The land is waking all around me. In the orchards trees are heavy with blossom whilst all along the verges cow parsley, dandelions and harebells wink and dance in the breeze. Along Allercombe Lane a hawthorn hedgerow is so heavy with flowers it looks as though it is covered in an unseasonable covering of snow. Beside the crackle and hum of power cables and pylons a different energy emanates from the earth: the shimmering lilac of a bluebell wood, in the midst of which stands an elderly couple rapt in silent reverie. In the dappled sunlight they appear almost wraith like. I blink and in a moment I am past.
It seems to me, in these moments of nature’s rebirth, that it might just be possible that those ‘dark satanic shopping centres’ could yet be crumbling to dust, their shadows reclaimed by the ancient natural magic. Well, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.
A plummet from Peak Hill and a bunny hop onto the prom. Sidmouth has never looked so quiet.
As is always the way my mind drifts to the first time I came to this place, some thirty years ago. I came to meet friends who were desperate to leave, whilst ironically I found in Devon a place I felt at home in. Pedalling out of town I pass familiar road signs. Livonia Road. Primley Road. I think of the letters and tapes that travelled between here and Scotland a lifetime ago. Life lines for me, certainly. An education.
In Sidbury the cream stone church crouches behind luxurious blossom. A red telephone box filled with books winks at me and I idly wonder if it contains a copy of The Warzone.
Up and out of Westwood I meet a lady coming down the narrow lane astride a horse. Clicking down a gear, I pedal more softly and say hello as I near them. I have heard that horses appreciate this. The rider says thank you and reminds me that it’s a steep hill. I laugh that it is indeed and wish her a pleasant ride. ‘Thank you’ she replies. ‘And you my love, and you.’ Of course it sounds like ‘moi love’. Devon is great.
News of a friend losing their father to the virus yesterday inevitably intrudes on my thoughts today as I cycle the lanes on the edge of the Blackdown hills. Inevitably too it makes me think of my own father, as I suspect it would anyone who has suffered from this kind of loss. For however well we think we may have coped with it, this trauma never seems far from the surface.
When my father was seriously ill several years ago I spent many days visiting an ICU with other members of my family. I remember that sharing the routine was something of a salve to my own pain, though I recognise that this was separate and different to that of my brother, and certainly to that of my mother. I wonder how different things may have been had we been denied that opportunity.
Although he eventually recovered sufficiently to leave hospital, we each knew that this was nothing more than a short pause on the road to the inevitable. When eventually he died in early January of 2014 I recall that I was alone on a train just outside Lochwinnoch, attempting to read a book about Eddy Merckx. My journey back to Scotland had been delayed by a cancelled flight and I had spent many hours that day in an airport departure lounge, detached from my world and adrift in another I barely recognised. In the years since, those hours of delay have routinely haunted my idle thoughts, and I wonder if being there at the end would have erased the regret about not having had an opportunity to say a last goodbye. Or would a different regret simply have taken this one’s place? Regrets and wonderings being as inevitable as they are ultimately irrelevant, after all. As I crest the climb to Blackborough and cast an eye over the lush expanse of the Culm valley, it occurs to me that each of us has our own moments, memories and stories, as unique as fingerprints. In sharing the stories we find comfort in recognising universal themes and shared experience whilst at once instinctively recognising the differences that identify us as separate. Oneness in our otherness, and vice versa.
The biting easterly’s of recent days have started swinging into the south and a thin veil of warmth is returning to the land. In the fields near Hele a tractor traverses an expanse of red, the rattle and thrum of attachments hurling seeds into the maw of the earth. Clouds of dust rise in the breeze and suffocate the sky.
I head home from a short, blustery ride, via Bradninch and Silverton. On the road through overhanging trees called ‘The Old Stables’ I pause for a moment and detour down the curving concrete track that loops around and passes beneath an arch under the road. Beyond the archway is the Silverton Park Stables, converted into holiday accommodation by The Landmark Trust. It is all that survives of an ostentatious neo-classical mansion built in the mid 19th Century by George Wyndham and demolished not long afterwards in 1901. Completely invisible from any of the surrounding roads and lanes, I often wonder how many people who pass this way on a regular basis know of this remaining fragment of architectural history in their midst. I file the knowledge with a photograph of the arch in my back pocket and ride back up the corrugated concrete loop.
