Midsummer’s Day arrived early, before summer had really got going. But the rain that fell during the shortest night had cleared the air, settling most of the grass pollen that dominates so many of my summer walks. So I took the opportunity to wander among the meadows with a book, and nothing seemed more appropriate than Laurie Lee’s childhood memoir, Cider with Rosie.
I didn’t have to wander far. Last year the sound of lambs growing up on this meadow was a kind of soundtrack to the spring, and I had a good spot lined up in my mind. Except, when I got there, the meadow seemed to have disappeared. The grassy verge around the field had been sterilized with Round-up, and the meadow itself had been ploughed and replanted with a fast growing rye grass. But, not to be perturbed, I found the spot I was looking for. In the corner of the field there was a half-forgotten old barn, tumbling down but patched up with a very eclectic combination of bricks, pallets, corrugated iron and breeze blocks. The floor was still covered in sheep dung, and a lonely-looking International Harvester 430 hay-baling machine had wool caught on its corners, where sheep had used it as a scratching post. I sat leaning against a tyre to read.
Cider with Rosie is organised by theme rather than chronology, as though all the memories are a bit of a blur. But if Lee’s recollections are blurring as to the generalities of what happened when, he more than makes up for it in his elaborations on the particular incidents, characters and places. As it was Midsummer’s Day, I decided to focus on the more summery chapters, where Laurie and his gang from the village while away their holidays, roaming the countryside at leisure.
Nothing moved or happened, nothing happened at all except summer. Small heated winds blew over our faces, dandelion seeds floated by, burnt sap and roast nettles tingled our nostrils together with the dull rust smell of dry ground. The grass was June high and had come up with a rush, a massed entanglement of species, crested with flowers and spears of wild wheat, and coiled with clambering vetches, the whole of it humming with blundering bees and flickering with scarlet butterflies. (150)
The sky today was a uniform pale grey, and only jackdaws broke the monotonous sound of the wind. I couldn’t decide whether to be sceptical or enchanted by Lee’s nostalgia. An important part of nostalgia is the sense that what has gone is gone forever, and the setting for my reading did seem to encourage this. It was almost as though, if only a team of men with scythes came to mow the field, bringing with them a truckle of cheese wrapped in a tea towel and a small barrel of cider, then the sun would come out and cuckoos would replace the jackdaws. There’s a kind of willing suspension of common sense at the heart of nostalgia that usually incites a civil war in my mind between my imagination and my intelligence, between the part of me that would love to ‘go back’, and the part of me that read a history book rather than watching Lark Rise to Candleford. Lee attempts to avoid the worst excesses of nostalgic writing by including the uglier side of rural life. There is sickness, bullying and poverty that cannot be alleviated by wild blackberries and ransoms. There is murder, rape and war, and a vein of sadness that no amount of community spirit can entirely soothe. But somehow all of this is at one remove from the main narrative, the joy of a lost youth remembered. Even when terrible things happen, the child’s perspective is entirely free from accountability.
A pair of pigeons landed noisily on my tin roof. I could hear them stomping around as I read. Lumps of rock-hard sheep dung dug into my legs every time I shifted position. And yet, Cider with Rosie is a very easy book to get lost in, if you want to. However when I got to the chapter about the Parochial Church Tea Party, and the 1919 Peace Day celebrations in the Squire’s garden, I was jerked back into the here and now by a sudden memory of the garden party I went to a few weeks ago in the big house at the edge of the village to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The great and the good all turned up, sporting linen jackets and fancy hats, and children had the run of the garden. Bunting abounded. The whole village seemed to be doing our utmost to recreate something that an eight-year-old Laurie Lee would recognise. We acted out a garden party practically from a script. In Cider with Rosie, the characters are nothing if not unselfconscious. There seems to be an authenticity to the village community at the heart of all the nostalgia, but I can’t help wondering if, for them, the 1919 Peace Day celebrations felt like an attempt to recreate the Golden Age of the late nineteenth century, to turn back the clock to before the world was darkened by the Great War. After weeks of Union Flags and BBC enthusiasm, I’d had enough of re-enactment to last me a lifetime.
But it would be a mistake to worry too much about how accurately Cider with Rosie portrays early twentieth-century England. Lee’s sometimes withering comments about regrettable change in rural England miss the point and, I find them distracting. His memories of the Cotswolds are so tied up with his memories of his childhood that sometimes he seems to get them mixed up.
The untarred road wound away up the valley, innocent as yet of motor-cars, wound empty away to other villages. (150)
The book is filled with this kind of lyrical sentence. ‘Untarred’ is a peculiar word, but it sounds a lot more poetic than ‘muddy, potholed, stone-filled and rutted’. And describing anywhere in England in the immediate aftermath of the Great War as ‘innocent’ must require quite an impressively selective memory. The point is, it’s not the road’s innocence that Lee’s mourning, but his own. And it’s not the innocence itself that he misses, but the experience of growing up, of losing it.
Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie’s burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again… (209)
My old Penguin edition is illustrated with drawings by John Ward, scribbled line sketches that draw you in, with a twitch of a pencil suggesting a flower or the line of a cheek. They’re as hazy as a summer afternoon, and perfectly suited to this kind of memoir. The trouble is, summer afternoons aren’t always hazy at all.
The forecast rain arrived, pattering on the tin roof of my barn. My feet had grown numb and I was starting to get cold. It was time for me to get going. Cider with Rosie is a wonderful, almost magical recollection of another world, and maybe I’m just getting tired of people telling me how much better the countryside used to be, because to me it sounds like a fantasy land.
I was reading Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, first published in 1959. My edition cost 3/6 originally, or £1.10 from a second hand bookshop in Crediton.
‘In the sleepy English countryside…’ begins the blurb on the back cover. Sleepy English countryside is something that abounds in the lanes, fields and villages on the high land between the Taw and Torridge valleys. In the early morning May sunshine I set off into this maze of drover’s roads and bridleways to read Stardust, to search for unguarded breaks in the walled banks, and to follow young Tristran Thorn on his foray into the realm of Faerie.
I stopped by a stream in a coppiced wood at the bottom of a steep hill. The road was little more than a dirt track here, pitted and potholed with a stripe of grass running down the middle. Buttercups and red campion decorated the central stripe. The air was cool under under the trees, and damp from the stream. Blackbirds sang, pigeons hooted. I could hear the industrious sounds of someone chopping wood with an axe over the hill somewhere. The sunlight that dappled through the green canopy was hung with willowdown, floating down the lane on a breeze too light for me to feel.
As I sat reading, one of the first things I noticed about Stardust is Neil Gaiman’s confidence and skill with language. I don’t usually like to quote long passages, but these few scene-setting sentences are a real treat:
Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and the spring in her step, and Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently, the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, although she was very much in love.
Mr Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.
Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at that time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully. (3-4)
‘Looking wistfully’ is how I find myself looking at the much-derided sleepy English countryside after reading Stardust for a few hours. The book is too well grounded in the mundane and banal (the much-overlooked aspects to adventures in Faerie) to allow it to become merely nostalgic. Even once he crosses over the Wall and enters Faerie, Tristran worries about how to go to the toilet outside, he gets so hungry he can’t think straight, and Yvain’s broken leg finds no magical cure. But, Tristran is in Faerie now, so alongside learning to digging a hole to bury his doings in, he learns never to reveal his true name or destination, how to travel by candlelight, and how to fish for lightning bolts. He is met by extraordinary chance encounters and lucky escapes, and seems to be able to find a lot more to eat in hedgerows than is strictly realistic (all I’ve passed is some jack-of-the-hedge and wild garlic). The effect of this blending of the banal and the fantastical is that Gaiman’s Faerie is a far more three-dimensional place than you’d expect from a fantasy story. It becomes more than just a back-drop, and somehow feels half-familiar. Before leaving the village of Wall,
there were times when the wind blew from beyond the wall, bringing with it the smell of mint and thyme and redcurrants, and at those times there were strange colours seen in the flames in the fireplaces of the village…At those times, Tristran Thorn’s daydreams were strange, guilty fantasies, muddled and odd, of journeys through forests to rescue Princesses from palaces, dreams of knights and trolls and mermaids. And when these moods came upon him, he would slip out of the house, and lie upon the grass, and stare up at the stars. (32)
The man with the axe switched to a chainsaw, far less conducive to the imagination. The birds didn’t seem to mind, and the willowdown was in a world of its own, but I decided to move on.
About a mile up the road I had to hop over a half-rotten wooden gate into a small meadow full of beehives to wait for a herd of flighty cows to pass, flanked by men on quadbikes like secret service around a motorcade. The bees ignored me entirely, and their hives smelled of warm wax in the sunlight. After the cows had passed, I walked on until I reached a crossroads. Here there was another meadow, and I sat in the shade of a hedgebank taller than me to breakfast on a hardboiled egg and the handful of jack-of-the-hedge I’d picked along the way.
I read about how Tristran and the star found the lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown, in a meadow much, I imagined, like the one I was reading in.
The lion sprang and the unicorn plunged, and the glade was filled with gold and grey and red, for the lion was on the unicorn’s back, claws gashing deeply into its flanks, mouth at its neck, and the unicorn was wailing and bucking and throwing itself onto its back in an effort to dislodge the great cat, flailing uselessly with its hooves and its horn in an effort to reach its tormentor. (90)
There was no crown to fight over in my meadow, other than buttercups and dandelion clocks. The only animals I could see were butterflies, hoverflies, and the sudden flash of an electric blue damselfly. But there was something so… enchanting about Stardust that I could hardly help but imagine the quests and battles that these insects face, and see something noble in their actions. Often, fantasy writing leaves me dissatisfied with the unenchanted world I live in, it numbs my mind’s capacity for imagination by doing all the fantasising for me. In Stardust, the boundary between our world and Faerie, although it is there, is permeable, and I keep thinking I can catch the scent of peppermint and redcurrants on the wind.
