Fellowship: the birthday loops
‘We are five friends, one day we came out of the house one after the other, first one came, and placed himself beside the gate, then the second came, and placed himself near the first one, then came the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Finally we all stood in a row. People began to notice us, they pointed at us and said: Those five just came out of that house. Since then we have been living together; it would be a peaceful life if it weren’t for a sixth one continually trying to interfere. He doesn’t do us any harm, but he annoys us, and that is harm enough; why does he intrude where he is not wanted? We don’t know him and don’t want him to join us. There was a time, of course, when the five of us did not know one another, either; and it could be said that we still don’t know one another, but what is possible and can be tolerated by the five of us is not possible and cannot be tolerated with this sixth one. In any case, we are five and don’t want to be six. And what is the point of this continual being together anyhow? It is also pointless for the five of us, but here we are together and will remain together; a new combination, however, we do not want, just because of our experiences. But how is one to make all this clear to the sixth one? Long explanations would also amount to accepting him in our circle, so we prefer not to explain and not to accept him. No matter how he pouts his lips we push him away with our elbows, but however much we push him away, back he comes.’
(Fellowship, Franz Kafka)
I had not met The Edward Thomas Fellowship, as a whole before. I was a little worried that they may not accept me, as with the type of insular looking fellowship that Kafka describes, in his short story: Fellowship. I was an outsider trying to infiltrate a literary walking group that had been walking roughly the same loop for thirty years to celebrate the birthday of a dead poet. And from the initial excursions undertaken, in the summer of 2008, with Colin and Larry, Doug and the no-show writers I had gained a sense that the fellowship was a tight-knit community of ramblers and academic sorts. As with the story of fellowship described by Kafka; in the accepting there will always be a sense of separating me out from the real group. Getting special dispensation, or acknowledgement on arrival, in much the same way Jacques Derrida describes the act of being hospitable to a newcomer, would distinguish me. It did not help that I was researching them, the literary society, either. In all probability they would be wary around me, just in case I wrote anything about them, which could potentially damage the family they have created. But I did not want to alter the dynamic, so I decided to keep my head down and wander amongst the line rather than sticking to the people I had previously walked with. This soon went out of the window on arrival though as you can imagine, given my age and obvious outsider status – clothing, hair, and notepad. I have completed three of these birthday walks now, and am left with a most awkward predicament: when I think back, all the walks merge into one. I have tried to separate them out but each loop is proving extremely difficult to tell apart. I know roughly the same amount of people were present on each of the walks. And that mostly the same people returned year on year, as far as I can remember, to participate. The weather always seemed to be cold but sunny too, due to it being early March. We definitely took in the memorial stone and most of his houses in the morning, without fail. I know that. And in the afternoon we would take a random route devised by one of the locals. Not Doug. It is strange that I am failing so miserably to pick these three days, one each year, apart. The drive to and from the South Downs is at present more memorable. Maybe that is not so much of a surprise, as I set off from Exeter one year, Aberystwyth another, and London finally. The loop around Steep was always very similar from one year to the next. There is a general sense that I have of each walk that can be tapped in to (one was with my ex girlfriend, C, in early March 2009; one was after a death, in early March 2010; and one was prior to cycling In Pursuit of Spring, in early March 2011). Other than that though, nothing makes sense. Stopping points along the way, affective sensations, could have happened on any of the meets. In an attempt to jog my memory, I am going to write up the three car journeys taken to Steep, for the birthday celebration. This may turn into a wild goose chase where the three days are bastardised, thanks to my poor memory, and intertwined. Or what may happen is that through remembering back to the separate car journeys, each birthday is allowed to continue on, as it happened.
Morning broke and unsurprisingly we slept in. The last thing I wanted to do was to get out of bed and go Literary Hitchhiking. We had only been together in the new house for one boozy night. Still the walk was an important milestone. So begrudgingly we got to our feet, C endearingly bedraggled from the night before, hand searching for the door handle. I coaxed her towards the shower and promised that the pretentious chortling would not last all day. The car seat was uncomfortable and the suspension hard. And the engine was deafening at high speeds on the rough old tarmac. At least I did not have to drive in the early hours, feeling wretched, on the hitchhike in question. We filled up with water, coffee, and croissant, before slipping on to the a303. The route was direct, along no motorways, and traffic free. It felt like a nice Sunday morning drive, rather than a day of research. Lucky I had someone else there, as, as an outsider I didn’t want to make a big entrance alone. We must have talked but of what. I think we argued over my map reading abilities. That was a given on all long car journeys. We became quite excited at the sight of Stonehenge, I recall. It was the first time I had seen it and I was surprised by the proximity of the road. I thought of Tess being forced up the burial mound to one of the toppled standing stones. Laying on it and committing suicide. Raped by the landed gentry and then left alone to bring up the child; the snide comments from all and sundry about her being a supposed slut, becoming too much. I left my first love on one of those stones too. For this was to be our last walk together. Not that I knew it at the time but everything would go downhill from there. I have no one else to blame but myself though. In no time at all, we were pootling up the high street in the little silver bubble of a car that so suited her. Surfing sticker in the back window so it could be spotted in a crowd, hub cap missing. It stood out on arrival, and turned heads, being much older than all the others in the car park. There were a few surprised looks given our age too. I think they thought we were reporters from the local newspaper to begin with. Colin greeted us though and cheerfully welcomed us in, explaining who we were in our matching grey coats, and why we had come. More on this birthday later…
I had snorted methadrone all night and played poker. It was morning before I forced myself to sleep. I was a year older and single. I had spent the last six months drinking myself into an early grave, writing depressing poems, and reading philosophy. Dropping names and pretending to know more than I actually did. Like Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx do On the Road. Life as façade; free and easy – I appeared reasonably happy to those who met me during those dark months but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was supposed to be at a conference in Aberystwyth, but decided to sleep through the final day to recover in time for the birthday walk. It was a horrible come down, being sat on my own for large parts of the day in a cottage on the edge of the town. I stared at my phone, hoping someone would remember me. The one person who I wanted to did not – my heroine, C. It was a clear day and the stars that I saw last night more vividly than ever before in my life, would no doubt be back. Messengers: ontologically intriguing and expounding the human relationship with the infinite universe – stars amongst other stars, amongst more stars. They provided a shock of the poetic, when for a fleeting moment I glimpsed the world through the eyes of a poet, and it seemed as if politics needed the magical touch of dream and desire, or creative expression – grandiose fancies perhaps, when conducting a minor poetic experiment, infiltrating upper-class society. In the forlorn state I had got myself in; perhaps it was only my world that wanted poetry more than ever, for medicinal purposes, wanting the truth that only poetry can give in distilling experience. I couldn’t continue to draw poetry from the past though, from my muse; my world needed a new language of revolution, a poetry for my future, a Gramscian cathartic moment where it is possible to change the world I occupy without taking power. The valley to the sea drew me forth and I attempted to make something of my day. Chiefly: eating something for the first time in about thirty hours. By this point in the day though it would have to be some mangled meat in a bun; some fat in a tray establishment, to keep the depression at bay. Aberystwyth had plenty of these but feeling a little adventurous and still glazed over and unbalanced from the night before, I walked past all of them and into a pub. The feeling of having to concentrate on my body so much, to merely move through the city streets, forced me to look harder at the pavement, the bright head lights, far off the sea, in only the way a terrible hangover, come down, can – I could, at that point after many small acts of mimicry, understand why Coleridge used opium to induce a state of poeticity, where poesis becomes possible and the senses are noticeably distributed, for a change. After a pint I regained some composure and food was once again put off. It was the only thing to do after six months solid drinking, drink some more. Otherwise I would have to face reality and the fact that I had let my work slide, my girlfriend go, and my body wither. After one pint I moved on to spirits, as I had become accustomed to doing. Then I was tempted by some wine. I did at least get some cheese with the house red. And after that it was time to make the lonely walk back to the cottage. Senses dulled enough to not over think my repetitive life. And most importantly, I was now able to sleep. Morning broke and it was inevitably sunny yet cold. And the head was looking tired and old, in the slither of mirror hanging from the windscreen. I could not be late, as there was an email from Colin explaining of a sudden death. The president had died; a relation of Edward Thomas. A sombre mood would descend over Steep.
