The Heresy of Stonehenge and the Mesolithic

A few days ago, I came across an observation in a lengthy essay in The Guardian that was so good and so insightful that I still find it hard to believe it had not been made long ago, or that I had not encountered it or a close variant before now. The words that so impressed me were, “We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees.”

In the years when I used to write lengthy essays of my own about Stonehenge on a regular basis, I learned to pay heed to quiet, distant voices that were straining to be heard before I wrote in depth about one aspect or another of Stonehenge in prehistory. Something about the wording of the quote I’ve reproduced above led me to do the same thing once again and a minute or so after I’d paused and listened, I was drawn to the opening two paragraphs of a full length book on Stonehenge I’d written in 2004 or thereabouts, which I chose to let lie in my archives and which I’m sure I’ve not looked at for at least a decade. The words in full are as follows:

CHAPTER ONE
MAN, MYTH AND MAGIC
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane”.
Marcus Aurelius

The archaeologists tell us that Stonehenge ‘fell into disuse’ sometime around 1,600 BC, then it is supposed that any knowledge of its original purpose vanished within a few generations as the local people lost interest in the monument and its history, then moved on to the contemplation of far more important matters. Three and a half thousand years or so after this vast store of information apparently disappeared without trace into the void, there is an unprecedented degree of interest in the stone circle, which annually attracts around a million visitors. As well as the curious pilgrims to the windswept ruins, many other seekers after knowledge devote their attention to the stones, scrutinizing the layout and the heavens above for some clue as to their original purpose.

Some people see alignments with celestial bodies, some write of temples of the dead, some see solar and lunar ‘motifs’ in the precise setting of the stones and at least one person has noticed a face that they take to be that of the original builder, carved on the side of one of the huge uprights. A happy few see the ruins as the place where the Druids carried out their bloody rites or else gathered in their robes to greet the sunrise on Midsummer’s Day, while others scratch their heads in bafflement and gracefully concede temporary defeat. Among these people is Andrew Lawson, formerly Chief Executive of Wessex Archaeology, who commented in 1996 in an interview with the Daily Telegraph,It is difficult to say why Stonehenge is placed where it is – it is not next to the river, not the highest hill, not the deepest valley. It may well be that there was some significance to the place going all the way back to what Mesolithic peoples did there.”

Brief excerpt ends.

I worked at Wessex Archaeology in the early years of this new millennium, before Andrew Lawson vacated the post of Chief Executive there, and I spoke to him several times about any connection between the ruined monument on the plain and the people who had dwelt there, long before the earliest known incarnation of Stonehenge took shape.

I do not recall these conversations word for word, but they always centred around the fact that in the 1960s, when the car park for what was then the new visitors centre was being built, archaeologists discovered a series of Mesolithic pits, which have been written about exhaustively by myself and others for some years. The photo below, courtesy of my friend Juris Ozols of Minnesota, shows his daughter Lija and his son Chris in 1990 standing on one of the white circles marking the spot where one of these pits was located, while another of the three white circles is just visible in the background.

These pits caused a sensation, because the archaeologists were certain that they had once held pine poles roughly two and half feet in diameter and perhaps twenty feet tall, which had rotted in situ and which may have loomed over the surrounding landscape for eerie centuries before they eventually crumbled and fell. There is much else to be said about these strange structures, but perhaps the most interesting and pertinent point is that they were put in place during what we call the Mesolithic era, around five thousand years before nearby Stonehenge came into being.

No such monumental structures were known to have been raised by the people of this period in Britain. A study undertaken in January 2009 by my late friend Alex Down showed that one of our ancestors, with eyes at a height of 1.6 meters standing at what is now Stonehenge, would have been able to see one of these posts if it stood taller than roughly 1.5 meters. The girth of the posts suggests that they could have stood a great dealer taller than that, so unless there was a screen of some inordinately tall vegetation between the observer standing at what is now Stonehenge and the posts in what until recently was the car park, the posts would have been clearly visible to them, possibly for hundreds of years.

