Monthly Archives: May 2021

Snap

The village of Snap no longer exists, but is helpfully signposted, nonetheless. Lost settlements are not always so easily found as this, and a brisk five-minute stroll from the Aldbourne Road and I am at the site, marked in gothic script on my map. There are several of these invisible communities on the Marlborough Downs and lately I have become keen to pay each a pastoral visit, scanning them for signs of life. Unlike the previous one I saw (Shaw, on the periphery of the West Woods, whose medieval residents are evidenced only by an occasional lumpy ridge in the grass), Snap satisfies by having been inhabited almost within living memory. Ever a small place, by 1909 just two villagers remained, and most buildings were destroyed when the area was used for military training during the First World War.

May days arrive early, beautifully prepared – and this morning’s virginal sky has been ready for some time, like the well-rehearsed birds and breakfasting cattle who glance up as I bustle in, late to the gathering. Situated within a grove of youngish trees, Snap seems at first to have completely gone, until squared lines of rubble emerge amid the greenery, and a series of homesteads soon becomes noticeable. Standing in one of these chambers of the human hearth cannot but feel intrusive, causing one to wonder whether time is porous enough to be haunted in reverse.

An abandoned settlement easily calls to our imagination, for it speaks of a belonging that is familiar and concrete but just out of reach. Whereas our dwellings are plainly fixed, moulds to which we must accommodate, these vacant bricks could house whatever we want them to. Every such place is also a parable – a prophetic sign, even – and the story of Snap is no different. Its sacrifice to the profits of sheep farming offers a final, passing shot of a countryside transformed by enclosures of land and the cloth industry that burgeoned alongside the rearing of vast flocks. At one point, the Bishop of Winchester alone owned thirty thousand sheep on Salisbury Plain.

Parish churches, engrossed and gilded beyond all possible need of their community, were a regular beneficiary of those whose made wealthy by the wool trade, although none was built here. Snap’s witness to the golden fleece was its own demise. Two large farms, which together had provided villagers’ employment, were left untenanted by the agricultural depression of the 1890s and bought up by a butcher from nearby Ramsbury, John Wilson, who converted them into a sheep run, forcing the remaining villagers’ departure. It was an episode that provoked great controversy, even leading to the local Member of Parliament being sued for describing the Wilson family as oppressive and tyrannical. An account from the 1960s, however, found this outrage already overgrown with other myths of desertion, locals supposing it had to do with their water supply. 

As landscape historian Richard Muir observed in his study of Britain’s lost villages, if such a lapse of memory can take place within fifty years, it is little surprise that the undocumented lives of earlier generations of dispossessed poor are as obscure to us as these forgotten walls under the soil. At precisely the point when Snap was in terminal decline, that hidden culture was beginning to be a focus of liberal intellectual concern, especially among those who sought to recover the lore, language and artistic expression of rural communities. The English Folk Revival – with its Maypoles, Morris men and other approximations of Merrie England – was one of the great social and educational projects of the Twentieth Century and a monumental act of historical invention. Its narrative of extinction and retrieval was necessary in order to fill a perceived void among the modern, industrialized masses – namely, the meaningful ties and traditions of a small community. The only lost things we tend to seek are those we miss in the present.

Collection and circulation of folk songs by Cecil Sharp and others became a particular totem: half-recalled snatches of a ‘national music’ grounded (according to Ralph Vaughan Williams) in a mystic parochialism. Folk song should, Williams felt, enable people to ‘feel at home’, so he set about rechristening these tunes and placing them at the heart of the parish: within the leaf-green covers of the English Hymnal, whose first edition appeared in 1906. Through ongoing presence in Anglican churches and schools (the latter via its companion volume for children, Songs of Praise), The English Hymnal ensured that Christian worship became one of the most effective carriers of the folk revival, long after its ideological binding had foxed and faded.

While its aims – national and spiritual unity, deepening of local roots – were lofty and, to a degree, laudable, they presumed upon a ‘lost’ class of peasantry, untainted by mechanised culture, who were on the verge of dying out. As Georgina Boyes explored in The Imagined Village, her interrogation of the movement, this assumption was simply not borne out by its own fieldwork. The ‘Folk’ were essentially a construct, who needed to exist and so did – allowing the gatekeepers of the Revival to decide which among their values and traditions were legitimate, to further their missionary ends.

Social and political movements are prone to doing this, of course (as is the church whenever it presumes to know the mind of Christ) but their authority ceases in the moment they instrumentalise those they represent – or become remote from them, which is the usual counterpart. When, for one group of people, it becomes ideologically necessary for another group to act or think a certain way – the ‘white working class’, say – contact with reality soon disappears.

