Killerton Chapel, photograph HD, 2014
23 silent walks
17 June - 30 August 2014
silent walk, Killerton, photograph LA, 2014
As a prelude to the first cycle of walks I reread Simone Weil’s essay, written in Vichy France in 1940, ‘The Iliad or the Poem of Force’, in which she refuses the consolations of ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’. In the same spirit, our poem pairs brought the terms ‘own’ and ‘other’ into question.
scattering poppy seeds, Lanhydrock, photograph LA, 2014
after Simone Weil
conquered & conquerors
share the same distress
the death of Hector
was but a brief joy
the death of Achilles
was but a brief joy
to the Trojans
the destruction of Troy
was but a brief joy
to the Achaeans
reading Neruda, Knightshayes, photograph LA, 2014
In a second-hand stall, at Killerton, Ken came across a translation of The Aeneid, which accompanied him for the duration. Before he picks up the narrative thread of this first season of walks, I want to thank him, and Luke, and note how touching these portraits of the human body are, as voice is given to a poem for an audience out-of-doors. And I realize, again, that I have been devising a ‘rite’, though one which is offered without the weight of official ceremony.
Weil’s accusatory phrase, “conflict erases its own aims”, is proven in so many recent wars. There is also a risk that any written statement, or photographic image, may erase the shared silence that people constitute on walks such as these. Does that doubt arise, perhaps, from a fear that the issue of conflict renders all rites rhetorical?
I became aware of the installations – sandbags, books, ribbon and lecterns – as leavings; a trace of the walk, or, more specifically, the shared silence, which is to say, the moment when any of us can come into a brief awareness of conflict, and its effects. An awareness so horrifically vast, and so vastly horrific as to be incomprehensible. Nevertheless, we are reminded: the act of witness can itself be witnessed, even if it is only to record that we read a certain poem by a certain poet in a certain place on a certain day, in remembrance.
Alec Finlay, 10 July, 2014
at Killerton we walked in silence
past dandelions already gone to seed
and summer grasses
at Knightshayes we walked in silence
through memories of the buzzing airman’s crash
while blue dragonflies skimmed the fountain
at Lanhydrock we walked in silence
through formal Victorian gardens
and the newly mown graveyard
at Clovelly we walked in silence
through a greenwood
to a stony beach
at Overbeck’s we walked in silence
high above the blue bay
on the afternoon of the longest day
at Castle Drogo we walked in silence
past dismantled parapets
into the orchard
at Stourhead we walked in silence
through ‘The Shades’
and descended to the lake
at Croft Castle we walked in silence
from a welcome frustrated by war
to a doubly unwelcome return
at Dunham Massey we walked in silence
along the towpath to the Rope & Anchor
where the horses were commandeered
at the Hardmans’ House we walked in silence
through the cathedral’s complexities
and the bombed-out church, open to angelic skies
at Penrhyn Castle we walked in silence
away from cyclopean gothic
into unforgiving heat
at Nostell Priory we walked in silence
to the ha-ha where the music
White Cliffs of Dover, photograph HD, 2014
at Attingham Park we walked in silence
beneath the motto of the deserving rich
to Eada’s only church
at Chirk Castle we walked in silence
past a rustic Orpheus
and a blindfold nymph
at Dudmaston we walked in silence
where kids were fighting over windfalls
at Ormesby Hall we walked in silence
from shell-shocked refugees
to prosperous suburbia
at Osterley Park we walked in silence
past Adam’s transparent portico
and the Army Service Corps Mechanical Transport Depot
at Ightham Mote we walked in silence
on a right-of-way across private land
to a saintless church of the Commonwealth
at Ashridge we walked in silence
on land scarred with the remains of trenches
remnant deer glimpsed in the woods
at Whipsnade we walked in silence
between holly-hedge and mesh-fence
to a porch of oaks and a nave of limes
at Nymans we walked in silence
until it was broken by
a proprietorial thank you
at Bateman’s we walked in silence
to a memorial naming the dead
who kept on dying long after the war was over
at the White Cliffs of Dover we walked in silence
past holm oaks and seakale
relishing life at the edge
silent walk, Clovelly, photograph LA, 2014
This is a fragile object
Please do not sit here
From our base on the north edge of Dartmoor we travelled out to the north and south coasts, with forays west into Cornwall and east into Wiltshire, via winding single-track roads with high hedges either side blocking out the wider landscape.
