Monday 5 August 2019

On Silbury Hill

Stop Press: Whaley Bridge dam crisis update (holding in there!) late Sunday 4th August 2019. Run Press

While we were minding the grandchildren dossing in Bath last week, their mother lent me a book On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe. Thorpe is a couple of years younger than me and achieved a burst of media recognition when he published Ulverton in 1992. I never read it; the timing was wrong. In 1992, I was mad busy reinventing myself as a functioning research scientist having spent the late 1980s marking time, shuffling papers and doing some desultory teaching to put bread on the table and shoe on The Boy - no time for reading novels when I was on fire. I knocked off On Silbury Hill in a couple of days while letting the children fight in a corner - they are old enough (7 and nearly 4) to be able to look after each other. I just needed to keep them away from the kitchen knives.

I wrote my own take on Silbury when The Boy moved to Solsbury "no relation" Hill in 2013. Adam Thorpe and I have some things in common including a very expensive education. I was a navy brat, and our family moved home every 18 months through all my minor years. My parents figured that boarding school would provide some continuity in a fractured life. The experiment delivered continuity, yes; and a lot of facts, which has been really useful in pub quizzes; but left me an institutionalised emotional cripple. Thorpe's father worked for PanAm and the family lived in France, Cameroon and India. At the appropriate age, the young feller went to Marlborough one of the less famous English boarding schools. One of the ways that he was able to stay sane in the bullying, sport-obsessed, homogenising atmosphere at school was to get on his bike and cycle off into the countryside. I did that too. It is incredible to me now but, at the age of 15 or 16, I occasionally ran off into the countryside, usually with a book stuck in the waistband of my shorts. I'd sit in the lee of a hedge reading to escape the hubbub and oppressive regularities of school life.

If you have a streak of poet, an interest in the deep past and a bicycle, then Marlborough is a good place to sleep. Averbury with its menhirs, avenues, stone circles and the whiff of druid is a mere 10km west: not more than half an hour on a bike. Silbury Hill dominates the journey from the South. At 250,000 cu.m. volume and 40m high, Silbury Hill is the largest man-made solid structure in Europe, although it is only 10% of the size of the Great Cheops Pyramid in Gizeh. The hill doesn't dominate Thorpe's book in anything like the same way, but makes occasional >!shazzam!<  appearances in his rambling memoir. I call it rambling because that has been a feature of Thorpe's life-story. Most of his surviving schoolmates, after sowing some wild oats at school  and University will have settled comfortably into the British Establishment: bishops, bankers, brigadiers. Thorpe, not so much: after leaving Oxford U he formed a troupe of jonglers and toured round the English countryside entertaining rural folk with mime and mummery in village halls. A few books of his poetry found publishers, if not profits. And each of his books have found a niche market; it's own niche because they say each one is quite different from the last. That shows considerable integrity as well as a certain restlessness. 'Successful' authors discover a formula that works and deliver more of the same on a regular schedule to a grateful public that doesn't like being challenged.

The book annoyed a fan who reviewed it in the Grauniad when it came out: too rambly for Rachel Cooke. Because Thorpe is now part of the literary establishment (his first novel was rapturously reviewed by John "Magus" Fowles), you'll find lots of other reviews out there if you're tempted to give this book a go. Being part of the literary establishment doesn't mean making loadsa money from writing: income / expenditure of time will be far less than the minimum wage.

I look forward to getting his latest book Notes from the Cévennes: half a lifetime in provincial France out of the library. Even though it was published last May, I don't think there will be a long line of people wanting to do the same thing.

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