‘The ancient dead’- Eden Phillpotts and Dartmoor

Scorhill

Scorhill stone circle

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was an English author, poet and dramatist. Born in India, was educated in Plymouth, Devon, and worked as an insurance officer in London for ten years before studying for the stage and eventually becoming a writer based in Exeter.

eden phillpotts younger

Phillpotts was for many years the President of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and cared passionately about the conservation of  the moorland and its antiquities. Phillpotts was an astonishingly prolific writer and wrote a cycle of eighteen novels and two volumes of short stories with a Dartmoor setting.  For more detail of his intimate relationship to the moorland landscape, see the discussion on the Legendary Dartmoor website.

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The menhir at Merrivale stone rows

For a fine evocation of the neolithic monuments of Dartmoor, here’s his poem The neolith:

“Sole standing in utter loneliness- superbly alone-
A monolith ruggedly lifts, with the roseal ling at its feet.
Only the murmur of bees and twinkle and throb of the heat
On the league-long height, and a shade from the granite thrown.

Roll upon roll of the moor flung out on a sky-line free;
Clouds at the zenith blue; in the flower-clad earth beneath
The dust of a neolith: one who swept over this heath
As the chieftain of vanished hordes and their fate and their destiny.

When he died, that no mocking phantom, or jealous shade
Of him mighty, should darken their lodge in the distant glen,
They brought their lord hither, on shoulders of mourning men,
And tore at their hair and howled long and fierce music made.

Then they sought for a stone of girth, that should evermore mark his place
And be seen for remembrance, afar on the frowning hill,
Of that leader of men, whose right arm and resistless will
Had lifted his clan to power and to splendour and pride of face.

He was cooped with his knees to his chin in a granite kist,
And a granite flake over his head that should last till doom.
So near doth he seem that one feels him not dead in his tomb,
But crouching, alive and alert, with a warrior’s axe in his fist.

Does he hear the old gods of the thunder? Can summer sun
Reach down to his pit? May his ears still discern the rain
Hissing over the heather, or tell if the purple stain
From a cloud-shadow dims his grey stone? When the ponies run,

Can he mark the dull drumming above of their unshod feet?
Does he chill when the snowdrift is clogged on the frozen ground?
Does he thrill to the shout of the stream, or the bay of the hound,
Or heed the sad curlew’s cry and the brown snipe bleating his bleat?

Nay, for nothing lies under the grass but the buried stones,
Or mayhap a primeval crock, or a fleck of red rust;
For the hero is earth of the earth, and its dust is his dust,
And his flesh is the flesh of the peat, and its bones are his very bones.

That master of men is ascended, for good or for bane,
And life after life hath he lived and relinquished since then—
In the heather and herbage and birds, in the beetles and foxes and men,
Each in their turn sprung of earth, each in their turn earth again.

Yesterday clad with great thews, that builded a chieftain of might;
To-day where the milkwort and fern and the starry tormentil
Spread joy by the auburn beck and loveliness on the hill;
To-morrow a moorman’s fire at the fall of a winter’s night.

And the aura, so azure clear, that is running above the red,
Was the glow of a savage heart imprisoned within the brand;
And the warmth on your hand was the sun on a stone-man’s hand
From the far-off, hard-bitten days that were lived by the ancient dead.

So mutable myriads wake to the ring of their morning chime;
So mutable myriads pass at the set of their final sun;
And only Matter remains- the august, the unchanging one-
But no shape and no shadow of aught that she moulds on the wheel of Time.

And ye who would bring man his soul from a mystical matrix apart;
And ye who would conjure man’s life to a land beyond Matter’s ken,
Must proclaim how her rape overtook her, and wherefore, and when,
Ere we bend to your idols, or take these your fairyland stories to heart.”

