Scenes from a closely-observed life

Still Life, Ciaran Carson, Wake Forest University Press, 2019, 88 pages

LIAM GUILAR relishes – and mourns – a unique talent

There’s a picture of Ciaran Carson on the back cover of Still Life. He’s sitting on a bench seat. Tall buildings, trees and streetlights provide a diminishing perspective taking the eye towards an approaching bus. The bus is slightly out of focus. There’s something, perhaps someone on a bike, in front of it.

Ciaran Carson

The word dapper presents itself to describe the poet. Hat, blazer, tie, the refinement of a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. The facial expression is harder to read. Perhaps a hint of a mischievous smile? Perhaps Puckish is an appropriate description?

In a book of poems about pictures, this one seems carefully composed. Perhaps you know the story. You walk into the woods and meet a well-dressed man on a path you didn’t mean to take. He’s usually sitting on a log, or a style. If you share something with him, you’ll be rewarded with a story, though the story might take up several lifetimes and when you return to where you started, you’ll find the world has changed.

There’s an inviting space beside Carson on that bench. I would offer him the OED’s etymology of dapper, which I think he would enjoy. It suggests dapper was adopted at the end of the ME period “with modification of sense, perh ironical or humorous” since in Middle Dutch it meant “powerful, strong, stout, energetic”, which might be superfluous to requirement, as the saying goes. Modern Dutch gives “valiant, brave and bold”, and they don’t seem appropriate either.

I want to thank him for Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music, one of my favourite books, For All We Know, one of the most interesting of poetic narratives, and for the pleasure of all the other poems, translations and the weird and wonderful prose.

But he’s dead.

The first poem in the book concludes:

It’s beautiful weather, the 30th of March, and tomorrow the clocks go forward.
How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it is is going on.
The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left
And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end

Carson died in October 2019. Still Life was published posthumously that November. It’s inevitable that those two facts colour any response to the book. They don’t need to. The book doesn’t need your sympathy.

On a first reading the poems seem colloquial, easy to read, informative, with moments of arresting imagery –

My dreams are filled with wavering buildings, avalanches of astonished / glass

In characteristically long lines, with their deceptive appearance of artlessness, each poem is a reflection on a picture, which provides the poem’s title. ‘Reflection’ is inadequate because the colour and detail in each painting is a focal point, not always the beginning or end:

Because when looking at a thing we often drift into a memory of something else / however tenuous the link

But ‘reflection’ is also apt, because the pictures become distorted mirrors which reflect the observer’s life and pre-occupations. Each viewing is a reviewing, no matter how familiar he thought the picture was. The silent present ‘you’ – often Carson’s wife, Dierdre – notices things he hasn’t. Things unnoticed re-present themselves, and perception and memory shuffle the elements into new versions of the picture. A Carson poem is typically not a hermetic object, which I think is one of the reasons he was a fascinating writer. An intelligence was moving through time and space and recording the process.

The last poem ends:

And I loved the buzz of the one-bar electric heater as a bus or truck passed by
And I loved the big windows and whatever I could see through them, be it cloudy or clear
And the way they trembled and thrilled to the sound of the world beyond

The key phrases here are ‘whatever I could see’ and ‘the world beyond’.

There is no ‘high and low culture’, no misplaced sense that some things aren’t ‘appropriate’ subjects for poetry. The verbal registers move from colloquial to technical. Wittgenstein may be quoted, but he’s just as much at home as the small pot of daffodils broken by an idiot vandal, or the memory of “blue birds anticlockwise spiralling around the interior of the toilet bowl” (p. 84).

Carson once described a traditional music session:

Every tune recalls other circumstances in which it has been played; and the conversations and anecdotes sparked off by the tunes are essential to a good session. It’s a mix of tunes, songs, stories, drinking, eating – whatever happens to be going on, including smoking in the days when you could smoke in bars (1)

Think of each poem not as a single tune but a recording of the whole session. It’s an astonishing achievement, and he sounds like no one else:

I’d just found the book I had in mind –What Painting is by James Elkin
When the vandal struck. Thud. What the…? The gate clanged. I looked out
The bay window to see a figure scarpering off down the street to the interface – 
What a book though. I have it before me, open at this colour plate, jotting notes 
Into a jotter, which I’ll work up later into what you’re reading now 

The poet doesn’t live in self-imposed exile on Parnassus, occasionally sending his effusions to the plebs below. Street names map a real Belfast and anchor him into the daylight world. You can reconstruct his daily walk which is recorded in many of the poems as possibilities on a map. Google maps and virtual art galleries, acts of minor vandalism, the insertion of a drip into the arm, a cat eating a bird, all find their way into the poems. Memory skips backwards, to bomb blasts, early attempts at writing, school days. A concern with the mechanics of writing is always present: the pen he’s using, the breaking of a pencil, memories of a typewriter, words and their possibilities. Sounds too are included, like the phone and the doorbell, the postman interrupting him while writing, but unlike that person from Porlock, the interruptions kick the poem onward.

However, although the poems are separately titled, this is a sequence; the intelligence and craft are in the architecture and that may not be immediately obvious on a first reading. The poems pick up, echo and alter words, phrases, and images. The more you look for the links, the more there are.

As a single example, which doesn’t exhaust its own possibilities, the sixth poem in the sequence is “Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with a Calm 1650-1651”. Although this is the first of three paintings by Poussin to be used as a title, the artist appeared in the first poem, where his habit of reaching among Roman ruins for a handful of marble and porphyry chips and saying to a tourist, ‘Here’s ancient Rome’ stands at the beginning of the book as shorthand for Carson’s method.

The sixth poem also refers explicitly to the second poem, “Angela Hackett, Lemons on a Moorish Plate 2013”, in which, “a fortnight ago” Carson had placed a blackbird to sing from a blackthorn “for the sake of assonance”. He’s driven to look up the difference between blackthorn and hawthorn (which also evokes the tune “The Blackbird”).

But the poem also sets up what comes afterwards. Carson records his daily walk and for the first time mentions Number 1 Hopewell Avenue, “a beautiful house back then”, now a building site. The construction work here will become one of the markers of time passing as subsequent visits in later poems will record the developments on the site. “We” remember the goldfinch “you saw” “two years ago” and so on and so forth…You can pick up a phrase, a word or a detail and watch it move through the poems, threading them together.

The most obvious link is the movement of time, which is not straightforward. Time moves forward as an accumulation of present moments, some dated, some sequenced by incidents. Time moves backwards to memory, some also dated. What is most obviously missing are references to the future.

Time is also built into the complicated game Carson plays with the idea of the poem as a record of its own performance. The pictures might look like time frozen, but the poems often create the impression of a performance in progress, unfolding.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book, given the context, is that these poems manage to escape categories like Personal, Autobiographical or Confessional. Just as a Carson poem can challenge your idea of what a poem is and does, these labels are called into question because the poems are paradoxically none of them, and all of them. It’s easy to imagine someone else in this situation, not knowing if they were going to live, writing self-indulgent or embarrassingly personal poems. But here a craftsman is taking pleasure in his craft and inviting the reader to share his enjoyment.

Like the encounter with the man in the story, once you start paying attention, it’s hard to escape. The book invites rereading. Those possible etymologies of dapper which seemed initially inappropriate are perhaps apt after all: the poems are indeed “powerful, strong, energetic”, “valiant, brave and bold”.


  1. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (ed), Ciaran Carson, Critical Essays, Four Courts Press, 2009

English impressions

The Wilton Diptych

SELBY WHITTINGHAM looks back on a life in the arts, from the New Elizabethans to Generation Z

The latest bout of iconoclasm has produced renewed demands for a statue of Cecil Rhodes to be removed from a building built with his money at his and my alma mater, Oriel College, Oxford. The protesters claim that he was an imperialist and racist, though some authorities say that the charge of racism is partly misplaced. At least one protester was under the misapprehension that he was a slave owner.

At the same time, the BBC has been showing programmes on the history of Persia, reverently admiring its emperors, whose images are set amid the figures of the tributary peoples whom they had conquered. Of course the Persian empire belongs to the distant past, while the British one is more recent and its misdemeanours still a live issue for some of its subject peoples. Other bouts of iconoclasm are also now remote, such as the Protestant destruction of Catholic images. Today no one is very concerned about those disputes, but art lovers deplore the loss of works that once adorned our churches.

Among the last I count myself. Believing that everyone suffers from prejudices in varying degrees and that I too am a product of my background, I feel I should state what that was. I was brought up by my mother, who was a Conservative, an historian, a barrister, a journalist and a lover of the theatre. Those interests led to my being taken to see the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard IIHenry V, at Stratford-upon-Avon put on by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1948, John Harvey, the promoter of Perpendicular Gothic as a great English stylistic invention, had had published The Plantagenets, which began with a paean in praise of monarchy and continued by emphasising the biographer’s need for authentic portraits of his subjects. That led to my helping my mother with the task of finding such for her history and then to my doctoral thesis. Harvey’s royalism was matched by my mother’s. She would stand when the national anthem was played, even at home.

In 1953 I witnessed the preparations for the coronation, which seemed like some glorious pageant, a fit opening for the New Elizabethan Age. At the same time was performed at Stratford Antony and Cleopatra with Michael Redgrave as Mark Anthony and Peggy Ashcroft as Cleopatra and directed brilliantly by Glen Byam Shaw. The French were rather rude about Redgrave, comparing him with a Scottish highlander rather than a Latin lover. I was particularly captivated by Ashcroft, and avidly eavesdropped – not quite the word to describe listening to her declamatory style of talking – when my mother and I sat at the theatre restaurant table next to hers. That was the closest I got, whereas in 1951 Richard Burton had shown us round back stage and we got reluctant permission to attend a rehearsal taken by Redgrave.

The schools which I attended conventionally prized the classics most highly and at university I continued to study them while pursuing my mediaeval interests. Visits to the Mediterranean had complemented that. In 1948 we stayed at the seaside villa of an anglophile Italian family at Sta Margherita Ligure. Being covered in oil discharged from an Italian warship into the sea, to the indignation of our Italian hostess, who said the British navy would never do such a thing, did nothing to diminish the shock of delight after the bleak 1947 winter and rationing in the UK. The fresh food by itself was a revelation. And the unaccustomed brilliance of the scene enhanced by the colourful cafe umbrellas at Rapallo, which my mother and I tried to catch in chalk sketches (now lost), created an indelible impression.

I made many visits to Italy later, partly in pursuit of mediaeval portrait sculptures. At university I twice joined parties visiting Greece, and was delighted both with the classical sites and the Byzantine churches. I was already in agreement with those who believed that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens, not so much on national or moral grounds, but because I thought that they could be much better appreciated there than in the British Museum. This contributed to my long-held view that art should generally remain in its original situation. Once the British had returned works to Italy that Napoleon had taken for the Louvre, but that of course was different! Curators have a similar Napoleonic urge to amass and centralise and to set up the Universal Museum as the great desideratum, though the public does not altogether share that view.

On the return from Italy we stopped briefly at Paris and visited Versailles – my mother wanted to show me the Galerie des Glaces – where guided parties of different nationals followed closely one after another. The following year my father, on leave from Malaya, was nostalgic for England and as a compromise we stayed on a farm on Guernsey. But in 1950 my mother and I went to a small village on the Normandy coast. We combined that with a day excursion to Rouen, the cathedral blackened by war, and then took a bus to the 18th century Chateau du Grésil where my mother had stayed with a family, which I think had a South American business association with her grandfather, when she was a teenager and was the commencement of her Francophilia. She wrote an account for Blackwood’s Magazine under the title of “The Adopted Son”, in reference to an Argentinian boy and now in 1950 an elderly man and sole family survivor at the house. Later for a while it served as a research centre for Shell.

The article followed immediately on an hilarious contribution by a British army officer who had been invited to stay with the 7th Raja of Poonch (1) in the 1930s, an example of the friendly relations that often existed between the British and Asiatic rulers in their colonies. However, the British were never so sentimental as to prefer these ties to realpolitik and in a postwar treaty partly dumped the Malay sultans, an act deplored by my mother in 1946 in an article “Malaya Betrayed!” for the World Review, edited by Edward Hulton (2) – who incidentally had an address in Cromwell Road when I first came to live there, and whose nephew, Jocelyn Stevens, was the partner of Sir Charles Clore’s daughter, to whom I come later.

Like Hulton, my mother had been an active Lancashire Conservative in the 1930s, supporting Randolph Churchill’s doomed attempt to be elected an MP and then his father’s opposition to Appeasement. She embarked on a history of Liverpool politics, in which figures such as Canning and Gladstone’s father had played a part. In her time, it was divided into two cultures, Protestant English and Catholic Irish, not reconciled until Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Warlock (whose parents, later neighbours of my father, I knew). My grandfather and mother, part of the Anglican tradition, already favoured greater unity, but the local Conservative party was strongly Protestant and tolerated with difficulty one of its MPs who, following a long Lancashire tradition of recusants, was a Roman Catholic. This made my mother both a constitutionalist and a rebel.

After the visit to Stratford in 1951 we toured the vineyards of the Rhone, on which my mother wrote several articles, at the invitation of Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié, who had been a French fighter pilot in World War I, winning the Croix de Guerre, and had set up the system of Appellation d’Origine Controlée. My mother had had the option of writing about the Rhône wines or those of Languedoc, staying at Perpignan. She was torn between the two and left the choice to me, and I plumped for Provence because it seemed more historic. This showed that I had already developed a taste for the past, perhaps encouraged by the Shakespeare history cycle seen a few months earlier. My mother too was more interested in history than in wine, and her account of Rhône viticulture was mostly about its Roman past and its being prized by the English, first under Queen Eleanor of Provence and again in the 18th century. The 19th century phylloxera outbreak was devastating (a company started by my great-uncles, McKechnie Bros, exported sulphate of copper to spray on the vines, and a photograph exists of their stand at the 1919 Lyons Fair). In 1951 Rhône wines were again at a low ebb, despite the efforts of Baron Le Roy, and in need of publicity.

From an historical point of view, the trip was partly disappointing. Avignon, where we spent the first night in a small modern hotel, was unexciting, and the Palais des Papes was closed to visitors. The Roman remains at Vaison-la-Romaine and theatre at Orange left me rather cold. But the romance of the vineyards, which suggested to my mother the idea of a film about the oldest, Chateau de la Nerthe, was different. I had not read then the memoirs of Captain Gronow (3), who was equally at home in London and in Paris, a fact appreciated by Winston Churchill when preparing to meet De Gaulle. One of his most entertaining anecdotes was about General Palmer, who bought a fine Bordeaux vineyard (still called Chateau Palmer), whose wine he ruined after taking the advice of the Prince Regent, who shared the English preference for fortifying claret with the more robust Hermitage, where we were the guests of Louis Jaboulet, whose firm was founded by his ancestor in 1834. Its labels depicted the hermit’s chapel, while those of Le Roy showed Chateau Fortia on labels unchanged down to the present. However, under the pressure to appeal to non-Europeans unconcerned with history some Bordeaux vineyards have jettisoned the chateaux for silly names and trite designs. This dumbing down was in contrast to the commissioning by a Rothschild of designs from the leading artists of the 1950s, an example of innovation which is fruitful rather than destructive or decadent.

Then in 1957 I followed my mother’s teenage experience by staying with a French family at their Angevin chateau which had the ruins of a mediaeval castle in its grounds (they had advertised in the Times for an exchange with their eldest son, whose English needed improving). Three years later, before entering Oxford University, I spent two terms at the Sorbonne studying the course for foreigners on French Civilisation. A popular lecturer on French 19th century literature, Antoine Adam, declared that there were two types of Frenchmen, ‘Franks/Germans’ and ‘Gauls/Latins’. He was the epitome of the second, while his fellow lecturer on literature epitomised the Frankish strain.

The contrast between the English and French has been endlessly drawn. It was shown in stylised fashion in the cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson, and later in Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, to which we took my French teenage exchange. Often, of course, people do not conform to these stereotypes and one needs to regard people as individuals. However, the generalisations remain, though in the case of the English (sent up by our neighbours, Flanders and Swann (4), in their song, The English, The English are Best, which they performed to the slight bemusement of an American audience) the image with which I grew up, of the stiff upper lip and either bowler hat or cloth cap, has now gone, though the reluctance to make a fuss remains. It is a nice philosophical question how far such generalisations, whether about race or tradition, are ever valid. What many hold as tradition only goes back a few generations or, with regard to the fine arts, to the Renaissance, whereas my mediaeval and classical perspectives are different.

In a stay on a farm at Coniston with my father in 1956 among the places visited was Brantwood, the last home of John Ruskin. I was then more in tune with Wordsworth, one of whose descendants, with a marked resemblance to his ancestor, was the only other visitor to Dove Cottage when I entered it. It was only some years later that I began to read Ruskin’s works that I found I had an affinity with him. This began with his championship of Gothic and contention that all portraiture is essentially Gothic, while the Renaissance sculptors “rounded their chins by precedent” (5). This view appealed to me because it suited my thesis, and for its contrarian nature.

In 1975, when I started a campaign to honour Turner’s testamentary wishes to have his works displayed in a special Turner gallery, I had Ruskin again as on the whole a support. This campaign naturally met the opposition of the three (now two) museums between which Turner’s paintings had been split. But it had the support of leading panjandrums in the art world and of some politicians. Decades later, Boris Johnson wrote that the continuing failure to observe Turner’s last wishes merited an enquiry, but latterly there has been silence. Various Conservative politicians have expressed an admiration for the work of Turner as well as for heritage, and some even for honouring conditions attached to gifts and accepted with them. But, despite the Turner wing at the Tate given by Sir Charles Clore’s daughter being an additional failure, they have latterly shown no concern. The Conservative Party, as Matthew Parris has written, has no set beliefs, and today is more the heir of Gladstonian liberalism than of the conservatism of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (6).

