Posted by: Steve Coplan | October 28, 2006

Stone circles

The little guy is such an ardent fan of “Thomas the Tank Engine” he roused himself from a deep sleep a few weeks ago when somehow it had penetrated his consciousness that he was not in fact in possession of Arthur — one of the proliferating number of Thomas characters. He woke up plaintively calling “Arthur, Arthur” in the middle of the night. Of course, he now owns Arthur and several more Thomas trains since we couldn’t resist the first few times he requested “buy you (insert name of multiple trains whose names he has memorized)”. As a responsible parent (one can aim high), I took it on myself to research Thomas further in the event that the content was having an undue and unwanted influence at a crucial stage of development. Thomas — the fictional anthropomorphic tank locomotive as Wikipedia describes the character — is the creation of a small-town Anglican vicar named WV Awdry who lived in Box, Wiltshire when he wrote the stories. Although the stories extol the virtues of hard work and aspiring to be useful, they are shot through with the class prejudices of his time. The reason why Awdry himself developed an unhealthy obsession with trains is because Box is the location of what was once the longest tunnel in the world on the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol. The Box tunnel was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Although he’s best known as an engineer, Brunel was a crucial figure in the development of the technological age. He was a firm believer in the potential for human ingenuity combined with improvements in technology to improve ordinary people’s lives, as well as the potential for that ingenuity to manifest itself in humans regardless of class and creed.

Box also happens to be the home of Real World Studios, Peter Gabriel’s label. Because PG has not decided to hang up his synth and give up trying to make decent albums like he should have, I’ve slowly lost interest in his music. Looking through his discography, that’s a bit of a shame. Apart from the ‘number albums’, which were each incredibly creative, Us is probably one of the most underrated albums of the 90s. I probably say that because I must have listened to 50 or 60 times over the course of three weeks to belatedly console myself about my first really painful break-up, but still. The Passion soundtrack is similarly underappreciated. The first song that turned me on to Peter Gabriel was Solsbury Hill with its enormous optimism. This was of course several decades before it was used to turn The Shining into a romantic comedy in this cleverly reworked trailer.

The actual Solsbury Hill is also in Wiltshire, which happens to be the location of multiple neolithic monuments not least being Stonehenge (as well as Swindon most recently enjoying broader recognition because of its frequent mention in the ‘The Office’). One of the lesser-known sites is Avebury, visible from Solsbury Hill, which is actually a huge conical earthen mound constructed several thousand years ago for still unknown purposes. Avebury, or more accurately the megalithic remains that the village of Avebury has grown around, are believed to be older than Stonehenge. While they aren’t as spectacular, there are no crowds of freaky pseudo-druids to contend with. Avebury consists of a henge — two circular ditches enclosing an area of 28 acres and and two inner rings of standing stones. At one end is a long barrow and at the other is believed to be a stone circle, with an avenue of standing stones linking the two. Avebury was likely early on in the development of neolithic monuments, and not as immediately as visually spectacular as Stonehenge. Still, it was only in the mid-1700s when it was recognized as a major neolithic site by William Stukeley, another Anglican vicar who went to distinguish himself as both an ‘antiquarian’ and for reviving Druidism. As it happens, the druids were Celts, and whoever built Stonehenge predated their arrival in Britain by some time.

I have my good friend Eytan to thank for my discovery of Avebury which we visited together. Eytan (who had immigrated to Australia ten years before) passed me in the street in London, with neither of us actually knowing the other was living in the city. I could have just carried on walking when he walked past, and simply ignored the fact that this individual walking past me in Notting Hill bore a striking resemblance to Eytan and I would have probably eventually lost contact with a great friend. Instead, I turned around and called his name. Life, for better or for worse, is the accumulation of small decisions like that.


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