The Little Places

In The Wild Places (2007), Robert MacFarlane ponders the importance of our encounters with place. Those often unromantic but intensely meaningful places we all hold a store of.

“Most of these places, however, were not marked as special on any map. But they became special by personal acquaintance. A bend in the river, a junction of four fields, a climbing tree, a stretch of old hedgerow or a fragment of woodland glimpsed from a road regularly driven along – these might be enough. Or fleeting experiences, transitory, but still site-specific: a sparrow hawk sculling low over a garden or street, or the fall of evening light on a stone, or a pigeon feather caught on a strand of spider’s silk, and twirling in mid-air like a magic trick…

“Little is said publicly about these encounters. This is partly because it is hard to put language  to such experiences. And partly, I guessed, because those who experience them feel no strong need to broadcast their feelings…They would return to people as memories, recalled while standing on a station platform packed tightly as a football crowd, or lying in bed in a city, unable to sleep, while the headlights of cars pan round the room.

“It seemed to me that these nameless places might in fact be more important than the grander, wild lands that for so many years had gripped my imagination. Taken together, the little places would make a map that could never be drawn by anyone, but which nevertheless existed in the experience of countless people.” 

It’s a passing consideration for MacFarlane, a small part of his efforts to make sense of what constitutes the ‘wild’ in modern Britain, what it’s value might be. For JCP, of course, these issues are an obsession. Our relationships with places, and the moments of heightened consciousness they evoke, are full of secrets, and secrets that are fundamental to everything that is most affecting, even somehow magical, in human culture.

But as MacFarlane points out, experiences of the little places aren’t talked about. Best not. It’s all too vague and odd-sounding, particularly when it comes to attributing actual significance to attitudes and how lives are lived.

The celandine time

Celandines remind me more of John Cowper Powys than the coming of spring: the combination of vivid colour and our northern chill, the surprises from damp, earth-smelling grass. It’s the kind of mood that dominates much of Wolf Solent – which always feels like a springtime book (Glastonbury for summer, Porius for autumn?).

Celandines work for Powys something like TS Eliot’s April lilac, mixing memory with desire.

 

        After all

        There are moments,

        Even for the most unhappy,

        When, out of some tiny crevice,

        Some small overlooked chink in the great Wine-Vat,

        The good liquor spurts forth

        Into our mouth.

 

        And we remember

        How long ago the rain-wet celandines

        Pierced us with memories,

        With memories of things deeper than sleep or death

        And older than all the orbits of the planets.

        Over the tossing poplars,

        Over the misty plough-lands,

        Over the dreamy meadows,

        Those memories came;

        Nor did they melt to nothing

        Even when, from the witch-girl’s window,

        The lamp-light streamed across the night.

 

        And we remember

        How from a long straight road –

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        While at our feet silver-weed and dandelion

        Laughed out of the hot dust,

        Somewhere – no matter where –

        We heard it; we knew it;

        The Sea! The Sea! The Sea!

 

JCP, ‘Compensation’ (a poem which resonated with Iris Murdoch, who used the last line for the title of her 1978 novel).

Hedgehogs?

One of my favourite articles from The Powys Journal in recent years must be Timothy Hyman’s recollections of the theatrical literary critic G Wilson Knight – best known for his scintillating works on Shakespeare. 

The current chairman of the Society remembers first meeting Wilson Knight at the inaugural Society conference in 1972, held to mark the centenary of John Cowper Powys’s birth, and getting to know a charming man who “radiated a kind of benign simplicity”; “I wanted to be to Wilson Knight what Porius was to Merlin/Cronos.”

It’s a piece full of insights into one of the most celebrated and rousing of Powys commentators, as well as glimpses of an appealingly eccentric character. Like the Powys conference in 1984 when Wilson Knight treated attendees to a performance of speeches by Timon of Athens wearing a reddish wig, when he finished up his recital by stripping naked (he was very proud of his muscular torso). And this memory of a visit to Wilson Knight’s home:

“So we were in this small kitchen together, he doddery and I clumsy, and every time I made a wrong move he would emit a strange loud sound, a sort of juddering shriek, which made me break out in giggles. At the end of the meal, which I’m afraid I left mostly uneaten, he just heaved the contents of my plate out of the kitchen window and into the thick tangle of bushes. He saw my surprise: ‘Well, there’s never anything left in the morning.’ / ‘So what do you think eats it?’ He replied, in a sweet sing-song, ‘I —don’t — know — hedgehogs?’” 