While at university I became a supporter of the Liberal party and have remained one of its successor. This is mainly because of its emphasis on individualism and free choice, but also because influences were the party’s colour, yellow, the colour of Turner and Van Gogh, and the fact that some of my forebears and cousins were Liberals on free trade or other grounds. That may seem a trivial reason, but others were Liberals by heredity as well as belief, and the same goes for other parties, which all are conscious of their traditions. Bertrand Russell, though not a member of the Liberal Party, was conscious of his Liberal heritage. He regarded doubt as essential and that addiction to certainty as the cause of the world’s ills. Today he would surely condemn the epidemic of wokeness, puritanism and illiberalism masking as liberalism, a distinction made recently by among others Tim Farron, who was pilloried for his evangelical beliefs, regardless of his liberal voting record.

Memorial to Byron, Walter Scott & Thomas Moore, by J M W Turner

If the arts in England, especially the fine arts, are now at a low ebb, there are many causes. Traditional Englishness has been diluted by foreign influence, notably from America. Of course English art has always been subject to foreign influence, from France especially. But it evolved some distinct traits in the Middle Ages, as Nikolaus Pevsner traced in his now unfashionable 1955 book The Englishness of English Art (7) (my copy of which a young, non-English architectural student stole!). I found this useful in my analysis of the style of the Wilton Diptych, with its puzzling portrait of Richard II, on which my mother had started me. While looking at popular books on Gainsborough and his contemporaries on the bouqiniste stalls by the Seine I was struck by how they had an English air distinct from that of French portraits. But Pevsner’s rules only hold good so far, and in the end artists are individuals and go off in all sorts of directions. That is especially true of Turner, who early on captured the Englishness of the Thames and Medway valleys, and also was steeped in tradition and the past (Lady Eastlake commented how knowledgeable he was about the history of all the castles he depicted). However, in his later works he moved on and prompted commentators to call him un-English, Germanic, a proto-French-Impressionist and so on.

In the Turner campaign one of our supporters, the late Dr William Allen, a scientific adviser to the National Gallery, discouragingly cited the law of physics, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, as also a law of society. That is certainly true in history. The enthusiastic admiration for British imperialism has given rise to an equally passionate denunciation. Lenin acted partly in reaction to the Tsarist execution of his teenage brother, and liberals have then reacted violently against him, whereas I would keep some of his statues as being of historical importance. Of course Africans had not done anything to cause them to be enslaved, but those today demanding extreme measures in recompense risk provoking a violent counter-reaction.

Unfortunately, academics have too often failed to be more objective than their students. When I was an undergraduate at Oriel, it was a notably conservative college, with Hugh Trevor-Roper a hovering presence. Today the enlarged body of fellows has few historians but a number of colonials (as has the university), and few are former alumni. The Provost (8), however, is one, and has just been ennobled as a Conservative peer ostensibly for his involvement in the museum world. Will he be willing or able to direct the college to keep the statue of Rhodes in line with the opinions of the Chancellor of the University and the Prime Minister? I have tried to show why my bias is in favour of retention.


  1. Both India and Pakistan have districts named Poonch, parts of the disputed Kashmir region (Editor’s note)
  2. Sir Edward George Warris Hulton, 1906-1988, chiefly remembered now as founder of the Eagle comic and The Picture Post, whose name is perpetuated in Getty Images’ Hulton Archive (Editor’s note)
  3. Captain Rees Howell Gronow, 1794-1865, who served in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, dandy, debtor, briefly an MP, and author of four volumes of justly highly-regarded reminiscences (Editor’s note)
  4. Flanders and Swann, British comedy double act, made up of Michael Flanders, 1922-1975, and Donald Swann, 1923-1994 (Editor’s note)
  5. “You may understand broadly that we Goths claim portraiture altogether for our own, and contentedly leave the classic people to round their chins by rule, and fix their smiles by precedent” (The Art of England, III, “The Classic Schools of Painting”, 1873, pp.72-3;  Works, ed. E.T.Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 1905, XXXIII, p.316). Also “Some Characteristics of Greek Art in Relation to Christian”, (Works, XX, p.409). I returned to this question in “The Face in Mediaeval Sculpture”, ArtWatch UK Journal, 32, Autumn 2019, pp.12-17 (Author’s note)
  6. Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 1830–1903, three times Conservative Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902 (Editor’s note)
  7. London: Architectural Press, expanded and annotated version of the 1955 BBC Reith Lectures. Pevsner says “the English portrait keeps long silences, and when it speaks, speaks in a low voice”. He goes on to say English painting is characterised by an interest in the everyday world and the observed fact, by “temperance, smoothness, judiciousness, moderation”, a consequence of “a decent home, a temperate climate, and a moderate nation”. He goes on, “There is no Michelangelo, no Titian, no Rembrandt, no Dürer or Grünewald… but there are exquisite water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale, and there are in the Middle Ages exquisitely carved bosses and capitals…The amateur is altogether characteristic of England, and not the specialist. This has much to recommend it.” He also cites the understatement of Perpendicular architecture, and feels England has contributed more to architecture than to either painting or sculpture (he does not discuss music) (Editor’s note)
  8. Neil Mendoza, Provost of Oriel since 2018, also Chairman of the Landmark Trust, and the government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal (Editor’s note)

Seen and unseen – horrors of the Holodomor

The Last Road, by Nina Marchenko

Mr Jones, 2019, directed by Agnieszka Holland

GUY WALKER admires an overdue film about a usually ignored atrocity

This film deals with a real event – the ‘discovery’ and reporting by a Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, of the Holodomor (man-made starvation) which took place in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-3. There is scholarly dispute about the degree of intent, but, essentially, Stalin’s policies caused a famine in one of the world’s most productive breadbaskets which resulted in the deaths of between three and ten million Ukrainians and the conviction of 2,500 for cannibalism. Stalin’s policies caused the famine by vindictively suppressing 6 million kulaks – enterprising peasants who bettered themselves and thus became considered as bourgeoisie – through the forced collectivisation of farms and by the requisitioning of grain – ‘Stalin’s gold’ – which he used for export to pay for the industrialisation of the USSR. One of the first journalists to draw attention to the event was Malcolm Muggeridge. He managed this in spite of working under a regime where the Press Department of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs once told him “You can’t say that because it’s true”. Later, to convince the West that the Holodomor was not true, the USSR was aided by George Bernard Shaw who visited and helpfully reported back that he “saw no evidence of starvation”.

We live in a world where television fascist dystopias are ten a penny and every time Donald Trump uncaps his vulgar gold pen or Boris Johnson steps up to a lectern the media class hallucinate goose-stepping Nazis. The same people contrive, simultaneously, to blink at the wall-to-wall post-Gramscian Marxism with which our culture is sodden. This might mean that the rarity of a film about real events casting a 70-year Communist experiment which led to the Holodomor in a bad light is to be considered a welcome corrective. Of course one can argue that the function of art is not to redress political balances but it’s hard to argue that this fine piece of art does not intend to make a political contribution. Holland was born behind and was a refugee from the Iron Curtain and, therefore, perhaps tacitly, assumes the wickedness of the USSR as a given we all know about. This being the case the only question is, considering the need of a dumb and somnolent, Hollywood-blunted Western audience (who may be resistant to it) to have everything spelt out in ten-foot letters, does Holland pull her punches too much? The film feels on the cusp of being Polish and addressing an American audience.

She and the screenwriter, Andrea Chalupa, go quite a long way to make the politics clear. The whole is framed by George Orwell (Joseph Mawle), disillusioned by Gareth Jones’ Ukrainian revelations, tapping out drafts of Animal Farm. Jones loudly and helpfully proclaims “the Soviet union is not the workers’ paradise” and the odious American apologist for Stalin, Walter Duranty, actually mouths the classic heartless platitude about omelettes and broken eggs. In addition, there is a character, Duranty’s secretary Ada, played by Vanessa Kirby, who personifies the way in which the panic about the Nazis pushed out the ability to recognise the Communist menace. Jones, who had already interviewed and even flown with Hitler before coming to Russia, also contains the history of the period in his personal experience. Ada walks a fine line and, having promoted the USSR under Duranty’s influence, gets it in the end.

The film reeks of Holland’s directorial class. She brilliantly sharpens the contrast between the freezing monochrome of the Ukrainian famine where people live on tree-bark and human flesh, and the warm polychrome of an England where food is almost literally waved under your nose. Another contrast is heightened; this time, that between Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones. Duranty, the New York Times (famous in our time for its uncritical embrace of authoritarian, woke culture), Pulitzer prize-winning journalist in the pocket of the Soviets is a true press lizard. In exchange for a life of extravagant decadence in Moscow he detoxifies and renders the USSR palatable to his readers sufficiently to ease the delicate consciences of US businessmen so that they can feel comfortable about exploiting attractive Russian markets. The US recognised the revolutionary USSR in 1933 because of Duranty’s account of it. On the other hand there is the inconvenient truth–telling of Jones who is what a journalist should be.

Techniques are honed and the cinematographer, Tomasz Naumiuk, deserves great credit. Lovingly detailed, dark-walled Moscow interiors lit by candles oppress claustrophobically. The 1930s modernist gleam of the Hotel Metropole where journalists stay only as long as it suits the NKVD, enchants, deceives and chills. The smoke and mirrors of the Russian state is evoked by shifting, kaleidoscopic reflections of people in mirrors and spectacle lenses, and long, soulless corridors. Frantic internal emotion is suggested by speeding up film. And, in the portrayal of the Holodomor we have trademark Holland realism. Typically, she doesn’t flinch at the horror created because the horror was real and the reality was both horrific and banal. Circled Ukrainian children sing to him a ghastly song about starvation in angelic voices before swiping Jones’ food. Then, after he has unwittingly participated with some children in an act of cannibalism, he sees children as carrion creatures encircling him in the snow. Both, admittedly poetic sequences could be seamlessly grafted straight onto a horror film. This shuffling nightmare is horrific and chills most because it was real. Holland ensures that it sinks slowly into and lingers in the consciousness.

Vanessa Kirby portrays a consciousness overwhelmed and haunted by twin nightmares very effectively. James Norton, reprising his Russian associations in McMafia, is excellent as the earnest and driven seeker after truth. Peter Sarsgaard is the suitably loathsome and Mephistophelean Soviet puppet, Duranty. He conveys menace, corruption and moral abandonment with finesse. 

Some people will still need it all spelt out. Perhaps only those who deserve to understand the film will do so.

Something about Stonehenge

DEREK TURNER wanders in the West Country

“Quite something, isn’t it?” the American woman asked, nodding towards Stonehenge. “However many pictures you see, it’s something to see it for real!” I didn’t disagree. As over-exposed as the Mona Lisa, emblazoned on a billion brochures, co-opted into countless works of counter-culture, and passed by an often tail-backed road – still, there’s something about Stonehenge.

It was my third time to see it for real. The first as a boy, perhaps six, glimpsed from a hot car’s window (where were we going?) to see the much-smaller than expected stones sticking up from sheep-shorn grass. The second time, 20 or so years ago, a blurred stop-off during an idiotically over-ambitious idea for a road trip – to condense half of H. V. Morton’s In Search of England itinerary into a two week holiday. And now, again, once upon a time, this summer…

Stonehenge stands on a plateau of dreams, simultaneously preternaturally solid and seeming to exist somewhere beyond time. Clouds chase, clench and dissipate constantly over, sometimes emphasising the stones’ bulk, sometimes making them seem insignificant, sometimes like a baldachino over a high altar, sometimes piling up fantastical vapour-realms of their own before clearing them away again. Even in a scorching August, the fields around blond with wheat, there is constant movement in the air, and you remember Constable’s menacing skies surmounting what the 1836 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition catalogue called breathlessly

the mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath

Constable’s empyrean emphasis suits this “sky-directed open temple…a product peculiarly British” (1). The stones may be immemorial, but they are also unsettling – because they are immemorial, Before Present, beyond comprehension. Stereotypically seen as symbols of England, they antedate not just any idea of England, but the concept of Britain. Even sarsen, a word much-heard here, is exotically un-English, a Wiltshire dialect corruption of Saracen:

The country people called them Saracens because they felt that these harsh, angular blocks were alien to the yielding curves of the chalk on which they lay (2)

The great stones support the sky – are world-axes, around which the cosmos spins at staggering speed.

Lesser circles have been made into bathetic moral lessons – the villagers who danced on a Sunday, the men chasing the virtuous maid, arrows hurled unavailingly by the Old Adversary. But Stonehenge occupies an imaginative space of its own, cynosure of a country, the uprights like gnomons of a sundial shadowing the seasons, and the seconds of spans. We should not let our preoccupation with time colour our views of past practices (3), but the stones display some awareness of lunar and solar cycles, and such knowledge would have been important in ways inconceivable to us.

When the first wooden pillars were erected circa 2800 BC, the area had probably been sacred for five centuries – perhaps even longer, because nearby Amesbury is Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement. When the wooden uprights were superseded with stones 600 years later, it may have marked the onset of a darker age, as suggested by all the arrowheads found with the Amesbury Archer, or “King of Stonehenge”, unearthed in 2002, one of several warlike contemporaneous burials in the vicinity.

Stonehenge is not just inert rocks erected with infinite labour, for obscure and quaintly irrelevant purposes. It is also illimitable horizons, gentled grave-mounds like the breasts of sleeping women, the stirring of wind in grass when you lie down to listen, tiny downland flowers bent over with bumble-bees, the cries of stalking rooks, the Bronze Age tang of sheep.

Like Tolkien’s Barrow Downs, close to the complacent Shire, Stonehenge evokes ancient dead, tangled genealogies, forgotten wars, grassed-over kingdoms, buried beakers and bladeless swords, epics returned to earth. Those who come to see it bring their own ghosts, ideas and memories at once achingly personal, and parts of huger stories. The unspeaking stones send signals to some – symbologists say monoliths have “lithophanic” qualities (4), and many visitors have claimed they can feel them vibrating – and of course within their own timeframe even the solidest stones are frozen movements. The old British name for Stonehenge was the Giants’ Dance, and that old imputation of restlessness revives itself for imaginative individuals in every age, like Peter Ackroyd:

At the time of their erection, these great stones seemed magnificent and immoveable in the earth; now, from a distance of 4,000 years, they dance in a pattern before us (5)

There is a theory that the Romans damaged the stones deliberately, and if true this may attest to uneasiness about the monument’s importance to the subjugated natives, but also the Empire’s inability to erase it. After the Romans themselves had been grassed-over, the Anglo-Saxons stared at these gallows-like “hanging stones” left by the tribes they were driving to the hilltops and further west. Their Stan-heng stood as they became English, and Wessex one of Europe’s powers. Wessex’s Edgar styled himself “King of England and Ruler of the Islands and of the Sea Kings”, just two generations before his House too went under turf.

14th century illustration of Merlin instructing giants erecting Stonehenge

Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (published c. 1129) judged Stonehenge one of the “marvels” of Britain, and said they seemed to float. Geoffrey of Monmouth turned the stuff of Britain into its Matter by claiming in Historia Regum Britanniae (1135-1139) that the circle had been ordered by one Aurelius Ambrosianus as a memorial to 460 British lords slain treacherously by Saxons. The stones, Geoffrey fantasized, had been taken from Ireland with the aid of the wizard Merlin, and Aurelius and his son Uther Pendragon (father of King Arthur) interred at their feet.

The Norman-French Wace augmented this Arthurian association, and cemented the stones in Christian and kingly culture, in his Roman de Brut (c. 1155), describing the magical healing powers of the “Giant’s Carol”, here describing the ceremonies after the Britons had “eased the Irish of the stones”:

The king rode to Ambresbury [Amesbury] to keep the Feast of Pentecost. Bishops, abbots, and barons, he had bidden them all to observe the Feast. A great company of folk, both rich and poor, gathered themselves together, and at this fair festival the king set the crown upon his head. Three days they observed the rite, and made merry, On the fourth, because of his exceeding reverence he gave pastoral crosses to two prelates…At the same time Merlin ranged the stones in due order, building them side by side (6)

Stonehenge was depicted in the anonymous 1440s history Scala Mundi, and mentioned in John Hardyng’s Chronicle of c. 1457,

Whiche now so hight the Stonehengles fulle sure  
Bycause thay henge and somwhat bowand ere. 
In wondre wyse men mervelle how thay bere

The answer to early speculation about how Stonehenge came to be built was usually – giants. Giant myths were ubiquitous in England, as everywhere, their existence attested in Genesis 6:4, Chronicles 5:4, Numbers 13:33, Ezekiel 38-39, and Revelations 20:7-10. The Ezekiel giant, Gog of the land of Magog, in particular became associated with England; the archaeologist T. C. Lethbridge claimed the Gogmagog Hills near Cambridge harboured a lost giant turf-carving, and wooden statues of Gog and Magog (now somehow become two giants) peer down from the walls of London’s Guildhall (7). The name Albion itself was sometimes applied to an evil giant who had come to Britain before The Flood; Geoffrey of Monmouth and others spun epics about confrontations between giants and refugee Trojans in the days before England. Giants were not always Biblical monsters; they could also be heroic – hugely impressive ancestors, a demonstration of the degeneracy of modern men.

Dorset’s Cerne – “a demonstration of the degeneracy of modern men”

Dorset’s celebrated Cerne figure, not that far from Stonehenge, shows a regional sense of giants’ onetime reality. The giant is undoubtedly imposing – each of his fingers is seven feet (2.1m) long, and the club in his hand 40 yards (36.5m) – but no-one knows how old he is. The earliest written record is from 1694, when the figure was being recut. The effigy has been imaginatively ‘identified’ as an unknown fertility God, the Celtic huntsman Herne, and the Roman Emperor Commodus (8). He has often been simply an embarrassment to local or passing prudes. A 19th century priest ended the annual scouring of the giant because the event too often ended in couples having sex on the most obvious part of the figure. In the Dorset volume of The King’s England series (1939), Arthur Mee says prissily,

 All we know is that he is very old and very ugly, and we are glad that he is now the property of the National Trust which will look after him forever on his hillside throne

before passing on with palpable relief to the “pretty windows and doorways” of the village.

