“A tune beyond us, yet ourselves”: the mystic heart of sport

Rembrandt, “The Golf Player”, 1654
BRENDAN MCNAMEE finds uplift in athleticism

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent makes the startling discovery that white mice, rather than being the objects of experiments carried out by humans, were in fact carrying out an experiment on humans. I wonder if a similar principle might be applied to sport.

Take premiership football as an example. Passions run high. The passion, on the parts of both players and spectators, is primarily for victory. The players receive a huge ego (and cash) boost, and from the fans’ point of view, a win for their team is, by some mysterious process of osmosis, a win for themselves. This lust for victory is so intense that the other source of sporting joy, the quality of the game itself, is often relegated to a secondary position – acknowledged, of course, but seen essentially as a means to an end. This, I would contend, is topsy-turvy. The lust for victory should serve the game, and not the other way around – and this order of things reflects a wider truth about life itself.

“Eternity,” wrote William Blake, “is in love with the productions of time” (eternity here being understood as a state of timelessness, rather than an endless expanse of time). A game of football is a production of time, painstakingly worked out and evolved. But for what purpose?

Two teams are pitched in combat. Naturally, each wants to best the other. This ego-based desire is an intense drive, the need to control which necessitates strict rules which the participants, in their lust for conquest, forever strain against. But from the tension created by this drive and this straining (provided the leash is not broken) can come something that transcends the desires of individuals to achieve personal glory, and this something is what inspires that small and secret part of the sports fan which doesn’t really care who comes out on top. These are moments that justify sport, at its best, being called ‘poetry in motion’ – moments of sheer grace that stop the breath and remain forever etched in the memory, long after the identity of the victor has been forgotten.

These moments are the white mice in the equation, Blake’s glimpses of eternity. The participants imagine that they hone their skills and put in punishing hours of practice and follow rigidly prescribed dietary regimes in order to emerge victorious from the contest. They imagine that those sublime moments of grace (which come, if they come at all, only after such gruelling preparation) are simply a means to victory. And seen from their own personal points of view, they are. Their dreams, we may be sure, are of the glory and adulation that will follow victory. Avid young fans may be enthralled by the skills their heroes display, but they too dream of one day holding aloft the Cup at the end of the contest.  

But there is one crucial difference between the dreams of glory that spur on a team and its fans, and those so memorable moments of grace. It is a difference that, I hope, justifies the use of such a lofty and ethereal term as ‘eternity’ in such a down-to-earth context.

The difference is this: the dreams of glory can be trained for, planned for, worked towards; the moments of grace are spontaneous eruptions, deaf and blind to the plans and schemes of ordinary mortals. To employ the mystical phraseology of Meister Eckhart, it is the difference between attachment and detachment. Eckhart establishes a link between attachment and temporality: “A man attached to things is stretched between a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, or between past and future. He lives in duration, while detachment dwells in ‘this present now.’ A detached man lives in the instant” (Schürmann).

George Best in 1976. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A footballer lives mostly in duration, in the world of plans and projects. The scheme is: project, realise, possess: train for the game, play the game, win the game. If this plan is adhered to, all the way to the end, few tears will be shed if it is achieved without poetry.

But some will. Despite our saturation in the egoism of winning, there is still a quiet voice that longs for what Wallace Stevens calls in ‘The Blue Guitar,’ “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” For magic, in effect. We imagine that we invent these conflicts in order to win at them and so stroke our egos, but perhaps they are really invented to allow that magic into the world. Pragmatism is of course vital. In a football match, a player has to be fit and ready for the contest. Such readiness is no guarantee that a sublime moment of genius will emerge, but it more than likely won’t if he is not. And the ego is equally important. Both teams must desperately want to win, otherwise you end up with, at best, a high-class kickabout.

So why refer to these moments as detachment when they so clearly cannot be detached from the time-bound structures through which they come into being? Are they not serving the ultimate purpose of winning the match in the same way as all the other elements of the game such as training, tactics, effort, will, etc? True, they can end up serving it, but seen from the true sports lover’s point of view, this is merely accidental, a by-product. Winning in sport is one kind of joy that needs the corresponding sorrow of losing simply to exist. You can’t have winners without losers; they are two sides of the same coin. Heraclitus’s intriguing aphorism, “Gods and mortals, dying each other’s life, living each other’s death” (Yeats) can find some traction here. The conflict on one level, the time-bound level, is between two teams, but on another, the detached level, it is between gods and mortals. And this conflict is both necessary and creative because the two levels are inextricably intertwined. The gods need the mortals because it is only through media – the game – constructed by mortals that their magic can take form. When that magic occurs, there is a sense in which mortals, as time-bound ego-driven creatures, momentarily cease to exist. Mortals need the gods because without them, they would die of tedium. And indeed, it may be said that, when immersed in our time-bound ego-driven selves, the gods are dead. The gods within us are dead.

In today’s world this vital balance between soul and ego is in danger of collapse, and modern professional football provides a stark demonstration of this. A telling instance of this disruption can be seen in the changing perceptions of the Premiership versus the FA Cup. There was a time when the FA Cup Final was the sporting highlight of the year. Now, it is generally accepted that the Premiership is paramount. This is a significant shift. In the FA Cup, everything rode on one game. There were no second chances (I hear echoes of Robert De Niro’s character in The Deer Hunter with his rather mystic insistence that, in hunting deer, you get only “one shot”). Such an arrangement facilitates a level of concentration and will needed to bring out the best in players, and thus possibly bring about that eclipsing of time that extreme heights of tension can facilitate. In the Premiership, by contrast, a team could conceivably crawl through the season playing pretty dismal football, ‘parking the bus’ at every opportunity (as indeed, one recent Premiership manager was frequently accused of doing), and still come out on top. (For non-fans, ‘parking the bus’ means scoring a goal and immediately throwing everything back into defence, effectively putting up a wall in front of your own goal.)

Imagine a situation where, say, Chelsea and Manchester City reach the final game in the Premiership and Chelsea are one point ahead of City at the top of the table. On the final day, they are playing on different grounds. Being a point ahead, Chelsea can afford to lose their match, but only provided City also lose theirs. Let’s say they have an off-day and play a rubbish game, and lose. Naturally, the fans are devastated. But wait! News come through on their phones that City have also lost, thereby granting Chelsea the title. The fans immediately erupt in joy – having just watched their team play a rubbish game and lose. Are they football fans or accountants?

Roger Federer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Accountancy appears also to be playing a part in the debate currently raging in the tennis world about who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time): Roger Federer, Raphael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Nadal has streaked ahead in the numbers game with twenty-two Grand Slam titles, as opposed to a mere (mere?) twenty to Federer and twenty-one to Djokovic. Djokovic, being the youngest of the three, will no doubt catch up (Federer has just retired from professional tennis), but for the view of sport that I’m putting forward here, such numbers are irrelevant (although not to the players themselves, I’m sure). From that angle Federer is the clear winner in this contest, as anyone who has seen him in his glory days would surely agree. Even this writer, with only a spectator’s interest in actual sport (as opposed to philosophically musing about it), could sense something unearthly about his play. David Foster Wallace once wrote an essay called ‘Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.’ I doubt you’ll ever find essays like that being written about Nadal or Djokovic, well-oiled and highly efficient tennis machines that they are.

Mention of The Deer Hunter above calls to mind some other echoes of this idea in the field of the Hollywood movie. Robert Rossen’s 1962 film, The Hustler, features a pool shark called “Fast” Eddie Felson. At one point in the film he tries to explain to his girlfriend the true nature of his passion. It has nothing to do with the money, or with being seen to be the best. These are quantifiable objectives, un-transformable phenomena of the everyday world. What really inspires him, he says, are those rare moments when the pool cue seems to become an extension of his arm, when he can do no wrong, when everything – himself, the game, the world – simply become one, indivisible process, a living work of art.

Bringing religious terminology to the matter, there is the 1981 film about Olympic runners, Chariots of Fire. One of the athletes is a devout Christian who postpones a trip to the Far East, where he is to work as a missionary, in order to take part in the games. When his equally devout wife chides him for this selfish, unchristian attitude, he replies, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure”.  Eternity opens a chink in the armour of time, and Blake’s “love” is made manifest. Or, to put it in more down-to-earth terms, skill and spontaneity join hands and, momentarily, dancer and dance are one.

But these are ‘mere’ fictional examples, you might say. (I put ‘mere’ in quotation marks to highlight an idea best expressed by Alan Watts and directly relevant to this essay: “There is no more telling symptom of the confusion of modern thought than the very suggestion that poetry or mythology can be ‘mere’”.)  Do real athletes feel anything similar? Actually, if a googling of inspirational quotes from top athletes is any yardstick, they mostly don’t. A trawl of over a hundred such quotes threw up less than half a dozen that gave any hint at all of an awareness that something in sport might possibly be more valuable than winning. The vast bulk are on the theme of never giving up, striving, first is everything, second is nowhere, etc, etc. Even when they extol losing it’s only to harden you up for future successes. And I recall a televised interview with Andy Murray some years ago when he was asked if he enjoyed his tennis. After some hesitation, he replied: “I enjoy winning.” (I’ve since heard him say that he does enjoy his tennis but I suspect the PR people have got to him: “Never be negative, Andy! Never be negative!”)  

But not all athletes share this acquisitive mania. The racing driver, Mario Andretti, has a comment that echoes to some extent the line from Chariots of Fire quoted above, though shorn of any religious connotations: “If you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough.” The tennis player, Arthur Ashe, is hovering around the heart of the matter with this comment: “You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.” And the American gymnast, Mary Lou Retton, has gifted us this pithy comment: “A trophy carries dust. Memories last forever.” (Incidentally, the fact that such remarks are so rare only bolsters my argument that this way of looking at sport is sadly, and increasingly, undervalued.)

It’s intriguing, I think, that the quote approaching closest to a sense of the mystic heart of sport should come from a gymnast. Gymnastics shares with my two fictional examples of pool and running the distinction of being one of the rare sports that one effectively plays alone. There are competitions, of course, but that horizontal element of the game is thoroughly earthbound – egos competing with one another (as Arthur Ashe recognises). The other, vertical, element is where the player’s mind, the player’s body and the sport itself come together like three notes forming a chord. It’s as if the gods had a committee meeting one day and said, “This rough-and-tumble of contact sports allows the ego too much dominance. Our voices are rarely heard. We need to finesse the idea.” And so they came up with pool and running and gymnastics – all sports requiring deep levels of silence, deep enough for, now and then, the music of the spheres to be heard. And, in a moment of true inspiration, they also came up with golf.

Golf! do I hear you say? That symbol of suburban complacency and silly jumpers? But that’s to see it only from the outside. In a wonderful essay on golf, ‘Tips on a Trip,’ John Updike, having run through and dismissed all the secondary definitions and purposes of golf – a hobby, a profession, a pleasure, a walk in the country – finally reveals it to be “a trip”:

 A non-chemical hallucinogen, golf breaks the human body into components so strangely elongated and so tenuously linked, yet with anxious little bunches of hyper-consciousness and undue effort bulging here and there, along with rotating blind patches and a sort of cartilaginous euphoria – golf so transforms one’s somatic sense, in short, that truth itself seems about to break through the exacerbated and as it were debunked fabric of mundane reality.

