Stonehenge Summer Solstice
The Time, The Place, The People
Chapter from an unfinished book
We rolled into Amesbury about four o’clock in my beat up old VW Camper. It’s red and white and patchy, with new tan-coloured fibre glass filling in the wheel arch and on the door where the rust has finally eaten way at what remained of the original structure. A proper hippie vehicle. Less a vehicle, more a lesson in hand-painted, engineered autobiographical expressionism.
I call it “the Phoenix” because it’s been into, and recovered from, a very serious fire. Once it was green and peeling. Now it’s bright red. And it still flies!
I had Joe with me. He’s my son, 26 years old. I picked him up at Heathrow from the tube, before we headed onto the M3 west, and then onto the A303, the road to Stonehenge.
Most of the way we were talking about time paradoxes, a subject we will come back to later. Joe and I share an interest in science fiction and he’d lent me a copy of Primer, which is a time-travel movie, which I couldn’t quite get to grips with. I’d watched it the night before. I said, "I don’t get it!" Joe said he didn’t think it was “getable” as such, but worth persisting with. It’s about some guys who keep going round and round in a progressively complex loop in time. This, too, we will come back to later.
To get into Amesbury you pull off the A303 at the Countess Roundabout, then down the hill, past the traffic lights and right into the car park just behind the town centre.
It’s a quiet, dozy, harmless Wiltshire market town, indistinguishable from a thousand other such somnambulant, peaceful little country congregations throughout the British Isles, except for two very big differences: 1) the presence of hippies; 2) the presence of squaddies.
The squaddies are here all year round, though only noticeable on the occasions when they’re allowed out of their camps for R & R and rowdiness, when there are armed Military Police on the streets, and the place feels like the nearest town to the front line in some undeclared war against an as-yet unnamed enemy.
The hippies are only really here once a year, for the summer solstice.
Sometimes I tend to think that the two groups are linked in some way, the hippies and the squaddies, that is: firstly because the only truly successful hippies (the ones who could really hack it living in benders and trucks all year round, and who had the necessary skills for survival in a hostile, sedentary world) were mostly ex-squaddies; secondly (and more fancifully) because I often feel that there is, in fact, an undeclared war against an as-yet unnamed enemy, in a country called the Mind. The hippies are the cannon-fodder on one side, the squaddies on the other.
On the grass in front of our park-up, near the toilets, there were a couple of the recruits: one slightly red-faced and boozy-looking, the other a youngish traveller type, with dreadlocks and a top-knot and all the right piercings, including one on the bridge of his nose between his eyebrows, which made his eyes look squinty and too close together. Or maybe he had the piercing because his eyes WERE squinty and too close together and he was trying to disguise the fact.
Obviously I hadn’t noticed these details yet. I was still too busy parking the van.
Later we came to know the hippie traveller type as Effin Bob (that’s what he called himself) when he popped over to the van to ask for a corkscrew; later again we came to know the boozy-looking type as Ian, when he and Effin Bob had a lift with us to the Stones.
We also met Stuart and Aurelia and her daughter Anastasia who is seven years old. They turned up in some flashy, fast car. It was Stuart who gave me the Phoenix, and Aurelia who painted it red.
After that we all went to the pub.
OK. This is what’s nice about Stonehenge and the solstice. Just this once a year you drop your guard a little, and let things happen. You meet people. You stop and chat. You offer them a lift if they haven’t got one. You go to the pub together. You let the process develop in an orderly, progressive, friendly manner. You know - for this one short time - that you are all heading in the same direction. At least you think you are.
It doesn’t always work out exactly as you’d planned, however.
