Ⓒ Rod Madocks

Solstice at Shirley: Re-encountering John Cowper Powys

I pressed my spine to the coils of the beech roots. I hoped none of the villagers would come by. They’d probably think I was crazy like John Cowper Powys’ neighbours at Phudd Bottom, New York State, 1930 who used to watch with concern when they saw the writer tap his head ritually on trees and stones in the local hills.  How did I get to be in Shirley anyway? I was not entirely sure of the truth of it. I’d felt I needed some heft to get me out of a creative rut into which I had fallen. I’d become lethargic, and writing had become a chore and decided to visit Shirley on the longest day of the year.

I’d recently read Powys’ Autobiography (1934) and been guided back to Powys’ work because I’d been drawn to the village of Shirley over the years and had walked its boundaries many times before recently discovering that it was J.C.P.’s birthplace 145 years ago.

The place-name “Shirley” means the clearing or glade where the hundred meet (English Place-names, Kenneth Cameron, 1988). It’s from the 7th century when men would meet and muster here for war. To my eyes, the village seemed hidden under a covering of trees as if wanting to escape its past. I began moving through the place, trying to sense its essence as the Powys family might have done when arriving in 1872, his father taking up the post of vicar, his shy  neurotic mother (whom he never mentions in his Autobiography) already gravid with J.C.P. , destined to be the first of eleven children.

Shirley was the fount and origin of J.C.P.’s developing consciousness. He is clear about that in the Autobiography. He and his clan might have been rooted in Dorset and Somerset and J.C.P. would later take on a Welsh identity but it was Shirley, Derbyshire where he first truly began to sense and create his symbolic world.

Now tarmac-covered way from St. Michael’s church to the old vicarage, Shirley 2017. “The narrow lane between high hedges …(where)… I turned to the nurse-maid … and announced I was “the Lord of Hosts”, (Autobiography).

There is a road heading north-west out of the village, deep-channelled, fern-covered and overarched by beech and oak. This is surely the same track that Powys describes as … the narrow lane between high hedges leading down to the church I recall to this day, and it is one of my vividest memories, the exultation that poured through me like quicksilver, when walking once a little ahead of the perambulator, which carried my brother Lyttleton, I turned to the nurse-maid who was pushing it and announced triumphantly that I was “The Lord of Hosts.”(Autobiography).

The way has now become tarmac-covered and it forms a route out the village for motor traffic but it still gave off an immemorial thrill to walk there where the three or four year old Johnny Powys’ strong mind first apprehended that the world was there to be moulded and fabulated. He further explained in his Autobiography: when I was suddenly transported with rapture in that little lane … as I stumbled along in the muddy ruts in front of Lyttleon’s perambulator pretending to be “the Lord of Hosts” it was a desire for some obscure magical power that inspired me. Powys elsewhere explained in his Shirley chapter of the Autobiography:  the desire to be a Magician … is (the wish)… to exercise a certain supernatural control over my destiny. The power of an imaginative mind over its destiny and the power of the consciousness to mould the living world, these are key Powysian themes.  There is a loneliness to that vision which finds an answering echo in souls like me. J.C.P. speaks to our isolated selves, burdened with all our foibles and failings and grappling with the external world.

Still in Lord of Hosts lane and beginning to walk towards the vicarage, I was startled by the screaming and screaking of a magpie chasing off a marauding jay. The invading sound as the birds battered each other through the foliage made my chest pound with sudden fright. It was the same in J.C.P.’s world. The kingly mind-set that believed that the world was mind-matter and could be shaped by the effort of will went hand-in-hand with a sense of constant terror and unease. J.C.P, traces his sense of lurking fear to the moment when as a child he threw a log into the lake at Osmaston Park (two miles west of Shirley), and he was warned by an adult that the police would be called. Powys remained terrified thereafter by the neurotic apprehension that he could be dragged away at any moment and punished The psychoanalytically-minded would see Powys’ wordless hearts-pulse cry of a human soul cherishing in its bosom a fear that it cannot reveal (Autobiography) as an internalisation of a child’s terror of his strange and dominating father who looms like a titan in the account of John Powys’ early life. Perhaps Powys’ lifelong sadistic impulses were also a form of defence against terror, an urge to find control in a world that swarmed with rivalrous siblings and where the family were forced to bend to the enormous ego of their father.

As I walked up the lane, I wondered if these were the same fields that Powys used to scour for froglings which he would then torture on the gravelled driveway to the vicarage. His father once caught him red-handed in these sadistic acts and beat him over the head and dragged him away from his cruel pastime. That also was OK. I too spent a childhood under the hard hands of adults and I accept cruelty as part of nature, including my own. It resides in every fold of animate life. I like the way that J.C.P. discerns the occult horror lurking in everyday, seemingly innocent acts. For example, the sight of a mother stooping to caress her child used to fill him with disgust. To him, the mother’s intervention was a cruel invasion of a child’s free self. That horror could also be sensed preternaturally from within the womb. His character, Wolf Solent, describes being nauseated by taking tea with his mother because that seemed to him an obscure reversion  to those forgotten diurnal nourishments which he must have shared with her long before his flesh was separated from hers (Wolf Solent,1929).