Off to Steep again, for my final birthday walk. I must have absorbed some of the stuff I had been told or read, as I was finally eager to talk poetry. The following day I was to be riding In Pursuit of Spring, and was intrigued to see what the Fellowship would make of the recycling. Furthermore I was clean; and the dark day’s initially enabling writing poetry mostly of a lost love, as a form of catharsis, had gone to an extent. It was less of a constant hum, more a sudden shock of the past now that haunted my present. Unfortunately my final birthday walk was to be one of those occasions when faded memories were lit once more, with the poetic loop unsurprisingly leading to the past. Inevitably memories, altered over time, to become no more than spiralling dream like loops, out of control, leaving me unsure about what exactly happened: romanticising the past. The day started well enough; it was sunny and cold in Clapham, from where I would be setting off by bicycle In Pursuit of Spring the next morning. There was no hangover to write of and no issues with getting lost, what with a borrowed sat nav. I was directed from Nightingale Lane to the a3 following to begin with the same route Edward did to Guildford on his first day In Pursuit of Spring. I checked out cycle paths for the majority of the journey, planning the lengthy excursion. As it turned out the route taken by Edward in 1913 through Morden and Merton had become a Barclays Cycle Superhighway. Billed as a fast, direct route in to Central London. Putting one in mind of a bygone age of extensive road building; across the plains of America. A motorway for the bicycle. Negating the need to negotiate the city the more and more it is extended and perfected. Until the bicycle becomes as car like as possible and the cycle path as road like as possible. And the commuter embraces a more intensive method of being mobile. Well that is the hope of the planners. Wide cycle paths flanked busy roads, albeit in the gutter for the large part, leaving me with a calming sense of optimism, as I passed cyclist after cyclist. I turned off the Coleridge pilgrimage trail after Merton to join the a3, unaware as a result of the tortuous Surrey Hills that I would face the next day. It was less than an hour to Petersfield. To get in the mood I switched on Radio 4. A profile of John Galliano was airing. Talk of troubled genius abounded, as the car continued down the road. An anti-Semitic tirade in a Paris bar his final undoing apparently – resulting in dismissal from Dior. This piece was trailed by the shipping forecast. The programmes merged into a sailor-chic catwalk show for a while, with blue and white stripes criss-crossing. Ultra-skinny models mingled with bearded salty sea-dogs, until the forecast stopped and the mental mapping receded. A tall blonde girl appeared on my horizon from nowhere. It was my ex girlfriend, C. I could see her in that long grey coat lent against her car, parked in the same spot as two years ago…
I followed C in her grey coat to the entrance of a school, whereupon we witnessed our first ritual reading of the day. A seated lady with two sticks and an old edition of the collected poems spoke softly. It was difficult to hear all of what was said but everybody crowded round looked suitably deep in thought. Not one of his famous poems – one for the connoisseurs of Thomas. I had never heard it before but enjoyed it nonetheless. And hoped all of the readings would be equally new to me. Before we set out on the walk leaving behind the seated lady, a team photo was taken. As bit part players we stood to the side and back, shunning the chance to take centre stage. I think they wanted to show that there was a young contingent and eventually placed us nearer to the middle than we ought to have been. We had become members in a click and a flash – part of the real Fellowship, not one of the few hundred online, but the walkers: the preservationists. I wondered if this would compromise my research. It would be difficult to be critical of their methods of poeticising landscape, binding place and poetry, if I became too friendly. After all a poem is not simply a description of a place but so much more. A summary of the loop seeped over the rustling outdoor coats to our ears and in single file we walked-with. It was a surprise to me that the house where Old Man still grew and the pub beside which the Aspens were talking, were walked by. Instead we walked directly to a poetic site pre-picked by Anne – the readings organiser – where the next reading would take place. I overheard some fellows whisper Old Man, a few even walked down the garden path but the majority kept pace down the pavement. After turning right at the Aspens, the road arced to the left and we crossed a stile, causing a backlog, into a muddy field. The shaky, slippery bit of wood stopped everyone in their tracks and was often only cleared with the help of another. Still they are such odd dangerous little things that to replace it with a gate would spoil the fun. The one in question had nowhere to put a hand and had curls of barbed wire ready to prick with the slightest slip. Trying a different method we stepped over front on rather than side on. A method which could have resulted in falling face first into churned up mud. As it was, we made it look ridiculously easy to straddle. Through the hedgerow and into another field, and the Shoulder was visible. Colin and Larry, Doug and the writers, were not. Just lots of colourful backs: blues, reds, and yellows mainly, with the occasional classy gent in a tweed number. The flat lush grass – a butchers block – gave on to the Shoulder, lain on its side; meat to the left as we looked, bone to the right. We headed for the bone – shallower to ascend – forgetting as we walked across open landscape the trawl of driving to Steep, and even began to enjoy one of our only walks in the countryside together. It was useful to have another person there also, to use the video camera and take photos, leaving me free to scribble notes, snoop and earwig. As we began to ascend a track up the Shoulder, over rough sharp little stones, I realised where it was we were headed: The Chalk Pit. My research assistant for the day began filming as soon as we stopped beside the poetic-site. A black Labrador dragging a stick through the gaggle of bodies is followed intently for a minute or so by all, before Anne, our poetic receptacle for the day, joked – not a small brown bitch, with spots of blue that hunted in a ditch, unfortunately – some laughter followed by those who either knew, or pretended to know, what she meant. I was expecting to hear the poem, The Chalk Pit, so was confused by the quip. Some of the words – of the poem we were about to hear – had been changed by Anne: poetic licence. Man and Dog was the name of it. What it had to do with the pit was beyond me. Although what the first poem had to do with the posh school was also unapparent. Perhaps the walks were not for the enjoyment of the mere linking of a poem to the place described within it; the detective work – the uncovering and demystifying of a poem, making it instantly and easily tangible – so much after all. And it was not about the precise site and subsequent siting through the performing of the poem but the broader landscape wandered and loved by Edward that they wished to experience and get at. The Fellowship were evoking attachment differently than I imagined; more subtly and subconsciously, less formulaic, with words being dragged seemingly from a representational ether and retold at will – a veritable atmosphere of poetry created by, tapped into and shared through; not a few poems dotted about and stumbled across, found by the eagle-eyed, set in stone, tree, river, dog… place. The crowd witnessed some amateur dramatics, once Anne passed over the reins. Two men played the parts – one pretended to be Edward, the other a man staring up at the mistletoe, whom Edward came across whilst walking and started up a conversation with. Edward began: Twill take some getting. Man staring up at the mistletoe: Sir, I think ‘twill so. Both actors looked up into the aspens of the chalk-pit, rustling in the wind. Actor playing Edward dressed in a scarf and blazer, satchel, speaking in an accent slightly too received for the poet continued the tale. The other actor bearded and fleeced, jumped in enthusiastically at points in a rich Somerset tone with a line here and there: If I flew now, to another world I’d fall. They gestured towards the drop, down in to the pit, where Stig could live. The crowd were silent waiting to hear of the next move the conversation would take. They talked of sleeping outdoors, or in barns, whilst walking long distances. Man staring up at mistletoe: Many a man sleeps worse tonight than I shall. Edward: In the trenches. Of course! And then I recalled what Doug had said the last time I stood in this spot looking down in to the pit, about the war. The war looms over this little bit of Hampshire and the Fellowship know it. They continue to loom it against the pit into which I stared, against the shoulder, against Steep – reminding visitors of the great loss, inscribing Edward Thomas into stone where possible. Edward Thomas, one of the War Poets. The well-spoken actor slowed for dramatic effect looked deep into the trees before ending: Together in the twilight of the wood. I saw Doug on the other side of the crowd in contemplative mode. Clapping reverberated around the pit. The three minutes waiting were up. The walking leader, not Anne, – the reading leader – beckoned us on immediately, as if the Fellowship were consciously separating out the poems from the ‘real’ landscape and the walkers from the listeners. We followed. I thanked Anne for selecting a poem which is not simply about placing poetry, as so often happens, spoiling the poems for me, curtailing imaginings of Edward’s places. This landscape is not a distinct poetic region, where all poetry does is aid a form of dwelling, and constructs place. It is a violent act to argue so. It is perhaps the exclusivity of the region and – with the power of capitalism to degrade the seemingly non-useful – the way the poetry is received, which allows for this to happen; and the region to appear as Thomas Country. Yet Steep today is not distinct from the era of capitalism, geopolitics, globalisation, suicide bombers, unemployment, war, climate change etc. This is the fallacy of the rural idyll, of poetry when all it becomes about is intimate attachment to place. There is a dislocation, a magical nonsensical trait which poetry at its best possesses, challenging the idea of a central and a peripheral culture, a countryside and a city, a past and a present, a real and an imagined. To research the rural is not to abstract yourself from the everyday life of being wound into a capitalist society. Moments where the Fellowship remind the ramblers of war in a pretty little village are an example of this quirk of spatiality, of poetics. And a reminder of the ridiculousness and danger of politics when it is characterised by and argued to be about only a few moments and a few events, undertaken by and committed upon a few individuals in certain large cities – missing out and glossing over the continued objective, systematic, and anonymous repetitive violence; this is the violent act of capitalism for Žižek. Poetry about the countryside is never just about the countryside, it is informed by many things, times, and places. When Edward Thomas was writing, the war, and the industrial revolution focused his mind, although they were not all that he wrote poetry against, as a creative political act. His poems are cultural and metaphysical musings, ecological diversions. Hardy and Auden admired Thomas for this. So did Joseph Brodsky. Few poets have been such a muse to other poets; Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Robert Crawford, Gillian Clarke and Paul Muldoon have all written of their admiration for Thomas, as Edna Longley notes in a newspaper article. What needs to be reiterated about poetry and its relation to place is that on occasion poetry can become more than the place it purports to describe, and can outlive place if it continues to be read. And in relation to this piece of work; not only a place which has a poem written about it is poetic, like the event poetry is imminent, poetics and subsequent poesis is the ever-present that capitalism cannot shake.