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“I am excessively fond of a cottage”- ‘Detectorists’, rural idylls and the English character

cottage

“For my own part,” said he, “I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them. And I protest, if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself, within a short distance of London, where I might drive myself down at any time, and collect a few friends about me, and be happy. I advise every body who is going to build, to build a cottage.” Robert Ferrars to Elinor Dashwood, Sense and sensibility, c.36, Jane Austen

On Wednesday December 13th the BBC broadcast the last ever episode of Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists.  He concluded the series and tied up many unresolved elements in the plot in his usual elegant, if oblique, manner: the feuding groups of detectorists were reconciled, Varde proposed to Louise, Lance and Andy finally found their Roman gold (spilled from a magpie’s nest in the very last moments of the programme) and Andy and Becky bought a family home- an ideal rural cottage ornee in the Gothic style that was so popular in the early nineteenth century.

The cottage ornee was  a deliberate design innovation of the first decades of the 1800s; it rejected the classical formalism of the Georgian period, in which form was more important than function, and promoted an architecture in which comfort and convenience were the paramount considerations.  Cosiness of accommodation, it might be said, triumphed over appearance.  It was, of course, an elite preoccupation: design books were issued by architects for wealthy patrons who were building primarily for themselves.  They were not interested in the needs of their tenants as such, although estate cottages did often appear in this style.

As Robert Ferrars suggests, there was something more than mere accommodation involved here.  The fashion was part of a very English yearning for a mythical version of England- a ‘merrie England’ in which roses twined over the pointed Gothic window frames.  The building manner involved a flight from the contemporary and the urban to a largely imaginary rural past in which the cottage dweller felt safe and comforted.

lance

In Detectorists lead character Andy several times expressed a wish to have a shed.  This shed is a metaphor for some far greater aspiration or dream: it stands for a garden, a little patch of land to cultivate; it represents a bucolic Eden enclosed by a hedge- a private paradise of hollyhocks and butterflies and seclusion.  Andy and Becky’s attainment of the English dream of ownership of a cottage with a country garden is a deeply characteristic English trajectory.  The retreat to rural independence and self sufficiency, the cottage as castle within the protective hedge, is a pattern repeated in English history, for instance by the Diggers and the Chartist Land Company, as well as by many individual refugees from town and city.

The series Detectorists (as I have proposed previously) reflected many deep seated traits of English character- attachment to the countryside and nature, affection for small country towns, an instinctive responsiveness to the past.  In the main characters’ aspiration to possession of their own piece of bucolic paradise, the series portrayed one of the deepest tendencies within our culture, the wish to escape from the settlements and the sources of wealth generation which many might regard as characteristic of the British nation and to revert to something simpler, older and more innocent.  Blur parodied this instinctive desire in their 1995 song Country house:

“He lives in a house
A very big house in the country

Oh, it’s like an animal farm
That’s the rural charm in the country.”

Nonetheless, despite the satire, the song perfectly identifies the wish of the “City dweller, successful fella” to renounce the roots and venue of his success and to reinvent a quasi-medieval ideal.  Whether it’s stockbrokers or hippie communes, the English can’t resist the urge.

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Damon Albarn and the others go a bit Benny Hill…

 

 

 

‘Stairway to heaven’- Led Zeppelin, Tolkien and the dream of Albion

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This post is just a quick plug and link to a posting I’ve made on my separate music blog, Broadcast Barnsley.  I’ve written about the song ‘Stairway to heaven’ by Led Zeppelin and discussed what I consider to be the themes of pastoralism and rural retreat I detect in its lyrics.  I consider the heaven of the title to be a semi-mythical Albion for which all British people have an innate and often unconscious yearning.

Read the post here.  Read about my general writing and blogging on the music scene on my website.

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The mystical vision of England

avebury

Avebury, by Penny Morrison

My starting point for this posting is, once again, Peter Ackroyd’s Albion.  In chapter twenty three, The mysterious voice, he discusses the mystical tradition of medieval England and its contribution to the overall theme of his book- ‘The origins of the English imagination.’

Ackroyd writes that:

“The mystical tradition on England is of mysterious origin.  It must be in some way associated with those early intimations of the supernatural in the land of mist and ghosts [he refers here to Anglo-Saxon poetry which he covers earlier in the book]; English is the language of vision.”