As it is, this curious structure or set of structures that was put in place during the Mesolithic stood only three hundred meters or so from the site of what later became Stonehenge. As I pointed out over a decade ago, the posts were situated to the northwest of Stonehenge, roughly on the line of the setting sun on the Summer Solstice, but a connection between the two places was patently obvious, even if no one could conclusively explain the precise nature of this link. This, presumably, was part of the reasoning behind Andrew Lawson’s observation as quoted by The Telegraph in 1996 and it was the equally sound reasoning that persisted among every archaeologist I worked with or spoke to on the matter at least eight years later.

In March 2008, an excavation at Stonehenge by professors Darvill and Wainwright discovered – among many other highly interesting things – pine charcoal that was dated to around 7,000 BC, or to the middle of the Mesolithic. Professor Darvill was quoted in the prestigious Smithsonian in October 2008 as saying “The origins of Stonehenge probably lie back in the Mesolithic, and we need to reframe our questions for the next excavation to look back into that deeper time.”

If I had the time or the inclination, I could readily point out many more intriguing links between Stonehenge and the people who lived nearby during the Mesolithic era, but if they’re not immediately obvious, a search for the connections will surely prove extremely enjoyable for anyone with the inclination to embark on one. For now, it’s inescapable that five years or so after after Wainwright and Darvill’s excavation at Stonehenge, literally tens of thousands of Mesolithic flint artefacts and many other remarkable objects were being brought to light at an excavation overseen by David Jacques at Blick Mead, just over a mile to the east of Stonehenge.

The site has yielded evidence of a Mesolithic dwelling, as well as the remains of many aurochs, the tooth of a dog, the bones of a cooked frog and other wonders, so it is little surprise that the location has been known for some years as “The Cradle of Stonehenge”. With all this and more in mind, one would have expected that those who predicted that Stonehenge came into being as a result of ceremonies conducted upon the site by our remote ancestors who lived during the Mesolithic era would be regarded as visionaries.

However, it is at this belated point that I remind the reader of the quote that so impressed me, concerning heretics and how one of these dissenters is sometimes “…simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees.”One might reasonably suppose that the way in which the evidence for a Mesolithic connection with or origin for Stonehenge has accumulated in recent years would mean that everyone with a professional interest in the monument would be hailing the discoveries and ongoing excavations at Blick Mead, but such is not the case.

Not everyone has turned through 180 degrees on this subject in recent times, but one of the most well-established and high-profile professional observers of Stonehenge has scorned the idea of any Mesolithic connection or origin and has consistently written about the excavations at Blick Mead in such a negative fashion that these essays have provoked strong responses online not only from David Jacques, but also from many others who are seemingly baffled as to why any professional should pursue such a course.

In all my many years of reading about and studying Stonehenge, I have yet to learn of an occasion when any two experts were in agreement about the site, so in one way, it’s entirely predictable that we should witness some kind of difference of opinion. However, as more of the monument’s past has been brought to light – if only in the form of literally tens of thousands of Mesolithic flints and indisputable evidence of sustained occupation during the Mesolithic in a spot just over a mile away – one might expect views to increasingly converge on the question of a Mesolithic link to or origin of Stonehenge.

I admit that while there might have been a time when I could have become passionate about this dispute to the extent of getting involved in it, those days are far behind me and I’m confident that the Universe is unfolding as it should. However, despite my well-publicised interest in what one might term the supernatural, I nonetheless subscribe to the scientific method and as such, I cannot fathom how the more solid facts you provide in support of a given premise – in this case, the idea that the origins of Stonehenge lie in the Mesolithic – the less likely that premise is to be true, in some quarters. As I’ve admitted before, I cannot boast of having a Degree in Archaeology, so for me, this matter must remain one of Stonehenge’s more baffling mysteries.