Nobody much talks about poetry whilst walking to the memorial stone, in this most dark of lanes tangled thick with old man’s beard. When the sun emerges through the gaps in the trees we sop up the heat; out from beneath our tree tunnel. Yellow archangel and germander speedwell flank the path, netted by a tangle of climbing creepers, writhing and hugging trunks and branches. And ramsons – wild garlic – sting the nostrils from the damp bank behind; their pollen blatted into my face, nose, and a tingling sensation persisted. Rubbing away at the underside of my nose just about curtailed a sneeze – if I sneeze once I sneeze all day, continuously: hay fever. Clambering down to the Memorial Stone to a view now so familiar after the walks with Colin, Larry, and Doug – spoilt somewhat by the gaggle of bodies crawling about it – we sat in a carpet of wildflowers and waited for a poem to be performed. Cowslips, sun spurge, speedwell, and bugle, intermingled with blossoms on the guilder rose and hawthorn. The poem was read more solemnly by Anne, who placed a daffodil upon the stone mid-way through. I struggle to remember the entire poem, although I know what it was about. It was by Wendy Cope and called At Steep. Apparently she is hot on copyright, according to Anne, and it is not published on the internet, so I have to paraphrase. Wendy was walking to the memorial stone with Lachlan MacKinnon. The poets stumbled down the sloping path to the stone. Once there Wendy begins to converse with Edward, noting there is no sign on road or path to say its there but walkers pass this way and learn your name and pilgrims clutching leaflets come from time to time walk half a mile to sit by your stone and keep you company for a while. The poem ends: Your spirit lives, it brought us here; you cannot know and never will. Insects flew from flower to flower – an orange-tip butterfly and a blue one swapped heliport. A cardinal beetle on the wing, danced with the flotillas of beech leaves above our heads: peridot green. Birdsong cocooned us and the poem ended. Our service to commemorate Edward conducted by the stone bearing his name – dug into the side of his hill twenty years after his death in 1937, and unveiled by Walter de la Mere: done for another year. We departed; most took to the trail and scrambled down the escarpment, C and I, holding hands, ran atop the grassy verge back to the posh school, having not signed up for lunch.
We milled around in the car park for a bit before eating a pack up. Eventually plucking up enough courage to enter the room in the school, in which lunch was taking place. I chatted to Larry for a bit about the day and looked at the books for sale – some first editions; The Icknield Way, and In Pursuit of Spring, dotted amongst the books of poems. Colin was a very busy man and had little time to talk but we agreed to speak after the annual general meeting in the church. At about two people began to assemble again outside the entrance of the school. Once everyone had collected themselves we walked in single file towards Berryfield Cottage. The location specified by the loop leader, who led the way himself, going in more or less the same direction as on the morning loop, crossing fields thick with dandelion, until the small farmhouse was in view, standing on the rise of a winding lane, in front of the bare slope where the memorial stone sat – juniper bushes, fir trees, and beeches banking the river of grass. The yew tree by the gate of the house, where two cocker spaniels yapped at each other; once housed a gold crested wren. Edward and Helen moved to the house from Elses Farm, Kent, in 1908. It was their first house in the area; to which they moved for the school we had just walked from, as it was a progressive, co-educational one, the countryside, and the proximity to London, family and editors, travelled to by railway a mile distant. More wisteria and a thriving clematis, montana rubens, dangled from the cottage, as it seemed to at every cottage in the village. The pantiles made it look as if it has always been a part of the landscape; or at least a part of the landscape for longer than Edward and his poetry. And may blossom, early yet delightful, sprayed flowers that arched from the trees like sea spume, while we gathered on the quiet road. The family had wished to stay in the flint and brick structure for longer than the two years they did. Flint was let into the pointing, making it look as if the house was nailed together. This was not why they left. They could not afford to buy the property when it was put up for sale and had to move. Two readings took place in the garden, both explaining the love they had for the house and their sadness on having to leave. One was a letter written by Edward, sent to Gordon Bottomley, the other an extract from World Without End, the book written by Helen Thomas following the death of her husband at war. These readings were less inspiring than earlier in the day. And the readers were less animated. It was just after lunch, and everyone was most likely, a bit tired. The group felt flat though, with little talking amongst stopping points and only a few solitary claps post reading. The letter was never meant for public consumption, so the lack of joviality could be explained by that. But it seemed to be more than that, as if the afternoon walk was a bit of an add-on, pointless perhaps, always changing. Not the real deal: the morning memorial walk, undertaken routinely, traditionally, the same loop each year, on the same weekend. Still, we pushed on, to the next reading point. Two Yew Tree Cottages: The final reading point of the day in fact and the last house Edward and Helen and their children lived in together. Not that they knew this on moving in. Edward would go to barracks in Essex on enlisting in 1916. The rent was three shillings a week and Edward retained his study in The Bee House for 1 shilling a week. This was to be the most creative period of his life. One hundred and thirty of the one hundred and forty four poems he wrote were written while he lived in the house – although most were composed in his study. After spraining his ankle whilst walking up the Shoulder one day though, he was forced to stay in the house for eighteen days, and in that time wrote fourteen poems. The president of the Fellowship, Edward Cawston Thomas, son of Mervyn, son of Edward, informed us of this before unveiling a new plaque, at a cost of five hundred and sixty three pounds paid for through donations from members of the Fellowship. The final plaque of its kind, as the other houses where Edward lived already had his name inscribed upon them – bar the forgotten house down the Cowley Road, Oxford. Poet is enough of a description nowadays, in spite of the relatively small proportion of his life given over to writing poetry. Edward also told us of his fond memories of his auntie Myfanwy, who at the age of four and a half was immortalised in verse by her father, writing Old Man, on the 6th December 1914. The dark yew overhung the garden, a symbol perhaps of the onset of war, along with a hedge of tall wild damsons, where a nightingale sang once. Rosemary, thyme, lavender, bergamot, and old man, the herbs Edward loved still grew sporadically in the now overgrown little patch. Plaque unsheathed, poem at the ready, Edward passed over to Colin to finish the walking and reciting for the day. On this occasion the poem was placed and Old Man was read with a little rub of the stuff for good measure. Poem and place united, crumpled together once more through the labour of the fellowship, things, the same things, poetry is place, place is poetry, all is becoming – well it may be figured as such on a day such as the one described: a poetic trap perhaps, a patriotic attachment evoked, easily fallen into. A quick read of the poem informs otherwise – the favorite poem of Andrew Motion. Old Man dislocates, disrupts place, and renders elusive, transports you elsewhere. Why are we reading it in-place then, placing it, siting it? We were not there. We are not here. Poetry read in place, the place which the poem describes, is often poetry out of place – it was never meant to be read as such: reuniting the poem with the garden and the shrub was oddly disorientating – typical Thomas to do such a thing with his verse; his gift to poets since. With the work of poets who lack this quality, I could understand this amalgamating work the fellowship undertake more; as with some poems, presence is, or can be grasped on the hearing – or at least is attempted or thought to have been grasped – inside the site from which it was originally conceived. The poems of Edward Thomas are in the main unhappy and tend to wriggle about, on their returning home.