He notes the evolution of the term ‘mystical’ from its original sense, which is properly employed in respect of such religious writers as Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle and William Hilton.  In this context the word describes a personal, ecstatic spiritual experience; as such, it “is not directly related to the visionary imagination.” From the seventeenth century onwards, though, the word is acquired its sense of “ancient or occult wisdom.”  In this sense we have used it of later writers and artists and their responses to the English landscape.

Nonetheless, in the works of the solitary and meditative writers like Rolle, Ackroyd traces the origins of native individualism, of a visionary strand in English art and of the “unheard melody” of their prose, full of singing and sweetness.  Even in its origins, there is a suggestion of mystical meanings in landscape and nature.  For example, Julian of Norwich describes a submarine vision or revelation:

“I was led in imagination down to the sea-bed and there I saw green hills and valleys looking as though they were moss-covered, with seaweed and sand.”

The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing shapes that most British of features, the enveloping grey cloud, into a symbol of mystic significance:

“Ween not, for I call it a darkness or a cloud, that it is any cloud congealed of the humours that flee in the air, nor yet any darkness such as is in the house on night when the candle is out.  For such a darkness and such a cloud mayest thou imagine with curiosity of wit, for to bear before thine eyes in the lightest day of summer and also contrariwise in the darkest night of winter.”

Behind these homely and familiar images, there lies a more mysterious meaning.

Hidden meaning in the British landscape  has, of course, been a theme of many of my previous posts and has run through the work of many artists and writers about whom I have written, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Paul Nash to name only a few.  Today, I’ll cite novelist and poet John Cowper Powys, of whom Philip Pulman has said that:

“Powys evoked the English landscape with an almost sexual intensity.  Hardy comes to mind, but a Hardy drunk and feverish with mystical exuberance.”

Powys himself described the “psychic chemistry of religious sites older than Christianity” and the sense that the land around Glastonbury “reeked with the honey lotus of all the superstitions of the world.”  His general position was set out in the Meaning of culture (1929, p.178):

“It is strange how few people make more than a casual cult of enjoying Nature. And yet the earth is actually and literally the mother of us all. One needs no strange spiritual faith to worship the earth.”

This connection was felt by fellow Cymru-phile David Jones and by Gwent born author Arthur Machen, a sense encapsulated in his novel The hill of dreams.  We”ll have more to say about this theme; in the meantime, go out and make contact with the profound among the hills and valleys of Albion!  For fuller details of my fiction and nonfiction writings on British folklore, see my website.

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Bant’s Carn, St Mary’s, Ian Cooke

“The ghostly language of the ancient earth”- finding (and founding) Albion

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John Piper, ‘Wiltshire archaeology’

Albion– an old word for an old place.  But I feel we need to use it in a new way, to express an old emotion free of some of the associations that have attached themselves to other names.

Love for your home country is an inborn sensation, just as a sense of national identity seems to be.  But what is that identity formed from?  We are all just stories we tell to ourselves and nationality is just one element in those stories.  It’s woven from many things: from memories of home, of holidays, of history lessons at school and from books we have read; it crystallises out of pictures we have seen and views enjoyed from trains and cars.  It is the product of a set of accidents and is shaped as much by choice as by circumstance.   With Yorkshire roots but with antecedents also from Sunderland, Manchester, Cornwall, Ireland and Germany, what are my origins, what are my roots? Does ‘home’ change with time, so that a couple of decades resident in London now make me more attached to the capital and to Essex than to my birthplace?  Is belonging just a matter of imagination and volition?

 

Cartoon-for-the-Stained-Glass-Window-at-Wiltshire-Museum-by-John-Piper-600x400

John Piper, ‘Cartoon for the stained glass window at Wiltshire museum.’

