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‘A Beer Mug is Architecture’: Remembering Doug Bower and Dave Chorley

November 28, 2013

Behind comedy and tragedy we only find the dramas of life which unite them both, not in noble heroes and treacherous villains, only in people.

Asger Jorn, ‘Intimate Banalities’.

The Landing

I first heard about something ‘strange’ going on in the Hampshire/Wiltshire downland when I hitched a lift back from Glastonbury (the town, not the festival) in Summer 1983. A bloke pulled over in an old banger in Frome and drove me all the way to the Maypole Roundabout in Hedge End. Conversation touched upon his involvement in the famous archaeological dig in 1953 at the Walbrook, in the City of London, and his work for the Admiralty in Portsmouth designing nuclear torpedoes. (Typing that, I’ve just realised the strange synchronicity of that encounter with the purpose of my ascent of Glastonbury Tor earlier that day – to transmit my thoughts, telepathically, against the stationing of cruise missiles at Comiso, a military base in Sicily – I’m guessing it was June 1st 1983, or July 24th…). As the A36 snaked around the grassy, sunbaked hills that loomed above us, my host reflected on how it must have been a time of endemic warfare in prehistory, what with all those hillforts… and I thought, how appropriate that someone engaged in military production should have such a militarised perception of prehistory. Being close to Warminster, UFOs were bound to crop up, and I was interested to hear that UFO landing places had been found as circular impressions in cornfields in the very area we were passing through: Knook, Heytesbury, Codford, the Langfords…

Now, I’ve finally figured out that it must have been that same Summer of 1983 that the Southern Daily Echo ran a story about five mysterious circles of flattened corn, which had magically appeared overnight in a natural amphitheatre known as ‘the Devil’s Punchbowl’, at the bottom of Cheesefoot Head, just outside Winchester. I was stunned by the photograph, which showed the circles arranged in a pattern familiar from dice – the quincunx – just like this pattern of dots below.quincunxI found the report and picture breathtaking, and I marvelled at whatever unknown force of nature or act of creativity brought such a pattern into being. Seeking clues as to its significance I even came to see a parallel with the arrangement of castles on the Winchester Coat of Arms…

Speed 1611

Claimed as the first reported occurrence of the ‘five-in-a-dice’ formation, earlier examples have actually been claimed here, including in Heytesbury, of all places, in the 1950s. The appearance of new circles impressed in fields around southern England became an annual summer treat, proliferating and growing in the complexity of their design and the theories elaborated to explain their meaning and purpose, from extra-terrestrial visitations to meteorological phenomena like ‘plasma vortices’.

Portsdown Hill, nr Fort Nelson 2004

Portsdown Hill, nr Fort Nelson 2004:
‘the basic motion of matter has the character of the spiral’ – Asger Jorn

Twenty-five years on, and the chance find in an Oxfam shop of a framed photograph of three crop circles, arranged in an equilateral triangle – bearing the handwritten legend, ‘Hampshire 1988’ and signed ‘Douglas Bower’ – has caused me to revisit the sense of wonder the crop circle phenomenon aroused in me. More than that, though, it’s also prompted me to think about what then appeared as the amusing incongruity of the two men – Doug Bower and Dave Chorley – who stepped forward in September 1991 as architects of some of the most memorable early patterns impressed in the corn – including, arguably, the quincunx that so inspired flights of fancy in me. They too were inspired, in part, by the ‘flying saucer nests’ seen by Bower  in Australia in the 1960s: circles of flattened vegetation, associated with sightings of UFOs.

Why did they seem incongruous to me? I suppose the sheer down-to-earthness of two amateur artists who talked, in their Southampton/Hampshire-accented vernacular – not as prevalent in broadcast media as posh, Cockney, Scouse, or Geordie speech – of enjoying a few pints and a couple of cheese rolls, and the sheer pleasure of being in a cornfield at midnight under the light of the moon. Seemingly, their earth-bound activities were a world away from stories of alien abductions and messages from cosmic intelligences. Or maybe not… A mile or so from the Punchbowl, near the village of Chilcomb, Mrs Bowles and Mr Pratt had their ‘Close Encounter’ with ‘something’ in 1976.

The intervention of Dave and Doug was bound to attract the ire of believers in some overarching purpose behind ‘the mystery’. Personally, while I accept that the two of them have been responsible for many manifestations since 1978, I do think that something funny has been going on… just not sure what. The formation which Doug Bower has signed a framed photograph of, is known to crop circle watchers as a Triangular Triplet (see here), and appeared in the Punchbowl below Cheesefoot Head, probably on the morning of 4th June 1988.

