Still a quarter of the year to go but I can't see many books toppling On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe from its place amongst my top reads of 2014.
It's a darling-sized book too.
Am I allowed to say that...7" x 5" approx, which is a size that somehow makes me concentrate harder. Does that make any sense at all, probably not, but it sends me a message that 'I might be small but I contain big ideas, so read me carefully.'
And Adam Thorpe demanded nothing less as he introduced me to Silbury Hill; the largest man-made hill in Europe at 130ft high and thus eye-to-eye with the Statue of Liberty, 4,500 years old and with a base the size of three football pitches. It is situated alongside the A4 between Marlborough and Bath and no one has the first reason for its existence...no burials, nothing.
Have I ever seen it?
Well maybe, but I am sad to say I took little notice.
'Praise be to all things that don't fit the cut, says Adam Thorpe, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins along the way...
'Glory be to God for...All things counter, original, spare, strange,'
as he proceeds to elaborate on the 'great strangeness that is Silbury Hill.
I am immediately overtaken by the mood that descends when I have walked around the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney...
...that whisper-fine veil between the very distant past and the present, and our constant striving to explain what we cannot possibly know or understand.
'Potency resides within the object ; we connect and draw the current...'
And I understood that completely and settled down to a little book that in the end overwhelmed and embedded its ideas in my mind. Those ideas are still strolling around weeks after I have finished On Silbury Hill, I think they might be there for good now.
Adam Thorpe weaves in his own history with this ancient place...his experiences at nearby Marlborough College which doesn't get a very good press as he describes his fellow pupils on his first day..
'Most had been boarding since the age of seven, or earlier. They knew the codes, and had grown inured to a lack of affection. They had, in a way, gone tribal - wihout the blood-kinship of a true tribe.'
Here is a community ruled by brutish fear and cruelty (I'm sure it's lovely now), the alma mater of John Betjeman where sensitive souls were exposed and at the mercy of those with manipulative personality disorders.
I could only but wonder where the schoolboy sadists might be now.
As Adam Thorpe's own life builds up in layers so does nearby Silbury Hill which becomes a place of blessed escape for a tortured soul, a memoir pinned to the scaffolding of an ancient timeless mound, and with constant reference back to the construction of Silbury Hill which is reckoned to have taken eighteen million man hours over the space of one hundred years using 250,000 cubic metres of chalk.
Exploring his own memories segues into an exploration by Adam Thorpe of Neolithic memory...how did they regard memory... we have lost the code, we can't possibly know, and I slowly realise I am reading an excavation, a retrieval of fragments gently eased out of the past and held up to the light of the present for analysis.
Maybe it is too far-fetched for me to suggest that Silbury Hill becomes a metaphor for the structure of a life, but we are all an accretion of layers too, and I kept thinking that if the foundations are less than secure then what is piled on top may wobble under stress, perhaps crack, deteriorate or even collapse unless it is shored up...but especially so if that delicate balance is disturbed in any way. The analogy gained even more momentum in my mind as Adam Thorpe described the rain-damage, and deterioration via old exploratory shafts, which had left recent man-made fault lines in a perfectly solid and ancient structure leading to the risk of collapse. Reinforcing matter had to be pumped in to ensure survival, restrictions on access had to be enforced, and it wasn't a quantum leap for me to make analogies with mental illness...grief and loss and all those other challenges to a person's resilience when help may be required.
Perhaps way off Adam Thorpe's intentions but this book of layers and sediments, a geological and emotional palimpsest, offers manifold interpretations to every reader.
'We see everything from our particular hill in time,' suggests Adam Thorpe, and the more I thought about that the more I could see how tiny and insignificant our hill is in the big scheme of things, and what messages could a place like Silbury Hill (or any ancient place for that matter) offer from 4000 years ago.
It's quite hard to explain, but once this notion hit me as I read, I was seriously buying into the whole idea of things being engraved in my ancestral memory, etched in my genes perhaps. As if time slips and shifts and each of us is a repository for a very long-ago distant past. This would be one powerful little book for refocusing a person's perspective when perhaps the world feels overwhelming.
When I was about eighteen I went to a solstice event on Glastonbury Tor. The boyfriend of the time was heavily into all this and I clearly remember thinking 'What on earth am I doing here?' as I joined the climb to the top led by a woman in a sort of high-collared velvet cloak carrying a highly revered ...poodle.
Forgive me, I was young.
I giggled non-stop at the poodle-worship and I remember the BF was very cross with me for not taking it seriously enough, and it was (thankfully) eventually curtains on that partnership.
Adam Thorpe has a vaguely similar encounter (maybe no poodles were involved) though was mature enough not to giggle, managing instead to nip through the portal and make a discovery which leads to a highly credible explanation for the existence of Silbury Hill, and as I travelled the ancestral road with him I was completely convinced. I won't spoil it for you...but if you have read, or plan to read, On Silbury Hill please do let me know if you are convinced too.
What I love about books like On Silbury Hill is this...
Forget the two week window in which a book is published, reviewed, broadcast (it was Radio 4 Book of the Week a while ago), is in every bookshop window display, and then perhaps it disappears, because a book like this wanders into the sub-conscious and stays there, and perhaps, like Silbury Hill itself, assumes permanence.
On Silbury Hill is a book for anyone who feels a bit stuck and pre-occupied with the present..
Or is taking the 2014 version of the world as a given and feeling a bit depressed about it...
Or finds the world around them is in turmoil, and when some 'In the Beginning...' offers a welcome and refreshing perspective.
I will keep it and I will read it again...and maybe again, and I have a feeling it might say different things to me each time.