Only one thing can be stated with certainty about such structures as Stonehenge: the people who built them were much more intelligent than many who have written books about them.”
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, 1917 – 2008

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Oliver Cromwell and September the Third

Of all the figures from previous ages that I admire, Oliver Cromwell must be the one that comes to my mind most regularly, almost certainly because of what is to me his unforgettable date of death. This man died on September 3rd 1658 in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm, a meteorological phenomenon that was long believed to mark the passing of a warlock, so this is a curious and noteworthy event in and of itself.

However, as many others have remarked before me, the strangeness of his passing is notably enhanced by the fact that Cromwell had previously won the Battle of Dunbar on September 3rd 1650, while he also won what was to be the final engagement of the English Civil Wars when he beat a Royalist army at the Battle of Worcester on September 3rd 1651.

There were lurid, highly detailed rumours that Cromwell had been in league with the Devil Himself, so for these reasons alone, it’s inevitable that I would have taken more than a passing interest in him, as I’ve been fascinated by such matters for as long as I can remember. However, there are other reasons why Cromwell fired my imagination and continues to loom large in my thinking all these years after I first became aware of him, but I do not write this out of perversity, as I’ve long recognised that opinion is sharply divided as far as Cromwell’s concerned.

I do not consider myself to be any kind of expert on the man, so I’m not in a position to pass an impartial, informed verdict, one way or other, on the sum total of his deeds, nor do I suppose that I will ever be. Nonetheless, it is simply a fact that I’ve been in awe of a few of Cromwell’s accomplishments for decades, so as these things have haunted my imagination in a positive way for so long, I’ve decided that I should compose my thoughts and present them in the form of an essay, of the kind that I’ve sometimes presented on this site and which used to form the main part of the reading material on Eternal Idol.

Oliver Cromwell is not the only person from previous ages that I admire, so I intend to collect together my thoughts on other figures who have made a lasting impression on me, while it doesn’t matter to me that my knowledge of them is incomplete. Something of their words and deeds long ago made me sit up and take notice, so now that I find myself with more time on my hands than before, due to my two children leaving home to attend university, I intend to fill some hours that otherwise might not have been my own by writing about those who have gone before me and who have helped in some way to make me the person I am today.

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The Dark Magic of the Msoura Ring

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

In the north of Morocco, in the countryside south of Tangier, is an ancient site known as Msoura, or the Msoura Ring. To provide the simplest and the shortest description, Msoura is made up of a circle or ellipse of 167 standing stones, the largest of which is known as El Uted, or The Pointer, which stands over 5 meters high. Most of these huge stones seem to have been broken at some point, while other megaliths lie fallen elsewhere in the vicinity.

Inside this stone circle lie the remains of a vast tumulus or burial mound, described as fifty-five meters across and six meters high. As far as I understand, we do not know if the tumulus predates the stone circle, if the circle predates the tumulus or if both structures were raised at the same time. There is a cornucopia of fascinating aspects to this site and I will present just a few of them in this post, but good manners compel me to make clear at the start that I shall leave the curious reader to discover the vast majority of the details for himself or herself, as I wouldn’t knowingly deprive another soul of the intense pleasure that arises from the prolonged contemplation of these matters.

There seems to have been a belief that the giant Antaeus was buried in this place after losing his fight with Hercules, who fought and slew Antaeus either before or after his visit to the Garden of the Hesperides to steal the golden apples. There seems to be little doubt that Plutarch wrote in some detail about this strange tomb in an intriguing passage in his description of the life of the Roman general Sertorius [123 – 72 BC]:

“His [Sertorius’s] arrival in Mauritania being very acceptable to the Moors, he lost no time, but immediately giving battle to Ascalis, beat him out of the field and besieged him; and Paccianus being sent by Sylla, with a powerful supply, to raise the siege, Sertorius slew him in the field, gained over all his forces, and took the city of Tingis, into which Ascalis and his brothers were fled for refuge. The Africans tell that Antaeus was buried in this city, and Sertorius had the grave opened, doubting the story because of the prodigious size, and finding there his body, in effect, it is said, full sixty cubits long, he was infinitely astonished, offered sacrifice, and heaped up the tomb again, gave his confirmation to the story, and added new honours to the memory of Antaeus. The Africans tell that after the death of Antaeus, his wife Tinga lived with Hercules, and had a son by him called Sophax, who was king of these countries, and gave his mother’s name to this city, whose son, also, was Diodorus, a great conqueror, who brought the greatest part of the Libyan tribes under his subjection, with an army of Greeks, raised out of the colonies of the Olbians and Myceneans placed here by Hercules.”

