by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
It was my first time in the Avebury area. But it was also my homecoming, I guess. Four hundreds years ago, an ancestor, a young English soldier, was given a land grant in Ireland; planted, as it was then termed, on ground that had been confiscated by Oliver Cromwell’s regime. Years later he fought again, as a colonel, in King William‘s army at the Boyne (Kingston 1981). It feels, sometimes (and I know that I’m not alone in this), as if a large part of ‘what I am’ is taken up by a void that I’ve made myself – one that’s called ‘where I came from’.
There are so many different people here besides me, though; wandering amongst the massive megaliths of Avebury and Stonehenge, and amid the surrounding long barrows, barrows and hills. What compulsion could possibly bring them all? The couples strolling as if in the gardens of a stately home, for example, or the young kids climbing the banks and running around, the enthusiasts either obsessively photographing, or touching and hugging, or squatting, frowning with book and compass (and often all three), or the energy-believers praying, speaking or just sitting? Perhaps I would be better off if I began by reducing the question to something that I can answer. What, outside my curiosity about ancestors, brings me?
I came to megaliths from books, although I’d primed myself, without realising it, a few years previously. Some time in the late ’90’s, I’d read John Banville’s ‘The Untouchable’; a fictionalisation of the life of Cambridge spy and art historian, Anthony Blunt. I’d never really been that gripped by ‘Art‘, or specifically paintings, before then – I was in my 20’s and had, not unusually I suppose, a lot of other things on my mind. Besides, there‘s also the possibility, sketched with clarity by Bryan Magee (1998, 453), that; “.., I was not yet ready” That; “This kind of unreadiness is more familiar to us on our relationship to artistic than intellectual work.”; in other words, that you may first have to attain the capacity to receive artistic work before you can ever hope to ‘get’ it (and then, it might just hit you unexpectedly and as hard as a punch in the stomach). And certainly, in my case, I had struggled with a fair amount of books, sights, sounds and so on, before my late 20’s and gained very little; no real insight, joy, or understanding. Only to read, see or hear them, after that point, and have them push me, like a heretofore nervous fledgling, to soar. To finally use the restlessness that had been thumping away inside me, all the time; “if you like that, try these“.
I read Banville’s book and then, interested, I turned and read about Anthony Blunt. The greater part of his life seemed to pass in a devotion to, or perhaps an obsession with, the artist, Poussin; what was that all about? I investigated the paintings and, as I’ve just implied, I was suddenly, unexpectedly and completely, captivated. I was experiencing the singular thrill of an ‘aesthetic response‘. And better. I knew how to continue it. I bought Blunt’s book on the artist and read Seneca, because Poussin rated him. Then Tacitus, because he wrote about Seneca. And I began, gradually, to tip from one to the next, now exulting in the power of the d’Orsay Cezanne, then in the shock of Barnett Newman. To visit galleries and to visit cities so that I could visit the galleries there. I discovered Rembrandt and then Raphael (effectively and wonderfully, Poussin without the lockjaw); and the latter carried me to Rome and Michelangelo, to Caravaggio and Bernini. I read and I read; and London was close. But Paris was the prize, because of Cezanne; and in the Louvre, because all eras of art are gathered there, I saw the Mesopotamian section, was awestruck, and learnt of the hero, Gilgamesh.
Meanwhile, roughly parallel to this (although with rather less interpretive and more informational, reading), I was working my way through an itinerary of musical styles and types. Hunting – I’m aware, when I look back at it, now – for more of the ‘hit’ that I was getting from the greatest paintings. In the manner of Magee’s ‘unreadiness‘, for example and after years of being unable to handle him, I suddenly got Dylan; I got the poetry and could begin to crack the references. I began to listen attentively to what I would previously have found uninteresting, or un-listenable. Searching through Beethoven brought me, skin tingling, to Newman’s phrase (1992, 173); “the exalted“, in the late piano sonatas and in the late string quartets. I found it again and again; in the vocal music of Mahler, in ‘Astral Weeks’, and raging like a forest fire; in the post ‘Ascension’ output of John Coltrane. Obsessively, I combed my way through the tangle. I read and I listened; both within and across type – massive Penguin guides, ‘The Wire’ magazine, Delacroix and Goethe, Toop and Bangs, Feldman and Mondrian. Reading about Abstract Expressionism pushed me towards ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ and through Nietzsche I came, eventually, to Wagner; to ‘Tristan Und Isolde’ and to ‘The Ring’.
