He appeared on the hill at first light. The scarp was dark against a greening sky and there was the bump of the barrow and then the figure, and it shocked. I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us. I thought this as I blew out the lanterns one by one around the pen. The sheep jostled and I was glad of their bells.
He came down towards me, stumbling down over the tussocks of the scarp's slope that was cold and wet still with the night, and I could see he was a soldier from the red tunic that all the army now wore, it was said. He stopped at a distance. He had that wary look of one used to killing. His face was dark with dirt, and stubbled.
Deserters had been known to kill. I went on blowing.
He watched me all the time. Then as I turned towards him, he looked away and down into the valley where the village was beginning to smoke.
I saw him side on and I recognised him.
"Gabby," I said.
"I wondered when," he murmured, so I could hardly hear. He was the tiredest man I have ever seen.
I first read Ulverton by Adam Thorpe I suppose five or six years ago, maybe more. It became famous as the book that did not win the Booker. More than one author has bemoaned the fact that if Ulverton could not win it, what chance have the rest of us? That opening scene has haunted since my first reading. The very mention of the book's title summons up my images of that scene. I have read the novel a couple of times since, but it never loses its power or its freshness so far as I am concerned. I say novel, but is it? Its subject is the story of a fictional village over three centuries, but whether you see it as a novel or as a collection of short stories relating to the people of Ulverton and the surrounding hills close to The White Horse, is, I suggest, largely a matter of taste. Most will settle for it being a story, and I have neither doubt nor difficulty with that, but here's another suggestion: you could see Ulverton as a collection of prose poems, for in many respects that is what they are.
That being so, it seems almost unbelievable to me that, but for another amazing example of the Internet's synchronicity, I might even now not have been made aware of the fact that Thorpe has a total of four volumes of poetry to his name. Worse. Research has elicited the fact that he was a poet first - and I knew not!
I recently began to re-read Ulverton once more and almost immediately was introduced to his most recent collection of poetry - from five years back! - Nine Lessons from the Dark. To have been so totally unaware of such a treasure from the pen (or keyboard) of one so greatly admired for his prose (or prose poetry) must count as some sort of offence against poetry's Highway Code, I'm thinking. Following without due care and attention, perhaps. Something like that.
Speaking of following, brings me immediately to what was both an encouragement to read and a disappointment: his debt to Seamus Heaney. Discipleship is perhaps too strong a word, but he treads a similar path and in many places the sound of his footsteps echoes those of his hero. The disappointment is not Thorpe's fault. If I had never read Heaney on The Grauballe Man:
he seems to weep
the black river of himself
I would have thought infinitely more highly of Thorpe on The Tollund Man:
Tollund was pickled
in his own ghost, petrified
to an absorbed, ebony drape
Like Heaney he derives much from the Danish bodies preserved in their peat bogs, but there is more than one way of looking at that. You could view it as a cheeky mining of the seam which Heaney has made his own; you could see it as showing the courage to follow his own muse no matter where she might lead; or you could think it an act of discipleship. Alternatively, you could look at the differences. Heaney was writing against the background of a troubled and violent Ireland, and saw the bog people and their brutal deaths as a metaphor around which to build confessional verse. Thorpe is interested in the bog people as an aspect of the natural world and the site as a place where he unintentionally terrified his son. A touch of humour, the natural world, the seriousness of human sacrifice and the abject fear of a small boy all somehow retain their true characters, their own realities.
I sensed as a medium might
in some Islington cabal
a second presence, no more than a hint,
watchful of me.
But later he draws on Heaney again with his description of the body:
the body shrivelled to the leather
of its stitched hood, stubble
that gave the vexed, late-
night look under the calm
of someone who did not scream.
But do I detect borrowings - echoes, let's say - as between the poems and the prose? Well, yes, and why not, indeed? Some are mundane. For example, the second chapter (or story) of Ulverton is actually a sermon. It begins:It was not snowing when we set out.
For good measure, a half page further down we read:
'Twas not snowing nor in any ways fowl when we set out.
Cairns, the first poem in Nine Lessons from the Dark begins: And the sky was clear when we started out. Of course, the similarities do not end there: the implied threat in each of those statements is realised only too forcefully. The stories have more than their opening statements in common.
One other example may suffice. Thorpe likes a good piss, or he imagines that the country folk of 1712 did, or he imagines the reader will think the country folk of 1712 did. And for all I know, in cruder times they did. It sounds authentic, and may well be so. I am getting round to the fact that one of my favourite poems from the collection is Productivity which explains at one point the (eighteenth century) countryman's method of putting a bloom on the horse's coat:
a wet of piss on the chaff
would make the coat shine.
An echo, if you like, of the third chapter (or story) in Ulverton, which has the character of a journal or a diary has this passage:
Today I caught the maid at her offices. She was pissing within the dairy and not, as instructed, upon the dung-heap which is hidden from general view. Being midway through her passing of urine she made no effort to hide herself and I was afflicted with a view of her private place, which, unlike my wife's, is crow-black.
There is more than a touch of pastiche, I think, particularly in Ulverton and the use of a slightly archaic language which I, perhaps in ignorance, find compelling.