Archive for March, 2010

Unriddling the World

Monday, March 15th, 2010

The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the Universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.

‘Aback of Beyond’, The Voice that Thunders (1997)

You catch a glimpse of the escarpment of Alderley Edge just before Junction 18 on the M6. It’s the first inkling of the real North country beginning, the land of high moors, long horizons, moss, peat, grit. On a clear day that stretch of the motorway reveals the rounded spine of the Pennines, the high, distant mountains of North Wales and, eventually, looming out of the sea, the sublime peaks of the Lake District.
I don’t like motorways much, but I love that road to the high country. Even the names of the bland service stations have a poetry to them – Keele, Sandbach, Charnock Richard, Tebay, Shap – Saxon, Norse and Norman words that fix the ebb and flow of settlement and culture that has shaped the landscape. I grew up on the other side of the country but the North West drew me then as it does now. For nearly twenty years I’ve lived in the softer pastures of the South, tending my ground but dreaming of those hills.

This story starts, as many stories do, with a place glimpsed on the way to somewhere else. Alderley Edge has become infamous as home to the country’s highest concentration of millionaires; the place where Posh and Becks built their English palace. It is a small, preternaturally tidy, east Cheshire village laid waste by too much money and too little taste. AA Gill captures the odd melancholy of downtown Alderley: ‘They’re not bad people. All they’ve done is follow the instructions on the box and in the glossy magazines. Got on and consumed, cut their lawns, learnt to ski.’

But there is another Alderley Edge: an eroded fault scarp, 600 feet high composed largely of the Keuper and Bunter Triassic sandstones, a place rich in minerals and riddled with mines that have been worked since the Bronze Age. It is across this ancient but scrupulously ‘real’ landscape that Alan Garner set loose two urban children in a pair of novels that were to re-define writing for children. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963) turned a whole generation on to myth and literature and the deep, unsettling power of the land. Garner fired young imaginations like no other writer. Even in the early books he seemed not to be writing ‘for children’, still less ‘for young adults’. He was a myth-maker, a visionary who fashioned stories out of the oldest material of all: fear, pain, joy, awe: the deep sediments of childhood. And at the heart of those early books, there stood The Edge, a place he calls ‘both physically and emotionally dangerous… as full of continuity and function as a cathedral’

Alan Garner is a ‘Cheshire’ writer, maybe the Cheshire writer. His family has lived and worked in and around Alderley Edge for at least five centuries. His father’s family were rural craftsman and he has taken on the craftsman’s mantle, using his hands in a different medium but with the same painstaking attention to quality and use. But the ‘Cheshire’ Garner knows and writes about is not the County Palatinate which, though ancient in terms of English history, is only a fleeting political shadow on the tessellation of fields, walls and hills that make up his ‘bone country’. For ‘Alan Garner’s Cheshire’, read ‘Alan Garner’s Back Garden’. That’s what really feeds him and his work. But what a back garden:

At the edge of the garden, cobbles have been dumped to clear the field. Others made a yard and paths. They are multicoloured and beautiful. They have been brought from the Lake District, from Ireland; they have been scooped from the bottom of the sea. The rolling fields are the slurry, the detritus of the ice: ice 1,200 feet thick.

Some of the cobbles are quite different from the others. They have the shape of flatirons: smooth underneath, with one end pointed, the other blunt. Their tops are domed, and their upper surfaces pocked as if by sandblasting. Yet not ‘as if’. It was sand that blasted them.

These cobbles are ‘ventefacts’. For hundreds of years they sat on the ground here in permafrost in a polar desert, where neither snow nor rain fell, but an endless wind blew.

The ice had gone, and into this land people returned after an absence of 12,000 years.
The Times, July 23, 2003

This is Garnerworld, not Cheshire – the long view of deep time made real by his imagination, his meticulous research and his craftsman’s mastery of prose.

He has lived and worked in same house for almost fifty years. He discovered it as a twenty-two year-old Classics scholar who’d given up on his Oxford degree in order to discover if he could write. To do so he needed a place to live. The cottage he had been sent to see was a hideous modern bungalow but as he was cycling back home to Congleton he noticed a battered sign advertising ‘17th Century Cottage For Sale’. Climbing the steep hill leading to the front gate the first thing he noticed was the long roofline. Once the whole structure was revealed, he saw what few others would ever have recognised. Through all the dilapidations and later accretions, the modern brick and the tin roof, he was staring at a timber-framed medieval hall. His destiny was set: he had to live there. He would write much later: ‘If I have any real occupation it is to be here.’ Penniless, unemployed, it didn’t look hopeful but his father, quite uncharacteristically, but perhaps sensing his son’s craftsmanly stubborness, lent him the £510 to buy it. All Garner’s books have been written in what was once the buttery.

This sounds idyllic. The writer’s cosy rural nest; the ancient cottage inhabited by the collector of folktales; the very model of a childrens’ writer’s home. But Garner’s home isn’t much like that. It’s no more restful or benign than his work. Like the work, it is strong, complex, confusing, archetypal, unforgettable. It’s rattled every few minutes by the Manchester to Crewe mainline which forms the boundary to his back garden. Less than a mile away the giant eye of the Jodrell Bank telescope is open to the sky. In one of the neat synchronicities that trail in Garner’s wake, the year he moved in was also the year the world’s most powerful terrestrial telescope became operational, the only telescope able to track Sputnik 1, also launched that year. It was semi-derelict for a long time, made habitable slowly as each of his books earned acclaim and royalties. In the early seventies he added a Tudor timber framed apothecary’s house scheduled for demolition in a town twenty miles away. He masterminded the dismantling and reconstruction of its hundreds of beams, turning the whole project into a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. It is built around a central chimney, open to the sky, and a fire place where eight people can sit in a circle around the fire. It throbs with a strong, unsettling energy. The first spring after its re-construction the perimeter of the building was garlanded with poppies and other medicinal herbs and flowers that had sprouted from ancient seeds shaken from the beams.

So much for what you can see. The Garners (Alan is inseparable from his wife and soul-mate Griselda) are probably unique in having saved and catalogued every significant piece of stone, metal, flint, every tiny potsherd that fifty years of gardening and digging has turned up. Alan knows each beam and flagstone in his house, not a detail has escaped his sceptical attention. Five years ago excavations began. Combining what Alan already knew with speculative visits from the best archaeologists and historians in the country, a picture has emerged of ten thousand years of continuous habitation. Beyond that – and this is Alan’s story to tell – it now seems likely that Garner’s eight novels were written in the middle of a ritual site. A sacred place.

That probably sounds too tidy, too like an Alan Garner novel. Well, here’s another story. The young Garner was a keen runner. He was out on the high moors training one winter’s afternoon in the early 1950s when he slipped down a steep bank and felt a flat stone against his backside. Pulling away the tussocks of grass he found the stone inscribed with the following words: ‘Here John Turner was cast away in a heavy snowstorm in or about the year 1755.’ He cleared more earth and managed to get his hand behind the stone. There was more writing. With his fingers he read: ‘The print of a woman’s shoe was found by his side in the snow where he lay dead’.

The solution to that strange and troubling riddle is the subject of his latest novel, Thursbitch (2003). With its predecessor, Strandloper (1996) it is the second book in a loose trilogy which will cement Garner’s reputation as one of our greatest living writers.

