Show me the way to go home

IssueMay 2009
Comment by Jeff Cloves

When the Ministry of Defence decided that the only way of defending the UK from annexation by the Communist Hordes was to threaten to blast them to Kingdom Come with an atomic bomb it knew just what to do. It practised a bit of annexation itself and reactivated the RAF base at Greenham Common (enclosed for military purposes during World War II) and handed it over to US Strategic Air Command. Here in Stroud, our wonderful Rodborough Common has not been so annexed and rightly remains a Stroud glory. Because it’s never been chemically treated it is a haven for wild flowers and grasses and you can even find the secretive and well-camouflaged bee orchids among the belted Galloways which graze there.

Now, imagine if you will, 78 local poets and local photographers gathering together to celebrate the landscapes of the five valleys which converge on Stroud and wonder at just how often their work makes reference to Rodborough Common.

Well, wonder no longer because Another Way Home has just been published and a more perfect expression of community action and commitment would be hard to find.

It’s voluntary collectivism in action and what lifts this book out of the rut of competent but forgettable anthologies is its shared regard for its shared habitat. It’s what Common Ground has been going on about for years and this book lives up to what has been both an unconscious and conscious inspiration for many of its contributors.

Among the snappers and scribblers there are a few names – Laurie Lee the most celebrated – but the quality of the work from knowns and unknowns alike is something to behold and something for others to emulate.

In his admirably pitched introduction, one-time PN hack, Richard Mabey, asserts that: “History, light, human work, evolution, are inextricably entwined, but they are not the same kind of things. To worry at these distinctions matters. We are part of nature but also profoundly different. To trace the counterpoint between us is part of the vital work of finding our place in the world, in all senses of that phrase.”

It’s not too fanciful to suggest that the counterpoint is exactly what this book – in one way or another – traces and thus its particularity to the Cotswolds and the Vale of the Severn is also universal.

Actually “landscape” has been freely interpreted by those who’ve contributed and the book avoids the awful trap of a Tourist-guide-to-the-Cotswolds gloss. Thus, there’s room for a picture of an abandoned brutalist 1970s office block and Dennis Gould’s Stroud Café Talking Blues makes reference to Stroud’s radical history and its continuing presence:

In Trade Winds Joni Mitchell hums Mingus
In Whiteway Colony Lilian Wolfe and Orwell
In Woodruffs Dylan Thomas hums Bob Dylan
Blind Lemon Jefferson sups with Ida Cox

Lilian Wolfe was still selling Peace News in her 90s and Whiteway Colony is the oldest surviving commune in the UK.

But to Rodborough Common. Even when not mentioned by name I recognise its shape and grain in so many poems. Sheila Simmons, who was once a neighbour, looks down on the uncompleted and gothick Woodchester Mansion:

Riveted to the present
by the eye-blink of a jet –
its drench of passing sound –
I walk the common.
Around me, larks wind their music upward
like manic springs;
below me in the valley
Woodchester raggedly rings up the bells
for morning prayer.

And Debbie Sayers is completely seduced:

Your arms brim full of elderflowers,
Handsome in your cowslip and foxglove crown,
Valleys meet in your corn gold hair,
Beloved of all my longing.

Being in love with where you live is so important and writing about it and photographing it alerts us to its preciousness and transience. We need to save our planet from environmental and economic meltdown and everyone needs another way home from the calamitous path we’ve chosen so far. In its modest way this book could help us find it.

Topics: Culture
See more of: Jeff Cloves