(The Powys Journal 2015, XXV)

Powysian walking #2

Walking Dorset’s Purbeck Hills was a commonplace activity for the Powys family, just part of the ordinary daily routines for those who lived in that part of the countryside and their visitors. Powys essays and diaries are filled with reminiscences of recreational jaunts over fields to the cliffs, following narrow fox-paths over dewy meadows in the mornings, the soaring flights of sea-birds that greeted them; the nights they would climb hills to make a moonlight vigil over a frosty landscape.

For anyone who’s walked the coastal paths between Lulworth Cove and Weymouth, or taken any of the routes inland across the ridges of hills into East Chaldon, there’s something’s remarkable missing from these accounts. Many of these ancient pathways are vertiginous, and to follow any of them for any real distance takes a monstrous effort. At any time of the year there will be lean athletic types jogging their way from one peak to the next, sometimes squaddies set a yomping challenge – but for the average walker it can be brutal. Summer or winter the challenge is the same. 

There’s nothing disingenuous about the family accounts of epic walks over the Purbecks, not an iota of false modesty. John Cowper Powys was open about his dislike for the attitudes among competitive, health-fad walkers of the 1920s and 30s. The point is that John and his brothers and sisters were perhaps a different physical breed to ourselves, more accepting of physical discomfort, more weather-stained, more robust. We’re used to easy comforts and instant treats, a modern ability to avoid the petty inconveniences of the material world. The resilience to the Purbecks – something earthy, salt-crusted and blistered – is translated, I think, into John’s writing, and into a simple principle that Powys readers know very well. Substantial effort, even angst, is repaid by what’s seen and experienced over the course of the journey.

A New Year

Tuesday 1 January 1935 (written while living in the top floor of a house on Dorchester’s High Street):

“Up at 8. Lit fires took tea to the T.T. Found her in splendid Good Spirits telling of how she put head out of window and saw…young people in evening dress & heard them bid each other Happy New Year in such crystal-clear voices…And she came & opened the Attic window so that I could hear the Fordington Bells that except for Maiden Castle thrill me most of all things in this town. And so I heard them, ringing wild & free out of the darkness…At 4.30 the Black & I got his licence at the Post Office & set out to within half a mile of Maiden Castle. We both walked on air – we were both so thrilled. Why does Maiden Castle thrill me so?”

[From Petrushka and the Dancer: The Diaries of John Cowper Powys 1929-1939]

 

Wisdom from the couch

Tuesday 25 December 1934:

“As I lay on my couch yesterday before tea watching the T.T. hang up her Wreaths & Major Stanley’s Holly she said she wondered why I looked on without helping in this task & why I had helped her so little over all her Xmas activities! This question nonplussed me totally. It is odd how little we know! But I suppose I behave as my Father used to do at Montacute – watching all our activities with benevolent but detached interest.”

Endlessly fascinating author. No use whatsoever around the house at Christmas.

Keith’s Companions

Powys’s modus operandi was wild and woolly. He was blown this way and that by inspiration, quirks and curiosities, able to dip into some seemingly bottomless pockets of literary knowledge, including Biblical learning and Classical works. 

W. J. Keith’s Reader’s Companions offer something of a port in a storm. To the eccentric world of Powysland he brought a clear head and a willingness to pay attention to fine detail, to explicate each obscure reference, old-fashioned phrasings, Welsh mythology and Latin terms. 

The latest Powys Society Newsletter includes tributes to Bill Keith (1934-2018) who sadly died in the summer. It’s another much-valued champion lost – not just in terms of the Companions, the introductory guides to Glastonbury Romance and Owen Glendower, but also his unerringly thoughtful and readable contributions to the Society’s Journal.

Keith’s Companions for A Glastonbury Romance, Owen Glendower, Porius and Autobiography are available in pdf format, or to order bound, printed copies via the excellent bilingual La Lettre Powysienne site.  

The Family Christmas

John’s brother Llewelyn’s descriptions of the Powys family Christmas can be magical: old traditions lit with a fireside glow; the contrast with the austere rural landscape.