The research for these books is humbling in its scope and intensity. To write Thursbitch Garner had to acquire a scholar’s knowledge of the history and development of the eighteenth century salt trade; the passage of goods along the Silk Route; the pathology of plague; Neolithic astronomy; Mithraism; the rites of Dionysus; the Mesopotamian cult of the bull; the Eleusian Mysteries; the geomorphology of the Western Pennines; the history of non-conformism in the Macclesfield area. But the story – the emotional momentum – all started in the hills, with a thump on the arse.

Thursbitch is a real place; a valley, high up in the South Western Pennines. It’s an Old English name meaning ‘Valley of the Demon’ and it’s an appropriately bleak and fearful place. My wife and I walked it with Alan and Griselda one cold spring afternoon. They were keen to show us what they’d found. They were stones, mostly. Standing stones, stones half buried in the turf, stones used as gateposts or lying in the moss. It was only when you looked more closely, felt the fluting that been chiselled into them, plotted them on a map and ran the computer projections that the full truth emerged. Forgotten and abandoned in the valley there emerged a late Neolithic cathedral with stones and natural features in a sequence of alignments that suggested a complex stellar cult. No plaques, no tour guides, no car park. Just us, and the valley, and its forgotten stones.

It was a life-changing day. For the first time I grasped just how little we know of the past. Most archaeologists are like cheese-testers plunging their drills into the heart of a vast Stilton. You get flavour and texture but absolutely no sense of the size or shape of the whole cheese. I suspect, up there in Thursbitch, we have the remains of a very large cheese and one that was sustaining its population long after the arrival of Christianity. It also gave me the clearest evidence yet of how different Alan’s methods are from most writers. Instead of finding things ‘out there’ and then turning them into a story, Alan starts with the story. Then he digs and, usually, mysteriously, he finds.

At the heart of Garner’s work is the power that places exert. Why are we are drawn to some rather than others? What makes us drive up the M6 to spend time among the hills or find ourselves undone by dread in a valley like Thursbitch or write all our books in one small room? Is it possible that the places themselves demand our attention and presence? The idea of a ‘sentient landscape’ has resonated with many readers of Garner’s work, especially Thursbitch. There is now a rich seam of contemporary archaeology dedicated to understanding the ritual function of natural places, as distinct from built monuments. As Sal, the geologist in the novel, remarks: ‘some places have to be treated with respect, though that doesn’t get written up in the literature.’

What makes a place sacred? The simple answer is: we do. The slow accretions left behind by human imagination and its interaction with the landscape, millennias of association, ritual and story make places significant. But are they the sole cause? Most of us, on the right day, at the right time, standing on a hill, staring into a river, looking at the night sky, entering a cave have felt Wordsworth’s ‘sense of something far more deeply interfused’. It’s not for nothing that the oldest words in a language always name these places. And unlike so much else, they change little; their constancy gives us an immediate link with the past.

This sense of places ‘meaning’ something is a common thread in human culture, as solidly attested as our need for food, sex and shelter. Perhaps it is an adaptive advantage hardwired within Homo sapiens sapiens, one which helped lead us out of the forest and into language. Because language is the tool that we have made places with, whatever drew us to them in the first place. We tell stories and the landscape changes; it becomes richer and more significant as each generation adds its own inflections to the tale. But it is just possible (as the owls shriek at dusk falls, as we wake at night in a strange house, as the moon climbs from behind a tree) that we are simply the conduits, the sounding boards, for the place to tell its own story.

No one understands, or relishes, this paradox more than Alan Garner:

The first stars were showing, their sounds the echoes of the moon, and the moonlight on the brook rippled up to him. As in the day, he took of the valley and the sky and the valley and the sky took of him; but now all was lapped in a greater silence, and in it and from it he heard something in front of him, and a rustling and a plashing in the mist.

Jack stood firm and waited. The rustling and the plashing drew near, the mist snorted, and of it and from it came a bull, a great white bull, marked only by a red stripe along its muzzle, dark in the moon.

Thursbitch, p 52

You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. But here is something rare: a modern writer who stays in one place so he can reach back to where all stories start, in the journey to ‘a mystical earth, a mystical geography, a mystical sequence of Time, a mystical history, and, through the individual, a mystical and personal responsibility for the universe.’


Alan Garner’s first six novels and most of his fairytale collections are available in paperback from HarperCollins. Strandloper (1996) and Thursbitch are Harvill Paperbacks. The passage from The Times was taken from Garner’s review of Stephen Mithen’s After the Ice (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003). All other quotes come from Garner’s indispensable collection of essays and autobiography, The Voice that Thunders (Harvill, 1997). This is currently out of print, but second hand copies are available through Amazon. Snap them up; you won’t regret it. A very useful resource is the unofficial Alan Garner website It is full of biographical information, reviews, interviews, articles, photographs and links, and some valuable background to the research that underpins the later novels.

Lost and found

Monday, March 15th, 2010

This is commuter country. Chalfont St Giles settles in the Chilterns just outside the M25 that encircles London and within a short drive of the nearest tube station at the end of the Metropolitan Line. But in 1665 it would have taken Milton a long, uncomfortable day’s cart ride to reach here as he fled the Plague in his native London.

The cottage he lived in for less than two years is not the oldest building in Chalfont St Giles. When I arrive at the village green, the air is cold but the pallid sun is shining. It’s a pleasant place to walk, and the church, approached through a Tudor gateway off the high street, has an air of contemplative melancholy that we recognise from Gray’s Elegy. The church, like many English churches, is a construction of various periods, dating back to Norman times. The tombstones ancient and modern, the scattered feathers of a startled perhaps slaughtered crow, the spongy grass beneath your feet, the clumps of snowdrops, all tell a story of life passing, being recorded, being renewed.

The cottage itself is a hundred yards further up the road. When Milton lived here it was the last house in the village, never a grand house but pleasantly situated. In these little low-ceilinged rooms Milton sat in the dark of blindness and created pictures of heaven, earth and hell. A sense of awe lingers as the presence of Milton makes itself felt through the first editions that lie open in cabinets, through the portraits on the walls, through the timber beams that stripe the surfaces. How confined was this world of poky rooms. Even the upper storey was inaccessible to a blind man: it was reached by rope by those, the poor women in Milton’s life, who slept in the space above. But even this could have been a metaphor that resonated with his constant composition on the theme of heaven and hell.

Milton seems perhaps the unlikeliest of influences on a modern writer for business. Writing epic poems in heroic verse, often with convoluted sentences and extended similes, Milton follows none of the advice of the Plain English Campaign. But that, in essence, is what Milton has to offer me and all of us. He had higher ambitions than to be plain. Through his ideas, language and verse he encourages us all to strive higher in our everyday writing. In Paradise Lost he sets out his ambition: “to justify the ways of God to men.” So should we all not strive for an extraordinary ambition in our writing? In the business world, it’s all too easy to accept “they’ll never let me do that”. Perhaps they will if you try.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

You understand this a little more by visiting the cottage. In midwinter spring its glooming darkness is lit by occasional shafts of thin sunlight. This is the only surviving house in which Milton lived. The house survived and so did Milton. In London the Plague had been suppurating all around him, the bells had been ringing to bring out the dead. Had he stayed Paradise Lost might never have seen the light of day, so he completed it during his time of refuge in Chalfont St Giles.