Each property was idyllic in its own way – the calm and colour of a garden, the proportions of a room, the view a path will lead to – but just beneath the surface each had its own stories of conflict, loss and sorrow to tell. The fact these properties are now in the care of the National Trust is testament to such losses, as economically and emotionally it became impossible to maintain them as private residences.
What they’ve become, open to visitors and preserved as they were – or, rather, imaginatively and selectively restaged – is a theatre of privilege where we are permitted, indeed encouraged, to fantasise about living such a life for ourselves. But these are not places one can dwell, as I realise when, installing sandbags before opening time, I sit in a drawing-room armchair. Leisure, authority, entitlement: a new perspective on the room opens up.
installation, Knightshayes, photograph LA, 2014
It’s not just the grandeur and the décor, but the orderliness of the past: done and dusted, it is easier to sift than the messy, unpredictable present heading off who knows where. It’s that fantasy of order and certainty that is so seductive, a world where everything – and everyone – has its place, and one can admire the workmanship without having to worry about where the money to pay the workman was coming from.
But it had to come from somewhere, and there were various sources in various centuries; one person’s profit is usually another’s loss. Land granted at the Dissolution was retained by shifts of allegiance during the Civil War; among the bankruptcies astute financial heads managed to profit from ‘The South Sea Bubble’ of 1720; lace-making machines were moved to Tiverton after riots in Leicester in 1815; a successful early retail chain was still turning a quarterly profit of over £150,000 at the height of the First World War.
reading Naudé, Overbeck's, photograph LA, 2014
Is it the gods who put this ardour into our minds, or does every man’s irresistible desire become his god?
(The Aeneid, trans. West, IX.185)
In late Victorian and Edwardian times some of that money was used to send the sons of these houses to Eton or Harrow. There they rowed boats called MONARCH and VICTORY, DREADNOUGHT and THETIS, and parsed the martial heroics of Homer and Virgil. Successful or sickly, they rushed to enlist in August 1914, declining medical exemptions and arranging transfers from home-based regiments to those fighting abroad. They and their fathers would also, by word or example, encourage other men of fighting age on their estates or in their employ to enlist. Once in uniform they might survive days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, before death came in hand-to-hand combat, from a sniper’s bullet, in a military hospital behind the lines in France or Alexandria.
reading Celan, stické tennis court, Knightshayes, photograph LA, 2014
The second of our silent walk tours was a long road-trip, covering properties in a triangle between Bangor, Wolverhampton and Middlesbrough, though we drove back and forth, learning the motorways of the north-west.
Arriving by train in Shrewsbury we take a taxi to pick up the hire car. It turns out our driver had served in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers for 23 years, and had been in Afghanistan; he described how the Taliban, hopelessly outgunned, switched from army-to-army combat to what’s now called ‘asymmetrical warfare’, old-fashioned guerilla tactics. He said Cameron’s promise in 2010 to quit Afghanistan by 2014 was a betrayal; all the Helmand bases once held by the British are now in Taliban hands. I wanted to ask him what he thought the solution was – how can we win the peace, long-term? Over the following days on the car radio we’d hear news of Iraq unravelling as ISIS fighters took swathes of land and key cities; and of the whole population ‘kettled’ in Gaza, hit with massive retaliatory missile strikes by the IDF in which hundreds of civilians and children die. A newspaper columnist fantasises that the ongoing stand-off between the EU / USA and Russia spirals into a situation not unlike that of July 1914, but (this is a fantasy, after all) all-out war is averted at the last minute.
