Book Review : Seeking the Greenwood of Britain's Mythical Past

Bizarre Britain by Roy Kerridge (Basil Blackwell: $19.95)

"Our greenwood ended catastrophically and inevitably," E. M. Forster remarked morosely of England in a note appended to the 1965 edition of "Maurice," his novel of homosexuality originally written in 1913. "There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley for those who wish neither to reform nor corrupt society but to be left alone."

Twenty-five years later, in this series of charming, cranky essays written mostly for the Spectator, Roy Kerridge attempts gently to contradict that statement. Under housing tracts, and fast-food establishments, and all the stifling accouterments of suburbia, another country--Pagan England, Bronze Age Britain, the Greenwood where Robin Hood and King Arthur and trolls and dryads made their homes--still lives.

"My idea of a 'normal' English way of life seems derived from the Middle Ages," Kerridge explains in his introduction. "At the back of most people's minds are the fairy tales they learned as children, most of which are set in the same medieval dream world. . . . Our old customs, deriving from the Middle Ages and beyond, struggle along somehow, as best they can. Often they are preserved by village families who have 'always' sung, danced, dressed up or acted in a certain way."

Searching in His Travels

Kerridge is wistful in his yearnings, what he is searching for in his travels across England. "One of the reasons I preferred peasants to noblemen when I was a boy was because they held to pagan ways in secret. History for me led backwards to the cave and the leaping shaman in the firelight. . . ."

In pleasing contrast to this rather exotic vision, Kerridge presents himself, a 40ish, "confirmed bachelor," who loathes the idea of work, lives quietly with his mother and loves the company of children. Because of this, he is picked up on one of his jaunts around the country by the cops and taunted as a possible child molester: "I felt shocked and unclean!" Kerridge writes.

"Being an old bachelor, especially an uncle, as I am, had once been considered perfectly honorable. A fondness for mothers used to be thought a virtue. Now these states suggested perversion, thanks to the accursed belief that everyone must be having sex with someone."

Kerridge (who really is the "bizarre" in "Bizarre Britain") is himself as much in the tradition of old England as any of the customs and quaint fetes he tracks down. He won't "work" (as previously stated); he crosses England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, even the Isle of Man by bus and by train and--fearfully--by plane. He carries plastic bags which spill, and knapsacks, and he's fond of coming into a thatched town and asking the kids in the street for the nearest bed-and-breakfast.

Exocising the Devils

He weasels his way into Gypsy camps by drawing pictures and selling them, he sniffs disapprovingly at the many hippie enclaves he finds out in the countryside, and obligingly allows country evangelists to exorcise devils from him, even though he more or less deplores Christianity, except for genuinely peculiar lesser saints like Melangell, the patron saint of hares.

Kerridge is both an eccentric and a scholar. He states his thesis--that the greenwood exists, and then, almost literally, leaves no stone unturned in his search for it. He drags us out to the Rossendale Valley, where "middle aged men, all locals . . . spend the whole day dancing from pub to pub in their bells and gaiters, knee-britches and clogs," dancing through the town and out to the old folks home and back, in black face and turbans with feathers. Why do these nice, working-class guys do this? Because they "always" have.

He takes us to villages where men make sand paintings on May Day for the same reason. He takes us to almost every circle of rocks in the British Isles and tells us about "ley lines." Whatever ley lines are, they appear to have been made by the first prehistoric surveyors of our island. Roman roads were sometimes built along these straight and narrow paths. How do to explain it? " 'It's . . . an electromagnetic force field. If a hare gets caught on a ley line, it has to run straight on it as if fixed to the track.' "

But when myths get out of hand, when there are two world views vying for supremacy, as in Ulster, fairy tale turns into nightmare, and Kerridge acknowledges this in a long, sober, fascinating essay on Belfast and Londonderry, where men are fighting and dying, and belief systems, rather than making society more cohesive, are destroying it.

A Gentle Tug to Go Back

But the author tugs gently on his readers, inviting them to go further back with him, into the Iron and Bronze ages, into the Greenwood that was, and is still, England. He reminds us of paths that are called "Green Lady," and takes us to the town of Woolpit, where years ago, two green children came up from underground and would eat nothing but green beans.

A long time after, in 1613 (!), someone wrote the story down, and still, in Woolpit, people "who feel as if they didn't fit into the world" speculate that they are descended from the Green Woman. It's all there if only you look for it, Kerridge insists. It's the English (and American, and Australian, even South African) heritage. For him--the color green aside--it's present in foxes that still roam the countryside and badgers that lollop about, and pheasant and partridge and beautiful moors covered in dark-purple heather where "red grouse whirr and golden plovers fly."

There is always a place for outlaw and dryad. E. M. Forster, as he wrote "Maurice," believed in those lush places, even though he mourned their passing. He'd love this brave, pagan book.

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