So - now, a few hours later - we’re on our way to Stonehenge. Stuart and Aurelia and Anastasia are staying in Amesbury to watch the football (it’s England vs Sweden). They’re going to get a taxi later. Effin Bob and Ian are in the back of the Phoenix with Joe and I, along with all the provisions: food and water and bits and bobs, but mainly drink. There’s two four-packs of Kronenburg, two four-packs of Carlsburg, a large bottle of cider, a bottle of cheap wine and a three-litre wine-box, plus whatever Effin Bob and Ian have with them. Red wine and beer too, by the looks of it in my rear-view mirror. They are already at theirs, while I’m still waiting to get into mine, being the responsible driver. It’s seven o’clock and the gates to the car-park open at eight. We’ve timed it to be early enough to be near the front, so not have too long a wait. That’s the plan. It was Effin Bob’s idea. He looks like he knows what he’s talking about, what with all those piercings. People with piercings are obviously in the know. Stands to reason. He also has a good line in chat. He’s talking about times past, and “the culture”, meaning Stonehenge culture, “the festie“, as it‘s known, and the coppers and the exclusion zone, and all the rest of the epic mythology of the recent history of Stonehenge we’ve learned about over the years. Stuff that never should have happened. Stuff that should be a lesson to all of us.
It’s only after about ten minutes of this incessant lesson in cultural history that we realise that Effin Bob never actually stops talking. Not once. Not for an Effin second.
I wonder where he got his name?
He’s also, by now, smoking pollen. He’s offered it around, telling us how extraordinary it is, but no one else is interested. Too early. We haven’t even got in yet. But he rolls one up and lights it anyway. Trouble is, it really stinks. I mean: this is the ripe camembert of cannabis formulations. This is vintage camembert after a three-week train journey in a sealed container in the luggage rack above the heater, just opened so its contents are oozing out. This is stench-foot camembert with a green mould beginning to form. The smell is lying heavily in the van like a layer of swamp-gas. If you lit it, it would explode. And we’re just about to stop and ask directions from the police.
Bob is also standing up behind the passenger seat leaning against the cooker, spliff in hand, pontificating knowingly to my very, very bright son on “The Meaning Of Life“, aka “The Culture and How We Went About It" and "What We Have Learned” or “How to Spot a Copper Without His Uniform” or some such other arcane and not immediately relevant matters. I forget now. After the first ten minutes I’d shut most of my mind off to most of what he had to say. I was too busy driving.
“OK Bob,” I say, “cool it now. OK?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Yeah. Cool.”
“I mean, sit down Bob. Put out the spliff.” And I wind down the window Very, Very Far, and Bob sits down. My son winds down his window too. There’s just enough wind coming in through the two windows to stir the smoke about a bit. It’s like a low mist in the valleys of the vehicle, swirling in eddies about the bed and the cooker, clinging to the carpet.
The copper is female, an attractive blonde with just a hint of boredom in her expression. She already knows what I’m going to ask, and she also knows the answer. She‘s been primed. She will be hearing this and saying this for the rest of the night.
“How do I get to the car-park for Stonehenge?” I ask.
“Follow the black arrows,” she says. And points to a small, hand-painted sign with a black arrow on it.
It points in the opposite direction to Stonehenge.
So now we’re following a little country lane shady with over hanging greenery going in the opposite direction to Stonehenge, passing huddles of convoy-types in vans parked up in lay-bys to the right and to the left and Effin Bob is still pontificating on the Knowledge, in this case “How To Get Into Stonehenge" and "What The Coppers Are Up To" and "At What Point We Should Make Our Bid For Entry.”
I say “the Knowledge” in capital letters - like that - because it’s like the Knowledge the black-cab drivers have to learn before they can drive a cab round London. Not only knowing how to get from one point to another in the capitol by the shortest (or the longest) route possible, but also how to pontificate knowingly and interminably on every subject under the sun.
We pull in to a side road near a small estate in a village and Effin Bob suggests we go back up the road the other way cos there was a lay-by there. As we start out again another car pulls in and asks what should they do? They’re Spaniards. Very dark-skinned. Very beautiful. Effin Bob starts talking Italian to them. We say what we’re going to do, and they follow us back up the road and we all pull into the lay-by. It’s still only 7.30. The idea is that we should wait till about 7.45, head back for Stonehenge, and then they might start letting us in.
