Which roads lead to Powysland?

Stephen Baldwin’s post about the power of blurb (below) strikes me as making an essential point. How can the marketing – the all-important positioning when it comes to capturing new readers – encapsulate what those Powys novels are really like? Can it ever be inspiring without being hopelessly misleading?

I’m racked with prejudice when it comes to books. I find it hard to stomach much that’s been written post-1960. My nose turns up at anything that seems desperate to entertain me, too consciously written with the Booker Prize in mind, that just ends up looking like a business plan to lure sales. So I’m unlikely to read any contemporary literature unless it’s linked in a reassuring way back to an earlier age of sincerity, when there could be more interest in authenticity over hooks and gimmicks. I must be missing out, but there it is.

So it was the blurb that provided my entry point to John Cowper Powys back in 2000: the comparison of a British writer with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (along with its golden mystery of a cover). On reflection the comparison is an impressive one, but if I’d been banking on a Tolstoy meets Dostoevsky epic I’d have wanted my money back. There are simple and complex affinities with both Russians, but the whole reading experience, the richness of vision, the humour and weirdness of A Glastonbury Romance is really something else.

If I have to answer the question about who Powys is – and it’s not that often – I will tend to say he’s “a bit like Thomas Hardy if he’d been a Modernist, writing later into the 20th century”. What I’m really thinking is that yes, he’s a bit like Hardy, but “a drunk one, damning his publishers to hell, ditching his suit, rolling up grubby sleeves and writing the kinds of novels he’d always really wanted to write; he’s spilling himself onto the page – and damn the scandal, damn censorship, damn prison!” But it’s never going to work for blurb.


I suppose one of the problems Powys’ books encounter when trying to find a new readership is the inability of publishing marketers to liken his works to anything else, especially anything else that is currently popular. After all, consumers apparently crave things are similar to other things if modern advertising blurbs are anything to go by.

“Jane Austen devotees will enjoy…”

“In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes comes a new detective series…”

“A Dickensian romp…”

I even seem to recall one book touted as “a Joycean examination of” something or other, whatever that means.

And most cringe-worthy and prevalent of all, “Fans of Downton Abbey will love …”

But how can you describe John Cowper Powys in terms of popular writers? Margaret Drabble called A Glastonbury Romance “the visions of William Blake illuminating the domestic realism of Cranford subjected to the remorseless psychological analysis of Proust.”

I’m not sure that’s going to succeed as a tagline for a new edition of the novel: “Fans of TV’s Cranford will be bemused by …”

I once failed to recommend Powys to a speculative-fiction reading friend of mine by (very lazily) making the analogy of Mervyn Peake rewritten by Thomas Hardy. My remark elicited a look of horror that Stephen King would envy. It certainly doesn’t sound like a readable combination, and I apologize to all the authors concerned. But at least my intentions were good.

No doubt it will require a bestselling contemporary author to start referencing Powys as an influence. Perhaps if Karl Ove Knausgard ceased contemplating his own navel and moved to Weymouth? “Fans of Knausgard’s series of Wessex novels will love Maiden Castle …”

But then again perhaps not.

Stepping into Powys Country: Maiden Castle

In late March of this year a friend and I were down in the southlands and we diverted our course to see if the ‘ghost-wind’ really blew on Maiden (Mai-Dun) Castle. First constructed in 600BC the Iron Age hill-fort is the largest of its kind in Britain and rises out of the earth like some beached sea titan. The path from the north is long and almost a stream of running mud in the light rain; we passed local Dorset dogs and their owners, all of them intent on getting back to their cars.

In Powys’s novel (1936) Maiden Castle presides over Dorchester as a symbol of the old gods and of Dud No-man’s true parentage. As Dud approaches the fort, as we did, his descriptions of it fluctuate between various animals of world folklore and religion, at first a dragon ‘compared with whom Leviathan himself were but a field-mouse’, then the shell of the Kraken, and the ‘vast planetary Tortoise’ of Buddhist cosmogony. Finally, it takes the form of a Jurassic bird, swollen with its ‘portentous egg’.

Once past the four eastern ramparts we stepped out onto the castle’s flat top. A ridge of earth borders its edge, but this does nothing to stop the wind, which rushed over the plain, flattening the grass. It’s difficult to capture in photographs just how strong it felt; looking back at the pictures seven months later it seems like quite a mild day – although a line of damp mist lingers just on the horizon. In the novel Dud is with his father Enoch Quirm (or his mythical name Uryen) when he gives a shout and it echoes in the wind ‘with faint elfin screams through the curves of snail-shells … from mole-hill to mole-hill’.