And yet, there is no denying a sense of attachment to certain places and certain landscapes, and to the ideas and that they evoke- to my own particular formulation and conception of ‘national pride.’  I might have said Englishness, which would have been accurate enough, except whilst chalk figures, downland, hill-forts, fields and pastures, woods and castles are all configurations of natural and built environment that can be uniquely English, I hesitate about the labels:

  • English describes a country from the south coast to the Border at Hadrian’s Wall, but it carries with it other meanings- wars with France, invasions of neighbouring lands, drunken football fans on the rampage, a particular ethnic pride waving the St George flag;
  • British evokes an island and the rich diversities of landscape and culture from Cornwall to Caithness, but there are too memories of the British Empire and those other connotations of ‘Great’ Britain, outdated but persistent as they are; and,
  • United Kingdom is a purely political identity; I may more readily say that I am English or British but few can identify with the UK as a real place, not least now that it faces dissolution though devolution and since UKIP gave it a particular separatist and isolationist meaning and further narrowed and politicised it.

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John Piper, ‘Salisbury plain.’

Which brings us to Albion, a name unfreighted with the burdens of the past.  It’s a name from literature and history that more readily suggests the unique combination of land and culture, of geography and  history, of art and imagination, memory and inspiration that inspires and motivates me.  Albion has emotional meaning- and not just for me: witness Peter Ackroyd’s 2002 cultural history entitled Albion.  He quotes Ford Madox Ford (The spirit of the people, 1912) to the effect that “It is not- the whole of Anglo-Saxondom- a matter of race, but one quite simply of place- of place and of spirit, the spirit of being born of the environment.”  Ackroyd also shares with John Cowper Powys a sense that “the spirit of the earth called out to him from the green shoots beneath his feet so that he was filled with the genius loci and sustained by it.”  In his earlier novel First light he described in the Dorset landscape an “almost human presence,” as if the foregoing generations had left an echo.  With Wordsworth (Prelude, Book 2, School tree) Ackroyd hears “the ghostly language of the ancient earth,” and himself concludes (p.448) that his subject is “the landscape and the dreamscape.  It encourages a sense of longing and belonging.  It is Albion.”

Perhaps the time is right to rediscover and reestablish Albion.  For fuller details of my fiction and nonfiction writings on British folklore, see my website.

avebury restored

John Piper, ‘Avebury restored’

 

‘Into the valley’- The mystery of hidden vales

It’s rooted in human nature to be drawn to the enclosed and mysterious.  Perhaps we’re drawn by our deepest instincts; as towards caves, we are attracted to safe and secluded spots where we can rest and eat.  There is too a romantic attraction: we are excited by the prospects of discovering the unknown; we hope to uncover secrets; we are inclined to explore- impelled by curiosity and enticed by the chance of finding something new and previously unseen.

St-Loy

In my recent trip to Cornwall, we made a journey of exploration that had been long promised but never undertaken.  Sailing on the ship the Scillonian from Penzance to the Scillies, you pass along the south coast of Penwith; just west of Lamorna is the wooded valley of St Loy.  There are houses there, amongst the trees, but there is no public road.  We had been lured for many years- and on this trip we finally got there.  We parked the car on the edge of the highway and followed a wooded valley by a stream down towards the coast.  It felt remote and private- although it was none of these things in all truth, something that was revealed when we reached the expensive residences near the mouth of the valley- where the coast path traverses the cove.  Still, it was our adventure; our mission of discovery.  The stream cascaded pleasantly down to the sea; there was a private beach- entirely composed of giant boulders, I must admit- but, nonetheless, our beach for which we had worked that morning.  The sun was hot and the sea lapped on the rocks and we felt that the decades of waiting had been worth it.

You can stay there in a B&B, and have the beach entirely to yourselves (and the few other residents at night).  The drive down the private track, through overhanging trees and round twists and turns, will surely engender the same sense of being explorers in a new and hidden world.  There will never be crowds and there will always be seclusion and silence.

Other valleys that I love to explore include:

  • Cusop Dingle, just outside Hay on Wye.  It’s lined with houses along its length, as the road peters out into the depths of the hills, and a wide and rocky stream tumbles down towards the Wye.  You can walk up on the road- but return along the bank and through the fields, with vistas of the town and castle spread before you.