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What strikes me about this formation is its resemblance to the Pax Cultura symbol, developed by Nicholas Roerich from Central Asian Buddhist iconography.

tibet-1933

Nicholas Roerich Mongolia Stones 1933

That aside, there is a line of commentary about them which I want to challenge.

Art and Class

The parenthesised description of Doug and Dave as ‘artists’ is a common motif informing much of the opprobrium or contempt directed towards the pair, whether from believers in a (super)natural origin for the patterns or disinterested commentators. The avowal that they used to meet in the pub and talk about art and painting has been greeted with a level of incredulity and derision in some quarters, in keeping with the current tone set by ‘celebrity’ commentators in a spectacular theatre of cruelty, mocking the weak. Perhaps the two should have just said they talked about football and backing horses. What such condescending mockery betrays, I suspect, is a patrician attitude that dictates that people from a working class background cannot combine artistic activity – as artists, rather than ‘artists’ – with wit and a sense of the absurd.

Samuel Palmer The Harvest Moon c1833

Samuel Palmer The Harvest Moon c1833

I was a delivery postman in Southampton at the time the media storm broke. One day, when I was on the bus heading back to the sorting office, a man I recognised as Dave Chorley got on, accompanied by a young man I assumed to be his son, taking the seat immediately behind me.  I played it cool and didn’t ask for an autograph, though now I wish I’d at least said something at the time. Sadly, Dave Chorley died in 1997. His eldest son, Richard Chorley, has written a moving appreciation here, a letter in response to the charlatanry of conspiracy theorists who have appropriated ‘the spirit of Dave Chorley’ to their belief system. This heartfelt text also stands as a necessary riposte to the condescension mentioned before. Richard Chorley describes Doug Bower and his father as much more than elderly ‘practical jokers’ or cynical, agenda-driven ‘Hoaxers’. Drawn to the countryside for ‘the ultimate artistic expression of their emotional relationship with its spirit and form’, they were ‘semi-mystics’ in their approach and relationship with the ‘undefinable energies’ of the land, a territory which ‘becomes an extension of our human emotions and journey’.

Reading the letter, while being mindful of some of the high-minded and snobbish dismissals of the two as ‘amateurs’, has led me to re-read Asger Jorn’s celebration of the fundamental importance of the banal in art, ‘Intimate Banalities‘, published in 1941 in the journal Helhesten. Its validation of bad taste and the ‘abolition of the aesthetic principle’ is most relevant to the playful activity of these two working-class auto-didacts:

There are countless examples of anonymous banalities whose validity and power span centuries and far surpass any brilliant performance by our so-called great figures. If you look carefully, you will also find that even their merits reside in their ability to get to grips with banalities… There can be no picking, no choosing; there can only be a penetration into the entire cosmic law of rhythms, forces, and matter which is the real world, from the ugliest to the most beautiful, everything that has character and expression, from the coarsest and most brutal to the gentlest and most delicate, everything that, having life, speaks to us. The children who love printed scraps and paste them into scrapbooks… bring greater hope to artists than any plethora of art critics and museum directors.

Jorn argues that we ‘cannot inherit a rigid, immobile outlook on life and art from the older generation’, that ‘the expression of art is different for each time frame, as are our experiences’. Though ‘willing to learn everything we need from older generations… we will decide for ourselves what we need; no-one else can do that for us’.  How appropriate in this context, then, is this statement of Doug Bower:

When I went to my village school as a boy in Upham, ten miles from Southampton, there was a local man who’d go to the pub every night and on his way home he’d take off every garden gate and leave it further up the lane. He was a practical joker and it rubbed off on me. He was my hero. The circles were my chance to emulate him (Daily Mail, Friday January 8th, 1999 from here.)

Samuel Palmer A Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star 1830

Samuel Palmer A Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star 1830

Afterword

These days, you won’t find Dave and Doug enjoying a pint at the Percy Hobbs, the pub outside Winchester where they discussed art and planned their nocturnal expeditions. In the shift towards a desocialised, private existence, the pub – like so many others – has closed. It is now a designer furniture outlet. The Punchbowl, nowadays, is an open-air music festival venue, known as the Matterley Bowl – registering a shift towards the commodification and supervision of social activity.

Oh, and… Happy Birthday, William Blake. 256 today!

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