No Eye in England


Sitting in one of the cellar-reading rooms of the Bodleian (as I was when I read it) I was not sure about Jon Stallworthy’s poem(s) about the White Horse. Skyhorse (in Body Language) is a collection of voices from the earliest creators of the White Horse through Tom Brown’s scourers to the poet himself seeing in the new year and envisioning all these past people, all in a series of different poems. Some of them seem to me overblown – the rather odd parody of C13th lyric, the clumsy attempt at dialect straight from a C19th Archers character (if such a thing had existed – I was rather reminded of the country folk waking in Act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer) – and perhaps the whole attempt at a solemn parody across ages and languages and cultures misses me, but I have to say there are some wonderful lines and images.

“When the day’s eye opened

mine could see it shine…”

“No eye in England has seen so much…

Where legend says the Danes made their last stand.”

And for me (who saw in the dawn of a new millennium on another hill, above Oxford) the Wandering Scholar 1999/2000 has some resonance deeper than the words:

“…Lifting its lucent head

it turned a terrible eye to mine,

and a voice at my ear said

‘The skyhorse calls for his bondsman…’

For me, David Miles (yes, I have mentioned him before) has a clearer vision:

Landscape, as the word implies, is a matter of perception. We see it like a painting. We see what we expect to see; Flaubert and I, and everyone else, appreciate what we have learned to like. As an archaeologist I want to see beyond the immediate landscape into the palimpsest of fragments. To try and understand the interplay of geology, climate, plants, animals and humans.

As Philip Hughes puts it (with a directness that opposes this nuanced view) “To walk the track gives a very special feeling. You know you are in an ancient landscape.” His sparse and plain, largely unpopulated pictures of the Ridgeway or Orkney or the South Downs challenge the viewer to see shape and light, not history. Annie Dillon, likewise, paints the White Horse in beautiful, almost geological terms, from high above it like a Kite or a Buzzard or the Hill’s soaring skylarks. Like Hughes, her views of Oxfordshire are to do with colour and line, not directly people: the Thames at the foot of Wittenham Clumps; the clouds above the Clumps…

And yet of course they are to do with people, in both cases: Sarsens erected by people nameless now and dead; houses at the foot of Dorchester Abbey; fields ready for harvest or sowing; paths made by the tracks of humans.

The palimpsest of fragments: the idea that we piece together what we know about a place from the bits left, the ground written over by a later generation. It is a well-nigh perfect image. And maybe it continues as a model for literature? There has been some debate today in the run-up to the release of Hilary Mantel’s final Thomas Cromwell novel about what makes historical fiction work and what makes it popular. Is it about a reflection of the time and interests of the writer?

I know it’s rude of me, but I think I want to say “so what?” to that question. Of course historical fiction works like that, just as non-fiction writing reflects the interests of writer and reader; fantasy fiction too, in various ways in its various forms, might look at technological advance, at what moral choices are set before the characters…. Writing in “sundry times and in divers manners” (Hebrews 1:1) is not a fixed thing with a set purpose. The reader has the job of revelling in this richness – but maybe not being seduced into it. Was Peter Abelard the tortured soul his own account makes him out to be and which Helen Waddell picks up? Or a lecturer whose proximity to a very young female student had disastrous consequences for her, for him, maybe for their son? Writing and reading may have different contexts, and it is our job to read the palimpsests carefully – ours and the writers.

So I don’t come to Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse with the same eye as I have to the book that put me on to it, David Miles’ study of the history and culture of the White Horse. I can appreciate GKC’s lines:

His century like a small dark cloud
Drifts far; it is an eyeless crowd,
Where the tortured trumpets scream aloud
And the dense arrows drive.

but I almost feel the same about Chesterton himself: his life overlaps with that of my parents, but his ideas and his ambiguities seem of another time. Led by Miles’ study, I don’t need to accept GKC’s identification of Uffington, in the thornland of Ethandune, with the site of Alfred’s battles, any more than I do to accept the legend of the nearby Blowing Stone. I can appreciate the rhetoric of his poetry; I can at least feel the pull of his vision of/for England, maybe a despair at its state when he writes

The lamps are dying in your homes,
The fruits upon your bough

and even though I don’t share the feeling behind them, I can see the battle sequences work as well as many in Tolkien:

Steel and lightning broke about him,
Battle-bays and palm,
All the sea-kings swayed among
Woods of the Wessex arms upflung,
The trumpet of the Roman tongue,
The thunder of the psalm.