The trip is hard work: lengthy drives, heavy sandbags, hot sunshine. At one property our host is overcome by the heat and we have to abandon the walk. Elsewhere – on a day when there’s finally some cloud-cover, and even a drizzle of rain – there are no takers. But there is also the new pleasure of seeing the first poppy-red flag flying above the battlements at Chirk Castle; a second at Ormesby.
We visit a whole range of houses. A castle proper in the Welsh Marches, with massive defensive masonry and a dungeon; Jacobean country houses later extended and modernised; gated Georgian piles with dependent villages kept at arm’s length; a fantasy castle, heavy and oppressive, built with money from Caribbean slave-plantations; and a modest terraced house in Liverpool, narrow but deep and high, untypical in that it was a site of labour – a photography business – rather than the site of management of labour elsewhere, on the surrounding estate and beyond.
20th century wars recur.
The First World War, of course: The Ambassador’s Room at Croft Castle was named and redecorated for Albert, Count of Mensdorff–Pouilly–Diestrichstein, the Austrian ambassador whose visit arranged for August 1914 was cancelled when war broke out. Ormesby Hall’s Jim Pennyman sustained a serious wound in the early weeks of the war, but was declared fit enough to return to front-line action on the Somme in 1916; transferred the following year to the south of France to organise machine-gun training, he wrote “the relief is unspeakable”. Geoffrey Wolrych-Whitmore of Dudmaston felt frustrated and guilty when deafness kept him from the front-line.
The Irishman Ernest Chambré Hardman followed a family tradition and went to India, fighting in the 3rd Anglo-Afghan War of 1919.
A red, gold and green flag flying above Dunham Massey on 23 July recalls Haile Selasse, Emperor of Ethiopia. Forced into exile after Mussolini’s Italy’s invaded his country in 1935–6, he spent time in England and was invited to the house in 1938; we happened to be there on his birthday.
Ruth Pennyman, wife of Jim, ardently supported the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, and Ormesby housed Basque refugees. That war’s long hangover is reflected in a collection of 1960s Spanish art at Dudmaston, collected by Sir George Labouchère, British ambassador to Madrid from 1960 to 1966; the work is almost uniformly monochrome, completely lacking any Mediterranean colour or joy.
St Luke's Church, photograph LA, 2014
The Second World War is recalled at Liverpool’s St Luke’s Church, left in ruins as a war memorial; and at the grave of Sir James Croft, who died in 1941 while undertaking commando training in Scotland.
More tangentially, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop spent a fruitful period in 1946–47 at Ormesby Hall; later they would go on to make Oh! What a Lovely War.
The final road trip is to the south-east, spiraling out from west London to north Kent, anti-clockwise round the M25 to the Chilterns, on past Heathrow and Gatwick to the Sussex Downs, and finally down to the south coast at Dover, guided by walking-artist Alison Lloyd, where the mobile tunes into a French rather than a UK network.
The pace isn’t as frantic: fewer properties to visit, fewer sandbag walls to construct, more rest days. The weather is cooler and clouds make for more pleasant walking, though on one occasion the balance tips and there are a couple of heavy showers.
What of the properties? Georgian elegance (Osterley) is questioned by the sagging timbers of Ightham Mote and other old houses we see in Kent, many without a right angle between them; Georgian ostentation contrasts with several houses hidden in wooded hollows, sites chosen for privacy rather than display.
