Crises of a confidence-man

The Man Who Conned the World: Victor Lustig

Christopher Sandford, The History Press, 2021, 300pp, £20

DEREK TURNER is forced to admire a brilliant rogue

Christopher Sandford is an acknowledged expert on the cultural history of the twentieth century, who has written to scintillating effect on subjects from the Rolling Stones to Arthur Conan Doyle, and cricket to Roman Polanski. But Victor Lustig may be his favourite subject to date – a man of boundless energy, ingenuity and resource, all of which were unfortunately expended entirely to society’s detriment, and ultimately did not even do him any good. The result is an engrossing, funny and wise account of the wasted (or worse than wasted) life of an extraordinary con-man, and a reflection on the constancy of human credulity.

Lustig was born Robert Miller/Molnar/Mueller in 1891 in Hostinné, presently in the Czech Republic, but historically part of battled-over Bohemia. This seems a suitably indeterminate birthplace for a Mitteleuropaïscher on the make, who during his fifty-six years on earth would use no fewer than forty-five aliases as part of his constant effort to separate marks from their money, and extricate himself from the criminal justice systems of several countries.

If he was frequently fortunate, he also made his own luck, and like the U.S. G-men and T-men who doggedly pursued Lustig during his 1930s and 1940s heyday as arch confidence-trickster (a C-man, perhaps), Sandford is compelled to admire Lustig’s intelligence, resilience and supreme self-belief. So are we, as we read about such exploits as the sale of the Eiffel Tower to a scrap-metal merchant, his elegantly carpentered “Rumanian box” which made hundred dollar notes, and his unique achievement in cheating Al Capone out of US$7,000, and living to brag about it. How can we not marvel at a man who forged a “newly discovered tale” by Mark Twain, and who when belatedly asked about its provenance by the suspicious magazine (that had already published it), not only talked his way out but managed to sell them a handwritten poem by “Walt Whitman”?

Gullibility is perennial in human history, a proposition famously proven by Charles Mackay in his 1841 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and encapsulated by the notorious aphorism usually attributed to P. T. Barnum, “There’s a sucker born every minute!” But Lustig was lucky in the period in which he started practising his sociopathic skills – the turbulent, badly-governed and later wounded world of the immediate pre-Great War and then interwar periods, when both Europe and America over-brimmed with charlatans, frauds, hoaxers, hucksters and showmen who knew how to capitalize on crises of civilizational confidence and economic volatility.

Some hoaxes were harmless. Virginia Woolf and several friends embarrassed the Royal Navy in 1910 by donning blackface and dressing gowns, and touring HMS Dreadnought as visiting Ethiopian royals. In 1912 came the fossil ‘Piltdown Man’, a sensational ‘missing link’ between apes and men, a science-upturning skull from Sussex which had in fact been confected from a medieval human, an eighteenth century orang-utan jawbone, and twentieth century baboon teeth. In 1917, two little girls cut out drawings of fairies and took photographs of them in their Yorkshire garden, which convinced Arthur Conan Doyle that there really was another reachable dimension in which fairies (and his war-fallen son) might co-exist. 

Other hoaxes were crueller, rooted in what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls the ’culture of defeat’, that swept over much of Europe after 1918 – an umbrageous mood characterised by seething class and ethnic resentments, millions of displaced persons, cultural crazes from manic dancing to miracle cures and spiritualism, and desperate navel-searching for meaning, purpose and security. Even the victorious Allies had their Bright Young Things and frantic flappers, possibly overcompensating for the deep sorrows of older generations, whose complacent pre-war universe had been bespattered with the mud and blood of their sons. America, which had come best out of the conflict, and was about to enter the ‘Roaring Twenties’, was filled with restless excitement, and examples of real-life get-rich-quick schemes that many aspired to emulate.