Cusop

  • Holy Vale on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly.  You can reach this by three ways, from the main road down a side road- which is as dull as it sounds; by walking up from the coast through a nature reserve and then into the wooded lower reaches of the valley, which is pleasant or, my favourite, my turning off the road near Sunnyside farm and following a rutted and rocky track down into the Vale.  Even on peaceful Scilly, this place seems quiet and out of the way.  This has to be a theme and part of the attraction of these spots: it is enclosed, hidden, free from traffic and noise.  There has to be the sense of being the first discoverer, of arriving for the here before anyone else has trodden these paths.

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Rocky-Valley

  • St Nectan’s Glen– another Cornish site, to be found just north along the coast from Tintagel (of purported Arthurian fame).  The glen extends on both sides of the main road heading towards Bude.  The coast-ward site which is called Rocky Valley and by the National Trust features ruined buildings and rock carved mazes.  The upper side is a path which follows the tumbling River Trevillet towards it source.  There are three waterfalls, but at the ‘kieve’ at the head of the glen there is an impressive 60′ fall cascading into a pool.  Access is through a rather pleasant cafe which has a new age gift shop.  The walk is a modest challenge (muddy in wet weather with some slight scrambling involved) but the cafe provides a fitting end, especially the outdoor area surrounded by trees, birds and the sound of the water.

St Nectan's Kieve

  • Luxulyan Valley, mid-Cornwall.  A road runs through this from Luxulyan village down to St Blazey, but you have to stop, best near the Trefry viaduct, and climb up the slopes to explore.  It’s a remarkable combined landscape or ancient and modern, and it takes my breath away.  The valley is littered along its slopes and the river bed with vast boulders.  They are concentrated in this one spot, huge and incredible.  Amongst these obstacles weaves the remnants of earlier industry- a leet half way up the slope and the bridge, which is in fact an aqueduct with water still running beneath your feet under granite slabs.  The whole thing is stunning and overwhelming for the geographical and human scale; man and nature have reshaped the land in amazing ways.

treffry-viaduct

Valleys have always had their special place in art, too, from William Blake’s Vales of Middlesex to Samuel Palmer’s Valley of Vision at Shoreham.  His pictures there capture exactly the sense of protection and mystery I am seeking to evoke.

A Hilly Scene c.1826-8 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

 

Stolen continent? some reflections with Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Dine (Navajo) code talkers in WWII

America is literally unimaginable without plundered labour shackled to plundered land” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Guardian newspaper for September 30th.  The article was an extract from his forthcoming book, We were eight years in power (Hamish Hamilton, 5th October) which discusses the legacies of slavery and the Civil War in the contemporary USA.  He challenges “the accepted conception of America as a beacon of freedom” and stresses that much of its economy was founded upon slave labour employed upon “abundant land stolen from Native Americans.”  This last phrase struck a chord and reminded me of Ronald Wright’s book Stolen continents

collins

From the age of seven or eight I was gripped by the ‘American Indian.’  My Collins Wonder Colour Book of Indians filled my head with images of ferocious Iroquois and Pueblo dancers with snakes in their mouths.  The interest stayed with me into adulthood, maturing into an anthropological, artistic and linguistic fascination.  I have written before about totem poles and sand-paintings; that is one aspect of that abiding interest.  I have written too on language- a short sketch in The native American languages- an introduction and a much longer study called Lost by translationThe title is a tribute to Wright’s book and the text is a study of the theft of a continent and the destruction of linguistic diversity from the perspective of the spoken word.

Meanwhile I read, widely: on the inexorable conquest by disease and military technology, on the myth of Manifest Destiny and on the resistance by ‘hostile savages.’  All colonialism is shameful and cruel history, but the genocide and occupation of the ‘wild west’ seemed to me particularly unprincipled and iniquitous- and especially at odds with that claim to be the ‘land of the free.’ Coates argues that there is a fundamental self-deception here: a refusal to admit the true dynamics and structures of US society.  In a book published in 2015 I had a character raise the same question during an argument.  How can a country that had slavery until the 1860s and apartheid until the 1960s be so assertive about democracy and liberty?  It seems that the washichu may still have much work to do to right the wrongs of the past.

For full details of my writing on languages, especially those of native North America, please see my website.

Monahsetah

Monahsetah- Cheyenne woman associated with Custer (see ‘Lost by translation’)