reading Henderson on a lawn by two small cannon
reading Henderson outside the chapel
reading Celan in a tennis court
reading Neruda by a wickerwork horse
reading Mehmedinovič in a gatehouse which predates the Civil War
reading Char in a chapel to an unknown saint
reading Kurihara in the deep shade of a thatched hut
reading Ficowski in a ruined lime kiln
reading Grünbein in a former hospital and convalescent home
reading Naudé in midsummer heat above a bay
reading Brecht in a basement while the whole house is being reroofed
reading Tichy in an orchard before seeds are scattered
reading Darwish in a garden full of temples
reading Komunyakaa by a village memorial with fifteen names
reading Yeats below a busy flight-path
reading Leonard as demons take on new shapes
reading Levi while a red flag is flying
reading Alani on land bought with Saudi oil money
reading Apollinaire in a semi-circle of silver birch
reading Greening at an astonishingly isolated church
reading MacLean’s measure of a Sassenach
reading Eich navigating a labyrinth of utterance
reading Achebe in a house haunted by a short-sighted decision
reading Dalton in an orchard littered with windfalls
reading Naderi before and after a cliff-edge walk
reading Claus within sight of the other side
He was killed January 17th, 1994 -
Every day from then on
he's been dead
It takes Mehmedinovič’s ‘Dates’ from Sarajevo Blues to remind me that it all started with an assassination there and where, in a sense, it’s still going on. How proudly the Empires went to war, and how completely they collapsed!
He fell as though he didn’t even see his executioners, and so light, it seemed to me, that the least puff of wind must have lifted him off the earth.
In Char’s prose-poem, the courage it takes not to act, weighing this against that: here, letting the enemy execute a comrade to ensure a village is saved. That poem was read in the local context of an officer who disobeys orders to rescue, personally, his wounded men from no man’s land, and is killed in doing so.
… The winter air grew warm,
and night was as bright as day.
I read Grünbein’s poem about the fire-bombing of Dresden in a house once owned by the Verekers, who had lived in the city just before the First World War. I visited it myself for the first time last summer, the rebuilt Frauenkirche at its centre. 1945 is like a bad dream, dimly remembered, and the Verekers would, I imagine, feel quite at home there.
When evening fell on the completed Wall of China,
where did the stonemasons go?
Brecht resonated at Castle Drogo – emptied and roofless as it undergoes major renovation. The curators are taking the opportunity to research the lot of its builders 100 years ago, moving beyond the well documented ‘great men’ (owner, architect, clerk of works) to piece together the lives of those whose presence in the archives is less defined.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Darwish’s ‘In Jerusalem’ is a strange, powerful poem about the here-and-now and transfiguration, about soldiers and God, about stone and light. Read at neo-classical Stourhead, where the Temple of Apollo makes me wonder if we need stone to enable us to see its opposite, light.
walking towards temple, Stourhead, photograph LA, 2014
rapped on a tomb at Leptis; no one opened.
Had he survived, perhaps James Croft would have fought in North Africa alongside Bunting (and indeed Henderson), and been able also to ask his questions of the dead, rather than being among their unresponsive number.
Once, walking silently with my gun in a forest thicket
I stumbled upon her lying with Michael
On a blanket spread in the clearing.
At Dudmaston, after leaving the house and crossing a field, we entered a wood, the path dropping down to a bridgeless stream we forded before climbing on the other side: I half-expected to see Miłosz’s Zosia moving between between the trunks, flecks of sunlight catching her polka-dot dress.
“Wilder than Gurkhas” were my father’s words
Of admiration and bewilderment.
Longley’s father is describing the the Ulster Division at the Somme, but Ernest Chambré Hardman was an Irish Gurkha (albeit not an Ulsterman) who, in India, joined the 2/8th Gurkha Rifles. Involved in the supression of the Moplah Rebellion (1921–2) he saw at first hand the Gurkhas’ wildness, and the terror their reputation inspired in the local population.
dropped bombs on the continent
That was two years after the birth of his daughter, Libby Houston, and two years after the Germans dropped bombs on Liverpool, an incendiary bomb hitting St Luke’s Church. It was never rebuilt.
Inheritors and bequeathers by right
Shash Trevett was one of the walkers at Dunham Massey. Afterwards she told me that in Tamil there is no single word for ‘bequeathed’, just more or less convoluted ways of expressing that idea. Inheritance is a key part of the story everywhere we visit – how a family obtained, kept and relinquished a property which rarely, it seems, passed straightforwardly to a first son, but rather to a widow, a nephew, a sister, a cousin; or the shutters are closed for half a century until the family fortunes improve. One house was sold and bought back by the family 170 years later. Aristocrats have long memories…
Wandering in Germany, England,
Belgium and Holland,
Have I become stateless?