We are introduced to, or reminded of, the existences of John ‘Maundy’ Gregory who sold peerages on behalf of David Lloyd George’s government – Stephane Otto who masqueraded so convincingly as a Belgian royal that she pinned the Order of Leopold onto the officer commanding the American troops on the Rhine – and Jerome Tarbot, a decorated combat veteran and respected lecturer on the Somme, who had in truth spent the war years stealing cars in California. In 1919, the fraudster Arnold Rothstein fixed the baseball World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1920, came the collapse of Carlo Ponzi’s pyramid-buying scam, entailing an estimated loss to investors of some US$500 million in today’s terms, and giving the world a new, unwelcome word.

‘The world’ of course did not learn from these experiences. Most of us have naïve blind spots, and people can always be found to hearken to hucksters, and give credence to quick-thinking, respectably-dressed people who tell them what they most desire to hear. Some victims of confidence-tricksters become so ensnared that they remain loyal to them even after they are exposed, so reluctant to face up to their initial bad decision they make themselves double gulls.

Lustig was just one of many 1910s-1940s flim-flam merchants who knew how to present themselves convincingly, and proffer tantalizing easy answers, quick fixes and ‘sure-fire’ schemes. But he was almost certainly the most systematic, devising his own conventional morality-mocking ‘Ten Commandments of the Con’, which include such cold-blooded prescriptions as ‘Be a patient listener’, ‘Never look bored’, ‘Never boast’, ‘Never get drunk’, and letting the other person reveal their political or religious views and then agreeing with whatever those happen to be.

Lustig was also the most expert, thanks to his very considerable level of culture. He was able to speak five languages when still at school, and would later be an opera buff, and a competition-level chess player. With such acuity allied to unscrupulousness, he could pass himself off easily as millionaire, sober businessman, leading banker, insurance company executive, senior civil servant, medical expert, medium, art dealer, theatrical impresario, or displaced aristocrat.

Such a man could clearly have succeeded in many legitimate ways, but legitimacy would never be enough for this inveterate seeker after excitement and novelty. He said in later life that he had never wanted ‘a timid but steady progress [towards] the grave,’ and by the age of sixteen he was already cheating at billiards, running horse-race betting scams, hanging out in bars with what German police files called ‘louche and mutant types,’ and in rented-by-the hour rooms with prostitutes. Details of his early escapades are scanty and unreliable, revealed only by such police dossier vignettes and his own fragmentary and self-serving diary, and reminiscences to his daughter Betty, or to US federal agents at the end of his career.

Lustig always emphasised his hardships as a young man living by card-sharping, magical illusions and larceny in Vienna, and frequently portrayed himself as an understandable rebel – a kind of struggler against an unjust system, blaming his criminal transgressions and cynical worldview on abysmal examples set by society. He expressed support for women’s suffrage, and sympathy for black Americans. But all such pretensions to a social conscience were rarely, if ever, given practical effect. If sometimes he swindled people who were themselves swindlers, he never made any Robin Hood-style restitutions. When one of his schemes resulted in many working-class bank account holders in Kansas losing all their life savings, Lustig’s only recorded comment was ‘fools.’ As Sandford notes, ‘…he was really in the business of wealth redistribution for himself.’ He skated through life, largely unheeding of anything outside himself; on a day in October 1915 when the London press were reporting 60,000 British casualties at Loos, the then London-based Lustig’s diary contained three words: ‘Cleared another £400.’

He spent whatever money he accrued almost immediately, hedonistically on women, but also tactically on expensive clothes, luxurious accommodation, cars, chauffeurs, lavish sweeteners, and other appurtenances that allowed him a semblance of sleek respectability to facilitate his next con. He segued un-snobbishly from high society to low, and back again, along the way bumping into extraordinary people. He once gave a generous tip to, and had a pleasant conversation with, a young Indo-Chinese dishwasher working in London’s Carlton Hotel, who would later become Ho Chi Minh. He consulted Carl Jung about his dreams – ‘an odd juxtaposition,’ as the author notes, ‘the one man intent on revealing the inner psyche and the other one equally determined to conceal it.’ There is a story (unfortunately unprovable) from the FBI files that Lustig met his contemporary Adolf Hitler in Vienna, at that time like Lustig a charismatic and restless drifter in search of some kind of opportunity. He admired Lucy LeSueur’s ‘wide, hurt eyes’ and ‘great maternal orbs’ – assets which would prove useful in her later incarnation of Joan Crawford. Rudolph Valentino told him he should try for a Hollywood career.

