Archive for March, 2014


‘By the Light of the Slithery Moon’: the mysterious migration of the Glass Eel

March 30, 2014

At some point between March 17th and March 24th the Dark-Bellied Brent Geese, who I’d customarily see grazing around the shores of Tipner Lake, must have started their flight back to the Taimyr Peninsula on the Arctic Circle. They seem to have timed their departure from this bit of the Solent to coincide with the Equinox. Safe journey.


Tomorrow night over a million young eels are expected to swim up the River Parrett, which flows through Dorset and Somerset, ‘exploiting a spring tide and a full moon to arrive in unprecedented numbers’ (IoS 30/3/14). Their anticipated passage up this channel is almost a metaphor for the mysteries of life and generation, ruled by the moon. This arrival of the ‘glass eels’ – so named because of their translucent appearance in their juvenile form – is prompting a massive operation by conservationists (see here) to catch as many of them as possible, to transport them round the man-made obstacles of weirs and flood defences blocking their passage upstream.


The sheer numbers due mark a revival in fortunes for the European eel (Anguilla anguilla), as mysterious as its mass migration from its unknown spawning grounds, thought to be in the Sargasso Sea south of Bermuda. From 1979 levels the population of glass eels declined by up to 99 per cent, leading to the classification of the once-common European eel as ‘critically endangered’. Their unexpected revival in the last three years is unexplained (IoS 30/3/14).

Dream of SirensOne thing I have noticed today is that the middle siren of Leonora Carrington’s triptych, Sueño de Sirenas (1963) – ‘The Dream of the Sirens’ – appears to be wearing an ‘eel pot hat’ (as opposed to a top hat). Here are some woven eel traps/eel pots for comparison…


Woven eel traps, found on this site


Edit 17/4/14  – Today, I came across this interesting project


Das Lamm (1920): A translucent image by Paul Klee

March 26, 2014

“Lambeth! the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife loveth thee;
Thou art one with her, and knowest not of Self in thy supreme joy.
Go on, Builders in hope! tho’ Jerusalem wanders far away
Without the Gate of Los, among the dark Satanic wheels.”


I was completely unaware of this wonderful picture by Paul Klee until today (retrieved from here). I thank whoever it was who – indirectly – suggested I look for it. Resonating with the subject of my last post, through Klee’s image seems to radiate the same translucence perceived in many illuminated plates of William Blake’s prophetic books; a quality compared to looking at stained glass.


I wonder whether Klee may have painted The Lamb – with its sacrificial, religious overtones – mindful of the mass slaughter of the Great War.  Blake, too, composed his illuminated epic Jerusalem, with the depredations of a cruel war machine in mind:

Why should punishment Weave the Veil with Iron Wheels of War

When Forgiveness might it Weave with Wings of Cherubim

(J 22:35)




‘There is no limit of translucence’: Spring Equinox à Genève

March 21, 2014

I have started reading (again) Susanne M. Sklar’s book, Blake’s Jerusalem as Visionary Theatre, her interpretation of William Blake’s illuminated epic poem, Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

120328Kbig-197x300After an interval of over a year, I decided to resume the book at the beginning rather than pick up where I left off. I was glad I did this because this allowed me to re-read a passage, which would otherwise have been forgotten, in a context – personal, geographical and temporal – in which it assumed an enriched sense, colouring my experience of reading as well as my experience of the place where I was reading, and leading to a feeling of ‘attunement’ with whatever unfolding patterns of circumstance had led me here, to Geneva.

On page 15 Sklar states that she had the good fortune to work with copy E of Jerusalem, quoting directly from Blake’s text when she remarks on its delicately painted plates: ‘There is no limit of translucence’ (J42:35). As I paused to mull over this beautiful phrase, it dawned on me that today, March 20th, it was the Spring Equinox. I read on as Sklar describes how

Blake infuses some of Jerusalem‘s images with a rose-gold wash that eludes satisfactory reproduction. Some images seem lit from within. “It’s like looking at stained glass!” exclaimed a reader working at an adjoining table.

That was it. I gently closed the book and stood up, re-entering the room from the sunlit balcony where I’d been reading, and placed the book on the table. Being only a couple of hundred yards from the Cathedral of St.Pierre, I resolved, on this day when the hours of light and darkness were of equal length, to walk up the hill to the Cathedral and regard the equinoctial sunlight streaming through its Rose Window.