I’m sure that a detailed study of Plutarch’s original text would repay the time and trouble put into it, but Dryden’s translation shows that something truly extraordinary took place. To begin with, however, there is a problem with the location of the grave, as Plutarch repeats the words of the Africans, that Antaeus was buried in the city of Tingis, or modern Tangier, whereas the Msoura Ring is some miles to the south. It may be that Plutarch’s original text allows for a sense of the grave to lie with the boundaries of a city state, or in a realm or region ruled over by a city, but this remains to be seen.

Be that as it may, the sense of the account of Sertorius being made aware of the grave strongly suggests that while he accepted that Antaeus was a historical figure rather than one from mythology and was furthermore a giant, the tumulus or burial mound was so huge that he doubted that any giant could have been so big. If Sertorius had possessed even a passing interest in these matters, he must surely have known that burial mounds or tumuli were always bigger, to a greater or lesser extent, that those entombed within them, so a huge mound would not have automatically suggested the presence within of an almost equally huge corpse.

Logic further suggests that when Sertorius was told about this being the grave of Antaeus, his informants must have assured him that a truly colossal set of bones was buried beneath the mound, as Plutarch tells us in as many words that Sertorius had the tumulus opened to prove or disprove the incredible assertions that had been made to him. Of course, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell of any archaeologist or scientist admitting that there were once giants, let alone towering creatures to whom we were virtually ants by comparison, but Plutarch is admirably and unambiguously clear on this point.

He tells us that “…finding there his body, in effect, it is said, full sixty cubits long, he was infinitely astonished…” I’m not remotely surprised that Sertorius was infinitely astonished, because by my embarrassingly amateurish calculations, the remains that Sertorius’s men discovered in that unearthly tomb must have been roughly ninety feet tall.

We might not have been surprised if Plutarch had ended the story there, perhaps finishing with something along the lines of “Or so the old story goes” as a minor postscript or qualifier, but he did not. Instead, he records that after Sertorius had been infinitely astonished by the sheer size of the body he’d seen, he “…offered sacrifice, and heaped up the tomb again, gave his confirmation to the story, and added new honours to the memory of Antaeus.” It’s hard to imagine a more positive affirmation that this grave once held an unimaginably huge body than the one we have seen in Plutarch’s detailed account, but there are many other intriguing aspects to this ruin that is astonishingly so little-known.

The Msoura Ring may be a forgotten ruin in the middle of nowhere, but it seems that there’s a very good chance that we know some concrete details about it from antiquity, thanks to Plutarch. For example, we can reasonably infer from his account that the people of the region were so insistent that the body of Antaeus, an inconceivably huge giant, was buried in the mound, that their faith and lurid tales prompted a Roman general to get his men to unearth this giant’s remains, so that he could see and judge for himself.

Careful and meticulous excavation of the site ought to be able to tell us if the tumulus was indeed opened in the early part of the first century BC, when Sertorius was in the region, while it’s not unthinkable that evidence might be found of some of the other things that Plutarch mentioned, such as rebuilding of the mound at that time and propitiatory sacrifices of some kind. After all,  in recent times, Stonehenge has suffered centuries of abuse and destruction, including a terrible period during the 1950s and 1960s under the archaeologist Professor Richard Atkinson, but we are still occasionally able to glean knowledge of minor wonders from its remains. Some of this is due to archaeological excavation and subsequent study, but I’ve personally spent around two decades finding illuminating original information on Stonehenge from other sources.

