Richard King’s The Lark Ascending, published by Faber, is a lyrical exploration of how Britain’s history and identity has been shaped by the mysterious relationship between music and nature – and is our Book of the Month for June. Emma Warren reviews.
There aren’t many writers who can authoritatively bring together Vaughan Williams, early ‘90s free parties, nature-loving fascists, Dylan Thomas, the women of Greenham Common and Stonehenge. Richard King weaves these apparently disparate threads together in his brilliant and important book about the relationship between music and the British landscape.
King’s follow-up to the sublime Original Rockers begins in 1921 when Vaughan Williams premiered ‘The Lark Ascending’, although really, it begins with the great rupture of World War I to which Williams’ composition was a response. It ends in 2001 when foot and mouth disease caused over six million cattle, sheep and pigs to be culled. In between, King expertly tracks the great changes in the British countryside and overlays this with musical movements from classical through folk, jazz, ambient and electronic.
He is a knowledgable and engaging guide, accompanying us through this complex terrain. He picks out routes and vantage points that allow us to see the differences between the way Cecil Sharp fronted a revival of traditional folk song and dance and the way Oswald Mosley’s Nazi sympathisers loved the land, quoting Nazi theorists who believed that the earth should be garlanded with traditional songs and dances.
King’s sympathies are clearly with those who want to garland the earth with music and culture that reflects reality as experienced by people at the time. He brings us the soundtrack to Kes, Donovan’s LSD-frilled folk; acid house’s al fresco parties; the songs sung by and inspired by the women of Greenham Common and the way that Eno and Gavin Bryers sublimated the natural world into their music. A section on the New Age Travellers depicts the harrowing violence enacted on men, women and small children in June 1985 when an operation to stop a free festival at Stonehenge descended into unrestrained police brutality.
This is the tension that powers the book; between those who imagine the land as temporarily theirs and connected to all other lands, and those who wish to enclose land or identity, to own it. King brings to life the relationship between soil and a kind of soul, showing how groups of people have consistently used the soil as a backdrop or resource for their particular brand of soulfulness, whether that’s music, dance, visual art – or the darker arts that regularly persuade our species toward fascism. In reality, of course, this is all human imagination, projection. The soil doesn’t care what we do. It’s simply a mirror, albeit a muddy one.
The Lark Ascending is written with a deep understand of rural culture, histories and economics, of who owns what, and why. King makes it clear that we have collectively gathered in rural locations throughout time, despite the authorities and the 0.5% of the population who own half of rural England and Wales. He describes the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District, in 1932 and explains how this opened up the way for organisations like the Ramblers Association to campaign for access to the countryside. He takes us to the famous four-day free party at Castlemorton, when between 25,000 and 40,000 people gathered for a long weekend of raving – and explains how this led to the Criminal Justice Bill.
For King, the countryside isn’t separate from the city. It bleeds into the city, giving urban dwellers something to project onto. The city seeps into the countryside when city folk leave the concrete and the corner shops and head out into the fields or the lakes – as King describes happening with 1990s loch-side raves outside Glasgow run by club promoters Pure, events attended by the brothers behind Boards of Canada. This is a book about the country, written by someone who understands the city, and crucially, who also likes the city.
Many books have playlists but like Original Rockers, this book is a playlist. The music moves through each chapter like fragments of a song remembered on a walk. It’s an essential and moving read that digs music history and culture out of the landscape like a chalk horse on a hill.
The Lark Ascending is out now and available here, priced £14.99.
Richard King and Emma Warren will discuss The Lark Ascending on our stage at this year’s Port Eliot Festival, where Emma will also be discussing her own book Make Some Space. You can see our full stage lineup here.