When I Set Out for Lyonnesse

Commuting days until retirement: 405

View from Tintagel Castle

The stuff of myths: our view from Tintagel Castle

Another week’s escape from commuting, as we visit a part of the Cornish coast I haven’t been to before – the northeast stretch around Tintagel and Boscastle. The cliff walks are breathtaking, there are magnificent deserted beaches accessible only after a steep scramble down rocky paths, and the area is stiff with historical and mythical associations.
Lyonnesse is the kingdom of legend where King Arthur supposedly held his court. In writings of the past there is much confusion about its location, but it has mainly been associated with Cornwall, and sometimes the Scilly Isles. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, names Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception. Along with many other sandalled, bare-legged tourists we clambered up the hill to the ruined medieval castle, and from the atmosphere and views began to appreciate why it’s a place that has generated legend.

A meeting

St Juliots

St Juliot’s church

But my title is borrowed from the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. We had arrived at St Juliot’s, a small church outside Boscastle that we’d heard was worth visiting when I suddenly realised, having read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography a year or two ago, that this was a highly significant place in Hardy’s life. It was here that, in 1870, as a young architectural assistant with dreams of being a writer, he had come to draw up plans for restoration to the church. Emma Gifford was the sister-in-law of the incumbent priest and was living in the rectory. We are told that she opened the door to him on his first arrival, and a piece of paper bearing a poem he’d been working on during the journey was sticking out of his pocket. This immediately attracted Emma. Love ensued, and he became a regular visitor to the rectory (a full day’s  journey from his native Dorset, Tomalin notes, involving four trains and a 16 mile ride in a trap).
The poem whose title I have borrowed celebrates that first trip – it’s short and jubilant in tone, and has him returning “with magic in my eyes”. Although not published until after Emma’s death, the manuscript is dated 1870, the time of the visit.


Emma Gifford

Emma Gifford

Young Hardy

Thomas Hardy around the time he met Emma

They were married in London in 1874. With Hardy’s career as a novelist taking off, Emma was at first strongly appreciative and encouraging of his writing. It has been debated how far his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes was autobiographical, and whether the character of the heroine Elfride Swancourt is based on Emma. While the setting is no doubt drawn from life – Elfride is the daughter of a parson living near the sea, and visited by admiring young men – the parallels are not otherwise close. But there is one surprising scene for the time, where on a coast walk, one of Elfride’s men friends slips on a cliff edge and is trapped, dangling dangerously. However, concealed by the clifftop, Elfride is enterprisingly removing her voluminous underwear and tearing it into strips to make a rope with which she rescues him. They embrace, but overcome with embarrassment at being naked beneath her dress, she flees home alone. Quite apart from the more obvious preoccupations of a young Victorian man, perhaps there is something symbolic of Hardy’s own fortunes here.

Later in life, when Hardy’s success as a novelist had become assured, however, Emma became more disenchanted with his writing. She had nursed some literary ambitions of her own, and perhaps there was an element of resentment. But relations became strained and distant in general, and she eventually retreated to an attic room in Max Gate, the Dorset house Hardy had built, and spent much of her time there.

Memorial plaque

Memorial to Emma

In 1912 she died suddenly, and Hardy, overcome with remorse and regret, seemed fall in love with her a second time, this time in retrospect. To the right is my photo of the memorial plaque to Emma he placed in the church. By all accounts Hardy was already close to Florence, his second wife, before Emma’s death, but his posthumous love affair with Emma persisted long afterwards, sometimes to Florence’s irritation.

An engraved window

Memorial window

A part of the memorial window to Thomas Hardy

A few years ago a window was commissioned for the church, to commemorate Hardy’s association with it. Rather than being stained glass, the window is engraved, delicately and beautifully, by the late artist, Simon Whistler. I found it almost impossible to capture its quality in a photo; here is my best attempt, which just shows a part. You can see Hardy’s name in the centre pane, surrounding an image of the church  itself, and the date of his death on the right, under a representation of his architect’s tools. As you view the whole window, symbols and episodes from Hardy’s life shimmer against the backdrop of the graveyard outside, ghostly traces of the events of a century and a half ago.