Just one of the many things that consistently amazes me about Stonehenge is the way in which it is always described as a mysterious place with unknown origins, yet just as is the case with the Msoura Ring, we have a clear, detailed written account of how it came into being. This account or history was provided by the 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, who said that Stonehenge was intended as a memorial by King Aurelius to the three hundred British elders of King Vortigern who were treacherously slain by Hengist and his household. Aurelius summoned Merlin, who had learned of the king’s wishes for a memorial and the wizard replied to them in this now famous exchange:

“If you are desirous,” said Merlin, “to honor the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance [Stonehenge], which is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand forever.”

At these words of Merlin, Aurelius burst into laughter, and said, “How is it possible to remove such vast stones from so distant a country, as if Britain was not furnished with stones fit for the work?”

Merlin replied: “I entreat your majesty to forbear vain laughter; for what I say is without vanity. They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coasts of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.”

Naturally, one highly intriguing aspect of these revelations of the origins of Stonehenge by Merlin is that the stones were brought to Ireland, apparently, by giants of old from the farthest coasts of Africa. One would imagine that the location of the farthest coasts of Africa would depend on a number of factors, one necessarily being the land in which an observer was writing, but there’s a good case to be made that the precise area in which the enigmatic Msoura stone circle is situated was regarded as one of these “farthest coasts”.

Without going into the vast amount of enchanting detail available on the subject, we know that the Garden of the Hesperides, the place to which Hercules travelled to fulfill his eleventh labour, slaying Antaeus somewhere along the way, was thought to be in the region of the Atlas mountains of north Africa and close to what we now call the Atlantic Ocean; in other words, as far as the Greeks and Hercules himself were concerned, they were the farthest coasts of Africa, far to the west where the sun set and where the Earth was girdled by the River of Ocean. How strange it is, then, bearing in mind Merlin’s description of the origin of Stonehenge, for us to learn of the discovery in antiquity of the body of a real giant, an event that was recorded as an historical happening rather than as a legend, while this giant’s tomb lay inside a huge stone circle at the farthest coasts of Africa.

The wonders do not end there, though, because I learn from elsewhere on the internet that in former times, the Berber people inhabiting the area believed that the stones and the tumulus had been raised by Djouhalas, or pagan giants from a time predating Islam. I do not know if this is true or not, but if it is, it is yet another intriguing echo of what Geoffrey of Monmouth told us about the origins of Stonehenge.

I also understand from a number of sources that the name “Mzoura” means “The First Ones”, but I do not know if this is true, either, while if it is indeed reliable, I do not know which “ones” are referred to. It may well have been remarked upon elsewhere by others before me, but when I pore over Plutarch’s description of the body of Antaeus being sixty cubits long, I am immediately reminded of an Islamic tradition that says that Allah created Adam and made him sixty cubits tall, although I don’t know if this size was said to have existed on Earth or later in Paradise, after Adam’s death. Either way, I find it to be an absolutely amazing coincidence that Adam was indisputably one of the ‘first ones’ or first human beings created on Earth and that there’s a well-documented tradition saying that at some point, he measured sixty cubits, while there exists a written record of a body measuring sixty cubits having been found in a set of ruins known as “The First Ones”.

I could continue in this vein for hours more, because as I said towards the start of this post, there is a cornucopia of fascinating aspects to this site. As I have detailed above, the Msoura Ring has a number of tantalising links to Stonehenge, which in turn is arguably the world’s most famous and enigmatic prehistoric site, to which roughly a million visitors a year are drawn. Stonehenge is rarely out of the news, but nowhere will you find so much as a mention of the Msoura Ring in connection with it, as far as officialdom is concerned.

A reasonable person might think that after Professor Atkinson’s rampage at Stonehenge, at the end of which he referred to the original builders of the monument as “Practically savages – howling barbarians”, the present custodians of Stonehenge might feel the need to inform the public about this astonishing monument to the fullest extent possible by way of compensating for the way that Atkinson ransacked the site for years, yet only published a bare minimum of his findings before he died.

