6 June 2012
Chapters 1 and 2
It’s 99 years since the spring Thomas writes of, so it’s hard to see this book as anything more than a curiosity. But there are things that strike all kinds of chords with me, so I’ll start there. Wistful thoughts of the countryside from the depths of a city: check. A world that occupies the same space as our own, but no longer exists: check. And that pre-First World War yearning for a sense of England beyond the everyday: definitely.
Maybe these are all part of the same thing. Thomas chooses an epic tone for his first chapter, full of mountains and continents – and that’s only the clouds, because he hasn’t left London yet. But I shouldn’t be sarcastic. If it wasn’t for the sensibility brought about by the likes of Thomas and E M Forster 100 years ago, I wouldn’t have the feelings I do for the English countryside. Leonard Bast’s all-night walk in Howard’s End in an unspecified year early in the 20th Century; Edward Thomas on his bicycle not may years later…. It’s the same urban dream of something better in a pastoral elsewhere that I was brought up with. It crossed, and still crosses, class boundaries. For the middle classes it led to the spread of the suburbs. I’ve seen an early 20th Century cartoon of the city I live in now, with its arterial roads turned into the tentacles of an octopus of ribbon development out from the centre. This wasn’t an option for the workers. Instead it became an assertion of class rights that they should have access to the same countryside as anybody else, at least for one day in the week. My father drove us to one or other of the Derbyshire beauty spots every Sunday of my childhood – the Peak District had only been a National Park for a few years then – and I still know the route numbers of the buses out to Bakewell and Castleton from days when I went on my own. (I don’t still have the Bartholomew half-inch road atlas I used to take on cycle rides.)
So I have an inkling of why Thomas, stuck in Clapham in 1913, might spend a month anticipating an epic week of cycling away from the city. I’m not going to go on any more about how quaint this sounds now. In 1913 it was still possible to have the expectation that each village and landscape feature would impart something of value. And Thomas, not yet a poet himself, was nevertheless steeped in poetry. His arrival near Box Hill in Chapter 2 leads to six pages of musings on the poetry and philosophy of George Meredith. He might be a poet hardly anyone reads now, but Thomas’s discussion places him alongside Wordsworth and Byron. This feels even more quaint than the description of puddles and ruts in the road before he’s gone more than a mile or two. L P Hartley’s famous line that the past is a foreign country has only become a cliché because it’s true.
So, what about this journey, beginning on a wet Good Friday at the end of March? The key words in that sentence are journey, and wet. Thomas obsesses about the weather, as any cyclist does. His month of anticipation is spent looking for signs that this will be a fine Easter, but in the end he sets off despite the rain because, well, he’s chosen his day. And we get, more or less, a mile-by-mile account of the ride. Every hedge, or lack of hedges, every fine building or mean one, every pub and many of the trees. If there is a bird singing, he recognises its song. If there are spring flowers under a hedge he names them. The effect on the reader, at the end of the first chapter of travel, is that we know what a day’s cycling feels like. Those showers, that head-wind that makes forward progress impossible around Dorking. I’m glad he stopped at Guildford because I’m not sure I could have managed any more.
All along the way we get the Maps of Time effect. There’s a children’s novel by Peter Hunt with that title, long out of print, in which the land within an area drawn with a magical pen on a 100-year-old map will suddenly and magically revert to how it was all those years ago. Roads that would now be sheer misery to cycle along because of thunderous traffic passing by in both directions, or because of the stop-start of a suburban high street, are empty but for an occasional Good Friday walker or fellow cyclist. Big commuter towns are villages, each with its own distinctive character, or have the broad streets of market towns. There are streams and orchards and farmsteads we know are no longer there, many of them reminding him of a line of poetry we probably don’t recognise. Who would quote poetry in our time?
And we find Thomas quarrelling with some of the things he sees. A surprise to me are the number of advertising hoardings he describes, disfiguring the edges of the settlements for many miles out of London. An old church left like a rotting corpse after the building of a new one next to it. A gravestone with a verse reminding the passer-by that he will soon be no better than the occupant of the grave is now…. How would she know? ‘That this desperate Christian … had any special knowledge of these matters, I have no reason for believing. I even doubt if she really thought…’ etc. And what is the point of that do-gooder monument to all those in a village buried in unmarked graves in the past? Thomas, on his slow ride, has the time to contemplate eternity.