The earthworks of Maiden Castle hold some kind of power, and the space of vaulted sky that runs to the fort’s invisible far end is alive with a bright energy; it’s impossible to look for long without being blinded. It was a long time before we reached the remains of the Romano-Celtic temple in the centre (pictured). It was cold and there were sheep in the distance, and I thought of Uryen with bowed head to the ground, Dud standing to the side, watching his father’s ritual with incredulity. He didn’t believe in any of the old gods, not a single Celtic deity from the ‘Golden Age’ – but actually being up there, it’s hard to see why not.

Searching for Powys Books in America

During my many, mostly unsuccessful years of shopping for John Cowper Powys novels in American used bookstores, I’ve been confronted by at least ten different editions of Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers. I probably know as much about the various cover designs of that book as Powers’ most ardent bibliophiles do. There was usually a copy on the shelves where I’d vainly hoped to come across absolutely anything at all written by J. C Powys.

At best I might find a battered paperback copy of Weymouth Sands; possibly an ancient Wolf Solent hardcover, falling apart at the binding with brittle and freckled yellow endpapers. And you couldn’t even trust all the pages were still extant, never mind the dust cover. But there was the very nice copy of Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers, a book holding no interest for me despite its National Book Award appeal, although the title did sound vaguely Powysian, which eventually only added insult to injury when I came across it for the umpteenth time.

America in the late nineteen-eighties, when I discovered John Cowper Powys, was not a good time for it. There were a couple of paperbacks of Weymouth Sands and Wolf Solent floating around, published by Harper Colophon in matching covers, but finding anything else required extensive archaeological digging in used bookstores. I was desperate to read A Glastonbury Romance after finishing those other two novels. Buying the novel, however, was much harder than I thought. I saw a copy that was so dusty, decrepit and apparently diseased that I decided it would require hazmat gauntlets and protective goggles to read the wretched thing. There was another one, pristine and gleaming in mylar wrap like the Holy Grail, for sale in a forbiddingly highbrow “bookseller” in Harvard Square. Being an optimist I asked how much it cost. “Oh,” I said when the owner named an absolutely exorbitant sum, pretended to examine a few other books, then quickly departed.

Of course, if ye seek ye will find eventually. By stubbornly returning to the P section of Boston’s many used bookstores time and time again, I managed to track down quite a few of Powys’ novels and other writings, including a copy of The Inmates in a plain green cover that I must admit still has my bookmark wedged only about a quarter of the way through. As you might expect, most of those bookstores have disappeared now, replaced by banks, mobile phone shacks, and in one especially sad case, a parking garage. So who knows where young American Powys converts would find those novels these days. They are certainly not available for Kindle in the US, only Powys’ early novels have been accorded that modern privilege so far. J. F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban, however, can be downloaded in a matter of seconds and no doubt Amazon’s remorseless shopping algorithms will be recommending it to me before too long.

The Meaning of Climate Change

The Powysian worldview feels more important as each year passes. Today’s big global news story on climate change is another example. UN scientists have ramped up their calls for urgent action now: we need to make significant changes to the way we live or expect weather events of Biblical severity to become commonplace.

All the accompanying media commentary had a familiar feel. We have to start buying electric cars, make our homes more energy efficient, buy alternatives to meat and more artisan local food. What’s left unsaid is the most obvious point of all, and by far the most unpopular and unthinkable. We need to buy much less, have much less and live far more simply. No more growth and less of the kind of prosperity we’re used to. We’ve become hard-wired as lavish consumers (purposely and by design, not because there’s anything necessarily human about it), and this will need to be reversed if carbon emission and other targets for global sustainability are to be met.

I sometimes see the problem first-hand and up close. My children could appear to be little green warriors. They’ve learnt about environmental issues at school, about global warming and plastic waste. But tell them they can’t have the latest iPhone, another new laptop or more new trainers, and it’s a contravention of their human rights – they’ll never have any friends again. So talk of being saved by new generations of aware, responsible consumers never feels that convincing. 

