Our second (and final) extract from Rob Young’s book Electric Eden, which was published this week by Faber & Faber.
In Rudyard Kipling’s classic Edwardian children’s book Puck of Pook’s Hill, a faery apparition casts a spell over two children by waving a clump of oak, ash and thorn leaves across their faces. They enter a time-travelling trance in which historical figures – Romans, Domesday-era knights, feudal barons – manifest themselves and spin rambling yarns of their exploits, battles, treachery, heroism and derring-do, all of which have taken place across the very land that now forms the kids’ adventure playground. This vertical exploded view of England’s pastures is Edwardian psychogeography, designed to instil a sense of the heroic history that has cut its furrows deep in the soil, sowing the seeds of a national psyche. Ushered there by Puck’s cunning wood magic, the greenwood becomes the gateway to an idealised England where the imagination runs naked and free, until the time comes to swish the oak, ash and thorn twigs once more, awaken from the English dreaming and return to . . . well, in Kipling’s children’s case, no doubt a piping hot tea of crumpets and scones, lavished upon them by a servile nanny.
Kipling died in 1936, but had he remained alive another twenty-seven years he would have heard Harold Wilson’s words to the Labour Party Conference of 1963, a wake-up call to a nation in danger of sleepwalking into global obsolescence. ‘The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [technological/ scientific] revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry . . .’ Uttered at the beginning of the year in which The Beatles released their first number-one single, the speech signalled a new British selfconsciousness as a metropolitan society whose successful destiny lay in skewing the balance towards its urban population and industrial prowess.
The disconnect between country and city forms the basis of some of Britain’s most deeply entrenched schisms. For all the migration of the nation’s rural workforce into British cities as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the landscape retains its grip on the collective imagination, offering the promise of tranquillity, open space, freedom from responsibility; a rustic souvenir of permanence and stability. Britons treasure their shrinking countryside like a family heirloom wrapped in silk, locked away in the secret compartment of a writing table, protected from foreign invasion for most of a millennium. Britain’s natural habitats are especially fragile; truly unpopulated wildernesses are few and far between. But there exist several contrasting versions of what the countryside means. For the aristocracy, the country estate is the rightful inheritance, a patch of Edenic acreage whose ancestral ownership is an inalienable right sanctioned by history and blood. But for the middle-class offspring who reached maturity in the mid-1960s, brought up in the garden cities, suburbs and leafy districts of post-war Britain, the pull was often felt in both directions. The city was where middle-class professional aspirations were mostly realised. But for anyone doubtful about the prospect of becoming a wage slave or civil servant and encouraged towards the life of the imagination by art, literature and music, retreating to the countryside – still, in the 1960s, hardly transformed from its turn of-the-century appearance by industrial-scale agriculture, where there was still enough darkness to view the stars, hear birdsong and wake to the distant tolling of rural church bells – was the most desirable way to drop out. These were people for whom Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, with its exhortation to get back to the garden, was not yet a hippy cliché, but a genuinely workable alternative. Breaking out beyond London’s green belt was, and remains, like crossing the border into another country altogether.
Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden of 1968, the landscape of British rock blossomed under a wave of reforestation. Simply listing group names from the period 1969–72 builds up a composite image of this Arcadian topography, native woodnotes running wild in a putative pre industrial time zone. Forest, Sunforest, Silver Birch, Fuchsia, Oak, Trees (second album: The Garden of Jane Delawney). The Strawbs’ psychedelic folk masterpiece, From the Witchwood. Magna Carta’s yellowed Seasons, packaged with mock-medieval illuminated script and a posy of evergreen leaves and summer flowers. There was a group called Midwinter, and another called Oberon, public schoolboys who made one obscure album of eldritch folk called A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Folk-inflected medievalists traded under names like Dulcimer, Parchment, Madrigal, Caedmon, Amazing Blondel, Wooden O and The Druids. Lindisfarne placed themselves on the mystical isle off the coast of Northumberland; Irish duo Tír na nÓg summoned the mythical Celtic land of eternal youth; their fellow countrymen Loudest Whisper invoked Celtic legends on Children of Lír, as did Deep Purple on The Book of Taliesyn. In this sylvan setting, where Tim Hart and Maddy Prior celebrated Summer Solstice, groups ran amuck like mythical beasts: Chimera, Gryphon, Comus, Mr Fox, unicorns (on the third album by Tyrannosaurus Rex, as well as John Renbourn’s Lady and the Unicorn LP). Through the trees, glimpses of a quaint antiquarian architecture: Tudor Lodge, Kippington Lodge, Fairfield Parlour, Tintern Abbey, Fotheringay. The rustic vibe was also perpetuated by record labels adopting names like Harvest, Dawn and Dandelion. As a memento mori, there was even a duo called Fresh Maggots.
The nurseries of the late-1960s folk-rock boom may have been predominantly city-based – London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Canterbury, Cambridge – but the young blades that grew there all inclined towards the country sun. Their songs read like a recipe book for rural enlightenment with elemental ingredients: summer, autumn, winter, spring; sunshine, rain, water, snow, trees; seas stormy and becalmed; rivers stagnant or in full spate. Cities bleed the soul, inhabited by squares, losers, clockwatchers, The Man. The city scythes away humanity, nature replants it. Sandy Denny’s ‘The Pond and the Stream’, which speaks of the city screening out the natural world, encapsulates the mood. These observations are not original, but they recur insistently throughout folk-rock’s infant years, affecting everything from the lyrical content to the staging of photo shoots, part of a mass experiment to foster an organic alternative to Wilson’s white heat.
Read the previous extract from Electric Eden HERE.
Special thanks to Kate Burton at Faber & Faber for making this serialisation possible.