He has other voices here, too. When Chesterton writes

O’er a few round hills forgotten
The trees grow tall in rings,
And the trees talk together
Of many pagan things.

Yet I could lie and listen
With a cross upon my clay,
And hear unhurt for ever
What the trees of Britain say.

there is a poignancy I can really identify with. It is Kipling’s Charm Take of English earth reworked.

I can see, too, what he is imagining when he writes

One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly–
But she was a queen of men.

Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand.

without the vision of Lepanto (which always seems a bizarre reworking of Marian theology) intruding on my understanding of the battles of Alfred.

How many layers of palimpsest are here? Scrape at the chalk of Uffington (actually don’t: I’m being metaphorical on a site of national importance), at Asser, at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, at David Miles, at Thomas Hughes, Philip Hughes, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jill Paton Walsh and Kevin Crossley-Holland…. These are the layers, the voices, that Stallworthy is attempting to uncover with his Skyhorse. These are the layers the critical reader of historical fiction needs to take account of, to work through.

Inner Tube at Mike’s House

One of the delights of using dictation software – and I use it increasingly to note down quotations – is the wild guesses it makes about words. Has it got used to me with place names such as Ludchurch or Uffington? I don’t know. As this blog post’s title suggests, it certainly wasn’t prepared for the dark and sacred depths of “the inner tomb at Maeshowe.” Maeshowe or Maes Howe, whose significance (detailed in very modern terms here) lies in its being, along with the rest of the complex archaeology of the area, such an astonishing “example of an architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape…” Even the dry report cannot escape a tone of wonder.

But I have to come clean and admit where I am: in my study in Headington, reading Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing. It has some spellbindingly great writing, and shares insights from all sorts of digging and wandering and wondering and loving from Sutherland (and back again) through the discarded bikes and tundra-preserved past of the Yup’ik and the eyes and spirals of the Noltland dig and the rummage through the layers of the author’s own life. Careful here, Nick, not to unearth too much: the book demands its own read.

But at least I can share a few things: all, this time, from the central section (as I read it) of Jamie’s visits to the Orkneys. It is full of lovely lines and images: If seals could watch Netflix, they would and I walked down to the shore, feeling like a child again, glad of hard to know there is still room in the world for a summers day and a cow called Daisy.

The author is shown a warehouse of finds:

Graeme opened one particular box to show me a slender implement reminiscent of those nibbled pens we used at school, to practise joined up handwriting. It could have come from his own school house.

“You see how the tip is stained dark?” He said. “We think it was used for tattooing…“

Hazel and Graeme showed me more beads, some made of animal teeth, and half-made beads, lots of beads. Thick pins of bone, as long as your hand, presumably used for fastening clothing…

For a moment, out of the twenty-first–century plastic boxes stacked in the gloomy Victorian store, they emerged a vision of people closed in animal hides, bearing spiral-designed pots, with hair braided, hanging with beads, people crazy about cattle, young people prematurely old, as we would think now.

Jamie has already asked about Neolithic ghosts, concluding, maybe rather sadly, that Ghosts have a half-life, it seems, lingering just a few hundred years, till they too fade away. I am reminded of the ghostly Lord Kildonan whose haunting fades with the years in M R James’s Residence at Whitminster – only to reemerge some years later in a different form. It could be an allegory of sorts for the antiquarian. Here in the Victorian warehouse however, she seems able to conjure such spirits like Prospero as she speculates on the Neolithic settlers:

Different groups, with their different clothing and accents, tools and designs arriving here, but very soon after their arrival, there will be no one alive who could remember the journey. Doubtless there were stories. Origin stories. Contact with other peoples of the same ilk, who spoke the same language, at other settlements. Great ceremonial gatherings, informed by movements of sun and moon, risings and settings, alignments of stones. The midwinter sunrise shines down the passageway at Newgrange, the midwinter sunset illuminates the inner tomb at Maeshowe.

How did they know that, these kids of twenty or thirty years old, with their bone and stone tools?