I miss this, I miss that…
Exiled from his native Burma, Tin Moe’s lament from the early 2000s seems also to articulate the experiences of European soldiers a hundred years ago, caught in unfamiliar landscapes where boundaries and belonging have collapsed.
At the edge of the woods
Death is a presence in any cathedral, including Whipsnade Tree Cathedral; I can almost see her just beyond the dense foliage of the limes. Apollinaire can be hard work, but I relish his collage approach and even the obscurities of his work as a relief from the metrical regularity of so much British WW1 poetry: and for all the power of Owen’s “pity”, it is good to see the trench war from another perspective, in this case a semi-detached one, just back from the lines.
Was there really a Sergeant-Major Death
in Grandpa’s artillery regiment?
At Whipsnade, John Greening brings the list, in his grandfather’s writing, that inspired his poem. The name connects in my mind with Hamish Henderson’s ‘Auld Reekie’s Roses’, as I remember hearing it sung by the late Tony MacManus, and in particular the stanza
Oh would ye be a sodjer,
Enlist wi’ Sergeant Death,
Queen’s shillings in his sporran,
And whisky on his breath?
I have the chance to read aloud Yeats’ much quoted “lonely impulse of delight”. Again, a world away from the patriotism and the pity which dominate British poetry of the time: the poem’s combination of action and detachment is extraordinary, and I find deeply moving its refusal to fight for, even to acknowledge, a cause beyond the personal and the local; it touches an essential core of being much war poetry misses. It seems somehow apt that its subject – Major Robert Gregory – was killed in an incident of what we now call ‘friendly fire’, shot down in error by an Italian pilot; to go otherwise, to die in battle, would somehow be too extravagant, too theatrical, too egotistical an act for a speaker such as this.
ach chunnaic mi Sasunnach 'san Eiphit
(but I saw an Englishman in Egypt)
The English as other, their actions in battle measured against not English heroism, but against the virtues of Scottish Gaeldom, where acts of individual heroism count for more than overall victory or defeat. (The same is true of The Iliad, which after its many battles closes without either side having won or lost.) I read the poem in an English house owned by an outsider, a German immigrant assimilated to English society over nearly fifty years, who, when war breaks out, suddenly becomes ‘other’ again.
Every man is the enemy of every other.
Nearly forty years on, Levi issues a rallying cry to his former comrades to regroup, before articulating how little, tragically, they have in common. He goes further, saying that within each of us is a schism, that we are all “split by an inner border”. If Henderson collapses the distinction between “our own” and “the others” so that everyone, on whatever side, is “our own”, Levi seems to go to the opposite extreme, stating that there is only the other, and I must include myself in that category too. The poem seems to present this less as an existential fact than as a situation specific to these partisans – those who experienced, and then lost, the “time of certainties”. Perhaps by extension it applies to all whose solidarity is formed by “certainties” to the exclusion of “the others”, and Henderson’s vision remains valid, indeed essential.
and some things I don’t / tell anyone about
silent walk, Clovelly, photograph LA, 2014
We walked, anything from three to thirty of us, through glades and shades, on formal gravel paths, along cliff-top routes with views far out to sea. The first poem at the start of the walk, the second at the mid-point; both poems again at the end, otherwise silence. After an initial awkwardness when not talking seemed the harder path, especially when partners or friends were involved, there came an ease to the silence as we opened to the here and now, or to whatever thoughts poem or place happened to prompt. It’s powerful to walk thus especially in a larger group, when the walking becomes a simple shared activity that absolves you from the necessity of yourself, of decision, of any further action. A silent liturgy, the narrative of words replaced by the route of the walk. You’re supported by others who, while you walk together, become your own.
