I freely admit to star-gazing when it comes to Adam Thorpe. Ulverton is such a rare thing – a life-changing book, a grand imaginative consolation and challenge. So I have been saving up On Silbury Hill in the way I used to save up my favourite sweets at school.
What’s more, since I have no standing as a literary critic, I’m not obliged to write anything comprehensive or balanced about it. If you want to read a professional appraisal, try this excellent Guardian review. Instead, I opened On Silbury Hill hoping to discover some new (or lost) tracks across the political and emotional landscape of our relationship with place, and was richly rewarded. I also hankered after that particular way Adam Thorpe has of allowing the reader to be present in thickly-layered time; to burrow into it with words, as an archaeologist does with a trowel – excavating connections that are invisible when you live only in the horizontal.
So, here are some reasons to read On Silbury Hill.
There is a moment when the author comes around a corner and runs into what he later describes as a part of his own mind made concrete. It is quite breath-taking, a lurch out of time, a place on the hill where the dead are alive again and brush past us with drums and feathers.
What I particularly love about the whole book, in fact, is the openness of this dry, wry, sometimes angry, often self-deprecating historian to such assaults; to the intrusion of memory and magic. It is not always dignified or even entirely safe to admit to such experiences in a world where our mental health is defined by adherence to the secular, the linear and the progressive.
And it is even less safe to seek out such experiences through shared ritual; through the recreation of old patterns of walking and worship in the company of others. Which brings me to my second reason to be thankful for On Silbury Hill – it has helped me to understand why such shared ritual endeavours are necessary, however daunting. Why, in other words, we need a common creative life, brought into being by art, ceremony and work, if we are going to remain fully human.
This comes as a huge surprise to me. It turns upside down all kinds of things that I have held to be true (or simply not questioned) for most of my adult life. For example, like many others of my age and background, I have held fast to the idea that attempts by grown men and women to connect themselves ritually and creatively to the past and to one another (unless ‘under the radar’ via the Church of England), are evidence of delusion, pretentiousness or feeble-mindedness. And that as such, they are to be met by ridicule.
Reading On Silbury Hill and listening to my eldest brother talk about his experiences in improvised theatre, I think (in all honesty), this is rubbish. In fact it’s not just rubbish, but evidence of a taboo that cuts us off from each other and from different ways of experiencing the world – validating only the sharp lines of self-realisation; holding at bay anything that disrupts the myth of the perfectible self in a perfectible world – a world where the past is junk, and the future is a disembodied, perfectly white smile.
Adam Thorpe is sweetly open to the eccentric courage of the pagans and druids he meets in various states of enrobement during his travels around Wiltshire; but his point is not that we should all join the Church of Wicca. In fact the book is partly about his mental journeyings back and forth from a youthful infatuation with such ‘yoghurt weaving’, in an attempt to find something that better connects him to place and past.
Instead, what emerges from his book is that shared ceremonies, including the ceremony of theatre, offer us a far richer way of exploring the world than an exclusively private or unperformed art. His stories of ragged community theatre performances in Wiltshire – scenes which the reader peers at across the dusk of decades – have the luminescence of mystery plays.
But the difficulties of such performances, their absurdities as well as their occasional glowing triumphs, also remind us that once we have lost the habit of singing, performing and working together, it is a long walk back. We may recognise our loss, but the means to redeem it can seem impossibly gauche and distant; particularly in England, where most forms of folk tradition and collective identify are marked by political mistrust or cultural disdain.
The fact that Adam Thorpe faithfully records these difficulties and yet keeps trying makes him a hero to me. And his efforts also seem implicitly connected to a wider politics of the common good. I remember watching with painful admiration whilst an elderly woman in North America re-introduced her grandchildren to the language, music and ceremonies of her national life – elements of the sacred that had been all but destroyed by a state intent on creating compliant citizens out of those it had conquered. It never occurred to me as I watched, that the loss of identify she had suffered might have corollaries in my own country – where we too have lost the memory of how to do things together – of shared work, history and a more communal relationship with the land.
But now it seems to me that such terrible losses echo over generations; that they are a in themselves an inheritance; and that our situation is if anything worse, because we have lost our teachers, too. We are alone in our own country, without a map to ourselves.
For such reasons, every little tenuous effort we make to take root – to colonise a local park or playground with the gang-land vernacular of a shared child-hood; to insist on the arcane particularities of our local football club; to perform together in village halls in the teeth of our own embarrassment – is a tiny but heroic act of resistance against atomisation, a minute restorative gesture.
And all is not lost. Because as Adam Thorpe also records, children are not embarrassed by ritual, and are drawn instinctively towards the creation of shared meaning. Every child knows that a stone can be magical; but that a stone wrapped in a leaf and buried in a match-box in a special place is an object of immense power. Children’s shared games – epics of capture, escape, triumph and disaster that are passed down and adapted from year to year – are minutely mapped on to play-grounds, parks and fields. Such games weave a passionate and powerful sense of shared experience out of place, ritual, language.
Let us only allow such forms of being to settle a little; only insist on the value of such common spaces and experiences; and we have taken the first, tentative step back towards ourselves. Let us only begin to imagine an economy better organised around the sustenance and protection of such forms of being (by enabling people to buy or rent housing close to where they work and where their families live, for example) and the task will have begun in earnest – just as it did back then, for those who piled up the first lumps of chalk on a Wiltshire meadow that now lies deeply buried under Silbury Hill.