“Albion”- where, when and what is it?

Plate 4 of 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion' c.1795 by William Blake 1757-1827
Plate 4 of ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’ c.1795 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03374

“All the nightmares came this year/ And it looks as though they’re staying here.”

I have been blogging about the idea Albion for some weeks.  Where can it be found; what does it look like? When will we arrive there?

Albion is a three part concept, derived from the work of poets, painters, visionaries and radicals.  Albion is:

  • a place- Albion is a landscape; it is an ancient land, made by nature and by generations of it s occupants.  It is the white cliffs; it is the chalk figures of Cerne Abbas and Wilmington.  It is an environment and an expression of culture- high hedgerows and deep-worn lanes; clumps of trees on barrows high on hill tops. Albion is not the same as Britain, though.  It may share its island boundaries but it is a new land without labels.
  • a story- Albion is myth that is the subject of stories and of poems.  It is how we imagine ourselves and the story we tell ourselves about our past and our possible futures.  It is a giant, it is a nation, it is a dream.  As it is a story that we tell ourselves, it is a story that we can choose.  The story of Britain is a familiar one- it is an nation alone in adversity, it is the underdog bravely struggling- it is Dunkirk, it is the Battle of Britain, it is the first day of the Somme.  It is bravery against the odds, it’s all about keeping your head when all around are losing theirs- etc.  The myth of Albion need not be identical; we might instead choose different struggles to commemorate- Peterloo, the battle of the Beanfield, the battle of Orgreave, for example- if we are creating a new nation we get to tell its founding stories.  We get to choose our heroes too- perhaps Arthur returning from his centuries’ sleep instead of Churchill and Kitchener?
  • a dream- Albion is a better land than Britain; it is a fairer society than that in which we live.  It is something we can aspire to and aim for, something to build.  It is a concept; it is a dream yet to be dreamed.  Albion is a blueprint for another way of life that has yet to be made, yet to be lived.

Albion can only be when we want it to be.  Some have already worked to create it; some are working now.  Has the time come to awake and arise?  Without the striving and the struggle, nothing will be achieved and nothing made.  Let’s not forget William Blake’s (edited) words on this subject:

“And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:

On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.”

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Me, David and Bill

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In a recent post I quoted a very early song by David Bowie in the context of a discussion of the free festivals movement and the idea of the Albion Free State- a state with a state, a community of people living according to different rules to those of mainstream society.

During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when I wrote for a literary magazine in Southampton called The definite article, and contributed a piece linking Bowie and the politics of anarchism, I tended to read a great deal into David’s lyrics.  This conviction that he was a writer of depth, with a message to convey, was inspired by a Melody Maker special issue I found in the late 1970s.  This included a piece that analysed the intellectual foundations of Bowie’s work, noting his references to Tibetan Buddhism, Nietzsche and Kabbalah.  I was seventeen or eighteen at the time, and the essay in question seemed to contain the philosophising of an undergraduate of about the same age to me.  I was deeply impressed, nonetheless, and I was convinced that Bowie understood the meaning and structure of society in a way that I did not and saw that we were heading inexorably for the collapse of our society, perhaps after a nuclear holocaust (and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was all too easy to believe in the doom represented by cruise missiles parked just up the road at Greenham).  He predicted panic in Detroit; he envisaged failed revolutionary struggle and only a singe survivor of the National People’s Gang; he feared a nightmare world in which tribes of peoploids roamed the streets; as 1984 drew nearer he foresaw the spread of a totalitarian state in which love might be an act of defiance.  He predicted that we only had five years left…

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I was convinced that Bowie’s analysis of the solutions was the same as mine- a demolition of hierarchies and an more egalitarian society instead.  I am far from sure now about the validity of my understanding.  Society didn’t collapse as David had imagined- and very possibly he never seriously expected it.  I doubt too whether he had any real sympathy with my stateless solutions.  At the time I first got hooked by his music and his changing personas, he was in Thin White Duke phase and toying with dictatorship.  But- as in all great artists- we can find meaning in their work even if they did not wholly intend it- in that form or even at all.

