All posts by pbscreative


Another Christmas Day begins with the wind taking a breather outside and no sign of a flood. It is noticeable how often we have used the’ biblical’ to describe conditions this week. Somehow neither the colloquial nor the scientific feels up to the job. ‘Storm’ fails to convey the violence of the gales, rain and hail or the sense, abetted by previous incidents that these are the birth agonies of a new and less favourable order; while ‘extreme weather event’ wears a white coat when the dress code is defiantly party frock or gloomily sackcloth and ashes.

That people who regard themselves as atheists or agnostics can still make use of religious references is part of the cultural as opposed to meteorological transformation we have been going through. Regret is still voiced that the traditional pieties of Christmas have been lost sight of; and certainly their obliteration by the cargo cult of i-phones, tablets and the like is ugly to behold. This time, it seems Man really has bitten the Apple. But in many houses, including ours the things being celebrated are no less sacred, even though they are detached from dogma. Love for one’s family, generosity of spirit, the sharing of food in the harshness of midwinter, not to mention peace on earth and goodwill to all men – these have been hijacked by religions and made to seem inventions of some holy book but are in reality human values or aspirations arising from the experience of life. And if Christmas is the occasion when their secular nature comes to the fore that is only what Christians did with the pagan practices they overthrew, using the days, rituals and architecture they found in place to imbue new orthodoxies with old habits of mind and belief. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

Of course whatever new synthesis of past wisdom and present understanding emerges will in no time seem preposterous to some and in turn be superseded. That is the way of things. Meanwhile, until that new formulation emerges and an alternative greeting hits the spot I am delighted to wish anyone reading this (itself some sort of miracle) a merry Christmas. Now, where’s that turkey…

The Old Ways

It goes without saying that Robert Macfarlane’s book is a substantial and significant achievement. Its accounts of treks undertaken at home and abroad urge us to look anew at familiar landscapes and open our eyes to places we would not have thought, or dared, to venture. The pathfinders and path keepers we meet in the process inspire admiration, self-reproach at our own laziness and wonder at their obsessive, sometimes courageous dedication. And these individual stories, fascinating in themselves, swell to an impassioned celebration of the beauty, consolations and wisdom that are made available by the act of walking.

You may think, after such an opening, that a ‘but’ is sure to follow. You may even, having read The Old Ways and been enslaved by Macfarlane’s message and prose, be wondering what reservations there could possibly be. Well, I have two but they are more queries than cavils and it is no criticism of any book that it sets the reader thinking.

Firstly, he says it himself: the paths he sets out to follow have been pounded by countless feet into the bare, impressionable earth, whereas the footslogging of city dwellers leaves no trace on tarmac or concrete. Yet we have become an urban race and those man-made surfaces are what the vast majority of us tramp for most of our lives. That in no way devalues the ancestral tracks or the attention he pays to them. However, there is a tendency in English culture (although it may be universal) to seek meaning and identity in rural settings rather than in the places where most of us actually live. The very first walk in the book is a quiet popping out into the surrounding fields. By making this sound both unplanned and unexceptional he sets the tone for what follows: these places are accessible to all of us, along with the experience they provide of mental space, dwarfing of the self and connectivity with nature and the past. But having these splendours a short stroll away is denied to most people. Compare Macfarlane with someone like Ian Sinclair who steps out of his front door to patrol the cityscape of Hackney and adjacent parts of London. This is a man-made world that offers not ancient states of being and timeless truths but restless change and contested meanings. 

