The Modern Antiquarian: A Pre-Millennial Odyssey
through Megalithic Britain
London: Thorsons, 1999
438 pages, £29.99
The Modern Antiquarian would provide useful hints to anyone wishing to publish a motoring atlas. A large-format hardback, with half of the book colour-coded by geographical area, it is ostentatiously designed for easy reference. The volume comes in a sturdy slipcase for protection while travelling, in the garish colours usually associated with a book one might need to locate quickly in a car packed with foil-wrapped sandwiches and thermos flasks. This is, in fact, almost certainly the thinking behind the publication. The Modern Antiquarian is a road atlas, an explorer's field guide, for the enthusiast questing after the earliest signs of civilisation in the British Isles. Some of the peculiarities of the book can be explained by reference to the reputation of its author. Before striking out on his own, Julian Cope was leader of The Teardrop Explodes, a late Seventies band that mixed a punkish aesthetic with its alleged antithesis: LSD-fuelled prog rock. The band collapsed, to the accompaniment of stories of increasingly deranged behaviour on the part of Cope. Whether or not one believes that he spent most of a recording session hiding under the mixing desk, or chased the rest of the band through a field with a shotgun, there is certainly a sense in which Cope himself quickly became the subject of a Bacchanalian myth. These days, with the impending republication in October of Head-On, his unapologetic autobiography, that myth is largely carried by Cope himself. The heavily illustrated pages contain a number of essays concerning the author's eight-year project to rediscover and map the prehistoric features still surviving in the landscape of modern Britain. As an exploration of the (often precariously) surviving evidence of the megalith-building era in British history, Cope's record is both unique and substantially overdue. Some of the features he notes and illustrates have not been photographed since the 1930s, or in the case of one cromlech in Wales, since 1893. The essays chronicle the author's attempt to discover and understand the hundreds of stone monuments pre-dating the Roman conquest which can be found in the countryside.
These essays tend to confirm the reader's suspicion that such a project is the work of some kind of New Age enthusiast, and Cope is not exactly ashamed of taking on such a role. He has written that he wishes to be a pied piper, to help break [ordinary people] out of their existentialism, their physical remove from life, their ennui, using the most Robert Graves-ean thoroughness and the patience of a man driven by cascading Light. In fact, the comparison to Graves is probably fair, as Cope explicitly matches a comprehensive cast through the available literature with an unwavering sense of spiritual purpose. Cope's personal myth can be set against the mythological past from which he is attempting to rescue the stones and the other sites explored in The Modern Antiquarian. It is a confrontation that is relished, indeed pushed to the forefront of the book, even as it pretends to be little more than a much-needed reference work. The second section of the volume is a gazetteer, which not only lists, but describes, illustrates and provides practical directions for over 300 ancient sites. However, it cannot rest at providing interested readers with the means to discover for themselves these circles, standing stones and inscriptions. The gazetteer insists on filling each site with Cope's fairly unsurprising discourse of self-discovery, mind-expansion and escape from the technological. The slipcase boasts as a selling point the presence in the text of 50 poems, of marginal appeal to all but Cope's most die-hard fans. It is reasonable to wonder what function these could possibly be performing. The boast, it seems, is really of authentic experience, of vicarious head-trips for the armchair seeker after gnosis. After reading several entries, the portions of the gazetteer that begin to stand out are the personal notes appended to each location, giving the author's on-the-spot reactions. These offer Cope's subjective experiences of the wind, the rain, even his pen running out, as somehow building to a consistently achievable spiritual communion with the Earth Mother. Visiting the Maen-Y-Bardd at Tal-Y-Fan (OS 115.740717), he senses 'the beauty irrigating every bit of me whilst fairly blowing my head off at the same time'. For all of his good intentions, this cannot help but draw away from the sites themselves, and focus instead upon the author.
The photographs of the sites confirm that this tactic is deliberate, if not consciously selfish. Cope is by no means an expert photographer, but the snapshots exhibit a certain warmth because they are so obviously the record of authentic, experienced moments. More than half of them feature Cope, his partner, their child or their dog. While this can usefully indicate scale, the photograph of Tinkinswood, near Cardiff, reveals the stronger purpose of such photographic evidence. Here, a large blanket has been laid out upon which the dog is being persuaded to sit. On the opposite page, Cope's partner, looking at a dolmen, stands profiled against the sky, so that we can see she is heavily pregnant. The overall result is a narrative of a happy family life; exploring oneself as one explores the lost heritage of Mystic Albion. Cope is selling a lifestyle, an alternative set of pleasures, albeit fairly modest ones, to be found by meandering along backways and through fields. This is consciously set against the aggressive straight lines of the modern world. Indeed, Cope is at his best when at his most overtly political. He sees little difference between the way in which Roman roads run straight, ploughing through older features and obliterating traditional pathways, and the way in which contemporary building plans will butt up against prehistoric monuments.
The political potential of this line reaches its emotional culmination with the listing for Greycroft Stone Circle in Cumbria. The main photograph shows that the owner of the land has ploughed the field to within a couple of inches of the stones. The inset picture shows the scene from the opposite angle, revealing the circle to be no more than 400 yards from the stacks of Sellafield nuclear power station. It becomes almost impossible to believe that the visual similarity between the ancient stones and Sellafield's squat grey chimneys is a mere accident of juxtaposition.
Such moments, however, are not sustained under the pressure of Cope's insistence upon finding transcendence at each of the sites, unquestionably beautiful though they are. The author is then left with the problem of communicating the transcendence to the reader. Cope appears to be caught between observation and participation. Perhaps the most telling portion of the Cope myth concerns his presence at the poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square. Cope himself, according to the story, did not take part in the demonstration, but wandered through it unmolested, dressed as a fairy-tale giant, neither quite observer nor detached.
The tension between observation and participation is elegantly captured in the title of this book. After all, the antiquarian cannot help but be modern. The Modern Antiquarian, if it indicates anything, shows how Cope insists upon recreating the ancient stones and their ambiguous markings according to a thoroughly modern system. Even his dating conventions illustrate this. Ancient dates are given as BCE (Before the Christian Era). Dates in recent history are recorded conventionally, except when we reach the 1990s, when the suffix CE (Christian Era) is adopted. These, the dates of Cope's shamanic progress through Britain, are the most important in the book, and it is these modern days, these days of the New Age, that are the most important in its chronology.