 

Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05059

Great songs or great literature can provide a springboard for our imaginations; they can offer the material from which to construct new stories and images of our own.  In a 2016 posting on my broadcastbarnsley blog on WordPress I noted that Martin Fry, of early 1980s pop stars ABC, appeared to have stolen a line from John Keats.  And why not?  Great lyrics are great lyrics, whatever their source and always deserve to be reworked.  Art very often echoes and quotes from what has gone before, to some degree or other.

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William Blake more recently has offered me the same food for thought- and has been a source of inspiration for many.  He had his own dense and convoluted symbolism with its own arcane meanings.  Whilst I do not understand many of these these, and do not always sympathise with them, they can offer a starting point for me to construct images and myths of my own.  Blake’s concept of Albion provides the bedrock for a twenty first century conceptualising of an Albion that might meet our current needs and concerns.

 

 

Free festivals and Albion

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David Bowie, circa 1969

In the 1970s the Albion Free State was established, with its own manifesto for the October 1974 general election, on the principle that one route to political and social liberation was the vast expansion of free festivals within Britain.  This was the beginning of the ‘traveller’ movement and the emergence of a distinct society operating outside the established society.

The writers of the Free State manifesto wanted to create “a network … of independent collectives and communities federated together to form the Albion Free State.”  Life would be organised at local level, by neighbourhoods and workers.  The new nation would take over waste land and waste buildings for such purposes as a nationwide network of sites for free festivals throughout the year.  For further discussion of this and the general idea of ‘Albion’, see my November 3rd posting on ‘Mysterious Albion’ on my other blog, britishfairies.wordpress.com.

This movement took a hippie idea of the 1960s and honed and focused it into a political concept.  If freedom was to be found, it was to be located and constructed beyond existing structures: it dared to imagine other ways of organising and being.

Bowie, in his lyrics below sang that, beneath the London sky,  “we walked back to the road, unchained.”  William Blake, wandering the unchartered streets of London wrote that:

“In every cry of every Man, / In every Infants cry of fear,/ In every voice: in every ban,/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.”

The clear purpose of those children of Albion is to renounce those self-forged chains…

Memories of a free festival

The song was written for and performed at an open air free festival organised by David Bowie at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground, Beckenham, South London on 16 August 1969

“The children of the summer’s end
Gathered in the dampened grass,
We played Our songs and felt the London sky
Resting on our hands
It was God’s land.
It was ragged and naive.
It was Heaven.

Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life.
We claimed the very source of joy ran through.
It didn’t, but it seemed that way.
I kissed a lot of people that day.

Oh, to capture just one drop of all the ecstasy that swept that afternoon,
To paint that love upon a white balloon,
And fly it from the toppest top of all the tops that man has pushed beyond his
Brain.
Satoria must be something just the same.

We scanned the skies with rainbow eyes and saw machines of every shape and size.
We talked with tall Venusians passing through.
And Peter tried to climb aboard but the Captain shook his head
And away they soared,
Climbing through the ivory vibrant cloud.
Someone passed some bliss among the crowd.
And we walked back to the road, unchained.

The Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.
The Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.”

Michael Horovitz & the children of Albion

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Liverpool Muse by Alan Ginsberg

Albion, Albion, your children dance again 
Jerusalem’s rock established in the basements of satanic mills 

In the Sink , stone basement of City 
Vibrations of Vox electronic shudder thru brick & flesh, 
Children beautifully collared and sleeved, with tapered 
silk dungarees, 

each pubescent body thin & handsome shaking his hips, 
each darling daughter alone on the concrete snapping 
her fingers — 

The longhair guitarist snarls into a silver microphone 
& builds the drum beat to a heavy charge 
and screams on the high note — a circle 
of flesh is formed 

he screams claps and shudders, a circle of 
flesh dances round, 
six boys and two girls, shuffling left 
shuffling right hey hey, 
shuffling left shuffling right the Yoruba 
dance step come back to Mersey’s Shores — 

I stop writing and move my hips — 

the Circle is 

Complete. 

— England, ca. May- June 1965 

Published in: Pete Morgan ed., C’Mon Everybody (Corgi Books, 1971), p. 39.