I am reminded of the poem of Frances Horovitz Poem found at Chesters Museum, Hadrian’s Wall (from her Snow Light, Water Light, and found in this collection) which likewise looks at finds at contemplates a culture long gone. Starting with the confident To Jove, best and greatest she chants the museum labels – billhook, holdfast, trivet/latch lifter, nail lifter, snaffle bit… until she reaches the unknowns and uncertainties dedication partly obliterated/with human figure in rude relief… All a bit of a challenge for the dictation software, because they are outside the range of frequency to be picked up by the software: just not used enough? So I am back thinking of the Lost Words – but then, oddly, of the book that inspired so many daydreams when Maggie and I were first married, John SeymoursSelf Sufficiency. Such daydreams – and tonight is simply the Allotment AGM, and I am “doing the teas.”

One of the joys of the modern nature writers is that they will not only write of the sod lit hut by a seal-oil lamp but also of the welcome cuppa, not only a song about time and change but also about pub night and Wifi. The Inner Tube at Mike’s House would not be out of place. Kathleen Jamie is a writer whose poetic instinct draws us into her world of spirituality and history and topography; she is another of those writers, Rob Macfarlane, Peter Fiennes, Rob Cowen… travel writers, nature writers, topographers in what Robert Mac’s Cambridge page calls Geohumanities. A neat (and maybe not uncritical) review of Macfarlane and Jamie and the phenomenon of British nature writing appears here.

As an aside: the more I think of that term, the more I like it. It is Geohumanities (as a metonymy) that impells the glossaries in Landmarks; that makes connections (reliable or not) in Watkins’ The Old Straight Track, that watch the revelation of Yup’ik past in Surfacing… I am beginning to wonder whether it is a term that could be applied to fiction, too: to Peter Dickinson’s The Kin, or Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse Moon Horse. I don’t think I have an answer.

If all goes well, I will be taking time soon with my friend Mat on Uffington White Horse. In my hand I will have my (now signed!) copy of David MilesThe Land of the White Horse. On my ‘phone I will have a collection of poems about the place: Jon Stallworthy, G K Chesterton, and if I can find it in time, Kevin Crossley-Holland‘s poem which celebrates the Ridgeway – and of course Frances Horovitz. They all speak – in very different ways – of how landscape and language interrelate: Chesterton is full of a great battle that made England; Horovitz has a mystical white horse that she urges to strike fire to the earth from air. But behind all of this will be the repeated challenge of Kathleen Jamie that all the writers I’m lauding here are answering, as she asks again and again:

Why feel anything? Do you understand? Did you hear something move out of the corner of your eye? The path is at your feet, see?

Frogs are Nothing Fancy

Except in some ways they are. They were today, down in the Lye Valley. In among the “warm thick slobber/of frogspawn that grew like clotted water” as Seamus Heaney puts it, were maybe a hundred frogs. Alerted by a notice from social media, I took Ivy, keen and energetic to see the frogs spawning in the fenny ponds near our house.

They weren’t Heaney’s “slime kings,” “their blunt heads farting,” but a congregation of animals, a welcome sign of spring on a warm afternoon. Not coarse, and not apocalyptic, just frogs: welcome, exuberantly sexual and productive. One watched us carefully as she sat in her grey cloud of eggs, her sides heaving; others climbed, swam, grabbed, and croaked like a distant motorbike starting up.

My immediate thought is that Bashō has it right: keep to the bare thing itself (a nice explanation of Bashō’s famous frog haiku and some translations are to be found here; more, with Zen comments, here) in a few terse lines: eschew the grandiose. Today at Mass, the preacher interrupted his own flow to correct his phrasing around a (very good) point of his sermon on Christology and spirituality and say “O dear, what pretentious twaddle!” – and perhaps Bashō does better with his short invitation to join him by the pond.

Continue reading “Frogs are Nothing Fancy”


It is probably worth saying right at the start that writers such as Benjamin Myers and Peter Fiennes, writing about the Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd floods, are reporting on disasters that impact hugely on humans and their dependent livestock. I may have known these locations in Calderdale in the past, but I am in no position to comment on their powerful and much more up-to-date reportage. When Peter F writes “This is Yorkshire after all: the rains fall and the rivers run fast” he is not being dismissive, but moving into a critique of climate change, housing, development and farming that are having an impact on real lives and communities: I am writing about “just” a bit of Edgeland, a “wildlife corridor” some 0.5km from my front door. As Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts put it “Edgelands landscapes grow in gaps, changing as they cross a road, circle a building.”