As things stand, however, the amount of illuminating, thought-provoking information on Stonehenge available online to a casual enquirer from the general public is minimal, particularly so if the unfortunate querent is naive enough to go to what one might call an “official” source in the course of their search for enlightenment. When there is scant official acknowledgement that sites such as Bluestonehenge and the “Cradle of Stonehenge” at Blick Mead even exist, then we cannot be surprised that such seemingly exotic, Stonehenge-related subjects such as the Druids, the missing altar stone, Stukeley’s tablet of tin whose loss is “eternally to be lamented”, the Msoura Ring and countless others aren’t deemed worthy of mention in polite circles, let alone discussion.

Nonetheless, along with beliefs from a former time that Stonehenge was the last resting place of Boadicea, or that it was once visited by Joseph of Arimathea, these endlessly fascinating subjects comprise our intangible cultural heritage, so they deserve not just to be preserved, but to be promoted far and wide so that as many people as possible the world over can bask in the sense of wonderment that inevitably ensues from prolonged contemplation of these arcane and enchanting things.

There are others besides myself who are captivated by the enchantment that permeates the Stonehenge landscape and seek to preserve it, one being Austin Kinsley, creator of the Silent Earth site. On this occasion, I am indebted to my American friend of long standing Andrew Gough, who recently visited the Msoura Ring and with typical generosity of spirit, allowed me to use some of the photos he’d taken while he was there.

Andrew was researching the site, after which he presented his extensive findings on an episode of Discovery Science’s “What On Earth” series. This involved speaking to the site’s current caretaker with the help of an Arabic interpreter, while he discovered much else in addition to the meager fare I’ve posted above concerning Sertorius and Stonehenge.

As a few examples, Andrew looked into the curious affair of the Spanish archaeologist Montalban, who extensively excavated the site of Msoura in the 1930s, but who was thrown into prison and who died there before he could publish his findings, so no one seems to know what he discovered there. The site’s guardian informed Andrew that in recent times, the Moroccan military had stood guard at the ruins for days, while there remains the belief in some quarters that treasure is buried there, awaiting discovery.

There are yet more stories of the remote site being cursed, along with tales of some excavators having gone mad, while I’ve read elsewhere that some people in the region are said to refer to it as “The Devil’s Temple”. Anyone who is familiar with the rampages of the antiquarians in Britain and with the voluminous folklore attached to our barrows or burial mounds will find these stories eerily familiar, so in my view, it’s hard to overstate the cultural value that the Msoura Ring holds for us all.

The better-known it becomes, the more likely it will be that our Moroccan brothers and sisters can eventually benefit from something approaching the kind of tourist numbers that Stonehenge or the Giants’ Dance has enjoyed for so long, while we in turn can only become richer through learning of ancient giants, Roman generals and dusty ruins, somewhere on the farthest coasts of Africa.

Once more, I’m enormously grateful to Juris Ozols of MOJO Productions for his infinite patience and technical assistance. All photos taken in Morocco are copyright and the property of Andrew Gough.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

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The Forgotten Fairy Origins of “Eldritch”.

I have been familiar with the word ‘eldritch’ for decades, as a result of seeing it appear in the incomparable works of the horror fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft. Knowing Lovecraft’s fondness for what most people today would consider to be exotic language, or exotic English, I had always assumed that ‘eldritch’ was an archaic form of the word ‘old’ or perhaps ‘elder’, because to my partially-trained eye, the words seemed to be related, and also because this meaning always made sense in the context in which it appeared.

Earlier this evening, however, a conversation with my daughter prompted me to look up the word ‘eldritch’ in my battered copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary and I was astonished by what I saw. Firstly, I was told that the word was Scottish and that it meant either weird or hideous, not old or elder, so I found it hard to believe that I’d been attributing the wrong meaning to it for so long. What really made me sit up and take notice, however, was the rest of the entry for ‘eldritch’, which reads [16th c,: perhaps f.OE elfrice (unrecorded) ‘fairy realm’ ]

I do not claim to be an expert on the way dictionaries are compiled, so I admit that I do not know how the word elfrice can be shown while at the same time being said to be unrecorded, because such a thing seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. That aside, I have long had far more than a passing interest in the subject of fairies, especially in the Caer Sidhe, so I know from personal experience with my investigations into various words associated with Stonehenge and Silbury Hill that an awareness and study of both eldritch and elfrice will inevitably open some gaping portal for me that I never previously suspected existed.