Another car pulls in and that makes the triumvirate. This one is full of pagan-types. I say that - “pagan-types” - as if you might know what a pagan-type would look like. In this case: two girls, one with dreadlocks, and a big, bearded guy in the back. What makes them “pagan-types” is that they have on black, hooded cloaks with white nighties underneath. And one of the girls has a garland of flowers in her hair. I ask their names. The guy says, "Arthur." I say, "not King Arthur is it?" That's when he recognises me. Apparently I’d signed one of my books for him a few years ago at a pagan-moot in Red Lion Square in London on May Day. So then it’s greetings all round and “hi” and “how are you?” and memories of Red Lion Square and one of the girls is a writer too and she says, sort of conspiratorially, “I’m seeking my destiny”.
Effin Bob is still smoking his Effin pollen in the back, still offering it around, us still refusing. As he does so his pontificating knowledge becomes more intense and more irrational. By now some Elfin-being in a Time-Capsule has done Williams Burroughs type cut-ups on the stream of consciousness novel going on in Effin Bob's head, has thrown it all up in the air, and the fragments are just coming out of the guy's mouth in whatever order they land.
We want to leave at 7.45. It's 7.45. In fact the pagans have just pulled out. And now Effin Bob is saying, “no, we have to wait till 7.45.”
“It is 7.45,” I say.
“No, it’s twenty to.”
“It’s a quarter to.”
“Yes, but we have to wait till ten to.”
“No, a quarter to.”
“But it’s not a quarter to yet.”
“Yes it is.”
“But that’s what I’m saying. We have to wait till ten to.”
“It’s a matter of timing,” I say, starting to get niggled, meaning, it is time to leave.
“Yes, timing. You should know about timing. Timing is of the essence. You should know that, being a veteran.”
I won’t say what I thought. Suffice it to say I’d never claimed to be anything at all, veteran or otherwise. Just an old guy in an old bus trying to get into Stonehenge.
Joe says, "how did you get here last year?"
"Came in a mates car," says Effin Bob.
"How long did it take you to get in?"
"Fuckin' hours, mate. Fuckin' hours."
"So were you giving directions then too?"
At this point the pagans come back down the road the other way and say they’ve been up that end and that we have to follow the black arrows, as the good-looking copper had told us to earlier; and I look up and in the distance, about a mile and a half away across the oil-seed rape fields I can see the queue forming. Suddenly I know. Yes, that’s the way to get in. They’re not letting people in the other way. So we tell the Spaniards what we’re doing, pull Effin Bob back in the van - he’s outside leaning on the fence talking to the oil-seed rape - and start to turn the van around.
“Where’re you goin’?” says Effin Bob.
He’s leaning on the cooker again.
“Butt out,” I say - not in too exasperated a manner, I hope - “we’re going to Stonehenge.
“No you’re not. Not that way. That’s the way to the A303. The coppers are just sending you in circles. We’re just going round in circles. That‘s all it is. A circle. Round here, down there. Here and there. Round. It’s all part of the conspiracy.”
Well he may not have said “it’s all part of the conspiracy” but we all knew that’s what he meant. His head was so full of pollen by now it was short-circuiting his brain. All his neurons were firing simultaneously sending his thoughts in all directions at once. He was no longer making any sense whatsoever.
It’s like pouring WD-40 onto a computer keyboard. Under certain circumstances WD-40 can be a very useful substance. It‘s good for easing stiff nuts off of bolts for instance, and for oiling the brakes on your bike. But it’s no good for spraying into a wired-up computer keyboard with live electricity surging through it. All that would do would be to cause an explosion. Which is what was happening in Effin Bob’s brain right now, causing him to babble more and more incoherently.
But - anyway - we followed the black arrows, through villages and around bends, through the lazy, weaving English countryside, circling slowly but certainly back towards the Stones, where we finally came to a cross roads with a set of coppers on it by a flashing squad car, and a long queue of vehicles. And we went to the back of the queue and waited as the queue inched forward, bit-by-bit, with all the others in the queue - including the Spanish lot and the pagans (who waved to us joyfully) - until we eventually got into the car park at Stonehenge.
