Estill Pollock Reviews Cycling after Thomas and the English

September 11, 2014 0 Comments Book Review 1229 Views
Cycling after Thomas and the English by David Caddy (Sprout Hill Press)

 

ISBN 9780615779478

£10/$15

Reviewed by Estill Pollock

In Cycling after Thomas and the English, David Caddy explores the English character through his own penchant for cycling, linking his journey to one taken by Edward Thomas in 1913.

This is both a literal and metaphorical journey, in that he establishes the connection to Thomas through his own attempt to shadow the original route, by way of a montage of racing bikes, commuter routes, and personal reminiscence, set across an early 20th -century landscape. Contemporary statistics relating to public travel provide insights into social trends, whether in fact new as a concept, or simply redefined for our own cultural milieu.

No example, no matter how well researched, however, can equal Caddy’s anecdotal heroine, Annie Kopchovski, whom in the early years of the last century, cycled around the world from her home in Boston, Massachusetts, for a wager. This evocation of cycling prowess is perhaps misjudged, where the book’s stated purpose is to promote Thomas as attendant muse. One cannot help but gaze in admiration after the figure of Annie, fast-disappearing along the road, and take unashamed interest in her story, while Thomas’s own self-absorbed perambulations risk sinking Caddy’s enterprise before it even begins. For Caddy, though, Thomas always holds the trump card; he is English.

This may be appear to be a somewhat harsh observation in review terms, but it is important to avoid ring-fencing subjects in order to exclude the more untidy or unworthy aspects of a life, and as Thomas’s own letters confirm, he set out on his cycling journey across the south of England that summer in 1913 as a jobbing writer desperate for publisher cash, and to escape the routines and responsibilities of family life.

Thomas is presented in the guise of wannabe Bohemian. We have, set against this pose, the daily clashes affecting the country at large at the time, in particular the Suffragette movement and the pyrotechnics of Blast-era publications. However, there is a danger in layering ‘small’ lives against, arguably, more relevant events, where individual merits are considered within the scope of events rather than distinguished from them.

In each chapter, Caddy argues against Thomas as a “staid Georgian poet or hack journalist.” Caddy is determined to assimilate Thomas within the English Pastoral tradition, but the cumulative impression of Thomas’s mannered musings on Nature, where the traditions are read as a heady mix of privilege and preferential trend, adds little to Thomas’s stature.

Caddy notes that, in 1818, John Keats walked 642 miles of the Lakes and Scotland, “in the belief that it would help his poetry more than staying at home among his books.” It is unclear if we are to accept that such an enterprise resulted in a marked improvement in Keats’s poetry (It did not.), or if we are to link the feat of Keats to that of Thomas, and in so-doing accept in kind the somewhat unnerving image of Thomas cycling through remote countryside metaphorically sporting the death mask of Keats.

Caddy, following preliminary meetings with various friends whom are to assist him on his pilgrimage, makes his way to London, specifically to Clapham Common, the nearest point of reference to Thomas’s own point of departure. Alas, most of the original scenery and architecture described by Thomas has since been subsumed by a hundred years of urban expansion.

Apart from the gathering of ‘characters’ and the detail applied in the evocation of the Age of Artisans, Caddy’s progress is marked by the pulse and pace of the modern city. To locate Thomas from the vantage point of more contemporary scenes, it is interesting to observe the way Caddy creates his own historical momentum. His journey begins as homage to Thomas, but already a particular characteristic of travel emerges, in that each journey represented is by definition irredeemably personal and for the traveller represents events occurring as a condition of the present tense. Ghosts cannot be caught or otherwise be managed except as remote points of reference. This is always an issue, whether the journey undertaken on the basis of discoveries and insights linked to specific events and lives, is any more significant than one which might be made through crowds of indifferent commuters on the A24.