“I am writing this under an appreciable mental strain, since by tonight I shall be no more.”
H.P.Lovecraft, Dagon.

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The Choirboys

Last Sunday, my daughter Tanith presented me with a unique and unforgettable handmade card and a very welcome bottle of superior red wine for Father’s Day, while my son Jack bought me a book that had long been missing from my collection, because I had lent my last copy to someone a few years ago and I had never got it back. The book was The Choirboys by the American author Joseph Wambaugh and while its contents were long ago indelibly branded on my memory, it was nonetheless shocking and thrilling to delve once more into the pages of this supreme masterpiece and to be reminded of the tragic and uproarious stories that made such a lasting impression on me when I first encountered them at some point in the late 1970s, not long after the book had first been published.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Choirboys, the title refers to ten policemen who would regularly meet up in a park in the city of Los Angeles after their shifts had finished, to indulge in wild parties that they euphemistically termed ‘choir practise’. They held these ribald celebrations as a means of winding down after the shocking scenes they regularly encountered during the course of their shifts, and also to find solace and understanding from their fellows. At this point, I had yet to read A Clockwork Orange, among others, but I was already familiar with other lurid written material such as The Siege of Trencher’s Farm and the works of Catullus, a Roman poet to whom I’d been introduced by my enlightened Latin teachers.

One of the recurring themes in The Choirboys was the way in which a policeman could commit an act so outrageous that it instantly earned him a macho nickname and which made him the sole topic of conversation throughout all the police stations in the city within twenty-four hours. This seemed to be an echo of events from centuries before in England, when Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club became notorious on account of the activities of its various members, and I’d read about this colourful institution within a few years of picking up my first copy of The Choirboys.

As I suggested in A Tale of Sound & Fury, an autobiographical work I penned a few years ago, I was grateful for the way in which these books opened my eyes to various ways in which I might enjoy myself when I was in my late teens and early twenties, while I always kept an eye out for other people of a broadly similar disposition. While I was leafing through my new copy of The Choirboys prior to reading it once again, I naturally thought of the five years I spent from 1988 to 1991 working as the Earl Marshall on what was then the world’s only touring mediaeval jousting tournament, as I do not remember a solitary day in all that time that could ever be described as boring or mundane.

While I was idly reminiscing about some of the more colourful characters I’ve met over the course of my time, I was also reminded of a former colleague and drinking partner from my time in London, who now seems to have happily taken up residence in the Philippines. Neither my son or daughter could reasonably be described as unworldly, I feel, but they were both stunned and absolutely appalled by just one brief memory of the aforementioned gentlemen, so I feel the nature of the fund of tales I’ve yet to tell bodes well for the next installment of my autobiography, something I’m more and more inclined to start work on.

And by one of those sad coincidences, I learned later that night of the passing of a man by the name of Martin Chandler from Usk, the village in south Wales where I was born and where I grew up. The first time I remember seeing or encountering him was when I was a child at some point in the late 1960s, when he was employed on a building site that produced what would become my family’s home, as well as other houses. Martin drove a dumper truck and he let me ride for a while beside him, something that would simply not happen in these days of micromanaged health and safety regulations. I thought that splashing through great pools of water and scrambling through banks of mud on this growling machine was the most exciting things imaginable and it’s something I’ve never forgotten, so for this reason alone I’m forever indebted to Martin.

As I grew older, I became more and more aware of Martin Chandler’s jaw-dropping social exploits and when I was a teenager, I would often drink alongside him in a few of Usk’s pubs, most notably the Royal Hotel. Some of the stories of what this man got up to after a few pints defy credulity for those who were never lucky enough to meet him, but as the innumerable posts on social media all make clear, he was one of the most colourful characters my home town has ever produced, and a legend in every sense of the word. One of these fine days, I shall have to try to write about my recollections of him in greater detail, because he was also an incredibly amusing and warm-hearted man, but for now, Martin, God bless you and it was a true privilege to have known you.