He was almost always at least one step ahead of the harried Feds, and became an object of obsession for more than one lawman, most notably his eventual nemesis, the remorseless and tough Peter Rubano, a war veteran and mobster-buster of whom it was said ‘when he shook your hand, it stayed shook.’ Lustig’s slipperiness was legendary; he had a fine instinct that always allowed him to leave his hotel at just the right moment, sometimes in a swiftly-donned disguise, or shinning down drainpipes to join his chauffeur waiting out the back, perhaps literally with the engine running. Even when he was apprehended, he always managed to oil his way out, right up until the end of his career – through smooth argumentation, judicious bribes, jumping bail, or by simply promising to leave town immediately to save local blushes. Once, after being questioned for passing fake currency in Connecticut, he persuaded the judge that it was a case of mistaken identity – and was asked by the apologetic local police chief to lecture his officers on how to recognize forged notes. 

Victor Lustig

There is sometimes a tendency to view con-men as almost lovable rogues – “social anarchists”, to use Sandford’s phrase – whose crimes are ‘victimless’ because they prey chiefly on institutions or the rich. But he left a trail of anger, betrayal, disillusionment, embarrassment and financial ruin behind him as he moved from Europe to America, and then endlessly within his unlucky adopted country. His two wives, and daughter, were only the most obvious victims of his peripatetic, selfish and thrill-seeking mode of existence. He was even a victim himself. As the author notes;

At heart, the confidence man really deals in the disintegration of lives, his own as well as his victims.

His daughter said the first words she was taught were ‘Never speak to the police’ – a sad remembrance, which hints at the endless effort and sheer tension involved in a life like Lustig’s, who could never really relax. At times, even he showed signs of tiredness, like in a diary entry for 1935, just before Peter Rubano finally caught up with him:

We struggle. We reach. And what is there at the end? A clod of dirt flung down upon the coffin lid.

Nor could he ever really be himself. Did he even have an ‘himself’’ – any real feelings behind all those masks? Was he more than just a bundle of ingenious stratagems? A Times obituarist noted of another notorious fraudster, Horatio Bottomley, that he was ‘more a set of public attitudes than a person’ – and a similar sense of insubstantiality clings to Lustig. It is possible almost to feel sorry for him, a friendly man without friends, a restless and lonely whirligig whose superlative gifts in the end amounted to less than nothing.

But then we think again of the real victims – and of the irrepressibility of the man himself, who even after his arrest played games with Peter Rubano, and enraged FBI boss Edgar Hoover by his last great exploit – escaping spectacularly in the middle of the day from Manhattan’s maximum security prison, climbing down a rope made of sheets, watched by hundreds of passers-by.

By December 1935, he had been recaptured, and was sentenced to twenty years – fifteen for counterfeiting, and five for the escape. The following March, he was sent to Alcatraz, where he beguiled his ever-restless intellect by making vexatious medical requests (about one every three days). When the war broke out, he began writing long geopolitical screeds, and offered his services as an assassin, saying that if he could be airdropped into Germany he would make his way to Berlin and poison Hitler’s pastries – an offer inexplicably declined.

By the time he died, alone in a prison hospital in March 1947, this ultimate freewheeling individual had been largely forgotten. He had just over $93 in his only known bank account, and a few notebooks as personal possessions. But a strange kind of tribute came at his funeral, when the only mourner other than his daughter were two men from the Prison Bureau, as if the authorities were ensuring that this wasn’t just one last trick. It makes an apposite end to this story, of a man even now an enigma.