Jesus, this book is hard to read. Not that Thomas lets Jesus get a look in. This might be an Easter cycle ride, and he might comment on every church (and cathedral) he encounters, but the tone is resolutely sceptical. Those quarrels he has with epitaphs and other inscriptions continue through these chapters. Who do you think you’re talking to? he seems to ask the dead occupants of various church-yards, then reminds us, or himself, that the inscriptions would have been written by other people anyway. Many churches are locked. One that isn’t, this Easter Sunday, he describes as ‘occupied’. In Salisbury on the Saturday he goes into the cathedral, but mentions precisely nothing about its interior beyond some forgettable-sounding monuments. Leaving the city it is the beauty of the day that puts him into ‘an unconscious imitation of a religious humour’ – imitation, note – rather than lines of Herbert’s he’s been quoting. And then the ‘Other Man’, a traveller he encounters from time to time, recites a Herbert sonnet on the subject of sin. He uses an exaggerated ‘unctuous’ tone, and follows it with a sarcastic anti-religious comment. Thomas, after reporting this, dismounts at the next church-yard and muses on lines about death that he finds there.
It isn’t these bits that I’m finding hardest to read, but the descriptive writing. We get villages, and we get the sections between villages. He describes buildings, features of topography, the weather, trees, birds, flowers, the occasional animal. In the villages he always names every pub, makes a comment about the newness or otherwise of the church (and little else about it beyond whether its spire is stumpy or not)…. And that’s about it. Before I even began reading these chapters I was wondering what on earth he thought he was doing writing this thin stuff. One of the few biographical details that I know about him is that he wrote what he called ‘pot-boilers’ to earn a living. I’m guessing that all this is, really, is one of them. Why else would so much of his description of, say, a village street be so pedestrian? Often these are little more than lists of the main buildings he can see, perhaps taking in a view of the water-fountain donated by the local toff.
However. Sometimes he seems to decide that he can do more than merely plod on towards the required 300-page target with whatever words he can dredge up. We know that Thomas has not always been a city-dweller, that when he tells us the first song of the chiff-chaff – always on or near a particular date in March – this really does signal for him the beginning of spring. Signs that hares are nearby set off a long memory of seven of them chasing one another so fast their running seems like flying. A drab Sunday morning in Salisbury sparks the memory of a bustling market-day evening on the same street. These descriptions are as far away from his pot-boiler prose as poetry is from a bad geography textbook, and I only wish there was more of it.
There are other times when he lets the book depart from the painstaking mile-by-mile itinerary. Sometimes these diversions are very bad. I was almost tearing my hair out over his five-page description of the merits of different clay pipes, and the story he tells, complete with details of shillings and pence, of being ‘green’ enough – those are Thomas’s inverted commas – to be over-charged by an unscrupulous landlady. (This is the highly unpromising start to Chapter 3.) Or he goes into too much detail about why people think they need to read Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Or… whatever. But sometimes – and I’m trying to remember which bits I’m thinking of – he can be quite interesting. Hang on.
We find out about how many gipsies there were in 1913, how unobtrusive a part of the landscape they seemed to him. Then, in order to do the job of describing what the life of a farm labourer is like, he cites a forgotten book by a forgotten author. No, sorry, that’s not a good bit: I remember it sounding like the sort of master/worker relationship satirised by Ted and Ralph in The Fast Show. He goes off on a story about one Martha and Mary…. No, I lost the thread of that one well before he’d finished with it.
Maybe it isn’t the diversions that relieve the monotony but the occasional flashes of something striking. The trees he mentions most often are elms – I’m old enough to remember elms, and to regret their passing – and the sounds he mentions most are the songs of birds. These he describes in the sort of detail only a county-dweller could manage. It’s no accident that, once Thomas did become a poet, one of his most famous poems, ‘Adlestrop’ ends with the songs of birds. Not just a few birds, but ‘all the birds / In Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.’ That’s better.
Chapter 5 is ‘Three Wessex Poets’: the talent-free labourer-poet Stephen Duck, only notable for the light he casts on 18th Century attitudes to class, the mawkish Dorset parson William Barnes and, of course, the inveterate determinist Thomas Hardy. A pointless chapter? You decide.