Tea and cakes made by the old dears greeted us in the Church of All Saints, Steep. The annual general meeting was about to get underway. I was not expecting such a formal corporate format, of voting in, seconding motions, and note taking. The president Edward Cawston Thomas chaired, with Colin the honorary secretary sat to one side and Larry the honorary treasurer and membership secretary on the other. Work done over the past year, such as the grafting and mounting of plaques, new members enlisted, weekends away, study days, walks, were all costed and formatted into a neat little table for us to peruse. I had my hands on the innards. Not only that I got a mention in the summing up of the year to date. Colin describing my work in great detail to the bemused crowd of fifty or so as excellent news – young blood coming through, interested in Edward Thomas, the next generation and all that. Red faced, I turned to C who was beaming, proud of my achievement and acknowledgement. I felt bad as I was still not a member. Not paid up to be there – freeloading on the back of their knowledge for my own ends. Becoming a member may change the way I think and write though. I resolved not to become one of them, just in case. But smiled sheepishly none the less and thanked Colin for his kind words. Just when we thought the day was over and we could head back home, we were treated to another load of amateur dramatics. The acting-readings were about the death and loss of Edward; war and the loss for this landscape. The haunting of this landscape by a dead poet persists thanks, in no small part to this noble band and their noise, music, chorus; This is no case of petty right or wrong That politicians or philosophers Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers. Beside my hate for one fat patriot My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:- A kind of god he is, banging a gong. But I have not to choose between the two, Or between justice and injustice. The poem left a lack, a lag in time, where some action is awaited but does not arrive, the resurrection of the messiah perhaps. No, another unfortunate state of emptiness is present, brought about by the removal of God, and the subsequent opening out of meaning. Edward being absent but still always traceable there, an absent-presence: a poet. What else bar God can tinge landscape in such a way as a poet? Make us view the contours of the hills and buildings, see the streams, skies, roads, and trees, watch the rats and badgers differently. Make us miss them and their words. It is there in so many landscapes: the loss; after the death of a poet. The event does not make the landscape; it is all that the landscape is – immanent and constantly becoming. Poetry interplays, conceals and highlights the event. It tinges, becomes memory, sense and nonsense, the event itself. The actors strode the boards at the front of the small church, as if they were treading some hallowed planks – projecting their voices via the south and north aisles, and forcing words between stone pillars, booming anthems from spire to chancel, nave to chapel. Dinned With war and argument I read no more Than in the storm smoking along the wind Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar. The cold heavy acoustics, only sacred buildings seem to have, helped – and the vestiges of war being read with aplomb, a poem, hung. From one the weather shall rise clear and gay; Out of the other an England beautiful And like her mother that died yesterday. The master of ceremonies continued to channel Edward, speaking with his tongue, summoning his spirit for the rest of the cult – resurrecting him on holy grounds, like some form of black magic. Little I know or care if, being dull, I shall miss something that historians Can rake out of the ashes when perchance The phoenix broods serene above their ken. But with the best and meanest Englishmen I am one in crying, God save England, lest We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed. Dr John Dee paced around up top before me, C, and the Fellowship. Edward the new messiah – worshiped, martyred, saintly. The ages made her that made us from dust: She is all we know and live by, and we trust She is good and must endure, loving her so: And as we love ourselves we hate our foe. God well and truly vanquished, exiled, never to be heard from again. Working them up to a frenzy; at the front the ringleaders, stuck the knife in and hammered home poetry with its new found power, in the face of a weakened God. Spat on the Holy Spirit in its own back yard. Set it alight. Watched it go up in flames and evaporate. They recited more and more and more poetry; poked the remains with a stick. In the church of all saints, the words began to make the ears bleed. It became too much for me and C and we tried not to listen – preferring to nod off. It was no use though; the words filtered through the godless void, filling the space, and seeped beyond the stained glass windows, off to the hills. Occultist goings on in the church down at Steep, no residue or remnant left as they closed their book of spells, only a cleft where God once resided in our heads. Edward tinges this part of England, and only Edward seemingly, if what we had just witnessed from the Fellowship is anything to go by – no mention of Jesus at all – Edward and his poetry adorned the stained glass window beside me, and he had his death and scriptures retold. Still Edward was a bit of a pagan. These rituals perhaps reflect that. A yearly trip is much like a sacrifice to the sun, a pilgrimage for Mother Nature; a sacrifice to Edward, god of all that these hills cosset. In return you receive eternal peace and happiness by simply reading his poems. Quite appropriate then that it was the first time I had seen Stonehenge, on the day of my first birthday walk with The Edward Thomas Fellowship. In keeping with that fateful day, in the following weeks I sought somehow, for some unknown reason to sacrifice true love – C; my hippy. Hard to imagine that in this post-political, apathetic, technological age, in which poetry itself is weakened, more indeed than God despite religious apartheid, Darwin and Hawking, someone could do such a thing for it; for poetry, or at least for the state of mind needed to be able to write poetry. Being a contented soul does not lend itself to writing poetry. Poetry was not the cause though, it did not bring about the event – nothing can bring about the event, no piece of art, no intervention, no poem; it is always immanent. Poetry was the result of the event of being alone for the most part of this unfinished journey, and stuck in the past – a lonely place to reside, or even wander with Edward alongside retorting, the past is the only dead thing that smells sweet.
It was a sad day. The Fellowship were going through the motions. There was a silent huddle, solemn faced, already stood by the school when I arrived, all the way from Wales. I was not sure whether I should be there on such an occasion and resolved to keep quiet. I did not greet anybody and nobody greeted me. I stood at the back of the crowd and waited for something to happen. Whispers of the shock news permeated through the group, until all had removed their cheerful grins. Colin then began with a eulogy of sorts for Edward Cawston Thomas, grandson of Edward Thomas and the president of The Edward Thomas Fellowship, who had died suddenly two days earlier – acknowledging all the hard work that Edward, as president, had taken on over the years, keeping the Fellowship going and growing. He had been president, since the death of the youngest daughter of Edward Thomas; Myfanwy Thomas. I am not sure how long ago that was, although she would have been a hundred this year. Colin spoke for a few minutes before stating that it is fitting that the walk is going ahead as a tribute. It is what he would have wanted, to be remembered alongside his grandfather, in a place they both loved dearly. It was to be a tribute loop for two men today then, not the usual, one. Edward had died again, as he did every year, but this year the walk was different. The poet was faded out, pushed into the background. His poems were read with a different man in mind, a friend of so many assembled beside the school. Colin – the pain in his face, there for everyone to see – finished eulogising and handed over to the first reader. I thought better of taking notes or recording, thinking it too disrespectful. Instead I listened to the words like never before stood in the midst of an epic silence. I did not try to make sense of the words sent my way, just heard their syllables come harshly forth and gradually wane in intensity. It was very short, and over before I knew it, and fathomed its purpose. I could do no more if I wanted to, being still a little spaced out, and dog tired from the long drive; with an alcoholic weakness to my muscles, cognition was impossible. As far as I can remember, the first reading, by the school, was In Memoriam, one of the war poems – which would make sense, in the fact that it is both short and fitting: The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood This Eastertide call into mind the men, Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should Have gathered them and will do never again. There was no need to tell the crowd, all regulars, in which direction to walk. People, as always, turned and made for the school gates, headed for the shoulder and the stone. Most nobody spoke and nobody smiled until the vista expanded and enveloped – the familiar ridge drawing chatter and laughter from some. It encouraged a few of the less influential fellows to feel at ease – perhaps wary of upsetting the committee members, by treating it as any old birthday walk – and it was not long until all the minions strolled and photographed freely, in their pursuit of the summit. I was still wary though of offending, being a complete outsider or worse still a suspected reporter, and tried not to walk in my usual way – sticking at the back and keeping my head down, instead of zigzagging the line, snooping. It gave me time, without focusing on anything in particular, to look and think – I thought of nothing in particular either; thoughts nevertheless always inevitably migrate back to C. Having walked this landscape with her in her grey coat, a year prior, it is perhaps no surprise. I have come to the borders of sleep, The unfathomable deep Forest where all must lose Their way, however straight, Or winding, soon or late; They cannot choose. It makes no difference as to whether I am in the city or the country, somewhere I visited with her, or somewhere I have not, sleeping or awake, somehow I will be reminded. This walk was therefore no different to any other hour experienced since, despite looping the loop: the feedback loop. Numbed back then by continued alcohol abuse thoughts soon migrated on to something else no doubt, such as the next drink. And we were at the summit. Here love ends, Despair, ambition ends, All pleasure and all trouble, Although most sweet or bitter, Here ends in sleep that is sweeter Than tasks most noble. I had spoken to nobody; just walked at the set pace, and if it looked like there was about to be a traffic jam – as there was at the summit of the shoulder, were the next reading would take place – dawdled at the back so as to, not to have to begin speaking. It made sense on such a day to be skulking in the shadows of the Fellowship, with a nondescript head in a book of poems or looking into the middle distance. I did not break with the Downs and turn to watch the reader by the stone. There is not any book Or face of dearest look That I would not turn from now To go into the unknown I must enter and leave alone I know not how. The ethereal voice wisped away at the hairs on the back of my neck. Without a face speaking them, the words were free to play with the view bordering my eye balls. There was no need to watch the movement of the mouth, the pursing of lips, or acting eyes, making words; the words were already made by the poet a century earlier. I heard the moment of creation, in looking away. And gazed at the landscape: its face and my face, face to face, for the entire poem. The words sprouted from the ground and internalised the mostly green, brown, and blue vision, until I was no longer face on, looking down upon landscape, but stepped inside it, face to face with the poem. Comforted by it, the new view, and warmed by the words, as I suspected the rest were, and were regularly when wandering these hills, not a bit. The tall forest towers; Its cloudy foliage lowers Ahead, shelf above shelf; Its silence I hear and obey That I may lose my way And myself. Turn the lights out; stop reading the poem, the landscape, and Edward. The poem did not aid a form of dwelling, nor did I feel at one with the land, in the slightest. It was discomforting, dislocating and distorting, depressing, it left me miserable, in a grey and unpleasant land. Unsurprisingly, it is one of the last poems ever written by Edward. Knowing that he was nearing the end, the landscape becomes gloomier than ever; a vessel on to which he can project his darkest thoughts and feelings. In so doing conditions and sensations, which are indescribable, and difficult to get down on paper, can be immortalised without a latent racism – his testimony, Lights Out, for people who have fought at war, is timeless. There is no last swipe at the Kaiser, it does not yearn, or mourn for England, hills, greenery; it is simply the moment before the inevitable shell. Said starkly, it is death. And it echoes the Siegfried Sassoon poem How to Die. Dark clouds are smouldering into red While down the craters morning burns The dying soldier shifts his head To watch the glory that returns; He lifts his fingers toward the skies Where holy brightness breaks in flame; Radiance reflected in his eyes, And on his lips a whispered name. The morning loop in question, conceived of originally to celebrate the birthday of a poet, was only about death. R.I.P Edward.
