I’m three-quarters of the way through John Crowley’s Aegypt, kindly lent by DM after literally years of trying to find a copy. I was lukewarm to start with but now am more and more enthralled by its quiet subtlety. I particularly approve of the way so far it has reconciled a magical realist viewpoint with a secular materialism (not to mention all the stuff about my old chums John Dee and Giordano Bruno). As do many things, it reminds me of my favourite quote from Coleridge who, when asked if he believed in ghosts, replied ‘No madam, I have seen far too many myself.”


The Old Man’s Road

Across the Great Schism, through our whole landscape
Ignoring God’s vicar and God’s ape

Under their noses, unsuspected
The Old Man’s road runs where it did.

When a light subsoil, a simple ore
Where still in vogue true to his wherefore

By stiles, gates, hedgegaps it goes
Over ploughlands, woodlands, cow meadows

Past shrines to a cosmological myth
No heretic today would be caught dead with

Near hilltop rings that were so safe then
Now easily scaled by small children

Shepherds use bits in the high mountains
Hamlets use stretches for lovers’ lanes

then through cities threads its odd way
Now with gutters, a thieves’ ally

Now with green lamp-posts and white curb
The smart crescent of a high toned suburb

Giving wide berth to a new cathedral
Running smack through a new town hall

Unlookable for by logic or by guess
Yet some strike it and are struck fearless

No like can know it, but no life
that sticks to this course can be made captive

And those that know it are not stopped
at borders by some theocrat.

WH Auden

Kilvert’s diary

The Rev Francis Kilvert’s diary is astonishingly beautiful to read, lyrical, charming, earthy and humane. Here are a few small bits that have struck me so far for one reason or another.

1. 29/03/1870
“Turned aside into the meadow to look at the great stone of Cross Ffordd… I suppose no one will ever know now what the grey silent mysterious witness means, or why it was set there. Perhaps it could tell some strange wild tales and many generations have flowed and ebbed around it. There is something very solemn about these great solitary stones which stand about the country, monuments of some one or something, but the memory has perished and the history is forgotten.”

Not his poetic best by any means, but this passage epitomises the rare pagan sensibility that Kilvert has, given that he is an Anglican priest. Standing stones, stone circles, cromlechs and so on are all an abiding fascination for me, and I will always go well out of my way if I have a chance to find them. I think when reading these lines particularly of one in Northumberland M. and I found last year on our valedictory excursion before his departure to America. I have some very satisfying pictures of it (which, along with others, I am forever intending to submit to the two major megalith websites). In a way, as Kilvert suggests, perhaps this fascination is a very simple, almost trite one – and he certainly encapsulates the sentiment far more successfully in one paragraph than M Scott Peck does in his entire book, In Search of Stones, which I read wanting to like it, and enjoyed the premise, but the reality was constantly marred by his ego, not to mention his dim knowledge of Britain.

2. 05/04/1870
“It does seem very odd at this age of the world in the latter part of the 19th century to see monks gravely wearing such dresses and at work in them in broad day. One could not help thinking how much more sensible and really religious was the dress and occupation of the masons [ie stonemasons working nearby] and of the hearty healthy girl washing at the Chapel House, living naturally in the world and taking their share of its work, cares and pleasures, than the morbid unnatural life of these monks going back into the errors of the dark ages and shutting themselves up from the world to pray for the world.”

Kilvert writes this while visiting the work at Capel-y-Ffin, where the eminence gris ‘Father Ignatius’ attempted to revive monasticism, just a mile away from the ruins of Llanthony Priory. This passage (and the pages around it) mean a lot to more for a whole amalgam of reasons: H. and I visited Capel-y-Ffin itself on a cycling holiday only last year, and I have a picture painted by her father of the chapel in my cottage (I also went to Llanthony as a child with my parents, and have a photograph of them there I am fond of); and I happened to read this very passage to H. at random recently, just when I was reading Iain Sinclair’s novel Landor’s Tower which is partly about the same area – Sinclair quotes this very passage; also, more generally, I have perhaps a slightly unreasonable distaste for the concept of monks and nuns in general – which perhaps I’ll reflect on another time – and Kilvert’s down-to-earth response would echo precisely my own.

3. 07/04/1870
“I had the satisfaction of managing to walk from Hay to Clyro by the fields without meeting a single person, always a great triumph to me and a subject for warm self-congratulation for I have a peculiar dislike to meeting people, and a peculiar liking for a deserted road.”