The Renaissance and Reformation gradually brought new perspectives – more classical, more realistic, yet also more cabalistic and Hermetic. In 1542, Henry VIII’s peripatetic chaplain John Leland mentioned Avebury in his Itinerary. In 1562, Swiss student Herman Folkerzheimer was brought to Stonehenge by the Bishop of Salisbury, and wrote amazedly to a friend that if he had not seen it for himself, he would never have believed it. In 1568-9, the exiled Dutch artist Lucas de Heere drew Stonehenge in suitably English watercolour, with a spurring horseman to show scale. Holinshed nodded to “Druiydes” in his Chronicles, and Michael Drayton’s long patriotic poem Poly-Olbion (1598-1622) featured “fearlesse British priests” under “aged Oakes” sacrificing white bulls, and cutting mistletoe with golden axes.

Writers on these subjects were inspired by numerous, newly-available Roman accounts – including Caesar, Cicero, Strabo and Tacitus – of the Druids of the barbarian west as fey combination of story-tellers, tribal leaders, and powerful necromancers. There was growing interest in this wild west of Englishness, where ancient warlike spirits of Albion were thought to reside – avatars for the England of Elizabeth, a romantic warrior-queen like Boudicca had been, and resister of invaders.

Tudor chivalric patriotism bled into Stuart-era antiquarianism. Dilettante-scholars combined classicism with an interest in ancient mysteries, astrology with astronomy, geomancy with geometry, mysticism with mathematics, and romance with something like science. In 1620, James I dispatched Inigo Jones to study the stones; the Rome-revering Jones wrote in Stone-Heng (1655) that they could not possibly have been erected by his own ancestors, but by the Romans as a temple, and to show the locals the principles of Vitruvian architecture. This was a rational response to the giants-and-magic farrago of the Matter of Britain, although Jones had to alter the monument’s ground plan to suit his theory. Jones went on to demonstrate these Vitruvian principles personally by redesigning Wilton House near Salisbury (the county name derives from Wilton, which means ‘settlement on the River Wylye’), and his innovative Double Cube Room has become an exemplar of that time’s tastes (9).

John Aubrey

Jones was employed by Charles I as a man of many arts – architect, costume designer, historian and image-maker. His son would indulge Wiltshire-born John Aubrey, a clever, clubbable proto-ethnographer, as a means of understanding the arc of English history. Aubrey came upon Avebury by chance in 1649, while coursing in the “thin, blew country” of the Plain. He was “wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones of which I had never heard before”. It may seem strange that someone of his tastes, who lived not far away, had never heard of the monument before; perhaps that was because, as Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson observed, there is “astonishingly little folklore attached to this site” (10). Aubrey returned, and went on to Stonehenge, to marvel and measure holes (11), incorporating the monuments into a county-wide collection of folklore.


Aubrey was an inveterate collector of folk-traditions, so much so that he got an unfair reputation for being credulous. But without his writings, a great deal of county colour might have been forever lost, and England’s identity impoverished. England owes Aubrey and a few others, like Joseph Glanvill (12), a huge debt for preserving such lore as the large white birds seen whenever a Bishop of Salisbury was dying – the melancholy boy-bishop tickled to death by his fellow choristers – St Aldhelm, who was conceived while his mother was walking by a churchyard cross, and later flew to Rome on a tamed demonic horse – the unwanted child burned in an aristocrat’s bedroom – fairy dances on Hackpen Hill – and the grains of wheat that fell in hailstones in 1681. In 1663, he induced Charles II to come and view these western wonders for himself, and this descent loaned the stones fashionableness as well as enchantment. John Evelyn came in 1654, Samuel Pepys in 1668.

The King’s stately progress en route to Somerset was in startling contrast to his 1651 visit to Stonehenge, when he had been a fugitive with a reward of £1,000 offered by those who had beheaded his father. He had been hiding at nearby Heale House, while plans were made to smuggle him to France, and at the suggestion of his hostess had gone out for a ride for a few hours in order to come back secretly while the servants were out. Even in such circumstances, he retained his famously enquiring mind (13) and whilst killing time disproved an old superstition, as his sole companion, steadfast Colonel Robert Philips, later told an amanuensis: 

Ye King and Coll: Phelipps rid about ye downes and viewed Stonnage and found yt ye Kings Arithmetick gaue ye lye to yt fabulous tale yt those stones cannot be told alike twice together (14)

A few nights later, Charles made a 3am departure from Heale, the hostile night made still more fraught by the breaking of his horse’s harness, necessitating hasty running repairs in the darkness. Those must have been intense memories for the proud 21 year-old; he would later say his six weeks on the run had been the best time of his life (15).

Aubrey and others made valiant efforts to square Biblical, classical and folk beliefs with a growing number of field finds; mammoths’ bones were thought to be those of giants, while flint arrowheads were “elf-bolts”. As Richard Morris has noted, “As well as being a humanity-science, archaeology is also a branch of Gothic romance” (16).

Aubrey’s suggestion that Druids were Stonehenge’s architects was backed up by the pioneering Celtic scholar Edward Lhuyd in his Archaeologica Britannica (1707). William Stukeley took up their errors enthusiastically and added to them in his 1740 Stonehenge, a Temple restored to the British Druids, and 1743’s Abury, A Temple of the British Druids. The first accurate survey of the stones was carried out in 1740 by John Wood, architect of Georgian Bath. All this informed Blake, who wrote of “the Druid’s golden knife / Rioted in human gore”, and depicted druids worshipping snakes, and Gray’s The Bard, “rob’d in the sable gab of woe, / With haggard eyes the poet stood”. (17) Even now, British identity cannot easily be separated from Druidry, as evidenced at every Eisteddfod.

Surviving and reinstated stones at Avebury

Where remains were inconsistent with ‘revelation’, or just seen as impediments to agriculture, they could be targeted for destruction by the ignorant. In the early 14th century, there had been a rash of stone-breaking at Avebury – a corpse found there, dating from the 1320s, may be the body of a barber-surgeon killed whilst trying to topple the stones. In 1719, Stukeley was infuriated to see the religiously-enthused (and building material-seeking) villagers of Avebury – one of whom he immortalised as “Stone-Killer” Robinson – engaged in systematic destruction and toppling of

this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav’d the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe (18)

Wordsworth wrote On Salisbury Plain in 1793, and reworked and republished it under several titles between then and 1842:

Much of the wonders of that boundless heath
He spoke, and of a swain who far astray
Reached unawares a height and saw beneath
Gigantic beings ranged in dread array.
Such beings thwarting oft the traveller's way
With shield and stone-ax stride across the wold.
Or, throned on that dread circle's summit gray
Of mountains hung in air, their state unfold,
And like a thousand Gods mysterious council hold. (19)
Grand Conventional Festival of the Britons, by Robert Havell, 1815

The Romantic era had arrived, a time for national and personal expression, and crises of confidence. From the 1830s on, there was growing awareness of the idea of prehistory, a concept previously seen as unnecessary or even evil, by those who felt history’s trajectory had been set out in the Bible. The fossils of Lyme Regis had proven the almost inconceivable ancientness of the earth – the very chalk made up of centillions of individually insignificant creatures like the fairy shrimps that lie dormant in the dried-up puddles of the Plain, awaiting rain to spark off a frenzy of mating, dying and laying down more chalk. Ancient Britons and their real or supposed sites became common themes in the arts, the visual representations of Constable, Turner, Girtin, and the Havells strengthened by the verbal tributes of such as Wordsworth and Keats, whose Hyperion evoked a

…dismal cirque 
Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor 
When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,  
In dull November

The more conservative-minded Constable went on from Stonehenge to paint Salisbury Cathedral as beautiful but embattled edifice, haloed by rainbows in yet more unsettled skies, a symbol of the soul of England menaced by agrarian unrest and the Reform Bill that would sweep away rotten boroughs, like Old Sarum up the road – home of the venerable Sarum Rite (20), and pocket borough of the Pitts, preservers of English liberties. Constable, Roy Strong observes,

…paints his landscapes as Georgic images of Britain, visions of thriving husbandry and industry, a microcosm of the nation (21)

Constable would probably not have recognised the traces of ancient agriculture – the terraces of old lynchet strips, the false-oat grass that nodded where real oats once waved – but he was conscious of the terrible grandeur of time. Probably he too was struck by the Cathedral’s faceless clock, claimed to be the world’s oldest working timepiece, which is estimated to have ticked 4.4 billion times between 1386 and 1884 and 1956-2013 (unhappily, it was allowed to stop between 1884 and 1956).

Time ticked on across the heedless Plain, and the wool industry dwindled, making Wiltshire one of the poorest counties in England (it may be suggestive that the folk-song Salisbury Plain is about highway robbery). That poverty itself lent lustre to supposed ancestral vigour, and artists continued to stream westwards, drawn by nostalgic, romantic and post-religious impulses. They were joined by amateur geologists and tourists-cum-vandals – when Thomas Carlyle took Ralph Waldo Emerson to Stonehenge in 1848, they noted the “marks of the mineralogist’s hammer and chisel on almost every stone”.

The 19th century’s greats were joined in the 20th century by artists including Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore and Eric Ravilious. As part of the 1960s and 1970s craze for anything folk-horror and ‘unexplained’, Derek Jarman took abstract photos of the monuments, and made an atmospheric short silent film, Journey to Avebury. Avebury and Stonehenge featured in the children’s TV series, Children of the Stones, and a TV mini-series of Quatermass. (Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale had earlier made The Stone Tape, a 1972 TV play about old stonework ‘recording’ ancient horrors.) Artistic interest is not letting up, as evinced by Jeremy Deller’s playful-serious 2018 life-size bouncy castle Stonehenge. The stones appeal, as Deller reflects, because

It’s a symbol of the nation and you project whatever your feelings are about the country on to it…It’s weirdly democratic in terms of ideas. It represents us but we don’t know what it is. It is a place we can turn to in moments of stress and anxiety to try to ask it for some sort of meaning, to give our lives some structure, to connect us to the past

World-wonders though they are, Stonehenge and Avebury are only elements of a greater geography, a ceremonial country of alignments, avenues, barrows, cursus monuments, ditches, enclosures, forts, hills, and trackways, that was only ever half-Christianised. In 2014, traces shown at Stonehenge after a spell of dry weather impelled a major subterranean survey which showed the stones as survivors of something even more substantial, and emotionally charged. What is visible at Avebury is also part of an even wider plan.

Silbury Hill

Wiltshire also holds Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe (40 metres/130 feet high). Silbury is a flat-topped, turf-covered cone, around which legends long clustered. Aubrey (who else?) recorded the Hill was thought the resting place of “King Zel”, that mythical monarch’s name conveying the pleasant Z-sound and burr of the local accent across the centuries. Others asserted the Hill held a life-size horse and rider made of solid gold. A lust for this trinket, or for insight into ancientness, has impelled several excavations, although little has ever been found – except the tiny remains of winged ants, suggesting that Silbury was begun in some August of around 2600 BC. Ants identical to those still alight on the Plain’s swards, its endangered juniper, squinancy-wort and bastard toadflax, and the backs of great bustards – Wiltshire’s emblematic bird, the crest on its coat-of-arms, reintroduced in 2003 after far too long an absence. It seems oddly relevant to note that Alfred Watkins, of “ley lines” fame (22), noted the proportion in size between a man and Silbury was the same as that of an ant and an anthill – Wiltshire’s anthills, inevitably for that author, falling “into certain patterns and alignments”.

Zooming out yet further, Wiltshire is part of an even wider west that is both older than archaic and bound up intimately with all kinds of ideas of ourselves. Some of these have firm foundations – the fossils of the Jurassic Coast, Portland’s and Purbeck’s nation-building stone, the quoits, rings and megaliths of Cornwall and Dartmoor, the graded, rounded pebbles of Chesil Beach.

Chalkland flora

Others are a combination of historical, national and personal – Dorchester’s Maiden Castle (to Thomas Hardy, “an enormous many-limbed organism of an antediluvian time”), Portland Castle, part of Henry VIII’s “Device” for national protection, the swannery at Abbotsbury, Eliot’s East Coker (“In my end is my beginning”), and the sheer loveliness of chalk downs, with their recherché orchids and resurgent red kites.

Still others are eccentric, albeit engaging, and bound up in bizarre ‘Britishness’ – Stonehenge being built by refugees from Atlantis, Joseph of Arimathea planting his thorn at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Tintagel, the “Beast of Bodmin”, landscape Zodiacs, crop-circles, geodetics, dowsing, magnetic, orgone and telluric energies, megalithic measurements and numerological schemes uniting Stonehenge with the Great Pyramid. Unreason adapts itself to new realities, just as the advent of air photography led to people suddenly ‘seeing’ landscape zodiacs. The West Country is big enough to carry all kinds of contradictory connotations – simultaneously locale of lands of youth, and the land of the setting sun. We can “go west” to find adventure, or the Holy Grail, or to die – or all of those at once.

It was not until the 20th century that serious attempts would be made to explore Avebury and Stonehenge systematically, protect what was left, and restore whatever could be restored. Stonehenge has long been blighted by mass tourism – the stones were fenced off in 1901, and since then have been protected, first by private landowners, then by the National Trust and English Heritage. Avebury was saved largely by the efforts of Alexander Keiller, who ploughed his inheritance from the family’s marmalade business into buying up as much of Avebury as he could, personally delving into the haunted earth in search of magic and truth. Even the starriest-eyed romantics can bring refuse in their wake; the 700 earnest Edwardian white robed druids who descended on Stonehenge for the Midsummer dawn of 1905 had become a litter-strewing free-for-all by the 1960s, the acolytes of the ‘New Age’ incapable not just of seriousness, but even of protecting the earth they affected to love.

In 1951, Jacquetta Hawkes repined –

It will never again be possible to see [Stonehenge] as Constable did when he made his studies, a place of mystery against a background of storms and flying showers; it is doubtful if it could ever again have the deep impact on any man that it once had on Wordsworth; it seems no longer a setting fit for one of Hardy’s gigantic stereoscopic scenes (23)

It is easy to agree with such assessments when considering the present plan to build a tunnel at Stonehenge (24), but even if the tunnel goes ahead, people don’t change just because roads move. There have always been people like “Stone-Killer” Robinson, and their numbers may even be growing. But there have also always been others, from the nameless Megalithic engineer-visionaries via medieval saints and chroniclers, Aubrey, Stukeley, Constable, Lewis Spence (25), Alfred Watkins, John Michell (26), musician-turned-antiquarian Julian Cope, and many more – all very different, yet unified in seeking what Michell called “poetic rather than scientific truth” in this otherworldly west. This is not to mention the Prince of Wales, whose “New Urban” Poundbury development near Dorchester is a slightly surreal attempt to overlay an ideal of an organic and harmonious England onto an uglier actuality.

Perhaps ironically, the chief guarantor of the Plain’s remaining beauty is the long-standing military presence. This has often been a land of war, as all those grave mounds show, but the War Office began buying up parcels of the Plain systematically in 1898. In 1943, the army annexed the village of Imber (it took Dorset’s more famous Tyneham the same year) and never gave it back. Now, roughly half the Plain is given over to the army, with large-scale exercises, artillery training at Larkhill, and secret research at Porton Down. The town of Wootton Bassett in the north of the county was granted “Royal” status in 2011, because of the movingly respectful response of townspeople to the sad stream of bodies of British soldiers being repatriated through the town’s RAF base after falling in the pointless Middle Eastern battles of the Blair years – an echo, in a way, of crusaders brought back centuries ago after falling in some sweaty Levantine skirmish, to await the day of judgment in less heated English earth.

Royal Corps of Signals emblem in the chalk at Fovant

Olive-drab lorries full of squaddies are frequently seen, live shells are fired by night, and roads have designated tank crossings. These lumbering behemoths are figurative and organisational heirs to cavalry traditions graven on folk-memory and in some places literally incised into the land, with outsize white horses cut into the chalk at Alton Barnes, Broad Town, Cherhill, Devizes, Hackpen, Pewsey and Westbury, giant steeds for giant riders.

Other martial memories are engraved on slopes near Amesbury and Fovant in the shape of huge regimental badges – the Wiltshire Regiment and Wiltshire Yeomanry, but also Empire-answering Anzacs, the Royal Corps of Signals (whose Mercury evokes the giants of myth), and even the Post Office Rifles. All those who carved all these are long under the earth, but still the chalk communicates – white abstract lines alive with meaning, signalling past glories and griefs to the present, and the poets of a future as unimaginable to us as we would have been to the builders of the petrified past.