By 1665 the light of day had been long lost to Milton. He had gone blind in 1652 but his literary output never abated – he simply dictated his words to amanuenses. So he composed the thousands of lines of Paradise Lost and then Paradise Regained by reciting them aloud; forming the words in his head but speaking them for the ears of his scribes and his readers. His other senses sharpened by the loss of vision, his power to create pictures in our imaginations increased. He used the sense of sound to add layers of meaning to his storytelling, and in doing so he shows us a fundamental principle of writing. Philip Pullman describes it in his own way of reading Milton: “So I begin with sound. I read Paradise Lost not only with my eyes, but with my mouth.” (1)

The cottage is the place where Milton composed many of his words aloud and where he heard them read back to him.

“He spake: and to confirm his words, outflew
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined hell: highly they raged
Against the highest, and fierce with grasped arms
Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
Hurling defiance towards the vault of heaven.”

The rolling momentum of the verse is glorious. Imagine Milton speaking these words here for the first time. But then, pulling back from this close clamour of sound, taking a more distant view of what Milton does, as if looking down from the heights of heaven, admire his ability to create striking visual images with words – and his ease in telling a story. When you read Paradise Lost you realise that, for example, most fantasy fiction owes Milton a huge debt. Indeed you wonder whether a film-maker like Peter Jackson might have been reading Paradise Lost before creating storyboards for the films of Lord of the Rings.

* * *

Eddie Dawson is your guide. As curator, he welcomes you to Milton’s cottage, a genial figure unlike any of the grim gatekeepers in Paradise Lost. He is proud to show his latest electronic recruit, inviting me to press the button on the fireplace. A recorded voice speaks to the room, an actor who plays Thomas Ellwood, Milton’s pupil and friend who found him this refuge from the Plague. And so you listen to the description by Thomas Ellwood of his encounters with Milton in this “pretty box”. (2)

The story is the nearest we have to a recorded conversation with Milton. In short, Milton gives Ellwood the manuscript of Paradise Lost to read. Ellwood reads the “excellent poem” and pays another visit. They chat and Ellwood remarks: “Thou hast said much here of ‘Paradise Lost’, but what hast thou to say of ‘Paradise Found’?” The question sends Milton into a muse. Some time later, after Milton’s return to London, the two men meet again and Milton shows Ellwood a new poem called Paradise Regained, the direct result of the conversation in Chalfont St Giles.

There is much in this place that has been lost and found, but it seems hubristic to seek beyond Paradise. Yet Eddie Dawson has the Miltonic mission to educate and persuade. I had remembered earlier visits when he had rediscovered for me many aspects of Milton that have been effectively lost to general knowledge. Eddie will talk for as long as you wish about Milton as ‘foreign secretary’, as a founding influence on the American constitution, as the writer of the Areopagitica that provided the intellectual muscle for Cromwell’s English Revolution and the republican case for the execution of King Charles I. But Milton did this through essays and pamphlets that set out arguments in poetic prose that stiffened the sinews of Parliament – and that still moves our spirits today.

“As good kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, God’s Image; but he who destroys a good Book kills reason itself, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

Milton’s sight began to fail at the time of writing the Areopagitica in 1644. He was advised to rest his eyes and avoid stress, but he insisted that he had important work to do – writing – and that he must continue. Within eight years his blindness was complete but his work flowed on. On the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 many of Milton’s colleagues received gruesome retribution by being hung, drawn and quartered. Milton endured a spell in prison but no harsher punishment, except that some of his works were burned by the hangman. His disaffected daughters removed many of his books from his house and sold them. People contemplate acts of cruelty and make judgements about which acts will hurt their victim most. Yet Milton survived to write his greatest work and his books remain his life-blood.

* * *

I have always loved books. I love the physical form of a book and can never bear to throw a book away, so I hoard them even when the paper thins and yellows. So it was an important moment for me when I held in my hand the first book published under my name That excitement has now been repeated many times since, most recently when my book Dark Angels appeared. (3) Dark Angels, as the title might suggest, owes something in its inspiration to Milton. The dark angels of my book are you and me, human beings who are neither the heavenly angels nor those fallen angels cast down into hell. Humans touched by the knowledge of good and evil, yet able to choose, gifted with curiosity and creativity but too little encouraged to make use of them. My belief is that we should all be given encouragement to express our personalities through writing, inside and outside the workplace. In effect we should all be given our wings to fly and for our words to transport us to other places, realising the potential of our humanity.

Milton might not argue for that, God might remain the great forbidder. But there is a difference between the purpose of Milton’s rational argument and the effect of his emotional writing. Satan is the heroic figure of Paradise Lost, perhaps against Milton’s intentions but the power of characterisation and storytelling have taken over. And the power of sound. Satan simply has all the best speeches. Sometimes his words ring out, bouncing off the vault of heaven; sometimes they slide out smoothly, seducing Eve in the shade of a tree with the forbidden fruit of knowledge. But the dullest passages of writing in Paradise Lost are spoken by God (the Almighty rather than the Son) and by the archangel Michael. Both come across as unyielding and cold managers of a rather harsh old school. Their language reflects their absence of emotion. They do not connect in a human way because they are not human. There is a gulf of authority between these divine beings and the humans they have set up to fail. Satan, on the other hand, is all too recognisably one of us – which might just prove, in fundamental Christian eyes, how far we have fallen.

Satan, before his fall, was known in heaven as Lucifer, the bearer of light. But now he has lost his brightness. Yet it simply adds to the sense of identification we feel with him as a heroic figure. Heroes have their prime. Heroes pass their prime. We were all luminous in youth and now the glow is fading, has faded. There is a humanity in Satan as a result, a humanity that is easier to connect with than the injunctions of the heavenly angels for Adam to forsake curiosity. Raphael pats Adam on the head as if to say “there, there, don’t go worrying your head about astronomy – take God’s ways on trust, admire, worship and sing hallelujah”. Adam in turn seems to learn from the angels an unthinking patronisation in his behaviour towards Eve. How was this shaped by Milton’s own life? Three times married, not happily, and cast into the darkness of blindness. No wonder he made Eve a figure of submission. No wonder he felt the loss of light. But still he could allow the description in Eve’s mouth of God as “our great forbidder”.

By the poem’s close, coming to terms with expulsion from Eden, Adam debates with Eve and with himself all sides of his new situation. He concludes that he will have to make the best of the new place where he will live, the Earth. It forms an intriguing echo of Satan’s argument in the earlier part of the poem as, cast down into hell, he concludes that he must make the most of his changed circumstances. The effect is curious. The humanity displayed by Adam and Eve, the indomitable spirit, is exactly that displayed by Satan. We see Satan as heroic because he is so recognisably human. God, its hard being angelic. It’s easier to follow our instincts and be human.

So the devil gets all the best tunes and Milton was the musician. He would play the organ in this cottage and he would sing too. Part of his musicality is his ability to create memorable phrases. Other writers have so admired Milton’s facility in turning a phrase that they have appropriated many for their own book titles. The extraction from the density of the poetic text makes them shine brightly. In Dubious Battle: John Steinbeck. Eyeless in Gaza: Aldous Huxley. His Dark Materials: Philip Pullman. Darkness Visible: William Golding. Stirring phrases that sometimes have sneaked their way into vernacular use: “Wherefore with thee came not all hell broke loose?” sends a shock of sudden recognition of the ‘modern’ phrase. Yet, seeing it in its original context changes it entirely, recreates it with its primeval force, reviving in you, as a reader, the vitality of words.