I was there in a few minutes, still enchanted by the vision of the rose-gold wash infusing some of Blake’s illuminated pages. I walked across the pool of multi-coloured light, bathing in its stream, briefly dazzled as I gazed up to the source.


I had read earlier that day of the austere state of being Blake called Ulro – the rational, analytical world of ‘single vision’, whereby that which cannot be quantitatively expressed does not exist. Having walked up the hill and entered this luminous space, I seemed to have stepped closer to a world of imagination where Blake calls us to converse ‘with Eternal Realities’ (K613, in Sklar 2011: 43), where the image is ‘a window to eternity’ (Limouris 1990: 3-4, in Sklar 2011: 43).


For my part, I suppose I was attempting to harmonise what I was reading with the time and place I happened to find myself, to perform an aspect of the visionary theatre being described in the pages before me… How much ‘control’ can I really assume over how this was all unfolding, other than as being part of the ‘differentiated unity’ (Sklar 2011: 4) in which we all participate?

While I’ve got much further to go with the book, on this day, our last this time in Geneva, there was a sense for me in which this conjunction of reading, place and time was auspicious, bound up with the reasons we started coming here in the first place. The sense of things coming full circle, or of a particular cycle perhaps being played out, came late that afternoon, when a friend took us to a zoological garden close by the cemetery of St.George. Recognising the Café de la Tour and the allotments on that wooded hilltop, overlooking the confluence of the Rhône and the Arve, I realised that here was the place where I’d ended up when I went on an extended wander on my own on my first full day in Geneva, just over four years before, at the start of a phase of many heart-rending family trips to and from that city.



William Blake. 1804-20. Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

Susanne M. Sklar. 2011. Blake’s Jerusalem as Visionary Theatre: Entering the Divine Body. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press


A landscape uncomplicated by ownership: Sugar Loaves and the Utopics of Ley Hunting

March 10, 2014

Walking in a very straight line through the intricately privatised contemporary countryside is, I discovered, a difficult thing to do. I had to carry out multiple acts of minor trespass. While I felt authorised by the cultural precedent of Watkins, it was not clear to me – as I hopped walls and sidled along hedges – how I would explain this authority to an irate landowner.

From this attempt to walk one of Alfred Watkins’ leys – an alignment of ancient and numinous sites first brought to the world’s attention in 1921 – Robert Macfarlane admits here that he likes Watkins’ ‘vision of a landscape uncomplicated by ownership’.


The Sugar Loaf, Monmouthshire (from here)

This conclusion has set forth a train of thought concerning the utopian associations of a particular place name. Integral to Watkins’ initial imagining of a ‘fairy chain stretched from mountain peak to mountain peak’ was the mountain known as The Sugar Loaf, in Monmouthshire:

One end of this line rested on the Sugar Loaf Mountain (1,955 feet) and the other end rested on the apex of Garway Hill (1,203 feet). The ley passed through two corroborative points – Great Campstone Farm and the chief road junction not far above it.

(Alfred Watkins, The Old Straight Track, 1974 (1925), p.55)

The Sugar Loaf is a recurrent name, most well-known as the peak looming over Rio de Janeiro, but there are many others around the world. An immediate association for me is with the American folk song, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, about a ‘hobo Heaven’, a sanitised version of which was popularised by Burl Ives. This is the ‘original’ version by Harry ‘Haywire’ McClintock.

This song is actually a reworking of traditional themes traceable to the Middle Ages and antiquity, tales of a paradisial land of plenty – the Land of Cockaygne – free from the bonds of feudal servitude. A discussion of this motif can be found here.

The appropriation of the Sugar Loaf as a symbol of utopia and sensual delight – like the Big Rock Candy Mountain – is complicated by the historical context of the slave labour upon which most sugar production relied. However, aligning the Mountain to the lyric in the last verse – the songline, so to speak – it’s the place Where they hung the jerk who invented work.


Midnight sun on Sugar Loaf (Sukkertoppen), east of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (from here).


The Seven Thorns Inn: a Sorry State

March 8, 2014

When the rose is gone and the rose-garden fallen to ruin,

Where will you seek the scent of the rose?

