And welcome to what I hope will be a blister-free weekend.
Shouldering a much-too-heavy backpack, I finally set foot in the Cotswolds on Monday afternoon. Four days, and 131,000 metres of claggy stomping later, I arrived at Bath Abbey.
It was sort of a pandemic-friendly hiking of the Cotswold Way national trail, skirting the Tier 3 troubles of South Gloucestershire. An alternative trail demands an alternative name: I’m going with the Catswold Way.
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Four Quartets (Part The First)
This week’s tramping of the Catswold Way was originally conceived as the most pretentious of walks. I originally intended to connect, by way of pilgrimage, the locations that inspired each of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: TS Eliot was a poet. His Four Quartets are a collection of four poems, written between 1936 and 1942, in which he tries to figure out humankind’s relationship to time and the universe.
If that’s not pretentious enough for you, then let me add that Four Quartets opens with two quotations from Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher. Untranslated.*
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν
ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή
And, I hate to tell you, in all that follows there ain’t much rhyming.
Having said that, although Four Quartets might represent something of a high watermark for pretentious poetry, it’s still bloody marvellous. This, for example, is one of my favourite passages of poetry, rhymed or not, by anyone, anywhere:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I’ll save you a search and translate those fragments of Heraclitus. One note: ‘logos’ is what the Ancient Greeks called the divine principle that animates the universe. It’s often ill-translated as ‘reason’ or ‘logic’, a translation that renders Heraclitus’s aphorism pretty much meaningless. On with the two translations:
Although the logos is universal, the many live as if they had a wisdom all of their own
The way upward and the way downward is one and the same
You can read Four Quartets for yourself here. But poems are meant to be read out loud, so you might as well get Alec Guinness to read them for you. That recording gave me goose-flesh (admittedly, that might have been because I was hiking through a muddy field in winter).
Conveniently enough for travel writers looking for destinations, TS Eliot titled each of his four poems after the specific location that inspired the verse.
After a little research, I learnt that the Burnt Norton of the first quartet is a manor house sitting at the northern end of the Cotswold Way. The second quartet is named for East Coker, a village in Somerset. The final poem takes its title from a village in Cambridgeshire: Little Gidding.
So far, all so very Merrie Englande. I gleefully imagined the highbrow BBC 4 series that would surely follow, as I made a learned pilgrimage between Thomas Stearns Eliot’s four poetical inspirations.
The television cameras would focus on a boot splashing into a muddy puddle, scattering a reflection of the stars, as my voiceover gently muses on how Eliot’s masterpiece, penned during a world war, can help modern humans make sense of time and the universe during a wholly different kind of calamity.
Then I looked up the third of the poems: Dry Salvages. Dry Salvages? What the actual fuck. It’s in Massachusetts, USA.
Picking through the wreckage of my documentary dreams, I reassembled some semblance of the idea. Scaling down the grandeur of my vision, I decided instead to walk from the manor of Burnt Norton all the way through to East Coker, where TS Eliot’s ashes are interred.
As you can tell, I haven’t finished this walk yet. From Bath Abbey to the church at East Coker, another 80km awaits (restrictions permitting) after Christmas.
So it was that I began: stepping off a train, then stepping onto a bus, before finally stepping off the bus (a few miles further on than I should have done) and onto the road from Chipping Campden to the stately manor of Burnt Norton.
My pack was full (inadvisedly so), my bivvy bag was dry and my feet were not yet hobbling, not yet throbbing.
It turns out that, for someone who does it on the regular, I’m a bad trespasser. Burnt Norton, you see, is privately owned.
Now, you might not think of TS Eliot as being particularly anti-establishment, but a century ago, he wilfully ignored the PRIVATE KEEP OUT signs that guard Lord Harrowby’s property and took a leisurely turn around the rose garden with his lover.
The famous rose garden even made it into the poem:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
Absenting the lover, I would still follow in Eliot’s footsteps and discreetly trespass. There followed a nerve-jangling yomp through quiet woodland that crackled underfoot, doubtless alerting the trigger-happy gamekeepers to my intrusion.
This felt nothing like Eliot’s ‘cheeky’ trespass. In the poem, his walkers are drawn on into the garden by ‘the deception of the thrush’:
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air
I felt neither dignified nor invisible. The pressure over the dead leaves of this gallumphing hiker made crispcracks that, at every footfall, had pheasants yawking up into the trees in a fluster of wings.
The path sank slowly into thick mud and wound past a gallery of shooting lookouts: would my backpack be mistaken for the hind quarters of a deer?
As it turned out: no. The trespass was all absolutely terrifying and all absolutely fine. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was my map-reading and I ended up parading up and down the Lord and Lady’s expensively-filled car park, in full view of their drawing room windows.
So much for discretion.
Distraction by distraction
I’m sorry that this newsletter can only make a start on some of the stories that arose from four days’ walking along the Catswold Way. So before I break your inbox, I want to make a quick mention of one last thing: distraction.
Last week, I quoted a section of Four Quartets in which TS Eliot bemoans how easily human beings can be distracted (by ‘men and bits of paper’), away from our real business of connecting with the universe.
At least, that’s my reading of these (shamefully truncated) lines from Burnt Norton:
Here is a place of disaffection
[…] neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
[…] Nor darkness to purify the soul
[…] Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Both daylight (plenitude) and darkness (vacancy) can reveal to us the wonders of the universe, but in a ‘place of disaffection’—later Eliot specifically refers to London—we are more likely to turn instead to the distraction of meaningless fripperies.
In 1936, the great enemy of concentration was ‘bits of paper’. Today I can think of a surely greater distraction that spends a lot of time in our pockets, but much more time in our hands, causing neck pain without respite.
Eliot’s antidote to the alienation from nature caused by modernity is ‘destitution of all property’ and ‘evacuation of the world of fancy’. Walking through day and night with provisions and accommodation on my back, while not as extreme as Eliot’s asceticism, was a timely reacquaintance with what’s most important.
For me, that means noticing: noticing the details in my existence. Like this moment, described by TS Eliot a hundred years ago, but which the universe brought to me only on Monday:
Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes
A moment of stillness, once noticed, that enriches the whole. Until my belly starts to rumble and I need a pee.
That’s it for this week. I hope you enjoyed these stories. Actually, I really hope you did because there are many more and I hope to be sending them your way in the coming weeks. Let me know what you think.
Thank you for spending time reading these words—and a big shout out to those of you past, present and future subscribers who reckon this newsletter is worth some of your hard-earned cash. Honestly, it means a lot!
I hope you all have a wondrously blister-free weekend.
Hello, I’m David Charles and I wrote this newsletter. I publish another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. I’m co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also write for The Bike Project, the Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on davidcharles.info.
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