“His stature reached the sky, and in his crest
Sat horror plumed.”

We near an ending. Milton was a master of endings. In Paradise Lost he does it at least twelve times, closing each of the books on a note that is sometimes elevated, sometimes reflective, sometimes melodramatic, but always perfectly pitched. Again it is all to do with the sound of the words, and we take our lead for meaning from the sound that enters our ears, like the serpent himself. The words like water lap against the shore. They have inevitable motion, driving readers to a meaning that enters the brain through the senses. We understand without the need to explain, no need to translate. The heroic blank verse rolls resonant, you are transported on a wave of sound until you pause, allowing the sonorous metre to linger in your memory while watching the pictures created in your mind. And reflecting, reflecting on what you have just felt and heard. The verse enters your being, becomes a part of you, it’s there and never will it leave.

So you leave Eden, so you leave the cottage. Tear in eye perhaps, but better for having once been there.

“Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”


(1) From Paradise Lost, an illustrated edition with an introduction by Philip Pullman, published by Oxford University Press, 2005. All quotations from Paradise Lost are taken from this edition.

(2) Extracts from Thomas Ellwood’s Life, his autobiography, are taken from a leaflet available at John Milton’s Cottage.

(3) Dark Angels by John Simmons, published by Cyan Books, 2004

(4) Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles is open daily except Mondays from 1st March to 31st October. See for details of the Society of Friends of Milton’s Cottage

Growing pains

Monday, March 15th, 2010

North Dorset in the 1970s felt like the end of the earth. There were farmers who tied up their coats with string and had never left the county. Car journeys often included a lengthy wait as a herd of cows was driven along the road. While the rest of Britain was riding around on Choppers and playing Scalextric, those of us growing up in Dorset were doing things like throwing stones at farm rats. In the entire decade, the only thing that happened was a rumour that Princess Anne might buy a house in a nearby village. She didn’t.

When you live in a county where even the people in neighbouring counties are vague about its whereabouts, evidence of external recognition becomes important. So when I read Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd at the age of fourteen, it seemed momentous: I felt validated, as if I had grown in stature because my surroundings were worth writing about. Best of all was the page at the beginning of the book: ‘Key to Place Names’. It was like the topography of my life: Shottsford Forum was Blandford Forum, the town where I went to school; Stourcastle was Sturminster Newton, where we went to the weekly livestock market; Marlott was Marnhull, the village where we were dragged to church. Some of these places hardly earned an appearance in a guidebook to Dorset, but here they were in Literature, with a capital L. It did not matter that they were barely mentioned in the novel, it was enough that they appeared in print at all.

After the initial excitement, I found large parts of Far From the Madding Crowd tedious – the dialect dialogues of the rustics, the agricultural detail, the moralising. The shepherd Gabriel Oak, with his felt hat and ruddy cheeks, is hardly Mr Darcy. And though we were pleased that someone was writing about Dorset, we were unmoved by Hardy’s ability to evoke the landscape itself: we didn’t want to read long descriptions of the countryside, we shrugged, because it’s already right there in front of us. But the deficiencies were balanced by some amazingly vivid scenes, like Gabriel Oak’s young sheepdog chasing hundreds of sheep over the edge of a cliff in a storm, and Sergeant Troy demonstrating his swordsmanship to Bathsheba. These scenes helped close my eyes to the hints of what lay in store with Hardy. I glossed over the humiliation of Bathsheba, and the fact that she is reduced to a shadow of the bold, scarlet-jacketed woman she was at the beginning. I thought the novel’s heavy-handed signposting of the disasters and gloom to come might be unique to this book.

It was a year or two later, the first year of English A-level, that I realised the full implications of living in Hardy country. First, we read The Mayor of Casterbridge, then we went straight into Tess of the D’Urbervilles, supplemented by spending free afternoons on field trips to places like Hardy’s Cottage and Casterbridge (Dorchester). There we would find coach-loads of literary tourists (mostly American), novels in hand, en route to a Dorset cream tea and inevitably marvelling at the quaintness of it all. Teachers and tourists alike were constantly reminding us how lucky we were to be almost inside the pages of his books.

Back in the classroom, we were feeling the full weight of Hardy’s view of the world: the precariousness of agricultural life; the doomed love triangles; the slow descents into poverty; the fatalism about people, society, the world in general. In French A-level classes we’d talk about existentialism, freedom and God’s irrelevance to man; back in Hardy country, God was alive, intolerant and opposed to change.

Our resentment of Hardy was heightened by the fact that his tragedies were so dreary. We’d studied our Shakespeare and our Greek tragedy, and we expected crash and burn, catharsis. Hardy gave us none of that, just the slow process of people being ground down by society, financial hardship and the accumulated misfortunes of everyday life. What we wanted to read were dramas like those we’d already studied in Macbeth and King Lear –storms, madness, blindness; what Tess of the D’Urbervilles gave us was the bathos of the Durbeyfields’ horse dying, or Tess losing her boots in a hedge, all accompanied by Hardy’s irritating commentary of ‘If only Tess hadn’t done that’ and ‘If only Tess had known this …’

It was those aspects of Tess of the D’Urbervilles that helped to change my exasperation with Hardy into loathing. I read much of the book with fists clenched, furious that the character of Tess seemed so accepting of the way men and society mistreated her. I was impatient with her ‘purity’ and unimpressed by her ‘tender’ eyes and ‘mobile, peony’ mouth. Angel Clare inspired me with even greater contempt, with his self-indulgence and his prudish, inadequate response to the truth about Tess’s background. The book’s filmic climax – with Tess asleep on the sacrificial slabs of rock at Stonehenge as the sun rises and the law closes in on her – seemed melodramatic. Its ending – with Angel Clare and Tess’s sister Liza-Lu (‘half girl, half woman’) standing hand-in-hand, looking down at Wintonchester (Winchester) cathedral and the uplands of Wiltshire, and the scene of Tess’s execution – is simply distasteful (though beautifully described).

Looking back, it seems odd that my relationship with Thomas Hardy became so personal. There were other books I disliked – Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss – but I never felt the same anger against their long-dead authors. It must have been the proximity – particularly with Tess, which is set in exactly the part of Dorset where I lived. I looked at the same landscapes, listened to the same dialects, and compared my own life with those of Hardy’s characters. When Tess walked through the ‘long and broken village’ of Marlott to fetch her father from the inn, I knew the road she walked along. When she leaves the village and stops on the curve of the hill to look back at her parents’ home and the ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’, I knew the view she was looking at. I was so immersed in these places that when Hardy thwarted his characters’ lives, it felt like he was telling me that my own life and aspirations would be thwarted. In the red corner, there was I, sixteen or seventeen years old, fully confident that I would escape Dorset, and be free to love or live exactly as I wanted to. In the blue corner was Hardy, a morose old man lecturing that I didn’t understand, that I wasn’t free, that we’re all doomed. It somehow seems symptomatic of the isolation of Dorset in the late 1970s that, while the youth of the Home Counties were busy turning to punk, I was fighting the world-view of Thomas Hardy.