From rose-water?

Jalallud-din Rumi (1207-73).

Then as we drove along… we passed by, a little to our left, the lonely Seven Thorns Inn of legendary renown, a hostelry of importance at one time, which is said to stand exactly half-way between London and Portsmouth. Near here one stormy winter’s night a century or so ago three coaches, one from London and two bound thither, were blocked in by deep snow-drifts. Fortunately for the passengers the Seven Thorns was within a walk, and let us hope that they all spent a sociable and merry evening therein…

James John Hissey, Through Ten English Counties, 1894

‘Talismanic significance’ is becoming something of an over-used phrase in my vocabulary lately, but a pub which has languished – scandalously – in rack and ruin for many years has long had that status for me, for its very name alone, never mind anything else. It’s been known by other names too, but for me it will always be The Seven Thorns Inn. Yet, however you get distracted by personal obsessions and intellectual escapism, ‘life’ finds a way of reminding you of where you are, of our connections with the world, our connections with each other – often by means of ‘coincidence’.

Seven Thorns map

A detail from C and J Greenwood’s one inch map of Hampshire (from here).

Just inside Hampshire, south of the Surrey town of Hindhead, the Seven Thorns conjures images of a wind-blasted heath with gnarled, Rackhamesque thorn bushes, twisting their branches by the wayside, such are the otherworldly connotations of its name. Such impressions would be dispelled today, positioned as it is, teetering by the A3(M) and the southern entrance to the Hindhead Tunnel.


To restore this pub to its former glory must rank alongside one of those quixotic dreams like rebuilding Brighton’s West Pier, or creating a global human community, free of the state, nations and money…

In better days... An old postcard found on this urban exploration site.

In better days… An old postcard found on this urban exploration site.

But that’s by the by, as is the psychogeographical context of the Seven Thorns – whether or not it is exactly half-way between London and Portsmouth, or whether it marks the course of a Watkinsian ley – things to explore another time.

H 12

The Seven Thorns c.1906 before being rebuilt (from this site).

Seven Sorrows

So, the fate of the Seven Thorns Inn was (and remains) a matter of great interest to me. However, an unexpected pattern of coincidence emerged in February 2010, involving a family bereavement in Russia and a resulting visit to Kent, concurrent with a phase of obsessing about this pub. Travelling to Kent, I chose a different route to usual, planning it to go past the Seven Thorns (which I’d only gone past, knowing of its existence, a couple of times before) to snatch a couple of pictures as we hurtled by.

Sev T

We returned home the same day, but not before having had a personal possession urgently thrust into our hands, as a gift: a Russian icon of ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’, almost identical to the image shown here.

Seven Sorrows

An internet search that evening uncovered some lines from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, linking pub and icon:

The seven-thorn’d briar and the palm seven-leaved

Are her great sorrow and her great reward.

Of this particular icon this is written:

On February 2… Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics commemorate a wonder-working icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God) known as “the Softening of Evil Hearts” or “Simeon’s Prophecy.”

It depicts the Virgin Mary at the moment that Simeon the Righteous says, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also….” (Luke 2:35). She stands with her hands upraised in prayer, and seven swords pierce her heart, indicative of the seven sorrows. This is one of the few Orthodox icons of the Theotokos which do not depict the infant Jesus. The refrain “Rejoice, much-sorrowing Mother of God, turn our sorrows into joy and soften the hearts of evil men!” is also used.

Another ‘bead’ in this strange string of coincidence appeared within a fortnight, while driving north of Winchester, when I was transfixed on hearing a radio presenter’s introduction for a piece of music about the Virgin Mary by Vivaldi: she translated the lyric as, ‘painted in purple and armed with thorns’ – a description immediately evoking the purple-clad Mary of the icon. Compelled then to linger and listen to Carolyn Sampson singing Ostro picta, armata spina, only now has it clicked, four years on, that as I waited for the music to finish and the presenter to repeat its title, I happened to have come to a halt by an old cottage called The Rosary

Vivaldi’s lyric contrasts the transient beauty of the wild rose against the eternal glory of the Virgin Mary:

Crimson-dyed and armed with thorns,

Greater than all in pride and beauty,

Bloomed the wild rose. But now at day’s decline

She pales and languishes, like any weed,

Bereft of scent and beauty.