There’s, obviously, nothing unusual in what I’ve described so far. Many people have filled themselves with books, with art and music. So what? Many have stalked their responses instead, with, I’d guess, as much of a sense of fulfilment; hunting in the detail of what‘s close around them. Or began to sate their appetite on layers, rather than variety. Perhaps we move from one mode to the next. It certainly feels that way sometimes. My reason for detailing it is to show that if it were not these restless habits, I would never have passed the boundaries of what was making me (and still makes me) happy, to find something else. And to show that if I had stumbled on it differently – other than as an artistic relationship and via books – then it wouldn’t have had the same intense and lasting impact on me. That‘s the way it was. My heart had swelled with the Rhine Journey and started and stopped, with the Funeral March, and it was inevitable that doomed, brave Siegfried would carry me away to the past; to the world of European mythology, to the same sources that underpinned Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.
It’s a simple thing to lose yourself in myth isn‘t it? In the straight choices, the nobility and heroism, in the fatalistic, Peckinpah-esque acceptance of destruction. I did. It was like fantasy, but more powerful by far, because it felt real, both in the straightforward prose and in the conviction of the telling. And I mentally went back further and further, to live in each tale as its impression of one of our common ancestors, as one of those people who were, in John Michell’s evocative description (1974, 109); “no different from ourselves, only placed in a situation where the laws of nature were more pressing and apparent than they are for most people today.” I submerged myself. This time in the Volsungs, in the Kalevala, in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I was both Achilles and Hector, Cuchulainn and Ferdia, Nuadu and Lugh. I was Fionn agus Diarmuid. I was the Dagda at the riverside and Beowulf, full of foreboding. I was Anna, cradling Dido’s body on the pyre.
How inevitable it also seems now that, wandering through the Louvre, I would come face to face, for the first time, with the living work of this “pressing” world. It was similar in form, yet radically different somehow; less ‘art’ and more ‘to the bone‘ – rather than looking at something created by someone, I felt as if I was looking at a deeper part of myself; the ‘where I came from’, that I mentioned in the first paragraph. I didn’t have to try to sense the way back; it was there in all its terrifying glory, right in front of me. The first part of Michell’s definition looked forwards in time, a message in the eyes of Gudea and serene Ebih-II. But the second, more powerful – us stripped bare – stood bodily, awesome and alive. In twinned, man-faced Assyrian bulls and in the dust-pink sandstone of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.
I remember reading the guide then (1999, 34) and the words were matter-of-fact, but they caught my head and ripped away the four thousand years as if they were only packaging; “Originally this stele was erected in the town of Sippar, centre of the cult of the Sun god, to the north of Babylon… It illustrates the victory over the mountain people of western Iran by Naram-Sin, 4th king of the Semite dynasty of Akkad, who claimed to be the universal monarch and was deified during his lifetime. He had himself depicted climbing the mountain at the head of his troops. His helmet bears the horns emblematic of divine power. Although the stone is worn, his face is expressive of the ideal human conqueror, a convention imposed on artists by the monarchy. The king tramples on the bodies of his enemies at the foot of a peak; above it the solar disk figures several times, and the king pays homage to it for his victory.” And why not depict it several times, if it’s your god? In Newman’s opinion (1992, 93); “It is the man who is terrorised by his sense of personal weakness who becomes concerned with divinity.”
The bible stories that I read as a boy came flooding (what an appropriate word) back to me and I went straight from there to an English language bookshop and bought ‘The epic of Gilgamesh’. It was all that I could think about. I read it, dreamed of what I read and of how it affected what I saw, and now I ached for this ‘living work’. But I didn’t know how I would ever find it, or rather, this sensation, again. Did I look closer to home? It never occurred to me, although, looking back, it seems obvious now. The reluctant answer would only come crab-like, and eventually, from a reference in a book of sagas; to another book, about Stonehenge. I’d heard of the monument, but not a lot more (that‘s not unusual here). So I bought, almost at random, Colin Burgess’ ’The Age of Stonehenge’, to find out. And there, amongst the sites mentioned, was one (of several) that was only about twenty minutes drive from where I lived. I never even knew that it existed; Drombeg, probably the most famous stone circle in Ireland.
Do you remember Magee’s ‘unreadiness’? How a minor stream can suddenly become a raging torrent? (Think, perhaps, of the narrator’s despair in ‘The Little Prince’, when it doesn‘t). The water remained the same, but my own size, in comparison to it, had changed completely.