A Canterbury Tale: Spiralling through time with Matthew Watkins’ You Are Here
A review of You Are Here: A Biography of a Moment is a review of time and place. We’re at Samhain as I write this, the moon is waxing gibbous and will be full three nights hence and I am in Canterbury in a tangle of streets midway between the parishes and the bells of St Dunstans and St Stephens, two of the many saints who appear in the book. Time has moved us on from the summer. Matthew’s book was launched in the summer on a very particular date. The launch was itself a part of the book. Many of the folk at the launch were characters in the book.
Or were the characters in the book present at the launch?
I have been finding ways to express my understanding of what I take to be a very beautiful – if a little scary – and certainly weird word: the imaginal. Matthew’s book is splendidly imaginal. Can I describe it? I’ll try.
I have lived in Canterbury since 2005, having moved here from Exeter (via Aberdeen). Early on, twice or thrice, I glimpsed across busy roads a face I recognised, and the next time I seized the moment and asked whether he had lived in Exeter. Yes, and we realised we had shared experiences around a road protest community in the mid-1990s. We both recalled the fire labyrinth at Fairmile and the drums of the Dongas.
Since that reencounter we have shared many more magical experiences, especially walks, always with deep contemplation of place and time. Ancient hedges marking ancient borders. Old oak with bulging bark. Young chestnut recently coppiced. Hops in the hedges. Place names. Churches. Relics. Land ownership. The lords and the bishops. The barons and the folk. The saints and the sinners. The musicians – always the musicians.
I walked with Matthew the day before he gave a talk for the UKC Psychedelic Society on the subject of retro-causality. The flow of time is not as constant nor as unidirectional as we may suppose. Time does funny things. Time is weird. Matthew told me that he was writing a book about time and place. The place being Canterbury. The time being a great spiralling galaxy spinning closer and closer and quicker and quicker into a vortex moment of space-time… A cosmic history of Canterbury. Or something like that. I forget the exact words he used while we tramped through the trees.
When the book was launched, 15th August 2017, in the suitably weird Egyptianesque Old Synagogue in one of the city centre’s old wobbly streets, I understood that the launch was the third anniversary of that climactic moment in space-time. The evening was another event horizon, another selected nodule in the grid of space-time, another centre of the cyclone.
I started reading You Are Here deep into that night and the next two or three nights, in my bouncy armchair, following the cycle of history in this funny corner of the Universe, of the Galaxy, of the Solar System, of the Earth, of Europe, of Britain. This funny corner of Kent… That Saturday afternoon I ignored my family, my brow furrowed, reading quickly, my pulse quickening, my bouncing on the bouncy chair increasingly agitated, as I circled closer and closer, quicker and quicker (or is it slower and slower?) towards the plughole. Closer and closer. Closer and closer. Bounce bounce bounce – ‘Daddy! Stop bouncing on that chair!’– closer and closer, and…
Time freezes in a state of rapture tense and magical, as the ant professor – the hero of the tale – meets the goddess-giant outside the temple at the centre of the labyrinth. Ecstasy – ex stasis – a spellbound state.
The reading of the climax at the heart of the whirlpool is itself a climax at the heart of the whirlpool.
…and at last the hammer strikes the bell and the moment is passed. We are through. Time cools and curls away.
I put the book down, dazed, and stood up and explained to my daughters that I had just been through an extraordinary experience – that I was still going through an extraordinary experience.
I am still going through an extraordinary experience, the retelling of the reading of the narrative once again reanimates that climax at the heart of the whirlpool.
Not many books do that.
That moment of rapture that Matthew chose from hazard at high noon on the 15th August 2014 has rippled outwards to create and synch with other moments of rapture: the days he and ‘the girl standing by the tree, dressed for winter’ had experienced and then recalled and then written and rewritten and drawn and redrawn and drafted and redrafted the text that we are reading… The moments of reading as we – the readers – spin closer towards the centre… The moments of retelling, like this… The moments of reading the retelling, like this… The onward convergence of inspiration. And so on.
And the musicians – always the musicians.
That is part of the mystery revealed at the heart of the spiral, as revealed to the ant professor. There is no centre to the labyrinth – or better put everything is the centre. But still there is no centre, as Zeno taught us it will always be divisible – the centre will rush up and unfold and unfold and unfold. Forever.
I’m a reader of Borges: I love that stuff…
There is a mystery revealed throughout the long historical arch away from the centre, back through space-time, through the recent years, the Blair days, the Major days, the Thatcher days, back through the Seventies and Sixties, the Edwardian and Victorian, the Stuarts and the Tudors, the Normans, Saxons, Vikings, Romans, Celts, pre-Celts, bears, mammoths, tides, dinosaurs, the slow birth of the chalk downlands, bubbling swamps, global storms, oceans, boiling rock, molecules, atoms, the energy at the centre – that baffling anti-climax at the beginning of space-time.