At Clovelly, we were a group of men walking in silence through a forest, shaded from the sunlight, conscious of birdsong and of every sound we made – the sudden crack of a twig underfoot. It struck me this is how a civilisation is founded, or an insurrection begun; but on this occasion no goddess disguised as a young huntress came to meet us (Aeneid, I.305), and neither did we have to worry about Russians or redcoats becoming aware of our presence.
scattering poppy seeds, Castle Drogo, photograph LA, 2014
At Castle Drogo we walked to a viewpoint where, turning, we looked across the wooded Teign Valley back at the absent castle, swathed in white sheeting while its roof is replaced. In the orchard – a slope more grasses than trees – we scattered, and scattered poppy seeds as part of our silence.
At Stourhead we walked below tall trees, some no doubt into their third century. Known as “The Shades”, it was here Harry, only son and heir, liked to walk while he was managing the estate before the war. He fought in Palestine, and it seemed fitting that the Darwish poem we read here evoked that still conflicted territory.
I wonder what the people we come across make of us – not a word on such a fine day!
silent walk, Stourhead, photograph LA, 2014
Let’s go – ragazzi, andiamo!
Walking in hot sun, the relief of shade when it comes, whether from tree or cloud.
The pleasure of stopping, and the pleasure of slipping back into the step-by-step rhythm of walking.
We walked by the canal, the sound of slow waves after a barge has passed.
We walked towards the brick wall of the deer park.
We walked past cows, black-backed and white-bellied, and heard the sound of ruminating – as they bit and chewed the lush grass.
Stiles lead from one field to another; we crossed the footbridge the SatNav proposed we drive over.
We walked through the city among purposeful locals and hesitant tourists.
We walked beneath the arch with the inscription QUI UTI SCIT EI BONA – let wealth be his who knows its use – which must now be read in the context of the owner’s subsequent bankruptcy.
We skirted a cornfield with smart young men in dark blazers and dark glasses, as if granted our own security detachment for the day.
In some sense the walk, including the host’s introduction and the first reading of each of the poems, is simply a preparation for the reading at the end of the walk – sensitising me to speak, the walkers to listen.
The silent walks have become more predictable, for me, if not for the participants. By that I mean I know how to enter and to maintain the silence.
On a walk I feel less obliged to create from what’s around me war metaphors. When I do, I return to Bashō: summer grasses / all that remains / of soldiers’ dreams
As I walk I pick and eat blackberries and elderberries.
On our longest walk the first hour passes uncomfortably slowly; the last hour speeds smoothly by.
If anything it has become harder, after reading the two poems for a second time at the end of a walk, to know when and how to break the silence, given the walkers’ apparent wish to stay immersed in it.
There is little conversation at the end of a walk – sometimes simply a handshake or two, contact without words.
What does it matter where you walk? The activity is the thing, and the company.
the sandbag wall is in the chapel
stained by the rose-window
the sandbag wall is in the drawing-room
resting on a fine carpet
the sandbag wall is upstairs in the gatehouse
from here you can see who is coming
the sandbag wall is in the butler’s pantry
below shelves of bone china
the sandbag wall is in the orangery
between the warmth of passiflora and citrus
the sandbag wall is in the stable-block
behind the melodramatic façade
between fireplace and sink
the sandbag wall is in the sunlit colonnade
colonised by swooping swallows
the sandbag wall is in the tower room
directly above the dungeon
the sandbag wall is in the Spanish room
where skies are always grey
the sandbag wall is in the stables
a safe distance from plague and politics
the sandbag wall is in the undercroft
where Mrs Thorpe installed a Morrison Table Shelter
Ken Cockburn, summer 2014
AF, KC, LA, photograph HD, 2014
artist concept: Alec Finlay
photography: LA, Luke Allan; HD, Hannah Devereux
poems selected: Alec Finlay, Heather Yeung and Ken Cockburn
walk guide: Ken Cockburn
installation co-ordination: Luke Allan
Commissioned by National Trust
Supported by Arts Council England