I have written here previously about William Blake and his vision of Albion, about the myth of Albion in British culture and about the power of the concept in the art and writings of the neo-romantics such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.

I want to focus on a more recent exemplar of this fascination with the meaning and perpetuation of William Blake’s ideas.  Michael Horovitz is a performance poet known for social protest in his verse: in 1969 he edited and published the collection Children of Albion- poetry of the underground in Britain (Penguin).  This was at the height of the sixties counter culture and at a time of great hope for change.

In 1969 Horovitz predicted “the return of Albion’s golden age” which would be a movement following the “Blakean way.”  He saw the confirmation of this prediction all round him on swinging London of the late 60s:

“Albion’s children are strongly in evidence all over the country and- most colourfully and plentifully- all over London, at work and at play in their gardens of love, where only ‘Thou shalt not’ is taboo.- in an atmosphere of their awareness, radiating a sense of community and a more open, humane and practical way of life.”

NPG 2146; William Blake replica by John Linnell
replica by John Linnell, watercolour, 1861 (1821)

Those hopes were soon to be disappointed, but Horovitz continues to keep the dreams alive.  Interviewed in 2010 by Dazed magazine, he explained that “Albion is William Blake’s name for the soul of England.”  It represented, Horovitz went on, “England as internationalist; England as a joining of all nations, as the spiritual Jerusalem.”  His various anthologies published since 1969 (the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Albion) have all shared this Blakean impetus for internationalism.  This is perhaps well represented by his work with such artists as Damon Albarn, known for his own cross cultural musical experiments.

Horovitz regards Blake as “great grandfather William.” His thought is as urgent and relevant now as it ever was.  Albion remains an inspirational concept- politically as well as artistically– and it is a theme to which I will return in posts in the near future.

albion

The totem pole on Forest Hill

 

hm-totem-poleOn my recent visit to the Horniman Museum, I was delighted to see a totem pole facing the main road outside the building.  For decades I have admired the art of many of the Native American peoples but, living in Britain, have largely had to rely upon pictures in books and online, as well as the odd museum exhibit.  House posts and the like in particular are rare (given their size) so it was good to be able to examine one up close.

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This particular pole was carved by Nathan Jackson, a Tlingit from Alaska, in summer 1985. It’s twenty feet high and made of red cedar.  At the very top is an eagle, Nathan Jackson’s main clan crest; below that are a girl with a bag and a grizzly bear, illustrating a North West coast legend.  The bear is identifiable by his short snout, open mouth and small ears. Often they are shown with their tongues sticking out, but not in this case.

So-called ‘totem poles’ are amongst the most impressive examples of native American art, because of their size,  striking imagery and bold colours.  Luckily there are a few others in the UK that can also be studied in person.

Although these sculptures are conventionally known as ‘totem’ poles this is a misnomer.  A totem is, strictly, an animal spirit guide of an individual person and it will be associated with a number of special taboos for that person.  The preferred term for this Northwest Coast art now is crest poles.  Northwest Coast society was extremely hierarchical and concerned with status.  Each family fiercely protected its position and its property.  The symbols shown on the poles represented valuable property; the family displaying them had to have a legal right to do so and the erection of a pole partly advertised these rights. The symbols referred to episodes in the lineage or clan history or to the myths and stories of the tribe.  Culture heroes and ancestors are therefore represented in the carvings.

The poles were used for heraldic and for mortuary purposes.  They were raised to commemorate important mythical, historical or family events and to assert social links and status.  For example, the defeat or humiliation of a rival might be recorded in a monumental pole for all to see.  Five different purposes for poles have been identified:

  • memorial poles for deceased tribal leaders;
  • house poles that formed structural elements in timber houses and also bore family crests;
  • mortuary poles, that were both memorials for the dead and their tombs- the dead person would be placed in a hollow at the rear of the pole or in a box at the top;
  • freestanding heraldic poles that were erected separate from houses announcing their social messages of rights and status; and,
  • house portals– very large poles would be attached to the front of a house, incorporating an entrance hollowed through them.