I spent the rest of the day wandering from place to place looking for good places to read. I had a good supply of water and a pile of peanut butter sandwiches, so I didn’t need to stop reading until I finished the book. By then I was so utterly lost that I had to walk for another hour or so just to find a landmark I could pinpoint on my map, and by the time I got home I was, as they say in this genre, footsore and weary. I felt as though I had had a glimpse of another world.
I was reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman, published in 1999 by Headline, though I do recommend you seek out the version illustrated by Charles Vess.
What began as an April shower soon settled into being something much more cold, wet and dreary than is strictly traditional. The sky wore the grey uniform of an immoveable nimbostratus. The wet light had an institutional quality, as if behind the clouds were rows of fluorescent strip-lights. It was a bureaucratic kind of weather, that would slowly and thoroughly turn the world into a sodden mire, and hear no arguments or appeals against its systematic logic. Maybe, somewhere up there rose the sublime tower of a cumulonimbus, reaching to the very top of the troposphere, where the air is thin and all the water is frozen into tiny crystals of ice that shine and glitter in the sunlight. From beneath, it is hard to tell the difference. I had a cold coming, and a bit of a sore throat. I wasn’t feeling up to adventuring, so I’d only gone as far as the chicken run to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Gallus gallus domesticus is by definition not a wild animal, but my three welsummers and lone light sussex (called Jack) are a bit new. We’re still getting used to each other. They may not be wild, but they’re not tame either. Some quality time spent together, where I speak a lot and they get used to pecking at corn around my feet should sort us out soon enough. So I took a book to read.
Into the Wild, as the author’s note tells the reader on the first page, is about a young man called Christopher McCandless who, after graduating from Emory University, gave all his money to charity, left his family, abandoned his car, and ‘dropped out of sight’ (ix). ‘He invented a new life for himself, taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society, wandering across North America in search or raw, transcendent experience.’ This rather puts me to shame, a nature writer who couldn’t get further than the chicken run at the end of his garden. The hens eyed me suspiciously, one eye at a time as their anatomy dictates, pecking and scratching at corn a few feet away from where I was sat. We were under cover here, though the rain pattered on the plastic roof of the hen run and the wind whipped through the chicken wire walls, ruffling feathers.
As soon as page four, Krakauer (a journalist who couldn’t forget about the story he was given to cover) sets his cards on the table.
Alaska has long been a magnet for dreamers and misfits, people who think the unsullied enormity of the Last Frontier will patch all the holes in their lives. The bush is an unforgiving place, however, that cares nothing for hope or longing.
It occurred to me that the same could be said for chickens. No one’s aspirations of the good life could be complete without poultry, and whilst generally hens are easy to look after and a good source of eggs, they care nothing for your hope or longing. For instance, one of these four ate the first egg laid here, which, when you think about it, is even more disgusting than me eating it. And the ‘pecking order’ is a far from metaphorical phrase. My reading had already been interrupted more than once by fights breaking out, and by outright bullying, as the bigger hens try to pluck the feathers from the necks of those smaller than them. Now the biggest hen had taken residence in the warm, snug coop and was nosily attacking any other hen that dares to seek admittance. They’ll sort themselves out soon enough though. I read on. It’s a book I’ve read before and I’m just reading the chickens the best bits really.
Krakauer’s journalistic tone soon seems to get in the way of the story. And it is a story he’s telling. He’s researched Chris’ life thoroughly, but isn’t above filling in the blanks from his imagination, and, which is worse, adding his own analysis and moral judgement.
McCandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well – relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. (56)
Krakauer compounds this failing by quoting at length from books of popular psychology in an attempt to explain Chris in a way so explicit that no fictional author would stoop to. Chris’ desire to go off on his own was a case of ‘avoidance behaviour’ caused by problems in his family life. Indeed, it was because he did not get along with his father that he developed into a person whose ‘principal need was to find some kind of meaning and order in life which was not entirely, or even chiefly, dependent upon interpersonal relationships’ (62, quoting Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return To The Self). Or, failing this, perhaps ‘like not a few of those seduced by the wild, McCandless seems to have been driven by a variety of lust that supplanted sexual desire’ (67). Later, when relating a story of his own adventurous youth, Krakauer describes how when he got stuck half-way up a mountain ‘I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman’s sex’ (155). I’m sure Jack’s eye bulged a bit at this. If only he could have a good chat with his dad and then get laid, Krakauer seems to be suggesting, then all this wouldn’t have happened. And of course, and this is where Krakauer really doesn’t get it, Chris couldn’t possibly have really wanted it to happen. He must have been deranged.