Ah queuing. So English. So civilised. So decent. So patient. So logical. So much a part of our English soul that I half believe that we were queuing at Stonehenge back when it was built, all those thousands of years ago.
Except, of course, that there was no such thing as England back then.
England didn’t even exist.
And neither did I.
I forgot to say. In the queue I started noticing all these vehicles. Not converted ambulances. Not converted buses. Not old army trucks with huge wheels. Not horse-trucks with the back end removed and replaced by a domestic wooden door and reclaimed household window-frames from Victorian terraced houses. All of these were there, of course: plus an old London route-master, painted blue, with a silver metallic skin where the deck used to be, in which someone had placed a porthole. Yes, glorious. And a huge, towering Bedford truck with what I swear was a wooden cabin perched on top of the cab, like a garden shed, only painted. And lots and lots and lots of VW campers in various states of repair, mine being by far the worst. But wondrous and strange and emblematic though these vehicles are, of course, they did not represent what I understood to be the revival of interest in Stonehenge as much as these other vehicles, the ones I’m about to talk about.
No. These were ordinary little Ford Fiestas, perhaps. Or Renault Meganes. Or VW Polos. Or this or that or the other utterly indistinct and unrecognisable - I’m no good with car names anyway - ordinary, everyday, acceptable family cars. Cars your mum might drive. Probably borrowed from that self-same mum. No good for sleeping in. No good for much at all, except going to the Supermarket most days and, maybe, getting you comfortably down the motorway for your holiday to wherever, but with this one big difference, this one big shift in emphasis. Whoever was in them - kids mostly: young people, people without dreadlocks but haircuts, with hardly noticeable piercings in fairly non-descript places, people about the age of my son or even younger, with bright, eager faces - had painted their vehicles.
OK, I suspect that the paint, whatever it was, was washable. I suspect that by the day after the day after it would all be gone. But right now it was there. Smiley-face sunrises in primary colours - reds and pinks and yellows - with slogans all over, saying such things as “Summer Solstice 2006 - Shout If You’re With Us!” Or just “Sunrise!” Suns with faces on them. Squiggles and lines and flashes. Circles and dots. Triangles and various Euclidian forms. Dodecahedrons. Stars and flowers. Pentagrams and Moons. Green, orange and blue. A celebration of colour. An affirmation in washable paint.
That’s when I knew that something had changed. I’ve still got Effin Bob in the back talking to the oil-seed rape in his head, slightly too young to be a veteran - he’s 35 and began his career with “the Culture” in the late eighties, after “the festie” had been quashed - but with all the design accoutrements necessary for his self-declaration: the piercings, the dreadlocks, the tattoos, the top-knot, the non-stop electro-static twittering of a brain starting to short-circuit on a combination of ego and WD-40. But he’s the past. I’m the past. We’re all the past. The guys in the buses and the trucks: they’re the past. King Arthur and the Druids, Crustys with dogs on string, scummy mohicans and oil-encrusted hands, chaos magicians and Crowleyites, witches and warlocks, self-proclaimed philosophers of a thousand different schools. All of this was before. All of this was when the struggle was still going on, in the dry years between 1985 and the year 2000, when controlled access was finally reinstated and King Arthur got to sit at the same round table as the deputy chief constable of Wiltshire Constabulary and the head of English Heritage and talk about a long overdue compromise.
Meetings, meetings, meetings.
As the saying goes: “that was then, this is now.”
These kids are the inheritors of that process. They’ve only been coming here since 2000. They’ve hardly heard of the festival and they hardly care. They don’t want to know about police riots and miscarriages of justice. They are only just learning about Stonehenge, as I did, so many years before. They are here to see the sunrise.
And that is the most remarkable, the most beautiful, the most extraordinary thing about it. Kids fed on a diet of TV and McDonalds, video games and i-Pods, TV adverts and American sitcoms, Hollywood Blockbusters with spectacular special effects and arse-rattling surround-sound, brought up in a post-war economy decommissioned by Thatcher and her successors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, kids whose future is determined by the IMF and the World Bank and those secret conspirators down at the Trilateral Commission what they want to see is a sunrise.