The window also bears quotations from one or two poems inspired by his experiences in this part of Cornwall. In later life Hardy was independently wealthy from his novels, and after Emma’s death he turned to poetry in a way that he hadn’t before. In his collection Poems 1912-1913 he gives vent to his regret and hopeless longing. In a bottom corner of the memorial window are two lines from one of the most well known of them – Beeny Cliff. The window also depicts the figure of Emma on the cliff, astride her pony. Beeny Cliff itself is just a mile or so from the church, and some of our walks along the coastal path took us over it.

The poem made an impression on me when I first read it, before knowing anything about the context. If you are not keen on old fashioned romanticism, or a strong formal structure, then it’s probably not for you. But I have always had a soft spot for it: I like the way the emotion is powerfully conveyed by the insistent metre, and the poem contains many examples of the idiosyncratic but precise and evocative vocabulary often found in Hardy’s work. Here’s the whole poem:

Beeny Cliff

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.

– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

View from Beeny Cliff

“That wandering western sea” as seen from Beeny Cliff

Consciousness 3 – The Adventures of a Naive Dualist

Commuting days until retirement: 408

A long gap since my last post: I can only plead lack of time and brain-space (or should I say mind-space?). Anyhow, here we go with Consciousness 3:


A high point for English Christianity in the 50s: the Queen’s coronation. I can remember watching it on a relative’s TV at the age of 5

I think I must have been a schoolboy, perhaps just a teenager, when I was first aware that the society I had been born into supported two entirely different ways of looking at the world. Either you believed that the physical world around us, sticks, stones, fur, skin, bones – and of course brains – was all that existed; or you accepted one of the many varieties of belief which insisted that there was more to it than that. My mental world was formed within the comfortable surroundings of the good old Church of England, my mother and father being Christians by conviction and by social convention, respectively. The numinous existed in a cosy relationship with the powers-that-were, and parents confidently consigned their children’s dead pets to heaven, without there being quite such a Santa Claus feel to the assertion.

But, I discovered, it wasn’t hard to find the dissenting voices. The ‘melancholy long withdrawing roar’ of the ‘sea of faith’ which Matthew Arnold had complained about in the 19th century was still under way, if you listened out for it. Ever since Darwin, and generations of physicists from Newton onwards, the biological and physical worlds had appeared to get along fine without divine support; and even in my own limited world I was aware of plenty of instances of untimely deaths of innocent sufferers, which threw doubt on God’s reputedly infinite mercy.

John Robinson

John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich (Church Times)

And then in the 1960s a brick was thrown into the calm pool of English Christianity by a certain John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich at the time. It was a book called Honest to God, which sparked a vigorous debate that is now largely forgotten. Drawing on the work of other radical theologians, and aware of the strong currents of atheism around him, Robinson argued for a new understanding of religion. He noted that our notion of God had moved on from the traditional old man in the sky to a more diffuse being who was ‘out there’, but considered that this was also unsatisfactory. Any God whom someone felt they had proved to be ‘out there’ “would merely be a further piece of existence, that might conceivably have not been there”. Rather, he says, we must approach from a different angle.

God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists.

My pencilled zig-zags in the margin of the book indicate that I felt there was something wrong with this at the time. Later, after studying some philosophy, I recognised it as a crude form of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, which is rather more elegant, but equally unsatisfactory. But, to be fair, this is perhaps missing the point a little. Robinson goes on to say that “one can only ask “what ultimate reality is like – whether it… is to be described in personal or impersonal categories.” His book proceeds to develop the notion of God as in some way identical with reality, rather than as a special part of it. One might cynically characterise this as a response to atheism of the form “if you can’t beat them, join them” – hence the indignation that the book stirred in religious circles.