We only walked a short distance in the afternoon. I had made myself scarce for the hour or so that they spent in the school eating. Sometimes sitting inside the car, sometimes just outside it, until the elders returned. They looked a little drained; some remained inside and did not walk with. I was surprised not to see Colin emerge. There must have been some important last minute preparations needed to be taken care of down at the church. The atmosphere was different. Maybe we were going to walk down to the pub and sign an oversized birthday card after all. Not possible nowadays without the use of transport – when the Fellowship was still in its infancy, it was only a pound to get on the hired coach. And you would be taken on a tour of all the best poetic sites; a loop of the waterfall, the memorial stone, the manor farm, and the pub with no name, with a relevant poem read beside each. All in a morning too; speeding down the narrow straight roads and winding up the deep sunken lanes in comfort. You would then sit for a while at the pub with no name, and perhaps drink from the gleaming taps of old peculiar, stacked barrels of no name bitter, or the seasonal jugs of spicy mulled wine at one forty a go, before signing the huge card with a few other long haired young blokes and lasses in wooly jumpers. Where did all the young people who liked poetry go? I milled about at the back and watched the aging gaggle weave their way uphill like ants, in perfectly straight lines back and forth. The land rolled off down to the left, stopped by a hedgerow. To the right a track, only visible due to the constant scuffing of rubber, led to a farm. I circled for a while, until it was my turn to ascend the stairlift. In the heavens we heard Now I know that Spring will come again, Perhaps to-morrow: however late I’ve patience After this night following on such a day. I hoped so. Winter was dragging. Skinny branches without leaf left the landscape naked, and nothing covered the shame of empty crisp packets and plastic bottles. I would have had to go in pursuit of spring sooner if winter had persisted any longer, having, like pretty much everybody else, mild seasonal affective disorder. Back down the hill to the church after the hopeful Sermon on the Mount. By the time I reached the church for tea and cakes, rows of shoes had been placed neatly outside and inside the porch. They created a little barrier. It was enough to make me turn back. Attending a memorial service was a step too far with a notepad. Most other members turned back too, feeling themselves too new to the family. They left sharply to avoid any awkward questions, a quick wave sufficed. Mass exodus completed, I stared at the empty shoes for a little too long. And they claimed a greater poignancy than they were ever meant to. No more walking with no more bodies to fill their leather uppers. The Fellowship is dwindling. The church is falling silent. I scurried off. R.I.P Edward.
On the highway to the sun clouds topped the windscreen. They showed no sign of being blown apart and over casting some other more deserving road – the m25 came to mind. Instead on the a303 with a prophetic insistence they squatted, over the roof of the car, attempting to alter the mood of the road; leaving a distinct waft of authority, an air of superiority and power, even above the ancient route east west, reducing it seemingly to just a road. It was the first time though I had headed down this way towards the beaches of Devon and Cornwall. And it was a totally different experience to driving in the other direction, with a beautiful companion, C, beside. The road somehow clawed out images of family holidays, sandcastles, swimming trunks, ice-cream cones, and striped windbreakers from the recesses, despite having never driven it before. And I projected forward a bit further down the comforting highway, to Illfracombe, and back to childhood. It certainly felt like a holiday road, transporting the psyche to the beach long before the body arrives and the toes touch the sand. Different roads have different personalities, from route 66 to the a6. The a303 is as ingrained in the English landscape as Stonehenge, by which it carves. It is a symbol of a bygone age before mass foreign travel, the modern age when planners dreamt it could become a superhighway, the road down which Londoners escaped the city in search of the seaside. The most important three digit road in Britain. And in comparison to the hated a34, up which I had to drive in order to reach the a303 from Steep, it is reasonably well loved by the infrequent user – if used regularly though the endless bottlenecks could become a pain and may change the romantic perception of the road I have. The major junction with the north south a34 and the rerouted a30 is strangely shaped to avoid the pub, the Bullington Cross Inn, which gives the junction its name. It was unlikely that the full ninety-two mile length of the a303 could be done in one, after the birthday wake-walk just endured, so I factored in a stop beyond the white lines and hard shoulder. There was only one establishment in which it would be fitting to stop along this stretch of highway: Little Chef. Failing to see one, a crappy triangle sandwich would do. The car was quickly up to speed, as I weaved it back and forth across the two relatively quiet lanes, knitting myself to the faded light grey tarmac, passing caravan after caravan coming the other way; over the River Test, full of trout, through the Harewood Forest, and on to the eastern outskirts of Andover. Still two lanes, I shot past the airfield and motor racing circuit at Thruxton. Black and white images of motorcycles and riders circling minded, before lines of aircraft headed for Normandy landed upon my daydream. The bikes and planes were followed in no time by the Avon, one of the rivers Edward criss-crossed In Pursuit of Spring, beside which a circle of twenty-five blue stones called Bluestonehenge stood; shortly after this the road narrowed, for reasons that became obvious around the next bend and I slowed the car to lorry pace, while to the right rolled the southern edge of Salisbury Plain. It is an epic sight, when the road bumps into the Neolithic traveller over the crest of the curve, arching a hill; when Stonehenge becomes visible through the little frame of vision I chugged along in. I tried desperately not to think of C, when framed were black stones on a perfect dome bathed in an eerie glow, ambit traced only by the sky, with a purple hue to it in the late winter sunset. Any nearer and the effect would have been lost; with stones turning crisp, any blurring evaporating, and the magic dispelling. For a fleeting moment on a clear March evening the road became the optimum line of sight to the stone circle. Viewing it as the Neolithic traveller would, as they cleared the rise in the landscape. The vista would have astounded the early humans who sought it, stopping them in their tracks. The scene is gone in a flash in a car. It has dwelt in the memory though. A personal image of the stones, yet much the same as the imaginings of so many other a303 drivers, framed by a dashboard, steering wheel, roof, windscreen pillars, and reinforced glass through which, looming in the distance, is an alien object, an unaccustomed to, formation of matter. Despite the wonder in photographic distancing that the car frame allows, it is clear this swathe of countryside should be pedestrianised so people can walk the same route to the stone circle as many a Neolithic traveller. A tunnel has been suggested. Having an arterial route passing so close to the stones is nothing new though. A few miles down the a303 is possibly the first crossroads in history. The section of road along which I coasted followed the ancient Harroway to a point where it met the Ridgeway, which here goes north and south, and is nowadays referred to as the a350. Both roads are among the oldest in Britain, scribed mainly atop the chalk spine of England. The Harroway forms the western part of the Old Way, an ancient trackway dating from the Neolithic period, which can be traced from Rochester and the Channel ports in the Straits of Dover along the North Downs and through Guildford, Farnham, Andover and Basingstoke to Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge, and on to Seaton on the Devon coast. Harroway could mean road the shrine, to Stonehenge. While the Ridgeway is a ridgeway or ancient trackway that extends from Wiltshire along the chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs to the River Thames at the Goring Gap, part of the Icknield Way which ran, not always on the ridge, from Salisbury Plain to East Anglia. Like the Harroway the Ridgeway led to a sacred monument; the megalithic stone circle of Avebury. It would in the past have carried on, connected to the Dorset coast as well, providing a reliable trading route. The high dry ground made travel easy and provided a measure of protection by giving traders a commanding view, warning against potential attacks. Both roads would have originally been routes animals cleared when migrating, meaning they could date back even further than the Neolithic traveller. Incidentally both routes were taken by Edward when writing books that were part topographic survey, part transcendental travelogue. He tramped the Harroway and beyond on foot when researching The Icknield Way