And this is “my” (our) Edgelands. Last night for the second time in a fortnight, the trees, leggy, scrubby, largely uncared-for, roared like the forest giant Khumbaba (here as Humbaba) or like the way that the Psalmist (103/4) envisages God “walking on the wings of the wind” when “the waters stood higher than the mountains ” – and this morning we went out to see what the aftermath was. Aftermath: the field after the mowing; even here we are into metaphor, half-remembered etymologies and myths. There were trees leaning where before they had stood up, trunks shattered and blocking paths (and even from last night, new paths emerging from early runners’ feet and padding dogs), little bits of branches down and bigger ones that have bashed through the canopy, cutting the bark on smaller ones, bringing venerable ivy down with them. It’s not a disaster, but there are trees that will not recover in their present state, I guess. They have been mowed down – wantonly, rather haphazardly – by the giants, like me bashing nettles with a stick – and we live around the stalks.

“Our woods,” Farley and Symmons Roberts write, “are a complicated and sustaining myth. We yearn for traces of the original tracts of greenwood…We imagine the lone copse surrounded by arable fields or the farmer’s shelterbelt of woodland to be the last remnants of a primeval forest that once covered the land, green pools left over in the bed of a vast retreated inland sea.” It’s hard this morning not to feel that we are walking through an area where some huge vandal has been at play, and somehow I wonder if the vandal isn’t Khumbaba or the Psalmist’s vision of God, but us: the bike in the brook and the scattered crips packets suggest as much. Fiennes puts it gloomily: “The growth of everything: towns, cities, roads and runways, the population, the carrier bags and all that pointless tat and crap that no one needs and never wanted. If you spend time in the woods, it’s impossible to avoid the biggest questions of all – what’s it all for? Not just the woods but everything. What do we think we are doing? What on earth is the point? Wouldn’t it be better if none if us were here?”

And yet… and yet…

And for all this, nature is never spent, as Hopkins puts it. “Natural forests contain trees at all stages of their life cycles,” as Whitmore notes. The willow that is now leaning into the mud will – if we let it – root and shoot and keep going; the tall trees by Boundary Brook will turn to mush, home for bugs and fungi and a whole chain of creatures living their lives in the faltering and decomposing timber. Light breaks in in places it did not before, even on a grey morning.

Oh, am I back to metaphor again?

Sword-grey sky, daffodil light

To do no more this morning than record this astonishing section from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord. The protagonist, newly made king of the peoples of what we might describe as Western Scotland, Red Phaedrus, img_2217
is out to catch the woman appointed as his wife. These are horse-people, as the book’s title suggests, and this rough “courtship” (here as in the Lantern Bearers Sutcliff does not shy away from the nature of marriage and being given in marriage and its impact on woman) is the bridgegroom’s chase after his bride. They are both mounted, and she has a head start as the groom’s party pursue her through the country of the Dál Riata.  Just look at this amazing use of colour and shade, and how Sutcliff anchors this in the landscape features – the whirlpool of the Old Woman, the mountain of Cruachan she has already introduced us to in map and in narrative.

The track was pulling up now, out of the great flats of Mhoin Mhor, and the quarry, striking away from it, was making north-eastward for the hills around Loch Abha head. And the wild hunt swept after her, hooves drumming through the blackened heather, skirting little tarns that reflected the sword-grey sky, startling the green plover from the pasture clearings. Far over to the west the clouds were breaking as they came up into the hills, and a bar of sodden daffodil light was broadening beyond the Island, casting an oily gleam over the wicked swirling water of the Old Woman, while away and northward, the high snows of Cruachan caught the westering beams and shone out sour-white against the storm-clouds dark behind.

Gifts Reserved for Age?

A storm was gathering yesterday that has hit us good and proper today. I had been for a walk and a coffee and came out from the pub to see the lights on in St Andrews across the way. Evening Prayer time in a warm, quiet, dark church.

And when I got home I looked up the words from T S Eliot because, I wanted, I suppose, some more of that sense of contemplation that Eliot tries for:

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel,
History is now and England…

The aesthetic pathway of spirituality may be cultural, maybe victim to changing fashions or simply growing up, but it is not to be forgotten: it creates the thin places, or sharpens the senses to see those places where prayer has been valid, where the other and the now meet. Thin places. In the church the silent near-dark was stunning, and all those poems from all those Thomases,   Thomas Merton and R S Thomas and T S Eliot (not to mention Dylan Thomas’ “close and holy darkness”) were somehow at my elbow. And maybe the incense smudge of a memory of the church when I was a child, after Compline and Benediction, or the quiet of Magdalen after Night Prayer…

But tonight it is different, and the blustery grey has been superseded by a Wild Hunt of a storm. Time then to go back in my mind to another thin place, to the little, basic cottage on the North York moors where this poem from Kathleen Raine was posted up by a previous inhabitant, and said so much about a keener, wilder, maybe more dangerous spirituality. I have cited it before.