That final phrase – “truth itself seems about to break through the exacerbated and as it were debunked fabric of mundane reality” – catches the essence of what I’m calling here the mystic heart of sport. And it’s by no means confined to professionals.

Updike tells two intriguing golf stories in his essay. The first is of how he went to a professional coach one time in order to improve his play. The coach gave him some simple advice about the placing of his feet. “That’s all?” Updike asks. “That’s all,” the coach says. Sceptical, but determined to try it out, Updike follows the coach’s instruction – and finds that his game improves immensely. But here’s the intriguing part: he feels thoroughly dissatisfied. The game seems now to be confined to his feet and it’s as if the rest of his body has been anaesthetised: “I couldn’t internalise it . . . All richness had fled the game”. And so he returns to his old losing ways, but feels better for it. I would have found this story baffling had it not reminded me of a poker player I once knew who told me that he could spend a night playing poker and come out with a loss, but still feel better than on many another night when he’d emerge a winner. The result is not the point. The point is what happens within.

Updike’s second story is of how he once accidentally hit a perfect shot. He goes on to explain: “In this mystical experience, some deep golf revelation was doubtless offered me, but I have never been able to grasp it, or to duplicate the shot”. And that’s the point: such magical moments cannot be replicated. They cannot be quantified and put into manuals. They happen. They are gifts, moments when “the tyranny of causality is suspended, and men are free”. “If I knew where poems come from” the Irish poet Michael Longley once said, “I’d go there.” Sports people must often feel much the same.

The scientifically-minded might be inclined to dismiss any such airy talk of mystical experience by pointing to the correlations of such phenomena with various activities going on within the brain. It’s all got to do with jumping neurons and synapses, they’ll say. But this kind of “nothing buttery,” as the philosopher Mary Midgely calls it, in which we declare emergent realities to be “nothing but” the things in which we perceive them (a painting is “nothing but” smears of pigment on a canvas; music is “nothing but” differently pitched vibrations in the air), can be just as easily turned on its head so that instead of saying, “nothing but,” we can say, “not only but also.” A painting is not only smears of pigment on a canvas, but also a deeply enriching and mysterious experience. The experience may correlate with certain neural activities which can be quantified, but that fact alone does nothing to give you any sense of the experience itself.

This “dipsomania for the factual,” as Robert Musil calls it, echoes the conflict being discussed in this essay. You can’t blame science, of course, for devoting itself to the factual – that’s its job – but scientism, the conviction that only the factual can give us any real truth, is the malignant growth of a useful tool into a dogma. When it comes to permeate society, as it does today, something valuable is lost. In sport, this loss is disguised by the fact that such overwhelming concentration on winning – fuelled by ego and greed, both quantifiable entities – improve sporting standards immeasurably, but what becomes ever rarer in this over-heated atmosphere is the “eerie effortlessness of a good shot” (Updike), to put it at its simplest. Roger Federer making top class opponents appear lead-footed, David Gower hitting a boundary with the careless grace of a man brushing off a fly, George Best weaving through five defenders as if he was bodiless – there’s a hint of immortality in such moments. “There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time,” Milan Kundera’s narrator says in his novel, Immortality (4), when he is startled by the sight of a timeless girlish gesture emerging from the body of a timeworn elderly woman. It is that part, I believe, that is reflected back to us in moments of sporting genius, and sounds a deep resonant bell within.

Robert Musil tried to knit together these two elements of the phenomenon – the ethereal and the down-to-earth, the mystical and the scientific. Ulrich, the hero of The Man Without Qualities, gets set upon by three thugs in the street one night. As an ex-solder himself, he responds vigorously, but they get the better of him in the end. As he picks himself up, he is rescued by a woman in a passing coach, to whom he proceeds to expound upon the experience in his usual forensic fashion.

Of course he now launched into a lively defence of his experience, which was not, as he explained to the motherly beauty, to be judged solely by its outcome. The fascination of such a fight, he said, was the rare chance it offered in civilian life to perform so many varied, vigorous, yet precisely coordinated movements in response to barely perceptible signals at a speed that made conscious control quite impossible. Which is why, as every athlete knows, training must stop several days before a contest, for no other reason than that the muscles and nerves must be given time to work out the final coordination among themselves, leaving the will, purpose and consciousness out of it and without any say in the matter. . . If by some unlucky chance the merest ray of reflection hits this darkness, the whole effort is invariably doomed.

So far, so rational, you might say, and nothing there that any sports psychologist would find fault with. They call it being ‘in the zone.’ But Ulrich, as much a mystic as he is a scientist, goes on:

Basically, he now maintained, this experience of almost total ecstasy or transcendence of the conscious mind is akin to experiences now lost but known in the past to the mystics of all religions, which makes it a kind of contemporary substitution for an eternal human need. Even if it is not a very good substitute it is better than nothing, and boxing or similar kinds of sport that organise this principle into a rational system are therefore a species of theology. . .

Broadening the idea out to include spectators as well as participants, it may be no accident that the words ‘happen’ and ‘happy’ have the same root: ‘hap’. A great sporting event is a happening, an event, because of its anticipated elements of spontaneity, its vibrant potentiality, the anticipated, longed-for lifting of the soul out of the mundane treadmill of linear time. For many, these are moments of the greatest, most intense happiness, when life is lived – if only by proxy – on the edge. It’s why people climb mountains and skydive. But the exhilaration that follows success comes at the price of risking the hollow emptiness of defeat, and winners and losers alike might do well to heed Ulrich’s words in the passage quoted above: the experience is “not to be judged solely by its outcome.” The Yorkshire writer John Braine once compared success to strawberries: enjoy them while they’re in season, he said, but don’t imagine you can live on them (trophies carry dust).

What you can live on (what all sports fans live on, in fact) is the anticipation of success, the hope. Whether it’s anticipation of the outcome of a single game or a broader anticipation stretching over a whole season (and containing a host of smaller anticipations along the way), that tension is like a taut string creating a music all its own. But unless you’re some kind of Zen master, the problem is that you can’t really separate wanting to win from actually winning. Or losing. The pleasure of all that anticipation hinges on the actual outcome, though the outcome is really not the point; the real point (from the gods’ point of view) is the anticipation itself, the tension, the thrill of following all those “varied, vigorous and precisely coordinated movements in response to barely perceptible signals.” The gods don’t care a whit about us as individuals. We’re expendable, mere channels for what Yeats called “the passions,” and sports are what he called “forms created by passion to unite us to ourselves”. It’s an irresolvable paradox (except perhaps in fiction): in order for the passions to reach their height, the carriers of the passion have to remain unaware of their true source, and be conned into believing that the momentary egoistic thrill of winning is what it’s really all about.

Richard Attenborough, playing the commander who organises the mass break-out in The Great Escape, intuits a similar truth at the end of the film, after being captured by the Germans. Talking to his friend (minutes before they are both machined-gunned to death), and not sounding at all downbeat about the capture, he says, “D’you know, Andy, all this, Tom, Dick, Harry [the three tunnels they’d spent months secretly digging], it’s kept me alive.” He realises that getting re-captured (and hence failing to win the match, as it were) matters less than the steady throb of hope and anticipation that filled up all the time leading to the escape. And if the escape had been successful, or if the Germans had not been so unsporting as to kill him, and he’d lived to tell the story to his grandchildren, it would surely be the planning, the tactics, the secrecy, the tension of the escape preparations that would fill his memory, rather than the fact the attempt itself resulted in either success or failure, those “two imposters,” as Rudyard Kipling has famously called them.

Hermann Broch’s complex modernist novel, The Death of Virgil, dealing with a poet from two thousand years ago, is about as far from modern sport as you could hope to get. Yet Virgil’s central dilemma echoes the tension I’ve been speaking of here between the timebound (quantifiable results) and the eternal (spontaneous happenings, potentiality), or between the professional and the inspired amateur.

On the eve of his death, Virgil wants to burn his greatest work, The Aeneid, because he believes he has betrayed the essence of his gift, which was not so much the actual manuscript of the work as the dynamic creativity that brought it into being. He calls the actual work, an artefact that belongs to the world of time, “un-art”: “Oh, in his own life, in his own work, he had known the seduction of un-art, the seduction of all substitution which put the thing created in the place of that which creates, the game in the place of communion, the fixed thing in the place of the ever-vital principle, beauty in the place of truth” (italics added).

Virgil’s “un-art” is the statistics-obsessed nature of modern professional sport where winning is all, and this attitude is, I would contend, a betrayal of the soul of sport, even though, paradoxically, that very betrayal is largely responsible for the incredibly high standard that much modern sport exhibits. But the high standards themselves can be something of a red herring, from the participants’ point of view, if not the spectators. Spontaneity is too unpredictable and there is too much money at stake. A certain minimum standard is, of course, necessary, but magic was as likely to appear on a mud-caked football field of the seventies, when players happily juxtaposed professional games with copious amounts of beer and burgers, as on today’s pristine green carpets, when they are all slaves to strict dietary regimes. George Best was no ascetic! And to return for a moment to the tennis world, any future contenders for the number of Grand Slams won by Nadal and Djokovic will have to follow similarly rigid training and finely-tuned technical regimes, most likely at the cost of any natural spontaneity that they may have had to begin with. Future Federers will have no hope of competing, though I’m guessing that they would be the spectators’ favourites.

Echoes of this inner conflict can be found even beyond the confines of sport and art. If we call the necessary treadmill of linear time ‘order’ (in sport, tactics, set pieces, rigid team formations etc) and sublime moments of rapture ‘chaos’ (sport’s unpredictable ‘poetry in motion’), then the essential creative tension between the two might be summed up in an elegant formula: order minus chaos equals death; chaos minus order equals madness. Imagine a high-stakes football match with no rules! And if Virgil had got his way about burning The Aeneid, no echo of that creative genius would ever inspire another soul. The physicist David Bohm put the idea like this: “If you had absolute creativity – absolute novelty with no past – then nothing would ever exist because it would all vanish at the very moment of creation” (Weber). Modern science sees this creative tension, or something vaguely similar to it, as constituting the very source of the universe’s existence. Richard Holloway provides a succinct encapsulation of the idea:

It is the precise balance of two great forces that creates the right conditions for life to exist. The expansive force of the Big Bang spreads the universe out, while the contractive force of gravity pulls it back together. If the gravitational force [order] were too high, the universe would appear, but in a microsecond gravity would pull everything back into a Big Crunch. If the expansion rate were too high [chaos], then the universe would stretch at such a rate that gravity would be unable to form the stars and galaxies from whose dust carbon-based life evolved. [. . .] These delicate adjustments do not only refer to the earliest instance, but to the continuing history of the world and its detailed processes.

One of those detailed processes is the phenomenon of sport.

The philosopher E.M. Cioran has written, “History divides itself in two: a former time when people felt pulled towards the vibrant nothingness of divinity and now, when the nothingness of the world is empty of divine spirit”. It may be that in our ultra-secular, numbers-obsessed Western world, whose oppressive nothingness the advertisers keep us distracted from, sport occasionally affords one opportunity to touch, or to witness, the sublime heights that were once the province of religion. But it appears to be a losing battle. The white mice may have to think up another concept.


