Books: Why the Romans were so heavy

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The Modern Antiquarian

by Julian Cope Thorsons pounds 29.99

T he pop career of Ex-Teardrop Explodes' frontman has been secondary to his visionary tendencies for some time now. gives those tendencies concrete form. Beginning with his curiosity about the standing stones scattered around his home, he eventually visited some 300 such sites. The realisation that there was no comprehensive guide- book to the stones resulted in the current volume, split between a detailed Gazetteer (both practical and subjective) and a series of essays on Megalithic culture. His thesis is that the Stone Age temples that litter the British landscape are evidence of three millennia of sophisticated harmony between humanity and the land, on which our current Romano-Christian culture is a temporary blot.

Cope's methodology is summed up in a quote from geologist Charles Hapgood ("The specialist who starts out by learning what everybody else has done before him is not likely to initiate anything new"), and one from Linus of Peanuts, who, having a theory dismissed as an "old wives' tale", retorts, "Some of those old wives were pretty sharp." From the inticements on this beautifully produced book's slip-case ("Britain Divided into Seven Rainbow Colours") to its subtitles ("Why the Romans were so heavy") and confessions ("It's hard for me to write, these stones have got me so high"), Cope's taunting indifference to academic rules is apparent.

Even for a layman, his free-ranging thought- processes are sometimes too much, as when he makes a massive linguistic leap from a casual comment by his wife. His wistful certainty of the matriarchal nature of Megalithic society is contentious, inferring where it can't prove (as did one of his sources, Robert Graves). But as the book progresses, the obsessive rigour of Cope's on-site research and the exhilaration of his descriptions of his journeying wear down your reservations. You begin to see Britain as he does, as a landscape stitched together by ancient stones and hills, not-yet-lost technologies and relics.

It's a sensation helped by hundreds of photos showing nothing but mounds and moats, stone circles which lean, tower and totter, and glistening fields of rock, all invariably topped by clear blue sky. Cope's tethering of these images to essays on a culture which saw them as penises, breasts and menstrual flow, and which could use a hill-range both to represent a woman and as a guide to lunar transits, is impressive. When the book's final essay gives a partisan description of this society's violent destruction by Bronze Age and Roman invaders, the sense of loss is palpable. The psychic jackboot of the latter's linear culture is still felt by Cope. The stones seem like a lingering, prehistoric resistance force.

This insistence on the superiority of pre-Bronze Age culture, powerful though it is, is also the book's weakness. In the Gazetteer, Cope sounds prissy in his annoyance at incursions of modernity on his Stone Age sites. His assertion of the "inherent meaninglessness" of urban living, meanwhile, is as absurdly narrow-minded as the academics he elsewhere attacks. The only work which can bear comparison to his own obsessive monograph, ironically, is Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory. Where Sinclair conjures networks of meaning from London's byways by relentlessly traipsing them, Cope has done the same, with equal power, for the countryside. Neither approach is in conflict, as the messianic Cope seems to think. Rather, they complement each other, using verbal magic to create subversive patterns in a straitened culture. In Cope's case, you could disbelieve every word he says, and blind yourself to his pictures. You'd still be perked up by his fervent visions.