For the next twenty or so years, Hardy and I had nothing to do with each other. I left school, left Dorset, and the only time I came into contact with any of his work was packing and unpacking my books when moving from London to Brussels to Scotland. But then it happened by chance that I needed to re-read Far From the Madding Crowd for a work project. The approach of my fortieth birthday meant I was already thinking about the past, and where I had come to, and it seemed that re-reading Hardy fitted in with that. To my own surprise, I decided that I wanted to go back to Hardy, to read the novels again, and to revisit Hardy country from the safety of 500 miles and 20 years away.

The beginning was painful. Not because of nostalgia or memory, but because it was just so laborious. Two pages of Hardy’s moralising and circumlocutions were enough to send me to sleep regardless of the time of day. No longer excited by the ‘Key to Place Names’, it was even harder to engage with Dorset agricultural life than it had been years previously.

To the immense irritation of those around me, who had to listen day after day to my complaining, I read five Hardy novels over the course of a month. And slowly, surreptitiously, I began to enjoy them. Someone once said about Hardy that he is terrible at writing sentences and paragraphs but great at writing books, and certainly I found myself being drawn in. Far from falling asleep after a page, I was reading chapter after chapter late into the night. And, of course, I responded differently from the first time around.

I still loathe Hardy’s moroseness and moralising, I’m still exasperated by the ‘If only’ sentences and I still want to punch Angel Clare, but I no longer dismiss the books or their characters on the grounds of their fatalism. As a teenager, I thought that Tess accepted her fate too willingly: she is ruined by Alex D’Urberville, and then lets herself be ruined again – though in a different way – by Angel Clare. Instead of fighting against his treatment of her, she waits patiently for him to come to terms with her past, while sinking further into poverty and desperation. But what I never appreciated as a teenager is that Tess manages to achieve her period of greatest happiness and vitality after her ‘ruin’ and after the death of her child. Far from giving up, she continues to hope that society and fate might permit her happiness and a future. Unlike some of her peers in the novel, she does not attempt suicide, turn to drink, or lapse into self-pity.

My teenage self thought that Hardy’s characters were passive because they did not protest loudly enough against their misfortunes. I expected them to go mad on a heath or to do the nineteenth-century equivalent of forming a punk band. What I failed to understand is that by carrying on their daily lives and struggles, they are fighting back and even showing a type of heroism. It’s merely the type of heroism and resilience that is appreciated more by the middle-aged than the young.


The other change I notice is that reading Hardy twenty years on has renewed my relationship with Dorset and my youth. There is a scene in Tess where she returns to the Blackmore Vale, the ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’, after her disastrous few months on The Chase (Cranborne Chase) with the D’Urbervilles. She reaches the edge of the chalk escarpment that bounds the vale and looks down at the ‘familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist’. It’s a vivid and pivotal moment in the book, very typically Hardyesque as he combines a description of place with something more portentous: ‘It was always beautiful from here; it was terribly beautiful to Tess today for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.’ (1)

As I reread the description, I feel like Tess standing on the chalk ridge (though happier), looking down at the vale and my own childhood. It’s more than twenty years since I have lived there, but the view suddenly seems intensely real. As I read further into the book, more and more images from my childhood resurface. In his evocation of Dorset, Hardy also evokes for me my own childhood. I can picture the muddy banks of the river Stour where we played or swam; the lushness of the grass and weeds in the early morning, damp with dew and cuckoo-spit; the smell and sound of cows in the stagnant heat of August ‘following the shadow of the smallest tree’; the slight sense of dislocation when I visited parts of Dorset where the landscape was bigger or bleaker than my own.

As I think about the woods, fields and riverbanks where I grew up, I realise that I will never again be connected so strongly to any landscape. However long I live in Scotland, and however wonderful I find the landscape here, I will never have the same relationship with it. Though I do not find the landscape in Dorset particularly beautiful, I’m beginning to see that it matters to me – and it probably influences many of my reactions to other landscapes. I am also reminded that the childhood experiences that contribute to your adult personality are not just events and people, but place and landscape as well.

Where that leaves me or what it adds to my life now, I am not quite sure. I’ve certainly no desire to re-engage with Shottsford Forum, Stourcastle or the Vale of the Little Dairies – indeed, many of the places I remember are probably buried beneath new housing developments. I feel no nostalgia for lost youth, and have no Hardyesque inclinations to look back at what might have been. But I do have a new sense that I did not leave Dorset behind as completely as I thought I had.

And I also know that I’ve started a dangerous journey: twenty-five years hence, newly retired, I’ll be on a literary coach-tour of Wessex, standing on the chalk ridge that skirts the Blackmore Vale, novels in hand, telling an angry teenager how lucky they are to live in Hardy country.


(1) From the opening page of the second section of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ‘Maiden No More’.

Considering Phlebas

Monday, March 15th, 2010

April may be the cruellest month, but any month counts as cruel when you’re stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. For me in my mid-20s that place was the City, London’s financial district and my idea of a waste land.

The City, so my thinking went, was dead space for the creatively inclined, about as far away in spirit from the artistic London of readings, galleries and Soho gadabouts as London was from the part of rural America I had grown up in. Furthermore, having come of age in the 1980s and 90s with no real wars to be conscripted into or rail against, I had embraced the one obvious rallying cry for an idealist of my generation. I held big business in contempt.

Yet here I was, my fate hanging on a corporate job, my long days spent in an open-plan Atwoodian prison, with electronic access points at the ends of space-centre bridges. The building’s glass doors looked out onto the City morgue. I can’t remember a day there when I didn’t feel at least a little bit sorry for myself.

TS Eliot would not have approved. For the record, that’s the stern and stuffy TS Eliot of lore. Who knows what the real TS Eliot would have thought about an upstart’s career obstinacy. He’d been dead for 35 years. But a dead poet of Eliot’s calibre has already said quite a lot. After all, Eliot wrote the book – or at least the definitive 20th-century poem – on angst, even as his own life seemed to take a professional path more travelled by.

In 1917, Eliot joined Lloyds Bank as a clerk, working right in the heart of the City. Europe was at war and neither freelancing income nor Eliot’s well-received first collection of poems had done wonders for his bank balance. Eliot called the new job a “stop-gap”.

Five years later and still on the bank’s payroll, he published The Waste Land, which would make him the most famous English-language poet alive. And still he did not leave the bank. He would stay for another four years. Printing poems is not the same as printing money, granted, but if you read The Waste Land as an indictment of London’s dark financial heart, a portrayal of The City of London as a Dante’s Inferno of the then modern world, Eliot’s choice to remain there does look a bit masochistic.

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Five lines later the crowds reach Saint Mary Woolnoth’s Church, next door to Eliot’s office, and her clock makes “a dead sound on the final stroke of nine”.

Anyone now familiar with London Bridge at rush hour might recognise the Living Dead effect of several thousand black-clad commuters marching as to work. It’s a disturbing scene, especially if you picture the poet’s piercing eyes among the dead. That’s just how Ezra Pound saw it. (He called his friend’s bank job “the greatest waste in ang-sax letters at the moment”.) And that was how I saw things too when I arrived in London in 1996, looking for the kind of literary-grade life experiences a young American believes can only be had in the quainter parts of an “olde” country.