A sunrise, god-damn it!
A common or garden, simple, ordinary, bright-morning sunrise, an everyday event, but glorious in its execution: a message from the stars.
Or from God maybe. However you want to look at it.
You see: this is what it is about Stonehenge. It’s not only that the sun rises above the Heel Stone on Midsummer morning, year after year - as it has been doing for the last five thousand years or more - it’s that it reminds us of our place in the cosmos. It reminds us of our place in the stars.
I talked about Primer, the film my son lent me which I didn’t get. Well I’ve watched it three times now and I still don’t get it.
It’s about a couple of guys who invent a machine that creates a loop in time. They get into the machine in one time, and come out and it is some time later. Then they get back in the machine, the loops happens, and they return to the point they started at. The scam is that they go forward to the future, find out what stocks have made the most increase on a particular day, return to the past and then invest in those stocks.
Trouble is, they also now create a double of themselves. There’s a them as they are now, and a them as they would have been had they not gone through the loop in time, existing at the same time. Later the voiceover makes it clear that there’s also a failsafe machine - another machine running in a different place - and that the machines can be folded down so that one machine can be taken back or forth in time inside the other machine. After a while you start to see loops in the plot: repetitions of the same sequences, but with minor alterations.
One of the guys has on a set of earphones. This is later. First time you see him without the earphones, then you see him with them. As the infolding fractal sequencing of the plot becomes more paradoxical and convoluted so you realise that the second time around this particular guy is listening to a pre-recorded tape of events that have already happened in order to repeat the performance: that is, he is hearing what other people have said, and what he himself said in the first time-loop in order to repeat it next time around. That means that by now he must have gone through several loops.
This is the point at which I lost it. I lost track of who was who and which time sequence we were in. Each of the guys can be one of any number of incarnations, each repeating the cycle, but coming from a possibly different time-period.
There’s one good line. “Are you hungry?” one of them says. “I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.”
This is the film Joe and I had been discussing on our way down the A303 to Amesbury. We also talked about a couple of books that have a similar feel about them.
One: The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by PD Ouspensky.
Two: By His Boot-Straps by Robert A Heinlein.
The latter is a classic time-paradox story, in which the hero is progressively forced to repeat a time-loop in order to correct a previous mistake, except that whenever he appears in the story as the figure from the future come back to correct the mistake, the person in the NOW fails to recognise his future self. As the story unfolds so we follow the hero through this increasingly complex loop, himself becoming some of the third-person characters from earlier parts of the story, each time making the same set of mistakes.
It sort of has this effect on your mind: your mind goes into a time-loop sequence just reading it.
The second book, by Ouspensky, is much more heavyweight.
You may know of Ouspensky as the one time follower of G. I. Gurdjieff, the renowned magician.
The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin was written in about 1905 but not published in English until after Ouspensky’s death in 1947. The central character is a failure who finds himself at a dead end in his life. Broke, bereft, emotionally and academically ruined, rejected by the woman he loves and contemplating suicide, he wishes he could live his life over again. Then he meets a magician who gives him that chance.
He is catapulted back in time, to the exact moment when he believes he had made his first great mistake, and in his confusion, finding himself a fully developed older man in a child’s body, proceeds to make exactly the same mistake again.
Thereafter the book is a catalogue of continuing errors, in which the character slowly forgets that he ever made this return journey. In order to fit in, he reverts to his younger self, becoming, once more, a child in a child’s body. He is plagued by a sense of repetition however, of deja vu, but can never get to grips with the meaning of it.
There’s a terrible inevitability about the story, like the grinding wheels of fate moving inexorably on, and a sense of echoes-in-time, like phase-loops going in and out of sequence. Like the Heinlein piece, and like Primer, there is something unsettlingly familiar about mood of the story, the tone - a kind of resonance - as if you yourself know some of this already: as if you, the reader, also exists in a time-loop, as if you’ve been going round and round in time throughout all eternity. It’s just that you keep forgetting, that’s all, destined to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Which is - maybe - not so far from the truth. Who knows?