A road by any other name…

Shutterstock
DEREK TURNER takes a Brum road-trip

What’s in a name? A great deal – so Birmingham City Council hopes. In December, as part of a £500m redevelopment of the city’s blighted Perry Barr district, it revealed the names of six new roads to “reflect community and Commonwealth sport values”. Diversity Grove, Equality Road, Destiny Road, Inspire Avenue, Respect Way and Humanity Close will shortly be adorning the Birmingham A-Z, and by 2023 residents will be giving their addresses embarrassedly to Deliveroo drivers.

Potential names were submitted by “the public”, and selected by a panel led by local politicians. According to one member of the panel, there was

…an impressive submission of entries that epitomised not just the core values and culture of Perry Barr but encompassed what the area is all about.

Puzzled Brummies immediately took to social media to wonder why none of these had been chosen.

According to the competition criteria,

Street names should ideally have a local connection, which is historically, geographically or culturally relevant.

Yet these names do not obviously have a particular Birmingham connection, and arguably not much “relevance” anywhere. These are not place-names for posterity, but sermons by street-furniture. Another Birmingham thoroughfare comes irresistibly to mind – Needless Alley – and a Lincolnshire road I noticed recently, Labour-in-Vain Drove.

Insofar as Diversity, Equality, Destiny, Inspire, Respect or Humanity do have real-world application, it may not be one all Brummies can embrace unreservedly. Elevated language frequently has less elevated applications; as Tacitus, quoting a subjugated Briton, noted of his own people, “they make a desert and call it peace”.

But then the Handsworth heroine who ‘thought’ of these names is a forward-thinking missionary, and above such earthly considerations. Social media sleuthing unearths wholly expected attitudes, a humdrum hashtaggery – BLM, Corbyn, DecoloniseBrum (and Yorkshire, while she’s on the subject, which is probably quite often), Israeli “apartheid”, race quotas, Tories hating the poor. She nurses an impressive dislike of James Watts’ business partner Matthew Boulton, judging from the many photos of Boulton-related Birmingham place-names onto which some monomaniac has Blu-Tacked typed ‘recontextualisations’. This is a lady who trends. The comical bathos of her toponymy exposes a hole in the heart of 21st century Brum, and Britain. In the land of the bland, the cliché is king. David Brent’s song Equality Street was a cynical ploy, and a good joke; Equality Road is less desirable.

Names have always been surrounded with superstition. As it says in 1 Samuel, “As his name is, so is he”.  Puritans aimed for Elect-ion by giving children hortatory names – Charity, Faith, Goody, Hope, Praise-God. Their Godless heirs try to be ‘Goodies’ in their turn by naming places after equally insubstantial ideals, chasing contemporary chimeræ with the same guilty enjoyment Ranters devoted to Revelations.

The coiner and adopters of these names clearly hope that, in the words of the 1791 ballad, Song on Obtaining the Birmingham and Worcester Canal Bill, “Twill prejudice stifle, and malice strike dumb”. A Conservative councillor who chortled at the new names as “Woke Way” was chided by the panel’s chair –

It is disappointing that Cllr Morrall does not appear to share these values or respect the views of the selection panel.

Behind these primly freezing words stretches a bleakly unwelcoming England, where human nature is to remade every morning, long-standing landmarks are to be levelled, and taken-for-granted things are to be taken. It is the same world, but a different planet – an alien environment with an atmosphere of noxious gases, and governed by platitudinous correctness. This may not be The Road to Serfdom, but it does resemble a Road to Nowhere. To turn around that property market cliche, “No location, no location, no location”.

Street-naming has historically been a form of culture-cleansing, warfare by other means, as incoming regimes impose their moral and social preferences on the losers. Names like Revolution Road, or 5th October Avenue, have frequently been inflicted on harmless highways, although sometimes only temporarily. Russia has reverted to many pre-1917 names – but the Cold War’s ‘winner’ has been convulsing its cultural cartography in response to radical social shifts, frenziedly naming roads after Martin Luther King, and recently even George Floyd. Is this ‘respect’, as is claimed – or is some less edifying emotion? Perhaps even fear? Renamers often seem not quite to know what they are doing, or why.

