Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Perichoresis in Ross

“You feel this. Go on. Feel it.”

I turn in some trepidation from my examination of the shelves.

We’re in an unrecorded charity bookshop, not long open. A customer carrying a heavy rucksack with a week’s worth of camping gear is eyeing with misgivings the pile of fat paperbacks his wife is accumulating.

“I don’t think I can carry them, dear. Not with everything else. Go on, feel the weight of that.” “Well, perhaps we can take the bus. Ask the man.” He turns to the manager. “Is there a bus?” His interlocutor contemplates this question. After a long pause, he says. “I think there are two buses.” The hiker brightens. “When?” More rumination. “I don’t recall for sure. But they might be April 25th and September 6th.”

Mr Howard, browsing undisturbed, is deciding on a beautifully-printed old devotional book. He may know something I don’t. I used to have a picture of Ross-on-Wye on the back of an old tea packet. The Towns of England. Felixstowe, I remember, too. Scenic sketches. Ross was a tall spire, a winding river, and a scribble of trees. And that’s how it still is.

Sterner measures having failed, and the warning of Warner gone unheeded, they’ve decided to lull us. Ross-on-Wye is a lovely, picturesque place. We won’t get into mischief there. A stationery shop still sells manilla newspaper wrappers, long ledgers with marbled edges, fountain pen ink in Bank Teller's Black. Compasses and protractors, set squares. You expect to see a slide rule somewhere. Or Forms of Address for letters to a Dowager Duchess, a Writer to the Signet, a Colonial Bishop, or to Portcullis Pursuivant.

We’d seen a sign on a wall by rusting railings. Lord Nelson may have passed through the garden that was once on this site, when he visited the town. We linger for a bit, wondering whether by some perichoresis, as in Machen’s ‘N’, the pleasaunce used for the Admiral’s constitutional might shimmeringly reappear. It doesn’t, but then you realise why. You’re already in a sort of perichoresis. The coarse and sordid has been charmed away in this place of quaint civility. It’s overlapped by the Olde Worlde.

But in the charity shop, I haven’t found anything yet, whereas Mr Howard’s zeal is sustaining his interest longer. So I take another look. What’s this? The Call of the Past. By Fflorens Roch. London & Edinburgh: Sands & Co. 1913. Flicker, flicker. Crumbs. A Welsh reincarnation fantasy. Jane Austen meets Joan Grant. ‘No, Mamma, I cannot marry the squire, for I am foresworn to a Druid priest, and am waiting for his return.’ ‘O, I never heard such nonsense. There’s no prospects in a parson.’ That sort of thing.

I turn the pages in awe. Why didn’t I think of that before? I could have cast Miss Bennet as Cleopatra, Mr Darcy as Mark Anthony, Mr Bingley as Octavius, reaching across the ages. Wait, wait, what’s this. It gets better. ‘It is true, I can tell it only to you,” says another suitor, “I am from the island of Hy Brasil.’ So, there’s a mythic realm thrown in too. The lost paradise, the Eden over the seas, the Celtic Elysium.

Earlier, in the town’s Old Books, I’d found a volume enticingly called A Lost Roman Road, A Reconnaissance in the West Country, by Bernard Berry, 1963. Maps in the back. The author is in quest of the missing route between Bath and the Dorset coast, walking fields and footpaths, hills and hollows, looking for faint traces of straight lines, unexpected embankments, and more ethereal signs too.

He goes where he wants, not worried about trespass. The locals think he’s from the Ministry, seeing about the electricity pylons, registering the footpaths, inspecting the land use. He doesn’t disabuse them.

“Many of those reading his highly original account of open-air detective work on almost a grand scale, and poring over his photographs, will probably be finding themselves tempted to set out on similar amateur ventures of their own—and why not?”

“Highly original”, eh? That sets my whiskers twitching. Publisher’s code for visionary, eccentric, idiosyncratic. Excellent. Just my sort of thing. File with ley lines, terrestrial zodiacs, genii loci, Black Horse inn signs. The author’s only book too, I later discover.

Something about the atmosphere of it reminds me of those tales of strangers wandering in remote countryside who become benighted, or lost in mist, or caught in a storm. And there’s a lonely house, with a square of amber glimpsed across the fields. A knock at the door, a long wait, and then a pale face, or a sort of a face. “I’m terribly sorry, but I seem to have lost my way. I wonder if I might . . .if I might . . .”

There is an affinity with Sarban’s ‘A House of Call’, also about a journey along a conjectured Roman road; and a touch of Buchan’s ‘The Wind in the Portico’. Yes, it’s strangely addictive, this journal of a wanderer in a Lost England after ancient ways. And he seems to discern the old signs so clearly too. Perhaps Mr Berry was a Roman surveyor in a former life.

The town of Ross-on-Wye itself seems to be “taking part in an old rite and so bringing back, by the rite’s magic, the virtue of an older time,” as Sarban puts it in his story, about a circle of ghost-story-tellers. But you wonder how long the perichoresis can last. These two curious books are amulets of its lingering spell.

Mark Valentine


  1. We should start a subscription to keep Mark and John on the road for the next several months, provided we can receive in return such evocative postings from along the way.
    One small cx: Bennet needs another n.

  2. I am loving your accounts of your book-hunting journeys...

  3. Your posts are beautifully written, Mr Valentine: a joy to read. I love the image of Bernard Berry trespassing in his search for Roman roads, passing himself off as a man from the Ministry checking on electricity pylons. My brother-in-law, a landscape architect, fancied he discerned a Roman road near Hurstpierpoint, under the scarp of the South Downs. We walked from Brighton and he showed me a slight embankment in a meadow, next to a silent pool in a sacred grove. A few months later in a charity shop I fell upon a book about Roman roads in Sussex. It appears that we had been a few miles off course, yet the genius loci remains...

    1. I sense the opportunity for a story or a Berry-esque study there, Viewpoint: 'Strange Ways At Hurstpierpont.'

  4. Thanks, Michael, made that correction. And to you and Bill E and Bill L for your comments. Mark

  5. The dictionary definitions i find for
    perichoresis are about the Christian trinity.

    In what sense are you ising it here?

    1. In the sense used by Machen in his short story "N"; as of an interpenetration of worlds. Mark

  6. I am profoundly jealous of Mr. Berry. If I could find a way to explore and wander that way and still maintain the bills, I might be tempted.