Blake, William. Complete Writings. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: OUP, 1966.

Broch, Hermann. The Death of Virgil. Trans. Jean Starr Untermeyer. 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Cioran, E. M. Tears and Saints. Trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Holloway, Richard. Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004.

Hudson, Hugh. Chariots of Fire. Screenplay by Colin Welland. 20th Century Fox, 2004.

Kundera, Milan. Immortality. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Trans. Sophie Wilkins. London: Picador, 1997.

Schürmann, Reiner. Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001.

Stevens, Wallace. Selected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1953.

Sturges, John. The Great Escape. Screenplay by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett. The Mirisch Company, 1963.

Updike, John. Picked Up Pieces. 1977. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

Watts, Alan. Myth and Ritual in Christianity. 1954. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Weber, Renee. Dialogues With Scientists and Sages: The Search for Unity. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Yeats, W. B. A Vision. 1937. Rev. ed. 1962. London: Macmillan, 1962.

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile”

STUART MILLSON can hear Restoration London from 21st century Kent

Music@Malling, planned and organised by classical musician and educator, Thomas Kemp, is one of those provincially-based, smaller festivals which succeeds in bringing performers of national and international standing to local and semi-rural settings. So, instead of having to travel to Kings Place, Wigmore Hall, or St. James, Piccadilly for the pleasure of hearing the finest chamber music, discerning audiences in a mid-Kent community need only stroll to their local church, or the modern performance space of the Norman-built Malling Abbey to savour baroque bands such as Fretwork, who gave Music@Malling’s lunchtime concert on Wednesday 28th September.
With thoughts of the succession of the modern monarchy still fresh in our minds, Fretwork transported us to the candlelit rooms of Restoration England – to the great, collective release of breath and creativity that followed the crumbling of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the return of the ‘Merry Monarch’. It was the great Henry Purcell of William and Mary fame, and the sometimes overlooked Matthew Locke (who possibly taught that renowned composer) who together gave voice to this other, long-before-Elgar English musical renascence. Fretwork’s Malling Abbey tribute to them could not have been more all-encompassing, because although only a group numbering five players and performing just sequences of fantasias, the choice of works somehow captured, perfectly, the authentic soul and sound of the composers and their age. If one representative musical fragment of an epoch could survive, the cadences of those intimate Fantasias would suffice.
Purcell’s immense creativity, packed into his remarkably short life (1659-1695), was legendary; like an English Mozart, a stream of work flowed, with Fretwork giving us an example of this impossible productivity, in the form of Fantasias 8 (in D minor) and No. 9 (in A minor) written on consecutive days. The trait of English melancholia, which would surface again some three centuries later in Vaughan Williams, Britten and Alexander Goehr (the latter earning a place in Fretwork’s programme) is clearly audible in Purcell’s music, but perhaps less so in Matthew Locke’s Consort of Four Parts No. 3, who allowed more of the spirit of the boisterous bourrée into his music, but still tempering his lighter touch, with the reflection of the sentimental saraband.

Alexander Goehr. Photo: Etan Tal. Wikimedia Commons

In his introduction to the concert, Festival organiser, Thomas Kemp, spoke of Purcell’s music as “harmonically complex for the period in which it was written”. Yet contemporary composer, Alexander Goehr, writing in an age of deliberately difficult atonality, decided to reach back to the general harmonies of Purcell’s time in his own Fantasias, written for Fretwork in 2000. Goehr’s music may be seen as Purcell through a modern prism (like Britten’s absorption of Dowland) and yet the Fantasia No. 2 for Five Viols begins with an abrupt phrase – a jolt, or disturbance in the autumnal English landscape, confirming Goehr as no purveyor of pastiche, but a composer in the continuum stretching back to Purcell and Locke’s time.
Ancient and modern were reconciled not just in the music. Fretwork’s music-stands held, not paper scores, but digital devices on whose screens were displayed the staves and notes of the 17th century. It was a fitting touch at this most memorable recital.

“Once upon a time I was a poet”

Basil Bunting. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence
Letters of Basil Bunting
Selected and edited by Alex Niven, Oxford University Press, 2022, £35
LIAM GUILAR welcomes new insights into a little-studied modernist’s mind

Basil Bunting died in 1985. Despite having been praised as one of the twentieth century’s ‘greatest poets’ critical attention to his work has been rare. A reliable biography didn’t appear until the publication of Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us in2013; an annotated collected poems, edited by Don Share, not until 2016. Now, with the publication of Alex Niven’s much anticipated edition of Bunting’s correspondence, it’s possible to eavesdrop on one of the twentieth century’s most interesting conversations about poetry[i].

In his eighties, Bunting looked back on his life:

Once upon a time I was a poet; not a very industrious one, not at all an influential one; unread and almost unheard of, but good enough in a small way to interest my friends, whose names have become familiar: Pound and Zukofsky first, Carlos-Williams, Hugh MacDairmid, David Jones, few indeed, but enough to make me think my work was not wasted.[ii]

If you recognise the names of his friends, that ‘good enough in a small way’ is an excellent example of the English art of understatement. But it’s not a popular list and despite the excellence of his poems, Bunting remains a marginal figure. No one reviewing the letters of T. S. Eliot needs to explain who T. S. Eliot was, or why he is of interest. 

The life

Born in 1900, Bunting was imprisoned as a conscientious objector immediately after leaving his Quaker school in 1918. He studied economics before drifting to Paris where he met Ezra Pound and worked, alongside Ernest Hemingway, for Ford Madox Ford. Following Pound to Italy, he met W.B. Yeats and Louis Zukofsky in Rapallo and began a life-long and life altering affair with Persian literature.

His first published poem, Villon, is one of the finest long poems of the 1920s[iii], but by the end of the 1930s Bunting’s career as a poet had stalled: his first marriage had failed, he was out of work and separated from his children. The war rescued him. He discovered he had skills that others valued. He rose through the ranks to Squadron Leader, worked for British Intelligence, then after the war, returned to Persia, first as a diplomat, before resigning to marry a Persian and becoming the Persian correspondent for The Times.

Expelled from Persia and then unceremoniously dumped by The Times, he struggled to find work in post war Britain.

Despite the excellence of his poems, the story could have ended here, with Bunting as a footnote in histories of literary modernism, remembered as one of Pound’s ‘more savage disciples’[iv], but in his sixties, spurred on by his meeting with a young Tom Pickard, he wrote Briggflatts; at 700 lines a short long poem, praised as the ‘finest’, ‘greatest’ or ‘most important’ long poem either of the twentieth century or ‘since The Wasteland’. He enjoyed a brief period as ‘Britain’s greatest living poet’ before fading away in a series of university jobs and poetry readings.


From such a long and varied, life Niven estimates only about 800 letters have survived, of which approximately 600 relate to Briggflatts and the period after its publication. He has selected almost two hundred and thankfully decided to print complete letters rather than extracts.

Divided into three sections, the bulk of the book is devoted to the 1960s and afterwards. For anyone interested in poetry, rather than Bunting’s biography, the core of the book may be the pre-1960s letters to Pound and Zukofsky.

Briggflatts was praised by critics of the stature of Hugh Kenner and Donald Davie and poets as diverse as Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsberg and George Oppen, but Bunting’s status in the critical hierarchy has never been secure.

Perhaps his version of poetry is too austere to be popular. In a letter to Poetry Chicago (not printed by Niven), he wrote:

We are experts on nothing but arrangements and patterns of vowels and consonants, and every time we shout about something else we increase the contempt the public has for us. We are entitled to the same voice as anybody else with the vote. To claim more is arrogant.[v]

Throughout these letters and in later interviews he repeatedly stated the belief that politics, philosophy and theory harm poetry. The poet’s job is to write good poems.

What I have tried to do is to make something that can stand by itself and last a little while without having to be propped by metaphysics or ideology or anything from outside itself, something that might give people pleasure without nagging them to pay their dues to the party or say their prayers, without implying the stifling deference so many people in this country still show to a Cambridge degree or a Kensington accent. [vi]

It’s possible to go through these letters and compile a list of quotations to show he had little time for academics or literary criticism. He was publicly dismissive of creative writing courses and poetry competitions, while working on the former and once, memorably, judging the latter. He didn’t think poems should be explained; if a poem requires footnotes it’s a failure and tying the poem to the poet is a fundamental mistake.

What characterised Bunting and his correspondents was the intense seriousness with which they applied themselves to writing. Poetry was a craft and writing it involved ‘sharp study and long toil’. The ‘study’ involved arguing into existence a standard of excellence selected from poems going back to Homer. Once tentatively established, they attempted to excel their models, supporting each other through stringent criticism.

Bunting’s criticism, shown here in his letters to Zukofsky, was not for the faint hearted, but it was driven by the belief that some poets, Pound and Zukofsky explicitly, were ‘entered without handicap against Dante and Lucretius, against Villon and Horace.’ In the same letter, he explains: ‘At least for my part, I’d rather have somebody who is thinking of Horace call my poems bloody bad than to hear them praised by somebody who is thinking of-who-Dylan Thomas?’ (p.194).

Two other reasons for Bunting’s odd position in the critical hierarchy stand out. In some quarters he is tainted by his association with Pound, especially where Pound is only known, vaguely, for his political and racial opinions. The other is the insistence that ‘All Roads lead to Briggflatts[vii] which condemns him to the role of a minor poet who pulled off one great poem and consistently ignores the quality of the rest of his work.   

The letters qualify the first of these, while Niven’s editing and commentary seem driven by the second. If there ever was a tribe of Ezra to match the tribe of Ben, with Rapallo replacing the London taverns, Bunting was always too obdurate an individual to be anyone’s acolyte. [viii].

The explosive end of the pre-war correspondence with Pound is well-known, though the full text of the letter hasn’t been available until now. What becomes obvious is that from the late 1920s and through the 1930s the letters show Bunting becoming increasingly resistant to Pound’s politics. Bunting’s repeated statements that poetry is hampered when it tangles itself in philosophy and politics became focussed in his insistence to Pound that banging on about ill-informed economic theory was a waste of Pound’s time and literary talent, although Bunting himself isn’t adverse to sharing his ‘theories’ with Pound.

Initially refusing to believe Ezra was writing for the British fascist movement, he finally reached the limits of his patience when he learnt that Pound was ‘spilling racist bile’ in his letters to Zukofsky. His angry letter to Pound ends:

I suppose if you devote yourself long enough to licking the arses of blackguards you stand a good chance of becoming a blackguard yourself. Anyway, it is hard to see how you are going to stop the rot of your mind and heart without a pretty thoroughgoing repudiation of what you have spent a lot of work on. You ought to have the courage for that; but I confess I don’t expect to see it. (p.136)[ix]

It says a lot about the robust nature of their friendship that despite this, Pound would continue attempting to promote Bunting’s poetry, and Bunting would continue to acknowledge his debts to Pound. After the war, when Pound was incarcerated in Saint Elizabeth’s hospital for the mentally ill, Bunting picked up the correspondence, encouraged by the news that a letter from Basil brightened up Ezra’s week. Pound’s letters to Bunting, by turns abusive and incoherent, didn’t put him off.