Romans Latinised England’s infra dig Iron Age trackways, and Normans Frenchified Saxon nomenclature. Socially-uncertain Georgian and Victorian town councillors sanitised suddenly shocking streets, exemplified by the “Grape Lanes” still seen in British cities – a gloss on “Gropecuntlane”, alluding to the ancient presence of prostitutes. They also sought to sweep away what they saw as irrelevant remembrances of the past – thus the 19th century rash of Gas Streets and Station Road (plus some more pious thoroughfares, often echoing religious revivals, like Fortitude Street or Temperance Road). They delivered a shiny new modernity, lavishly bestowing the names of engineers, explorers, generals, industrialists, missionaries, monarchs and planters on newly set-out streets, valorising the villas of the newly-rich and crowning even workmen’s terraces with classical and imperial motifs. Today’s craze for naming streets after Nelson Mandela, Windrush passengers, or Guru Nanak is a case of the Empire striking back.

Birmingham has always been busily Promethean, and has attracted the worst as well as the best kinds of change. Emma’s Mrs Elton expressed a common prejudice – “One has no great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound”. Two centuries or so on, the pleasant local accent ranks at the bottom of those unofficial but oddly powerful ‘trustworthiness’ surveys that appear spasmodically in the media, which are subliminally influential on those deciding where to site call centres and other industries. This is to ignore utterly the city’s shining other side – geniuses like Joseph Priestley, the kindness of the Cadburys, the civic pride of Joseph Chamberlain, the excellence of the CBSO, the many thousands of hardworking and respectable people.

The municipality has at times been badly served by its agenda-setters and political leaders, and modern Birmingham still bears the scars of the overlong incumbency (1935-1963) of Herbert Manzoni as City Engineer and Surveyor. Manzoni bequeathed Brummies a brutalist, traffic-blasted landscape at colossal cost, and his Bull Ring and Inner Ring Road are now being superseded at even greater expense. Manzoni’s views on Brum’s old buildings betray an absolute absence of imagination –

I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past… As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward.

His epic incomprehension is echoed in the ostentatiously ‘socially concerned’ but secretly ruthless language of ‘decolonisation’ and ‘diversification’. These six roads in question may be new roads, but they are built on the thrown-down past. They are really different kinds of demolition, and their impossibly tangled rationales are the ideological equivalents of Perry Barr’s unsavoury neighbour, Spaghetti Junction. The Brave New Birmingham Manzoni and others brought was obsolete even before it was finished – and their “forging ahead” is now our inconvenient and shameful past, for which we must all undergo a painful and undignified procedure of deconstruction, and decolonic irrigation.

As Perry Barr booms and clangs with the din of earth-movers and pile-drivers, so the British imagination is being constantly razed and rebuilt, our inner and outer landscapes a permanent building site. Perhaps one day even the proud Handsworth heroine’s streets will become embarrassments, banal vestiges of a patronising political tradition and a worn-out West no longer ‘relevant’ to the Brum of 50 years hence.  

Stuff and nonsense

The Culture of My Stuff

Adam Crothers, Carcanet, 2020, 84 pps, £10.99

DEREK TURNER finds a celebrated poet’s latest collection dazzling but lightweight

This slender assemblage comes weighted with prestige – Adam Crothers’ prize-winning history (Shine/Strong and Seamus Heaney Centre in 2017), and endorsements of his latest offering by equally well-regarded contemporaries. But any potential ponderousness is undercut even before opening. These are “political nonsense rhymes”, says the back cover. It is “a joybomb of wit, play, sass and Heideggerian thinginess”, Caoilinn Hughes enthuses – “linguistic pirouetting”, smiles Susannah Dickey – while for Thomas McCarthy, Crowther’s unmistakable Ulsterness has been given “a metallic spray-job in some garage near the English fens” (Crothers lives in Cambridge).