Author’s Notes

  1. Grahame Clark and Stuart Piggott, Prehistoric Societies, 1965
  2. Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land, 1951. Confusingly, the word sarsen is actually applied to the local sandstone, rather than the igneous ‘bluestone’ brought from Pembrokeshire
  3. See John North, The Story of Time, various authors, including Umberto Eco and E. H. Gombrich, Royal Maritime Museum, 2000. Insofar as substantive astronomical or calendrical knowledge is demonstrated at Stonehenge (and elsewhere in Europe), the conventional idea that it must have emanated from the Near East was challenged by Harvard archaeologist Alexander Marshack in 1972, who suggested that the seemingly random notches and lines scratched on Paleolithic plaques were actually lunar calendars and numbering sequences. A useful discussion of this may be found in Richard Rudgley’s Lost Civilisations of The Stone Age (Century, 1998)
  4. See J. E. Cirlot, in his 1958 classic Diccionario de símbolos (A Dictionary of Symbols, my edition, Dover House, 2002, translated by Jack Sage)
  5. Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, Macmillan, 2011
  6. Translated by Eugene Mason, and published as Arthurian Chronicles represented by Wace and Layamon, Everyman’s Library, 1912 (my edition 1928)
  7. T. C. Lethbridge, Gogmagog: The Buried Gods, 1957; his theory has never been generally accepted, perhaps partly because of his generic interest in what he called “the odd” – ghosts, dowsing, etc. The Gog and Magog effigies in London’s Guildhall are 1953 copies of 1708 originals which were incinerated in the Blitz
  8. Commodus sought to revive the Greek cult of Herakles, and was sometimes represented carrying a Herakles-style club
  9. The Double Cube Room may be glimpsed in famous films, including Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George.
  10. Jennifer Westwood & Jacqueline Simpson, The Lore of the Land, Penguin, 2005
  11. The holes (probably ritual pits) noted by Aubrey at Stonehenge are still called the Aubrey Holes
  12. Another influential intellectual was Joseph Glanvill, whose investigation of the poltergeist “Drummer of Tedworth” (now Tidworth), published as Saducismus Triumphatus in 1681, helped put Wiltshire on the unearthly map
  13. Charles was so interested in mechanics that he is said to have kept seven clocks in his bedroom, all set to different times
  14. Mr. Robert Phelipp’s Narrative of the Occurrences between September 25 and October 15, 1651, reproduced in The Royal Miracle, A. M. Broadbent, 1912. It might be more accurate to say that Charles attempted to disprove an old superstition, because many experienced difficulty counting the stones (the fear was that anyone who succeeded in tallying them correctly would die). In 1654, Aubrey made a total of 95; in 1690, Celia Fiennes found 91; in 1724, Daniel Defoe was certain there were 72; in 1740, William Stukeley insisted on 140
  15. The King may have dwelled rather too often on his adventures – “The moment that [Charles’] restoration removed the shadow of reprisals, he began to discourse on the subject and, in the view of some his courtiers, was all too ready to revert to it throughout the twenty-five years of his reign” The Image of the King: Charles I and Charles II, Richard Ollard, Phoenix Press, 1979
  16. Richard Morris, Time’s Anvil: England, Geography and the Imagination, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013
  17. The Druid Source Book, edited by John Matthews (Blandford, 1996) offers an interesting survey of old and new writings on the subject
  18. Abury, A Temple of the British Druids
  19. There is a discussion of the poem’s evolution, and links to the different texts, here
  20. The musicologist Nicholas Sandon feels “Sarum chant cannot claim any great originality…the variants are insufficiently large, systematic or stable to constitute a recognizable dialect”. Quoted in Music in the West Country, Stephen Banfield, Boydell & Brewer, 2018. However, Banfield does cite an anonymous 13th century Paris-based (although possibly English) music theorist who discerned a noticeable (highly technical) difference between “westcuntre” plainchant and that heard elsewhere
  21. See The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts, Roy Strong, 2000
  22. See The Old Straight Track, 1925
  23. A Land, ibid.
  24. A government decision on this scheme is expected in November 2020, although it may be deferred again, over concerns about both costs and potential damage to the wider prehistoric landscape. This is the Highways Agency plan – and this the website of the anti-tunnel Stonehenge Alliance
  25. Author of The Mysteries of Britain: Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored, 1905
  26. Author of The View Over Atlantis, 1970

John Dee and Edward Kelly – through a glass darkly

Doctor Dee and Edward Kelly raising the dead

MICHAEL WILDING tells the extraordinary story of the councillor, the charlatan, and the crowned heads of Europe

In 1582, Dr John Dee advertised for an assistant. A mathematician of considerable reputation in England and in Europe, he was regularly consulted by powerful statesmen such as Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, the Earl of Leicester, and Sir Walter Raleigh. His projects often involved political issues, and made him dangerous enemies.

Dee had a restless and wide-ranging mind. His opinions were sought frequently on navigational briefings for journeys of commercial exploration to North America and to China. He drew up a proposal for Britain to reform the calendar and to come into line with the reforms of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 (although the English church and political establishment decided this would look too much like conformity to Rome, and so Britain remained ten days out of phase with Europe for the next 160 years).

Sixteenth century mathematics touching on astrological calculations as well as numerical, Dee was also commissioned to select the appropriate date for Elizabeth’s coronation. He immersed himself so deeply in arcana and hermetic philosophy that he earned a hazardous reputation for heterodox thinking, possibly even heresy. He had the largest private library in Britain, some 2,500 books and manuscripts, but he had reached the limits of what he could learn from books. Now, he wanted direct access to the divine. The assistant he asked for had to be “a good seer and scryer of spiritual apparitions, in crystalline receptacles or in open air”. He wanted someone who could communicate with spirits.

This practice could lead to imprisonment. In December 1581, Dee had tried some consultations with an assistant, Barnabas Saul, who two months later was arrested, but released without charge. Four days later, Dee was consulting spirits with a certain Edward Kelly, and so began one of the most colourful stories of an already highly-coloured period.

Kelly was born at Worcester on August 1, 1555, at 4 p.m. Dee recorded Kelly’s date of birth in the horoscope he drew up of his nativity,and in the margins of the almanac he used as a diary. Kelly’s surname is sometimes spelled Kelley, and when he first met Dee he went under the name of Edward Talbot. It is unclear how he and Dee came into contact, but it is possible that he was planted by Dee’s enemies. Dee certainly believed this, later recording in his diary that

[Kelly’s] coming was to entrap me, if I had had any dealing with wicked spirits, as he confessed often times after: and that he was set on, etc

In Antient Funerall Monuments (1631), John Weever tells a story of Kelly in Lancashire engaging in the “diabolical questioning of the dead, for the knowledge of future accidents”. According to Weever, Kelly

…upon a certain night, in the park of Walton-in-le-dale, in the county of Lancaster, with one Paul Waring (his fellow companion in such deeds of darkness) invocated some one of the infernal regiment to know certain passages in the life, as also what might be known by the devil’s foresight, of the manner and time of the death of a noble young gentleman, as then in his wardship. The black ceremonies of that night being ended, Kelly demanded of one of the gentleman’s servants, what corpse was the last buried in Law church-yard, a church thereunto adjoining, who told him of a poor man that was buried there but the same day. He and the said Waring entreated this foresaid servant to go with them to the grave of the man so lately interred, which he did; and withal did help them to dig up the carcass of the poor caitiff, whom by their incantations, they made him (or rather some evil spirit through his organs) to speak, who delivered strange predictions concerning the said gentleman

Kelly’s practice with Dee was less diabolical. They proceeded to summon up a succession of angels and spirits, beginning with Uriel and Michael and moving on to the mysteriously named Nalvage, Ath, Galva’h, and more. The latter two were female and so, according to specialists in the area like Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim, agents of the devil. But one of the female spirits told them, “Angels, I say, of themselves, are neither man nor woman.” And one of the most charming of the spirits summoned up was “like a pretty girl of seven or nine years of age.” She told them “I am a poor little maiden, Madini.” She made a strong impression on Dee and seven years later he christened his daughter Madinia.

There were visions, fables and instructions. In large part, this involved establishing a table of names and numbers which could be used to call up spiritual forces, in particular those governing political rulers. Kelly looked into the stone, Dee asked his questions, the spirits in the crystal spoke through Kelly, and Dee wrote down what Kelly said. No description of the stone survives, but it seems that Dee had more than one. Drawings in the margin of the spiritual records suggest that they were spherical balls, and from evidence in the records we can assume they were of crystal. In the British Museum there is a black obsidian mirror, of Mexican origin, which is said to have belonged to Dee. It is doubtful, however, whether this was used in the scrying sessions.

The notes were later transcribed, and the records of these sessions bound up into books. Other manuscript books were compiled which abstracted and collated the infor­mation given. They survive in the British Library. The major part is recorded in MS Cotton Appendix XLVI parts I and 2. This was transcribed and published by Meric Casaubon, as A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Elizabeth and King James their Reignes) and Some Spirits: Tending (had it succeeded) to a General Alteration of Most States and Kingdomes in the World (1659).

As well as spiritual instructions, other information was sometimes given. Dee asked about

…the vision which yester night was presented, unlooked for, to the sight of E. K. as he sat at supper with me, in my hall, I mean: the appearing of the very sea, and many ships thereon, and the cut­ting off the head of a woman, by a tall black man, what are we to imagine thereof?

He was told:

The one did signify the provision of foreign powers against the welfare of this land: which they shall shortly put in practice: the other, the death of the Queen of Scots. It is not long unto it

The date was May 5, 1583. Dee noted in the margin, “The Queen of Scots to be beheaded”. At some later date he added,

So she was, anno 1587 at Fotheringhay castle. And also the same year a great preparation of ships against England by the King of Spain, the Pope and other princes called Catholic, etc

That was the Spanish Armada of 1588. Kelly had seen into the future – or made informed guesses.

Then a Polish count, Albert Laski, visited England and sought out Dee and Kelly. He was concerned to find out through their spirit-raising sessions if he might succeed to the Polish crown, and whether he had English ancestry. Holinshed recorded that Laski had

…a white beard of such length and breadth, as that lying in his bed, and parting it with his hands, the same overspread all his breast and shoulders, himself greatly delighting therein, and reputing it an ornament

But though English authorities provided one of their spies as a servant to Laski, they could not discover the purpose of his visit.

In 1583 Laski, Dee and Kelly left England at dead of night and set out for Poland. They had hoped Laski would support them financially in their spiritual researches, but Laski went bankrupt. The spirits told Dee and Kelly to go to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, in Prague. The spirits also gave Dee messages to deliver to the Emperor Rudolf and King Stephen of Poland, instructing them to reform their ways. It was not the most ingratiating way to secure royal patronage, but Dee did it. He also told Rudolf he could make the philosopher’s stone.

The Order of the Inspirati – Mohammed, Appoloneus Tyaneus, Sir Edward Kelley, Roger Bacon, Paracelsus, John Dee – after Francis Cleyn (Franz Klein), etching and line engraving, published 1659
NPG D25548. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Dee had one audience with Rudolf, and was then fobbed off to deal with senior court officials. In the meantime, rumours of the spiritual predictions of imminent apocalyptic change reached the papal nuncio, Filippo Sega, who reported to Rome that Dee and Kelly

…are on the way to being the authors of a new supersti­tion, not to say heresy, and are known to the Emperor and all of the court

The new nuncio, Lord Germanico Malaspina, Bishop of San Severo, asked Dee and Kelly to explain themselves to him. They delayed for eight months but finally met. Dee assured the nuncio that their activities were not irreligious. All might have been well but then Kelly delivered a diatribe about corrupt priests, which, Dee was later told, “had so filled that most reverend lord with inward fury that he had said, if it had not been for certain respects, he would have had the said Edward thrown out of the window”. (Defenestration was a traditional way of dealing with troublesome opponents in Bohemian politics.)

Pressure was brought to bear on Rudolf, who then expelled Dee and Kelly from the Empire for necromancy and other prohibited arts. Four months later Rudolf relented and let them settle on the estates of Count Vilém Rožmberk, at Trebon in southern Bohemia. They undertook a series of alchemical experiments there and in December 1586 Dee recorded in his diary that

E. K. made a public demonstration of the philosopher’s stone in the proportion of one small grain, upon one ounce and a quarter of common mercury, and produced almost an ounce of most pure gold

Dee’s son Arthur told Sir Thomas Browne, the author of Religio Medici, that

Count Rožmberk was their great patron who delighted much in alchemy. I have often heard him affirm and sometimes with oaths that he had seen the projection made and transmutation of pewter dishes and flagons into silver which the goldsmiths at Prague bought of them. And that Count Rožmberk played at quoits with silver quoits made by projection as before

Elias Ashmole recorded that

I have received it from a credible person, that one Broomfield and Alexander Roberts, told him they had often seen Sir Ed Kelly make projection, and in particular upon a piece of metal cut out of a warming pan, and without Sir Edward’s touching or handling it, or melt­ing the metal (only warming it in the fire) the elixir being put thereon, it was transmuted into pure silver: the warming-pan and this piece of it was sent to Queen Elizabeth by her ambassador who then lay at Prague, that by fitting the piece into the place whence it was cut out, it might exactly appear to be one part of that warming-pan

Kelly had now become increasingly reluctant to continue summoning up spirits. He tried to train Dee’s eight year-old son Arthur in scrying, but without much success. Kelly then received a spiritual message that he and Dee were to hold their wives in common. The wives were unenthusiastic, but Kelly made a number of further consultations with spirits and the instruction was confirmed. The “cross-matching” seems to have taken place on May 22, 1587, but not repeated. The following day, the last known spiritual consultations Dee and Kelly held together are recorded – although years later, back in England, Dee was to experiment with other scryers.

Fifty-three years later, Arthur Dee gave one of the crystals used by his father and Kelly to the apothecary Nicholas Culpeper “as a reward for having cured a liver complaint of his with the greatest rapidity, A.D. 1640.” According to Culpeper this was the crystal that had been given to Dee by an angel in 1582, which Dee gave to Kelly, who gave it to Lord Rožmberk but then retrieved it.

Culpeper records,

I have used this crystal in many ways and have thus cured illnesses, but with its use a very great weakness always sets in and lethargy of the body. And further a certain demoniacal apparition which exercised itself to lewdness and other depravity with women and girls, used to tempt me, but by making the sign of the cross and speaking these words, ‘Pah Adonai, by thy strength am I fortified. Phorrh! Phorrh! Haricot! Gambalon!’ the apparition used to fly soon or instantly, with noise and evil smell. For these obscenities I have given up the use of the crystal, and to witness these things I have written them on this sheet on the 7th day of March in the year 1651

William Lilly bought the crystal from Culpeper’s widow and tried his own experiments on it with Elias Ashmole. They conjured up “a female devil lewd and monstrous”, he records for February 10, 1658. The crystal is now in the Wellcome Collection in the Science Museum, London.

On February 28, 1588, nine months after the cross-matching, Jane Dee gave birth to a boy, who was baptized the following day, and named Theodorus Trebonianus Dee. Theodorus Trebonianus, the gift of God at Trebon. Was this Dee’s child or Kelly’s? Did anyone ever know for sure? The question is never raised in the diary let alone answered. Could Kelly have children anyway? In the spiritual transactions of April 4, 1587, Kelly was told of his marriage, “barrenness dwells with you”, suggesting that he was sterile. There is no record of his having children. His wife had a son and daughter by a former marriage, the daughter later famous as the neo-Latin poet Elizabeth Weston, “Westonia”.

Kelly’s achievements in producing gold soon became known to the Emperor Rudolf, Queen Elizabeth and her senior statesman, Lord Burghley. Rudolf invited Kelly back to Prague, installed him in the court to work on alchemical experiments, and in 1589 appointed him to the order of the Equites Aureati (the Knights of the Golden Spur, a Holy Roman Imperial chivalric order originating in the 14th century). He was now Sir Edward, and possessed of considerable property. Dee returned to England.

Burghley wrote to Kelly at the instruction of Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that he might return to England and put his alchemical skills at the service of the state. Kelly replied that

…being in security, and …of some expectation and use more than vulgar, of his Majesty’s privy council…I cannot see how I might easily or honestly depart, much less so steal away…But if it may please my most gracious sovereign and country to redress the injuries done against me heretofore and to call me home to the like honour; assuring me of so much lands of inheritance by year to serve her, as I shall leave behind me in Bohemia for her; then will I declare myself openly, take leave of his Majesty and kingdom and repair home to her highness

Burghley then sent the poet and courtier Edward Dyer to try to persuade Kelly. But, suddenly, Kelly was arrested and gaoled. Some said the arrest was for debt, others that an alchemist executed at Munich had named Kelly as an accomplice. Yet others opined that Dyer’s visit made the Emperor suspect Kelly was about to return to England with secrets, that Kelly had offended a powerful Czech family, that Kelly had prepared a medicine for the Emperor which Kelly’s enemies claimed was a poison, and lastly that a rival alchemist had challenged Kelly to make proof of his art and Kelly refused. Czech reports, not known in England, said that Kelly had killed a court official in a duel. The official had been asking Kelly why one of his ears had been lopped. Kelly at some point had had one, if not both, ears lopped – a mark of punishment for some criminal offence that has never been explained. Forging title deeds and coining are often mentioned in later ac­counts, but no supporting evidence has ever been produced.

And then towards the end of 1593, after some two and a half years in gaol in Pürglitz castle, Kelly was released, and back in favour with the Emperor. In 1595, Kelly wrote to Dee, inviting him back to Rudolf’s service.  Dee stayed in England, wisely enough, for on 1 November 1596 Kelly was arrested again, probably for debt.  