I suppose it is the mystery of companionship. All of us, everyone and everything, are part of this mystery play. All the dramas of today have been played out before, on micro and macro levels (although as Matthew reveals, the macro is micro to a bigger macro – and the micro is macro to a smaller micro – endlessly). All the dramas are intertwined. And the book tells these crazy tales, these crazy dramas, beginning at the beginning of cosmic history, and ending in an intense moment right here and right now. What happens today happened yesterday and will happen tomorrow.
What I feel about the imaginal is precisely this – we are part of that crazy story. The drama is unfolding right around us and the stories intertwine with such layered complexity that the distinctions become blurry between text and meta-text, history and myth, fact and fiction, the living and the dead. Simply through living our lives we play out those stories, and so the stories of the ancestors are our stories and our stories are the stories of our descendants.
Matthew leads us on that merry dance through streets and past landmarks that are long familiar to me, pointing out the symbols visible everywhere. Symbols from the past that are potent today. The symbols take on their deeper significance as soul-signals across the ages.
So Matthew interlaces his Canterbury Tales, splicing one story with another and with another. Everything is entangled, no tale has a real beginning nor end. The pilgrimage continues through this city, an extraordinary city full of ruins.
But remember – a ruined temple is still a temple.
People gather because a spot is sacred and in so doing make that spot sacred. There is nothing sacred without the will to make sacred, and this has been happening for generations and generations, whether in a lofty nave, the corner of an ale-slopped pub or around a smoky fire in the woodland. And the musicians – always the musicians.
A gathering in a sacred spot touches on the sacredness of the spot and makes the spot sacred. Sacredness comes in all shapes and sizes: a Victorian cottage on a wobbly corner of a wobbly street vibrates with significance in You Are Here as a home of musicians at different times of its history – a home of music – a sacred spot. Obscure corners of obscure buildings in obscure streets enter the story, whether as a site of martyrdom, music or madness. This is the stuff of poetry – places singing out their stories – how a certain building survived the Reformation, where the river was forded by the Romans, why a pub has its name, where a certain band once rehearsed, where a certain band once performed.
Any good history book can cast that spell. Any good history book reflects also on the present. Yet Matthew’s book drips with the present from the most ancient because the present is where it is all gathered – a very precise present on a calendar (which is a clock). Yet the narrative does not burst through a barrier between the past and the present. It just all gathers up, pacing the moments of space-time into heart-stopping stasis. And in so doing the present is integrally folded into the past and we become participants in the drama.
In this way my own stories are folded into the many other stories – I find myself a pilgrim telling my tale, adding to the other tales. My traipses through the woods and fields, my kinships, my kids, my friendships and conversations and drumming and drinking and teaching and learning and participating in countless magical gatherings – it is all entangled in the tale. This is that sense of the imaginal, of the magic, enacted by this book.
Yet not all is wonderful in the imaginal and the magical. Darkness can also be terrifying.
And so a new tale wrote itself into the text that is not found in the book.
Three musicians, three young men, three friends, whose songs are the book’s soundtrack, died in August. The eerie beauty of the book launch in the weird pyramid-and-obelisk chapel was flipped a couple of weeks later – as the same folk re-gathered – dazed and very confused – in a pub in the centre of town to process the sudden and awful news.
The tale is bad – their songs cut short – their pilgrimage aborted far too early. It can’t be spun into a tale of magic and wonder even though it is a tale of magic and wonder. The sadness of that moment ripples on through space-time, and the shrine of love dedicated to the three lads remains by the library steps on the High Street. Their stories merge with the stories of the generations of music-making pilgrims who have traipsed these lanes and temples and woods. Their stories are written into the narrative of the city. The stories roll on…
The three friends were pilgrims on that spiral of space-time, singing their songs at the frontiers of consciousness where the land meets the sea. And now they’re at sea. Safe crossing, shipmates…
You Are Here is an astonishing book. It is a book of history that makes history. It is crafted with mathematical precision, tuned carefully to the scales of time. It is crafted with poetry and with devotion.
It is of course deeply significant to the readers who inhabit the highways and byways of Canterbury, but it is no more limited by locality than Joyce’s Dublin. Canterbury, like Dublin, is the theatre for a universal drama.
And in the same way that Joyce stalled time for that day of rapture in Dublin on 16th June 1904, so You Are Here spirals down into a specific moment of time in a specific location whilst trailing cosmic history in its wake.
And in the same way that Joyce launched Ulysses on a particular date (his birthday), so You Are Here is locked in specific and meaningful nodes of time, marking the day, marking the time, defining and defined by the moment.
And in the same way that the first thousand copies of Ulysses were passed from hand to hand (one reached Borges in Buenos Aires) causing ripples in cultural and social space-time, so Matthew’s book has flowed out from its central bell-strike, stimulating thoughts, ideas and fireside chats. I feel I have participated in something great. I feel I am participating in something great.
And we are in Samhaim. The moon is waxing gibbous and will soon be full.
And the musicians – always the musicians…