Last time out I was in midst of reading Phil Rickman’s ‘The Bones of Avalon’, the first of his two novels featuring a fictionalised Dr John Dee in the 16th Century. Whilst ultimately enjoyable, my reservations about the ultimate success of the project remain: Too much tension between historical accuracy and driving narrative (to Rickman’s credit, his skill with narrative wins out); too much tension between 16th Century and contemporary dialogue (contemporary wins, but I’m not sure there really needs to be a conflict – unless that in itself is a metaphor); not enough tension between the battling religious doctrines. I mean, sure, there is a fair bit of religious conflict (it’s fundamental to the whole premise of the book, after all), but compared to some of Rickman’s Merrily Watkins’ books this battle between ancient, pagan magic and ‘modern’ organised religion feels strangely muted and oddly underplayed. Perhaps Rickman recognised this himself and this is why he did not continue beyond two books in the Dr Dee series. Certainly I cannot yet quite muster the interest to continue onto his ‘The Heresy of Dr Dee’, but surely there is time, even within the confines of this current lockdown.
‘The Bones of Avalon’ did, on the other hand, make me track down and read Andy Roberts’ ‘Albion Dreaming’. Sub-titled ‘A popular history of LSD in Britain’, Roberts’ book pretty much lives up to that promise. Inevitably there is much crossover with the likes of Mick Farren’s ‘Give The Anarchist A Cigarette’, Joe Boyd’s ‘White Bicycles’, Jonathan Green’s ‘Days In The Life’ or, heck, just about any book you care to mention that you’ve ever read which deals with UK popular culture in the 1960s into the early 70s. It’s all interesting of course, but there are only so many times one can read about the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream and The Pink Floyd without starting to skim and skip to the end. Plussing as which, if I read one more time about how Lennon’s ‘semolina pilchard’ line in ‘I Am The Walrus’ is a reference to a certain Drugs Squad policeman I swear down I’m going to do something I regret. More interesting perhaps is the way in which it is always this particular Beatles’ reference that is dropped and seldom, if ever, the assertion that Monty Python’s reference to ‘Spiny Norman’ in one of their early Flying Circus sketches is also to Mr Pilcher. In truth the Python’s reference (an imaginary hedgehog that varies in size depending on the character Dinsdale Piranha’s mood) is even more surreal and psychedelic than Lennon’s mediocre lyric and every bit as soaked in LSD culture, even if only by association. Indeed, it’s interesting how Roberts fails to explore (or barely mention) the way in which psychedelic visions so swiftly suffused much of what came to be mainstream TV entertainment in the 1970s, from Python to The Goodies and into children’s TV series like The Owl Service, Children Of The Stones, The Changes and, ahem, The Magic Roundabout etc. This isn’t a criticism of ‘Albion Dreaming’ as such, for there is only a limited amount of space and scope in a book and goodness knows there has been enough written in recent times about that whole realm of ‘70s children’s TV. It’s the same story when Roberts’ tackles the decline of LSD ubiquity into the 1980s. A quick recount of Julian Cope tripping on Top of The Pops (this is thankfully brief – I remember being thoroughly disappointed by how the second half of Cope’s ‘Head On’ autobiography felt like a descent into endlessly dull descriptions of drug adventures) and a short treatise on the way in which Thatcher’s Neo-liberal Conservatism established a legislated destruction of the counter-culture through the targeting of the traveller lifestyle, culminating of course in the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’. Again, Roberts is understandably cursory in covering this because it does start to stray outside of his book’s remit, but certainly I found Richard King’s coverage of this in ‘Lark Ascending’ to be much more deeply engaging, whilst I remember Ian Sansom’s fictionalised version in ‘The Book Stops Here’ as being simultaneously hilarious and deeply troubling.
Where ‘Albion Dreaming’ is best, certainly for me, is in the early chapters where Roberts explores the foundations of LSD within the use of hallucinatory drugs in other cultures and in pre-industrial contexts. These foundations feed into the ways in which LSD was used in 1950s psychiatric treatment and Roberts’ unfurling of these times says as much about societal attitudes towards medical and scientific practice as it does about the drug itself. It does rather make one wonder if the significantly increased levels of checks, balances and safeguarding paranoia of recent decades have rather stifled creative innovation and thought, but one is equally aware that it wouldn’t do to say so.
What comes through very clearly in ‘Albion Dreaming’ is the way in which encounters with LSD significantly informed the way the 1960s and 1970s unfolded, and the way in which several threads of currently fashionable thinking (the whole sustainable living movement) can be traced to transcendental revelations gained through LSD trips. As mentioned previously, ‘Albion Dreaming’ is a book full of characters and tales you’ll likely have come across before, but as well I am sure you will also come away with some new fragments of interest. Best for me was the revelation that between March and October 1971Michael Hollingshead and a band of merry pranksters established the Pure Land Ashram on, of all places, the island of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. In his recently published biography of Hollingshead, Roberts notes that “It has been alleged that full moon LSD ceremonies were held there on a monthly basis.” I wonder if devotees arrived on The Waverley?