“Sass” has probably never been applied to anything truly substantial, and “linguistic pirouetting” sounds ominously like riddling for riddling’s sake. The terms are therefore unfortunately applicable to this corpus, notwithstanding many excellent qualities. McCarthy’s motoring metaphor may get closest of all, because these poems feel full of restless discontent – and below their pearlescent pigments you can see a running-to-rust cultural chassis. Crothers’ work glisters with novel imagery, unlikely rhymes, and humorous self-awareness, but all these painterly effects take priority over the bits of the vehicle that need to touch the ground.

The poems feel oddly evanescent, although they mask an ostensibly rational materialist philosophy. “Stuff” and “culture” in this worldview are almost-equivalents, as if culture derives ultimately from possessions. Clothes mostly make the man according to this outlook, culture is contextual and life transactional, and poetry is more about musicality than meaningfulness. The most irreducible ideas, identities, and issues are seen through a reductive prism, as if Brexit, colonialism, nationalism, Protestantism, the Troubles, Trump, the ‘male gaze’ and other conventional talking points are mostly traceable to the murky operations of markets, and Western moral bankruptcy. To go back to the back cover, Crothers is “unable to transcend the consumerist violence of the world”.

This is a glittering sports car being driven at speed across broken country; you admire, and sometimes wince, as you watch. And the poet may half-know, in ‘Cernunnos’ lamenting the

vocabularies of being away. 
Vocabularies of an absent god. 

Elsewhere,

Hell is other people having one hell of a year 
Heaven is a half rhyme. God is queer

Is he avaunting the Void with his vast cleverness?

It feels difficult to care about archly-evoked STDs –

“Well excuse me while I feng-shui the universe 
To accommodate your double-parked aura! 
There’s something impolite behind your arras”.

It is tempting to flick past the rhyming dictionary-reminiscent

“dead mirrorballs throwing shades like it’s panties 
Over my ruckus, I can scarcely hear Dante”

or the improbable pairings of blink, skink, mink, kink, stink and plinks in ‘Parrhasius’.

Yet there are fine moments when the playfulness is put away, as in ‘Muntjac’, a cold camera-trap snap of ultra-alertness –

“The night’s stick
Snaps beneath a beautiful frigid hoof. 
Faith, frighted, yields what little ground was gained.”

It feels like genuine tenderness in ‘Goldfinch’ –

“Of the two finches glimpsed in the garden 
I can filch no vocab to farewell the gone one”

But then the showing off comes surging back, like the wit-for-wit’s-sake ‘Deriding a horse’ –

“Slag nag. It’s nigh ridiculous that you’re 
The gal in gallop and the can’t in canter 
The sad in saddle-sores on the Infanta 
Persisting in your grand vainglory. Lor”

To quote his ‘Nugget’, such touches make the reader want to “Make like the sheepdog and get the flock out of there”.

And this is a shame, because behind all the flourishes there is feeling, beyond the artifice a sense of a likeable man astutely alive in our too often nonsensical world.

Un-easy listening

DEREK TURNER tries translating Lingua Ignota

Radio 6 is one of the rare good things about the BBC, championing alternative, independent or overlooked pop and rock from the 1950s up to the present. On any evening of any week, you can hear anything from film scores to 1960s psychedelia, prog rock to trip-hop, industrial to African traditional, post-punk to ambient, English folk to early electronica. 

Some featured acts are household names, although R6 tends to play their less well-known repertoire. Other bands once launched to critical acclaim, but decades ago broke up for unviability, their personnel compelled to give up their guitars for jobs in insurance offices. New bands first heard here sometimes graduate (or deteriorate) to Radio 2 and mainstream success, but most will not, a single R6 airing perhaps their only hearing beyond Youtube channels, family downloads, or odd appearances in the fields of small and soon-forgotten festivals.

Melancholia surrounds some of this music – a sense of talents wasted, and energies expended uselessly ages ago – but much of it is likeable for its lack of self-pity, its performers clearly never caring what the mainstream might think, focusing solely on making sounds that satisfy them, or say something about the way they view(ed) the world. Much of this music is ergo striking, although much is not good. But every so often, a song comes on that is more than soundtrack to some activity – that makes you stop whatever you are doing, and just listen.

