An illumination of the Dark Ages

The BBC’s King Arthur’s Britain: The Truth Unearthed (16 September 2018) offered “all the latest evidence to reveal what Dark Age Britain was really like”. The popular idea of the ‘Dark Ages’ – from the fifth to the sixth century AD – is of a backward island left to collapse into savage disorder after the Romans left and took their civilisation, their book learning and their expertise in roads, wine and aqueducts with them. The lack of written records has left an unsettling historical void.

The BBC programme added a few more pieces of evidence to support the argument that there is more to the Dark Ages than this, that it wasn’t all horror and emptiness. Historians since the 18th century have rejected this over-simplification of the period. John Cowper Powys made his own (spectacular) contribution to the debate in the form of the novel Porius.  

When I first read Powys’s introductory chapter of Historical Background to the year 499 AD, I winced at this:

It seems, therefore, highly probable that this historic blank, as far as written documents go, was filled by Arthur’s powerful and prosperous rule, this lack of documentary history being itself evidence that for one generation at least matters in this island were well under control.

What would a historian think of this half-baked and improbable stuff about a fictional King? Embarrassing. But over time I’ve come to appreciate that Powys is much less interested in the historical narrative than in saying something about the nature of official history. The full title is significant: Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages. It’s an explicit positioning of the story and the argument to come. In its rich and heady evocation of a specific and central moment of Dark Ages life, its networks of politics, threads of both old and new beliefs, the interwoven responses to the natural world, Porius is a statement of belief in the value of human culture. 

The bad old Dark Ages idea has been propagated by a number of different institutions and movements over history (and via history), all with a vested interest in the story of progress and the importance of civilisation and official knowledge: through Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the history of one truth.

By contrast, Porius is a gloriously grim and twisted vision of multiplicity, of how the cultures of individual people and communities manage to grow and survive. He’s illustrating how where there’s consciousness there’s culture, and not just where there’s power.

What would Powys have made of Facebook?

Human faces could be alarming to John Cowper Powys. All those passing faces in the street, ordinary people involved in one business or another, were never simple to his eyes. They were portals to other minds and other worlds of consciousness. In his novel Wolf Solent, for example, without knowing a single detail of the life or situation of a man sitting on the steps of Waterloo station, Wolf becomes haunted by what he sees in the man’s face, the possibility of utter despair waiting for any one of us. 

Powys saw the encounter between unfamiliar faces as a moment of challenge. One worldview versus another. Most often, from Powys’s perspective, this was the gaze of ‘normal’ society looking at and assessing anything that didn’t conform to expectations – and was an everyday expression of larger forces: the 20th century dominance of rationality and science, the popularity of psychoanalysis, the idea that anything and everything about the modern world could and should be known, judged and categorised.

Now we have Facebook, a global phenomenon used by more than 2 billion people, that takes this ‘face-off’ to a whole new level. Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to build community [sic] and bring the world closer together”, meaning a great way to share all that’s best or important about our lives. Fronted by the archetypal ‘techie-made-good’ Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook has become an essential part of many people’s hourly routines, their main link to friends and family. It’s also a business worth around $400 billion, making annual profits of something like $4 billion – because, for all its fun and feel good exterior, Facebook was built around a very serious business model. Facebook commoditises human desires – we want to be accepted, we want to show off, we want as many people as possible to see our best side – snaps up all this free information about what we do, what we like, how and when (the kind of knowledge that historically has been so difficult and expensive to extract) and sells it to business.  

Depending on your view, this is either smart 21st century enterprise or something more sinister. The  pressure to conform no longer comes from the occasional gaze of faces in the street; the challenge is set out explicitly and visually in a stream of shared digital content. The world sees far more, knows far more, insists on far more. When they have so much knowledge to tap into, businesses don’t need to advertise in the same way and traditional media and independent journalism is dying. All kinds of human contact and relationships are being replaced (one vivid example is that the use of social media is known to have led to a fall in teenage pregnancies). 

Still we love Facebook. Can’t do without it. And the worrying way it works isn’t being questioned enough – even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Since then Facebook has acquired WhatsApp, another piece of software with 1.5 billion users around the world for calls and communication, and providing vast amounts of material on people’s lives which is now being eyed for business use.

 

How to read Powys #1

I’ve not tried, but I’m guessing nothing by John Cowper Powys would work well as beach holiday reading. Returning home after a walk by a winter sea and anything most probably would.

