Wednesday, 10 September 2008

On Pilgrimage - Charlie Butler

When I studied English at university I was told that to be interested in writers, or the places that had inspired them, or indeed anything outside The Text, was slightly vulgar. Of course you don’t need to walk from London to Canterbury to understand Chaucer! How reductive! How naive! How treating-the-text-as-disguised-biography-rather-than-as-literature! Didn’t I know that Shakespeare never set foot in Verona? And so on.
All the same, I reckon Chaucer understood people better than my teachers did when he wrote about the longing to go on pilgrimage. I’ve always loved to visit the scenes of my favourite stories, and relish the paradox of standing in the actual spot where such-and-such a fictional event “really happened”. A few years ago, when I wrote a book about some of my favourite children’s writers and their relationships with the places they grew up in and wrote about, one of my great pleasures was the excuse to seek out these locations. Perhaps oddly, I’ve not yet sampled what is now probably the most complete such experience to be had, by visiting the Manor at Hemingford Grey (a.k.a. Green Knowe), where I’m told that a few lucky visitors even get to hold Tolly’s mouse. (Fans of Lucy Boston will know what I mean, and drool.) I’m saving that up as a future treat.
When I was an unpublished author and dreaming of greatness, I rather fancied the idea that, one day, pilgrims might come following after me, wanting to see exactly how I’d worked out my fictional landscapes. They would note the slight liberty I’d taken with the course of a stream, perhaps or, minutely consulting their ancient Ordnance Survey maps, work out how the landscape had changed since my day (for in this daydream I was to have an enduring reputation). This was much in my mind when I came to write a deservedly-unpublished book called The Questing Beast. It was a modern-day fantasy with Arthurian connections, and much of the action was set just outside Winchester, around the water meadows (inspiration for Keats’ “To Autumn”, as the pilgrim in me well knew), and on St Catherine’s Hill, with its hillfort and mysterious miz-maze. It was a harmless enough piece of egotism, I suppose. Many was the pilgrimage I foresaw across this hallowed landscape, and I left plentiful topographical references in the text to make the trip worthwhile for my future acolytes.

Unfortunately the hallowed landscape was called Twyford Down, and no sooner had I written FINIS than the then Conservative government decided to rip it up and put in a motorway. That decision became hugely controversial, and the story of how the Battle of Twyford was fought and lost would make a better book than the one I’d written – but for all the Sites of Special Scientific Interest that were vandalized, I still felt that the whole project was personally directed at me. If it hadn’t been for Cecil Parkinson they’d be calling Hampshire “Butler Country” by now.
Of course, I’m wiser these days, and oh so humble. But I still daydream when I get the chance. And, when I can, I still love to go on pilgrimages.


Amawalker said...

Did the Passionate Sir Walter Raleigh not pilgrimage to Santiago then? Bummer! I walked all that way thinking that I was following in his footsteps!

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage,
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.

Oh well - it was a great journey.

Lee said...

My pilgrimages tend to be more of the 'shed in the head' sort, perhaps because of the travelling I did when younger. Natural indolence may, however, account for a disinterest in seeing the 'real' places. And my fictive landscapes are exactly that - fictive. Though I must admit to a longing to visit Iceland after writing so much about the Arctic in my new novel, which, in a decidedly contemporary 'shed in the head' manner, is virtual.

Lucy Coats said...

"Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seeke strange strands..." A pilgrimage is what you make it--mine are mostly excuses too, Charlie. My most memorable was to Batemans (Rudyard Kipling), which was sold to him by my Great Grandfather. He wrote Puck of Pooks Hill in Granny's night nursery, so I've always felt as if he was somehow part of the family.

Sally Nicholls said...

Wow, Lucy. Deeply impressed.

I'm a big fan of pilgrimages, ever since we used to trawl around the Lake District as a child visiting Wild Cat Island, Kanjenjunga and all the other Arthur Ransome spots. Although I felt Wild Cat Island would be improved by having less families in little boats trampling on it going 'Look, it's the secret harbour!'

Green Knowe is deeply weird - it really does feel like stepping into an illustration from the book. It doesn't always work though. I forcibly read 'Puck of Pook's Hill' to my boyfriend in the ruins of Pevensey Castle, but somehow it wasn't the same. Not least because Pevensey Beach didn't look anything like the illustrations in 'Ballet Shoes'.

Nick Green said...

How's this for a pilgramaaaaage? Most amusing anecdote from the Bookwitch.

Mary Hoffman said...

I didn't go to Hemingford Grey this time Charlie as I had gone there with SoA thirty years ago! And Lucy Boston was there to show us around.

I've read only one Green Knowe book but I did read Lucy's Memories in a House afterwards and ever since then have had old roses in the garden, so it was a hugely influential visit even if not in a literary sense!

Mary Hoffman

Diana Evans said...

wonderful read Charlie...I try to daydream atleast once a day...I find it's great for the soul...

Kate said...

I have just been on a book pilgrimage, trekking all over London in order to find all the statues used in the Stone Heart trilogy by Charlie Fletcher. I've never made it to the Lake District or Green Knowe (although I've been to Hemingford Grey) but I have wandered the Long Mynd in search of the Lone Pine, and around Caer Idris and Bird Rock.
And now I need to buy your Four British Fantasists book!

Charlie Butler said...

Batemans is also definitely on my list! And I envy you, Mary, having been shown round Green Knowe by the real Mrs Oldknowe - er, I mean Lucy Boston.

Kate, I hope you enjoy Four British Fantasists should you buy a copy. I'd love to know what you think. (I used to spend part of my summer holiday in Wolverhampton: how many people can say as much?)