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May Madness - a Powysian Tale!

Posted Monday, July 9, 2007

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May Madness – A Powysian Tale:

Following his philosophy and emulating Llewelyn Powys can be a dangerous practice – and can sometimes lead to a humbling adventure, as I have learned to my own acute embarrassment.

Llewelyn championed the philosophy of Epicurus, (amongst others) - although by contrast the forced hardships he endured owing to the nature of his illness during his shortened life could hardly be described as Epicurean!

There were times when the nature of his illness collided with the nature of his Epicurean hedonism, and it usually meant trouble; witness his walk over the Furkha Pass, and the `injudicious sun-worshipping’ during the long, hot summer of 1933, when walking naked over the downs brought on a severe haemorrhage which almost killed him.

He was variously described as `weird’, `eccentric’, `hair-brained’, and even `a crackpot’ by certain commentators in the press of the day, and even today an esteemed literary newspaper columnist claims that he `finds it impossible to read Llewelyn’ because he `doesn’t understand him’.

So I suppose being a follower of Epicurus and Llewelyn makes me an ideal candidate for double-jeopardy, and in light of the new government legislation and the changed law, perhaps I need to be more careful in my `following’, and more `judicious’ in my sun-worshipping!

I recall two amusing incidents; one some years ago during the final three months of my ministry, which, emboldened by quotes from Llewelyn’s passionate denunciation of orthodox Christianity in Glory of Life, The Pathetic Fallacy and Impassioned Clay, I basically spent denouncing orthodox religion and preaching my newly found Now That the Gods are Dead rationalism from the pulpit!

OK, call me a weird, eccentric hair-brained crackpot if you like, but it was a hot Sunday afternoon in August and I was relaxing. I had an evening service at 6-30pm, and was girding my loins by reading passages from Glory of Life, whilst lying naked in a hammock strung between two apple trees in the manse garden - when suddenly three shadows fell across me and a familiar voice shrieked, `Oh my God!’

I had forgotten the 3-30pm appointment with the young couple who were coming about the wedding - whom my wife had innocently shown through to the garden, where she said I was `swatting-up for the evening service’!

After they’d gone, she berated me about `decency’ and `decorum’ and after warning me that no good would come from my wanton ways, I recall her screaming at me in exasperation, “For God’s sake, you are not Llewelyn Powys!”

The other incident occurred in the May of my 60th year – and again Llewelyn was to blame.

I was in a remote part of the Lake District, taking my annual turn for a week looking after the family farm, and helping with the late-spring lambs.

One memorable morning I was up before dawn, and sitting in the garden eating breakfast and watching the sunrise whilst reading Llewelyn’s essay on `Style’. *(`Llewelyn Powys - A Selection’, edited by Kenneth Hopkins, MacDonald, 1952: p158-160).

I was inspired to read that, “True style has nothing to do with imparting information lucidly…..A perfect style is the perfect expression of a man’s secret identity….The style of a man is a direct result of his passion for life”.

Llewelyn further advises that the best way for a man to acquire style is to `live intensely’.

Well, I reasoned, you don’t live intensely by sitting in front of a computer screen banging a keyboard year after year.

You live intensely by taking chances, grasping opportunities and achieving ambitions, by reaching difficult goals….. by climbing mountains!

I paused to reflect and glanced up at the cairn which towered 1200 feet high on the mountain ridge above. For 32 years I had gazed up annually at that pile of stones atop Torver Commons and promised myself that one day I would add my own stone to it’s centuries-old pile.

I’d made the attempt twice, first in 1979 and again with my brother in 1984, but failed both times. Now, looking down the valley to where an oak sappling marked the spot where his ashes were laid two years previously, I regretted that we had never made the climb to the summit, and recalling that last, failed attempt – and Llewelyn’s inspiring advice, decided there and then that I was going to do it. I was so desperate to acquire style!

The kitchen clock was just striking six as I laced up my boots and set off from the farm, carrying my Nikon and the book with me, and intending to take some shots of Lake Coniston and to read the short essay on `Style’ again at the cairn.

The going was hard and very steep; above the tree line the scree slopes were treacherous, my dodgy knee kept giving way and I had to stop and rest.

I read about `true style’: “It is the scent of the herb, the mist over the blackberry hedge, the soul of the man. It is begotten of the senses, it is the quintessential feeling, the quintessential thought, of those fleet messengers finding unity at last in the person of the being they serve. All the nights that a man has experienced, clouding in so mysteriously over the native earth; all the dawns that he has witnessed with wakeful eyes, have engendered it. The taste of wheaten bread, the taste of milk and wine, has caused it to grow. The sound of church bells heard in a wild place far from village or town has impelled words to dance like children in a May Day procession.”

My `May-day procession’ up the mountainside didn’t exactly dance, but eventually I made it and at noon exactly, with a wonderful sense of triumph, I finally stood beside the cairn!

It was over eight feet high and at least five feet in diameter at the base, and as I placed my stone on the top I gazed around in wonderment at the vast expanse of beauty around me. Not a soul in sight and completely alone in this magnificent landscape, I literally felt on top of the world.

The views were breathtaking and the experience so tremendously exhilarating, that simply standing there in the hot May sunshine suddenly didn’t seem enough. I wanted more.

I fancy at that moment I experienced what Llewelyn often described as `an ecstasy’ for I suddenly had the notion to celebrate by emulating him and standing naked in the sun, so joyfully took off my clothes and placed them at the base of the cairn. Taking the camera, I walked to the edge of the precipice and took pictures of the distant lake, before raising my face towards the glory of the sun and raising my arms in praise and thanksgiving for this moment of heightened conscious awareness.

I decided to take a shot of the cairn - as proof to members of my family that I had actually made it up there, and looked around for the best vantage point.

I wanted to capture the impression of height and so climbed down to a point about forty yards away and about twenty feet below the cairn, and crouching down beside a large rock, lined up and took my shot.

Just then, to my absolute horror and astonishment, two heads appeared over the brow of the hill, and a young couple out hill-walking slowly emerged to stand beside the cairn!

They stood admiring the view and as they turned their gaze in my direction, I quickly ducked down behind the rock and hid myself in embarrassment, hoping they hadn’t seen me.

When I dared peep out, I could see that the man had noticed my clothes and the book, and was pointing them out and saying something to his female companion. They both walked to the edge and peered carefully down, probably, I assumed, expecting to see a naked corpse on the rocks far below.

After a minute or two, they straightened up and stood scanning the landscape, as if trying to decide what to do.

I fervently hoped they would go away!

But I watched in alarm as they walked back to the cairn; the man picked up the book and together they examined it and after further discussion the man unslung his backpack and gingerly began picking up my clothes to put them in his haversack!

There was only one thing for it, and just as my trousers were about to vanish before my eyes, I found a courage born of blind panic and sheer necessity, and raising myself from my hiding place and waving frantically to attract their attention, cried, “Er, excuse me - those are mine!”

The startled couple froze, looked at each other, and promptly fled, leaving the clothes in a neatly folded pile at the base of the cairn, with the book placed on top, and fortunately, I escaped with my dignity intact, but it was a close call!

As I said, following his philosophy and emulating Llewelyn Powys can be a dangerous practice - and if by `living intensely’ a man can `acquire a perfect style and a perfect expression of his secret identity’, then given my experiences `weird, eccentric hair-brained crackpot’ might well be an accurate description!

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