Kelly was now imprisoned in Most Castle where he wrote his Latin treatise The Stone of the Philosophers, which he dedicated to Rudolf:

Though I have already twice suffered chains and imprisonment in Bohemia, an indignity which has been offered to me in no other part of the world, yet my mind, remaining unbound, has all this time exercised itself in the study of that philosophy which is despised only by the wicked and foolish, but is praised and admired by the wise. Nay, the saying that none but fools and lawyers hate and despise alchemy has passed into a proverb

Nonetheless, he decided to escape. John Weever wrote that Queen

Elizabeth of famous memory, sent (very secretly) Captain Peter Gwynne with some others, to persuade him to re­turn back to his own native home, which he was willing to do: and think­ing to escape away in the night, by stealth, as he was clambering over a wall in his own house in Prague (which bears his name to this day, and which sometime was an old sanctuary) he fell down from the battlements, broke his legs, and bruised his body; of which hurts a while after he de­parted this world

It is generally believed that Kelly fell not from his house but from prison. Dee’s son, Arthur, told Sir Thomas Browne

…that Kelly dealt not justly by his father and that he went away with the greatest part of the powder and was afterward imprisoned by the Emperor in a castle from whence attempting an escape down the wall he fell and broke his leg and was imprisoned again. That his father Dr John Dee presented Queen Elizabeth with a little of the powder, who having made trial thereof attempted to get Kelly out of prison. And sent some to that purpose who giving opium in drink unto the keepers, laid them so fast asleep that Kelly found opportunity to attempt an escape and there were horses ready to carry him away! But the business unhappily succeeded as is before declared

The Czech scholars Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš believe that the most authentic report about Kelly’s imprisonment (and his death) is given in a manuscript written by the evangelical priest, Rudolf’s alchemist and seeker of precious stones, Simon Thadeas Budek of Lessino and Falkenberg:

That Keleus when he was imprisoned at the castle of Most (he had a wooden leg and was without both ears, and had long hair), was lowered through the toilet by his wife and daughter in the year 1597 at Christmas time … His brother awaited him with a carriage, but he (Kelly) fell into a ditch and broke his leg in three places, so he was taken back to the castle to be tended to. He was to be transported to Prague to the Emperor, but he asked to have his wife and daughter with him, which they granted him. He then spoke to his wife in English and Welsh and with his daughter in Latin and asked to have some water brought to him and immediately after ingesting it he died

Some long continued to believe Kelly had succeeded in producing gold, and really had the secret of the philosopher’s stone. But in his 1617 book on pseudo-alchemists, Examen Fucorum Pseudo-Chymicorum, Michael Maier concluded of Kelly:

If he had anything except the colour extracted from gold, why did he not live for himself and avoid high positions, from which he would fall headlong as far as both his life and fame are concerned? However, with his skill of extracting sulphur from gold and projecting it into metals he not only won the prince’s favour and a good reputation, but he also got money and fortune. And he would not have been in need of all these if he had not been foolish and a man of very poor judgement and if he had had the real tincture

Author’s references

  • Ashmole, Elias, Elias Ashmole 1617–1692: His Auto­biographical and Historical Notes, His Correspondence and other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work, ed. C. H. Josten, 5 vols, Oxford, 1968
  • Casaubon, Meric, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee (A Mathematician of Great Fame in Q. Elizabeth and King James their Reignes) and Some Spirits: Tending (had it succeeded) to a Gen­eral Alteration of most States and Kingdomes in the World, London, 1659
  • Dee, John, The Diaries of John Dee, ed. Edward Fenton, Charlbury, 1998
  • Holinshed, Raphael , Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols., London,  1808, 4:507-8
  • Karpenko, Vladimír, and Purš, Ivo, ‘Edward Kelly: A Star of the Rudolfine Era’, in Ivo Purš and Vladimír Karpenko, Alchemy and Rudolf II: Exploring the Secrets of Nature in Central Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Prague, 2016
  • Kelly, Edward, Two Excellent Treatises on the Philosopher’s Stone together with the Theatre of Terrestrial Astronomy, ed. and trans. A. E. Waite, London, 1893
  • Maier, Michael,Examen Fucorum Pseudo-Chymicorum, 1617
  • Weever, John, Ancient Funerall Monuments, London, 1631
  • Wilding, Michael, Raising Spirits, Making Gold, Swapping Wives: The True Adventures of Dr John Dee and Sir Edward Kelly, Nottingham, 1999
  • Wilding, Michael, ‘Edward Kelly: A Life’, Cauda Pavonis: Studies in Hermeticism,n.s. 18, 1 & 2 (1999) 1–26; reprinted, revised, in Stanton J., Linden, ed., ‘Mystical Metal of Gold’: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture,New York, 2007, 35–89

Fear of frying

Visitors to Yadegar Asisi’s ‘Dresden 1945’ installation at the Panometer in Dresden in January 2015

Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness, Sinclair McKay, Viking, 2020

LESLIE JONES revisits the Dresden raid of February 1945

“Man is at bottom a savage, horrible beast” (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Historian James Holland, a ubiquitous presence on television programmes about World War 2 these days, featured in Lost Home Movies of Nazi Germany. In the undated footage in question, a group of Jews are being deported from Dresden. Holland confides that he had always considered the city “an innocent place”, bombed needlessly in February 1945. But having watched this amateur film, he reminds us that it was also a rail hub with over 140 factories producing war material. For example, from 1942 the Zeiss Ikon camera plant produced precision instruments and optical technology for the military. It employed slave labour, including Jewish women. In this “hotbed of Nazism”, Holland maintains, the Jews were dealt with as brutally as anywhere in Germany. He acknowledges, however, that the Dresden firestorm was “horrendous”, something of an understatement.

In Greatest Events of World War 2 – Dresden Firestorm, Holland returned to this contentious subject. He referred to the German air raids on England, notably those on London and Coventry but conceded that in all of these attacks, ‘only’ 40,000 people were killed. Dresden suffered more losses between the 13th and 15th of February. Holland blames the Nazi authorities in Dresden, notably the Gauleiter of Saxony, Martin Mutschmann (‘King Mu’), for failing to build air raid shelters for the civilian population (but not for himself).

In his review of David Irving’s The Destruction of Dresden (1963), Harold Nicolson, like Holland, conflates the Dresden raid and the Shoah, calling the former “…the single greatest holocaust caused by the war”. In Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness, in similar vein, Sinclair McKay notes that bomber crew survivors were proud of their service, as they considered Nazism “a tumour…[that] could not be cut out without damage to the surrounding flesh”. Or, put otherwise, they were “simply doing what they were told”.

Apropos the morality of incinerating 25,000 virtually defenceless civilians (there were no anti-aircraft guns or searchlights in Dresden by this time) McKay contends that the concept of a “war crime” implies “intentionality and rational decision-making”. He suggests, accordingly, that “these city bombings were not vengeful or consciously merciless” but “desperate reflexive attacks launched to make the other side simply stopWar, he avers, creates its own momentum, its own desperate logic.

McKay evidently sympathises with Air Chief Marshal Harris’ contention that the Nazis were a fanatical enemy that “could be vanquished only by the trauma of complete, civic obliteration…” (McKay, p 20). He concedes, however, that Harris hated the Germans and was indifferent to the fate of German civilians. His sole concern was the heavy losses of airmen in Bomber Command. Four out of every ten bomber airmen were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Any distinction between military and civilian targets was superseded by the concept of total war, as espoused by Harris, Churchill and his scientific adviser Lord Cherwell.

Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness is replete with graphic and compelling details about the raid. The author tells us that at the zoo, “the elephants bellowed and the gibbons chattered in wild distress”; that people’s shoes melted and their clothes self-combusted; that bodies of pregnant women were torn open to reveal unborn children; that in the Great Garden, body parts hung from trees but that elsewhere, they were sent skywards; and that after the raid, “distressed ownerless dogs” kept people awake at night.

The author endeavours to contextualise or relativise the effects of carpet/area bombing (or “worker de-housing”) by dwelling on the undoubted fear experienced by bomber air crews and on the persecution of the Jews. But German historian Sönke Neitzel is correct when he asserts that the objective of terror attacks, like the one on Dresden commencing on the night of February 13, was to kill as many civilians as possible in order to hinder troop movements and to paralyse infrastructure and industry.

In the British press, the Dresden raid was presented as an attempt to help Marshal Ivan Konev’s advancing forces. At the Yalta Conference, Stalin’s commanders had asked the Anglo-Americans to target Dresden, a transport hub. But, in the event, the Germans did not buckle. Stories of rape and mutilation by the advancing Red Armies were rife and encouraged German soldiers to fight on. A PR disaster in the neutral press, the destruction of Dresden enabled Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels to momentarily occupy the moral high ground.

Equivocation and jesuitry aside, Dresden, the Fire and the Darkness is unquestionably well written. The memoirs and diaries of those who survived the ordeal, notably the diary of Victor Klemperer, the former Professor of Philology and Romance Studies at the Technical University of Dresden, enliven the narrative. McKay evidently understands why the “German Florence”, with its fine art and architecture, was so treasured by its citizens. As he remarks, “To each and every Dresdener, the city had a unique and perhaps sacred beauty”. And, in due course, every citizen of Dresden also understood “the terrible fragility of historic beauty” (McKay, ‘Why the Dresden bombers weren’t war criminals’, The Telegraph, 13th February 2020).

Mod cons

Flooded Modernity – installation by Danish artist Asmund Havesteen-Mikkelsen (a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye)

PETER KING finds some household technologies turn security into anxiety, and convenience into control

The modernist architect going by the name Le Corbusier famously described the house as “a machine for living in”. This view was very much associated with the modernist movement that favoured function over form, or better stated, saw function as form. We like to believe that we have left this dreary modernism behind, but in fact what we have achieved is to make the houses we dwell in not machines in themselves but assemblages of many machines, from Echo and Siri to home security products like Ring.

Just as Le Corbusier saw the machinic aesthetic as transformation, so these new assemblages are transforming how we use our dwelling spaces. We are told that these machines do new things and so will allow us to live differently. They will allow us to keep in touch with the dwelling when we are remote from it, and to allow possible intruders to know we are in touch. They can ‘learn’ our speech patterns, and simply act on our commands.

Are devices like Echo and Ring distinctly different from earlier technologies in dwellings, and will they affect how we use them? These devices use wi-fi to link our dwelling with the external world directly without our intervention and to allow us to connect with our dwelling remotely.

Ring is a home security product that notifies the householder if someone comes to the door or is in the vicinity of the house. It offers real-time video and audio and so allows one to ‘answer’ the door even when one is out of the house. We can, then, keep watch over the dwelling when physically absent, provided we have a wi-fi signal and a charged phone or tablet.

Echo is a hands-free voice activated device that connects with the web and with compatible devices in the dwelling. These may all still be emerging technologies and some or all them may just be passing fads. They may, though, prefigure a major shift in the way we use dwellings, and that is certainly how they are being promoted. We might see it as part of a move towards the connected dwelling, where we can control all aspects of the dwelling from one device, and where there is the possibility of devices ‘learning’ from our behaviour and regulating the dwelling environment accordingly.

This, it would seem, is a case of technology leading use. The technology makes it possible so it can – and perhaps should – happen. Some may find a certain kudos in being early adopters, while others will wait to see their obvious utility (if any) before committing to them. But whether one now sees them as attractive or not, there had been no great call for these technologies, and they had not been developed to meet any pressing need. The demand for them was, and is, latent at best. We might see this as an example of Say’s Law (1), of supply creating its own demand: there is a device available and affordable (to some) and so we use it and now tell ourselves we need it. The demand, however, did not exist before the invention of the device.

These devices are marketed in terms of the control and flexibility they allow us. We can be aware what is happening to our dwelling when we are away. We can alter the dwelling environment as our circumstances change and be in immediate control, even when remote from the dwelling. It is convenient, with technology taking on the burden for us and perhaps even pre-empting our needs, having learnt how we behave and what our needs apparently are.

At this point, we might ask if these devices do represent a step change, or are they really just a development from existing technologies, such the thermostat and the timer clock? The fact that these new devices can ‘learn’ appears to make them different, but they still depend on how they are programmed and how we use them. They may learn from our habits, but they still depend on these habits. They depend on the regularity of our use, that we have distinct patterns of behaviour. The device learns what we do on certain days and at certain times, and reacts accordingly. In this sense, it is merely being programmed in a less conscious manner, but we are still doing it as if we set up the heating clock differently for each day and adjust it as conditions change with the seasons. The device in no way alters the habitual nature of dwelling, and perhaps it even embeds it further.

But do these devices make us feel any safer? This presumably is the point of products such as Ring. We can feel more secure about our dwelling and our possessions even when we are away. In one of the adverts for Ring we see a rather smug householder in a supermarket queue who remotely warns a possible intruder, having been warned of his presence from an app on his phone. The intruder, surprised and worried he might be identified, scurries off and the camera returns to the contented householder looking up from his phone. A potential burglary has been prevented, and no nasty surprises await the stout householder on his return home. The device is marketed as preventing crime and giving us peace of mind. Of course, it may just shift the crime to next door or to the next road, but we might not get to know about this, and it is not us who are suffering. So we can remain smug as we warn off the burglar. If our neighbours had any sense, they would be doing the same as us and investing in this new gadget.

However, the device connects only to a rather particular notion of safety. We may consider one the main aims of a dwelling is to keep us safe and secure, to protect us from the elements and from intruders, and to keep the world at bay. But the issue here is the safety of the dwelling and its physical contents. By definition, we use the device when we are absent and so in no personal danger from intruders. Using a device like Ring suggests our main concern is with the integrity and safety of the dwelling, of preserving it as an asset. We should obviously not dismiss the trauma and sense of violation caused by invasion and the loss of valuable and familiar items, but is Ring nothing more than a possession to help protect our other possessions? Ring protects the things we own, but it does not make us safer.

Indeed, we ought to ask whether controlling the dwelling from outside enhances or detracts from private dwelling? We may feel in control, but we have to notice that we are. We cannot take our control for granted. We might even suggest that video security externalises the anxieties that we might have. We take our anxiety with us when we leave. We get no respite from it, and it only becomes heightened. The device emphasises the notion of a dwelling as an asset and not as a tool. Accordingly, our use becomes conscious and deliberative. The way the dwelling works as an object becomes more transparent to us and more obviously contingent by being so overtly linked to technology. It heightens the sense of dwelling as an end in itself – a material object with a quantifiable value – rather than as a means to pursue our own ends.

Using Ring means that we are constantly guarding the dwelling. Its purpose is to allow us to be continually aware of the integrity of our dwelling. But this too means being continually aware that it is under threat. Our focus is now on our need to protect the dwelling, rather than on it protecting us. The dwelling thus becomes a burden, an expensive asset that might turn into a liability. It becomes a cause for anxiety instead of a place of caring. We worry that something might happen to it instead of it keeping us safe. We remain on guard. We now see a greater threat of invasion precisely because we have taken steps against it.

What about control inside a dwelling? Echo aims at making our domestic lives more convenient. But we might question whether we are becoming more dependent on technology and so less able to use and control the dwelling ourselves. With these devices, there is extra layer of mediation between us and the dwelling. Using Echo – asking Alexa – might make us less capable. We feel safe, we feel more comfortable, but pre-programmed devices are acting – making decisions – for us on the basis of algorithms and common assumptions made outside the dwelling, and based on generalised presumptions of behaviour.

In the advertising, Echo is shown doing tasks that are basically inconsequential, such as playing a particular piece of music or turning lights down. They can certainly do more than this and, as the technology develops, they will doubtless do so, connecting up many other areas of our lives, such as banking and bill paying. In a few years, this might become the norm, and we should therefore ask if it is something to be welcomed or indeed if it matters to any great degree. Should not we welcome it and see it as progress? What makes our lives easier surely must be a good thing. But we also need to remember that what these devices are replacing are the perfectly straightforward arrangements that we already have. We have no great difficulty in turning on a light or putting on some music, and there are already perfectly convenient and accessible means of paying our bills.

What may alter the situation though is when access through certain devices becomes the default. They may be taken up by government and the large companies and institutions we deal with, and as such we are forced to use them ourselves. There are many examples of this shifting of the default, such as the general insistence of paying salaries and wages into bank accounts in the 1980s through to paperless on-line billing in 2010s. There is a presumption here that we wish to use the technology and are capable of using it. A majority may be able to become accustomed to this, even if some may cavil at the imposition of having to do so. But some households will struggle with it, whether due to financial reasons or because of age and infirmity. There will also be knock-on consequences in terms of access to services. We are already seeing that one effect of on-line banking is mass branch closures, causing difficulties for some people in accessing their accounts.

Technology forces us to remain up to date (on a timetable set by others) and to alter our behaviour to fit into the new norm. It tends to do this under the banner of convenience and flexibility (even as if panders to our anxieties and insecurities). It will make our lives easier and we can then focus on more pleasurable things, like playing with the children and shopping on-line. There indeed does tend to be a short period of flexibility, where several options are offered. However, within a relatively short period a new norm is imposed, and the older options dropped as obsolete. It is certainly convenient to use on-line banking and once we have become accustomed to it there is no need to use any other method to pay bills and control our finances. But should we have a choice over whether we wish to manage our finances in this manner? If we lack the choice, then are we not becoming dependent on particular technologies? If they stop working, then so do we.

Those with relatively recent laptops will now be encouraged to use cloud storage for their data. It is doubtless useful to be able to store and transfer large amounts of data and to gain access to it when we choose and via several devices. But the virtual ‘warehouse’ where our data is stored has to be reliable and permanently accessible, as does our connection to the internet. If the cloud goes down, then we have no access to our data and no alternative means of retrieving it. The cloud is now the default, sold to us on the assumption that we do need to store lots of data but require quick access to it. The software and hardware that is available is now configured on this basis, and so it becomes self-fulfilling. Of course, we can alter the default, but we have first to understand what is happening. We are being offered a fixed path, from which we can only deviate if we are sufficiently aware. We are presumed to want to go down this route; we are told that it is what we want, and most of us, most of the time, go along with it. We may not notice or care that we are being directed, but it is happening nonetheless.

Our dependence on technology allows us to maintain the illusion of safety, control and convenience, all of which masks our dependency on technology that we cannot fully understand. Of course, being an illusion, we do not feel we are dependent. We feel that our lives have been made easier, and to an extent they have been. But it means an increasing distance from a dwelling as something that we have made, and continue to make, ourselves.

A certain dependency on technology is not though by any means new. We have always been dependent on some form of technology. A few months ago we had a local power cut. We spent all of 30 minutes without any power in the house whatsoever. It was 7.30 on a warm May morning, so there was no need for light or heat. However, power was cut for the whole neighbourhood, taking out the local mobile phone masts as well. So we had no TV, radio, wi-fi, phone signal, no kettle or toaster, and the fridge and freezer were turned off. This is as near to isolation as we can get in the modern world and it was a little discomforting. It occurred to me that other than going out and trying to find someone to talk to – who would probably know no more than me what was going on – I had no means of finding out the cause or extent of the problem, and whether it was a small or large issue. For all I knew, the nuclear winter was about to start.