J.C.P.’s father with his volcanic intensity of earth-feeling (Autobiography) dominated the early part of the writer’s life. In fact, Powys acknowledged he did not really begin to live until he was freed by his father’s death in 1923.  I imagined the vasty shape of vicar Powys crunching down Lord of Hosts lane with his great boots with enormously thick soles (Autobiography) as he went striding out on his long botanizing walks. The hay fields that Powys describes are still there on the east side of the lane. These were the glebelands which the Reverend Powys used to reap personally.

The old vicarage could be seen from a distance situated on a rise, looking very like the 1870s photo of it in the Morine Krisdottir Powys biography (Descents of Memory  2007). Powys described the building as an —absurdly big place for a man with five children …and a village …that never exceeded two hundred souls.(Autobiography). The old photo of the house shows a large cedar of Lebanon on the western side. The tree has doubled in size over 140 years and now dominates the house. It is the last sentient survivor from J.C.P.’s day. Maybe it holds deep within its furrowed trunk a memory of the cries and footfalls of the Powys children.

The family moved in to the vicarage on 31st January 1872 along with the foetal J.C.P., no doubt already hypersensitive and resentfully trying to scope his new environs from within the amniotic dark. The house is now a private residence as there are no longer any gentlemen vicars these days. I peered up the drive thinking of the dwarf hydrocephalic postman called Heber Dale who used to come scurrying with the morning post for the Powys family across the gravel and I tried to discern where J.C.P. told us he had pursued his brother Littleton with a bell rope in an attempt to symbolically hang him.

The house is now surrounded by hedges of clipped holly and hornbeam. Gone are the laurel shrubberies that the vicar used to hack at to the distress of his precocious son.

Shirley old vicarage, 2017: “A square whitish-yellow building surrounded by shrubberies and closely-mown grass.” (Autobiography)

There was a rattling of buckets and the clank of scaffolding poles from the rear of the old vicarage. Some new incumbent must have been undertaking improvements. One workman in plaster-spattered overalls emerged to stare back at me. I wondered if Powysians appear at the place every day like pilgrims and have become a nuisance. If so, there are only the books to guide them, there are no blue plaques here.

Grey suffused cloud eclipsed the day, the earth seemed parched. No froglings at all, their ponds had probably been grubbed out. A tractor growled somewhere north. I looked for but could not find Powys’ favourite wild plant, the cuckoo flower. Perhaps I was a few weeks too late for its flowering. Cars flicked past, faces of locals peering at me wondering what I was about. I had to keep pressing myself into the roadside nettles in order to avoid being run over. It seemed as if I was surrounded by nature but it was hiding itself from me. Powys tells us that we snatch our life illusion from the inchoate rush of events in our lives. He says that we imprint our own order on reality. If so, I was no good at it. I had tried to create my own mythopoesis by coming to Shirley but I’d lost the way. I told myself that the day was a fable that should create its own order from chaos but nothing was coming forth.

A butterfly guided me at the moment I was beginning to feel most cast down. Nature lent a hand as ever. I generally get my direction from the earthy and the under-earthy chthonian depths. As J.C.P. wrote, the earth is actually and literally the mother of us all (A Glastonbury Romance, 1932). My eye caught the coppery spiral flight of a comma butterfly and followed it until it came to rest, flicking its scalloped wings by the edge of tyre rut in the turf outside the old Powys residence. All of sudden, I remembered reading where J.C.P. described his only memory of childhood creativity — one solitary constructive activity … a passion for erecting at the edge of the shrubbery by the drive numerous replicas of Mount Cloud composed of damp earth-mould covered with moss. The comma butterfly must have shown me the very spot where J.C.P. once obsessively shaped his mud simulacra of the hill that I also love. He calls it ‘Mount Cloud’ in his autobiography but it is now known as Thorpe Cloud.

“Thorpe Mount …a conical tumulus……synonymous with sublimity.”  (Autobiography)

Thorpe Cloud is seven miles north of Shirley. You can probably glimpse its distinctive sugar-loaf hump from the upper windows of the old vicarage. It sits in Dovedale, a southern outlier of the Peak District.  An upthrust ridge of carboniferous limestone that once formed a reef in an ancient sea. It’s barely a thousand foot high and traversed by thousands of hikers every year yet retains an air of mystery.

I wonder if Powys slightly misremembered the name of the high place when he wrote of it his autobiography in faraway New York State. ‘Thorpe’ is an old Scandinavian name for farm and there is a small farmstead tucked into the slopes of the high ground. A nearby village also carries the same name ‘Thorpe’. ‘Cloud’ is a word of old English origin meaning ‘stony’ or ‘rocky’. Powys describes the peak as the very omphalos of England. He says it is a hub like the boss of a shield around which is arrayed all the villages of south Derbyshire. To him, the hill possessed a node of mysterious power that symbolised all the magical potential of the world and so it does to me.