and followed the Ridgeway in part by bicycle, when In Pursuit of Spring. They are high and most ancient roads. The intersection was as the meeting of two motorways is today. Not that you could tell that when crossing it by car. I drove slowly down the single lane bottleneck through the village of Chicklade looking out for a sign. There was a sharp turn to the right, but no left turn. The sign said in reflective font a350. Though in the car there was no change to the highway, it ran smooth and straight, not deviating in the slightest from its goal of delivering people beachwards. No rise or fall, as the a350 tunnels underneath the a303. No marker in the landscape, no longer a crossroads, as these ancient highways are lost for a small stretch underneath roads with delusions of grandeur. The a303, a trunk road, had delusions of becoming a super highway. In comparison with the highways of the past both pale in insignificance. The Icknield Way and the Harroway are the only super highways in the south – the Icknield Way being the chief surviving ancient road connecting East Anglia to the whole eastern half of the regions north of the Thames, with the west and the western half of the south of England. It does for the people of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge, Bedford, Hertford, Buckingham, and Oxford, what the Harroway does for people of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and East Hampshire. Although there was no sign to mark the old Harroway Icknield Way crossing there was a far greater symbol of its importance as a junction, a hallowed service stop, a Little Chef, situated a few hundred yards beyond the flyover – handy for the peckish Neolithic traveller, able to tuck into an all day breakfast. The sign shone away still. The comforting fat white dough like cartoon human in a huge hat aginst a solid red background; a beacon beckoning. I pulled over on to the slip road and parked next to the one other car in the car park. I had got used to eating alone, since moving south. And headed straight for the red and white striped awning above the door. Vulgar lighting, enough to attract a thousand flies, twee plastic picnic furniture on a red carpet, red curtains tied back, a sort of pine bar running the length of the place, and a lad in his late teens, greeted me inside the single storey bungalowesque building – modernity gone wrong. At least this one had managed to stay open though and serve the nomadic. It felt like a bad impersonation of an American diner; so bad it is almost good, like a Robin Reliant, or a Pot Noodle. I was shown to my seat – a window booth, with a lovely view back down the 303 towards the ancient crossing. Looking around the room, slightly grubby, a bit dirty, and rough round the edges; I was put in mind of an independent establishment rather than a large chain store. The menu added to that feeling, with its simple, hearty grub. I ordered all day breakfast and a cup of tea and stared out at the odd car still on the road late into a Sunday evening. I began thinking that these sort of places are a dying institution. It is less necessary to stop now on a journey west. The beach is nearer to the city, as cars have become quicker and more reliable, and triangle sandwiches omnipresent beside the petrol pump. It is sad because there is something so quintessentially British about a crummy little, Little Chef. The Heinz tomato sauce, sitting in the centre of the table before me, of restaurants – a symbol of hope in an otherwise cruel fast food world. If Little Chef can keep going then anything can. A corner shop, a butchers, a bakers, a candlestick makers. For it has been dated for decades, out of touch with the marketing maestros. It has remained stubbornly exactly the same. You will not see any advertisements with the latest pop squirted into your ears via a couple of overly fried eggs, or any claims that the food is in anyway healthy. There is no crisp clean white décor, or pandering to the new affluent motorway business person. Negligence from the top has meant it has retained a certain charm that other service stations have not. The bland, lifeless, soulless, dead, motorway ones for instance, with their obsession with cleanliness above all else. It is not like it even took very long for the food to come out. As soon as I had finished my reverie – this place in its hey-day, full up to the rafters, the 303 a bustling superhighway, modernity in full swing – a plate was plonked before me. I devoured the hot greasy slop in seconds, it slipped down my gullet with no crunching necessary, and was on my way. Fully refreshed and ready to attack the 303, after a romantic stop-over in a Little Chef – no longer modern, as twee as a cottage, a tea-towel, a bed and breakfast, Betjeman. I will be sad when the last one shuts. On the road again, I toyed with the idea of getting off the 303 and driving south via the Mayor of Casterbridge, to the coast and The Black Tower, and looping back round past On Chesil Beach meeting The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Persuasion and coming in to Exeter along the coast. But I had gained a re-found love of the 303 after a quick pit stop – no longer was it a meaningless strip of tarmac to me, in contrast to most other busy roads it felt quite homely after only two uses. Not sure why it had that affect. The places it delivers you to are well known to me for sure, but what of its flesh and bones I drive on; perhaps it is the fact that the 303 crosses but does not cross out by running the whole length of earlier highways that makes it a comforting, solid, direct, honest road to drive. It retains for itself some of their residual mystical charm. Each age has its own kind of road; gradually old roads are transformed or combined to form a new road. It is no surprise that the 303 follows the routes of so many pre-existing ways. Invaders mostly have to take what roads they find, upgrading them where possible. That is unless they have the forethought, and resource to make their own, as happened on the section of the 303 where it follows the Roman road, the Fosse Way. Just after the Roman town of Illchester where there was a fort, the road is perfectly straight for a few miles, before the road begins to wind around the contours of the Blackdown Hills to reach its conclusion. For most of its length the 303 is straightish though, so it is not a noticeable change to Roman road, like a train clunking on to a different track. And it is only a very small section of the entire road, which links Exeter to Lincoln, so it is travelled by car in moments. Like the ancient ways before them, the Roman roads stretched across the country; it joined Ackeman Street and Ermin Way at Cirencester, crossed Watling Street at High Cross south of Leicester, and joined Ermine Street at Lincoln. Over a distance of one hundred and eighty two miles, it is never more than six miles from a straight line. Differing greatly from the Neolithic roads, deviating as the landscape did, following the elevated seams of chalk. Paying homage to both methods of road building in its final stages – perfectly straight one minute cutting through and over the hills at their apex if need be, and increasingly winding the next as it flows beneath and around the hills at their base or side. The 303 in turn, reveals none of what it is supposed to be. It seems like it gives up in the last few miles, sick of pretending to be a superhighway, or a highway to the sun, it narrows, straddles, follows, and straightens, as it is told to by the landscape and a previous road, until it throws the towel in altogether at the a30 junction, becoming the a30. Pagan festivals, wicker people, sunshine worship. And of course Stonehenge. By which people pass on their way to Glastonbury. All forgotten. The 303 had already ceased to be ages before this point in my journey though – the hippy road, the fun road, the one you ferry along in groups to fish rivers, to walk in open countryside, to sit on a beach, to watch music at a festival, gone with the monotony of driving in the dark. It is a sad end for a road with so much promise. Kula Shaker sang You can find yourself home on the 303. I could not. The road was cut across by another, well before my claustrophobic, utilitarian four walls in Exeter. Thinking back though to the early part of the journey, completed in the dazzling low late winter sun, some of the other things they mention in the song now sort of make sense to me. I’m just I’m just I’m just a man stuck pushing some wheel Moving on and down the road to the 303 In the land of summer sun we have just begun Riding out with my friends in a Mercedes Benz You can find you a home on the 303 Let yourself go on the 303, on the 303 etc. Hard times, well all I know is that… Dark times? Gotta let it go because I got my friends and I love my friends, I got my friends right to the end round the bend, all together now I’ve got to, got to, get to some place I’ve not seen Headless guru in the night show me what you mean! In the land of summer sun we have just begun Perfect picture card scene, changing all that has been You can find your way home on the 303 You can let somebody know on the 303, on the 303 etc. Hard times, well all I know is that… Dark times? Gotta let it go because I got my stash And I love my hash, I got my stash Think I’ll grow myself a big ol’ hairy moustache.