This mild anxiety was partly due to my expectations about how connected I am to a range of devices. We tend to get used to what we have and take it as normal: what are in reality add-ons and incidentals to our lives become necessities. Prior to 1998 I had no TV, wi-fi, and no mobile phone. I relied on radio and my CD player (iTunes was still five years away). So a power outage in 1998 would have caused less of a problem.

When discussing the idea of need with my undergraduate students, I would ask them the following question: “Imagine your house is on fire. You know all humans and pets are safely out. You can take one thing with you. What would it be?” I asked this question many times, the purpose being to bring out the difference between needs and wants, and identify the concept of the imperative. Over the years of asking this question more than half of the students said the same thing: they would reach for their mobile phone. A few mentioned their wallet or credit cards, and one person said she would take her wedding photo album. But the majority felt they could not manage without their phones. This led to interesting discussions about what we actually do need, and why we feel we need things that are actually fulfilling wants and desires.

It is a cliché, and therefore true, that many people live through their phones. Not because, properly speaking, they have to, but because that is how we can all now live. What is properly incidental – the opposite of existential – now seems to be all important to us. We have to stay connected, to be able to contact anyone immediately and be ourselves contactable. We cannot miss a message or lose our contacts. We use our phones to find out about the world, and to store our memories. It is a torment to have to wait an hour, let alone a day, to be in touch with others. But many of us can remember a time when we had access only to public payphones and relied for information on three TV channels, newspapers (carrying news of yesterday’s events) and the public library. Computers were the size of a house and outside of the experience of most of us. I do not see this as an idyllic time – in the 1970s we also had to make do without central heating or double glazing. My point is one of expectations and the opportunities and aspirations that create them. We had a different sense of what was normal for us to expect and so we acted accordingly.

During the half-hour power cut I did not really need the technologies I usually have at my disposal. At 7.30 am, the biggest problem was not being able to boil a kettle to make a pot of tea. There was nothing I wanted to watch on TV, nothing I needed the internet for and no one to ring at that hour. There was nothing that could not wait for an hour or two if needs be. What troubled me though was the possibility of connection – or rather, the lack thereof. I felt isolated by not being able to connect even though I did not particularly need to. Of course, like my wife, if I had slept for another hour, I might not have even noticed any issue. But I was awake and all the clever devices around me were not.

What was being knocked here was my complacency. I could not use my dwelling as I would expect to. My normal routines of a leisurely breakfast while looking at the news on-line had been stymied and I was put out, albeit mildly and only for a few minutes. I could no longer take for granted my use of these devices. I had to notice how dependent I had become on them. We accept and accommodate to what we are used to. When a new device comes along, we might see this as new and a real change, but we soon assimilate it into dwelling and take it for granted (for as long as it works). We may soon not notice what Ring, Echo or what as yet uninvented devices follow it do in our lives. But we will come to expect them to keep doing it.

Editor’s Note

  1. Named after French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, 1767-1832, who expressed the theory in his 1803 book A Treatise on Political Economy (Traité d’économie politique), although some economic historians say he was not the first to make the argument

Gimme shelter – the fall and rise of the 60s

Rites of Dionysus, by Tim Shaw

MARK GULLICK says the hyperbolised decade turned naivety into nastiness

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. We’re at the end of the greatest decade in the history of mankind, and as Presumin’ Ed has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.” Withnail and I

“At first sight, the whole period, the whole state of the world, seems to offer no more secure footing to an historical adventurer than the chaos of Milton – to be in a state of irreclaimable disorder…” Editorial introduction to Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

If you can remember the Sixties, runs the rusted old adage, you weren’t there. For today’s political Left, most of whom weren’t there, it was the blessed decade, a time of liberation, sticking it to The Man, and sex and drugs and rock and roll. For those few Conservatives who remain, it was the fons et origo of the chaotic times in which we find ourselves.

The world-historical events of the 1960s centred around America. JFK’s assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Act and King’s killing, Vietnam, the Apollo moon landing – all these shook, rattled and rolled the country where, as de Tocqueville had claimed in 1835, the world’s first great experiment in democracy had begun. And if the Sixties were remade as a movie, for good or ill, then it would feature an Anglo-American soundtrack – rock music.

Defining musical genres is a mug’s game. With rock music, it defines itself on listening. As with the famous American judicial case requiring a judge’s clerk to define hard-core pornography, with rock music you will know it when you see it. And, in this case, hear it. The first band I saw, at the age of 14 in 1975 and for £2.50, was Led Zeppelin, themselves a product of the Sixties and its bequest of rock music. The man I was watching transfixedly, Jimmy Page, was inspired to pick up the guitar after hearing Presley’s Come On Baby, Let’s Play House. Zeppelin were shatteringly loud. This was a while before The Who forced legislation to reduce the volume at concerts following their 1977 gig at Charlton Football Stadium in south London. The band could be heard in Brighton. I couldn’t really hear anything, not with any clarity, for two days after Led Zeppelin. Quite simply, in Nietzschean terms, here was Dionysus.

But rock music grew not out of its father’s thigh, as did the mythical Dionysus, but out of electric pop and R&B. The details are unimportant, but The Stones began the Sixties as a Chuck Berry tribute band and ended it as Their Satanic Majesties. The Sixties – something happened out there. A number of tributaries flowed into one river, and the counter-culture got the music it required.

I’ll return to the schism which eventually separated rock music from rock and roll, R&B and pop music, but a mixture of youth rebellion, drugs hard and soft, and economic affluence produced a coat of arms for a culture-changing musical crusade which began at El Paso, the Marty Robbins single which was the first January Billboard number one of the Sixties, and ended at Altamont Speedway Stadium in December 1969.

Rock music itself took a broad base of blues, R&B and rock and roll and used it to weave the bands’ own designs, all amplified beyond old-school levels. Rock music is primal and it is Dionysiac. The Sixties’ alchemical mixture which became rock music was bubbling away before synthesisers, sequencers and computers (some experiments aside), and so was visceral, sweat-soaked and animalistic.

Certainly the electric guitar was the weapon of choice for the cultural skirmishes ahead, the staff adorned with pine-cones held aloft by the followers of Dionysus. Coming from the back row of the swing bands of the 40s and 50s, the electric version of the instrument became more prominent when people like Louis Jordan began cutting band numbers to save money on the road. It was Charlie Christian who first made the electric guitar talk through amplification (his famous original guitar was bought by Steve Howe of Yes), and the thread would wind through the guitarists of the Sixties – Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend – the last included as possibly the greatest rhythm guitarist of a crew best known for their solos.

It was the way in which the instrument was played rather than innovation in guitars themselves, with vintage guitars being prized as the age of mass-production began. The riff was born in the Sixties. When Townshend got back from an American tour in 1964 and turned on the radio, he heard the famous staccato barre chords of You Really Got Me by The Kinks. It certainly got Townshend. He sat down and wrote the equally famous chopped riff for I Can’t Explain.

John Entwistle of The Who

The Sixties also saw the rebirth of the often-forgotten bass guitar in rock music. As a bass player myself, I can say that the decade energised and freed the instrument. McCartney’s melodic scales on his iconic Hofner Violin bass, Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones’s rhythmic work in tandem with the mighty John Bonham, the blues scales of Free’s Andy Frazer, The Faces’ Ronnie Lane and Cream’s Jack Bruce set the instrument free, away from the straight rock ‘n’ roll runs and country plod of the Fifties, and no one more so that The Who’s legendary John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle, who brought the bass to forefront of the band’s tumultuous sound.

Rock music was banned in Yugoslavia in the Sixties as subversive, which was precisely its appeal to bored and affluent Western youth who were experiencing a relaxation of authority and discipline after the strait-laced Fifties. Todd Gitlin called rock music incoherent and primitively regressive, while Gerard Howard dubbed it the “Pied Piper’s tune of the new freedoms”. The children led by the Piper in the fairy-tale, of course, were free right up until they were slaughtered in the wood.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix nut-shelled the Sixties in one performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. He played the electric guitar in a way no one had ever seen or heard. Then he set light to it and smashed it to pieces. This was a sign, a pointer to where the American dream was heading. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud famously writes that dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious”. The dream-work becomes a text to be read off, and the signifiers relate to a signified which is never fully present (Derrida had much to say about this). What type of unconscious can be read off from, and thus lurks beneath, the American dream? In terms of rock music, the dream was interrupted.

Just as the first British invasion of the 18th century led to the Declaration of Independence, American pragmatism built on British conceptual guidelines (Locke and so on), so too it could be argued that the British invasion of the 1960s led to rock music as a progression of electric pop and rock and roll. Arguably, The Beatles began the metamorphosis, moving from covering R&B and Motown songs to writing their own, influenced by both but with something British layered on top. The list of British bands desperate to ‘crack America’ grew quickly. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Who, Herman’s Hermits… When The Stones recorded at blues HQ Chess Records, significant ground had been ceded by American forces.

There were, of course, two main offensives from Blighty, two very different bands who were attracted to America under different pretences. And, just as Coleridge claimed every man was born a Platonist or an Aristotelean, so too the Sixties had an ontological choice of its own: The Beatles or The Stones?

The Beatles had the shop-store mannequin look A&R men had been looking for, while The Stones always looked to be up to no good in publicity photos. After the amphetamine-crazed early Hamburg scene, The Beatles settled into a life, viewed in terms of narcotics, of marijuana and LSD, mostly. The Fab Four were not known for their live work, which were mostly exercises in young girls screaming themselves hoarse at a slightly animated version of Kraftwerk. The Stones were becoming notorious for their live transformation. Jagger had stopped hopping about like a small variety of garden bird and was now part-turkeycock, part infernal drag queen. Richards was becoming the troubadour. It has to be The Stones, for me, but debate is welcomed. In the end, The Stones couldn’t write Blackbird, but The Beatles certainly couldn’t have performed Midnight Rambler.

In the end, the British took coals to Newcastle (home of The Animals). American rhythm and blues made it to the record shops of the home counties, bands began emulating them, realised that with minor alterations they could cut the suit to fit them, and sold the result back to a willing American public. Perhaps America could have come up with rock music unaided, but then maybe it was too affluent, too shiftless, too relaxed in its hedonistic consumerism. It wasn’t getting over the effects of the worst war the world had even seen, it wasn’t rationed, it wasn’t austere and economically fragile. The British invasion added urban grit to rock music in its infancy, some gin in the baby’s bottle. For this tonic, we have the institution of the British Art College to thank, partly, for bringing Townshend and Clapton and others out from their artistic shells.

America tried to replicate the success of The Beatles with the manufactured Monkees, who actually went on to be a halfway-decent pop band. It is regrettable that the urban myth informing us that Charles Manson auditioned for the band proves to be untrue. Manson was in Rikers at the time, but how would the band have developed? Manson did actually write music; Guns ‘n’ Roses covered his Look at Your Game, Girl.

The rock music whose source lies in the Sixties would be a raging river in the 1970s, and one of its effects would be punk at the end of the decade. Psychedelic rock made its appearance in the 60s and was not confined to freakish one-offs like The Chocolate Watch band. The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, The Who all had their flirtation with psychedelia, as did – more tellingly – the early Pink Floyd, waiting for the Seventies for ultimate fame.

One of the tributaries from the 1960s was garage rock. Determinedly lo-fi, garage was cheaply recorded electric pop music, a dress rehearsal for punk, and a genre only really defined after it was gone. But it must have stirred the sediment of the rock mix. The FBI investigated Link Wray’s 1958 classic Rumble. What were they looking for? Seditious lyrics? (Rumble was famously an instrumental.) (1)

Link Wray

The most obvious and influential off-shoot of garage rock was The Velvet Underground. In the context of the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s ethos of combining consumerism with multimedia with business was visionary. It is said of the first Velvet Underground LP that not many bought it, but everyone who did formed a band. The band combined raw garage rattle and roll with a Euro-gothic, dilettante style. Rock would always have more than a trace element of poison, which is where Velvet Underground came in, to attempt to puncture the homely sureties of, say, Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

CSN&Y were a sort of anti-Velvet Underground, rural in feel as opposed to urban, harmonic not dissonant, lyrically upbeat, not dabblers in despair. But both of these elements would combine in the best rock music. America had two sides of its rock ball mask, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, perhaps, and they may as well be thought of as rural and urban. Rock music was far from being one monolithic creature as the Sixties ended. In the last two years of the Sixties, The Band released their debut studio album, Music From Big Pink,and Iggy and the Stooges released their eponymous debut album, featuring Now I Wanna be Your Dog.

CSN&Y also shared with The Velvet Underground a microcosmic tendency of America: internal rifts and splits, acrimony, self-induced problems, civil war. Rock music may have been formed by the coming together of many influences, both musical and cultural, but it was going to be its father’s son, part brilliance, part destructive self-hatred.

Warhol epitomised a big part of the Sixties’ cultural ethos: business. Further to this, rock music as business. This was the days of album and single sales and gigs, and that’s it. No brand association, no commercials in your videos, no many-headed hydra of internet hits and downloads. Now, everything is a hit record just like every book is a best-seller. You just tell people it is. Everyone’s a winner. Warhol famously said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. But he went on to write in his autobiography From A to B and Back Again, “…in 15 minutes, everyone will be famous”.

The two sides to rock music in the 1960s shows the same rift, the same oscillation between genius (or vast success) and madness (or a vast amount of drugs) as existed throughout America, with a metaphorical shift or two. Rock music, like its Anglo-American parents, would be born schizophrenic, presenting both the Apollonian spectacle of live rock music and its ornamental imagery, and the Dionysiac back beat, a music which could be exhilarating for a time, then change into something mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In the end, rock music might be the consolation for what the 1960s did to us. This Janus-faced god has returned to the woodland, true, and there is no real rock music to be found today. Entertainment has become wholly Apollonian and rock was always the herald of the Dionysiac, even when the harbinger was a fairly witless stoner like Jim Morrison.

“There is no real rock music to be found today…”

Rock music in the Sixties wore the reversible mask of tragedy and comedy, or at least light-heartedness. It aimed at Woodstock but it ended up with Altamont. And so did we.

Woodstock was the very model of how capitalism works in that it set up a huge venture, lost money partly due to the concert being half attended by people who had no tickets, then made its money back selling the film rights. The performances were legendary, and the counter-culture had a focal point, a quasi-religious event.

But what could counter the counter-culture? The other face of the mask, perhaps, the one shown at Altamont, a few months after Woodstock and an attempt to cash in on the idea. Students of popular culture will be familiar with received opinion. Promoters were beginning to realise in post-Woodstock 1969 that there was an awful lot of money to be made from the potent combination of rock music and the kids who wanted to hear it live. Altamont Speedway in Indiana was duly selected for a gig headlined by The Stones.

Their Satanic Majesties hired Hell’s Angels to see to security, and provided them with $500 dollars’ worth of beer. As things became increasingly fractious in front of the stage, and while the band were playing Under my Thumb, not the diabolic anthem Sympathy for the Devil as legend would prefer, a young black man named Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by one of the bikers. It was December, 1969.

The Sixties strove for Woodstock but it ended up as Altamont. Remind you of anything? The contemporary Western world, for example, forever telling us we are on the road to Woodstock, only to find we had the Altamont tickets. Front row. And the Sixties was not only music. Rock and roll was also an attitude. Hunter S. Thompson, Warhol, Lennie Bruce, the Beat – all of these acts were riffing on the same centre of gravity.

Rock music was the answer to a lot of questions, musical, social, political, aesthetic, and it had the broadest sweep both of influences and by what it went on to create. In the UK, among other genres, glam rock and punk were both waiting to see what the seeds of the Sixties would grow in a darker part of the garden.

One of Baudelaire’s collection of poems, Les fleurs du mal, is entitled Music, and contains lines Dionysian enough to serve as an epitaph, if it is that time, for rock music:

I feel the tremblings of all passions known 
To ships before the breeze; 
Cradled by gentle winds, or tempest-blown 
I pass the abysmal seas 
That are, when calm, the mirror level and fairy-tale 
Of my despair!

Editor’s Note

  1. Link Wray is No. 45 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists, credited with inventing the much-copied distorted “power chord”. A live version of Rumble may be found here

Tories and true believers

Cassandra by A. F. Sandys (1829-1904)

Small Men on the Wrong Side of History – The Decline, Fall, and Unlikely Return of Conservatism, Ed West, London, Constable, 2020, 426 pages

DEREK TURNER likes a conservative critique of conservatism

The story of conservatism since 1945 has been one of failure wrapped up in frequent electoral success. While anatomising this oft-noted conundrum, Ed West outlines excellently the intellectual and stylistic differences between Left and Right, before concluding ruefully that the forces of conservatism are unlikely to regroup, let alone regain lost ground.

Politics is about ideas, morals, and practicality. It is also about radically oppositional personality types, reflected in culture and possibly rooted in neurobiology, which govern our aesthetics and outlooks, and compel us to choose sides in a culture clash that has been continuing since the Greeks dreamed up Cassandra and Pandora. Cassandra is an archetypal ‘conservative’, and Pandora the original ‘liberal’ – the former eternally seeking grounds for gloom, the latter reasons to hope. The author is instinctively in the Cassandran camp, although many of his allies are almost as little to his taste as the myrmidons of the other side.

West is the son of two conservative journalists, Mary Kenny and the late Richard West, and the brother of another (Patrick). Sometimes sympathies run in families, almost as persistently as physical features. Now in early middle age, West finds himself turning into his father, a man so reactionary he didn’t learn to drive, and spoiled his ballot papers. He was brought up in ‘bohemian conservative’ circumstances in London, encountering eccentrics like the buckled shoe and monocle-wearing French priest, ‘aristocratic-looking’ descendant of a palace guard killed during the Revolution, who called France the ‘regicide state’.

