Heroes, Unplugged

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One of the perqs of working as a cataloger is the fact that a good portion of the library’s incoming materials crosses my desk at some point in its journey from box to shelf. Two years ago, I intercepted a book about the development of the British and Irish novel between 1880 and 1940, and as I worked it over, I discovered a wonderfully abundant bibliography at the end of the book that listed every novel discussed within its pages. As anyone who knows me even in passing can tell you (probably with a sigh), I am a bit obsessed with anything having to do with the British Isles, so I rushed down to the office photocopier and ran myself a copy. And then I started working my way through it, A to Z.

On my second outing, I hit paydirt. Which brings me to the third installment of the Big List, featuring Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1929). [Sidenote: Up until fairly recently, this book was out of print, hard to find, and hard on the pocketbook. However, it has just this year been released as a Penguin Classic, which you can order here for a mere $12.00.]

The 1920s were a compelling time in British literary history, as the people of the Isles struggled to come to terms with the horrors of the Great War and the swift kick to the shins it doled out to progressivist thinkers. An entire generation of men had disappeared without a trace, mowed down in the trenches of Flanders and other points along the Western Front. The inevitable tendency of human history toward the good no longer held up to social scrutiny. Into this pregnant pause stepped Aldington and others like him, men who had braved the French fields and made it home alive…and who were all too conscious of those others who did not. They were angry; they were disillusioned; they longed to give the finger to the “Dulce et Decorum” crowd and tell them they could all go to hell on a one-way train. And nobody did it better than Aldington, through his (anti-)hero George Winterbourne. So much so, that the first edition of the book was heavily censored. (Rather than bow to the demands of his publishers, Aldington insisted that the book be published with bracketed ellipses in place of the redacted text.)

Death of a Hero follows the ill-fated ramblings of young Winterbourne from his infancy onward, chronicling the sociocultural machine that oversaw his development and, ultimately, hung him out to dry. In the process, the novelist brilliantly deconstructs (and then redefines) the heroic ideal that had in turn-of-the-century Britain become synonymous with the idea of patriotism, to the point that the one was assumed to dictate the other. As the War on Terror continues to rear its ugly head around the world, spawning greater and greater conflicts even in its resolution, Aldington’s observations have become timely once again.

I leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book:

“George, though he didn’t realise it then, wasn’t going to be a bit of any damned Empire’s backbone, still less part of its kicked backside. He didn’t mind going to hell, and disgracing himself and his parents and his House and The School, if only he could go to Hell in his own way. That’s what they couldn’t stand—the obstinate passive refusal to accept their prejudices, to conform to their minor-gentry, kicked-backside-of-the-Empire code. They worried him, they bullied him, they frightened him with cock-and-bull yarns about Smut and noses dropping off; but they didn’t get him. I wish he hadn’t been worried and bullied to death by those two women. I wish he hadn’t stood up to that machine-gun just one week before the Torture ended. After he had fought the swine (i.e. the British ones) so gallantly for so many years. If only he had hung on a little longer, and come back, and done what he wanted to do! He could have done it, he could have “got there”; and then even “The School” would have fawned on him. Bloody fool! Couldn’t he see that we have only one duty—to hang on, and smash the swine?”

Happy reading!

Becoming Holy Island, pt. 1

I have been on Lindisfarne (Holy Island) twice: once in June, at the height of tourist season, and again in December, the week before Christmas, as out of season as can be. Of the two experiences, I highly recommend the latter. Other than another young couple who spent one night at our B&B–and the people who came over for the Christmas service at St. Cuthbert’s Centre–I’m fairly sure Tammy and I were the only non-islanders to put in an appearance that week.