Other poles that can be seen in Britain include:

  • two Haida poles dating from about 1850 at the British Museum in the central court. The Kayung totem pole is 12 metres (39 ft) high and was carved and originally located in the village of Kayung , Graham Island, in British Columbia, Canada. Kayung had been an important village for the Haida before European contact. After the population was decimated by successive smallpox epidemics in the late 1800s, Henry Wiah, the town chief, encouraged the remaining population to move to nearby Masset and the village was slowly abandoned.  Weathering on the pole means that there is no remaining paint on the surface, but the explanation of what the carvings represented is available.  The second pole was almost identical to the first one. The figure at the top represents yetl, and the design also incorporates Haida crests.  The story carved into the pole, which involves a man who tricks his wicked mother-in-law.

British_Museum_Totem_Pole_1

  • a pole by the Grand Union Canal in Berkhamsted.  This pole may seem unexpected  in Berkhamsted, so far from where it originated in British Columbia. It was commissioned by a director of the J Alsford Ltd, timber merchants and importers in 1968 and stands on the site of one of the company’s wood-yards, now the gardens of some flats. The red cedar wood pole was carved and designed by the Kwaguilth (Kwakiutl) artist Chief Henry Hunt.  This pole possible depicts how the Raven brought light to the world.  The figures shown on the pole are:Bottom: Sisiutl- a mythical two-headed sea serpent. He is a source of good fortune and a protector and as such is often depicted on house fronts;Hawkman Sun- can easily be identified by the rays protruding from his face. The figure is the essence of light;

    Top- Raven- who is many things, including the creator and also known as the trickster. He is a powerful figure who brought light to the world.

     

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  • at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.  This Haida  totem pole is from Star House in Massett village on the Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada.  It is carved from red cedar and is  11.36m high.  The house was built around 1882 and belonged to chief Anetlas (c.1816 – 1893).  The pole was originally raised at a ‘potlatch’ marking Anetlas’ adoption of a young girl. A potlatch is a ceremony held by peoples of the Northwest Coast at which a person is given traditional family rights; it involves reciting family lineages and rights in front of witnesses from other families. The guests are given gifts and a feast, and their acceptance of these marks their agreement to uphold the rights transferred to the person in that potlatch.  The figures depicted on this pole include: a bear holding a man.;  three seated figures or watchmen- these figures are typical of Haida poles.  They sit with their knees up  at the top of the pole providing supernatural protection.  Their hats are composed of rings marking previous potlatches; bear with a frog in its mouth and a bear cub between its legs; bear holding a human with two bear cubs at its feet; and, raven with a human between its wings- raven is identifiable by its long beak and its wings at its side.

 

pr pole

As will be seen, three separate tribes’work are represented in Britain.  There are stylistic differences between them:

  • Haida– they are renowned for the number and scale of their poles.  Their work tends to emphasise the animal characters to the exclusion of people.  A wide range of creatures are used;
  • Tlingit– their poles are smaller, seldom over 30′ high.  They tend to be memorial or mortuary poles and are often very simple with a single bird or animals;
  • Kwakiutl– these are often the most colourful and animated of poles.

 

I will also mention that this trip was preceded by lunch at Persepolis cafe in Peckham.  Chef and food writer Sally Butcher runs this tiny shop and restaurant; if you overlook the cheery chaos of the heaped up shelves and the dire need for a refurbishment (I loved the ceiling held up with sellotape) you will enjoy excellent vegetarian Persian food.

 

A Navajo sandpainting in South London

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On a recent visit to South London I visited the Horniman Museum and was excited to find a Navajo sand-painting in the main foyer.  I have a longstanding interest in the culture, art, history and language of the Dine (the Navajo) so I was particularity thrilled to discover this large example of their art.  I own a few very small sand-paintings of my own, but they are partial representations of only a few figures.  This was an authentic, full scale example of the form. The particular design at the Horniman is called Whirling log and was made at the museum by Navajo singer Fred Stevens in 1966.  This design was deliberately left incomplete so that it has no religious power or significance.