Leaving aside all the religious connotations, that just about sums up the bereft, ruinous state of the Seven Thorns, and so much else besides. Whatever’s going on, I don’t think ‘it’ is about a derelict pub, although the pub is part of a bigger picture…

Edit 16/3/14 – Should I be surprised at the apparent irony of the icon,  The Softener of Evil Hearts (Умягчение злых сердец), being appropriated to a discourse of nation, cultural identity and tradition which entails a hardening of the heart among its adherents, against a demonised other? I think of the hard-hearted thuggery of the cassocked and bejewelled clergy, pictured laying into participants in a Gay Pride march in Moscow a few years ago…

Turn our sorrows into joy and soften the hearts of evil men!


A Lost Landmark: the Lonely Pine on Crooksbury Hill

March 7, 2014

The last couple of journeys over the Hog’s Back – between Guildford and Farnham, Surrey – has afforded me the sad realisation that a landscape feature I used to see many years ago, on return trips from visiting grandparents in London, has gone.


The Bourne, Waverley Woods, and Crooksbury Hill (1852)

It was a solitary Scots Pine, crowning a rounded knoll on the horizon, silhouetted black against the westering sun as we’d head home of a summer evening. This part of the journey lent itself to flights of fancy, inspired by the different patterns of broken cloud across open patches of sky. It was easy to envision the clouds as land masses, as islands, mountains and continents across a sky that was also a sea; gold-tinged archipelagos illuminated by the setting sun, with shades of pink, blue, red and purple, gradually giving way to a deepening darkness. The lonely pine on the knoll seemed all of a piece with such fantastic landscapes. Looking back, it seems to me reminiscent of one of those Japanese landscape prints with pine trees.


Futago Island, Matsushima. Kawase Hasui (1883-1957); Japan, 1933. Woodblock print; ink and color on paper. From here.

Eventually, I worked out that the knoll was called Crooksbury Hill, a realisation deepening its talismanic significance as a waymarker for a car-load of Crooks. I’ve tried in vain to find a picture of the hill with the pine atop it, so it just lingers in the memory…


The Day the Rains Came: Winter Solstice 2013 at Avebury

March 5, 2014

I am a worker, a tombstone mason, anxious to pleace averyburies and jully glad when Christmas comes his once ayear

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (113. 34-35)


December 21st. Pictures from a wet Winter Solstice visit to Avebury.

and her birthright pang that would split an atam like the forty pins in her hood (FW 333.24-25)


The rain swept in, as forecast.

So persistent was the rain, we abandoned the idea of an extended walk around the stones. It has rained and rained and rained… most days since.

Floodlift, her ancient of rights regaining (FW 318.6-7).


This particular stone I associate with the quotation from Finnegans Wake which opens this post, with its allusions to Avebury and Yuletide (‘jully glad’). Its shape evokes the lozenge at the centre of the ALP diagram on page 293 of the Wake.

293The upper and lower halves of the diamond depict the Wake’s correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm, realised in the relationship between ALP and her daughter Izod/Issy: ‘the message she braught belaw from the missus she bragged abouve’ (FW 333.19-20). In this ‘litter of letters’, the Hebrew letter Mem, meaning ‘water’ and having the value of 40 in Hebrew number mysticism, is an indicator of the ‘mum’, Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP):

Meet the Mem, Avenlith, all viviparous out of couple of lizards. She just as fenny as he is fulgar (FW 242.27-29).

While Avenelith is an old name for the River Liffey, the element ‘aven’ also evokes the river name, Avon (as well as Avebury), while ‘lith’ is suggestive of Greek lithos, ‘stone’. Viviparous, meaning ‘giving birth to’ and ‘couple of lizards’, suggesting Chapelizod, brings forth ALP’s daughter, Issy. The ‘avonlithic’ conjunction of stone and water recurs where ALP/Issy appears as ‘his trippertrice loretta lady… with twy twy twinky her stone hairpins’ (FW 312.20-21).  When these textual referents are allowed to overflow from the book (twice twenty = forty = Mem = water), the megaliths of Avebury are revealed as ALP’s stone hairpins.

This is rainstones ringing. Strangely cult for this ceasing of the yore (FW 279.1-3).