The broad-minded author loathes the limited philosophy expressed by British tabloids, climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists, Creationists, identitarians, incels, Objectivists, populists, ‘shock jocks’, Trump, or UKIP, all of whom he thinks make the Right much uglier than it ought to be. The American thinker Sam Francis famously called the Republican Party ‘beautiful losers’; West would dispute that ‘beautiful’. But however abysmal his opinion of many on the Right, his opinion of the alternative is lower yet. Union Jack waistcoat-wearers et al are embarrassments, but they’re his embarrassments.

He broods on the diminishing socioeconomic status of the Right’s supporters. The erstwhile party of the influential rich now draws ever-growing allegiance from the lower middle and working classes. The author favours uplift, and realises that the rough auxiliaries who founded his Europe of the faith were as unvarnished as today’s Trumpians, living in their centuries’ equivalents of Flyover Country. But short-term electoral success may entail longer-term irrelevance. Conservatism is retreating into older age-groups, less wealthy suburbs, left-behind towns and backwoods, while Leftists consolidate their control of the institutions that set agendas and the metropolises forming the future. They are assailed as ‘elitists’, and they are – but elitism is always more a help than a hindrance. Faiths, like fashions, filter downwards – and today’s minority opinion is often the mainstream view of tomorrow, with which the day-after-tomorrow’s conservatives will probably play catch-up.

It is a cultural commonplace that conservatives are boring, dim-witted, morally inferior and repressed. Sometimes, they even see themselves in such lights, leading them either to avoid engagement (except in the ballot box, whose ‘shy Tories’ surprise psephologists), or adopt perverse positions at least partly to provoke. Some Rightists actually are, as Barack Obama remarked of Al-Qaida, ‘small men on the wrong side of history’, overcompensating for existential fear with intemperate anger. Where Conservatives do cling on in prominent positions, they are imperilled islands, like Catholic recusants in the days of Dissolution.

5th century BC Attic vase depiction of Pandora (centre)

The Cassandra-Pandora dichotomy has reproduced itself in reality. In countless contretemps, conservatives have found themselves on history’s back foot, fighting implacable opponents with a gallantry touching because ultimately unavailing. The humorous 1930 classic, 1066 And All That, summarised one emblematic Left-Right confrontation – ‘The Roundheads were right, but repulsive. The Cavaliers were wrong, but romantic’. Today’s Right has been robbed not just of victory, but even of romance, its adherents now and retrospectively regarded as ‘phobes’ and rubes, carriers of contagions and false consciousness. Old icons have been pushed from the pantheon, as saints’ faces were scratched from medieval rood-screens – chivalry, Church, femininity, hierarchy, masculinity, monarchy, nation, race – and colourless, country-less, ‘rational’, sexless idols have taken their place on the shockingly bare plinths. This is the cruellest of outcomes for instinctive conservatives, who privately revel in ruination, so long as they can gild their myriad ‘lost causes’ with mythic lustre.

The Right’s old emphases on duty, emotional restraint, experience and realism are intrinsically less appealing than the Left’s freedom, novelty and utopianism. It is the perennial difference between Augustine and Pelagius, Burke and Rousseau, a Pope and a Pentecostalist, Churchill’s funeral and Diana’s, Margaret Thatcher and Michelle Obama, a soldier and a singer, a coat of arms and a rainbow flag. On what psychologists call ‘the Big Five personality traits’, Rightists score highest only on conscientiousness, leaving Leftists to lay claim to agreeableness, extroversion and openness. They also score more highly on the last trait, neuroticism, which they display abundantly on Twitter. They burnish their reputation endlessly through their dominance in academia, the arts, and the broadcast media. Conservatives wind up on the ‘wrong side of history’, because they rarely write histories – while, as Shelley noted hopefully, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ Often, the Right has good ideas, badly presented, and the Left bad ones, imaginatively expressed.

Leftists also practise solidarity. Strangely for those who so stress freedom, Leftists are frequently herd animals. They appoint and promote allies, decline to denounce each other, and ignore their side’s crimes while exaggerating those of the Right. There is even de facto ‘discipline’ through the antifa fringe, who routinely subject outspoken Rightists to ‘deplatforming’, ‘doxxing’, vandalism, and violence. To Leftists, political parties are communal, almost covenanting organisations – while for conservatives, parties are just means to an (indefinite) end. Everything, to true-believing Leftists, is political, while conservatives are usually content to expostulate, before abandoning events to individuals, or Fate. Individualism extends to the Right’s farthest fringe; while the Left has goon-squads, the most lethal terrorists of recent times have been lone wolf Rightists.

Another difficulty is that the conservative worldview is not reducible to simple statements, and varies between countries. It is an essence, not a set of rigid and (supposedly) universal ideas that even children can comprehend. Leftist values can be summed up (and have been consciously) in Sesame Street, Star Trek, and Harry Potter – and inculcation continues as those children graduate to Ibsen, Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Mad Men, or stand-up comedians. It matters hugely that women are increasingly un-conservative, as it is usually women who set a household’s moral tone. Young people no longer rove rightwards with age, if they ever did in recent decades.

The author enjoys puncturing priggish pretensions, while admitting to inconsistencies in his own argument. He combines the ancients and obvious authorities (Burke, Kirk, and Oakeshott) with moderns like John Derbyshire, segueing skilfully from classics to pop culture, neo-reaction, and social media folk-tales. It seems a pity to cavil with so likeable a contribution to the corpus, but arguably he is overly fastidious – for instance, ridiculing those who are fixated on the Frankfurt School, before admitting it really was influential. He asserts dubiously that Germany and Israel have ‘found inner peace’ after World War Two. He claims ‘memes…are perhaps the first art form in two hundred years in which the Right has excelled’, somehow overlooking Céline, Joyce, Marinetti, Pound, Yeats, and others. He disagrees with von Krafft-Ebing’s (surely incontrovertible) assertion that self-mortifying saints may have had masochistic urges.

Eventually, he undercuts his own side – a tradition in itself among conservative commentators. According to this desponding analysis, there is almost certainly no salvation in politics, and all that remains is retreat into religion. But this is unfeasible, and even if it wasn’t it wouldn’t alter much, because as he observes, ‘progressivism is a heresy of Christianity’ – albeit lacking Christianity’s charity, culture, humility, and transcendental quality. There were good reasons why the Romans tried to repress the upstart faith, with its imperially unsettling equality, eschatology, free will, individualism, ostentatious piety, sentimentality, and universalism (and sentimentality’s obverse, bitter hatreds of ‘heretics’).

Probably his resignation is born more of private diffidence than public despair, because, as he shows, liberalism is vulnerable – embedded for so long it is atrophying, its yawn-inducing clichés eliciting counter-rebellion among the least ‘awokened’ most awake. It has listened only to itself for so long that many of its members are automata, like the ‘non-player characters’ in Dungeons & Dragons. As the West shrivels, liberalism is becoming a luxury even liberals can’t afford – and their vapid ideas of identity politics will be overtaken by earthier, older variants. Where conservatives prove unequal, new parties will emerge, with more determined and lateral-thinking leaders, who understand metapolitics, and pay attention to presentation. These mightn’t all call themselves conservative, but on the other hand they might actually conserve.

When gentlemen adventurers step ashore

Cape Cod

MARK PATTON traces cultural, ecological and personal histories on Cape Cod

I have lived on Cape Cod for 53 years. During much of this time, I served as the Falmouth and Woods Hole area’s director of Natural Resources. My other jobs included helmsman on the research vessel Chain, enforcement officer for the U.S. Fisheries – Fisheries and Marine Mammal Protection and local police officer. My conception of what Cape Cod is, or should be, my starting point so to speak, on this peninsula began in 1967. That was when I moved to Falmouth, Massachusetts from a small town south of Pittsburgh that had a mining and steel mill-based economy.

After leaving behind our slag dump mountain view, and houses that quickly turned orange after painting due to the perpetual smog of the mills, Cape Cod seemed like a seaside paradise. It was simply breathtaking – blue skies – blue seas – sailboats off in the distance cruising along wooded island chains – and of course, for a 15-year-old, cute girl in bikinis. I suspect a similar conceptualization of the area is still why people come here. I also suspect that they haven’t a clue that all of the planning boards on the Cape anticipate that in a few years every available lot on Cape Cod will have a house on it.

Newcomers don’t notice that the water quality of the harbours and coastal ponds has gone sour. They see a blue expanse ready for postcards. They don’t see the shellfish suffocating below as oxygen is stripped from the water column by dense layers of algae that thrive on nitrogen plumes of septic leachate. Nor do the newcomers understand that not long ago the large woodland tracts disappeared, leaving behind scraps of intensely used public open space. The forested lands had been exchanged for pocket parks. They see what I saw in ‘67. Give them a few years, and they too will fret over the changes happening around them.

Gosnold at Smoking Rocks, by William Allen Wall

I’ll start with the first written description of Cape Cod.

The fifteenth day we had again sight of the land, which made ahead, being as we thought an island, by reason of a large sound that appeared westward between it and the main, for coming to the west end thereof, we did perceive a large opening, we called it Shoal Hope. Near this cape we came to fathom anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name, and called it Cape Cod. Here we saw sculls of herring, mackerel, and other small fish, in great abundance.

So wrote Gabriel Archer in his 1602 chronicle of the discoveries made by the crew of the bark Dartmouth, captained by the early English explorer, privateer and barrister, Bartholomew Gosnold. The peninsula Gosnold had named after the codfish was a deposit of debris that had been left 15,000 years before by the retreating Laurentide Ice Sheet.  It was back then what it is today, about 339 square miles (880 km2) in size, situated in southern New England, and sticking out into the North Atlantic like a giant arm flexing its muscle. Cape Cod is where the tropical waters of the Gulf Stream begin to angle towards the British Isles.

It should be mentioned that five years after this discovery Archer and Gosnold were on their way further south to establish Britain’s first settlement in North America, Jamestown, Virginia. However, their navigating about Cape Cod was not about colonization. It was about sassafras, which at that time it was believed to be a cure for syphilis. Their enterprise was blessed, for sassafras was, and still is, in great abundance on Cape Cod. Soon, the Dartmouth was loaded up with it and other New World exotica, including sealskins that they had traded for with the resident Wampanoag tribe.  

Some 200 years later, Henry David Thoreau made his own discoveries of the area. He wrote a book about it which he named…Cape Cod. This writing concerned Thoreau’s meanderings through the dunes and beaches of Gosnold’s now distant discovery. Starting in 1849, he made a total of four trips to the Cape. I wonder if it was during one of his coach rides to the peninsula that it first occurred to him that,

The time must come when this coast will be a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really wish to visit the sea-side. At present, it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them.

Indeed, this time came and, contrary to Thoreau’s speculations, Cape Cod proved to be very agreeable to the fashionable world. It was all in the works before Thoreau took his near-legendary 30-mile beach walk from his lodgings in Wellfleet up to Provincetown, the very tip of Cape Cod. One year before, the Cape Cod Railroad Company had completed track from Boston to Wareham, Cape Cod. By 1854, the train had moved further into the peninsula to Hyannis Port, where you could catch a ferry to the two large and very posh islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. By 1872, train tracks had joined the fishing port of Woods Hole to this network of rail. If Thoreau had postponed his 1849 trip to the summer of 1873, he could have gone from Wellfleet to Provincetown seated in a first-class compartment.

In 1916, the Cape Cod Canal was constructed, connecting Buzzards Bay with Cape Cod Bay. This created a shorter route for shipping between America’s cities. Even though the town’s folk of Wareham still insist they are part of Cape Cod, the canal effectively cut them off and turned the Cape’s peninsula into an island. The world’s widest sea level canal now made the town of Wareham’s posturing a bit hard to believe.

Then came the automobile, and something had to be done to get all of those cars across the 480 feet of ocean that now separated Wareham from the towns of Bourne and Sagamore on the other side. Two large bridges were erected to span the gap for the motoring public. Ma and Pa could now leave Boston with the kids and be sunning themselves on a beach in less than an hour and a half.

Nobska Light, Woods Hole

By 1957, Patti Page had commemorated this mobility in her hit recording, Old Cape Cod. Is it surprising that it went to number three on the pop charts?

If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air
Quaint little villages here and there
(You’re sure)
You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod
(Cape Cod, that old Cape Cod)

Of course, Patti Page had never set foot on Cape Cod. However, her hit tune did herald in the tourist season, with the Cape’s population doubling between Memorial Day (last Monday in May) and Labor Day (first Monday in September). The current population rises from 250,000 people in the winter to about half a million by mid-summer. Mind you, the population was just shy of 5,000 when Thoreau first engaged upon his speculations.

It was the well-heeled who first took advantage of summering on Cape Cod. They would be met at the stations by local residents who were learning that by driving tourists to their summer homes or seaside inns that they could make more money off of them than by pursuing fishing, whaling, working at the salt works, raising merino sheep, or working in the guano processing plant. They also discovered that by selling off their coastal lands, they could unload what they saw as unbuildable land upon gullible rich people. No sensible Cape Codder would build a home right where the hurricanes and nor’easters made landfall. That was scrap land that could provide a tidy profit if sold. And though the strawberry fields were great sources of revenue, developing them into quarter acre housing projects for summer people would make you rich.

Ever accelerating environmental fragmentation was in full swing. Of course, it had been going on for centuries when the railroads took the gentler routes, laying track upon earthen dikes that cut through the centre of the salt marshes. This had the effect of restricting and choking the natural tidal flow into the marshes.

With the new service-oriented economy, grass lands were abandoned. This started a succession of pioneering species of trees that began to occupy the pasture lands; pin oak, and pitch pine, followed by white oak and white pine and, more recently, beeches. Back in the days of the Pilgrims, the now endangered Atlantic white cedar swamps had been timbered for durable fence posts. Red maple swamps were dug out to make room for the planting of cranberries. By the middle of the 20th century, almost every creek and rivulet on Cape Cod had a succession of cranberry bogs with agricultural earthen dikes to capture and retain the streams’ waters so as to protect the frost-sensitive vines in winter. However, the control over these waterways had always been contentious. River herring, blueback and alewife, are anadromous fish. Like salmon, they are spawned in fresh water and then return to the ocean to mature. As long as there has been a Cape Cod, herring have worked their way up the rivulets to spawn in lakes as far as four miles from the coast. These fish have always been prized as a food, as bait, and for their iridescent scales which were once ground into a paste for the nineteenth century faux pearl industry.

Mills, both grist and woolen, had been constructed along the herring routes well before George III was king of the area. By 1806, the free passage of herring became a cause célèbre in the town of Falmouth. Angry men congregated upon the town green to protest the restriction of herring. To show their collective disapproval, they took hold of one of two cannons stationed there, which had formerly been used on British troops that had attempted a landing in 1779, filled it with gunpowder, loaded it with herring, and then fired to the fuse. Lamentably, the cannon burst, killing one of the gunners. However, by the time of the American Civil War, a by-law was established restricting the times the mills could operate, allowing herring passage during the mill’s down time.

First days of the U. S. Fisheries Commission

Before the railroad had arrived in Woods Hole, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer Fullerton Baird, had launched the nation’s first national conservation agency there, the United States Fisheries Commission. This sleepy little fishing village soon featured a large complex of research buildings, research vessels and fish pens for the purpose of studying and replenishing the ocean’s depleted fish stocks. The United States Fisheries Commission eventually would become the National Marine Fisheries Service. Baird’s commission soon was engaged in hatching and distributing over 200 billion commercial fish species, including the illustrious cod. Regrettably, despite these pioneering efforts, cod landed poundage continued to drop, from 300 million pounds to 70 million pounds by 1941. Overfishing and natural predation had taken its toll.

With the arrival of the Fish Commission, marine-based research facilitates established themselves in Woods Hole. In 1888 came the Marine Biological Laboratory, which now boasts 58 Nobel laureates.  In 1930, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was established. Its deep-sea submersible, Alvin, is now world famous.

Aerial view of Woods Hole today

Perhaps the two biggest impacts on Cape Cod’s environment were the establishments of the U.S. Army’s Camp Edwards in 1911, followed by Otis Air Force base in 1938. The joint military reservations still cover 21,000 acres. These bases provided training for troops deployed during World War II, and served as a forward air base on New England’s east coast. They also contained a Bomarc base (guided surface-to-air missiles, in service 1959-1972, named by combining Boeing with Michigan Air Research Center), and a Cold War early warning system, known as PAVE Paws (Precision Acquisition Vehicle Entry Phased Array Warning System, in service 1980-1995). In later years, the United States Coast Guard air wing was established there, and used for fisheries surveillance, drug interdiction and search and rescue.

Unfortunately, the military practices on the bases caused extreme environmental degradation: jet fuel fire training for fire departments (pouring jet fuel about and setting it off), onsite burial of discarded military weaponry, and a very large fuel leak that was known about and ignored for decades. The military’s reaction to their pipeline leak was to increase the fuel budget to offset the loss due to leakage. Fuel was received from tankers tied up along the Cape Cod Canal. They pumped their holds full of petrol products into a pipeline that went to the base. Somewhere there was a leak, but who knew where? Around 1989, National Geographic featured a photo illustrating the damage due to these practices. Water from a private well in Falmouth was placed into a cigarette lighter and then set alight. Falmouth’s private wells and municipal water systems were soon discovered to be impacted by dozens of underground rivers carrying toxic plumes. Elevated levels of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and various types of cancer were more prevalent in people who used this water.

Cranberry bogs were impacted. Flooding and irrigating bogs with contaminated water was not good for the marketability of the product. The base and surrounding area were declared a federal superfund site. Since the mid-1990s, 6.7 million gallons of ground water a day from numerous locations have been extracted and filtered through activated charcoal and reinjected into the aquifer.

As fuel was being secreted into the Cape’s soils, its shores were also being assaulted. Fuel spills from wrecked and holed barges in Buzzards Bay, on the west side of Cape Cod, became common. In 1969, the barge Florida disgorged 189,000 gallons of number 2 bunker fuel onto the shores of West Falmouth. It was followed by the barge TB/ST-85, Bouchard 65, the liner Bermuda Star, and finally by the Bouchard 120. In total, about a half million gallons spilled over fifty years. This made West Falmouth’s  140-acre Great Sippewissett Salt Marsh, where so much of this came ashore, the most intensively researched saltmarsh in the world.