In 2004, after ten years in storage, the painting underwent extensive conservation and was restored to prominent display.  It is made from powdered sandstone, root and charcoal and is nearly six feet square, so it is a very impressive and striking.  It is an excellent example of Navajo iconography and of their complex religious and ceremonial ideas and practices.  The paintings represent elements from the creation myths of the people and are employed by healers to help restore hozho- that is, good balance, harmony and order.

Sand-paintings are iikaah- ‘places where the gods come and go.’  Once the healer (hataali) has diagnosed the cause of the patient’s malady, the aim is to summon supernatural forces to help restore hozho.  The Navajo universe is composed of good and evil elements, of aspects that are under control and those that are not.  The purpose of hozho is to bridge the gap between the two and to re-establish an equilibrium.

The root of much illness is seen as  psychological and the healing chants, which involve, as well as the sand-paintings, long recitations over two, five or even nine nights and various other ritual practices, are aimed at enabling the sufferer to ‘walk in beauty’ again. The patient will sit on the sand-painting facing east and the Holy People summoned by the images in the particular painting being used will arrive to view the representations of themselves. In so doing they infuse the picture with their healing power.  This is then transferred manually to the sick person, who temporarily is united with the supernatural.

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As the images are used in traditional religious ceremonies, the displayed picture is not actually complete: this means that it is suitable to be used for permanent display.  Usually the pictures are destroyed as soon as they have been used in a healing ceremony.  Normally it would have been swept away at the end of the ceremony and dumped to the north of the patient’s home, blocking the return of the evil in the future.

The whirling log (tsil’ol-ni) story occurs in two of the Navajo’s healing chants (Night way and Feather way).  The hero of the story, Self teacher, sets out on a long journey after he falls out with his family over gambling losses.  At first the gods try to dissuade him from going, but once they see that he is determined, they help him hollow out a log to float downstream along the river.  He sets off with his pet turkey and has various adventures on the way, such as being captured by the Water Monster and carried to the home of the Water People.  Self teacher is only released after one of the gods threatens to burn down Water Monster’s house. All the same, during his captivity Self teacher acquires ceremonial knowledge, such as how to cure the illnesses caused by the Water People.  When he finally arrives at the lake that is his destination, the gods help the hero ashore by catching and holding his spinning log.

The final surprise comes when Self teacher is reunited with his pet turkey, which shakes its wings, releasing the seeds put there by the gods. Self teacher then plants a field of crops that quickly ripen for harvest. He returns home to share the knowledge of farming that he has gained and the cures that he has learned from Frog.

Whirling log represents a lake in the centre with logs floating to the shore, pointing north, south, east and west (the sacred directions in Navajo cosmography). Male and female deities (yei) stand on the logs holding evergreen branches and with ribbons hanging from their elbows.  Radiating are the four sacred plants (white corn, yellow pumpkin, grey bean, and black tobacco) brought as gifts.  Around the logs stand the four gods who assist the hero- Talking god, Hastye-o-gahn and two Biighaa’ask’idii  (with the hump shaped deerskin bag on his back and the weasel medicine bag in his hand).  All these deities are male and so are depicted with round heads; they wear mountain sheep horns on their heads.  They are enclosed and protected by a female deity, Rainbow girl.  The picture is open to the east, from which direction it is hard for evil to enter according to Navajo belief.

Here is an excerpt from the Navajo Night chant:

“House made of dawn.
House made of evening light.
House made of the dark cloud.
House made of male rain.
House made of dark mist.
House made of female rain.
House made of pollen.
House made of grasshoppers.

Dark cloud is at the door.
The trail out of it is dark cloud.
The zigzag lightning stands high upon it.
An offering I make.
Restore my feet for me.
Restore my legs for me.
Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
Restore my voice for me.
This very day take out your spell for me.

Happily I recover.
Happily my interior becomes cool.
Happily I go forth.
My interior feeling cool, may I walk.
No longer sore, may I walk.
Impervious to pain, may I walk.
With lively feelings may I walk.
As it used to be long ago, may I walk.

Happily may I walk.
Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant showers, may I walk.
Happily, with abundant plants, may I walk.
Happily on a trail of pollen, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.
Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.
In beauty it is finished.”