“I plan to spend as little time as possible getting to know the City of London,” I boldly told the first person I met about a job here, an American woman who published magazines out of a muffled basement space in Bishopsgate. (That’s in the City of London, you know – I didn’t.) No job was offered, and for my precociousness I have spent most of the last 10 years getting to know the City of London.

“How are you?” I cheerfully asked a stranger in the lift at my first City-based temporary assignment. “I’d be a lot better if I wasn’t in this place!” he replied. Nothing in my North Carolina upbringing had prepared me for the droll martyrdom of the British workplace.

But London would capture me spiritually in the way that England had once captured Eliot. Unfortunately my visa was about to run out. “There are ways to stay here,” I wrote cryptically to a friend in the States, “but they are not for the faint of heart.” I must have meant arranged marriage or prostitution, but the way that worked out in the end was work permit sponsorship from a large British corporation. I would buy my freedom to remain with my days, which would now belong fully to the City, the one part of London I didn’t think I could stomach.

Intellectually, it turned out, writing and editing for corporate ends was the same challenge as writing and editing for the love of it, but the surrounding politics were cut-throat. I was out of my depth, lost in an organisation whose only shared language was based in numbers, process and perhaps the weather. I could leave the job whenever I pleased, of course, as long as I also left the country.

If Eliot’s City job served as a welcome shelter from the traumas of an unhappy marriage, my City job was my bad marriage. A line and half from The Waste Land summed up how I felt:

My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet.

At the turning point in The Waste Land, a man named Phlebas floats dead in a stream. He has been there for two weeks, and his forgotten-ness is a warning to us all.

My own Phlebas moment came the day a middle-aged stranger from another department set himself up to work out of a meeting room near my desk. The room was windowless and soulless. What a place to die, and yet that’s exactly what this man did. Those who heard it said they would never forget the strangled brook of the gasps as he collapsed. Yet within moments, the body not cold and the man’s laptop still whirring beside it, the busy sounds of typing and chatter resumed along the floor.

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and young as you.

Perhaps eyeing his friend’s own mortality, Pound pushed hard to liberate Eliot from the bank. He planned to do it through a utopian scheme that would match the bank’s wages one £5 annual pledge at a time. Eliot kept his distance from “Bel Esprit”, fearing it might embarrass him in the end (it did). Besides, who would pay for his pension?

In fact, Eliot had never approached the City with anything like Pound’s disdain. “Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work,” he had written to his mother in St Louis not long after starting at Lloyds. He liked working with numbers, liked and was liked by his co-workers.

Most importantly, in the beginning at least, the work left him the energy he needed to make good literary progress on the side. No, not on the side. If anything the bank job was a sideline compared to an astonishingly full life as a classic man of letters. Not only did Eliot write poetry and essays during this period, but he also started a prominent literary journal and exchanged correspondence or company with everyone from Virginia Woolf to Lytton Strachey, James Joyce and André Gide.

In his biography of TS Eliot, Peter Ackroyd suggested that far from impeding Eliot’s creative progress, the day job may have been crucial to it, “as if he needed the discipline, or protection, of a ‘proper’ occupation before he could feel at ease with his own creative instincts.”

City work may also have appealed to two of Eliot’s more fundamental instincts: an emigrant’s love for England and a devotion to personal and social order. What part of London would have been more English than the City, the capital’s staid and ancient core? And there were much worse places for a man who needed everything in its place than the City of the 1920s. Think of the typist pools, the formal correspondence, the sturdy mahogany desks.

Within the United Kingdom at that time, only the palace or Canterbury may have had a stronger sense of order, and the City pointed its landmarks firmly towards both.

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” was and is carved above the thick stone columns of the Royal Exchange. If this lettering, so permanent in its intent, was nearly invisible when it was new – thanks to the commonplace of the sentiment – it must be entirely decorative now that corporations derive their purpose from their own financial might and defer to committee-written codes of conduct. (“The earth is Lloyds TSB’s, and the fullness thereof”?)

This is what it’s like to look for TS Eliot’s City today. For everything that’s the same at least twice as much has changed. Fox’s still sells umbrellas, but the shop is an antique miniature next to the stripey glass pod that’s a 20-storey office building. The Rolls Royce outside Mansion House is a fine symbol of old-fashioned pomp, swarmed as it is by iPod-listening temps. “Gentlemen are requested to remove their hats,” says a sign in the foyer at St Bartholomew’s Church. The words were printed with a laser printer.

Peel back the synthetic layer of fluorescent-lit sameness that characterises business life almost everywhere now, and the underlying City is anything but barren. Here, the old and the very old collide with the new and the very new in almost every view. Where else could a short stroll take you past a soaring Richard Serra sculpture, an excavated chunk of Roman wall, an iconic Norman Foster building, tight alleyways lined with Victorian tiles and an artist installing a new work in a refurbished 1980s lobby? Buildings overlay the ghosts of buildings past in a cityscape that’s as disconcerting and full of energy as the shifting settings of The Waste Land.

Was the poem prophetic? Did the deconstruction of poetry into a jazz-like dissonance foreshadow the deconstruction of the City by Germany’s bombs and America’s consultants? It’s certainly possible to see the flow of walking dead across London Bridge as a macabre vision of the coming World War’s toll. Tellingly, Eliot had a nervous breakdown midway through his banking years. Only then did a finished version of The Waste Land emerge.

Luckily the creative process is not always quite so devastating. I picture a wry, private grin at the precise moment when Eliot saw that he could set the streets he walked as a dispassionate commuter into a work with literary spark. Just like that, Queen Victoria Street and Cannon Street became arteries in the “Unreal City” of a writer’s imagination.

The City is not the waste land. The waste land is a figurative space in the interior lives of some people who just don’t get it. Like the person in the poem who is blind to the “Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold” just inside a church on Lower Thames Street, I had averted my eyes from the City’s splendours – the real ones and also those that might take flight in my imagination.

My morning commute is not the forlorn journey it once was. On King William Street a young woman winks at me, her long hair disguised beneath a cap. We both know the roles we are playing. Two sullen extras in Mr Eliot’s crowd scene.

The boards in the floors at St Michael’s Church are of the same grey oak that made my Aunt Mary’s porch a child’s smell of dust to dust. In another nearby churchyard, Mother Goose is sprouting buttercups next to Pepys.

At the gigantic bronze doors in the wall on Princes Street, I pause to admire the elegant lions. Somewhere beneath my feet there’s enough gold to pave the City’s streets (and still keep a kingdom in credit cards).

Standing in Finsbury Circus, I’m inclined to take the long view of the City’s character. Financial today, and almost nobody’s home, but who’s to say in another 50 or 100 years the curved neo-classical façades of Salisbury House and Britannic House won’t front flats instead of corporate offices, the circus garden filled with homeworkers’ children?

Hurrying now, I collide with a poem of sorts.


Three simple words sprayed onto a concrete pillar, with the power to flood doubt or anger into minds full of not-yet-sent emails. Suppose that in his other role this vandalising Anonymous is a suit-wearing systems analyst for an insurance firm in Cheapside. Now who’s calling who a cog in the capitalist works?

Between the banker and the poet, the office manager and the short story writer, the web editor and the novelist, who wins? There may be as many answers as there are bankers, poets and office managers. Walter de la Mare (poet, novelist, statistician) left his job at Standard Oil in 1908 the moment he got onto the civil list. Roy Fuller (poet, solicitor) stayed at The Woolwich right up to his retirement in 1987.