The place, of course, is Stonehenge. Or not Stonehenge exactly - meaning the monument itself (that edifice to an unknown science) - but a field maybe a mile or a mile and a half away, just off the A344, full of cut-down stubble and countless vehicles, either already parked-up, or making their way in a line along the dusty, bumpy track, with guys in yellow tabards indicating this way and that, forming the cars into orderly lines: the Stonehenge car-park.
You wonder if they had this in Neolithic times too - stewards in the pre-historic equivalent of high-visibility tabards - guiding the horses and carts and chariots and wagons into their proper order: that is a form of organisation behind the ceremonies. I suspect that there were. I suspect that it was just as busy then as now, if not more so. My belief is that it was the focal point for most of the tribes of Northern Europe at the time, the most important place in the known world. Still is. This much has certainly not changed.
Anyway, at a certain point I made an executive decision. So there was are, bouncing along in second gear, following a van, and with another vehicle up close behind, and up in front I can see the stewards waving their swizzle-sticks (or whatever they are) guiding the various wagons into their proper order, when - anarchist that I am - I suddenly broke out of line, and made for the fence.
It was one of those things: several thoughts all at the same time. I assessed the position. There were already vehicles lined up against the fence. It looked flat: a good place to kip-out. I realised it would be easy to find later, and that, being near the track, we could pull out any time we liked.
So we pulled in by the fence and someone else pulled in behind us, and that was it: our position for the night.
It was barely eight o’clock: two hours before we were allowed in.
Effin Bob, meanwhile was still leaning against the cooker, still smoking that stink-foot weed of his.
He’s talking about Druids now, or about travellers, or about spacecraft entering the Earth’s atmosphere, or some such thing. I don’t know, I’m too busy parking up. All I know is that there’s this constant twittering drone going on, that that no one else seems to be talking.
So I pull on the handbrake, turn off the engine, and Joe gets out, and we open up the sliding door and raise the roof, and I say to Ian - the other guy, who’s been offering me drinks from the back seat for some time now - “OK, yeah, let’s have one of those cans”, and with a satisfying pssst pop the top and take a long, cool glug.
That’s when we notice something is wrong.
There’s some other smell besides the pollen and the alcohol.
Effin Bob is still leaning against the cooker, spliff in one hand, plastic water bottle full of wine in the other, still addressing the indifferent gods in their own, strange tongue, still proclaiming the coming apocalypse to a weary audience.
When the bottle of wine goes over, all over the carpet.
“Hey what? Sorry man, Sorry.”
And we simultaneously realise that the cooker is leaking gas where Effin Bob has been leaning on the knobs......
With a lighted spliff in his hand.
That’s what the noise is.
That’s what the smell is.
So now there’s a sudden flurry of activity, brushing Bob out of the way, turning off the gas rings, catching the wine before it completely empties over the carpet, wafting out the fumes, just making sure that they’re going nowhere near Bob with that fire-stick still flashing sparks into the evening air.
“Fuckin’ ‘ell!” says Joe. “That was close.”
Yeah. Imagine what that would have been like. Boom! Like a stray missile going off in Bin Laden’s bunker. Like a terrorist bomb on a Baghdad night. That would have been the end of the party. No Stonehenge sunrise for anyone that night. A ball of flame at least a hundred foot in the air as the gas canister went up followed by the petrol tank. Wham! Thud! A sonic crash like a thunder-clap in a cavern. A sound-wave juddering and echoing through the hills. You’d’ve heard it twenty miles away. And me and Joe and Effin Bob and Ian would’ve been blown up along with it, incinerated, ignited, enflamed, burnt to a cinder along with all our neighbours. Fire-engines wailing through the night, screaming sirens and flashing blue lights, fire men with hoses... and then a terrorist alert for the next thirty six hours with armed coppers and men in white jump suits and masks... and that would have been the end for open access to Stonehenge for the next twenty years at least.
Not that I would have cared. I’d’ve been too dead to notice.
So - where were we? Ah yes. In a field in Wiltshire just off the A344 about a mile or a mile and a half from Stonehenge, having just escaped death, but with a few cans of lager and a bottle of wine or two to compensate.