The Horniman museum also has a display of world musical instruments, showing in particular how the classical instruments of the West evolved.  Although I learned the flute at school and play the guitar, this room was a bit dull for me: it is just racks of oboes and bassoons, really.  There’s also a display of stuffed animals, which passes a few entertaining moments.  The ethnographic gallery was shut’ til next year sadly.  We visited on a Saturday- the place was overrun with small children, as it probably always is.  I’ll visit again in 2018 on a weekday, I think (!).  There’s a park outside which, as the site is at the crest of the Dulwich Hills, has stunning views north and west over central London. The fantastic panorama alone might justify the visit.

Lastly I must mention that this trip began in Peckham with a visit to Persepolis cafe, the very excellent Iranian restaurant and shop run by cookery writer Sally Butcher.  It’s highly recommended as a place to eat; if you like the cuisine, have a look at her books Persepolis and Veggiestan (amongst others).

“Sous les pavés, la plage!”-revealing the real Britain

paris

Sous les pavés, le plage!” ‘Under the paving stones, the beach!’ was one of the Situationist slogans of the Parisian students during les evenments of 1968.  It was a literal reference to the fact that, in lifting the street cobbles for use as missiles against the police, the bedding layer of sand beneath was exposed, but simultaneously it fitted well with the more surreal slogans that were being adopted by the protesters at the time: ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’; ‘It is forbidden to forbid.’

In this posting I want to adapt this slogan and instead to declare “Under the streets, the fields!” (Sous les rues, les champs!)  I want us to remind ourselves that, in contemporary Britain, an older, more natural world is not far away.  Under the motorway is the Roman road; beneath the tarmac runs the green lane.  Our deep history is not far below the surface: modern concrete and glass sit on foundations of Tudor brick, medieval stone, Roman tiles and the traces of the timber frames of British huts.  Britain is a long-inhabited land and we are surrounded by the traces of the former occupiers- not just the obvious castles and churches, but a farmhouse marooned by encroaching suburbs or an old inn on a high street.  The relics may be more subtle still- the marks of old ploughing in fields, the way that old hedge lines shape modern street plans.

Geoffrey Household captured this sense of age and long usage when he described the green lanes between Bridport and Axminster.  Depicting Marshwood Vale in his novel Rogue male he described “a ridge of a half moon of low rabbit cropped hills, the horns of which rested upon the sea, enclosing between them a small lush valley.”  The outer and northern slopes of this crescent look down on Marshwood Vale.  Within the crescent were lanes worn down by generations of pack horses that ran fifteen feet deep or more below the level of the fields.  “The trade-worn contours of red and green upon the flanks of the hills are very dear to me.”  He described “an ancient little high road” deep and dark, with thick hedges grown together over the top, hidden to all but the most observant.

a-green-lane-below-golden-cap

The tendency of the English to seek solace from their land and from the traces of former residents is a very old one.  Bede, as a very early example, often referred to British forts, Roman earthworks, ruined tombs and so on; Peter Ackroyd notes that, like Aubrey and Stukeley a thousand years later, Bede “was already possessed by a vision of English antiquity among old stones and broken monuments…”

We all need the reassurance of a sense of constancy.  Poet and artist David Jones, writing In parenthesis (1939), evoked “the creaturely world inherited from our remote past.”  As T. S. Eliot realised, “whatever happens began in the past and presses on the future:” “the past is about to happen and the future was long since settled.”  Our past informs our present and our future: this is true in cultural as well as material terms.  For the neo-romantic artists of the 1940s, British history provided “a projected past which found its origins in the land of Britain itself.”  Linking together Blake, King Arthur and other visionary legends, they created “an organic myth of rocks, hills and Arcadia: a myth of origins to be drawn out by artists like Sutherland and Craxton …  Some other Eden was mapped upon the country … a national fantasy of Britain-as-Eden … turned into a blitzed ruin by the Second World War.” (David Mellor, A paradise lost, 1987)

We can respond broadly in two ways to our landscape.  One is a response to its mystical meaning, the other is the feeling of profound age and inheritance that I have described. The two are not separate, of course, as the sense of the physical past can conjure up in our imaginations a Britain as ahistorical as the legendary realms of King Arthur.