Chapters 6-10 – to the end
The final chapter is ‘The Death of Winter’. But why am I not surprised – what did I write early on about ‘the key words being journey, and wet’? – that three of its twelve pages consist of a long grumble that decent waterproofs have not been invented by the beginning of the 20th Century? He goes on so long that even he realises he’s overdone it, sends himself up by imagining ‘only’ 100 years of prayers for better waterproofs, and is not surprised that there has been no response from ‘that distant quarter.’ He’s even managing to send up his own scepticism.
The final chapter isn’t all like this. In fact, Thomas seems more enthusiastic about the enterprise than at any other time. Perhaps he’s glad it’s over. On a day with more sunshine than showers, during which he allows himself the conceit of a rainbow over towards the distant prospect of the Welsh hills, we finally get his paean to Spring. And there’s another conceit. If this is the death of Winter, well, here are bluebells and cowslips on the ground, discarded by some restless child, marking its grave. Ok. I only wish (a phrase I realise I’ve used before) there was more of a sense of moving towards this devoutly wished-for consummation throughout the book. Only now does he mention the greening of buds; before this I can only remember one occasion on which he mentions what the trees and bushes actually look like – in late March, I assume, almost entirely naked.
I don’t find Thomas a visual writer. He describes scenes, but they are the hastiest of sketches. He has a habit of using the word ‘wall’ to describe the steep ascents at the edges of moorland and, for instance, Salisbury Plain. That doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not familiar with the regions that he’s travelling, but I know what the edges of moors look like – muscular undulations, made endlessly varied by valleys carved by streams, by the colours of early spring foliage and cloud-shadows. In Thomas’s descriptions we do finally get the piercing yellow of gorse blossom, and vistas opening out into something truly grand, but… but there hasn’t been much like it before. It’s as though he’s wearing blinkers: good on details, but not on the big picture.
In fact, his strength is in evoking the small-scale – so it’s no surprise that in Wells Cathedral what he describes is the clock and, inevitably, some of the monuments – but not the extraordinary large-scale engineering of the scissor-arches at the crossing. He seems much more comfortable when he gets out into the town. Or when he describes the hedges he sees as he travels further west, appealing to him because of their density and the variety of elm, and thorn, and briar they consist of.
Looking back on these chapters the things I remember, again, are the diversions from his itinerary. For the first time we get an occasional sense of people – not just picturesque farm workers in the landscape, but a tomboyish girl in a pub, remarking on the beautiful hair of a woman she can see, old men in a different pub speaking unsentimentally about the dying wife of one of them…. And there’s the Other Man, much more of a presence than earlier and something of a thorn in Thomas’s side. Sometimes I wonder if he’s really a fictional alter-ego, especially when he turns out to be writing travel books for money. When he complains about the difficulty of converting his mass of unsorted notes into a coherent narrative (I’m paraphrasing) I was convinced this was a veiled self-portrait.
And there are a few Maps of Time effects we haven’t really seen before. One is to do with what we would never expect to find now in such picturesque surroundings: big, square-built factories. Industry was far more dispersed 100 years ago than it is now. And, on the edges of most of the towns, the villas of those who are beginning to turn into the new suburbanites. It’s interesting to get a picture of how this trend, a fact of life for over a century, appeared to observers at the time when it first began. Thomas doesn’t comment, he just mentions these newly built houses. But it’s clear that a highly recognisable sense of things having been spoilt in the recent past has been around for a very long time.
The two writers he spends most time on in these chapters are ones Thomas is truly comfortable with. Coleridge is given a lot of pages – and a lot of quotations – because of his connections with the Quantocks. Thomas is keen to show how deeply he’s considered what he considers the contrasting aspects of Coleridge’s work, a delicacy of insight and execution and an almost wild sensuousness. (I’m paraphrasing again.) And what other kind of writer would he consider, for nearly as many pages as one of the great poets of nature? It’s W H Hudson, a writer on the subject of – guess. Thomas apologises for the hackneyed-sounding title of what he considers Hudson’s greatest work, Adventures Among Birds, and spends six pages explaining why it should be read by everyone. Fair enough.
The sections on Coleridge and Hudson give us an insight into Thomas’s restlessness. For most of the journey he seems frankly bored, only really finding inspiration in poets who found their own in the places he passes through, and in the aspects of nature he tells us he has always loved. He imagines the unfolding of April and May: beginning with the sound of the cuckoo he imagines spring – sorry, Spring – making its way alongside him on his return journey… ‘and in the streets of London cowslips, bluebells and the unflower-like yellow-green spurge.’ Not an epic writer, Thomas. He’s a miniaturist.