That’s why it was such a thrill to discover J.C.P. writing of the feeling of immensity produced by that grassy hill…a conical tumulus…it will always remain to me synonymous with sublimity (Autobiography). How wonderful to discover that my own entelechy (favourite Powysian word) my own self -determining life principle has tracked back by secret roots to self-actualise and merge with Powys’ own reverence for Thorpe Cloud.  All this came back to me when I saw the comma butterfly alight on the moulding soil next to the vicarage drive. It somehow encouraged me that perhaps I was on the right track after all.

Renewed, I strode into the village looking for what else survived of Powysian Shirley. There were a good few cottages from J.C.P.’s day interspersed with modern interloping bungalows. No one was about. No shapes behind windows far less the vision of an old woman strangling a maid, a startling sight that J.C.P. once discerned through the window of a stuccoed cottage on the Ashbourne road. House sparrows set up a tremendous quarrelling in the wisteria that covered the old National School that had become a private residence. That’s where the village kids would have gone for schooling in the 1870s while the young Powys read Alice Through the Looking-Glass to himself in the vicarage dining room.

I found this carved into a gravestone in St Michael’s churchyard:

Mary Ann BROWN who died at Shirley Vicarage,
16 Mar 1870, aet. 53
Honora Catherine, only daughter of
Eardley Wilmot MICHELL, Vicar of this parish,
Died at Shirley Vicarage, 6 Oct 1864, aet. 22
Susan Brown, died at Shirley Vicarage,
19 Dec 1868, aet.18.

To think of the ghosts of a wife and two daughters freshly pervading the vicarage when the Powys family moved in. I wondered if they had been killed by the tuberculosis that later infected Llewelyn Powys.

Interior, St Michael’s. Window from the 1842 Gothic restoration: “The little grey church in the midst of the village.”(Autobiography)

Into the little grey church described in the Autobiography. Hush and shadow, smell of dusty carpeting and old wood. Sunlight on the trees beyond the windows made me think of J.C.P. watching the same pagan oak foliage beyond the glass while his father preached his long sermons.

There was a list of vicars framed on the wall going back to the 13th century including Powys, Charles Francis, rector 1872 to 1879. His patron was listed as the 10th Earl Ferrers, one of the Shirleys, the local aristocracy and kin to the Powys clan.

Beech rooting into the bank of the “Lord of Hosts lane” between the Vicarage and the church Shirley, 2017.

Coins in the offertory box and the church was left to its only other inhabitants —a colony of bats that squeaked and shuffled in the rafters. All roads in the village led back to ‘Lord of Hosts’ lane.

I clambered up the high bank. I wanted to hold onto the earth memories I had conjured during my summer solstice pilgrimage visit. I felt weak, queasy, and my bladder griped. That was also fine, the undertide of life was part of the process. Powys teaches endurance. Like him, I embrace the myth of Philoctetes, bitten on the heel by a snake sent by a goddess, an exile-hero with a wound that never healed. What a martyr Powys was to his chronic ulcer, his poorly-functioning guts and to all his other ailments. I think that unease with the body and its products manifested early at the vicarage where he describes making a hellbroth of his and his brother’s pee in a container in the vicarage summerhouse. The creative paradox of Powys’ work springs from his celebration of sensuality while also acknowledging that sex was comic and brutal (and his brothers seemed to share that view) and to him, our bodies were correspondingly pitiful and disgusting. J.C.P. was possessed of huge energy despite his milk and bread diet and I’m fascinated by his scary lycanthropic appearance in all his photos. Reading Powys gives me confidence that he’ll show me something startling as he ramps and rootles through all the arrangements of the world and upends our preconceptions. The end of Powys’ quest is to bring us to a place where we feel the presence of ‘something else’ the something far too deeply interfused that lies too deep for tears, too deep for words, too deep for reason. (‘On Wordsworth, Pleasures of Literature, 1938).

A wind was rising, the wheat brisking in the neighbouring fields with an answering roar in the leaves overhead. I pressed my back to the bank-side beech roots trying to feel the tree flex deep down in its entrails. I fear my own inarticulacy and am comforted by Powys’ dogged constant struggle with failure. He shows us we are all terrified children abiding within our changeling adult selves. By acknowledging this weakness, it helps us see more clearly. If you read Powys, you are a recusant, at odds with a world that is destroying nature and turning away from serious concerns.

Sinking into the forgiving bank of Lord of Hosts lane, I tried to suck in the warm loamy air more deeply. I wanted to feel my earth-bulk burying itself deeper and deeper within this living mass (A Glastonbury Romance). I also wanted Powys to pull his protective wings around me. I might have seemed strange to any passers-by but I was happy let them wonder. Every artist is a fanatic, J.C.P. says in his autobiography. The planet seemed to tilt under me that solstice tide and I could feel us going back into the dark but I was not afraid.  I called out, “I too can be the Lord of Hosts!”