I need to be in the right state of mind to fall into the Powys flow. It reminds me of lines from an old Chinese poem on ‘Proper moments for drinking tea’:

When one’s heart and hands are idle.

Before a bright window and a clean desk. 

On a day of light showers.

Shut up at one’s home on a holiday.

In a forest with tall bamboos.

When the day is clear and the breeze is mild.

Having lighted incense in a small studio.

In a painted boat near a small wooden bridge.

After a feast is over and the guests are gone.

And from the same poem, ‘Things and places to be kept away from’ (when drinking tea):

Damp rooms.

Kitchens. 

Hotheaded persons.

Quarrelling servants.

Lessons from writing Powysland #1, #2

John Cowper Powys fans pop up in all kinds of places. The head of non-fiction at Bloomsbury turns out be a fan. As does Adam Curtis, maker of cult documentary films for the BBC such as the brilliant Century of the Self. Most of all though – as I discovered from exchanges with potential agents and publishers – he’s mostly unheard of, even among the most dedicated of bookworms: “I feel like I really should know him, but I don’t”. Some would mention people they knew were into Powys, mostly with a note of curiosity, as if it was a love of Chinese algebra or competitive dog grooming.

I also learnt how tetchy I am. I thought I’d take rejection from big publishers quite well. The Powys name was never a money-maker or likely to appeal to a large mainstream audience. And anyway it’s all for the best that he isn’t exposed to that kind of bald attention. So I thought I’d be philosophical when Powysland was turned down. Instead I was scratchy and vengeful. “There’s not going to be a large enough audience, the sums don’t add up”, they said. “Too enthusiastic” as well as “Not enthusiastic enough”. They needed to stick to books that better suited them, I whinged to myself – Funny Things That Cats Do, or biographies of the latest You Tube sensation.

It was a passing moment; they’re businesses; they know what they’re doing. But I’m very grateful for publishers like Sundial who know there’s an audience for John Cowper Powys, maybe only a small one in terms of those who know him, but also so many other readers who will find him a revelation.

Powys and the black masseur

Charles Sprawson’s history of swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur (1992), is steeped in old-world romance. There’s no smell of chlorine or Deep Heat about it, no banging of sports hall doors, no Thorpedo. Instead the waters he describes, in pools, lakes or emerging as springs from far-off hills, are full of a seductive character and personality: velvet smooth, musky amber, black and fatal, a crystal window to pillared ruins.

In his introduction, Sprawson talks about realising how swimming “appealed to the introverted and eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” Naturally then, Haunts is dominated by the relationships between writers and water, and eventually arrives at John Cowper Powys.  

Powys was born to be a swimmer. After the fall of the Roman Empire, swimming took on the decadent look of something unhealthy and dangerous (as well as likely to encourage all kinds of lewd behaviour) and the next public baths wouldn’t be built until Victorian England: the new Golden Age of bathing-appreciation. Sprawson highlights how Classical literature “celebrates with such obvious pleasure the magic of cool water at noonday in an arid landscape.” And there’s a comparison to be made here with the thirst of some members of the Victorian industrial civilisation for myth and poetry. While reading Classical works was the theory, swimming became a kind of living practice. 

By re-telling the experiences of British and German Romantics, Haunts helps with an understanding of why water – whether immersing oneself in it, sitting by its banks or watching from a distance – is so highly-charged in Powys’s novels. Sprawson points to its early importance when John Cowper was a schoolboy.

It was in the presence of water that he could occasionally find consolation and become totally lost to the world, by the swimming pool and the ponds surrounding Sherborne that became for Powys, during his walks in the area, ‘holy’ places. They reminded him of an aquarium he had been given as a child, in which he arranged an underwater landscape of hills, gorges, and forests and in so doing became aware of the power of the individual mind to create its own enclosed world, independent of the attitudes of others.

Water is never just passive scenery in the novels, it’s a participant. The roaring nothingness of the sea in Rodmoor; the ominous depths of Lenty Pond; Glastonbury’s swallowing, redeeming flood. And then, over time, the waters seem to mellow and become sweeter, in the form of the life-giving goddess of the River Dee (in Owen Glendower and Porius), and in the sea-washed fantasia of Atlantis. In its absorption and reflection of moods, its sensuality, its ever-changing character, water is the most Powysian of elements.