As he wrote to Zukofsky: ‘The difficulty is how to avoid being involved in the network of fallacies while profiting from his illuminate faculty for verse and enjoying his energy and kindness.’

The same problem faces everyone today: how to see beyond the politics and racism to profit from what any poet in the past had to say about poetry and learn from what he or she achieved as a poet. Bunting managed it with his two closest friends, one a communist, one a fascist. It seems an important precedent.

Anyone interested in Basil Bunting or twentieth century poetry owes Alex Niven a great debt for the time and work that must have gone into this project.

How different the picture would be if this were a complete edition of the letters, only he knows. When Jonathon Williams published a selection of his letters from Bunting, he wrote: “What a stern, serious, funny, extraordinary ‘literary’ (LETS HEAR IT FOR LITERARY) North of England person he was’ (Williams, p.252).[x]  The Bunting of those letters, watching the birds and wild life in his garden, is absent from Niven’s collection, as are the descriptions of Persia that suggested to Burton that Britain lost a major travel writer to the Official Secrets Act.

The book’s sense of its reader is uneven. Niven explicitly describes a model reader who knows the outline of Bunting’s life and is not put off by occasional difficulties (p.xxvii). This model reader has a positive effect on his annotations, but seems to have been forgotten when he came to write his commentaries.

Why Niven thinks such a reader needs to be told what to think about the letters and how to interpret them, is a mystery. You buy an edition of a poet’s letters, wanting to read the poet’s words, and find a portion of the book contains the editor’s personal opinions and interpretations which you will never reread.   

Based on his model reader, Niven’s annotations are usually deft and show a shrewd judgement of what this reader could be expected to know. He assumes that anyone reading these letters won’t need a gloss on Dante, Swift, Winston Churchill, or others. He is also unwilling to overload the letters with commentary, assuming, (rightly), that anyone who wants to follow Bunting’s detailed responses to Pound’s books; ABC of Reading, Guide to Kulchure, will have a copy.

In his letters, Bunting could be crudely dismissive of poets he didn’t like. It’s disappointing to see his editor join in: ‘Philip Larkin (1922-1985) hard right British poetaster and trad jazz critic.’ (n.277 p.384).

Sometimes the annotation strays a long way from objective facts: ‘It must be said that Briggflatts faintly resembles certain of [Dylan]Thomas’ work in form, subject and (marginal sense of) place’ (p.194). Briggflatts probably ‘faintly resembles’ a lot of things, but it also must be said it’s hard to imagine Bunting admiring Thomas enough to be influenced by him.

The introduction includes a clear and necessary discussion of editing methods. Whether an introduction to a selection of letters needs a dramatic retelling of the first reading of Briggflatts, or is an appropriate place for a summary and critique of existing criticism, depends on the individual reader. As I don’t agree with his evaluation of Don Share’s edition of the Collected Poems, unless ‘the book’s only major limitation’ is intended ironically, or his criticisms of Burton’s biography, and I think he misreads the Pound-Bunting disagreement over Bunting’s translations of the Shahnemeh, I’m suspicious of his statements about literary matters where he strays from simply providing factual biographical context.

He uses his introduction to stake out his version of Bunting’s life, at times in explicit opposition to other published versions. I’m not convinced this is the right place for it. His dissent from Burton’s views of the significance of Bunting’s Quakerism is pointed, but his dismissal of Burton’s biography as ‘relatively light on critical explication’ is baffling. Eager to point out that book’s ‘shortcomings’, he seems to be criticising Burton’s biography for being a biography while temporarily forgetting just how problematic and limited letters are as biographical evidence.

The trust in the reader, obvious in the annotations, is not evident in the editorial commentary running between the letters. I think there’s too much. Rather than let the letters speak for themselves, he interprets the evidence and intrudes his opinions, unnecessarily:  

For all that his language and actions often fell a long way short of today’s ethical standards, Bunting certainly thought of himself as a determined anti-racist-and this letter would seem to support that view. In the context of his historical moment, Bunting’s basic philosophical views about race were, to put it mildly, considerably more progressive than Pound’s. (p. 134-135)

Comments such as this one and less lengthy interventions like ‘even if the age difference of over thirty years was problematic in more ways than one (p.140)’ seem to miss the point that adult readers are capable of coming to their own conclusions.

Sometimes the comments have nothing to do with the content of the letters: ‘There is a pressing need to apply more and deeper scrutiny to Bunting’s colonial phase than has been evident in previous scholarly and biographical treatments. But whatever its unexamined moral and political complications’ […]. (p.139)

Superfluous in terms of contextualising a letter, this manages to suggest something sinister without being informative. Even for a reader who knows the biography it’s not clear what the unexamined ‘complications’ are, or how ‘scrutinising’ them would add to the enjoyment of the poems or why or to whom such a need is ‘pressing’.

Letters encourage the tendency to tether the poems to the poet. The results of failing to distinguish between the two is a depressing characteristic of contemporary discussions of poetry, obvious in attitudes towards writers as diverse as Ezra Pound, Phillip Larkin (see above) and most recently, Dorothy Hewett[xi].

As Bunting wrote to Zukofsky:

Letters are meant to be written to affect one bloke, not a public. What is true in the context of sender and recipient may be a bloody lie in the context of author and public…secondly: the bane of the bloody age is running after remnants and fragments and rubbish heaps to avoid having to face what a man has made with deliberation and all his skill for the public’. (June 1953 qtd in Burton, page 354 Ellipsis in Burton.)

There’s nothing anyone can do to prevent that, it’s still the bane of this age, but its sad inevitability is outweighed by the opportunity to eavesdrop on one of the century’s most interesting conversations about poetry. Hopefully, Niven‘s suggestion that a complete collection of the Pound Bunting correspondence should be published will be taken up sometime soon (preferably with the letters to Zukofsky). What they had to say about poetry transcends their time, politics and personalities.  

‘Long awaited’, ‘much anticipated’ and ‘ground-breaking’ are cliches of the blurb writer.  For once they can all be applied honestly and accurately to Niven’s work in making these letters available. The good news is that the long wait and the anticipation have been generously rewarded.   

[i] Page numbers are to Niven’s book. Richard Burton’s Biography, A Strong Song Tows Us is referred to throughout as Burton.

[ii] I transcribed this from Peter Bell’s film, Basil Bunting: An introduction to the work of a poet (1982). He seems to say something after ‘David Jones’ but I can’t understand it.

[iii] The poem was written sometime in the 1920s but first published in 1930. As Niven explains, the letters cast doubt on the standard dating and chronology of some of the poems.

[iv] The description belongs to W.B. Yeats. He surprised Bunting by reciting one of Bunting’s poems from memory when they met.

[v] Poetry, Vol. 120, No. 6 (Sep. 1972), pp. 361-365 http://www.jstor.org/stable/20595781

[vi] Another transcription, this time from a talk Bunting gave in London, in Keats’ house, in 1979.  From ‘The Recordings of Basil Bunting’ with thanks to the late Richard Swigg who looked after ‘The Bunting tapes’.

[vii] Julian Stannard. Basil Bunting Writers and their work.  p.88

[viii] Consigning Bunting to the role of ‘Pound’s disciple’ is to misrepresent him as badly as Tom Pickard is misrepresented when his own excellent poetic output is ignored and he’s remembered simply as the boy who midwifed Briggflatts.

[ix]  Zukofsky’s response to this letter and whatever Pound had written that offended Bunting so much, can be read in Pound/Zukofsky Selected letters of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky ed Barry Ahearn.  

[x] Williams, Joanthan, ‘Some Jazz from the Bazz: The Bunting-Williams Letters’ in The Star you Steer By. Ed, McGonigal and Price.

[xi] For Hewett and a recent example of this problem of confusing poet and poem see the remarks in https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/apr/04/the-whole-canon-is-being-reappraised-how-the-metoo-movement-upended-australian-poetry

Highwire poetry

Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light
Reagan M. Sova, First to Knock, 2022, 265 pages, US$17
LIAM GUILAR takes a ringside seat for a dazzling extravaganza

‘Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light is an incantatory work of narrative poetry. Infused with hobo melancholy, Jewish lore, bloodshed and hilarity…’.

It’s rare for a blurb to be so accurate. For the price of the book, Reagan M. Sova will perform as ring master, troubadour, high wire artist and magician to entertain and dazzle the awestruck crowd.

Set in the first decades of the twentieth century, the story is told by Mort Sloman, who leaves home at thirteen. He falls in with a circus, and in love with a Gypsy trapeze artist, discovers friendship across the barriers of race and difference, witnesses institutionalised racism, violent death and corruption, joins the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World, IWW) and unionizes his circus, travels through Europe during the First World War to Egypt, returns to America to help the union cause and finally performs the Festival of Light for his dead relatives.

A lot happens.

At the beginning, the narrator sets out on a quest, mounted on a mule rather than a white charger:

i/consecrated unto myself the sacred mission

the ceremony of light to honor Frank and Aunt J

i had the song in hand but i

could not do it without the right guitar

nor the Locksmith keys

not even the rabbis have them

While this quest gives the story a beginning and end, the ‘sacred mission’ fades into the background, replaced first by Sloman’s devoted pursuit of the gypsy acrobat, then by his experiences with the travelling circus, and his involvement in the IWW. Although set in a world anchored in the familiar by historical names – Ringling Brothers, Big Bill Hayward, Eugene V. Debs – and recognisable conditions and historical events, the story moves in a liminal space that shifts Sloman’s journey into the realm of legend.

The circus, which Sloman calls ‘The Kingdom’, is a ready-made symbol of America, with its outcast others, unusual characters labelled as freaks, and self-confident, exploitative hucksters and frauds. His is an American Dream where the poor boy escapes the bullies, finds love and wealth, and good guys find friendship and love, and win despite the odds stacked against them.

The poem exploits its own intertextuality in a cheerfully unembarrassed way. There are echoes of Whitman and the Ginsberg of Howl. But the influences are taken and adapted. A rambling man bound for glory with guitar on his back, writing songs and supporting the union, evokes Woody Guthrie, but the verbal inventiveness of Sloman’s songs is a world away from Woody’s. Like Sloman’s parade, which begins with himself and his friend and grows throughout the story, Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light is robust and generous enough to accommodate whatever resonance the individual reader brings.

The dominant stylistic presence, however, is Frank Stanford and The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. Of all Sova’s many magic tricks, the most impressive is the way he has managed to take Stanford’s instantly recognisable style, make it his own and adapt it to his own purposes.

By shortening Stanford’s line, leaving it unpunctuated and rarely end stopped, Sova has given the poem a rhythm which carries the reader through Sloman’s adventures. Stanford’s distinctive incantatory eruptions are present, but kept under control so they never take over the story the way they do in The Battlefield. They are a major factor in producing the slightly hallucinatory effect that keeps shifting the story from its factual, historical setting into the dream realm.  

When Alf, the circus master, asks the thirteen years-old Sloman what he could have seen ‘with so few years under your cap’, he replies:

i have seen the elderly monk gored by the falling icicle

i have seen the family of elk sleeping next to me in the moonlight

i have seen bob’s jar of brandy

i have seen the vial of goof dust I used to trick the trickster

i have seen the blood trickling

from my grandfather’s ear when he died roller-skating

i have seen good luck without grace invite darkness

i have seen the Gypsy’s vision of my death by the mountain

This early list is typical of the many that follow. They can include everything from the factual to the surreal, as Alf’s reply does. Sometimes it is not obvious how the items coalesce into coherence. Their exuberance often seems an enjoyable end in itself.