Into The Wild is a book with an agenda. It wants to analyse and explain Chris, to make him conform to some kind of type. The rebellious teenager who accidentally got himself into trouble and should be pitied. Or perhaps it is just struggling too hard to find a meaning in Chris’ death, where death, like clouds and chickens, often as not has no meaning. Chris’ story was made into a film which seems to have the same agenda, but goes further than Krakauer. The last message Chris wrote, when he knew he was dying and had no hope of rescue, was ‘I have had a happy life and thank the lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!’ (198). In the film, this is changed to ‘Happiness is only real when shared’. Whatever desire or impulse the filmakers (and Chris’ family, who authorised the film) had in changed these words, it surely says more about them than about Chris.
Just as I was getting to the end of my skim-read, the chickens seemed to finally have had enough of my voice. All together, they started up a chorus of cawing and crowing enough to drive me away and leave them in peace. Hopefully they were all desperate to lay eggs but too modest to do it in my presence. My nose was running like a tap, my fingers, toes and backside were numb. Fat lot of good I’d be in the Alaskan wilderness.
I was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, published in the UK by Pan Books in 1998. Apparently it’s a NO.1 INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER.
‘I hadn’t been able to believe there was going to be a town after all those miles of bleak North Devon fields’ (266). Betjeman arrived into Ilfracombe by train, and I was reading a published transcript of the radio programme he made about the town. I drove, but this sense of coming to ‘the end of everything’ was something I could relate to. The North Devon Link Road, built in 1989 to make North Devon less isolated, only goes as far as Barnstaple. Ilfracombe is another ten miles along narrow roads and lanes. The ‘bleak North Devon fields’ were not so long ago part of Exmoor, ploughed up to fight food shortages in World War Two. Digging for victory. They are now also home to England’s largest onshore windfarm, though what Betjeman would have made of that I wouldn’t like to imagine.
I sat on a bench in a gorse and blackthorn-covered local nature reserve. It is from here that Betjeman would have had his first view of the town in the height of its popularity as a seaside resort, a hive of ‘noise and glitter’. At its peak, ten thousand people a day arrived at Ilfracombe station to enjoy what Betjeman called ‘the people’s playground’. But no longer. The branch line was decommissioned in 1970, a mere twenty years after Betjeman was writing. In its place, surrounded by a barbed wire and chainlink fence, is the Pall Corporation Life Sciences Division factory, where they manufacture ‘fine and ultrafine filters and accessories for gas, liquid and diagnostic product applications’. I have no idea what that means, but there is no sign of the station anymore, and the train line has mostly been converted into a cycle track. The tourists have long-since dwindled to a hard core of English seaside enthusiasts and aerophobes. And yet, sitting here, we still seem to ‘hang in air on a clifftop, with the town two hundred feet below us, silvery slate cliffs, sea and the far-off coast of Wales beyond.’
Betjeman writes with a tone of authority, not at all shy of passing judgement on a place, often tinged with a taste so developed it borders of snobbery, and is certainly elitist. So to come here and find him so wrong feels peculiar. He was broadcasting at a time, just after the Second World War had been won, when Modernist optimism clashed with conservative nostalgia – those who wanted to forge a new world and those who wanted to recreate a golden age. A compromise was reached, enforced by by new planning legislation, that decided which developments were appropriate in a particular location. This was the debate Betjeman was involved in – what should England look like?
Betjeman’s particular pet hate was for Victorian renovation. He imagines visiting a Devon village in about 1860:
But stay! What is the activity outside the parish church? Mr St Aubyn, the London architect, has just been here; the old box pews and three-decker pulpit have been cut down at his command and taken away for panelling or firewood. Bright new pitch-pine pews replace them. The old, uneven roof has been tiled afresh and neatly guttered. The old stone walls have been repointed with cement to that they look quite new. The clear glass windows that buzzed with bluebottles and gave a view of elmy slopes are to be filled with greenish glass, which gives no view at all. (34)
Betjeman approves of the ‘sophisticated’ taste of the Morris movement, but despises the modern age that ‘ruined the wild west coast with bungalows and strung the sky with wires, littered the roadside with shacks and hoardings, turned old inns into glittering pretension and floodlit the whole with fluorescent light’ (38). His taste has a moral edge to it as well as being purely aesthetic. In the Golden Age,
A happy village was like a family, with the squire as father and his wide as mother, the latter with her daughters bringing round soup and jellies to cottagers who were ill. The father with his sons as keen on sport (except of course poaching) as his tenants, and providing work for the men. (36)
The change in countryside power structures is a sign of moral degeneracy – the family without its parents, and he appeals to the state to become the countryside’s foster parent, preventing disorder through the planning laws.
