Sunday, 29 August 2010

The road to Eden

Every year I like to ‘get back to the garden’ by spending a weekend at the Shrewsbury folk festival, which I've just got back from. Granted, I only camp out for one night and someone else kindly puts up the tent for me. But still I like to venture out at first light along with the other alpha male hunter-gatherers and go foraging at every corner of the campsite for the last copy of the Observer. We return to our caves triumphant only to find that we have earned the displeasure of the womenfolk by buying 4 copies of the same newspaper.

These thoughts about getting it together in the country have also been prompted by my reading of Rob Young’s excellent new book, Electric Eden, which is partly a twentieth-century history of folk music and partly an exploration of the idea of an English rural idyll. It begins with the unforgettable account of the long-forgotten – then remembered again through a mobile phone advert – folk singer Vashti Bunyan, who in 1968 set off on an 18 month trek along Albion’s roads, in a gypsy cart pulled by her horse Bess, heading for the remote Hebridean island of Berneray.

This chapter includes this eloquent summary of the anti-mythology of the British road:

‘The land mass of the British Isles is not large enough to have generated a culture of the open road. Leaving aside such one-off terrace chants as Tom Robinson’s “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, the culture of British travel is more commonly linked to the sense of a quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration. In that sense, the British road is a road to the interior, of the imagination rather than a physical coverage of distance. Its poetic energy is supplied by lanes, forest spurs and hillside tracks, not motorways and slip roads.’

Young also reveals that the Beatles song ‘The long and winding road’ was inspired by Paul McCartney’s purchase of a country retreat on the Mull of Kintyre. It is ‘the B842 from Kintyre to Campbeltown rendered in treacle’.

I loved the names of the more obscure folk groups from the sixties and seventies, themselves redolent of the Edenic ideal: Midwinter, Oberon, Dulcimer, Madrigal, Amazing Blondel, Wooden O, The Druids, Fresh Maggots, Alphane Moon, Our Glassie Azoth, The Owl Service, Plough Myth International, The Straw Bear Band, Stormcrow, Tinkerscuss and Trembling Bells.


  1. It sounds like there are some good analogies in that new book between our road system, our sense of journeying, and the rural idyllism (if that is even a word?!) that inhabits our folk music.

    Someone just gave me an amazing book called 'The Countryside and how to enjoy it' and the chapter, 'Animal and Plant Life' opens with the following declaration:

    'The British Countryside has been compared with a garden laid out on a vast scale by some master hand. Perhaps this comparison was inspired by the colourful pattern of the scene which exhibits infinite variety and infinite beauty, within its relatively confined area.'

    The book goes on in a later chapter on travel, to admonish those who would SPEED through this beautiful place from one point to another, and asserts that 'the shortest route is probably not the most pleasant, and the quickest mode of travel is not one that will yield the maximum enjoyment from the countryside'

    Your post reminded me of this book - published 1948 - as it is further evidence of how we think about 'this green and pleasant land,' and how this mythology leads to music-making, and a certain sort of quiet adventure.

  2. And then there is the shared Festival problem of where to squat/lean/kneel/lie/slouch to read the 4 copies of The Observer and the fond memories of the armchair back at home.

  3. Fantastic Post! I am loving it!! Will be back later to study some much more.