Caddy shrewdly links evocative scenes and cultural memories of the recent past (1980s) to the writings of George Meredith and Jane Austin, the former more specifically to Thomas where Thomas’s early writing explores Meredith’s poetic overview of Love and Nature. Again, we are invited along country lanes where settled many notable 19th-century and early 20th-century artists, drawn there by the expansion of the rail network in Victorian times. This is a convenient analogy, where Caddy is in condition akin to Thomas through the idiom of Nature, apprehended through travel, yet speaking to this condition in something wider than mere geographical terms. The travel-writing is simply a stylish device, employed to provide cultural depth-of-field. Albeit, Thomas is no match for Caddy as a literary stylist, one’s response to Caddy’s increasingly expansive references is to begin to wave frantically to him from the side of the road, to shout, “Come back, David, we’re over here.”

 

Caddy writes, “I love old maps but find them almost redundant in terms of the sixth sense.” Here, we leave the known routes and enter the realm of psychogeography. Immigration, Religion, Music, links to the Imperial Past and a more contemporary Imagined Village, provide Caddy with important links to Thomas, whose writing during a similar part of the journey Caddy describes as “hallucinogenic.” Resting outside a pub in the village of Shere, Caddy “Checked messages. Nothing.”  The existential condition haunts English lanes, paradoxically, as assuredly as Vaughan Williams’s lark ascends to English heaven.

Perhaps Caddy’s principal concern, as stated, is Englishness, and in particular the ways its definition can be abraded by cultural amnesia, losing, as Caddy notes, “our love of eccentricity,” whether defined through emergent immigrant cultures or in the stage-managed dottiness of Sunday cricket. It is to Caddy’s credit that he is able to link, in the heart of Surrey, the writings of social reformer William Cobbett to the finer points of English pub etiquette. And a detour to ‘Cobbett’s Oak’ at Tilford provides Caddy with symbolism specific to Englishness itself. Reflecting on the social changes in early 20th-century England, Caddy provides a wealth of inter-referential examples (Whom, given the opportunity, would have been able to resist joining the Vegetarian Cycling Athletic Club in 1909?!).

Arriving at Winchester, Caddy observes that, “The English have difficulty speaking to one another, and Englishmen especially have difficulty speaking to Englishwomen,” recalling Samuel Johnson’s wry comment of 1758, that, “when two Englishmen meet their first talk is of the weather,” as apt a cultural reference as that further noted by Caddy, that the sale of garden sheds rocketed after the Second World War. A condition of Englishness, by implication, is that the English isolate themselves from each other not through circumstances, but through choice.

Caddy’s journey incorporates Wordsworth and Forster, Hazlitt and Sarah Fielding, the stridency of social reform and the temper of the English countryside. The style is observational, with occasional reminiscences and referral to past events whose causal integrity resonates still today.

However, as a vehicle with which to promote Edward Thomas, it is less successful. The thematic links to Thomas’s own journey are somewhat tenuous, and cannot mask the lack of energy in Thomas’s writing generally. The best of Thomas’s writing (under caution, the poetry), owes everything to the advice and example of Robert Frost, and while Thomas’s emotionally dishonest and self-serving performances as husband and father are not the subject of this book, David Caddy’s generous treatment of Thomas, a small voice in the Edwardian literary landscape, must be applauded for its scope and loyalty to its brief. In time, academic prognostications will no doubt settle the debate as to whether Thomas’s bust should be cast in tin or bronze.

Where contemporary social media dictate the assignment of a Facebook-like as the most perfunctory positive response to a given subject posted within its sphere, Caddy’s book, although perhaps a little wide of its stated aim, deserves more than the approbation of devalued qualifiers. It is Caddy’s canny, inquisitive writing that raises this book beyond the search for Edward Thomas within the confines of the definition of Englishness. Through the writing, it is Caddy who emerges as, in old-money terms, a Countryman, his timbre artfully, archetypically English.

 

About Estill Pollock:

Estill Pollock’s publications include the book cycles Blackwater Quartet (Kittiwake 2005) andRelic Environments Trilogy (Cinnamon Press 2011). Recent anthology contributions includeSylvia is Missing (Flarestack Poets 2013) and Newspaper Taxis: Poetry after the Beatles (Seren 2013).

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