‘In a place called Cuddeford’s Passage, off the High Street, I found Clovelly-like cottages built of slate and whitewashed. This was real old Devon’ (267). Cuddeford’s Passage is no doubt still ‘Clovelly-like’, but surrounded by fake new Devon. However Clovelly itself, Betjeman’s model of authenticity, is privately owned and visitors must pay an admission charge to enter. Donkeys still walk up and down the steep streets, and the modern world has not ravished the slate cottages with satellite dishes or repointing. It is a theme park, Real Old Devon World, preserved to capitalise on nostalgia.
The whole time I spent outside the Pall Life Sciences factory a strong westerly wind battered my back, rifled through my notes and bit at my fingers. Nearby, a great tit called for his ‘teacher teacher teacher teacher’, and seagulls played in the turbulent air currents. Dog walkers wished me a good afternoon, and in the clear sky the sun and gibbous moon were both up, occupying opposite hemispheres. Betjeman’s broadcasts were ideal for the radio, that ethereal medium, invisibly everywhere, and utterly fleeting. It was the work of a moment, for a moment. Out of date guidebooks are fascinating cultural artefacts, but most of all they make you laugh at their errors. A town like Ilfracombe will always seem so much more solid and fixed, inviting you to write about it, and then making a fool out of anyone who does.
I was reading the chapters on ‘Victorian Provincial Life’ and ‘Ilfracombe’ in Trains and Buttered Toast, by John Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games and published by John Murray in 2006. It’s a Richard and Judy Selection, so can’t be all that bad.
The air was still warm, but wetter than it had been at Stover. Dartmoor was lurking in its blanket of clouds, hibernating, but down near the village of Belstone the birds were filling the air with their shouting matches. Robins, mostly, by the sound of it, but also a blackbird and a pair of pigeons. They were all hidden away, out of sight in the branches of trees and gorse bushes. If I let my imagination wander, I could persuade myself that it was the plants singing. There was a wedding going on in Belstone church, and the pealing of the bells combined with the trumpeting horns and the barking of the hunt that had assembled on the green. In the fields around the village, young lambs were learning to skip. I felt as though I had stumbled into W.H.Hudson’s early twentieth century England, and made a hasty exit uphill, towards the clouds.
I walked further up the Taw valley, following a lane onto the moor, where tarmac gave way to cobbles. The mist seemed to be rising as I climbed, and by the time I was out of sight of the village I could see the whole of the Taw marsh, a basin surrounded by Tors and ridges, a natural amphitheatre. I’d never been to Dartmoor on such a still day. When I stopped walking I could hear that kind of silence that is full of distant sound. Skylarks, as invisible as the robins, flooded the basin with their gurgling song. Crow called to one another, their cawing sinister on the leafless moor. And there were many many people. Mostly they were walking in noisy groups of four, carrying large rucksacks, leading me to believe they must have been teenagers training for the Ten Tors challenge or their Duke of Edinburgh award. In the stillness I could hear snatches of arguments, complaints and jokes from over a mile away. Like the skylarks, their babble was unceasing.
I followed the Taw through the basin and up a steep gorge under the shadow of Steeperton Tor, passing multicoloured sheep, stocky Dartmoor ponies and the first frogspawn I’d seen this year. The gorge led me to a hanging valley, the floor of which was covered with mounds. At first sight they looked like drumlins, but this isn’t a glacial valley. They’re tumuli, Iron Age burial mounds, and probably piles of mining spoil. Footpaths, sheep tracks and an army access track criss-crossed the valley, heading in all directions. A little way up the side of the valley were the ruins of an old miner’s hut, where I sat, getting my breath back after the climb. Around here is where Ted Hughes’ ashes are scattered, and somewhere amongst those tumuli a granite boulder has been inscribed with his name as hidden memorial.
Up here the clouds hadn’t properly cleared, and now the wind was rising to a breeze, bringing with it a fine mist of rain. On the opposite side of the valley, near the ridge at its top, someone else was sitting alone on a half-sheltered stone. The figure was wrapped up in waterproofs, and too far away for me even to make out whether it was a man or a woman. But for a moment I was sure it was Ted Hughes’ ghost. Perhaps he’d come to hear me read his poems. This put the pressure on somewhat, and I decided I’d better refuel with a Thermos coffee before I began. After a few minutes, just as I began to read, the figure left.
Wodwo is made of three sections – two groups of poems and a series of short stories and prose pieces. Hughes intended them to be read together, as part of a single work. Some tie together closely, like the story of the rat-fighting and the poem ‘Song of a Rat’, which seems to retell the story in more abstract language from the rat’s perspective. Others are connected in ways I couldn’t make out, at least not from my perch in the ruins. It seemed as though the hanging valley added a forth layer. Reading the poems here does something. Sometimes the connection is easy, as with ‘Skylarks’ when a couple of real skylarks did come flying by to ‘sing inwards as well as outwards/Like a breaker of ocean milling the shingle’, their song ‘incomprehensibly both ways -/Joy! Help! Joy! Help!’ And sometimes the connection was deeper, harder to fathom.