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In Grateful Memory of Kirsty Boden

I cannot meaningfully add to the expressions of sorrow we all feel for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks here in Britain, but there are nonetheless two people who were caught up in these outrages that I feel compelled to speak about.

The first is the as yet unnamed police officer who is currently in hospital recovering from his knife wounds, the man who rugby tackled one of the rampaging murderers on Saturday night in London. To my mind, it takes a rare degree of bravery to confront, let alone rugby tackle, someone who is not only brandishing a large blade, but who is also wearing a suicide vest, even if this garment later turned out to be a fake. I don’t know what to say other than I wish this man a full and speedy recovery, and that I stand in sheer awe of the courage he displayed when he chose to try to save the lives of others.

The second person I wish to speak about is Kirsty Boden, the young Australian lady in the photo at the top of this post who worked as a nurse in one of the nearby hospitals, so I feel I need to try to explain why her untimely death moved me so much. As I understand it from this BBC article, Kirsty worked in recovery, in theatres, so as I underwent major surgery in a London hospital last year, it follows that I am intensely and eternally grateful to all those like Kirsty who cared for me after my operation.

Furthermore, my wife is a nurse, as is my mother-in-law, an aunty, my younger sister and at least two cousins. I’ve had the rare pleasure of meeting and working with many Australian nurses over the years, while one of them is a godmother to my daughter, so I don’t need to read statements from others about the many fine qualities of these people to know for an absolute fact what wonderful human beings they all are.

Had I happened to meet Kirsty, by some chance, during the course of one of my visits to London, it follows that after everything I’ve just written, I would have deferred to her, I would have  treated her in a respectful fashion, I’d have readily told her of my automatic admiration for her, I’d have offered to buy her a drink and I’d have almost certainly asked her if I could have given her a hug, so in awe am I of Kirsty and all her colleagues in our NHS and elsewhere.

Goodbye and God bless you, Kirsty; thank you for everything you did for your fellow human beings and although we never met, it was a privilege to breathe the same air as you.

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Scipio and Leonardo

Last Saturday, I was browsing through some books on sale at a stall at Exeter’s Respect Festival, when a historical novel dealing with Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus leapt out at me. I had previously read a trilogy of books dealing with Hannibal by the same author, Ross Leckie, so I bought his novel about Scipio instantly, certain in the knowledge that I would thoroughly enjoy it.

It was so good that I buried myself in its pages for long hours on end, without watching television once. My sympathies have always been with Hannibal Barca, the unparalleled Carthaginian general of antiquity, but by simple virtue of the fact that this amazing man spent fourteen years in Italy, destroying every army sent against him, it stands to reason that I have a great deal of admiration for Scipio, the supremely cultured Roman who finally defeated Hannibal in Africa at the battle of Zama.

I could write about these matter for hours on end and long before now, I’ve done precisely that in the form of an essay on the wonderful site run by my friend Salim George Khalaf. All the same, the object of my short post is less to enthuse about the relative qualities of Scipio and Hannibal than it is to celebrate my good fortune, because when I eventually returned home on the Saturday in question, I discovered that my daughter Tanith had bought another book, pictured in the photo at the top of this post, that was a paperback version of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.

My joy was unbounded when I saw this book, because as far back as the 1970s, I came to view Leonardo da Vinci as possibly the most gifted human being who has ever existed. There was a time, early on, when I thought that we admired Leonardo on account of his surviving sculptures, paintings and sketches, but this was before I became aware that this astonishing man had also committed a great many of his thoughts and observations to print, and that we are fortunate enough that they have survived, for us to wonder at.

So, having gone back in time to the late 3rd century BC to witness a titanic power struggle between Rome and Carthage, a military conflict that devastated northern Italy, I will now be immersing myself in the mind of a man who brought lasting renown to the same region by virtue of his unparalleled genius in so many fields of human endeavour.

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