Arts: Cliff Richard is a pagan

Julian Cope has published the findings of his survey of our ancient sites. He has many astonishing facts to reveal

Atop Knap Hill I eat my snot/for 'tis the only food I've got. Whatever the expectations summoned up in the reader by the idea of "a pre-millennial odyssey through megalithic Britain", the chances are they involve something a bit more sombre than this choice couplet from Julian Cope's The Modern Antiquarian.

The author's eight-year survey of Britain's most ancient monuments affords him many opportunities for an idiosyncratic self-expression not usually associated with weighty archaeological scholarship. At one site he writes "notes in sheep poo". At another he feels as though he had "huddled up to the great mother's heartbeat, and was riding through space atop her great breasts".

An investigation into the nation's pre-Roman history by the former lead singer of the Teardrop Explodes, might seem like the final stage in the colonisation of every sphere of our cultural life by the celebrity dilettante. But Cope's work is not of that unworthy sort. His earlier books - Head On, a delirious autobiographical whirl through Liverpool's punk scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties, and Krautrocksampler, an impassioned introduction to esoteric German experimental music of a decade earlier - have already marked him out as someone to be taken more seriously as a writer than he ever asked to be as a musician.

And The Modern Antiquarian is another thing altogether. A strange and marvellous artefact, remarkable for its seriousness as much as for its frivolity, it can currently be seen piled up in huge ceremonial mounds in the bookshops of the nation. By its lurid blue and orange outer folder shall ye know it. Within its boundaries those with a spare pounds 30 to invest will find learned exposition of the origins, meaning and state of repair of such key landmarks as The Broomend of Critchie, The Wren's Egg, Barpa Langass, The Gop, The Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor, Hetty Pegler's Tump, The Cheesewring and not forgetting, of course, the inevitable Boleigh Fogou.

Alongside the exhaustive gazetteer of 300 places of prehistoric interest - each one visited (and most photographed) by Cope with wife Dorian and, sometimes, daughters Albany and Avalon - are a series of impassioned essays on neglected mother goddesses, the perniciousness of indoor religions and a somewhat bizarre linguistic meditation (his "etymosophy"), of which more later.

It doesn't take more than a few minutes in Cope's company before his enthusiasm starts to rub off. His head appears - gurning gleefully - around the wall of his house. The first thing you notice is a halo of wispy blond hair; then he bounds into the open and suddenly your main concern is how unnervingly high he wears his track-suit bottoms. His infectious energy - a favoured expostulation is "I love that kind of righteous poetry" - refracts through a disarming disregard for conventional notions of personal space. One minute he is expounding through the kitchen doorway from outside in the garden, the next he is standing four inches in front of you.

Cope and his family live in a converted stables, the least ostentatious part of a three-house manor conversion behind a church in a tiny Wiltshire village. One can imagine the neighbours being slightly trepidatious on his arrival about the possibility of teepees in the garden.

"We're impossibly quiet", Cope whispers, "like hermits on Skellig rock. The teepees in the garden - unfortunately they do happen, because we have a lot of road protester friends. We don't have them in the house..." - his obvious concern as to how inhospitable this sounds fades into a beaming smile - "... but they don't want to be in the house." That's the great thing about road protestor friends: give them a bit of wood in a tree and they're happy.

Before he waxes megalithic, Cope gets sidetracked into a fantastic anecdote about his drummer, Rooster, who was placed under house arrest in Japan after putting a major international hotel out of action for three days with an incendiary device. Inspired by the presence on stage of a posse of straight-laced Japanese policemen, Julian performed wearing some kind of horrifyingly skimpy thong. In fluorescent marker pen he inscribed a W on one butt-cheek and another W on the other. "When I bent over," he exults, "I spelt `Wow!'" He refuses to let me tape-record this anecdote because he "doesn't want the person who wrote this book to be the person who would tell that sort of story".

If Julian Cope was entirely committed to a new scholarly image, he would not have packaged his book in an outer cover promising "Britain divided into seven rainbow colours" and "over fifty poems". What would he like people to get out of The Modern Antiquarian?

"We're all so paranoid about standing on the edge of time getting ready to jump off, that it's good to know that there was always this sort of shit going on. People have been standing on the abyss for thousands of years - even the Abyssinians were always freaking out! And people need to know that even if it's only to make them feel a little less lonely".

One of the most invigorating things about Cope's book is that rather than the expected idealised vision of smiling stone circle builders in harmony with their environment, it creates an image of people "just as stubborn and obsessive and over-achieving as ourselves". Rather than these remains embodying an understanding between man and nature which we have now lost, he seems to be saying that our lostness began at this point - the moment we attained sufficient separation from the land to feel the need (and have the time and tools) to celebrate our affinity for it. Cope nods vigorously: "It's so easy to jump into this stupid new age thing" - assumes crazed hippie voice, fractionally different from his own - " `Oh man, the Bronze Age'... Ha! Ha! It's like the Bronze Age was bollocks!"

The section of the book which will give rise to the most furrowed brows is probably Cope's "Etymosophy". What is the difference between an etymosophy and the more conventional field of linguistic enquiry - etymology? "When it's an `ology', there's less chance of it working - when its an `osophy', that's a belief system, Sophia gets involved...". Sensing that he might be losing us here, Cope embarks on an epic voyage of clarification. "Look, if you take the God lug, he was full of light - lug coming, literally, from the moon. As the Bronze Age progressed, people began to "lug" stuff around. In the Nordic countries they had a sort of Troggs hairstyle which was called `luggan', then to be `as lug' was to do nothing. But it's also to stand up and `slug' you. Etymologists would say: `So here on one side we have the slug people who believe slug is sluggishness and on the other, the slug people who believe in whacking people'. They can never make that leap to say: `No, it's the capricious nature of the deity lug that unites it all!'."

While the full impact of these revelations is still sinking in, Julian alludes to a poem he has written (as yet unpublished, so he refuses to quote directly from it) called "Cliff Richard Is A Pagan". "The day the heavens opened at Wimbledon and he danced around in front of the crowd and sang `The Young Ones' he proved he was a heathen. You can't say: `I am not a heathen' if you're dancing on the heath, because that is what it means. Cliff is a pagan for Christ, but he's still a pagan."

At this point Dorian - the glamorous American wife whose courtship is recounted in unnerving detail in Head On - returns from school with the Cope's impressively well-balanced daughters, aged four and seven. Doesn't Julian worry that by encouraging a generation to pick up their picnic baskets and head for the Marlborough Plain, he will effectively despoil his progeny's environment? "I'm not like the government," he replies, "trying to get everyone into the villages. I just want people to get out of the city for long enough to turn around and say: `Ah, that's why I feel a bit weird, because I haven't seen the horizon for four months'."

The book contains responsible advice for those following in the Cope family's pioneering footsteps: megalithic adventurers should always leave with more rubbish than they came with, and, perhaps most importantly, "always hold shamanic experiments at non-gazetteer sites".

`The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey Through Megalithic Britain' published by Thorsons/HarperCollins (pounds 29.99), is out now

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