It started with an urge to write something about a literary society, three years earlier. An urge to walk in a strange way. Differently to what I was used. And document. Walk away from an industrial northern town to its nationwide opposite; an affluent rural southern village. Experience what poets meant by the sublime. Placing Edward Thomas at the centre of the journey: as a provocation. I have to admit: I have developed an unhealthy obsession with Edward Thomas, as he aided and inspired, becoming both the subject and the object of this work and at the same time neither. The ripples had to stop somewhere though. I had to give up the ghost sometime. It is not normal to be this fixated upon a poet. Where do I end and Edward begins? I know I am several already, but still. This had to be my last birthday loop, or I would never get myself out. Find myself again or lose myself forever. I was happy for it to finish, all this, everything. I was already very different to when I began. Beyond this walk I would cycle, admittedly along a route devised by Edward, away from these few years for good. But for now, I would continue the usual routine on arrival. Remembering C. Remembering Edward. Past loops. Feedback loops. Feeding back into my assembled psyche. Damaged since this all began. Kill the engine. Shoe-up, lace-up, coat-up. Abuse the notebook, force information into it. Wait by the posh school. Imagine C, in her grey coat. And listen out for the welcoming words. Become the Fellowship; the collective consciousness. Doing anything otherwise was useless and futile. It had to be gone through one last time. The walk would on this occasion commemorate the centenary of the publication of Light and Twilight, The Isle of Wight, Maurice Maeterlinck and The Tenth Muse but not for some reason Celtic Stories. The 2012 birthday walk could commemorate Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Borrow: the Man and his Books, Lafcadio Hearn, and Norse Tales. The one after that The Icknield Way, The Country, and The Happy Go Lucky Morgans. And so on until the Fellowship ran out of centenaries in a few years time. His death may take preference to commemorate the centenary of in 2017. The first reading to occur was a segment chosen from The Isle of Wight; a place which I had only ever been to once, with C. I went off on my own, and separated myself from the group, and its collective consciousness immediately. I was carted off to the island on hearing its name and only partly returned – after remembering a photograph taken in front of a pub, and a reverie of the ferry ride from Southampton to Cowes, involving drink, laughter, and sick – post reading. Tennyson was mentioned by those in the know. The island was his home. It is a maquette of the mainland, sort of, with various different landforms. The Needles were recalled, giant chalk stacks, putting in mind the chalk down land, feet beneath the tarmac. The customary photograph was taken. I stood out alone on this occasion at the back of shot, without a companion of similar age. And remained there until all set out for the memorial stone, following the stragglers through the school gate, towards the crossroads, repeating the same route as previously up to the stone. An exercise in repetition. Repeating and repeating loops, ceaselessly year on year. Despite this the loops always circle Edward and Steep differently. Revealing something new each time. Connections are never curtailed but encouraged. Sought out and elucidated. Edward is summoned on a birthday walk only as part of a network of others. This is fitting, as it is how Edward wrote, moving books in and out of his topographical work in a variety of surprising ways. It is also how he understood his own subjectivity, having created doppelgangers in poetry and prose. He was several by his own admission, mildly schizophrenic, and not averse to creating heightened versions of himself. A doppelganger that walks the countryside and writes, called The Other, like Edward in general, recurs and haunts. Satirical in nature, it pokes fun at the pursuit of land writing, critiquing as it goes. It arrives everywhere before the caricatured Edward Thomas bumbling along behind, chasing – acting as a nod to all the great poets who came before him, and all the other people who make up who he is, more importantly though, it is an acknowledgement of the tensions at play in writing creative non-fiction, or poetry, illustrating perfectly the thorny issue of subjectivity and supposed literary artifice. The poem, The Other, is a reconciling process, a reconciling of the subject; a process which is always doomed to failure. I travelled fast, in hopes I should Outrun that other. What to do When caught, I planned not. I pursued To prove the likeness, and, if true, To watch until myself I knew… By the inn door: ere I alight I wait and hear the starlings wheeze And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight. He goes: I follow: no release Until he ceases. Then I also shall cease. In In Pursuit of Spring Edward speaks of his anxieties further when representing what he witnesses walking, through The Other Man, showing a self-awareness not always attributed to a poet of his ilk. There is though something else at play here, a distinct separation of the material world and the linguistic text – a binary which cuts through all of these excursions. The excursions speak, as positive exercises, to the anxieties voiced by previous environmental authors, muddying the waters between the material and the linguistic; reaching beyond authenticity for more intimate, imaginative and creative ways of knowing the world. Why is a poem not a thing? The stragglers turned right at the Aspens still talking away to each other, swishing their leaves in the regular gusts of wind. I followed. The poem Edward witnessed and then wrote still there. The aspens recite it to this day – a poem in itself.
We stopped at the house of Muirhead Bone, at the base of the wooded escarpment. The solitary pine stood dead ahead, behind it the shoulder. Letters from Edward to Eleanor Farjeon were read out in the front garden, referring to the Bone family. The former house of the war artist sat in the shadow of the chalk ridge. On top of which was the memorial stone, only just visible. Apple trees spotted the garden; an orchard. A similar age to Edward at the outbreak of war, Muirhead did not have to fight. He arrived in France though during the Battle of the Somme and began to draw what he witnessed, serving with the Allied Forces on the Western Front and also with the Royal Navy for a time, returning to England in October of that year with one hundred and fifty drawings. In 1917 Muirhead went back to France, to the ruined towns and villages, again to draw what he witnessed. The drawing A Church in the Citadel at Arras, was sketched a matter of weeks before Edward died there. After the war, Muirhead travelled to America. Something Robert Frost had always encouraged Edward to do. Indeed prior to the war Edward considered going but in the end chose to fight and ultimately die. Sir Muirhead Bone died in 1953 in Oxford. He has a memorial stone in St Paul’s Cathedral. Some squinted upwards, to a slither of lighter green, flanked by beech. In the centre of which sat the memorial stone all had come to visit. Before leaving the house in Steep and walking uphill, we read both versions of A Tale, and a poem we had not read before, The Wasp Trap. It goes. This moonlight makes The lovely lovelier Than ever before lakes And meadows were. And yet they are not, Though this their hour is, more Lovely than things that were not Lovely before. Nothing on earth, And in the heavens no star, For pure brightness is worth More than that jar, For wasps meant, now A star – long may it swing, From the dead apple-bough, So glistening. Under the apple boughs we dwelt listening. Not the trees about which the poem was written but similar. Something surprising happened. It was brought on by the poetry. What we had sought throughout: a moment of being there, in the moment. Not dislocated, displaced, or distant; wound up in mnemonic reels. For, for a few fleeting seconds, there were the trees in themselves, nothing else. I was a tree amongst trees. Words flowed into the ears without need for comprehension. They were just sounds the trees made. It was a Tawny-Grammar; the song of the earth. Looking back now though, I am not sure it came to pass. Something happened but I am not sure that. I just stared at a tree, harder and for longer than I normally would, in all likelihood. So much so, that I could not remember what I had been thinking about during the poem. Silly really to explain that moment away so romantically; all I did was stare the bark off a tree. It was nice to think that it could happen though; something as magical and otherworldly. The two versions of A Tale passed without incident. I was interested in hearing both back to back. All it demonstrated though was the editing process. Both versions are very similar. A different word here and there, tell the same tale. It is not a chance to look into the mind of a poet, to view his craft, or the bones that lay underneath the finished skin. The delivery of the poems makes a huge difference. The best read poems pull you in. The Wasp Trap was read by one of the actors. A Tale was not. The words react differently when I hear them, as to when I read them, as to when I hear them performed well. We continued to walk in a crocodile once more; this time directly uphill.
It was from Light and Twilight, the next reading. We were congregated beside the memorial stone. Almost at the plateau of the chalk ridge: although not quite. Most faced away and out towards the English Channel far off and Buriton in the middle distance, where a W.H. Hudson literary walk can be looped. A few stared hard at the hard sarsen rock. It mimicked the majority and gazed back from on high with its plaque shining outwards: a beacon to prompt the memory, drawing people up on to the rocks. Once the reading began everyone crowded around to listen in. Some still faced out to sea. Most did though now pay attention. They stared into the face of the bearded actor – adept nowadays at playing Edward after years of practice. The actor entertained all with the end to The End of the Day; a chapter from Light and Twilight. It went. They waited on her, some wistful, some imperious, but all drawn after her whithersoever she went, all praising her for her sweet lips, her long brown hair and its gloom and hidden smouldering fires, her eyes and her eyelids that were as the violet opened flower and the white closed bud, her breath sweet as the earth’s, her height, her whiteness, her swift limbs, and her rippling arms and wrists and hands, made for love and for all fair service; her straightness, that was as the straightness of a tulip on the best day of spring; and for her life, because it was all before her, pale and mysteriously lit, without stars yet with the promise of stars like the sky which had now dismissed all clouds but one dark bar, and was expanding around and above without a bound. Into that sky, into the gorse of the moor and a wild multitude of birds, she slipped out of my sight; and I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey. I imagined being sat in Piccadilly Gardens, watching people walk by. Before standing up myself and going to the next place to wait for a while. The sexualised nature of the reading was troubling me though. It was not what I expected to hear. It had some worrying slippages. What with the equation of women and nature apparent. Edward observes and writes of her as if she has a closeness to nature which he, or any other man, cannot achieve. I stood and worried that I was guilty of this also in parts. And I had become a new romantic; asserting a heterosexual sexist view of the world. I looked back out over the landscape and sighed. The actor stood imperious. He owned this stage. Gazing out over our heads he began again. And recited a poem by Humphrey Clucas written about Edward called Pilgrimage. It came from the book of poems; Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas. Edited by Anne who had organised the readings for each of the birthday walks. The poem summed up our day, travelling up to the stone with words at hand. I read the engraving one last time and touched the stone, flattening out my palm, hoping to leave some of the pain up there; and I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey. Goodbye or farewell, I was not sure which. Sometimes goodbye becomes farewell sadly. And you never see the one you love again.