I read the poems out loud, and the sound of them mingled with the bubbling of the young Taw.
Out through the dark archway of earth, under the ancient lintel overwritten with roots,
Out between the granite jambs, gallops the hooded horseman of iron.
Out of the wound-gash in the earth, the horseman mounts, shaking his plumes clear of dark soil.
Out of the blood-dark womb, gallops bowed the horseman or iron.
The blood-crossed Knight, the Holy Warrior, hooded with iron, the seraph of the bleak edge.
Gallops along the world’s ridge in moonlight.
(‘Gog’, part III, p.151)
It was as if the trees and the woods suddenly had their secret meaning laid bare, and, as in ‘Ballad from a Fairy Tale’ (p.167),
I could have reached and touched it
But I was standing in a valley
Deeper than any dream.
And again it passed from my sight.
As I read the clouds began to clear. Weather changes quickly on the moors, and today it was changing for the better. I read almost all the poems to the rocks, the skylarks and the Taw, and as the words left my lips I imagined the wind whisking them off to add to the peaty compost of the valley floor. After a while I got up to search for the memorial stone itself, but with no luck. I had printed off detailed instructions of how to find it from the internet, but left them at home. It didn’t matter. The stone was there somewhere. Perhaps by then it had been hidden under moss and lichen, become dissolved into the moor, into the soil, and into the water. ‘And, among them, the fern
Dances gravely, like the plume
Of a warrior returning under the low hills,
Into his own kingdom.
I was reading a beautiful first edition of Wodwo, on loan from Barnstaple library (though I was sorely tempted to keep it and face their wrath), published by Faber and Faber in 1967, which had only been borrowed fifteen times between 1971 and 2012.
I sat on a rustic bench – a sawn section of trunk mounted onto two stumps – beside The Warm and the Cold, point two on the Poetry Trail. Twenty metres behind me was my car. I could have heard it ticking as it cooled down, but the sound was drowned out by wave after wave of cars on the A382, just the other side of the car park. Equally incessant was the birdsong. A robin sat halfway up a young oak growing beside The Young and the Cold, furiously exchanging trembling phrases with another robin in the trees shading the car park. The South West of England was blanketed by a warm trough of air in a stable high pressure system whose centre covered the whole of the Bay of Biscay. It was a warm Spring day, and Ted Hughes’ similes seemed strangely out of place.
Moonlight freezes the shaggy world
Like a mammoth of ice.
Of course, the were out of place. The trail began at a giant book carved out of wood, engraved with a map of the park and a short introduction to Ted Hughes. The poems themselves had escaped from the book, to be written on granite tablets along the Poetry Trail. The Stover Country Park had done what I do, and taken the writing outdoors. But it seemed that they’d gone further than me, taking the poems so far out of their literary context that they do not even mention which poetry collection they are from. The idea was that the poems would add to the visitors’ enjoyment of the park. I was more interested in what the park does to the poems.
I’d taken a copy of Hughes’ 1967 Wodwo out of the library, and tomorrow I’ll take it up onto Dartmoor, where the poet’s ashes are scattered, to read it there. I couldn’t help already comparing this place to the moor. The robin flew down from the tree and began to pick at some crumbs on the bench beside me. I’d got a handy printed version of the park map in my pocket to guide me round the Trail, and consulted it as the robin ate. He left when a trio of springer spaniels came blustering over to say hello, and so did I.
The next stop was to read A Cormorant by a bench overlooking the man-made lake. I’d never been much of a twitcher. There were ducks, mostly mallards but also some exotics. Some terns too, probably migratory. But no cormorants today. The noble cormorant of the poem seemed at odds with the ducks. The warm weather had kick-started the mallards’ mating season, one of the most violent and unpleasant of any animal’s. In the middle of the lake, three drakes were pursuing one bedraggled female, taking it in turns to attempt to mount her, pinning her head underwater with their beaks. It’s not a comfortable sight to watch, especially when there are curious children around, which there were. Something about this spoils A Cormorant for me. Hughes’ fish bird, dissolving as it dives. The lake had a feint smell of drains lingering over it, and the branches of trees that had fallen in were coated with putty-coloured algae and silt.
No.6, Roe-deer, sat beside a picturesque little bridge that was built, its inscription told me, in 1877. I’m sure roe deer do sometimes visit that spot, between broadleaf and evergreen woodlands,but not to be blinded by headlights, as Hughes’ are, though I could still hear the road’s drone. A puppy, Trevor, was called away from me. The owner gave me a nod and a smile of apology. It was a struggle to read myself into the Roe-deer’s lonely snowcovered dawn scene, where ‘the curtain had blown aside for a moment/And there where the trees were no longer trees, nor the road a road’ where ‘the deer had come for me.’ I couldn’t help but wish I was reading this at home, from a book, with less interruptions.