As well as contributing to the tone of the story, they serve another function. A long narrative poem needs variety in pace. A relentlessly onward rush becomes as boring as a story that goes nowhere. Part of Sova’s balancing act is to know when to allow the voice to narrate action without interruption, and know when to pause the narration and use the incantatory to add variety.

In the circus, the emperor’s armless great granddaughter plays the violin with her toes. As an image it’s simultaneously pitiful and ridiculous. Like the circus performers, the story risks absurdity. In the wrong hands, much of it would be silly. But the final magic trick, and perhaps the most subtle, is to make Sloman’s voice and story believable on its own terms and hold a reader’s attention for 250 pages. Stylistically assured, inventive, entertaining, Wildcat Dreams in the Death Light is that rare thing, a well-written narrative poem with a distinctive style creating an unforgettable story world.

One last portion of ‘Chips’

Chips Channon. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence
The Diaries 1943-1957
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon and Simon Heffer, Hutchinson, 896pp, £35
KEN BELL closes the book on the celebrated diarist

This third volume of the Channon diaries concludes the publication of all the surviving diaries that have come down to us, and as with the previous two volumes it is a hernia-inducing doorstopper of a book. Chips really saw fit to include just about everything that he did in his diary and by 1943, with his ministerial career over, an awful lot of what went on involved Channon lounging in bed, making long telephone calls to snipe about others and planning his social engagements.

Although the war still had two years to run, it hardly impinged on Channon or his set, so there are few references to world events in this volume. Instead, we are treated to a series of engaging vignettes involving Channon and any number of other men getting it on, as the young people say. In previous volumes, Channon often seemed to want to do little more than allow women to see him naked and dream about young men, but by 1943 he is giving us chapter and verse on his sexual life.

Peter Coates (“Petticoats”), to whom we were introduced to in the second volume of the diaries, was still Channon’s great love, but as he was in India with the army that left Chips with plenty of free time. The House of Commons, according to Chips, was a sort of glorified molly house and Channon was quite happy to bed members from both sides, in a spirit of bipartisanship. Thus he had a fling with Labour’s Raymond Blackburn, an alcoholic who would later be imprisoned for fraud, and ended his days as an assistant to Lord Longford in the latter’s entertaining anti-porn campaign. Nigel Davies was a Tory MP who was also being bedded by Selwyn Lloyd, a future foreign secretary who ended up as Speaker of the Commons. That did not stop him from finding the time to have a foursome with Chips, the playwright Terence Rattigan and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu.

As if there was not enough excitement in Parliament, Chips had the energy to enjoy a four-year fling with a corporal in the Life Guards, until 1955, when the soldier married a woman named Brenda. One likes to think that the money that Chips paid him gave the happy couple a good start to their new life. Channon was generous to all his bed mates, especially Rattigan who took over while Petticoats was away on military service. When Channon’s mother (whom he loathed) died and her final legacy of just over £1,000 arrived in Chips’ account, he spent most of the money on a gift for the playwright.

Channon’s often obtuse comments about the people around him are much in evidence in this volume. Upon seeing the images of starved corpses of concentration camp victims, he wrote: “The rows of dead emaciated bodies all looked like Margot Asquith naked!” At the end of his life, he was still as incapable of predicting the future as he had always been. Thus, in 1952, he predicted that “The new Queen is determined, humourless, serious and will be a success but not loved – after her youth and novelty wear off.”

He wasn’t too keen on the rest of the Royal Family, either. Chips avoided the Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend affair, “as I don’t like either of them”. He blamed it on the “fat Queen Mother” for being too lazy to stop the affair becoming a public scandal, and fulminated that Margaret was “a silly, selfish, ill mannered sensationalist”. Townsend he dismissed with his greatest insult of being “middle-class”. Chips, of course, loathed the middle-class with a passion: “How I detest the middle classes! Two from Southend proposed themselves to tea at the House and stayed two hours, never knowing when to leave!!”

We read Channon for his waspish descriptions of events. Thus, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, we learn that the four Garter knights carrying the Queen’s canopy managed to bungle the operation, and that Lady Carnock “was so drunk that she had to be removed forcibly from the abbey.” For his part, Channon nipped outside several times during the service onto the parapet for a cigarette and a chat with others having their own smoke breaks.

It is a pity Channon only commented on events in which he was directly involved, so there is no analysis of the Suez Crisis of 1956. Simon Heffer thinks charitably that this may be because Channon was in the last year of his life, but it seems more likely that Chips just didn’t care, because he wasn’t at the centre.

Channon in later life. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence

Nevertheless, he is a great chronicler of events during the first half of the last century. Even his failure to understand them gives us an insight into how men of his time and class thought; thus he gives us a window into the world of the upper-class Tory grandee, still at the height of his power. As an individual, I suspect that an evening with Channon would be an engaging night to remember.

It is to be hoped that a single volume of the diaries will be produced. This smaller portion of Chips is needed for the general reader who may not wish to plod through endless accounts of conversations with titled people and minor royalty. However, for the serious student of Britain in the inter-war and post-war period, these three volumes taken together are an essential primary source.

Five poems by Colin James

COLIN JAMES has had a couple of chapbooks of poetry published – Dreams Of The Really Annoying (Writing Knights Press) and A Thoroughness Not Deprived of Absurdity (Piski’s Porch Press), and a book of poems, Resisting Probability (Sagging Meniscus Press).

A talent for legitimacy

Episodically craved by adolescents,

Prometheus displays his tats

behind The Dollar Store in Bonita.

The one with the plastic pillars.

Chained willingly to a picnic table,

he effuses in atmospheric cigarette smoke

shiftlessness his apparent esthetic.

Peers immersed in forsake-me-not hygiene

crouched in even more uncomfortable positions,

strain to catch a glimpse of his epithelial gland

visible through tiny filaments of foliage

like a conceptual umbrella or soluble shade tree.

Decadence owed

It rained during the night,

my accountant was unavailable.

His secretary referred me to

a descendant of that Hungarian actress

who played the werewolf’s mother

in all those old horror films.

I took the coastal highway

which was pleasantly diverting.

Her caravan stood adjacent to

an erosion affected cliff.

A horse was grazing in a shaded copse.

Colored streamers fluttered in the wind.

She was selling, the sign said.

Her psychological item deduction

had become a thing of legend.

There was a green carpet

on the wooden steps. Strings

of drying herbs, garlic and whatnot.

The claw marks on the door

attempts of an Oedipus fatalist

to check off the right box.

Confederation of knife-throwing sailors

The brass plaque has been damaged
from several attempts
at forceable removal.
Most of the lads are a-sea,
security less than languishing.
There is only old Pythias,
he of the steel braided hair, beard.
Stows his blades in there.
Hear that Tricuspid Regurgitation?
Fortunately the wind has died down a bit
improving his accuracy
pending verdigris.

Call off your goons and I will call off my undisciplined transgressives

For the Int in impotent,
one of those Soho basement flats
dedicated to surviving a wet spring.
There is an old iron rail
I could have tied my bumboat to,
having neglected to bring some oats
which I get on the cheap.
Soon to be renting with options,
a quite large town green.
Copulist, just like a control mechanism.
I have no pen or magic marker
to leave a not so concise note with.
Something nice and sticky
blood or starship cola.

Drake-gasm after Ficlet

Heating pads warm the lower
extremities, arms held straight up.
The UFO lecturer makes eye contact
after every “now this” click.
I see a frisbee
hovering over Mendocino.
Late arrivals bring their bustle
and throat clearing.
I wasted my life reading
about the politics of possibility,
elements like Kryptonite,
undiscovered deference.

A Queen in the Wilderness

LIAM GUILAR‘s epic of post-Roman Britain enters its eighth chapter

The Story So Far (Chapters 2-7 inclusive have all previously been published on this site, starting here). The complete poem will be published as A Man of Heart in 2023, by Shearsman.

Mid Fifth Century Britain. After the legions have withdrawn, the island is facing civil war, a growing number of external enemies and a steady tide of pagan migrants looking for land.

Vortigern has been appointed to protect what’s left of Roman Britain. Following standard imperial practice, he has employed Saxon mercenaries led by Hengist. Together they have defeated the immediate threat of an army of Picts and a Northern rebellion and stabilised the province. Vortigern has married Hengist’s daughter.

Part two begins with Vortigern leading the Field Army towards a meeting of the Northern Lords, hoping to convince them that a unified province is in their best interests. The precarious balance of power he has established is about to be destroyed.


Damp woollen clothes,

the itch and stink of them,

never dried, except when smoked

acrid by the heat of a fire.

Rain falls, drifts, batters,

the wind skins the rocks

or drags mist from the hollows

while the clouds smother the hill tops.

Ragged local guides thread

the mounted column

through unmapped valleys.

Occasionally the mountain wall

greyer than the clouds

curves the northern horizon.

Riders keeping below the ridge,

following the main party.

Like guilt, thought Vortigern,

not enough to stop his progress;

a persistent qualification

intent on being noticed.

Confrontation seemed inevitable.

He rode towards it.

The lead rider, Hengist’s latimer,

dismounted, knelt and greeted him.

The second removed the gilded helmet

shook out her hair and said:

‘Wæs hæilVortigern Cyning.’[ii]

The drab hillsides patched with torn cloud,

the finest of drizzle-intensified colours,

the brown horse, the green, rain darkened cape.

Her hair, like dull gold, shaking loose.

Hengist’s delighted chuckle.

A sound so rare,

he turned to see who was behind him.

Dull gold of her hair.

Finger tipping an impossible softness.

He claws for his mind but undressing

            a marvel

                        green eyes


like a diver

assessing the risk


committing herself to gravity.

Fingertipping, soft

            a marvel but

it’s cold here and the escort is waiting.

                        Green eyes

wide open, watching?

Lauerd king wæs hæil;

For þine kime ich æm uæin.

It’s cold here and the escort is waiting.

‘This is no place for a Queen.

I left you safe, with your uncle.

We ride towards a confrontation.

Go home.’

‘My home is with my husband.

I have come to see the lands you gave me.

You are riding I think to a council,

a gathering of the northern tribes.’

‘Go home, lady.

This is no fit place for a Queen.’

He turns back to the valley floor.

The riders follow,

keeping just below the ridge line.

Like guilt, he thinks.

The column camped beside dark water.

He approved the choice of ground,

checked there were skirmishers along the heights,

made sure the baggage train was safely in,

waited for the rear guard to arrive.

See him talking with his officers,

noticing their discipline

making time to hear their stories,

in the bustle of the camp,

where behaviour is defined

as clearly as the perimeter

he rides out to inspect,

ignoring the presence

dragging at his attention.

Tents pitched, guards posted,

before the light began to fade

he wandered through the lines,

through the susurration

of tired conversations

stopping to talk to weary riders

commending them on the care

they gave each other, their arms and horses.

His world, where he was most at home,

contaminated by their shadow,

stopped on higher ground,

erecting simple shelters.

She sits beside the latimer

watching the busy camp below.