Don’t get me wrong. I live in the country, after even our small, attractive town became too noisy and congested, and I feel as strongly as anyone the pull of wild places. But I am also aware that the countryside, especially in England, is no less a product of human interference than the town, even while we praise it for being natural, and that the major challenge facing the planet is not the integrity of hedgerows or the fate of rural post offices but how to feed, govern and power conurbations. This brings me to my second, nagging thought about The Old Ways. Although never stated explicitly, there is an implied assumption that we can learn from the past – not in grand, conceptual ways (the inevitability of change, the limited shelf-life of certainties) but directly from those who lived in that far off land. And this raises a question about how we should view our history: as a place where things of value were mislaid or as a primitive precursor to our own advancement. I consider myself an agnostic on this point, inclined if anything to the second proposition. There are numerous reasons to learn about the peoples who traipsed and trampled the chalk uplands of southern England or the rocky fastnesses of the Hebrides, among them inherent interest, practical tips on survival, nostalgia for simpler times and the exercise of empathy. But going too far down this route implies a mistrust of modernity which, however tempting, has dubious political and cultural associations.

In memoriam

We have just passed the centenary of the outbreak of the most calamitous war in history (a judgement based on its long-term effects as much as what Jack Aubrey, in another conflict, calls ‘the butcher’s bill’). For volume two of my family history I have been researching and writing about the experiences of my grandfather and his generation, which range from draft-dodging through being wounded in action to a solitary, hard-to-trace death.  

I was naturally interested, therefore, in the first major study to appear of the man responsible for the forms in which the Allied dead are commemorated.* Fabian Ware overcame accusations of Bolshevism to impose his vision of burial in situ, even for those few whose families could afford to repatriate their remains; identical memorials and inscriptions irrespective of rank; and full lists of the missing at necropolises like Thiepval. It is an expression of comradeship if not equality in death, a posthumous levelling that some objected to at the time but which now seems the least that could have been done. 

Of late the rule on bringing bodies home has been relaxed and in country graveyards one comes across white headstones bearing a serviceman’s details, reverently preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from the lichen, grime and erosion that has disfigured its contemporaries at home. Such purity in the face of age is somehow unnatural, like peering into a mouth devoid of fillings. But the point is made, I suppose. They seem forever young.

The counterparts of these set pieces of remembrance are the war memorials erected in towns and villages across Britain. Unlike the vast cemeteries and lists of names in Flanders and France the men recorded were all known by those who paused to look. Sometimes brothers appear, more than doubling the sadness. As a small boy, seeing the letters Pte repeated, I wondered why so many of them were called Pete. Many of the inscriptions were engraved in his distinctive font by Eric Gill, genius, satyr and religious crank. His patient chiselling in countless locations, a bearded eccentric clad in a smock to let his manhood swing, amounts to one of the great if dispersed expressions of public art, even if his achievement has been sullied by our less indulgent view of incest and interfering with young girls.

Or maybe that is the point. What were intended as monuments to a shared ordeal where differences are not only silenced but in bad taste cannot escape the bickering of posterity. Nor perhaps should they. That war was a crime against humanity, a seismic collective blunder prosecuted with indifference to the cost and in sanitising its memory we make it more likely to happen again. That said, it is seemlier for someone who survived the carnage to break ranks and flout the conventional pieties. Siegfried Sassoon, on viewing the Menin Gate in 1927, wrote a poem containing the lines: ‘Well might the dead who struggled in the slime/Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.’ 

Forty years later the establishment responsible for those horrors was still parading at cenotaphs as if to dignify their complicity, arousing anger in another poet impatient with the past. Philip Larkin, flying over London on Remembrance Day, imagines far below ‘the solemn-sinister wreath rubbish in Whitehall.’ And more recently, in the context of another war, the unveiling of a memorial to Bomber Command received flak from those still aghast at the slaughter of civilian populations.

These are difficult sentiments to express. How can one reconcile honouring the fallen with bitterness at the circumstances surrounding their fate; or reverence for the act of mourning with dissent from those taking the salute? Perhaps by not thinking of the dead as passive recipients of our respect, saintly non-combatants in the life of which they were cheated. Making them party to our arguments, even objects of controversy is a way of keeping them present in our thoughts. That is a more honest, involving and appropriate tribute to their memory.

* Empires of the Dead by David Crane (Collins)