A Land

By Jacquetta Hawkes 
A Pelican Book, paperback published 1959;
hardback from Cresset Press, 1951

Review by Tim Barton

Jacquetta Hawkes

Perfidious Albion, the culmination of centuries under the Norman yoke. In 1951, Jacquetta Hawkes, soon to marry J B Priestley, allowed that perhaps the Second World War may have broken that familial web of elite power that runs through the top strata of our society. Today, it’s all too clear that, in essence, the yolk remains, new City money notwithstanding. The same year she published this wonderful, and wonderfully errant, book. She also was advisor for the People of Britain Pavilion for the 1951 Exhibition. Her speciality was in archaeology and anthropology, taken at Newnham College, Cambridge (she gets some wonderful snipes in at Oxford, it’s a pleasure to imagine the Oxford Etonians wince), and these are a major aspect of A Land

Other aspects running through-out are poetry, geology, and a teleological perception of our deep history. She allows that her imagination is “unreasonable”, and I concur with that – unreasonable, passionate, and given to wonderfully expressed flights of fancy (her comparison of Stegosaurus to “some childlike scholar who has lost his wits, and having hung himself with tin trays and saucepan lids as a protection against his critics, strays through the rest of his life eating ice-cream and sipping crème de menthe”, particularly stands out). Poets quoted include Lawrence, Graves, and, perhaps most simpatico with her style, Hopkins. The latter’s famous sprung rhythms, to be admired even when not to one’s taste seem to me paralleled by the ways Hawkes describes change over time as a rhythmic breathing: those who have seen the film Koyaanisqatsi may appreciate the conceit of geologic ages raising and levelling mountains like breath, the land beneath our feet billowing like sails in a storm, deluged at times, as the Tethys Ocean covers where Britain will one day be; borne up into equatorial heat, red sand desert lapping the Caledonian mountains; then inundated by miles-thick ice-sheets… 

This rhythmic sensibility permeates the second half of the book, too, wherein man has arrived, and the ebb and flow of different peoples and cultures emulates, on a different scale, yet on the same canvas, a breathing and billowing, following still the dialectic of the ammonite shell. Each successive culture is presented in its relationship with the land itself. Although often bloody and of dubious merit, Bronze Age and post-Roman peoples maintained a strong link with the land beneath their feet, utilising deep tribal wisdom to extract and find use for rocks and minerals from across these isles, local knowledge and resources leading to vernacular architectures, and agricultures too.

REMINDS ONE OF MOSAIC VIRUS STRANGLING A PLANT WITH ITS ALIEN CRYSTALLINE ASSAULT

Whilst Rome sought to impose a uniform pattern across all terrains and peoples, they did not have the tools, nor quite the hubris, to destroy all native patterns of living. The Norman Conquest brought a different sensibility again. Through these changes, and indeed through the evolutionary ages before them, right back to the Palaeozoic, Hawkes rather romantically charts the long slow development of consciousness, towards self-consciousness, like a religious Vernadsky (like, perhaps, then, our own Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), imbuing the soil and rocks themselves with consciousness of a sort. Whilst these flights of fancy are too teleological for my taste, as literature they have a rare beauty of expression that the most rationalist of us can apprehend and appreciate.

Picking out the most important crossroads and cataclysms in our deep history, from after the Pre-Cambrian to today, always has an arbitrariness to it. So, after 1066, Hawkes dibs, knowingly and with a nod to other possibilities, for the smelting of iron with coke as the juncture in the industrial revolution between our past connection with the land and our modern brutal divorce from it. Her description of the new Romanesque, but deeper and more brutal, imposition of an externally imposed and imperiously uncaring pattern of transport, town and city growth, and expanded mineral production on the land, reminds one of Mosaic Virus strangling a plant with its alien crystalline assault. 

By the time she wrote A Land, Hawkes was able to see many things we’d recognise – with bells on – today: “Now those thousands of years of wooing fertility under the sun and rain were to be half forgotten in a third way of living which resembles the first, that of the hunters, in its predatory dependence on the natural resources of the country”; “these town-dwellers, cut off from the soil and from food production, soon lost all those arts and skills which had always been the possession if not of every man, then of every small community”; “Meanwhile the land, with which we must always continue to live, shows in its ravaged face that husbandry has been succeeded by exploitation”; “Britain must export or die! Is it not far more likely that Britain will export and die?’; and ‘the Great Goddess was seen in her aspect of Cinderella, with soot in her hair and dust on her skirt; those who understood her, however, did not doubt that she would wait for retribution”…

HER WORK HERE…RESONATES WITH OUR CURRENT MOMENT OF INSULAR MADNESS

Of course, a book written nearly 70 years ago has its errors – whilst phrasing her description of Piltdown Man in slightly untrusting terms, it is left to a footnote of the later paperback edition to acknowledge it as an outright fake; and whilst I take her geologic fancies for the wondrous poetry they wear, her ignorance of plate tectonics would see a significant revision of the presentation were a new edition prepared today. 

Yet, for all that, this, along with many others of the excellent Pelican Books published between the war and, say, OPEC – Before Philosophy, by Henri Frankfort and others; Stephen Toulmin & June Goodfield’s trilogy, The Fabric of the Heavens, The Architecture of Matter, The Discovery of Time, to name but a few – Hawkes’ book feels both wonderful and relevant still. Channelling Henry Moore, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and her fellow contributor to the Festival of Britain, Alan Rawsthorne, her work here resonates, for me, thoroughly with our current moment of insular island madness – a moment rich with potential, to build or to destroy. 

“The people of this island should put their hearts, their hands, and all the spare energy which science has given them into the restoration of their country”. Outside forces are twisting our arm hard today, so optimism seems misplaced: but with luck and a strong headwind, plus a knowledge of our past, maybe, just maybe, we can see a new and better dawn in Albion, just a little way down the dark road we are on…


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