At this time of the year in the countryside, given a couple of days break in the cloud layer and temperatures that slip a notch above the seasonal norm, something fleeting but magical might be witnessed. Defying the driest of English irony and the most palsied of English upper lips, something vibrates in the febrile air; people stop in the street and look up into the sky; and, against all training and protocol, strangers actually greet each other.
And if one is actually amongst ‘the groves, the copses and the meadows’, as I was this morning, driving through rural North Hertfordshire, the impact is all the greater. Stop the car and turn off the engine and you’ll hear the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Look around and you’ll realise that you’re in a sort of bosky limbo between Housman’s Land of Lost Content and Holst’s Another Country. And everywhere, above and below, is the hum of the force that drives the green fuse through the flower…
I am, of course, trying very hard indeed to be drily ironic; to diminish through parody the full effect of something that actually has real substance and power for me, but that I acknowledge awkwardly and with reluctance. Lacking either religious faith or a sense of my nation’s manifest destiny, I feel none of the urgings of that darkest synthesis of the sacred and profane, patriotism. I do not believe that Arthur will rise again from the Lake and, with a miraculously unrusted Excalibur, liberate us from the current oppressor. My childhood memories of rustic Kent are vivid and detailed, but, inevitably, they are gilded and embellished in the recalling. I accept this and I maintain a pragmatic, creative relationship with them; they don’t dominate my sense of how things actually were way back when. The manifestly ordinary, workaday present is more important to me than any notions of a haloed past or a bright world to come.
So this wholly unexpected uprush of elation that infects the spirit without warning on a summer’s day somewhere in rural England – and Wales and Scotland – always ambushes me and leaves me momentarily baffled. And generally I settle for baffled because the rationalisations that always trail the experience and will not easily be uprooted make me feel uncomfortable. It’s the small, clear voice that states: I am glad to be English and I am glad to be in England. It’s as if behind the bulwark of radical convictions, the fierce rejection of the myth of Merrie England, there lurks the unreconstructed soul of an old buffer, a tweedy, harrumphing conservative who is at his happiest when stumping across the furrows with a stout willow stick and a good dog.
Because when all’s said and done I actually do feel a strong and deep connection with the country of my birth. There are parts of it in which I feel comprehensively at home. The West Kent orchards near my birthplace, now fast disappearing under South-East London spillage. The Surrey Hills where I walked with my parents. The chalky Hampshire hills where I used to live. The Sussex Downs, where Emma was born and grew up. The Yorkshire Dales where I spent the greater part of five years at boarding school.
For most of the ‘80s my parents lived in the south of France and year after year during Lin and Zoë’s childhood & adolescence we spent idyllic summers in the dry, white heat by the ridiculously blue Mediterranean. But for all the very real allure of that part of France, I could never quite convince myself that here amongst the olive trees, the lavender fields, the cicadas I could happily end my days. I would miss the thick, dark green trees growing in the moist earth, and, yes, the rain rattling against the windows.
And that’s the best I can do for love of country. I am indifferent to flags, monarchy, traditions, national identity, our glorious heritage – the whole crass backyard imperialism that seeks to turn England’s absurdly contradictory topography and polyglot culture into some kind of national homogeneity. England is where I was born and it’s where I live. I belong to it in some indefinable organic sense and it belongs to me. And in truth, behind that barrage of passionate beliefs about how we live now and how we might live differently, I’m comfortable with this kind of love of country.
I’m very conscious that much of my poetry speaks to this hesitant, tentative love of country. The poem below appears again in yet another slightly revised – hopefully refined – form. It’s about a small hill farm in Medbourne, Leicestershire where, between the wars, my father and uncle spent long, slow summers watching and listening miles from the cities and decades away from trunk roads. Subsequently my cousin Linda and I caught the last of it before Medbourne became a manicured rural retreat a four-wheel drive commute from Leicester.
SHEEP ON THE BROWN HILL
There are sheep,
hopeless, round-shouldered clouds
of wool. They have the eyes
yet the mouths
they clamp round nettles
seem innocent of teeth.
They have the cloven hoof
yet their legs
seem afterthoughts, a child’s
drawn at all four corners.
I hang like a casualty
on the barbed-wire fence,
sheep in orbit
around the hilltop house.
No route or destination;
no sense of purpose
to be found within
this witless shifting traffic.
I look for patterns,
signs of navigation.
Sun moves through thin clouds;
wind wraps the house,
sings in wires.
Sheep crop and shuffle
all day long. Nothing alters
on the brown hill.
One generation inhales;
its descendants sigh.
I am an old coat now,
stretched on thorns.