We can’t just change the items on the shopping list for the sake of propping up growth, we need to stop basing our identity on what we buy and own, whether it’s carbon-neutral or not. As Powys, I think, would argue: physical resources are fragile and ravaged while our psychological resources are largely unappreciated and untapped (see The Meaning of Culture, The Art of Happiness etc). We’re capable of being happy without competing for consumer luxuries. Surely the larger part of the war on climate change needs to be about culture and mindsets, not technological change?

A Powys renaissance

How optimistic do you feel about the prospects for John Cowper Powys’s books? In an appropriately throwaway kind of manner, I’ve sometimes suggested that our culture of relentless digital entertainment means Powys might be “in danger of running out of readers”.

It’s heartening to see people disagree. In a response to an email, Adam Curtis, the BBC documentary-maker, said he didn’t think there was a need to worry just yet.

“I’m convinced Powys’ time is coming – the emotional radar in peoples’ heads is searching for that kind of powerful romanticism which bundles up nature and politics and inner feelings. They yearn to find something beyond that banal and dried up culture that is around at the moment. Someone clever will come along soon and turn [A Glastonbury Romance] into a TV series. It would be a total hit.”

Simon Heffer has pointed to the Faber Finds re-prints as a positive sign. Similarly, he’s also been campaigning for a TV dramatisation of his favourite, in this case Wolf Solent.

Like many other people I want to see Powys embraced by generations of new readers, taken seriously, enjoyed over the centuries in the same way that authors like Cervantes, Rabelais and Blake continue to be enjoyed (and kept in print). But there are different varieties of success. Would Powys care about mainstream popularity or even whether he was known as a literary pillar? He certainly wanted his books to sell. He needed the money. But when it came to literary fame he seemed ambivalent: wasn’t it all a matter of right place, right time (and then making a lot of noise about yourself)?

Worldly success has become a modern ‘essential’, but in itself can end up being something terminally bland. Reading Powys there’s a clear sense of how failures can be more rewarding, stimulating, bracing.

Adventures with Lord Jim

No-one would argue there’s a scarcity of published letters by John Cowper Powys. Too many maybe. And yet whenever there’s another collection – like the new Powys and Lord Jim: The Correspondence between James Hanley and John Cowper Powys 1929-1965 – a further pool of colourful and flavourful insights is revealed. 

Like this, when Powys remembers the family legend of efforts to save their famous relative William Cowper from his fear of Hell, “driven mad very largely by some religious wretch talking of damnation”:

my great-grandfather, a youth just down from Corpus [Christi College in Cambridge], pretended to be God & whispered to him thro’ the keyhole: “You’re saved Cowper! You’re saved! You’re saved!” But it was no good.

Chris Gostick’s running commentary turns the batches of letters into a very readable narrative. And with such a complex character as Powys, there’s also the great value of reading about James Hanley’s perspective, built from intimate experience and conversations. This from Hanley struck me as getting to the very heart of what makes a Powys novel so unlike any other.

The bloodiest battle being fought today is that in which the imagination of men is slowly being murdered by knowledge. Mr Powys, from his secluded corner of the Berwyns, knows this, and from time to time strikes great blows in defence of it.

JCP understood that people more often hide behind formal knowledge and its conventions than they do imagination. Reading fiction isn’t necessarily an escape. We engage with reality more honestly through imagination, when there’s a conversation with everything around us and everything it makes us think and feel; more than we ever could do by sticking to the facts as revealed by formal education and knowledge. Powys is always stripping back, shaking the world free from its tired, dull, cynical, modern gaze.

Powysian Walking #1

John Cowper Powys believed that people shared essential affinities with particular kinds of landscapes, their character, soils, stones and flora. Chalk hills seem to be my thing.

It may well be because I was born and grew up in a house in a valley between two ridges of chalk. But really not in any picturesque kind of way. We lived at the foot of the hill occupied by Luton Airport (screech after screech) and near to the Vauxhall car works (glowing at night with ominous yellows and greens). Still, anything familiar becomes comforting in the end, and when we moved to a rural village the noise of silence was more disturbing.

It’s also because I’ve lived in Cambridgeshire for a long time, a county where even the gentle undulations west of Cambridge, more like grassy dunes than hills, have been been named after the giants Gog and Magog.

So I look for hills, and chalk hills especially, for walking over in Powysian fashion.

The picture is from one of these places, at Pegsdon in the Chiltern Hills, thought to be the inspiration for the Delectable Mountains in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.




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 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 being 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.