This peculiar people…

David-Jones-3

‘Vexilla regis’, (detail), by David Jones

In my last posting I mentioned the verse of David Jones.  I recently read his book The Anathemata and particularly was struck by these lines:

“according to the disciplina 

of the peculiar people

in accord with the intentions

of all people

and kindreds

Et gentium, cenheilloedd und Vȍlker…”

He saw the British as uniquely compounded of three elements, ancient British (Celtic), Latin (Roman and French) and Germanic (English).  He was thinking primarily culturally, but it could apply genetically too.

The cultural and racial mix of the population of the British Isles is indeed complex: there is the ancient British strain, to which are added Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman, French and (more recently) African and Asian.  It would be untrue to suggest that this is unique: for example, the French too could point to Celtic roots, overlain with Roman, Frankish Norman and Breton.  Whilst the Gaulish influence is minimal, long before submerged by Roman and other inputs, the role of British/ Breton culture is far more significant, as demonstrated in the Arthurian legends.

Assertions of national or racial distinctiveness risk accusations of chauvinism, if not racism. Every people wants to feel special and will gather the stories and artifacts to prove this. Nevertheless, the British people do have a claim to their own special-ness, their own peculiarity.  They have combined a very particular blend of people, myths, languages and landscapes.  This in turn has produced a ‘peculiar’ or distinct art and culture, with such products as our ancient monuments- Stonehenge, Avebury, Stenness and similar; the hill figures on our chalk uplands; a literature with European and then worldwide influence in the form of the Arthurian romances along with many other notable poets and playwrights.

Separately, in my work on British folklore (see my blog britishfairies.wordpress.com and my book British fairiesGreen Magic Publishing, 2017), I have been reading recently about contemporary thinking on the nature and purpose of ‘fairies.’  One view often advanced is that the represent the spirit of land, the ‘genius loci’ as we have called it in previous postings.  This may be a very helpful way of understanding these beliefs- they are an animation of the natives’ response to their home- the land personified, perhaps.

613pGpHdP4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Advertisements

“Like long barrow sleepers”

eric-ravilious-the-wilmington-giant-print

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.

1192-400

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.”

“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.”

EPUB002255

 

Me, David and Bill

ziggy

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…

AS

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.

tumblr_lh4gs8kozo1qgkbz6o1_400

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

1969 DB

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

1086384

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.

hm-2

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.

     

bsted

  • 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.