Getting back to Dr Dee, and you are likely aware that Derek Jarman was also drawn to Dee, the character of whom wanders the crumbling landscape of ‘Punk’ London in his ‘Jubilee’ film. It is many years since I last saw the film and I admit I am drawn to doing so again having recently read and very much enjoyed the ‘Defying Gravity’ memoir by Jordan in collaboration with Cathi Unsworth. Together they approach the structure of the memoir by weaving first person narrative and other individual’s voices almost as ‘conversation’, and if this initially feels clunky and inadvisable it actually very quickly becomes well structured and adroitly carried off. In addition there are well positioned tangential asides where particular characters or events are given brief stand-alone explanation and contextualisation, almost like quick links out to Wiki pages. It works well, and although implemented more obviously than the interwoven asides in Pete Paphides’ ‘Broken Greek’, helps break up the narrative and develops the conversational aspect of the book.
As with ‘Albion Dreaming’, I could not help but skim a little of ‘Defying Gravity’ simply because the underlying story of ‘Punk’, The Sex Pistols and the SEX/Seditionaries/Worlds’ End shop is one I’ve come across numerous times down the years. Not that this takes anything away from ‘Defying Gravity’, but there is very much a sense of retreading some of the ground covered so eloquently by Jon Savage in the peerless ‘England’s Dreaming’, and this is fine (Savage himself provides an introduction to the book and Unsworth and Jordan acknowledge the importance of Savage’s research in populating some of the ‘conversation’ quotes used in their book). What Jordan does do somewhat differently in her book however is very much pull at the threads of fashion as a driving factor in the development of Punk in the UK. I have seldom seen a book ‘about’ the 1970s Punk explosion that so refreshingly distances much of the music in favour of clothes, make-up, personality and persona. It is these aspects that largely drive Jordan’s personal history and that ultimately make ‘Defying Gravity’ so compellingly entertaining. Rarely has the complex (and often contradictory) notion of kinship between those who have been considered ‘outside of society’ been so deftly drawn, and what surprises most in the book is the depth of warmth and humanity that lingers in spite of (or perhaps because of) the conflicts and divisions of the times. It’s ultimately disappointing therefore that one of the final observations in the book (made by Bertie Marshall, but positioned so it feels very much like the author’s – Jordan’s and/or Unsworths? – shared opinion) that “The whole [Punk] ideology or aesthetic has really swamped the world. It has been a total cultural change. I can’t think of another. The hippies didn’t really do it in those terms.” It’s a statement that feels at odds with most of what I took from the rest of the book, which is that Punk really wasn’t a Year Zero but was an interconnected episode on the continuum, impossible to conceive of without foundations laid by the LSD laced 60s and early 70s, even if just as something to knock down and re-purpose. Indeed, it’s this sense of the necessarily selfish and individualist artistic obsession being held in tension against the innate human desire to build communities that, more than anything, inexorably binds the adventures of LSD tripping Hippies and amphetamine fuelled Punks into the same arc/Ark.
From the tiny hamlet of Harpford (where Augustus Toplady of ‘Rock of Ages’ fame was once minister) to Tipton St John the lane is deliciously overhung by trees that are bursting into leaf. They cast a welcome shade to the heat of the day. Nearing Tipton I spot a grey haired lady walking in the centre of the lane. “Bike behind” I call, in my customary cheery way whilst gently applying the brakes. Arms raised, pumping the air above her head, she dances a jig to the side of the road. “I was miles away!” she laughs as I roll past slowly. I give her a big thumbs up and head off towards the climb up to West Hill.
I’ve always found Good Friday to be the most peculiarly quiet day of the English year but this year it is especially so. This is, by some distance, the quietest I have seen the roads during The Lockdown. Even the number of cyclists out enjoying the summer-like warmth for their daily exercise seems smaller than on other days. Not that I’m complaining.
Leaving Chudleigh I pass a garden wall on which is draped a large banner telling me that today is Poppy’s 18th birthday. It occurs to me how difficult this whole situation must be for the young, for whom moments such as birthdays are crucially sociable events. A few kilometres out of the village I pass a young woman sitting on the grass beside a pink bicycle, laughingly FaceTiming in her beautiful rural solitude. Casually I rather hope that this is Poppy, virtually celebrating the big day with her friends on the picnic they had always planned. I smile and raise a hand in greeting, as I do with everyone I pass. Happy birthday Poppy.
North and West today, through Copplestone, past Lapford and eventually back over the high road via Thelbridge Cross. Sunny and unseasonably warm, so I shed arm warmers and even favour lightweight shorts in place of the trusted fleece lined pairs that have kept me warm through winter. Somewhat perversely it is only on the B road crossing the high ground to Tiverton where the surface becomes smooth and really pleasurable to ride, despite the head wind. Above me the sky looks freshly shampooed whilst fields seem to yawn and wake in the unexpected heat. I pass two separate fathers cycling with their children, all of us moving in a voluptuous daze of warmth.