Here’s the kind of rambling story that an old man might tell you (as you were politely trying to sit at another table or swap bus seats) . . . Anyway, as a layman I’ve had an interest in ritual and visionary magic for years, it goes with the territory. I’ve created a sense of it in a few books: the first two, ‘Last Days’ and then again in ‘Under a Watchful Eye’. I have never, however, knowingly practised it, though I would have made a good Roman because of my sensitivity to omens, augurs, signs and portents.
Now, I knew that the writer Robert Graves lived in the village of Galmpton, about half a mile from our home, for a period of time in the twentieth Century. The village we border, Agatha Christie used as a setting in several books and the next one along, Galmpton, was once home to Graves. A beautiful place, and between Galmpton and Stoke Gabriel, from where I’ve been entering the Dart in a kayak this summer, you can still feel a strong sense of rural England between the wars and earlier. Anyway, I was excited to discover these literary connections when we arrived four years ago (though I struggled to find any local information on what Graves wrote when living there). I digress …
This summer while reading about paganism in the British Isles, I came across a long section on Graves’s book, ‘The White Goddess’. With the exception of Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’, ‘The White Goddess’ was probably the most influential work for modern pagans, and taken seriously by academics and historians as a new interpretation of pre-Christian beliefs and culture – in some ways, a repudiation of the Church that began with the Romantics. However, I now discover that Graves actually wrote ‘The White Goddess’, as well as ‘The Golden Fleece’ and ‘Seven Days in New Crete’ (his literary explorations of paganism), while living in Galmpton during the second world war. So he wrote ‘The White Goddess’ less than a mile from where I sleep … I was elated. His life at Vale House has also been described as ‘chaotic and rather Bohemian’. I liked that too.
Going back another 30 years, my Dad gave me a copy of ‘The White Goddess’ when I was a teenager and said, “You should read this”. I never did, and after a dozen house-moves over the years, in which I gave over half of my book collection to charities, several times, I was certain that I no longer owned the book. But, I suddenly wanted to read it in a way that I hadn’t as a teenager, and made ready to buy a new copy.
However, after reading this essay on the book, as I passed through the conservatory, where my non-fiction books are shelved, I immediately saw the cream and aqua-marine spine of the Faber and Faber copy of ‘The White Goddess’ that my Dad gave me over 30 years ago (did it see me first?).
Somehow, I’d kept the book. It was amongst my poetry collections. But how? I pruned my books so carefully when we moved here and probably gave close to 500 books to charity. I didn’t want to fill our new home with hundreds of books that I would never read again, or probably wouldn’t read (though thousands survived the cull and now line the walls …)
Anyway, I sat down with this old copy of ‘The White Goddess’, on the patio outside my office, bathed in golden sunlight. And it was one of those days we’ve had this year where the very air might have seeped from a poet’s dream, and as I pondered the discovery of where this great book was written, and so close to where I live and sleep, and I marveled at how my old unread copy of ‘The White Goddess’ had refused to be cast away for three decades … a large red butterfly landed on my chest and stayed a while.
Highly unusual, they never land on me. But there it sat, calmly, and just rested. I even spoke to it. I’m holding my old book that was written only a few hundred metres away from where I sat, with this gorgeous, fragile creature resting on my chest like a blood-red carnation, and I felt a sense of well-being and elation that made me giddy. One of those curious episodes of “wholeness” I rarely get now but experienced as a child as often as runny noses.
I could explain the entire episode rationally, but I was left with a sense that this is how real magic works. It’s subtle. How something is planted early in one’s life and then activates much later, during a specific time and in certain circumstances, when you’re finally ready and receptive and in the right place. Blink and miss it.
Oh, where have you all gone? I was just saying . . . The White Goddess . . . and . . . oh, never mind. Has anyone seen my hat?[That’s his house and my talismanic copy of ‘The White Goddess’, a magically-charged item, I’ll have you know].