When Eliot finally left his job at Lloyds he moved up the road to Faber in Bloomsbury, where instead of vetting numbers for a living he would vet up-and-coming poets. And he never gave up the security of having a day job.

Time has made that security more elusive. Now that the corporation is both the Church and the coffeehouse; now that the panelled walls of City firms are felt-flimsy partitions; now that the Pugin screens of Victorian monasteries have been chopped up and buried, exposing three geriatric monks to an absent congregation, commercial companies have taken up the meaning-of-life stuff.

The modern City needs its poets, script writers and other wordsmiths almost as much as it needs its project managers and Starbucks-serving itinerants. “Poetry is a dark art, a form of magic,” the poet Don Patterson said in a TS Eliot memorial lecture, “because it tries to change the way we perceive the world.” Who else would big business call on to make their brands believable, day by day?

In all this, some see the promising rise of a new creative class, but for the writer just trying to stay solvent while getting his own stuff published, it creates a far trickier course to be manoeuvred. Giving us four jobs to do for the price of one, globalisation has democratised the nervous breakdown, robbing literary biography of one of its finest motifs. But the modern workplace, even in the City of London, shows signs of flexibility too, with potential new paths for the writer/worker that wouldn’t have been available in Eliot’s day.

Between the City and me, I think I finally get it. I had looked upon a place that’s as bountiful as it is begging and seen only the dismal waste land from my own imagination.

You might say the brown fog has finally lifted.


Quotations from “The Waste Land” were taken from The Complete Poems and Plays, by T.S. Eliot, originally published in 1969 by Faber and Faber. (c) Valerie Eliot

Peter Ackroyd wrote the latest and probably most definitive Eliot biography. T.S. Eliot, 1984, was published in paperback by Abacus.

References to TS Eliot’s letters and the famous letter from Ezra Pound to TS Eliot may be found in The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 1 1898-1922, 1988, edited by Valerie Eliot and published by Faber and Faber.

The Don Paterson quotation is from “Rhyme and Reason”, The Guardian Review, November 6, 2004, an edited version of the TS Eliot memorial lecture which he delivered on London’s South Bank in that year.


Friday, March 12th, 2010

“They carved a dragon to guard their writings.” Where are we? In a dark place; a tomb, no – a burial chamber. In the lamplight there are chambers and stone ledges. Once, bones would have lain here. The guide points to the Viking runes. They were sheltering from the storm. Big men with axes and knives. Even they, with fly agaric and bull muscle, had found it hard to shift the portal stone. There was nothing to steal. The skulls had last seen sea and sand and this flotsam necklace of islands some three thousand years before. Treasures, if there had been any, were long gone. “Here the masons built a hive.” Hive is right. We are in the hive. The combs are cold now but the sun will come. One of the sailors had written of a milkmaid back home. Her warmth would have been good here. (I see her blond and blue-eyed, anxiously watching the fjord.) Outside you see the hive. In the flat, treeless landscape it could be a pod from Star Wars. But the nearby stone rings dismiss that thought. “Here the masons built a hive/That the dead lords and ladies/Might eat always honey of oblivion.” Here is a poet I will listen to. Poetry is to be heard. When you read poetry, listen to yourself reading. Listening goes deeper than reading. The rhythms take us inward to the realm of vision. Maeshowe is an inward space. The sun spears in at the winter solstice, darting down the passageway and filling the chamber. But time stays at the door.

“Here masons and star watchers
Conspired: in midwinter
The good star, the sun,
Would awaken the sleepers.”

I first came across the work of George Mackay Brown in my mother-in-law’s house in Lauder, a small town in the Scottish Borders: ‘The Sun’s Net’ and ‘Magnus’. Novels. Magnus was a warrior and a saint. He was betrayed and cut down by a terrified cook who had drawn the short straw. Magnus was killed in cold blood. It was cold that first winter I came to stay with my new girlfriend. Before I caught the train up from Bristol I went to the Army & Navy stores and bought a fur-lined hat with earflaps. It proved to be an excessive precaution. I never wore it. It was brought out at parties or after a second bottle of wine: its ridiculous appearance never failed to cause mirth. But it was cold that first winter. And Lauder’s the coldest place I’ve yet experienced. Colder even than Orkney. But back then I was hardly aware of Orkney. I’d come north, but Orkney was in the far north. Was it even in Scotland? The name made me think of orca whales, Prussian Blue seas. And there in my future mother-in-law’s house amongst the oak shelves and the Swedish candles (she had a deep affinity with Scandinavia) were these novels.

George was my maternal grandfather’s first name. He was Scottish with German ancestry. George was a popular Hanoverian name. My maternal grandmother was a Brown – a good Scottish name. Clan names were often abandoned and colours adopted after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 as a protection against reprisal. I was returning to an ancestral domain. I was hungry for all things Scottish and Literature was the master key. Knowledge was bound up with the buds of love, and my new love was my muse, blond and blue-eyed…But the irony was that the writer whom I came across that first winter, in that comfort of a new-found home, was from an archipelago of islands that are as much if not more Scandinavian than Scottish. But I wasn’t to discover that for a further ten years.

For ten years my wife and I moved from place to place around the UK. Edinburgh, Kent, London, Bristol, Somerset, Devon, Inverness, Glasgow, Edinburgh and now here we are in the Scottish Borders. I always felt myself rootless, in that I could call no valley or pile of stone my home. Very different from George Mackay Brown. Brown rarely left Orkney. His roots were there, in the culture and in the blood: in the stone croft and the fisherman’s boat. In his early adulthood, however, he despaired of what he thought was the islanders’ neglect of their unique culture and he longed to get away.

When he was 29 he did get away to study under fellow Orcadian Edwin Muir at Newbattle Abbey south of Edinburgh. Muir, himself a great poet, was Brown’s touchstone. His recognition and encouragement of the younger poet’s talent helped him to see himself as a real writer. Brown had already started writing journalism and guidebooks on Orkney – in fact he continued writing journalism all his life and even though he became internationally acclaimed as a poet, novelist and short story writer he maintained that some of his best writing was to be found in his newspaper columns about day-to-day life in Orkney. But in 1956 after five happy years at Newbattle – interspersed with illness – he went on to read English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University and fell in with the esteemed poetry crowd that frequented Milne’s Bar and The Abbotsford in Edinburgh’s Rose Street. A favourite line from one of his stories sums up that moment of buying a drink in any brightly lit bar anywhere: “the erratic jingling commerce of silver and glass across the bar”.

Alexander Moffat’s painting ‘Poet’s Pub’ in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh captures the scene at Milne’s. 20th Century literary giant Hugh MacDiarmid holds court with Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan, Robert Garioch, Sydney Goodsir Smith and George Mackay Brown in attendance. A very male literary chapter (how different would a painting of today’s leading Scottish poets be with Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay propping up half the bar!) This was an intense time for Brown – in stark contrast to the mostly solitary existence he led otherwise in Orkney before and after – and there was one woman on the scene, Stella Cartwright, whom he remembered in a poem on her birthday some twenty years later:

“To him, she spoke sweeter than rain among roses in summer
While poets like columns of salt stood
Round the oaken Abbotsford bar.”

