Friday Book: Everybody must get stoned

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THE MODERN ANTIQUARIAN

BY JULIAN COPE, THORSONS, pounds 29.99

"THE SPECIALIST who starts out by learning what everybody else has done before him is not likely to initiate anything very new." Julian Cope would have done well to use this quote, one of many defiantly sprinkled through his book, as an introductory mantra. Printing it in rainbow colours and 48pt type might have acted as a defence against the risk of readers giving up after reading such sentences as this (on the first page): "The death of meaninglessness will only be truly born when we free ourselves of the choking stranglehold that 2,000 years of patriarchal Mr Stork rules have brought us to."

Or this, on page 7: "The joyous and unconscious act of erecting standing stone in response to the jubilation of learning to farm may have been the single specifically inharmonious act which has become known biblically as the Fall." Or, on the same page: "It is quite a relief when we shine a torch into the shadows of pre-history and discover that 5,000 years ago wasteful Neolithic slash and burn farming techniques caused environmental ruin - somehow our justified modern neuroses are made less difficult to bear."

No chance, you may be muttering, already determined not to buy the book. Fair enough. I suspect that if I hadn't been cooped up last week in a gale on Horsey Mere in Norfolk, with nothing but this or the National Trust literature on the working of wind-pumps to read, I would have got no further myself.

As it was, I persevered - and found myself more and more deeply engaged. Not exactly in assent with the author, I hasten to add, rather in agreeably animated dissent. I realised how little I really knew, how much there was to know, and how admirably energetic and industrious Cope had been in his undertaking: nothing less than a comprehensive summary of everything there was to be known about the major megalithic sites in Britain, prefaced (ay, there's the rub) with an intensely opinionated thesis as to the significance of the monuments.

Cope was originally inspired by his sensations on visiting Avebury, "omphalos of the whole culture" of the great Goddess Ma. After that, he and his partner Avalon and their baby daughter Albany have spent eight years making pilgrimages to ancient sites. The result is a quite unique blend of information, observation, personal experience and opinion which is as unlike the normal run of archaeology books as you could imagine. As the book's title conveys, the most inspiring influences on Cope were his 18th-century precursors, such energetic amateur antiquaries as William Stukeley, whose 1743 Itinerarium Curiosum provides fascinating engravings for comparison with the modern state of ancient sites.

Cope's thesis is that for aeons of human time we thought cyclically, danced in circles to the rhythms of the moon, and worshipped Woman built along the lines of untrimmed flints: smooth, white, magnificently bulbous. Ma was integrated with the whole landscape - her sleeping silhouette was apparent in the hills surrounding the stone temples, which were oriented to view her to the greatest effect. Only when metal weapons and population pressures came into play did men, until then rather useless since they didn't even know what their dicks were for, come into their own. They could defend against aggressors and sire sons. Time stood to attention and began to march in a straight line. We could never go home to Ma again.

As I read on, I began to enjoy the flamboyant look and feel of the book more and more. The layout is computer-generated and highly stylised. Photographs are set on the page as if framed, with rounded corners. Adding to the personal family album feel is the frequent appearance of Cope, Avalon and Albany in them - peering round recumbent megaliths, looking admiringly up at great phallic pinnacles, excited and wild-eyed at ancient auras sensed. Entries for each site are intelligently cross-referenced, and given a very full description, complete with OS map references. Finally there are personal mood notes - jottings full of weather and wild surmise; a few lines of Cope's own verse.

It's important to keep an open mind on this much hyped tome. I've no idea how right or wrong Cope is. But enthusiasm, even if possibly chemically enhanced, is always engaging. And it has to be a good thing that archaeology's forbidding, dusty-fusty image is dispelled. Just because this book is the work of an opinionated amateur, it has aroused my curiosity far more than some dryly conclusive textbook could have done. "You are thinking of the Stone Age," said the captain, watching me eyeing the untrimmed flints in the river embankment when we did eventually set sail from Horsey Mere. So I was. And so I continue to do. And the Modern Antiquarian will stay lodged under the car seat for ready reference - as Cope meant it to be.

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