‘I stopped counting things I’d never seen before.’

‘There were too many?’

‘Yes. The way

water spills from the cliff top and wavers as it falls.

Clouds and birds below us, in the valley.

My uncle hates mountains,

says they remind him of a heaving sea.

What is the best word to describe

how stray clouds drift across the hillside?’

‘Drift is good.’

‘They remind me of assassins.’

‘In daylight?’

‘Not all assassins wait for darkness.’

Small figures

scrambling towards them,

become Vortigern

and his guard

slithering in the scree.

Keredic removed himself.

A man can turn a hill into a mountain;

an evening stroll into an epic climb.

From the valley floor

he could see a band of rock,

her tethered horse cropping the grass,

the shadow of a cave.

Then the damp fog became the world.

Smooth stones skittering behind him,

stalled in a dreamlike lack of progress.

She was sitting inside the cave.

She did not rise or greet him.

‘Lady. This is not wise or safe.’

‘Not safe? Here?

In the green world, in the wind and rain.

There are no dangers here that can’t be faced.

But stranded in a hut, hedged

by brutal threats and body parts?

No reason to greet the day

or welcome the night?

This is not safety but burial,

alive, behind locked doors

until the stallion calls to rut. 

I am not ‘Hengist’s daughter’

live bait to trap a wary fox.

I am myself. And I chose you.’

When he had finished,

she waited for him to leave

but he lay beside her,

on one side of the causeway

looking to the mythic landfall

on the other side.

He had heard the stories

of the cottage in the woods.

A stand of body parts

and heads that shrieked

if anyone approached.

What had she recognised in him?

He had done nothing to earn

this devotion.


The rain intensifies.

A man is speaking quietly,

someone laughs.

Keredic is singing.

His song sounds older than the rocks.

She is no longer Hengist’s daughter.

Or the wife of Vortigern the King.

She is like rock, tree or river,

as certain as the mountains

and as patient, waiting

for his act of recognition.

Half way across, and no more stones. 

He can go back, he’s always done before.

Rise, fumble for his clothes.

Or he can brave the distance to the other side.

If it’s a choice?

A man stands in the cathedral ruins

looking at the sky.

The bombed reality softened by a memory

of upright walls, unbroken roof.

Even if ghosts and stray dogs

scuffle in the garbage

he can remember people in the pews,

the drift of sacred music,

the certainties of ritual.

Easier to live here,

where the shattered past

still feels like home than leap into a world

that’s blank and waiting to be born?

No maps, no rules, no precedent.

When a Queen rides, armed, in the wilderness

this is an unimagined world.

‘Lady, may I stay with you tonight?

And tomorrow, would you ride with me?’

They say: her smile is like the sunrise;

the slow spread of light and promise

after the horrors of the night,

but she never smiled at ‘them’ like this.

And later, she says, ‘But tomorrow night

we find a bed with fewer stones?’


Teetering over the river

the complex was scattered,

across the flat hill top

like bad teeth in a jawbone; 

great hall like a strange squat wooden tent

with a scattering of huts

surrounded by a ditch and palisade.

A growth on the land,

like hanging smoke,

beside a barrow

where the ancestors slept.

A chaos of temporary shelters

festering down the slope;

banners and stacked spears,

horses, mules, carts.

Men clustered around small fires,

watching as they pass.

After days in the dripping quiet of the hills,

they were ambushed by noise and movement

crashing the private space she had begun to craft. 

The bellowing of slaughtered cattle.

Carpenters hammering and sawing

as huts went up to hold guests;

the smiths at work. Everyone

with a job to do and a place to be

swirling them into public routines.

She watched the Lords accumulate to greet him.

Then he was gone, as though the sea had surged

and dragged him off the beach into the rip

that sped him out towards the sky line

leaving her bereft and stranded.

Wives and daughters came to greet her,

took the bridle, set off in procession,

leading her towards an isolated hut.

Slaves brought silver bowls

with steaming water,

sweet smelling oils;

the women bobbed and fussed,

admired how beautiful she was,

then left and closed the door.

Next day, in the great hall,

Vortigern accepted homage,

dispensed gifts, discussed plans,

handed down judgements.

Alone in a hut that smelt

of smoke and fresh cut timber,

she was prowling from wall to wall.

Dressed in the finest silk

provided by their hosts,

hair dressed, jewels shining,

a predatory goddess

no slaughter could appease.

The silver dishes

scattered to the corners,

fine white towels thrown across the room,

the servants fled in terror.

She was waiting for the horns

that would summon her to the feast

when Keredic entered

to escort her to the hall.

Wall hangings flicking the firelight.

A tripod burning something fragrant.

No loom, no Mother Gothel.

I will hone my knife and hunt him down.

‘If I am Queen: this is my country?

Should I not be there when they discuss its future?’

Impossible to explain,

not one man in ten thousand

would have taken her to the gathering

and of that number, not one in a million

would have listened to a word she said.

‘Twenty four paces from hut to hall?

The door shut and guards all round.

Twenty four paces from where I should be.

I might as well be stranded on an island

staring at the cliffs and cut off by the tide,

locked here until he wants to fuck

his princess titznkuntnhair.’


If you were listening,

you could hear Dame Fortune

spin her wheel

and smile.

‘Chieftain,’ said his host,

‘God smiles on you.

Lords of the North,

retinues like honed blades

ready for war,

secure in their indifference

came here to talk.

Bishops and book-learned men

recording their agreements.

3 weeks, and not one death.

You have sold them an idea:

the priest safe with his flock,

the famer will go to his field,

the merchant to the market.

Ships bringing goods to our ports

and our roads busy with trade.

Chieftain, you are truly blest.

3 weeks we’ve feasted.

The bards of the north

have come to compete

for praise and honeyed mead.

Magnificent stories,

music to gladden the heart

and the last three nights

your wife as my companion at the table.

On God’s wide earth she has no match

for wit and wisdom. She knows

more stories than my poet.

Tells them better too.

No wonder men will follow you.’

Commotion at the gate.

First the messengers. Then the refugees.

Confusion, contradiction, disbelief.

Vortimer had slaughtered Hengist’s men.

Britons had crowned him King.

Horsa was dead. Vortimer this,

Vortimer that, massacre and murder.

Saxons hunted like wild pigs.

A bounty of ten silver coins for every Saxon head.

Its weight in gold for Hengist or his daughter’s.

            Slack mouthed the heads still speak:

            This will be our second child…on a stick;

            We were desperate, we were lucky…on a stick;

            He’d go off to work, and then come back…on a stick;

            If a man steers clear of strife, his children have a chance….on a stick.

Those considered loyal had died.

            You’re the best man for the job.

            The house smashed, the bodies…on a stick.

Pogroms and purges and a rising body count.

Vortigern thinking he had underestimated his son

until the name of Gloucester or his men

were noticed in every successful action.

But what was he doing? Vortimer, upright Christian boy,

exasperated by the heathens, wanting to protect his church,

deluded, predictable. But Gloucester

had both eyes open and could see

this was a war he couldn’t win.

The last messenger to arrive knelt before his King.

‘Speak up man, we do not punish the messenger for the message.’

But he muttered on, so Vortigern leant forward

and they all heard the oath,

saw the blade, saw him lunging for the King.

The host leapt between them.

Hengist’s seax stabbing the assassin’s throat.

Both men fell; Vortigern unhurt.

Rowena entering, breathless,

as the corpse was dragged away.

The assassin’s knife had skidded

off the King’s mail shirt

and pricked the host’s arm.

‘The knife is poisoned,’ said Rowena,

who knew about such things.

‘Lord,’ she said, ‘you have my gratitude

but find a priest and come to terms

with whatever God you worship.

You will be dead before the sun sets.’

Saxons preparing to ride, grim and resolute.

Experts in the rules that govern vengeance.

Rowena standing by her father, dressed to travel.

Despite the foul weather, there are ships beating north,

to risk the crossing and take them home.

As his world unravels.

Hengist making plans, seeing the scale of the disaster.

‘I will return with fifty ships of first rate fighters.

I will avenge my people and this insult to your rule.’

Vortigern walks the perimeter.

The short day is coming to an end.

His men are waiting his instructions.

The northern lords are waiting for instructions,

already wondering if they can be ignored.

There are no answers in the landscape.

It is as dull and littered as his mind.

As blank as the coin he’s turning in his hand.

All year watching Vortimer, Gloucester and their friends.

Sifting rumours of revolt, looking for sinew under insolence.

But the rebellion should have happened late in summer

or in the early spring next year. When the summer faded

they’d left Horsa on the coast, in striking distance

of any army mustering in the south. How could

he have been so wrong? He walks amongst the details,

picking over the pieces, asking why the building fell.

Since he was old enough to understand

he knew one day would find him:

Shipwrecked, broken and alone.

But that was not today.

This was another problem he could solve.

He had stumbled to the clarity beyond,

like the survivor of a shipwreck,

washed overboard,

surprised by solid ground,

looks back to see the surf that trashed him,

doesn’t break the skyline

and his tattered ship’s still floating in the bay.

He still had the field army.

They had no need of Hengist

to trash a mob of lordlings

and their reluctant, ill-armed tenants.

And he hadn’t been alone.

Trust someone because he can,

not because he has to?

In what language do those words make sense?

Dixit Dominus Deus

non est bonum

esse hominem solum

faciamus ei

adiutorium similem sui.[iii]

The sentry on the wall

will swear he heard the Thin One

repeat a Latin phrase

then laugh.

He lies of course, there was no laughter.

‘And I will make an help meet for him.’

It is easier to say ‘he laughed’

than accurately describe the small sound

a stranger made acknowledging

that understanding is redundant

when it’s delivered past its use by date.


Rowena sitting straight backed

staring at her fire.

We see her from behind.

Then her face in profile

as the sound she’s waiting for


Vortigern straightens,

entering the room.

Stalled. Baffled. Wondering.

She rises. ‘Oh foolish man,’

she says, seeing his surprise,

‘when will you ever learn?’

The sound of a door being closed.

Perhaps he managed,

‘I watched you leave’

or, ‘I’m so sorry.’

An awkward blur of mouths,

hands, her hands, his hands, hard to tell.

Nose to nose,

he asks the golden lady,

‘What would you do?’

She had waited for this door to open.

But now the gate’s swung wide,

invited in, she pauses on the threshold;

‘I can taste winter; smell it on the wind.

Ice darkens the edges of puddles,

the thick mud hardens into rut and fold

and the wind tests the walls.

Outdoors everyone has begun to hurry.

The space from dwelling to hall becomes an ordeal.

Soon only the numbed sentry,

counting the cursed hours of his watch,

will stay squinting into the hazed light,

knowing no army moves in winter.’

‘Gloucester knows the northern winter.

He was trapped here on The Wall,

searching for his legion.

We’ve all heard his snowbound stories;

roads they had to swim across,

mud so deep men drowned in it.’

‘They were impatient,

their timing is inept.

Why are you smiling?’

‘Because incompetence is unpredictable.

They went too late or far too early.

The gods look down,

indifferent to our careful planning

and give their blessings to stupidity.’

‘I would go deep into the hills,

find a place we can defend

with half the men we have.

Then wait for Hengist to return.