At the time of the Florida grounding I had been living in Falmouth for about two years. I could smell the oil on the winds that came off of Buzzards Bay. The Cape was all a-bustle, not with concern over the spill since little was known about such things back then, but because the tourist season was about to end. The locals were looking forward to their well-deserved rest.

Falmouth church, which Quakers were expected to attend (on pain of forfeiting a cow)

There was a time when West Falmouth Quakers were required to attend the Puritan services in the big white church on the village green. If they didn’t they would have to forfeit a cow. However, by the summer of 1969 things had gotten more relaxed. This was the year of the Woodstock Festival, the Summer of Love. Like the farmer’s field in Woodstock, New York, Falmouth was full to capacity. Tourists wearing bellbottom trousers and apple-seed necklaces, with kerchiefs tied about their foreheads, sauntered down the sidewalks to investigate the numerous headshops the town had to offer. There were also tailored Nehru jackets available for those who had left their sports coats and ties back in New York City.

The Vietnam War was in full swing. In the evening hours, servicemen from the bases would be bused in by the hundreds and left outside the discothèques and bars that ran from Main Street Falmouth to the seaside community of Falmouth Heights.

For the year-round resident, selling trinkets to the tourists, feeding them, helping them to get drunk, renting them houses was where the money was at. Cheap summer bungalows were being quickly nailed up and rented out at outrageous prices. The bartenders, waiters and waitresses were mostly college students, who would be crammed into these bungalows, and work the summer to pay their rent, and to afford their parties at night. Partying was what the whole town did. The Falmouth Police Department doubled with part-time police officers, mostly school teachers and college students. Those assigned the evening shift beats would often walk two abreast with long wooden clubs in front of the biker-bars and the rougher saloons.

At one o’clock all came to a close. In Falmouth Heights over a thousand drunks would be ejected onto the neighbouring beaches. There were two vehicles specifically assigned to break up parties. Mass arrests for revelling could reach as high as 300 people. A fleet of school buses would drive the arrestees to the police department’s underground drive-thru, where there would be officials seated to set their bail.

At this time, I was a young man of 17, who was happier cruising about Waquoit Bay, fishing and quahoging (quahogs are hard-shell clams) with my friend whose family owned a large chunk of Seconsett Island.  They were Norwegian merchant mariners and had been living there for three generations. Considering where I had grown up, you can imagine my surprise when they announced that they had purchased a cabin in Alaska and were contemplating moving there. Why would they want to do that? “Too crowded” was their response. “The Cape isn’t what it used to be.” I had no idea what they were talking about, but I soon learned.

On April 12, 1977, I was dockside at the Boston Naval Yard with an excellent view of three impressive ships. One was Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution, which had defeated five British during the War of 1812. The other two were large Soviet fishing vessels, a 270-foot super trawler, Taras Shevchenko, and the 503-foot refrigerator-transport vessel, Antanas Snechkus. At the time, I was working my way through college by doing law enforcement for Spencer Fullerton Baird’s National Marine Fisheries Service. My job was the inspection of fishing boats as they landed in the port of New Bedford, and flying out of Otis Air Force Base to inspect the fishing grounds from the coast of Virginia to the Bay of Fundy. A lot was going on back then. Not only were hundreds of American boats from New Bedford, Gloucester and various Cape Cod ports out there, but also much larger fishing boats from Romania, Cuba, Bulgaria, East Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. Foreign fleets with factory freezing motherships nearly the size of aircraft carriers scoured the ocean for fish that would be immediately turned into meal, and then into bread. It was a mammoth undertaking.

Soviet factory mothership and trawler, photographed by the author

I remember coming upon a fleet such as this at night. It was 1972 and I was a 19-year-old helmsman on the research vessel Chain out of Woods Hole. We were well off New Jersey and I didn’t expect to see city lights. The second mate explained to me that we were going to be passing through the Soviet fleet and to be careful of my helm. Soon, their nets were slowly crisscrossing ahead of our bow. I was amazed by the size of it, well over 100 ships, stacks illuminated with flood lights to show off their large golden hammer and sickles against Bolshevik red fields. The impact that this enormous fleet had had on the fishing stocks would have made Spencer Baird weep. At that time, the United States had a three-mile coastal limit, but by 1976 that limit became a presidential campaign issue. New England fishermen demanded a two-hundred-mile limit and newly elected President Jimmy Carter gave it to them. The United States control over the fishing grounds was extended out 200 miles. This meant international treaties were no longer in effect, and newly crafted U.S. laws would prevail. Within hours of the official extension of U.S. territorial waters, Coast Guard cutters on Georges Bank were getting radio calls from American fishermen about perceived foreign violations. There were careers to be made here, and Coast Guard captains scampered about to be the first to seize a Soviet vessel. Those two Soviet vessels I saw on the dock had just been seized by Coast Guard cutters.

The captain’s log of the Taras Shevchenko indicated that the captain was over his allotted bycatch of river herring by about a ton. The Antanas Snechkus was alleged to have prohibited ocean perch aboard. My job was to go through all of the frozen boxes on the Taras Shevchenko and tabulate the catch of river herring. The ship had a dead weight exceeding 1,000 tons for its boxed fish. It took me and another enforcement officer two days, without a break, to find that the vessel was over by a little more than a ton.

The Antanas Snechkus was released the next day. The alleged ocean perch was red hake, which they were allowed. The vessel left unfurling a large red flag with a hammer and sickle, to the tune of the Communist Internationale – while Taras Shevchenko’s captain sat in his stateroom crying. His boat was being seized, and there would be additional fines. When he returned home he would be charged with larceny from the Soviet Union for the amount of the cost of the boat and the fines. While all of this was going on, three American fishing boats were in the haddock and cod spawning grounds off Provincetown. Unfortunately, all available enforcement units were out chasing Russians. Even with a 200-mile limit, by the 1990s, the U.S. Northeast fisheries had collapsed.

But at the time there was some good news. I was on a Coast Guard Albatross flying a fishing patrol, not very far from the island of Nantucket, when we saw a pod of sperm whales. We sent in our report and it was confirmed by a second sighting. I was later told that this was the first time sperm whales had been seen in the area since the 1840s, when they were all fished out and American whalers from Cape Cod, New Bedford and Nantucket had to go as far as the Pacific to find them.

After I graduated from Northeastern University, I worked for a time as a roughneck in the Texas oil patch. By 1980, I was a police officer in Falmouth. Then, starting in 1990, I became the director of the Falmouth Department of Natural Resources. This was when I began to see in detail the environmental changes going on around me. For the next twenty-one years I was responsible for the management of a 54.5 square mile area of Cape Cod. This included 68 miles of coastline, fourteen coastal ponds, and harbors, numerous streams and inland lakes and forests.

With the 1990’s, there came a new change to the economic character of Falmouth. The discotheques and bars failed. Restaurants became more upscale. The summer rentals started to dry up as an older generation, many of whom had come to party here in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, came back to retire. Small coastal homes, known as saltboxes, started to be knocked down to make room for what became derisively known as McMansions. They were two-and-a-half storey homes which occupied most of their postage stamp size lots and blocked out the ocean views of the smaller homes behind them. Docks went in everywhere, not only to add to the seaside ambience, but also to add significantly to the property retail value.

People coming from an urban or suburban environment normally wanted to replicate their suburban back yards on their new coastal frontage. So, native coastal vegetation had to be replaced with chemically enhanced, vividly green, lawns that extended to the ocean’s edge. Stone armouring was then demanded to prevent the surf from damaging the newly acquired turf. Cape Cod towns had and still have conservation departments charged with mitigating the negative aspects of coastal construction. It was considered axiomatic that if you had enough money to appeal their decisions, and time to go judge shopping, you would eventually get your way. Up until the 1970s, jetties had been a common fixture for oceanfront homes. However, following the Massachusetts Wetland Protection Act, their new construction was forbidden. Built out into the ocean to catch the tidal flow of sand, these jetties were constructed to nourish private beaches. They would catch, then funnel, suspended sand back to an exclusive location. Of course, next door neighbours’ private beaches were now being deprived of naturally deposited sand. In defence of their beaches, they built jetties a little further out to catch their fair share. The process would work itself from neighbour to neighbour, becoming an aggregate known as groyne fields.

Among my department’s duties was protecting the ever-controversial herring. Come early spring they would make their way out of the ocean and up the small streams as far as four miles, to interior lakes where they would spawn and then drop back to the ocean. In the fall, the fry would follow their parents into the sea. Sounds simple, but theirs was a torturous route full of hazards that required our constant vigilance and shepherding. Many of the runs had been paved over, requiring the fish to move through culverts, down the storm drains of municipal streets, and under parking lots. Muskrat soon learned to regard the storm drains as excellent habitat for catching herring. Even a ferry employee was discovered fishing at work by lifting a manhole cover and dipping his net into the water.

Once in the open country, they would have to navigate through the numerous cranberry bogs. There they would be subject to pesticide misapplications, or to being chewed up by the thousands as they were sucked into large irrigation pumps and then spat back upon the bogs. Large municipal wells and big volume golf course irrigation systems would draw down on the water table and maroon them in their (now) dried out rivulets.

Just like in 1806, there were competing interests with different commercial and municipal demands. People still fished for herring. Not till the mid-1990s was there an inshore limit on herring. Today, there is a complete ban; a moratorium intended to replenish their stocks has been extended year after year for fifteen years.

The reverse of the anadromous herring is the catadromous Atlantic eel. They spawn out at sea, the Sargasso Sea to be specific. The young eels drift with the currents until they come to the same streams that the adult herring had followed. Working their way up the streams, in a juvenile translucent gooey state known as glass eels, they head to the lakes to mature into elvers. Then, like the herring, they drop back to the harbours, becoming silver sides before heading out into the open ocean as mature eels. The wrinkle within this reproductive equation is that Japanese cuisine prizes glass eels. Their aquaculture grows them in lightless environments to produce translucent sushi and sashimi. The price per kilo for glass eels is a staggering amount, and catching them is illegal. Consequently, monitoring the runs at night, when glass eels are on the move, is imperative. Fishermen from as far away as coastal Maine would come down and set up illegal fyke bag-nets to trap them.

Hunting and freshwater fishing in Falmouth became primarily put and take. The Massachusetts Division of Fish and Game would grow out trout of various species and stock our rivers and ponds monthly. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries had a scheme that still exists today. They dredge up quahogs from coastal waters where there is a high level of contamination and then sell them to Cape communities at bargain prices to be replanted in their coastal ponds.

The idea, in theory, was that in a year’s time the clams would flush out any contaminants. The law enforcement of the various Cape communities could keep an eye on them till they were ready for consumption. New Bedford was the main source for these shell fish. However, New Bedford was and still is a superfund federal clean-up site. It is one of the worst due to its abundance of polychlorinated biphenyl, a carcinogen. Though the state gave its assurances that meat samples would be taken and tested, we opted to grow our own shellfish. Bacteria does depurate, but not heavy metals and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, once used as insulating materials in electrical and industrial equipment, banned in the US in 1979). Under the state’s plan, shellfish was thrown into closed areas for depuration. Even so, many commercial shell fishermen would sneak in at night and dig them up. Sharing New Bedford’s contaminated quahogs devolved into an aquatic version of an Easter egg hunt. To grow our own quahogs, we started with microscopic seed which we placed in what are called “upwellers” (ocean water is pumped through a series of chambers supplying food and oxygen). Once the quahogs are the size of your little fingernail, they are scattered about viable clam flats.

By far, the most unusual of these put and take operations is the Crane Wildlife Management Area’s upland game season hunt. The Crane Wildlife Management Area is a 2,000-acre state owned and operated hunting preserve. It is maintained much like a golf course for hunters, with multiple fields surrounded by a matrix of forest. There are numerous gates leading into the section dedicated to pheasant as well as a 400-acre area dedicated to quail. For six weeks, three times a week, farm-raised pheasant and quail are brought up from New Jersey. The quail come in boxed coveys, packed much like Christmas tree bulbs. No one knows which fields contain the birds or on what days they would arrive. There is always quite a free-for-all at official sunrise. Everyone wants to be the first hunter to have at them. Some hunters would sneak in early to hide. Hundreds of hunters and their dogs, most of whom had come over the bridges of the Cape Cod Canal, would dash through the gates when official time was called. Generally, by noon, all the birds had been killed as well as much of what was flying about. Often there were heated disputes over who shot the birds, and occasionally hunters were badly injured by birdshot.

On a positive note, there have been some impressive changes to the area’s environment. The deer population has been growing, and is much larger than when Bartholomew Gosnold first visited these shores. In 1698, an official deer season had been enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and by 1718 there was a three-year prohibition on hunting deer. Now that so much of the state has been suburbanized, the network of roads and houses makes deer hunting in densely packed communities difficult. Laws prohibit the discharging of shotguns within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling, or within 150 feet of a road. The broken landscape of lawns and ornamental bushes with nearby woodland cover provides an excellent habitat for deer and many midsize mammals, like raccoons, opossums, skunks and rabbits. Moose and bear have been drifting down from northern New England. In 2012 a bear walked over the Sagamore Bridge and made its way all the way out to the Cape’s tip, before it was captured and sent packing. In 2008 a manatee came nosing into Quissett Harbor. Another one came to the Cape the following year. Otters, which hadn’t been seen in Falmouth since the 1940s, swam the four-mile-wide sound between Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth, and according to some old fur trappers, reoccupied the exact same lakes that they had been trapped in decades before.

The eastern coyote, a cross between the smaller western coyote and the red wolf, began drifting south and appeared in Falmouth in the late 1980s. Within a few short years, the population increased so that mother coyotes were giving birth under garden sheds, crawl spaces of summer homes and beneath pool houses. Falmouth had the dubious distinction of having the first suburban denning coyotes. Unfortunately for the coyote, their omnivorous feeding activities includes free range domestic cats. That created a public demand for their extirpation. Laws were soon put in place to allow the hunting of coyotes up to midnight. Please note that going out into the woods at night on a “shots fired possible hunter” call is a source of dyspepsia for most natural resource officers. In one case, a man who had lost his cat to a coyote, set out to make himself a coyote fur bed throw and had up to twenty-one pelts at last count. The litter size of coyotes is dependent upon the availability of food. If you reduce their numbers that means more food and larger spring litters. About half a million coyotes have been killed yearly in the U.S. This culling project has been going on since 1931 and their numbers have only increased. In 2019, the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department banned coyote hunting competitions offering prizes.

Ospreys have come back in great abundance. The Falmouth Department of Natural Resources erected its first osprey nesting platform in the late 1980s. It soon had a nesting pair. In less than a decade, Falmouth had over fifty nesting pairs. Soon it became fashionable for seaside residences to erect their own. Today, ospreys nest on scores of platforms, athletic field light stands, telephone poles and harbour spindles. Bald eagles, not to be outdone by their osprey cousins, just nested in the neighbouring town of Mashpee. It is the first eagle’s nest on Cape Cod in a century.

The author (left) shopping on Main Street, Falmouth

Wild turkeys were reestablished by Fisheries and Wildlife at Camp Edwards in 1985. Absent since 1851, they quickly fanned throughout Falmouth. Now habituated to suburbia, our turkeys chase postal officials on their appointed rounds, or block traffic to a standstill in the centre of town. Mink and marten, not seen in recent memory, are now showing up as roadkill. In the area of the Cape Cod Bay, the 842-square mile Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, has been up and running for decades, preserving and enhancing the once depleted whale populations.

Laws have been enacted requiring double hulled oil barges in Buzzards Bay. Most of the railroad tracks have been paved over and converted to municipal bike paths. The National Marine Life Center in Bourne now provides medical treatment for our local sea turtles and injured or sick marine mammals. Before their creation, seals and whales were carted into a special marine mammal ambulance, then whisked away to the New England Aquarium in Boston. On a similar note, the Humane Society of the United States has a wildlife treatment centre in the town of Barnstable, where they routinely receive, treat and release injured wildlife.

Grampus whale being rescued, Quissett Harbor

The governmental body, the Cape Cod Commission, has been able to secure a 1% sales tax on real estate transactions, much of which is dedicated to acquiring woodland. The town of Falmouth has met its goal of 25% of the town to be held in public open space. Through the work of private land protection charities, more land is being acquired.

Waquoit Bay has become a protected National Estuarine Research Reserve. The 1972 prohibition on killing marine mammals created a dramatic increase in seals throughout the Cape. With an abundance of seal meat, great white sharks have returned and now cruise along the beaches populated by beachgoers. Falmouth Natural Resources had the distinction of being involved in the relocation of the area’s first great white, trapped in an estuary just off Woods Hole.

In an attempt to improve coastal water quality, the town of Falmouth has started a pilot project in Little Pond, Falmouth. It was once described by a shellfish constable as a coastal pond that might be better off filled in. Today a successful operation, using aquaculture to remove nitrogen from the water, has dramatically improved the health of the pond. Last year, 750,000 oysters, suspended in bags, were raised there, and later relayed to other waters. In addition, 1.7 million quahogs were grown in upwellers and field planted, as well as 150,000 bay scallops.

Oysters in Little Pond

Still, as I read that the two bridges spanning Cape Cod are to be replaced because they cannot support the level of seasonal traffic, and as I look out my back door where there used to be a woodland and see seven new homes, I wonder what my newcomer neighbours will be thinking about Cape Cod 53 years from now.

I weep for you,” the Walrus said: 
“I deeply sympathize.” 
With sobs and tears he sorted out 
Those of the largest size, 
Holding his pocket-handkerchief 
Before his streaming eyes. 
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter, 
“You've had a pleasant run! 
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none— 
And this was scarcely odd, because 
 They’d eaten every one”. (Lewis Carroll)