Thatcher and the scrapping of the tax;

April 1st– in 1649 Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers founded their self sufficient community on St Georges’s Hill, Surrey;

April 4th– in 1958 the start of the first march by anti-nuclear protestors from Trafalgar Square to the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston;

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May 17th– in 1649, the Leveller revolt against Cromwell was brought to an end at Burford, with the execution of three of the Leveller men;

June 1st– in 1985 police prevented the Peace Convoy from attending the Stonehenge festival.  The convoy was forced off the highway into a field and a ‘police riot’ followed in which mobile homes were smashed and individuals assaulted.  It has been called the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’, although it was almost entirely a one-sided attack on travellers including families and single mothers;

June 15th– in 1385 the Peasant’s Revolt effectively ended at Smithfield with the killing of Wat Tyler;

June 18th– the date in 1984 of the Battle of Orgreave.  Striking miners faced a paramilitary police force during the miners’ strike.  Described by Tristram Hunt MP as a “brutal example of legalised state violence.”

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August 16th– in 1819 demonstrators were unjustifiably attacked and cut down by the militia at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester- the so-called Peterloo massacre;

August 26th– in 1541 Kett’s rebellion was crushed at Norwich by armed forces;

This isn’t meant to be final or definitive and you’re very welcome to make suggestions for additions.

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