And if I couldn’t find that place,

I’d build it, quickly.’

‘They‘ll expect us to go north.

We will go south and west and then

prey upon those who have betrayed us.’

‘We’ll plague the sleeping lords,

drunk by their cosy fires.

Burn their homes, steal their cattle,

kill their friends and families

and then come spring,

with Hengist’s help,

brush the remnants off the map.’

Vortigern called his officers together,

explained the friends and places lost,

named those who stood beside them.

‘You have been loyal. Now,

we travel to high country,

hard travelling, constant vigil.

From the mountains in the west,

we will fall upon the rebel lords,

we will reprimand their insolence.

They will learn the price of disobedience.’

The northern lords knelt before him.

‘Send for us when you are ready:

we will ride beside you.

Take our sons as hostages and guides.’

Local guides thread the column

through unmapped valleys.

The mountain wall

greyer than the clouds

leans forward to embrace them. 

[i] Old English Cwēn meant both ‘woman’ and ‘queen’.

[ii] Cyning, Old English for King, is pronounced ku-ning.

[iii] From The Vulgate. Genesis 2:18: ‘The Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him’

Art-icles of war

Photo: Ivan Radic. Wikimedia Commons
Artivism – The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism
Alexander Adams, Societas – Imprint Academic, pp 215, £14.95
GUY WALKER welcomes a spirited sortie onto the cultural battlefield

One function of placing fine paintings in ornate gold frames or sculptures on marble plinths is to demonstrate the special status accorded to fine art in human affairs. These objects earn this status by virtue of their ability to furnish us with some of the most sophisticated pleasures in the hierarchy of human pleasure. The treatment of the pulling down of statues from their plinths to serve baser ends (rather than for reasons of historical guilt) is, therefore, a cultural matter. As a result, it is in no way demeaning to say that the latest book by artist and art critic, Alexander Adams, fires an impressive salvo in what have become known as ‘Culture Wars’.

‘Artivism’ is the pressing of art and resources for art into the grubbier service of political protest and campaigning. It is also the displacement of fine art by what is no more than political activism. This is antithetical to the uplifting precepts of Emmanuel Kant, whose ‘Categorical Imperative’ made human beings ends in themselves in his ‘Kingdom of Ends’, never to be used as mere means to ends. The ability to produce representative art is a pleasure-giving end of this kind, one which appeals to deep human needs rather than shallow political outlooks. The greatest artists of the past understood this intuitively, and underwent long technical apprenticeships in order to fulfil this role properly.

Adams’ survey of the phenomenon and origins of artivism is comprehensive in its breadth. Although the book begins with the Athenian Parthenon and references Leonardo and Michelangelo, he finds the real philosophical origins of it in the rational Enlightenment begun by Bacon and Descartes. Their mathematical and “scientific method….encouraged the collection of data”. This led directly to Jeremy Bentham’s anti-Kantian, utilitarian approach which emphasised the best mathematically calculated ‘outcomes’ for the largest number above all things; there are echoes here of the impersonal big data approach and equality by outcome or ‘equity’ that plague modernity. Adams underscores an essentially conservative allegiance later, in his conclusion, by writing “….every institution established ( or substantially reshaped) according to Enlightenment liberalism has fallen to progressive subversion.”

Rather than Kant, Adams uses other big guns to underpin his art-for-art’s sake, pro-formalism, pro-connoisseurship, pro-objectivity and pro-canon thesis – first, Benedetto Croce,
“[Art] has its own object, the Beautiful, that stands independently on equal terms with the other three (Logic, Economics and Morality). […] true poetry must have no utilitarian, moral, or philosophical agenda.”

Equally weighty support comes from George Orwell:
“…many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed – or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer.”

Goya’s images of war might be “if not a cry for passivism, a call for pity and restraint”, but they only survived to be in the canon (if one remains) in the twenty-first century by placing artistic execution above political executions that could have been recorded by a plethora of lesser artists.

The author studies the aetiology of the disease of ‘cultural entryism’ that demotes fine art and promotes activism, that has colonised our public museums. This occurred in stages. First was the movement, demanded by Enlightenment universalist and utilitarian principles, from private, monastery or university-owned art collections to public libraries, galleries and museums: “The modern state encroached on the functions of monarchy, aristocracy and church, so noblesse oblige was replaced by the duty of an enlightened bourgeoisie, industrialists and landed gentry.”

This inevitably led to a symbiotic relationship between corporate business and the state, incarnated in bodies such as the Arts Council of England (ACE) and the American National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the emergence of a variously located ‘managerial elite’ whose progressive, Whiggish ideas involve a desire for “..homogenisation, globalisation, technocracy, atomisation and planned economies…”. To these can be added a desire for increased immigration and anti-capitalism. Once in control this elite effected a “territory grab of resources earmarked for art without any consideration for the wishes of the public…” and it is these resources that are used to commission and fund artivism.

Having explored this historical pathology and its philosophical origins, Adams unpicks economic and psychological strands. The funding of artivism by public bodies and corporations has created an underclass of artistically emasculated ‘artists’ subject to “no aesthetic competency threshold” and reduced to a kind of dependent serfdom. Some are real artists reduced to penury and dependency, others have no talent at all. Adams encourages pity for these latter“…a generation of non-artists (produced by universities) doomed to redundancy, deliberately left unskilled, chockful of abstruse theory and puffed up with self-regard, for whom the art world (and wider society) has no use whatsoever. Where else could these graduates have gravitated to except artivist quasi-social work?”

In the face of this, a return of old-style patronage of artists by wealthy patrons which guaranteed that only the excellent survived and thrived while the untalented withered from the field, might be welcomed, to put this deluded underclass out of the misery of its unrealistic artistic aspirations. It might also remove a “client class” of minorities cynically and exploitatively created by “…corporations wishing to improve their images, pressure groups wishing to make an impact, charities needing to disburse sums periodically and state agencies with annual budgets to be allocated.”

Psychologically, Adams detects a vengeful totalitarian predilection within the ‘managerial elite’ who run the arts show. In a further echo of a modernity where the BBC uses our licence fees to admonish and sermonise us on our lack of virtue, this elite uses tax pounds and dollars extracted from the populace to remind them how despicable they are. This is one of the abounding ironies and paradoxes Adams indicates. He also shows how potentially dangerous activist renegades are tamed by the “ruling class” to the extent that they become establishment “foot soldiers” – and how foreign artivist migration advocates are often in conflict with the wishes of the local populations they visit. The managerial elite use the tactic of making us pay for our own humiliation as a “power play” intended to reinforce and signal the subjugation of the populace, the desire for which may derive from the “Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy)”. It’s that sombre and that pathological for Adams. As in much climate activism, a profound anti-humanism is in play, as well as a depersonalisation where ‘collectives’ refers to persons as ‘bodies’ and ‘voices.’

This is an excellent publication doing fine work in identifying, naming and recording a phenomenon which Adams describes as “a predatory pike released into a carp pool” and “an invasive species”. If I have any quibbles, they are as follows.

He makes it clear in the body of the book that real “artistic merit” and “artistic endeavour” must trump everything in the art world and complains, for example, that “Feminists state that all art must be political because there is no division between art and politics.” Orwell and Croce seem to back this up. However, the beginning of the book is a little confusing on this point. He writes, “Drawing lines between art, artivism and political action is not always possible. This ambiguity (and precedents set up by art of older eras) allows overt political action cloaked as artivism to enter the area we set aside for public arts, allowing artivism to assume the status and resources of art.”

He illustrates this ambiguity with examples of artistic resources being used in the creation of the “political statement” of the Parthenon and the lending of their talents by Leonardo and Michelangelo to the political projects of their patrons. He also cites the socialist content of Millais’ and Courbet’s work. A writer and critic of Adams’ undoubted firepower should be able to make the fine but real distinctions between the passing contemporary content and the brilliant artistic execution that makes it survive amongst a welter of similar material or between artivism – and also between an artist lending his talent in return for remuneration to projects that aren’t his, and prototype artivism. He seems to make exactly this distinction in the rest of the book.

He raises a very interesting idea early on:

There is more than a touch of the religious rite about artivism. The activist- shaman-priestess prescribes the place and time of communion, her assistants prepare the space and provide necessary materials. The tribe gathers to attend the publicly announced rite, respectfully assisting by witnessing and participating as directed.

My regret is that he didn’t pursue this line later in the book. He writes very well, but there is a strange stylistic tic whereby he frequently omits the definite article as in “…but it is worth bearing in mind that progressive artivism of today is complementary to….” This sometimes gives a clunkiness to the prose.

Stuckist demonstration. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

But excellences by far outweigh the quibbles. I could add to the former a welcome practical prescription for resisting artivism in the chapter of that name, under the headings of “1, Ethics, 2. Exclusion, 3. Defunding, 4. Reduction, 5. Education, 6. Enforcement”, and the pages devoted to the true dissidents known as the ‘Stuckists’ after Tracy Emin’s derogatory term. I also enjoyed the pace-changing of the entertaining and colourful insertion of Case Studies between chapters, especially the swingeing take-down of Banksy.

The book ends on a pessimistic note. Adams feels our arts establishment has an “inherent foundational flaw” deriving from its roots in the Enlightenment’s rationalism. He suggests, root and branch: “…maybe it would be better to lose trust in that system.” One senses, perhaps, a longing for the more Darwinian days of the Renaissance.

Lincolnshire – a land apart

Crowland Abbey. Photo: Derek Turner
Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire
Derek Turner, Hurst & Co., 2022, hb., 446pps, 32 col. Illus. & map, £20
PAUL GARNER enjoys a survey of an oddly little-known county

Edge of England is a rich tapestry woven of many threads—history, nature, industry, geography, religion and folklore—all intertwining to create a picture full of interest. It tells the story, or rather multiplexity of stories, of the author’s adopted county of Lincolnshire, an unjustly overlooked and unfashionable part of England, one that is often, as the author reminds us in his opening chapter, the butt of snide jokes and liberal disdain. Turner’s book challenges this snobbery and prejudice, revealing “a county like no other … an England time half-forgot, where you can still find an unabashed past inside an unpretentious present—and freedom and space on a little offshore island”.

Turner delights the reader with captivating tales of eccentric characters, atmospheric places and intriguing events, his wide reading and breadth of knowledge apparent on every page. A thousand and one rabbit trails are laid by the author, any one of which could profitably be followed by an inquisitive reader. We learn about the lives and times of many sons and daughters of the shire, some well-known, others less so. Among the colourful characters that we meet are parliamentarians, scientists, explorers, military men, poets and writers, and religious figures.

The more familiar include John Wesley, the evangelical clergyman whose spirited preaching was the fountainhead of the emerging Methodist movement, Sir Isaac Newton, the scientific prodigy who developed differential calculus while sheltering from the plague at Woolsthorpe in 1665, and Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, whose land reclamation work met with fierce opposition from locals, who feared dispossession. But we are also introduced to less familiar personalities, such as the cantankerous nineteenth-century contrarian, Sir Charles Sibthorp, who, as MP for the city of Lincoln, vehemently opposed steam railways, water closets and barrel organs, the polymathic Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook aboard HMS Endeavour, and amassed important collections of botanical specimens, and the demon-afflicted Saint Guthlac, who, at the end of the seventh century, established a hermitage at Crowland, destined, after his death, to become a monastic centre and place of Christian pilgrimage.