From here the trail left the main path and followed the stream into the conifer plantation. And immediately, with no struggle, I was in another world. Under the dark trees the noise of the road seemed to come from far away. The woods felt almost subterranean. Here I found The Thought Fox, abstract and particular. The poem turned the world to images. The stream, the solitary oak growing amidst the conifers, the catkins bursting on the overhanging hazels. The poem seemed to overpower the context, and could reshape the world in its own images.
Pike was by a stretch of what was once a canal that carried granite from the Dartmoor quarries to the port at Teignmouth. Now it was a shallow, narrow pond. A pair of mallards sat roosting on a half-submerged branch, head under wing, but one eye watching. A more exotic duck swam back and forth, passing and repassing me, diving every half minute or so, as if begging for a crust but proving that he was capable of fending for himself. Once he came up with a silver fish in his bill. I sat on the bench and ate my own cheese and pickle sandwiches, and read. Before I’d read half the poem I was worrying for the ducks. I imagined them as a pike would see them, hanging like ripe fruit. I imagined the pike, as malevolent as ‘the grin it was born with’.
Further along the Trail wardens and rangers were clearing and burning scrub and rhododendrons near a sign explaining how heathland has to be managed to prevent it reverting to woodland. Other signs told the history of the park, and the family that once owned it. The poetry trail curled all this into pages, spine and cover of a new anthology of Ted Hughes’ poetry. The poems hadn’t really been set free, scattered around the park. They were typeset in stone. The new anthology could probably have done with better editing at times, but the landscape has been resculptured here so often that the idea of adding a textual layer to it is not totally absurd. The Iron Man and The Lake both work magic, turning a pylon into a giant, searching for the sea, whilst the lake becomes a secretive animal, that
Snuffles at my feet for what I might drop or kick up,
Sucks and slobbers the stones, snorts through its lips. (4-5)
The poetry trail may have failed to bring the poems closer to the roe-deer’s otherworld, but these easier poems couldn’t fail to change the way I saw the park.
In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the lovesick Orlando hangs his poetry in the forest of Arden, saying ‘These trees shall be my books,/And in their barks my thoughts I’ll character’ (3.ii.5-6). He’s a fool for it, for the wildwood doesn’t speak in any language, and trying to read it leads to near disaster. But Stover Country Park was as far from Arden as printed paper is from a tree. At its best, these semi-natural trees, half-tame birds, artificial lake and exotic wildfowl were the gilded cover and title page, like the giant wooden book back by the car park. The poetry hadn’t escaped the book at all, just been reissued in a new edition.
I’ve no idea where most of these poems are published, but they’re still under copyright so you won’t find them easily on the internet. However, if you go to Stover Country Park, you will find them all over the place.
Where do JCBs, diggers, tractors and dumper trucks go to die? In The Monkey Wrench Gang, they get driven into lakes, into canyons, or cremated in the night. They have their oil drained and their pistons fused immovably to cylinders and block, ‘one unified immovable entropic white-hot molecular mass’ (244). In Devon, they go to the tractor graveyard, where one of my neighbours salvages spare parts for his farm machinery maintenance business. As New Mexico, Utah, and the Colorado River are a bit far for me to go, I’ve packed my sandwiches and headed a mile or so down my lane to read Edward Abbey’s eco-terrorist classic.
It’s winter now, so the brambles, birches, alder and hazel aren’t giving the dead and rusting machinery as much cover as usual. Old fashioned combine harvesters slowly deteriorate, paint flaking off, tyres covered in moss, grain spouts arching overhead like metal dinosaurs. There is metal everywhere, most of it I can’t identify. ICB tanks, wheels, tyres, hoppers, boilers, all veiled in algae, their once bright colours now inevitably merging into the browns, greys and greens of the wood in winter. I sat in the driver’s seat of an old JCB, the cold smell of grease mixing with the smell of mould and mud, and read.
The members of the Monkey Wrench Gang are bored, and increasingly angry at what’s happening to the American wilderness. Their boredom is both symptom of the age and stimulus to rebel. Doc and Abbzug relieve the boredom by vandalising advertising billboards. Hayduke and Smith by getting outdoors and going on trips into the remaining wilderness. When they meet up by chance on a river tour, they set their eyes on bigger targets, and the gang is born. Doc describes the problem in concise medical terms:
“The wilderness once offered men a plausible way of life…now it functions as a psychiatric refuge. Soon there will be no wilderness.” He sipped his bourbon and ice. “Soon there will be no place to go. Then the madness becomes universal.” (63)
If that is true, then Devon has long since gone mad. Looking round at the tractor graveyard, I think of invisible pollution, anthropogenic climate change, natural system failure. The American ideal of the wilderness has a kind of hopelessness to it, the idea that a place is only natural if there is no trace of human intervention can lead you to only one possible conclusion. ‘Our only hope is catastrophe’ (42). But this kind of thinking is a million miles away from the Monkey Wrench Gang’s philosophy. As Hayduke puts it, much later in the book, ‘my job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving. That’s simple, right?’ (230). They won’t let themselves get bogged down in the ethical or philosophical quagmire that so often plagues the environmental movement. Is it sustainable to use a petrol-driven chainsaw to vandalise a billboard?
