Boyd Tonkin: New versions of pastoral

The week in books

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:17

According to Plato, the philosopher Heraclitus taught that you can never step into the same river twice. You can certainly never read the same book or author twice. In the interim, you and your world will have changed; and so, therefore, will the work. I first read the verse of Edward Thomas – who died at the Battle of Arras in April 1917 - at a time when I had been encouraged to believe all kinds of doctrinaire nonsense about the ineluctable advance of Modernism, with writers such as Thomas stuck (and he might have liked this image) on a quaint rustic branch-line of poetic history while Pound and Eliot steamed ahead.

On holiday, I met Thomas again – thanks to the excellent selection that Matthew Hollis has edited for Faber to partner his much-praised study of the poet's final years, Now All Roads Lead to France. Inevitably, I discovered a self-aware, restlessly questioning author, no more a fashioner of pretty verses about rural scenery than his forerunner, Thomas Hardy. From Wordsworth onwards, all the greatest English poets of place – Clare, Hardy, Hopkins, Thomas himself – deliver not chocolate-box pastorals but an outer landscape of risk, change and upheaval, and an inner one of fierce introspection over memory, consciousness and time. Thomas's "nature" always includes human nature, forever inflected by doubt and desire.

The better you get to know this stubbornly self-renewing tradition, the less you trust those curators of "heritage" who seek to reduce it to a cosy illustration of timeless rural values. Yet I returned to find a literary quarrel over conservation in full swing, with as its casus belli a site immortalised by the very poet that the Modernists once set against Thomas and his peers. East Coker, the Somerset village that in 1939 inspired the second of TS Eliot's Four Quartets and in which his ashes are buried, now risks being surrounded by the 3,700 new homes of an "eco-town" planned by the district council. Cue a vigorous campaign by the East Coker Preservation Trust, with a bid to register the village as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

By the stage that he wrote Four Quartets, Eliot stood far nearer to the sensibility of a poet such as Thomas than the author of "The Waste Land" did. Re-reading "East Coker", I find whole passages that could almost have come from him. One of the most famous, about the "deep lane/ Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon", seems very close to Thomas's "The Lane", where "now September hides herself" until "little I know/ Or heed if time be still the same". What matters here is that both poets envision their beloved places not as static monuments, to be pickled for tourists, but as living entities subject to decay and rebirth.

Given the preservation push, it seems deeply ironic that "East Coker" begins with an image of green-field development, 1930s style: "Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,/ Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place/ Is an open field, or a factory, or a bypass." As the poem grasps, dwellings live and die, their mortal inhabitants along with them: "Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,/ Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth". Really, the NIMBY army could hardly have chosen a more inconvenient poem for their battle-song.

The idea of historical and even geographical continuity cherished by Eliot – or Thomas – digs a lot deeper than simple conservation of the status quo. It involves the safeguarding of communities, occupations and ways of life far more than Grade II* listed cottages flanked by clematis and hollyhocks.

Which is not to scorn the East Coker defenders, or cast doubt on the justice of their action. All the same, it would be heartening if more countryside campaigners who invoke poets to sustain their cause read the verse rather than assume it glorifies a changeless idyll. Great poems tend to resist enlistment under anybody's banner, however just the fight. And "East Coker" firmly puts every development plan or preservation order under the eye of eternity: "The houses are all gone under the sea.// The dancers are all gone under the hill."

King of horror vs the shock-jocks

Not content with writing one chart-storming doorstop after another, Stephen King now wants to alter the course of US politics. On 12 September, two radio stations he owns in Maine will begin to air the "Pulse Morning Show": a liberal counterweight to the far-right banshee wail audible on so many wavebands. "We're a little to the left, but we're right," comments King. A tiny bit lame? Surely King (right) should aim higher. How about a broadcast yarn showing that the Fox News studio is built on the desecrated site of an Indian graveyard, and that phantom warriors wielding bloody tomahawks will slice and dice the rabid shock-jocks unless they change their tune?

One odd day: the 15 July mystery

The One Day juggernaut rolls into cinemas this week, with the film of David Nicholls's novel ready to occupy the late-summer screens. Meanwhile, his ever-buoyant book still occupies not one but two places (a tie-in and a standard edition) at the head of the paperback fiction charts. What else can possibly be said about this record-busting snapshot tale, which traces the lives of a pair of student friends on the same day, 15 July, for two decades after they graduate in 1988? Perhaps we should now call in the literary philosophers. Together, a symposium made up of Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin and Iris Murdoch would surely have plenty to add about a fictional artefact that seeks coherence at the intersection of an arbitrary date, the passage of calendar time and the unfolding of individual biography. And then our ghostly trio of thinkers about the paradoxical interplay of time, mind and story could ponder the weirdest conundrum of all. Just why were all three born on the same date: 15 July?

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