Frustrating though it can be to our causes, communal identity (past and present) is usually far more open and harder to categorise than we might imagine or need it to be, and is under continual renegotiation. The English village – a compact of ideal and reality – is peculiarly susceptible to being conscripted in ways that limit its potential, like the assumption it ought only to grow by a process of faithful reproduction, as it were a photograph, captured by time and unable to move. Unlike the fluid and mutable urban scene, the village must advance in freeze-frame: tracked by facsimiles of what was never static to begin with. 

In 1946 Penguin Books published The Anatomy of the Village: an unusual manifesto for renewing rural life as the Post-War era began, written by the eminent planner Thomas Sharp. In this lucidly-written and (given the crimes of planning about to be committed on many provincial towns) surprisingly balanced report, Sharp notes how ‘something of a romantic fallacy has grown up round the idea of building in the country’, warning of the danger of ‘tradition gone morbid’. Respect for heritage was vital, but only if it really did offer life and growth, adding with emphasis: ‘true tradition is not a pool which has welled up at some particular moment of time and has remained stagnant ever since’. Sharp’s conclusion was that ‘simplicity’ of style and scale is the village’s defining character, which is perhaps why they lend themselves so readily to possession – and dispossession. Small communities are more stoutly defended because we who inhabit such places see them more immediately as ‘ours’: you can throw your arms around a village, and never let go.

They also retain a tenacious national significance, even when the vast majority of us no longer live in one. At home I am reading Ayisha Malik’s novel This Green and Pleasant Land, in which Bilal, a secular Muslim living in the pregnantly-named village of Babel’s End, seeks to enact his mother’s dying request that he build there a mosque and so recover his own inheritance of faith. It proves infinitely more provocative to start a mosque in Babel’s End than in Birmingham. The very word ‘hissed in the village hall’ as Bilal makes his proposal to the parish council, and the ensuing controversy (which involves an appropriately conflicted and liberal-minded vicar) centres around contested ideas of both heritage and Englishness, for which the church building offers an intense focus. It is a perceptive and generous-hearted story, which avoids tidy platitudes and finds hope in the patient forming of neighbourly relations – the essence, after all, of the village ethic.

All of which suggests that unless we rebuild the village, we will not rebuild England – or redefine its place within the United Kingdom, within Europe, and our unsettled world. Whatever realm we seek can only be located among people sometimes intolerably different from ourselves, but with whom we share undeniable common ground. England was long ago wedded to Christianity – too long ago, indeed, for that covenant to be claimed only by Anglicans. And just as its narrative once offered resources that proved uniquely advantageous to becoming one people from many, a trace memory of that promise remains, on a Half Term holiday named Whitsuntide. Traditionally this is when Christians commemorate the gift of the Holy Spirit, uncorked like spraying Prosecco over the internationals gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Each one, apparently, could hear the Gospel in their own tongue – and from this riot of translation the early church was impelled from confinement into the furthest reaches of the ancient world. Not the reversal of Babel, then, but its baptism – a Christening, not a flattening, of local particularity. 

The Holy Ghost is a wraith from hereafter – breath of life in the face of death. Unlike others, this spirit is arrabon – foretaste of what is to come. Walking from Snap, sunlight sprinkled by shimmying leaves, I spot an overgrown stone placed by children from Toothill School, near Swindon, in honour of its departed people. Dated 1991, and that school now closed, it marks a memory of a memory, making me idly question whether there might also be signs hereabouts of lost villages as yet unconceived. After all, romances of the future have at least a fair chance of coming true.

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Whited sepulchres

The sins of England are written on our chancel walls, marbled and memorialised. At St Peter’s Dorchester – like most parish churches, a crowding gallery of monuments – I am stood beneath one large but fairly inconspicuous plaque to John Gordon, a plantation owner who died here in 1774, aged 46. Masking taped beneath this information is a temporary panel of cardboard explaining that ‘the remainder of this memorial has been covered as it commemorates actions and uses language that are totally unacceptable to us today’. When revealed, the inscription goes on to describe how Gordon ‘was signally instrumental in quelling a dangerous rebellion’ in Jamaica – among slaves who ‘finally yielded to their confidence in his humanity’. What that action indicated about Gordon’s confidence in theirs is left unwritten. 

It is an extraordinary epitaph, under which parishioners have murmured their prayers for two and a half centuries. The Parochial Church Council has periodically considered how best to address this affront, until lately the memorial has become an understandable focus for regional concern and media interest after being highlighted by Topple the Racists, the campaigning group that emerged from the actions of Bristolians in forcibly removing the statue of slaver Edward Colston. There can be a blazing grace in protest, enabling us to see what we have been blind to for too long.