The sunlight shone and bounced off the glass entrance hall, heating its inside. I waited there with the artwork made by the pupils. Some decent sculptures were dotted around the place – a kangaroo and a lamb beside myself in there. They cast shadows in odd shapes across the rustic brick floor. There was nothing much else to do other than stare at them. Nobody came over to speak to me, whilst I sat on the comfortable sofas. Some cagouled people occasionally walked through to go to the toilet. At about two in the afternoon more began streaming my way. They congregated in the same place as they had in the morning – by the bit of paper stuck to the glass, out front. I did the same, ready for one final birthday walk. In the opposite direction we walked to before; down past the church, slipping by it, through the topiary garden of an old house, and on to a sunken lane. The tamed bushes rolled down to the lane in waves, where they met wild prickly holly. Tennis courts, stables, a golf course, and other rich trinkets, adorned the route. We did not stop though and followed the a3, not leaving its bank, hearing it beyond a copse, not far off to our right. Knowing where it would lead, Steep Marsh, eventually Liss, and the forest there, beyond that Liphook and a Flora Thompson literary walk devised by Anne Mallinson, founder of the Fellowship. The Shoulder arced up behind us, back the other way, just over which is Hawkley, looped by a William Cobbett literary walk. We were padding along the same route as I walked with Doug years earlier. The Harrow Inn with its variety of ales in barrels and endearing outdoor bogs were passed by for the first time since. Its garden was packed with people swilling wine and knocking back pints. We still did not stop though. The sunken lane opened out in to an empty field of lush grass. The field gave on to the a3 now raised above. Most walked up and watched the cars go by. All heard the noise that they created. On the road that cuts between Petersfield and Steep. A line of trees squeezed everyone towards the road so we were once again directly beneath it. The narrow path led to another road, which ran underneath the busy road to London. I thought of the Harroway, and the ancient crossroads. Strangely, it was here that we stopped; underneath the noisy road, inside the short concrete tunnel. Engines now echoed loudly and we could distinguish between vehicles. There were a few sly comments and funny looks, at the choice of location, when all caught up. It soon became clear why we had walked this way though. Some of the members wanted to see the house where Alec Guinness lived, up close. It was a hundred or so metres back up the road and away from the a3. At the gates they talked of how he loved living in the area, and of his films, before moving on after a few minutes. Still nothing was read. Off road again, after walking the wider road, we passed a sad little horse. Its mane in its eyes, its belly rounded, its head hanging over the gate. The Shetland pony made no noise whatsoever. It just looked up at us walking by. I have never seen an animal look so lonely. It appeared dejected and fed up with life. A lost soul: a kindred spirit. It was still in exactly the same position, in its tiny corner pen, when I turned back having reached the high point of the field. Over on the other side of the field were a few elegant horses prancing to and fro. People were beginning to bunch under some oaks. When I caught up, I realised what it was. The stile, the same one I stepped over two years ago. I remembered the way C climbed over it face first, her grey coat hanging down like a cape. People were not stepping over it though. They were waiting for a reading. The stile overlooked Steep Marsh and the a3 now in the distance. I was pretty sure that it had no explicit connection to Edward. Anne explained that there was a stile in the area, which Edward had written about. It could be the one we stood beside. He wrote about a stile in Light and Twilight. And called the section; The Stile. He was walking with Walter de la Mere. Someone else began without warning: Three roads meet in the midst of a little green without a house or the sign of one, and at one edge there is an oak copse with untrimmed hedges. One road goes east, another west, and the other north; southward goes a path known chiefly to lovers, and the stile which transfers them to it from the rushy turf is at a corner of the copse. The reader continued for a while. I heard only; One day I stopped by the stile at the corner to say good-bye to a friend who had walked thus far with me.
Looping back around to the church, we stopped only once more. It was down in the dark coombe, by a wooden signpost. There the bearded actor read for the last time. It was an excerpt from The Last Four Years by Eleanor Farjeon, concerning again; Light and Twilight. Eleanor had just read the book. She asked Edward shyly the next morning whether he had ever written poetry. Edward in his usual self deprecating way replied that he couldn’t write a poem to save his life. He wrote many in the end. None saved his life though. There is something therapeutic about writing poems nevertheless. Perhaps they do save the lives of some. The act of writing down memories has helped me certainly. Whether this can be classed as good poetry though is another matter. It is a little self-indulgent. I set out In Pursuit of Spring the day after the 2011 birthday walk aiming to change this. Not finished just yet. There was a surprise ending to the 2011 birthday walk. I sat in the church, eating cake and drinking tea, when some young people stood before the pews and set up some instruments – a cello, an accordion, and an acoustic guitar. They were in their early twenties like me. The bearded man appeared and explained what was going on. The folk musicians were going to play some traditional songs familiar to Edward. Edward had sung songs with various friends. He shared shanties with Arthur Ransome. Myfanwy tells of her young self innocently singing a couple to Ransome and his first wife, causing outrage. Sweet William was a song Myfanwy remembers her father singing at bathtime. She also recalled, What Shall we do with The Drunken Sailor, The Garden of Love and Hunting the Whale. In a letter Eleanor Farjeon asked Edward for the words of two songs, which she had heard him sing; John Blunt and Mister McKinley – a song about the assassination of an American president Edward learned from D.H. Lawrence at a gathering of friends in Sussex. It is of course likely that he would have known far more songs than there are record of in print; including music-hall ditties and barrack-room amusements. There are also sections of This England and The Heart of England where Edward lists old songs. Before the folk could begin though, the minutes from last year were read out and the annual general meeting was formally proceeded through. The sad news of the sudden death of Edward Cawston Thomas, president, was the first thing read. Had I crossed the line of shoes I would have heard the short moving speech a year earlier. Colin continued through what was said in the church that day. Study days, weekends away, and the autumn walk. Before handing over to the bearded man once more. Between songs the actor was to read out bits of writing by Edward. He introduced the folk singer, Emily Portman, who began singing the song Borstal Boy. She was accompanied by Rob and Lucy. All the men but one leaned back upon the settles or forward upon the tables, their hand on their tankards, watching the one who sang a ballad – a ballad known to them so well that they seemed not to listen, but simply to let the melody surge about them and provoke what thoughts it would. Borstal Boy was followed by Love Apples. And of all music the old ballads and folk songs and their airs are richest in the plain immortal symbols… their alphabet is small; their combinations are as sweet as the sunlight or the storm… They are the quintessence of many lives and passions made into a sweet cup for posterity. They are in themselves epitomes of whole generations, of a whole countryside. Mournfully wailing, floating hither and thither, beautifully, words of old songs in the little church, hit home. In the parlour of the inn the singer stood and sang of how a girl was walking alone in the meadows of spring when she saw a ship going out to sea and heard her true love crying on board… He sang without stirring, without expression, except in so far as light and darkness from his own life emerged enmeshed among the deep notes… and that little inn, in the midst of immense night, seemed a temple of all souls. Dumfounded, staring at the scene before me, I slipped into reverie, walking with C through lush green fields, past full summer trees, down to a glistening babbling brook. I jumped in, weighed my body down, and drowned myself. I could see through the water, up at her, standing on the bank, looking for me for a few moments, before she walked away. Sometimes goodbye turns into farewell. Edward believed the old songs, some of which I heard in the nave, bridged the chasm between the material and the linguistic. Like folklore and poetry, the ballads had for Edward an enviable closeness to nature. They have an authenticity of rhyme, onomatopoeia, a language not to be betrayed. Getting at things in themselves. Becoming things in themselves. I should use as the tree and birds did a language not to be betrayed – words which still have their roots showing. I left the church a doppelganger never to return again, heading pell-mell for London up the a3. To ride through countryside, in order to describe it, the next day. I emerged from beneath the m25 – the new city boundary, the moat – before Cobham, sopping up the heat of the city. It was early evening when I arrived in a still sunny Clapham. Passing by the road on which Edward lived as a boy. I parked beside my bike, locked up outside the house, and waited in the car for a few moments. That was the end of my days with the Fellowship. The most organised literary society in the country.
Preston, May 2011