Teenage reality

But, leaving aside the well worn blogging topic of the existence of God, there was the teenage me, still wondering about ‘ultimate reality’, and what on earth, for want of a better expression, that might be. Maybe the ‘personal’ nature of reality which Robinson espoused was a clue. I was a person, and being a person meant having thoughts, experiences – a self, or a subjective identity.  My experiences seemed to be something quite other from the objective world described by science – which, according to the ‘materialists’ of the time, was all that there was. What I was thinking of then was the topic of my previous post, Consciousness 2 – my qualia, although I didn’t know that word at the time. So yes, there were the things around us (including our own bodies and brains), our knowledge and understanding of which had been, and was, advancing at a great rate. But it seemed to me that no amount of knowledge of the mechanics of the world could ever explain these private, subjective experiences of mine (and I assumed, of others). I was always strongly motivated to believe that there was no limit to possible knowledge – however much we knew, there would always be more to understand. Materialsm, on the other hand, seemed to embody the idea of a theoretically finite limit to what could be known – a notion which gave me a sense of claustrophobia (of which more in a future post).

So I made my way about the world, thinking of my qualia as the armour to fend off the materialist assertion that physics was the whole story. I had something that was beyond their reach: I was a something of a young Cartesian, before I had learned about Descartes. It was a another few years before ‘consciousness’ became a legitimate topic of debate in philosophy and science. One commentator I have read dates this change to the appearance of Nagel’s paper What is it like to be a Bat in 1973, which I referred to in Consciousness 1. Seeing the debate emerging, I was tempted to preen myself with the horribly arrogant thought that the rest of the world had caught up with me.

The default position

Philosophers and scientists are still seeking to find ways of assimilating consciousness to physics: such physicalism, although coming in a variety of forms, is often spoken of as the default, orthodox position. But although my perspective has changed quite a lot over the years, my fundamental opposition to physicalism has not. I am still at heart the same naive dualist I was then. But I am not a dogmatic dualist – my instinct is to believe that some form of monism might ultimately be true, but beyond our present understanding. This consigns me into another much-derided category of philosophers – the so-called ‘mysterians’.

But I’d retaliate by pointing out that there is also a bit of a vacuum at the heart of the physicalist project. Thoughts and feelings, say its supporters, are just physical things or events, and we know what we mean by that, don’t we? But do we? We have always had the instinctive sense of what good old, solid matter is – but you don’t have to know any physics to realise there are problems with the notion. If something were truly solid it would entail that it was infinitely dense – so the notion of atomism, starting with the ancient Greeks, steadily took hold. But even then, atoms can’t be little solid balls, as they were once imagined – otherwise we are back with the same problem. In the 20th century, atomic physics confirmed this, and quantum theory came up with a whole zoo of particles whose behaviour entirely conflicted with our intuitive ideas gained from experience; and this is as you might expect, since we are dealing with phenomena which we could not, in principle, perceive as we perceive the things around us. So the question “What are these particles really like?” has no evident meaning. And, approaching the problem from another standpoint, where psychology joins hands with physics, it has become obvious that the world with which we are perceptually familiar is an elaborate fabrication constructed by our brains. To be sure, it appears to map on to the ‘real’ world in all sorts of ways, but has qualities (qualia?) which we supply ourselves.


So what true, demonstrable statements can be made about the nature of matter? We are left with the potently true findings – true in the the sense of explanatory and predictive power – of quantum physics. And, when you’ve peeled away all the imaginative analogies and metaphors, these can only be expressed mathematically. At this point, rather unexpectedly, I find myself handing the debate back to our friend John Robinson. In a 1963 article in The Observer newspaper, heralding the publication of Honest to God, he wrote:

Professor Herman Bondi, commenting in the BBC television programme, “The Cosmologists” on Sir James Jeans’s assertion that “God is a great mathematician”, stated quite correctly that what he should have said is “Mathematics is God”. Reality, in other words, can finally be reduced to mathematical formulae.

In case this makes Robinson sound even more heretical than he in fact was, I should note that he goes on to say that Christianity adds to this “the deeper reliability of an utterly personal love”. But I was rather gratified to find this referral to the concluding thoughts of my post by the writer I quoted at the beginning.

I’m not going to speculate any further into such unknown regions, or into religious belief, which isn’t my central topic. But I’d just like to finish with the hope that I have suggested that the ‘default position’ in current thinking about the mind is anything but natural or inevitable.