St Peter’s has responded with exemplary good sense, researching the history of the Jamaican revolt thus recorded and drawing on pre-existing good relations with West Dorset Multicultural Network and the County Museum. Conveniently situated next door, the latter will in due course be receiving the Gordon plaque for permanent display, not least because of its singular value in demonstrating how enslaved people were agents of their own freedom, not simply ‘given’ liberty by enlightened campaigners. 

In the questionable way we allow cultural figures posthumously to colonise the landscape, this is Thomas Hardy Country. Indeed, a youthful Hardy was assistant architect for the refurbishment of St Peter’s (as another sign here indicates), and that conjuror of lost Edens is himself memorialised in stone at nearby Stinsford churchyard, where pamphlets from the Thomas Hardy Society mingle with pew sheets on the welcome desk. In her insightful study Dorset’s Hidden Histories, Louisa Adjoa-Parker observes that Dorset has singular potency as an icon of England and so might seem an unlikely county in which to consider black history. If, however, Englishness is to be conceived more inclusively than hitherto, then it is the very place to address this: not simply to step over the artificial demarcation of minority ethnic communities as ‘urban’, but because the countryside is where love of the land is owned, unabashed. And unless all in that land have a route into loving it, alienation is the inevitable end. 

The Church of England, being so entombed in our country’s past, has a unique custodial role to play in curating such contested heritage – as its recent and welcome advice on the theme acknowledges – and in cultivating a patriotism that, as the proximate outworking of our love for the world, acknowledges the global reach of every local affection. By virtue of what Anglicans believe about eternity (that it has a more powerful magnetism than time), and about redemption (that we are not captive to past transgressions), they have at their disposal a singularly useful set of conceptual tools. 

In particular, these imply that the rural past does not need to be quite so sacred, so unimpeachable. However unlikely it may sound, the problem of Britain’s heritage is an eschatological one, for we remain enchanted by a vanished kingdom, not the coming one. The village church is rightly perceived as hallowing each plot, but rarely because of (or in preparation for) what lies ahead. Consecration, furthermore, is no kind of indulgence – not exemption from scrutiny – but the sacrifice of torn and imperfect things to God, in whose hands those fragments may be restored. Loving the land is a pastoral cure.

The trouble is that idylls are so easily idolised. Yet the admission of ‘hidden histories’ into the national story allows for a loyalty that may be balanced (rather than cancelled out) by the record of our wrongs, to which the countryside often bears a kind of protected witness. In her recent and provocative study Green Unpleasant Land, Corinne Fowler unpicks some of that tapestry, noting how rural England has ever been ‘a terrain of inequalities’, with many of its Arcadian treasures afforded through monumental folly and injustice. This does not mean they are not also transportingly beautiful and worthy of conservation, but does suggest that our approach to national remembrance should be more akin to the kind we encourage when reviewing our personal past – a blend, in other words, of justifiable pride, aching regret and, in maturity (one trusts) understanding and acceptance of the whole. Above all, as a nation we should love others as we love ourselves.

Just behind St Peter’s in Dorchester is the prison, recently closed, where Robert Wedderburn – activist, Unitarian minister and the most prolific black writer in Britain at the start of the nineteenth century – was jailed for two years on a charge of seditious blasphemy, which included among these supposed heresies a description of Jesus Christ as ‘a genuine radical reformer’. Wedderburn was visited here by William Wilberforce and upon release composed his work The Horrors of Slavery, informed by early experiences in Jamaica. 

Each generation is at liberty to interrogate those that came before (especially those with power and control), bringing them to a time of trial. The tougher existential question is what sentencing power to give the current one, which again concerns the ends of things. In the Christian schema, earth’s last judgement was passed, once and for all, in the events surrounding Jesus Christ – especially those of his Passion and Resurrection. The historic Gospel is thus also our Domesday Book, and for this reason Christians ought not capitulate to the annihilating myth of an ultimate or absolute present – rather one which is entirely contingent upon both past and future, and whose claims are responsible to both. 

Racial justice, like all other kinds, is demanded by our common destiny – that is, a new humanity, wrought (Christians believe) at the cross. This does not downplay the ‘urgency of now’ – as the Church of England’s report Lament to Action frames the case – but means that justice is never captive to the present. Instead it summons us like a voice through fog, drawing us on to see its emerging visage. That the appearance of righteousness has altered so strikingly through time – and will do so again – urges humility in all pronouncements upon our forbears, in light of our own eventual reckoning.