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A clear December morning, 2007, through the condensation-fogged window of our B&B accomodations. There is something about this image that fascinates me: taken on a lark, I have come to treasure it as one of my favorite from the visit. It is a fitting symbol for an island defined by the wishful thinking of those who go there seeking the ghosts of saints gone by–not as it is, or even as it once was, but as we would that it were…

We were fortunate enough to stay at Rose Villa, a small bed and breakfast at the center of the town. The concept of renting a room in someone else’s house and sharing, albeit briefly, the intimacy of their home life is still new to a person raised on a diet of Motel 6’s and Super 8’s. It took me a bit to get comfortable with the idea. Once I did, though, I learned to love it. Furthermore, if you have never had the pleasure of an English breakfast, this is the place to seek out your first. I have seen less food on some buffet lines, and cooked to absolute gorgeous perfection, from the expertly prepared haggis right down to the little roasted tomato (and I’m not a huge fan of tomatoes). Added bonus: Tammy couldn’t do the haggis, so…more for me!

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Rose Villa. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. And tell them the Woodses sent you. Maybe there’s a discount in it for us!

One of the joys of traveling to Lindisfarne in the off-season is the strong sense of solitude it confers upon one unfamiliar with island living, and the opportunity to wander for the most part unhindered, uninterrupted, and unnoticed over the wide expanse of duneland (declared a national nature reserve in 1964). Legend (and Bede) has it that St. Cuthbert, abbot of Lindisfarne from 684-686, walked these dunes during his tenure, communing with the nature he so loved, and a patchwork of fading and faded footpaths testify to the great number of pilgrims who have, in the interval, sought to follow in his steps.

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One caveat: To wander these dunes is to court confusion, and it takes someone willing to become completely lost to truly feel at home here.

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That being said, if you give yourself over to the possibilities, wonder awaits…

During our week on the island, I dedicated several hours to exploration among the dunes and along the shoreline of the North Sea, not a few times thinking I had finally done it–I’d never be seen or heard from again. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem to matter. There was too much to see, so much beautiful bleakness to take in. So, there I stayed, fearless and freezing, lost but found, simultaneously sure and unsure of where I was. I was, in all events, THERE–and if I had vanished into the ether nevermore to appear, I’m not convinced I would have minded…

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The North Sea in winter rests immobile as a pane of liquid glass. There is no deeper peace than this…

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Land gives way to sea so gradually that it becomes almost impossible to determine where one ends and the other begins.

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The island is known for its waterfowl, and the winter months are the best time to see them (presumably because there aren’t any crowds to frighten them away). They did seem somewhat taken aback when I peremptorily invaded their personal space. (My apologies for the grainy nature of the image. My camera at the time was a bit “zoom-challenged.”)

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My only companions as I wandered (besides the birds) were the sheep. This is another of my favorite pictures from the trip. It’s ready for a close-up, Mr. DeMille…

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In the distance, the rock of Bamburgh, ancient seat of the Northumbrian kings, emerges from the mist.

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Wood meets stone in one of the multitude of dividing walls that honeycomb the island.

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Leaving the dunes to re-enter civilization (sort of).

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Standing below Lindisfarne Castle. One of the rare instances in which I find myself in front of the camera rather than behind it. After all, how could one go to such an amazing place and not provide proof of having been there?

They say that Lindisfarne is a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth meet, so closely intertwined that one might punch right through whatever metaphysical barrier hangs in between and touch the face of God. Now, I did not stumble upon any wayward medieval spirits, and I never heard voices from beyond the edge of time. But I did, in my own small way, manage to break through that barrier and glimpse–perhaps–just a fringe of what lies beyond. I leave you with this succession of images I captured while strolling from town out to the castle, just after a midafternoon rainstorm.

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Calm returns in the wake of the storm…

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A wind from the southwest begins to break up the lingering clouds and blow them out to sea…

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The returning sun chips away at the receding front…

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A gentle glow…

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A pathway appears, a sunshine road stretching to the horizon…

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The pathway becomes a highway…

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And then, prompted by who knows what whispered call, I turned from sea to land…and captured perfection.

Until the journey continues…

Wrong Way Down the Highway of Life, pt. 1

Our faithful companion…

Such a peaceful, sunny day! Windows down, the green of the summer grass reflecting off the chrome of the car’s hood, a gentle breeze blowing slantwise across the cab, refreshing, invigorating. The low chirp of cheerful little birds wafting through the cool air. And in the rearview, a crowd of cursing, angry construction workers pursuing the automobile across the lawn at top speed…

In the summer of 2006, I finally was able to capture and hold a dream I had been chasing since the day I first cracked open a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. It was a project fifteen years in the making. I hopped across the pond. I visited the Jolly Old. I went to the UK.