Night slides across and finds me,
purposeless yet blessed.
Maggie Holland has written the song that is for me and many others the alternative English anthem, representing not monarchy and nation state but ‘common wealth and common ground’.
Dick, you could be reading and speaking my own thoughts on England. I come back to Edward Thomas when i get in a knot about nationalism and patriotism etc. and think of him, stooping for a hand full of soil when asked why he had enlisted in 1914, replying; “literally for this”.
I will enjoy reading your new blog. I love the prose.
Good old Edward Thomas, who lived just a few miles from FH up Petersfield way. I took an A-level English class there once. We were studying Thomas and we all sat around like Bloomsbury-ites reading out loud in the summer sunshine!
I’ll be happy to have your company here, Sarah. If you’re able to make it up to the Heights on September 12th, it would be great to manage a face-to-face!
I found myself having very similar thoughts and feelings yesterday, climbing to the top of the Howgills via Cautley Spout. We scrambled right up to the steep waterfall and discovered plunge pools concealed by trees that cling to the rocks around the stream. Numinous sanctuaries. We sat near the top, watching as the slight shifts in the clouds dramatically changed the colours and textures of the hillsides.
And you’re quite right, as Dennis put it “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” I suppose it’s obvious, when one thinks about it, that our impulse towards that numinous quality of the world around us was one of the first things politicians, the b****rs, tried to appeal to.
Beautifully put, Dominic. You’re very fortunate having access to & taking advantage of those ‘numinous sanctuaries’. It was 50 years ago that I was at school in West Yorkshire, but the weekends we used to spend walking and climbing around Malham set the paradigm for glorious wilderness for this soft son of Surrey. And it was at that school, isolated within fields and woodland, 3 miles from Wetherby (then just a large village) that I decided at know-all-understand-nothing 16 years old that I was an anarchist! Some confluence of conversions, I guess.
I just love your writing and love hearing your stories about …. anything. I’m glad you’ve been pushing people from Facebook over here to your new blog site. Finally I noticed, so here I am. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the name Sisyphus Ascending! I can relate.
Hi Bonnie! Good to hear from you & to have you on board for the new blog. It’s been a few years now, hasn’t it? But here we all are, still hanging on!
Have you read ‘H is for Hawk’, Dick? You might find much that chimes.
I think in some ways there’s nothing like leaving one’s country to crystallise those kind of feelings. Yet when I go back, I enjoy the visit in the awareness that in some way I always felt as if I was just visiting, that whether through choice or otherwise, I stood outside of it. Nostalgia and nostalgie du pays, the uncertain boundaries of time and place, the sense of belonging which is always in the past, always fleeting, triggered as much be a detail, a scent or memory. An elusive and numinous matter!
‘Purposeless yet blessed’ is about as good as it gets, I think.
Oddly enough (one of those little synchronicities of bloggery), I was leafing through it again in Waterston wondering whether to buy it. Now, of course, I must!
Re home thoughts from abroad (which you characterise so well), some of Richard Thompson’s best Albion abiding songs have been written at his home in Los Angeles.
Never met an idyllic scene that Pink Floyd couldn’t improve. Sorry, couldn’t resist that. I’m not English and I’ve only been to England a few times in my life. It is different to Scotland. You wouldn’t expect so but it’s not just the accents. There’s definitely an English vibe. We have our hamlets and wee clusters of houses orbiting a couple of signposts, a pub and a phone box too but it is different or at least it used to be. Since I moved to the city over twenty years ago I tend to think of the countryside as a thing of and in my past. There a country walk literally outside my window and I’ve been up there a few times since Carrie and I moved here but I seem to have lost my appreciation for the outdoors. My entire childhood was spent wandering over fields and through woods and down the beach once everyone else had gone; I adored solitude. I find it odd and sad too that the last time I went for a walk alone I actually felt a little scared. What if some thugs chanced across me? (We all know how much thugs love the country.) There are others who drive their motocross bikes up there. What is one ran into me? I felt old and longed for paving stones under my feet. The beach of my childhood is still there but, to borrow your word, it’s be manicured. There was a bing down the harbour when I was a kid—it looked like a big boot—and it was a thing, a rite of passage, to climb it. Now it’s all been smoothed out and grassed and you could push a buggy up it.
Interesting. For a fleeting moment the notion of your having visited England only ‘a few times’ struck me as strange and perverse. To my battered credit my immediate follow-up realisation was that I have only visited Scotland twice in my life – once at age 16 to help ring sheerwaters on the island of Rhum and once in my 40s to attend a conference in Edinburgh. Such anglo-arrogance!