This happened for me last year, when I heard this. I stood in the middle of the kitchen with dishwater dripping from my hands, as Do You Doubt Me Traitor raised hairs on my nape. Even on a station which prides itself on un-easy listening, lines like “Every vein of every leaf of every tree is slaked with poison” and “I smell you bleeding” command attention – especially when delivered with a combination of soaring artistry and a voice vibrating with barely-controlled violence. In a world of singers showing their sores, this was clearly someone with something really to say, or shout about – and shout about with surpassing skill. “Your flag flies above every door” that voice went on vehemently, and ever since Lingua Ignota’s flag has flapped over mine.

Hildegard of Bingen’s secret alphabet

Lingua Ignota (“unknown language” – a term derived from the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who devised her own secret alphabet) is Kristin Hayter, born 1986 in California. She is a classically-trained pianist and singer with three studio albums to her name – Let the Evil of His Own Lips Cover Him, All Bitches Die and Caligula – and an album of cover versions expected (she has previously covered, perhaps unexpectedly, Dolly Parton’s Jolene). She is involved with a kind of alt-supergroup, Sightless Pit, which released its first album Grave of a Dog in February, with such crepuscular song titles as Kingscorpse, Miles of Chain, and Whom the Devil Long Sought to Strangle.

Hayter’s music is uncompromising and unclassifiable – drawn up from choral and classical aquifers, updated with extreme metal, grunge, indie and noise, darkened by dreams and memories of lost faith and sexual violations. She writes, she says, “survivor anthems”, where The Well-Tempered Clavier meets Me Too, angst encounters anger, and a new revengeful genre struggles into guilty life.

Butcher of the World begins with Purcell’s plangent Funeral Music for Queen Mary, then suddenly late 17th century pain becomes early 21st century agony, as that already harrowing tune is lost and then found again amidst what can only be described as a wild howling. Albeit often wordless, the vocal line is the SOS of someone who is unusually articulate (she has degrees in fine art), but also feels more deeply than most. An epic self-pity that could be tiresome in less capable hands is transfigured into an epochal plaint – a plaint against bullies, betrayers, and ugliness, this West that’s gone wrong, this world without certainties.

An unknown language of a kind indeed, uttering unpalatable truths – feminist anthems (although she claims her songs are not feminist) and First World neuroses, but also wider existential longings, rising above sex into spirituality. She says Spite Alone Holds Me Aloft, but it seems more likely to be disappointed devoutness. Anger is essentially a short-lived emotion, requiring too much energy, and fundamentally unsatisfying.

Song titles resonate with Biblical notes, intended to be critical of Catholicism and certainly interpreted that way by fans, although perhaps they are less critical than they (or she) think – Faithful Servant Friend of Christ, Fragrant is My Many Flower’d Crown, O Ruthless Great Divine Dictator (which “embodies the hypocrite and the false prophet”), Holy is the Name (Of My Ruthless Axe) and I Am the Beast  (“Come claim me” she begs in this last, her vibrato especially desolating, like some song of desert sunrise). Is it patronising to feel a degree of pity for her – to hope one day she discovers peace (even at peril of stilling the startling music)?

There is a mystic of a very medieval kind (cf. Hildegard) beneath her thoroughly modern moroseness – an instinctive ecstatic inside the self-Hayter. When she stands on stages and hits herself to the titillated groans of the audience, she is a sort of stylite, lost in 2020’s equivalent of epidemic chorea or even, as she has said, an “exorcism”, during which she is a “conduit” of something infinitely bigger than herself. Some musicians are cynics, who stop gyrating as soon as they are out of sight of their audiences, but she seems wholly heartfelt, as if captured by complexes. When she comes off stage, does she, I wonder, feel curiously cleansed – as if she has just come out of one of childhood’s confession booths?

Kristin Hayter is by any standards a ‘difficult’ musician, alternative even in relation to other alternative artists. She will never get rich from her music, and her lingua is likely to remain ignota to many. But for others, what she sings with such skill and soul sinks in, and seems likely to stay.

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.

Avebury

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

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.