Let in the wind,
Let in the rain,
Let in the moors tonight,
The storm beats on my window-pane,
Night stands at my bed-foot,
Let in the fear,
Let in the pain,
Let in the trees that toss and groan,
Let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
That beats upon my door,
Let in the ice, let in the snow,
The banshee howling on the moor,
The bracken-bush on the bleak hillside,
Let in the dead tonight.

The whistling ghost behind the dyke,
The dead that rot in the mire,
Let in the thronging ancestors,
The unfilled desire,
Let in the wraith of the dead earl,
Let in the dead tonight.

Let in the cold,
Let in the wet,
Let in the loneliness,
Let in the quick,
Let in the dead,
Let in the unpeopled skies.

Oh how can virgin fingers weave
A covering for the void,
How can my fearful heart conceive
Gigantic solitude?
How can a house so small contain
A company so great?
Let in the dark,
Let in the dead,
Let in your love tonight.
Let in the snow that numbs the grave,
Let in the acorn-tree,
The mountain stream and mountain stone,
Let in the bitter sea.

Fearful is my virgin heart
And frail my virgin form,
And must I then take pity on
The raging of the storm
That rose up from the great abyss
Before the earth was made,
That pours the stars in cataracts
And shakes this violent world?

Let in the fire,
Let in the power,
Let in the invading might.

Gentle must my fingers be
And pitiful my heart
Since I must bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild
That cries about my house
With all the violence of desire
Desiring this my peace.


Just sometimes a day in January makes me want to believe in spring.  A chilly day down the allotment – should have been the morning but we pressed on – and my task was to finish some hazel coppicing. img_1988Well, actually my task was to tidy the absolute dog’s breakfast I had made of the hazel I had undertaken to coppice on some communal land to one side of the plots. Hacking with a billhook like William Ager had been immensely satisfying but really untidy; a mixture of billhook, bowsaw and ordinary handsaw meant I managed better. At least occupied with coppicing there was was no diggin’ to be done in the claggy soil.

Two rods stand tall on one hazel stool, and turn round each other. At one point they meet, touch and begin a process of fusing together known as inosculation, a joining together: the term has its root in the Latin word for kissing. I am, because of how my mind works, really quite moved by the metaphor – but recognise that I need to get to work. The two rods have, I guess, been working at this for years, but now I need to get cutting. I sort of hope that I can cut the fusion out as a whole piece (but in the end I can’t)… but the time the hazel has taken and the time it takes my saw to undo the fusion seem out of all proportion.

Old man on an allotment hazel stand: hardly great forestry or John Seymour-like land management. Forest School is not survival training; allotmenting is not farming. But once in a while, what we potter about at is something that is in the shadows of a bigger husbandry and a longer history: the stone axe; the horse, the enclosures.  And the kissing metaphor makes me think of so many nature writers’ respect and tenderness for the landscapes they represent. So when I come home, thinking of how this work is explored, I look at various texts. Edward Parnell’s exploring of the ghostlands of literature and his own biography; Thomas Merton’s monks whose “saws sing holy sonnets;” the changing and unchanging downs of the White Horse in David Miles’ book… and then into other writers on my shelves, where I am struck by this:

What a bare desert of a place the world would be without its woods and trees. How long would man live once he had broken the balance.

Ian Niall, in Fresh Woods and Pastures New (Little Toller did one with lovely illustrations by Barbara Greg) is keen eyed and dreadfully prescient about deforestation.

When he cuts down the planting, the copse, the old oak wood, it takes him a little while to see that the drainage is different, that the soil washing into the hollow, and new crops of rock are in his field. The lumbermen come and haul away the timber and every yard of the fields on either side changes in nature, new weeds, new grasses, more sun, less humus, water-logged drains in wet weather, overflowing ditches. A year or two, and the man sees what he has done, but how long must he wait to see it as it once was?

Believing in spring feels easy on a chill, bright January day: believing in a world where we can find ways to harvest from the earth when it looks like the Anthropocene crisis is upon us in the Amazon, Jakarta and Australia feels a lot harder. “Man sees what he has done:” but can we step back from it, somehow? Can we realise our need to reconnect, to re-fuse with the world we live in?