The searchers for the (imagined) past include painter John Piper, who responded to the English landscape by searching out old buildings and sites; for him these relics embodied the core of the ‘real’ England.  Peter Ackroyd expresses similar sentiments in his novel First light.  One character remarks “This landscape looks so deep.  It looks as if it’s been inhabited for thousands and thousands of years.”  The landscape in question is the Devon/ Dorset border, with which another character is ‘obsessed.’  “He believed that this place had its own sound- he had always heard a peculiarly soft quality in its bird song- and its own smells.  And when he saw the cattle and sheep peacefully grazing in the fields he could feel the pressure of its beneficence, its curves and folds cradling the life which seemed to have issued from it.  It possessed an almost human presence, as if the generations of those who had dwelt upon its surface had left some faint echo…”  In his history of Albion Ackroyd draws upon W. G. Hoskins’ Making of the English landscape when he states that “Much of [the English] landscape still rises and declines in ancient patterns, which hold their own stories of lives laboriously led.  The lines of ditches and hedgerows represent an ancient order; even densely built urban areas can reflect an older reality. Nineteenth century Nottingham, for example, was ‘largely determined by the medieval footpaths and furlongs of the open fields.'”  The echoes of the past reverberate around us, then; the very landscape is a palimpsest.  In the same history, Ackroyd remarks that “it has been argued that, if antiquity is deeply embedded in place and time, the extant physical memorials are not necessary.”  He does not, however, appear to be wholly convinced by this: later he contends that “the power and forces of past time … are not easily destroyed; they remain visible beneath the surface of the earth.”  He suggests rather that “the whole of Anglo-Saxondom [is not] a matter of race but one, quite simply, of place- of place and of spirit, the spirit being born of the environment.”

For English artists landscape can portray allegorical images that conjure up another dimension, an unseen reality beyond everyday appearances .  Mystical ideas of a hidden landscape and ‘psychogeography’ have become woven into our culture, so that the evocation of past habitations and past inhabitants can elicit deeper reverberations of old myths- old gods and old heroes- the ‘magical and spiritual realm of Britain” (Peter Woodcock, This enchanted isle, pp.1, 3 & 4)- as well as the mere imaginings of a material past that has passed away.  Paul Nash sought for ‘the things behind’ the landscape, the dweller in the inner-most, the concealed significance of Albion.

waylands-smithy

Wildlife writer Richard Jefferies is just one author who experienced the intersection of the mystical and the antiquarian.  Living just outside Swindon, he loved the ancient Ridgeway route, lovingly describing how a “broad green track runs for many a long, long mile across the downs, now following the ridges, now winding past at the foot of a grassy slope…” (Wildlife in a southern county, 1879).  For Jefferies, as many for many of us I suspect, contact with nature had something of communion about it.  “To me, everything is supernatural,” he said, even to the degree that walking over London Bridge he could be conscious of “the sun, the sky, the limitless space and was in the midst of eternity, in the midst of the supernatural.”  (The story of my heart, c.3)

Being in a landscape (urban or rural) can transport us: we can be carried through time and we can travel in the imagination.  In his history of Albion Peter Ackroyd asked “Can dwelling become a form of indwelling or imaginative life?”  This posting argues that it can- and that it has.  A sense of the past can give a sensation of security, of continuity and of solidarity.  We are part of a material and narrative texture, a fabric of history and inheritance that we can use to give meaning and form to our present and to shape our future.  To revert to Eliot: “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.”

Peter Ackroyd concludes his history of ‘Albion’ with an epilogue meditating upon the ‘territorial imperative,’ as he terms it.  He thinks it is the most powerful impulse in British culture, “by means of which a local area can influence or guide all those who inhabit it.” This ‘local area’ can include the entire nation.  “English writers and artists, English composers and folk-singers have been haunted by this sense of place, in which the echoic simplicities of past use or past tradition sanctify a certain spot of ground … in England the reverence for the past and the affinity for the natural landscape join together in a mutual embrace.  So, we owe much to the ground on which we dwell.  It is the landscape and the dreamscape.  It encourages a sense of longing and belonging.  It is Albion.”