Turner writes with affection of the ordinary people of Lincolnshire. They are kind, practical, helpful and courteous, even to outsiders, and when they get to know you “accord you the ultimate sign of acceptance—telling you about the idiocy of London”. He describes, with wistful melancholia, Lincolnshire’s lost villages, decaying industries and disappearing ways of life, but does not rub salt into the wounds in the fashion of some unkind commentators. Grimsby may be down-at-heel today, with “a depressed town centre, and too much bad housing”, but Turner writes movingly of the skill and bravery of its sailors and fishermen, and the fortitude of their families, ensuring that the reader knows of the town’s epic origins, regal connections, and dogged “tough pride.”

Many absorbing stories are related, ranging from the whimsical and quirky to the ghoulish and macabre. There is the curious tale of the “Stamford Schism”, an ill-fated attempt by a cadre of unhappy students and tutors from Oxford to establish a rival institution at Stamford in 1333. It was a short-lived venture, the brass door knocker the students took with them when they left Oxford now proudly displayed above high table at Brasenose, in the manner of a spoil of war. The Haxey Hood is another oddity, a game played every January in the town of Haxey, during which enthusiastic locals chase a group of costumed “Boggins” around the town in pursuit of a leather bolster, ostensibly re-enacting an incident with a riding hood said to have taken place almost 700 years ago.

Grisly crimes, pogroms and witch trials are also part of the county’s story. For instance, Turner tells of the tragic death of poor Mary Kirkham in 1806, and the execution of her murderer and erstwhile suitor, Tom Otter, whose skull was said to have provided a home for nesting blue tits when he was gibbeted at Saxilby. However, one of the darkest episodes in the county’s history took place in 1255, when an antisemitic rumour began to circulate in Lincoln that a young boy named Hugh had been murdered by a local Jewish man. This led not only to the arrest, torture and execution of the suspect, but the imprisonment of ninety-one others, eighteen of whom were also executed. The boy’s burial place became a shrine, and “Little Saint Hugh” acquired legendary status, becoming the subject of ballads and folk songs.

Those who, like me, appreciate tales of the strange and uncanny will enjoy reading about the ghostly goings-on at Epworth Rectory, home, in the eighteenth century, not only to the Wesleys, but also, it was said, to a noisy and disincarnate spirit called “Old Jeffrey”. We learn of the spectral “Green Lady” who haunts a tree-lined avenue near Thorpe Hall in Louth, and the “Black Lady” of Bradley Woods, still weeping for her lost children. The county also has tales of water sprites, wild men and mysterious big cats, and, although not mentioned by Turner, Black Shuck, the demonic hellhound that patrols the county’s byways, its red eyes flaming like coals through the fen mists.1 Anyone eager to explore the supernatural aspects of Lincolnshire further may want to consult a series of hair-raising articles by Rob Gandy in recent editions of Fortean Times.2

Turner says of the Lincolnshire-born antiquarian, William Stukeley, that he could see “the magic of words”. If so, Stukeley would have appreciated the spellbinding mellifluosity of Turner’s own writing. Almost every page yields memorable examples. Consider, for instance, Turner’s charming distillation of one village’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies as “a little ampoule of English eccentricity” – his spinetingling description of old gateways as “unquiet, touched by the memories of everyone who has ever gone through them, especially if they never came back” – and his description of a carved stone man, high on the forlorn ruins of Barlings Abbey, abandoned at the time of the Dissolution, “stuck in eternal outrage, his mouth forever open as if howling at all this sacrilege and sky”. Turner sees poetry in the everyday, as when he recalls a dead carrion crow, “lying in a patch of sun beneath trees, intact and gleamingly black, studded with iridescent greenbottles, like a mislaid piece of Visigoth jewellery”, or when he waxes lyrical about the vistas that open up from the Humber bridge, “especially to the west on a warm evening when it has been raining, with the sun going down in splendour, and backlit air and water so full of each other that it is like being inside a pearl”.

The reader is also treated to some wonderfully dry asides, perhaps my favourite being an anecdote about a cringeworthy sermon given by the new Bishop of Lincoln at his enthronement, its low culture references jarring awkwardly with the high pomp of the ceremony that had preceded it. Turner concludes, somewhat archly, “The Order of Service read ‘After the sermon, silence is kept for a few moments,’ and it was, but not necessarily for the right reasons”.

Edge of England is a book to savour and is accompanied by thirty-two colour plates and a rather beautiful, Tolkienesque map in which the Wolds take on something of the aspect of the “misty mountains”.


  • Ethel Rudkin, ‘The Black Dog,’ Folklore 49 no. 2, 111-131 (1938).
  • ‘The Ruskington horror,’ Fortean Times 401, 32-38 (January 2021); ‘The Ruskington horror: part 2,’ Fortean Times 402, 38-43 (February 2021); ‘The Ruskington goblin,’ Fortean Times 405, 48-38 (May 2021); ‘Weird wheels of the Wolds,’ Fortean Times 407, 48-51 (July 2021); ‘Scary stories from Scunthorpe,’ Fortean Times 411, 48-52 (November 2021); ‘Not the face,’ Fortean Times 414, 46-47 (January 2022); ‘Lincolnshire’s bevy of the bizarre,’ Fortean Times 416, 44-48 (March 2022); ‘A warning to the Fortean,’ Fortean Times 421, 42-45 (August 2022); ‘A grand fen-ale!’ Fortean Times 423, 42-45 (October 2022)

A painter’s peregrinations

Field Notes: Walking the Territory
Maxim Peter Griffin, London: Unbound, 132pps, hb., £16.99
DEREK TURNER admires a unique landscape artist

Several years ago, when I was thinking about writing a book about Lincolnshire, I found a strikingly original Twitter account. Almost every day, the seemingly tireless Maximpetergriff posted pictures painted during or after apparently endless walks across Lincolnshire, in all weathers and states of mind, showing the things he had seen in clear and luminous tones – birds, buildings, clouds, dogs, people, planes, planets, plants, pylons, rains, roads, skies, stars and suns.

These things had not just been seen, but looked at – everyday things uplifted by a strong sense of their possibilities, made resplendent in modern hues. Nothing seemed beneath this observer’s notice, nothing predictable in this parallel Lincolnshire, his glowing images intercut with staccato captions about bats overflying, bridges crossed, dogs howling, insects hurrying, litter lying, people overheard, the smell from takeaways, strange stones picked up, waterways running slickly away under moonlight.

The images were small, apparently simple and spontaneous, but in truth were full of thought. This was a county beyond conventional depictions, a painterly psychogeography; here were Englands within England. This walker was no pedestrian, but dashed off little-known vistas with verve, influenced by the likes of Nash and Piper while also being confidently contemporary; as he records, “two older ramblers look on the work with dismay”.

Some of these evanescent images have now been confined within the boundaries of a book, crowdfunded by those who liked this take on this territory. Field Notes’ freeze-frame cover suggests the unusualness of the author’s perspectives, and the élan of his approach. A redder than real sun stands in a yellow-brown sky, silhouetting black grasses. Geese power south from Scandinavia in a sky like a destroyer’s dazzle pattern. Suggestions of cirrus shadows spot Ravilious-reminiscent fields. Cruciform crows angle home over saltmarsh. White pylons overlay lands filled with decayed life-forms. On the inside back cover, where we expect an author photograph, we find a fugitive Everyman in a raincoat, painted from behind on a beach improbably alchemised from greens and blacks – the self-effacing artist as Sebaldian character, stepping out sturdily across the echoing east.

Griffin is sometimes sentimental, but never nostalgic; the book, like many of his Twitter posts, ends on the word “Onwards”. Yet he honours equally the mammoths that stomped drowned Doggerland (whose bones are taken up by trawlers), the antiquarians and eccentrics who discovered or dreamed our ideas of England, and today’s young English, heedlessly in the moment yet standing on the same fossiliferous foundations. Seams of gaseous Kimmeridge, outcrops of chalk, flint hagstones, the slimed tree-roots exposed at the lowest tides and the movements of muntjac are in a continuum with John Aubrey, boys on BMX bikes, exhausted seaside resorts and whooshing wind-turbines, while overhead ley-lines intersect with jet-fighter flight paths.

Field Notes is an account of one closely-noticed, deeply felt year in Lincolnshire, starting for the author (predictably, unpredictably) in October, with a Humbrol-hazed moon announcing the equinox, and the coming of the cold. “Look – the peak of autumn”, he marvels – with anthropophagical arachnids eating each other on barbed wire, RAF Chinooks, leaking boots, geological specimens arriving in the post, and ancient tracks to towerless churches passed over by Pevsner. “Look” again, he urges us, at the waning of the year, the chiaroscuros of clouds, the shadows of fences, the darkness under trees, the unlikely reds of earth, the arsenics and Prussian blues of limitless firmaments.

November brings branches waving against vastness, bleached bones in dunes, beachcombed sealskins and plastic bottles, deserted caravan parks, huge ships hove to off Spurn Point, memories of the drowned. An Airfix-coloured pillbox gives rigidity to the dynamic landscape, and a gun port leads into blacker than blackness. December holds the old names of ditches, mysterious murmurations, Mesolithic mirrors, thoughts of Raymond Briggs and memories of Mablethorpe Carnival Queens, the turning of this twelvemonth accepted as part of the epic, indifferent, unalterable cosmic churn; “The ocean will have us all – good.” Deep Time, East Midlandian history and today meet and mingle, even his cooking over campfires a sensory link with aurochs-eating, the crude charcuterie once carried out in willow-meads ages ago eaten by the waves.

Month by month, step by sometimes blistered step, sketch by swift sketch, we glimpse something of this arcane county’s blend of beauty and bathos, its grand desolations so often made mean by bungalows, car boots, leylandii, phone masts, and the demolition derbies of Skegness. There is grit in this Lincolnshire, some hardness and ugliness – asbestos sheds, chicken concentration-camps with humming extractors and the sharp stink of ammonia, algae-choked dykes, desperate biro notes found on the ground, rat-gnawed rubbish, washed-up whales, a man in an oxygen mask expending too much of his short time selling 1970s cassettes. But the overarching impression is deeply positive – room to breathe and self-realisation under the biggest of big skies, despite the oncoming storm-fronts of life.

Field Notes is filmic, impressionistic, and personal. It also manages to be unpretentious. In Griffinland, knowledge of the exploits of Alexander, Welsh poetry, Kurosawa, or “our pal Pieter Bruegel the Elder” co-exist chummily with pop blasting from cars, addicts passed out in hedges, shops selling tourist tat, and lost footballs floating out to the estuary. Phrases that from others might have been merely gnomic point towards places you’d want to visit. Even those who have some acquaintance with Lincolnshire will not be familiar with all the artist’s itineraries, and are certain to see new sights from his very particular vantage-points.

After long obscurity, Lincolnshire may be rejoining the mainstream of national history, with uncertain effects. This paean to little-known landmarks carries folk-memories forwards, while facing “Onwards” with equanimity. Ultimately, it suggests that whatever happens or is done, Lincolnshire has always been, and will always be, a land of graphic dreams.