For Brown Stella was very much a part of his time in Edinburgh. When she visited him in Orkney some years later Brown felt uneasy: the clash of two worlds. But there’s regret in the birthday poem. He remembers her still as a “star” through “storm-clouds” and refers to himself in the 50s as a “crazy chap, high among cloud”. But Brown dedicated himself totally to writing and was prepared to live simply and with few attachments to pursue his art. He had success and recognition but his newspaper columns and Orkney guides helped to sustain him. He was known and honoured in the community. In fact, he wrote for his community, revitalising and celebrating their myths, their history, their ways and turns of phrase. I have a picture of him looking out to sea, from which came much of his inspiration, came the boats of today’s fishermen and yesterday’s voyagers – heroes old and new of his tales and poems. So, his life wasn’t glamorous, or particularly complicated. But his language was like iron and silver, starlight and granite. His vision was pure.

In the middle of our ten year shunt about the UK I was appointed as the Centre Director at the Arvon Foundation’s Devon Centre – Totleigh Barton. Arvon was the closest I’ve ever got to The Abbotsford or Milne’s Bar in that I was involved in a living, breathing literary tradition whereby aspirants spent an intense week with established practitioners. One of the founders, John Fairfax, was the nephew of the energetic and iconic English poet George Barker. Barker had had a magnetic personality and had naturally gathered people around him for long night discussions of that most vocational of forms – poetry – aided by wine and song (as the father of fifteen children he is well known for the women in his life and as his widow Elspeth has wryly remarked “each autumn, in the churchyard, a solitary specimen of the brazen mushroom phallus impudicus rears from his grave.”). Fairfax wanted to take something of this impromptu milieu of discourse and learning and ground it in a ‘retreat’ setting.

It was while I was the steward of Totleigh that I came across George Mackay Brown again: a book of poetry, ‘The Wreck of the Archangel’ found in a bookcase bursting with spines between Delabole flagged floor and eleventh century rafters.

“Prow set for Greenland, a westerly
weeks-long, a graybeard gale
Drove Skarf at Iceland,
A bleak shore, behind it

A burning mountain. One farm all night
Thrummed with harpsong and saga
But a hard mouth at dawn
Bargained for cheese and eggs.

The gale northerly then, a hag
Spitting hail, herded Skarf
Among Faroese yoles, rowlock-deep
In drifts of salmon.”

So begins ‘Sailing to Papay’. I could have chosen any poem from the collection. But the page fell open on that one. And that one will do perfectly for it has many of the elements in Brown’s work I find so appealing: the strong narrative drive, the vivid sense of place, the pared language, the combination of the mythic with the rudiments of life. Seamus Heaney wrote that Brown passed everything “through the eye of the needle of Orkney.” Orkney, or rather Brown’s use of Orkney, became my lodestar. The north had an iron pull. I had to go there.

Four or five years later I got my chance. After Totleigh my wife and I returned to Scotland with a Christmas baby in tow and in 1995 I got a job as a writer with a design consultancy in Edinburgh. Unsurprisingly, being Scotland, we worked for a number of whisky distilleries. This didn’t mean, necessarily, that I got to visit them. But when I was assigned to work on Highland Park, from ‘the Northernmost Scotch Whisky Distillery in the world’ I hoped I might get a chance. The brand name seemed very un-Orcadian but as I learnt more about the history, geography and culture of the place in order to write about the whisky that seemed by the by. Orkney was the land of the Midnight Sun, the Northern Lights, a Neolithic complex of sites, a trading post between Canada and continental Europe, a conflict zone in both World Wars. It was also a land of storytelling. And when I came to write the label for the outer box of Highland Park 25 Year Old that was to have a beautiful calligraphic treatment I wanted words that were meaningful. And words of value – each bottle retailed at £99! I turned to George Mackay Brown’s ‘John Barleycorn’ in which the barley says “Forever I flush the winters of men with wassails of corn.” I was using poetry in commerce. I remember questioning my integrity but the whisky was good, made with integrity from the elements of Orkney. It felt organic and right.

Writing for Highland Park led to writing for the Orkney Tourist Board and I used Brown’s words again because he was, for me, the voice of the islands. Little wonder his autobiography is called ‘For the Islands I Sing’. I used his line ‘The Orkney imagination is haunted by time’ because finally I had visited and found this to be true. Nowhere else that I have visited has such a presence of history all around. Not only are there some 3000 ancient sites on Orkney but traces of the two World Wars – the Churchill barriers, the rusting block ships, the slicks of oil from the sunken Royal Oak, the roll call of the drowned in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and the Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm built by PoWs from an old Nissan hut – are constant reminders that the present is progeny of the past. Visiting the Italian Chapel and its religious icons made from debris, driftwood, barbed wire, bully beef cans – the “rubbish and tinsel of war” as Brown put it – you can’t help but be moved by such a monument to human ingenuity, faith and resilience.

Orkney, and its whisky Highland Park, were the subjects of my first sustained piece of prose writing ‘Hourglass’. Like my adopted mentor I was writing about time – the effect of time on the whisky and the expanse of time experienced in the islands. There’s a strange temporal elasticity in Orkney: a suspension. My wife and two children came with me when I did my research for the book. I have an abiding image of my children in anoraks, virtually at 45 degrees, battling their way round the calendrical stones at The Ring of Brodgar through driving wind and rain – dwarf druids; young life in the ring of time.

George Mackay Brown used Orkney, its legends, its people, its landmarks, as the raw material for many of his poems and stories. Some material he worked on again and again wresting new insight from it. He also commented on the daily life of the islands and his place within it in his columns and journals. In his view his output was seamless. He simply wrote about where he lived. However, although rooted in the particular, his vision was universal: the mark of any great writer. For me, having come to rest in a village over 250 miles south of Orkney, having found a community that engages my energies with a history and landscape that snares my attention I find the inspiration of Brown guiding me to write with and for whatever and whomever is at hand. So Orkney is not a spiritual home for me: it’s a spiritual bolt-hole. I am grateful for it and its tangential distance. Its poetry helped me find a way to connect with another corner of this world.

One day at the winter solstice I hope to stoop into the hive and womb of Maeshowe and experience – through the power of ancient geomancy – that the nadir of the sun, held for a spell in this timeless chamber, is its gradual re-birth. And if I don’t recite this catechism I’ll whisper it; and if I don’t whisper it I’ll think it: Sometimes. Sometimes when you’re alone on the earth and the wind’s belting you and you feel you have no roots, no claims, no reverence and that you could be blown to kingdom come and it would make no difference to anybody – in fact the world would be a slightly less messy place without you – it’s good to know that you didn’t just land here, that your nakedness is common to all, that you’re linked by blood and language in whichever tongue it’s spoken, that your darkness is my darkness and your light is my light and the light of all who’ve ever lived or are yet to walk alone on the hard stone of earth.


Magnus, Hogarth Press 1973; Beside the Ocean of Time, John Murray 1994; The Wreck of the Archangel, John Murray 1989; Collected Poems, John Murray 2005;
For the Islands I sing: An Autobiography, John Murray 1997; Interrogation of Silence, The Writings of George Mackay Brown by Rowena and Brian Murray, John Murray 2004.

The Arvon Foundation is a registered charity. It runs writing courses on many different kinds of writing at four houses around the country – Devon, Inverness-shire, Shropshire and Yorkshire.