“The celebrations had their beginning on Christmas Eve with the decorating of the horns in the hall and the pictures in the dining room. All the day long my brother and I [not John, who was 12 years older than Llewelyn, but Bertie] would have been busy collecting in two large baker’s baskets, moss and fir branches for the church and holly and mistletoe for our own home…

“At midnight, with the appearance of the carol singers, the real Christmas celebrations would begin. The men – masons, farm labourers, quarrymen and gardeners – would stand with their lanterns outside the front door to sing ‘Joy to the World’…At the first notes of the concertina, flute and harmonium sounding along the dark rambling passage, we children would hasten to the dining room, and collecting on the sofa, wrapped in dressing gowns and blankets, would peer out into the darkness…How strange it was to look out upon the drive, with the tennis lawn obscurely visible beyond the wicker-work fence, and to hear the ancient strains redolent of man’s desperate hopes, rise up from the secure Victorian garden into the sky, into eternity!”

(Christmas Lore and Legend, Yuletide Essays by Llewelyn Powys)

Encountering Powys #1

Powys really does confound the literary critics. Which box do you place him in? Memorably described as a “leviathan who laughs at the critics modest rod and line”, Powys hits you with his ability to evoke the coarse and the sublime, the mystical and the mundane. He can change the way you look at an ancient stone or a sweeping landscape, a blade of grass or a blackbird. He can stop you in your tracks. I love the guy. He can be as close to bad and good and over the top as every human being. He writhes about in prose that can seem clotted and then transparent. He is often intensely ‘wonder-full’. He has a grasp of human frailties that makes Tolstoy’s preachings seem superficial.

He erupted into my life with a huge impact; I was in a London bookshop, in 1964, and there was a new Penguin Modern Classic, Wolf Solent, with a splendid cover painting by Paul Nash. I began reading it in the shop and I have never been so instantly grabbed. Powys has never left me since that man on the Waterloo steps, and the solo journey he makes in the railway carriage to Dorset. A fly walks across a railway picture; this evokes another layer of memory. Yes, compartments on trains had pictures to look at, under glass. They might be photographs or paintings. And that Wolf Solent journey took me to Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle, Porius, Rodmoor, Weymouth Sands, Wood And Stone and Owen Glendower. He is truly enigmatic, almost other worldly rather than un-worldly. From a grain of sand to the Milky Way, the reader can look over this man’s shoulder and sense what he is writing and where his imagination will take us. Porius is essential; it is a fairytale with a profound message for anyone who catches on. Is it his masterpiece? I don’t care. But it is the best illustration of that historical essence; the idea that before we existed was a stream of consciousness that occupied the same forest that we now walk through. And it’s every bit as muddled as it ever was.

While acknowledging he is a such a loveable obsessive nutcase, I am entirely willing to take him on completely; although I’m talking about his books, rather than the ‘first cause’ spiritual stuff. A Glastonbury Romance is a classic example of the ‘flawed masterpiece’. It is strung out to the point, almost, of irritation; it has elements of mumbo-jumbo in the Johnny Geard character, but that same Johnny is wonderfully convincing and believable. Certainly it drags this reader on because it is peppered with wild and wonderful passages of inspiration and imagination, of the celebration of language. Love him or hate him, all his novels contain rich, complex characters and glorious writing. And I certainly do love him, with his whole heart, his acceptance of human life in the spirit of ‘absolutely undogmatic ignorance’. That’s his philosophy in brief form. Wolf Solent might well be my favourite single entertainment of Powys, but Glastonbury Romance is damn close to being my number one as well. It is just a bit too huge and untidy a sprawl compared to Wolf. 

Physicist Alan Lightman wrote: “From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.” I go along with that; ‘nature’ is beyond all understanding. The closer we get to an absolute final clear answer we are confronted with a further complication. Organised religion appeals to some people because it offers a graspable answer to the mystery of life. But to me that is to cauterise further attempts to find that elusive ‘First Cause’ as John Cowper Powys puts it.

Porius the Cat

“Kevin Jeys, 62, who rode out the Camp Fire in his home, fighting off surrounding flames with a garden hose in Paradise, Calif., Nov. 20, 2018. Jeys stayed behind because he couldn’t get one of his three cats, named Por, into a carrier.”

New York Times

 

 

Powysians can be a resilient lot. The cat in question, who prompted Kevin Jeys to face the chaos and terror of a raging Californian wildfire while the rest of his town was evacuated, was named after Porius from the Powys novel. There can’t be many pets on the planet named after obscure Powys characters, can there?