Dorchester’s street map forms a fallen stick man. It being a glorious afternoon, I explore further up the vertebrae of London Road to conclude my visit with a swift circuit of Poundbury, The Prince of Wales’ extravagant essay on the built environment. A screen of sunlight and serene sky enhances the impression of this suburb as a kind of simulacrum – a faux-accidental collision of Victorian terrace, Georgian parade and rustic cosiness. Impossibly pristine, Poundbury is a full-scale mock-up, flanked by site hoardings and poised JCBs, ready to confect more samples from the pattern book of English archetypes. It should be scandalous to like it, but I do – and suspect I could all too easily keep up the pretence.

There is no parish church, tellingly – the one essential component of the rural scene that could not be admitted. A pity, as this could orientate the place a little, even offer a truer perspective on our heritage. And where this has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

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Green Turnings

‘The highway ran through the parish’, wrote R.S.Thomas, in The Echoes Return Slow. ‘The main line ran through the parish. Yet there were green turnings, unecclesiastical aisles up which he could walk to the celebration of the marriage of mind and nature’. 

Sweating up the North Downs for Ascension Day: the perfect vantage point for these parishes, and for courting Thomas’ nuptial vision. Here, beneath the ridge of the Surrey Hills, the land unrolls in an awesome sweep: the familiar, folded fields and, threading between, the grey-green turnings of the M25 motorway. Oxted has hosted major east-west routes since prehistoric times, with the Pilgrim’s Way that shadows the carriageway marking an ancient and fabled footpath running from Winchester to Canterbury. Directly below me, trains from East Croydon arrow out of the earth, ducking the M25 in a hallowing crosshatch. Arterial roads also intersect its path, pumping out of London, while the motorway circulates cautiously, a slate-coloured halo for the capital. 

Each day, close on 200,000 extra parishioners throttle, stall and swear their way through the two-mile meander cutting through my patch. Opened in 1976, this stretch was one of the first to be completed, and, by now has its own deposit of folklore, including the elderly lady found by police cycling the wrong way up the slow lane near Godstone – either battily unaware or, as I like to think, engaged in her own perilous psychogeographic experiment.

The Outer London Defence Ring also clings to these hills – not the grim name of a far-right association, but a chain of pillboxes and tank traps still awaiting the call to fend off invaders sweeping up from the south coast. The M25 would now perform the same task admirably, forming as it does an uncrossable contra-flow torrent that even St Christopher would hesitate before stepping into. Certainly the North Downs feel defensive: South London’s earthwork, moated by the motorway. To gaze at its current is oddly akin to river watching: sometimes a slim, silver charge, by eight o’clock this morning its serpentine course had already slowed to become an exhausted, horseless canal. Yet despite its preoccupation with time, the road-river has no memory: Monday’s multi-vehicle collision was rapidly cleared, its crippling ripples untraceable now. When the motorway is abandoned and brambly, what scores of traumatised ghosts will return to process all that happened at such speed?

Today, though, all is at rest, but for a hot air balloon, hung in the sky like a question mark. Ascensiontide is the right time to weigh things above and things below. Like most Christian festivals, it plays with concepts of locale, calling us to picture our life uplifted to heavenly places in Christ – with God, subsequently, settling down in the world by the Holy Spirit. Despite the critique that their preoccupation with heaven is a damaging distraction from earth, Christians have usually insisted they are citizens of both – to the extent that, in Britain, even the most flag-rattling patriotism carries a note of caution. Consider how the second verse of the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country comes in like a pricked conscience: having pledged to our land ‘all earthly things above’, and sacrificed our best to the bloody soil, we are reminded – almost in apology – of ‘another country’, dearer still to them that know. 

So, in one sense, the Christian really is of no earthly use unless they resolutely keep their head in the clouds. After all, the collect for Ascension Day prays that, as we believe Christ to have ascended, ‘so may we also in heart and mind thither ascend’. Dwelling in heaven is something dreamed or imagined, in order that this world may be seen aright: Jacob’s ladder alighting at Charing Cross, as Francis Thompson’s poem envisages. 

In St Luke’s portrayal of Christ’s Ascension, he has the angels appear like marshals after a spectacle: ‘men of Galilee’, they challenge the disciples (who are left, gaping aloft), ‘why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’ This hard-to-picture scene diverts the church’s gaze to the ground. Like Christmas in reverse, the Ascension illuminates the place where God, we believe, met humanity in Christ. As T.F.Torrance writes: ‘we cannot know God by leaping beyond the limits of our place on earth, but only by encountering God and his saving work within space and time, within our actual physical existence.’ So we look up, therefore, only to look down with greater clarity.

Taking the angels’ advice, it is time to move along, like the easing traffic below: piloted home by the balloon’s low bulb and faint rasp of flame.

(First published in Parish, SCM Press 2017)

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