I wouldn’t go quite as far as that myself, but I do appreciate what he means, and I suspect most walkers would (with the exception of the Goretexed flocks of Ramblers).

Many more things deserve comment, but I’m exhausted from travelling, working and then cycling this evening, so will stop shortly.

Cycling’s so much a part of all this for me. I bought a new bike today, much more comfortable for exploring country lanes, and it thrills me to meander down them, gratuitous sprays of cow parsley in the fecund hedges either side of the roads around Upton Scudamore. I don’t think there’s anything that has ever given me quite the same sense of freedom as cycling does. But now: rest.

Halt – who goes there?

Have just discovered John Betjeman wrote a poem about my area, immortalising the Warminster launderette. Though it has to be said it’s dreadful:

Dilton Marsh Halt

Was it worth keeping the Halt open,
We thought as we looked at the sky
Red through the spread of the cedar-tree,
With the evening train gone by?

Yes, we said, for in summer the anglers use it,
Two and sometimes three
Will bring their catches of rods and poles and perches
To Westbury, home for tea.

There isn’t a porter. The platform is made of sleepers.
The guard of the last train puts out the light
And high over lorries and cattle the Halt unwinking
Waits through the Wiltshire night.

O housewife safe in the comprehensive churning
Of the Warminster launderette!
O husband down at the depot with car in car-park!
The Halt is waiting yet.

And when all the horrible roads are finally done for,
And there’s no more petrol left in the world to burn,
Here to the Halt from Salisbury and from Bristol
Steam trains will return.

Landor sea

I normally actively avoid reading two books by the same author in succession, but here I am, half way through Iain Sinclair’s Landor’s Tower. I think on balance I prefer his non-fiction, but there’s enough of conspiracy theories and Welsh literary history to keep me going. And quite by chance I opened Kilvert’s Diary at random the other night to find the bit where he talks about Capel-y-Ffin and Llanthony Abbey – places of personal significance to both Helen and me. (I may have to continue this literary trail and read Kilvert properly next: just those few pages I read were beautifully observed, and gloriously pagan as only the Church of England can allow its ministers to be.)

In the current catalogue of Postscript Books (an excellent mail order enterprise I may have to try and ally my incipient publishing company to), there’s a collection of Walter Savage Landor’s poems. The paragraph describing it says one of his poems has been described as the best short poem in the English language – and it doesn’t bloody well say what it is.

And while I’m connecting everything up into my ever-growing Ubertheorie, editor and I were discussing Eric Gill (with his Sans) the other day. Gill lived at Llanthony for a while in the 1920s. (I wonder if the film Sirens – which the IMDB has the wrong poster picture for! – is based on Gill at all, albeit set in Australia rather than Wales..?)

You see, I was supposed to be at a pub quiz this evening, so now I’m pouring out random trivia (which surely should really be ‘quadrivia’).

Sinclair’s Ring cycle

At last the chance to rhapsodise about Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital. I love some of his earlier books (although the one novel I read was largely incomprehensible to me at the time), but this one works so much better (not that I’ve quite finished yet). It’s Last of the Summer Wine scripted by Edgar Allan Poe; it’s the Dark Side of Fatty Ackroyd.

(I haven’t done any of this kind of lunatic perambulation for a while now – alas my fellow fugueurs now live elsewhere or have babies – and I damn well miss it.)

Only 10 pages left to go now – he’s certainly rushing the last bit. Which is just as well, because most of it is about nasty Essex people chopping each other up and distributing the bits.

But the best bit for me, the most elegiac of all, was in the grounds of the erstwhile Joyce Green Hospital near Dartford, and with the old codgers wandering around the mud and salt flats. What made it particularly spectacular was that I read it in the great hall of Imperial College while H and the rest of the choir sang Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius at me (and several hundred others) – perfect combination. Great concert, and something of an elegy for H, too, as it was the last one she’ll do for that particular kwa.

I think there’s a lot more subtlety in Sinclair’s tone in this book: he’s still very good at invective, but it’s always tempered with a sort of metallic nostalgia. And although he hardly rhapsodises about the grey hinterlands that are being lost to developers, the whole thing is nevertheless pervaded with this sense of loss, and it’s quietly moving to read of all these brutal sanitoria being transmuted into clocktowered Crest estates and all the rest of it. Corking stuff.