But going, you see, was not enough. Although we’ve been back once since then, at the time I was fairly convinced the trip was a one-shot deal, and I wasn’t therefore content with seeing a part of the island. Instead, we decided to see all of it. In two and a half weeks. I also wasn’t content with letting others show it to me. Tours are stifling–look over here, look over there, die of repetitive stress injury to the neck. So, instead of package deals, instead of piling onto a lorry or a train with a bunch of hurried sightseers, we went for the car rental, and set out to conquer the British Isles.

It was at this point that I discovered MapQuest UK. The next step was clear: If driving in the Isles would be fun, then taking the scenic route would be AWESOME!! So, where’s that “Avoid Highways” button? British back roads, here we come!

Little tip for those of you who are adventurous enough to pull this sort of stunt but haven’t as of yet been able to. Consider jetlag. Suffice it to say, I did not. After crawling from a plane at 6:15 in the morning, following a nine-hour flight during which I did not sleep at all, and having waded through a two-hundred person pile-up in Immigration, I stood bleary-eyed in front of the counter of the airport Enterprise, regaled with stories of Yanks who thought driving in England would be a good idea and, upon trying it, decided very quickly that it was not. One lady, the clerk said, brought her vehicle back after having made it once around the Gatwick complex, slapped the keys down, and staggered from the establishment looking like she’d seen a ghost. Or at least the possibility of becoming one.

I am not one to be easily deterred from a challenge. Also, I am not one to kiss fifteen non-refundable hotel reservations goodbye, which is exactly what we’d have to do if we gave up the car. So, morality tales not withstanding, off we went.

The clerk’s stories began to come true about fifteen seconds after we pulled out of the rental lot. It was here, you understand, that we first encountered the circular devil, the whirling dervish of traffic management. It was here we came face to face with the roundabout. Now, you may snicker and raise your eyebrows at this. You may wonder how much of a threat a simple traffic circle could be. Bite your tongue and mind your manners. It will kill you if you let down your guard.

What those who have never experienced this particular level of hell fail to understand is that a brush with this type of monstrosity (which has brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins spread throughout the UK countryside) involves a suspension of the laws of physics. Observe the photo above. If I want to reach the South Terminal, for instance–which is to my immediate right–I must make a sharp left. Nothing is straight ahead–directions in the UK often require the inquirer to “go straight,” but I’m not entirely sure they’ve understood the concept. What they really mean is: “Go straight, once you’ve driven in circles for a nice good while.” “See that lovely pub right there across the way? Establish synchronous orbit, and you can’t miss it!”

Of course, when need of clear wits and brave heart arose, I went Neanderthal. Cro Magnon man took the wheel. And somehow, having evaded collision with on-circling traffic, we found ourselves safely out of the flow and headed gracefully away from averted disaster. Into a restricted area. With barbed wire and those little red revolving security lights you see in old episodes of MacGyver. Perfect. Two hours after setting foot on British soil, American idiot deported for trespassing. Oh, the headlines we will make.

“Flipped out” doesn’t quite cover it. I lost the capacity for non-profane speech. At that moment, I could have rivaled the saltiest dog on the Seven Seas (in everything but coherence). Back to the roundabout, post haste! If when you were a kid you ever tried to leap onto a moving merry-go-round without losing an arm or a tooth, you may actually know how I felt at this moment. Car after car flashing past, Tammy hoping for the best (and expecting the worst), and me in the driver’s seat, between bouts of Tourette, counting the intervals and attempting to establish some sort of rhythm, as if I was preparing to insert us, car and all, into a pick-up game of double dutch. This time was all or nothing–no mulligans. Either we made it out of the airport, or we took the car back and gave it up as a lost cause.