With this handy tool they were able to accomplish much more work in limited time although it did raise the ecological question, whatever that meant, of noise and air pollution, the excessive consumption of metal and energy. Endless ramifications…
“No,” the doctor said. “Forget all that. Our duty is to destroy billboards.” (44)
And later, answering the question ‘do we know what we’re doing and why?’, Doc sidesteps it all neatly. ‘We’ll work it out as we go along. Let our practice form our doctrine, thus assuring precise theoretical coherence’ (69), although admittedly he was blind drunk at the time.
There’s something hugely liberating about this kind of thinking. I felt a kind of fin de siecle excitement, a longing for some creative destruction, the same as I get when I watch V for Vendetta or Fight Club. But it doesn’t quite overcome the growing sense of guilt that I feel for being in the wrong place, trespassing, interfering with private property. The absurd stress of being where I shouldn’t be got too much, stopped me from being able to read, and I left to head for a spot I know well, where you can get wide views across the North Devon countryside.
Sat on a stump, looking out over the rolling countryside, I continued. In the distance I could hear a chainsaw buzz and splutter. Post-war planning laws prevented British roads being lined with billboards in the way American roads are, so I guess the chainsaw is just chopping down a tree. Despite the whole view being in some way a human production, from the fields and hedges to the forestry plantations and roads, there doesn’t look like there’s much development going on. Hidden in the folds of the valleys somewhere lies the North Devon Link Road, that connects Barnstaple to the M5, and around the corner, just out of sight, is the new wind farm at Fullabrook. I wonder what Hayduke would have made of that?
‘The engineer’s dream is a model of perfect sphericity, the planet Earth with all irregularities removed, highways merely pained on a surface smooth as glass’ (80). I think of the wide expanses of tarmac that cover the approaches to motorway toll booths, and airport runways. But then I remember the tractor graveyard, and all the ‘controlled and directed superhuman force’ (79) behind a new road pales in comparison to the disorganised, endlessly patient decay and regeneration of fungi, bacteria, algae and brambles. It’s a reassuring thought.
I’m visiting my girlfriend next week, and have a train to catch, so I pack up my things and get going.
I’m writing from a seat on the 1447 from Exeter to Pewsey. I almost ended up in one of those carriages with mini TVs behind every seat. Disaster averted. I read the section about destroying the railroad, and think about the government’s proposals for the new High Speed rail link between London and Birmingham. This train line, in the undeveloped westcountry, is not even electrified. I know a farmer who lives along the new HS2 line and who campaigned heartily against it. It will destroy and ancient woodland on his farm where every spring he takes a group from the local church to admire the bluebells. I think of Hayduke, 50lbs of TNT, and a chainsaw. Of course, I’m on a train too, and without it I wouldn’t be able to visit my girlfriend. But that’s exactly the sort of thinking the monkey wrenchers don’t let get to them.
As I get towards the end of the book, I notice that there’s a microchip and radio receiver stuck into the back of it. It’s a library copy, and of course it’s just for the library to keep tabs on which books are checked in and out. But it reminds me of a similar chip in my passport, and after reading about helicopter pursuits, Mark Kennedy infiltrating environmental groups, Hayduke’s Vietnam paranoia, I worry. I’ve committed a plethora of thought crimes since I began reading this. I remember how guilty I felt just sitting in the JCB in the tractor graveyard. I wonder how much I would actually have to change to be able to get up and do some monkeywrenching myself. Perhaps anarchist literature, violence in films, wargames and 24h rolling news coverage actually makes real life action seem less likely, less possible. Anarchism is something that happens in books, in Fight Club, in Frank Miller films. I’m someone who reads books on trains. If Hayduke found catharsis by blowing up a bridge, I find it in a much more contained, approved, micro-chipped and radio controlled way. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a Penguin Modern Classic, and rainforest destruction goes on as fast as ever. Even environmental ‘direct action’ now tends to mean headline-grabbing stunts on front pages. The last thing in the world George Hayduke would do would be to read Monkey Wrench Gang.
I was reading The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, first published in1975, but now most commonly available as a Penguin Modern Classic, extortionately priced at £12.99. To avoid this hefty pricetag, do what I did and borrow it from your local library.