Another traveler’s tip: Pick an outlet before entering the stream. The key to roundabout survival is having an exit strategy. Also, discard etiquette. There’s plenty of time to be polite once you’ve stopped being afraid. The second time through, we knew where we were headed, and we didn’t so much care how we got there, so long as we did. Birds (and I do not mean the feathered kind) were flying as we scooted around the circle to our artery of choice, but somehow we did it. Not only were we headed away from circular chaos, we were also actually headed in the right direction.

But not to worry. The fun was far from over. This is the point at which I realized that back roads in the UK are not what they are in the US. Remember my brilliant idea of mapping out the scenic route through England? Turns out almost all routes (including some of the “major” highways) are scenic. And most of them are narrow enough to render the question of lanes a moot point. There aren’t lanes; there is simply a lane, and you share it with oncoming traffic as best you can (which in many cases means you aim, close your eyes tight, and pray). Now, this became second nature the longer I did it, but that first morning I was barely conscious, and driving in a straight line was more of a challenge than usual. Look at that cute little house with the quaint thatched roof! And the neat little hedgerow in front of it! And look how the side mirror is ripping its way through the neat little hedgerow as we go! How delightful!

Once again, panic ensued. The one thought in my mind was to slip out of these by-lanes into something a bit more comfortable. We soon discovered, however, that broader streets serve only to invite the parallel parker. Soon after this, we discovered why side mirrors are collapsible. As we sped down the street, accompanied by the steady staccato of fiberglass on fiberglass, envisioning another two weeks of rampant destruction, England seemed a less and less welcoming place. I thought wildly of ditching the car and disappearing quietly into the underbrush, leaving people to survey the damage, scratch their heads, and wonder aloud, “Who WAS that masked mangler?”

By now, the highways I had made such an effort to avoid were my sole reason for being. I couldn’t help thinking that the longer I wandered around wreaking havoc, the more likely I was to end up before a modern-day Star Chamber. So we stopped at a gas station to ask for directions to a fairly major thoroughfare which, according to our map, ran through the middle of the town we were in. Not unlike asking someone in Joplin, Mo., if they knew how to get to I-44, or someone from Waco where to find I-35. Or anyone, how to find their own front yard. And the attendant had no clue. Never heard of it. This is apparently a universal failing in the Isles. We learned quickly not to ask directions, as blundering would almost always get you where you wanted to be more efficiently than waiting for inquirees to call in a dozen more people who also had no clue.

Side note: rest stops. If you are one who carries the misfortune of a small bladder, pack a Ziploc. A big one. From time to time, you will stumble across the British equivalent of a truck stop. If you see one, for God’s sake take advantage of it. Because exiting the roadway is not the same proposition there as here. Consider the fact that all exits involve the dreaded roundabout, and few of them were designed for ease of interpretation. You may end up driving madly in circles forever, all the while in sight of where you’re trying to go, completely unable to get there. And if you do, you may never get back to the highway you were on–at least not without travelling miles in the wrong direction first. So, drink little and carry a big bucket. It may be your only hope.

Finally, we found ourselves on a four-lane, divided highway. The left side of the four-lane divided highway, of course, but counterintuitive beats cataleptic any day of the week. After that first day, instead of forcing its hand I let the scenic route reveal itself as we went. And by the middle of the second day, I felt I’d been driving British pavement my whole life. In retrospect, it is the most fun I have had in my life. I will never go back to the UK without renting a car and hitting the road (and perhaps a few hedgerows and sideview mirrors).

In any case, it wasn’t long after leaving behind the tiny village lanes that we arrived at the first stop of our tour. Naturally, this wasn’t before driving ten miles out of our way to find a roundabout to make up for missing a turn, but all our pain disappeared as we crested a hill oustide Amesbury and saw below us the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge. The Sundial of the Gods. In my life, I have never felt more like cheering, weeping, and donning a druidic robe, all at the same time. It is truly a breathtaking sight. Oddly, the closer you get, the less impressive it becomes, but from the overlooking hilltop, the sensation of glimpsing beyond the centuries is overwhelming. The historian in me could barely breathe. And the irritations of the day fell away. I knew, after fearing the nightmare, that my lifelong dream was coming true.