And a cooker turned off at the valve.
Effin Bob has wandered off, having, finally, reached Nirvana but without the rest of us noticing. He was having telepathic conversations with elves. We were too busy de-fuming the van by wafting an old tea towel about and then wiping the wine up from the carpet with the same old tea towel and then throwing the tea towel away. So that’s what Effin Bob has cost us. He hasn’t cost us our lives, fortunately, or our sanity, but he has cost us an old tea towel. We should be grateful for small mercies. This is a night of sacrifice, and what we have sacrificed is an old tea towel. What Effin Bob has sacrificed is his Reason. It‘s a small price to pay, and almost exactly equivalent in global and geo-political terms.
By now Ian wants to talk to me. He sort of emerges in front of my face, flushed bright red like a chilli pepper. He says he never met Effin Bob before this afternoon, in fact only minutes before he’d met us. He says he was at Stonehenge last year, but he bolloxed it by being too drunk and falling asleep. Everyone told him it was awesome, and that he’d missed something very special.
In a way it’s the first time I’ve noticed him, Effin Bob having demanded all the attention up till now. Maybe I should have been more attentive, but it’s been a busy evening so far, and I’ve been driving.
He’s very red - that much I’d picked up before, and interpreted as drink-related. Maybe it is drink related, I don‘t know. Maybe it’s the sun. It’s been a sunny year so far, up till this evening, that is. This evening the clouds are scudding over the sky like grey rags on a conveyor belt in a recycling factory: moving fast and low in thin shreds over a uniformly grey background. It’s threatening to rain.
But Ian wants to know what everyone wants to know. He wants to know what Stonehenge is for.
I have my theories, which I expound in my usual manner.
To me it is a scientific implement, a measure of space and time, an observatory and an echo-chamber. It is also a Temple. It comes from a time when science was an art and art was a science and both of them were religions. It measures the movement of the stars in the gaps between the uprights, thereby measuring the turning of the Earth on its axis. It measures the procession of the Sun across the heavens through the turning of the year, from solstice to equinox, from equinox to solstice, thereby measuring the movement of the Earth about the Sun and the turning of the seasons. It measures the cycles of the moon, from waxing to waning, from new to full. It sees into the future. It predicts the erratic dance of the planets against the stars’ unswerving array. It foretells the time of darkness when the Moon’s face slides across the Sun, the Eclipse. It knows how big the Earth is, how far away the Sun. It knows our place within the cosmic order, our position amongst the stars.
When people ask me how an ancient people could know so much I ask in return, yes, but how did Newton know so much? How did Einstein know so much? Newton knew that the Moon is held in tow to the Earth by gravity, and Einstein knew that time was relative. How did they know these things? By intuition and imagination, by observation and by deduction, by intelligence and careful thought.
The ancient people who built Stonehenge were as brainy as us: their brains were as big as ours. They were as bright as us, as wise as us, as clear eyed as us, and with a great deal more oxygen in their lungs.
They lived their lives almost entirely out of doors. There were no doors to be inside of.
They breathed and drank and eat and worked, they played and laughed and ran and jumped, they smiled and embraced and kissed and wept, all of it beneath the sky, and at night they fell asleep by a fire beneath the stars. In their dreams they stepped out of their bodies and wandered amongst the stars.
Like William Blake they daily took the journey from mortality into immortality and back again and heard the whispering of the gods.
How did William Blake know so much?
How do any of us ever know anything at all?
Well, that’s not quite what I said to Ian. I think I mentioned Isaac Newton along the way somewhere, and I vaguely remember I said it was a scientific implement, or a measuring device of sorts. I think I mentioned Einstein. I probably burbled a lot and waved my arms about. At some point I gave up pontificating and ate some food, and so did Joe, and in due time it was ten o’clock and time to enter the monument.
I had a text from Stuart saying he was going to get a taxi and that we should meet by the Heel Stone at 10.30.
England had drawn 2-2.
And then we’re trudging up the dusty track with a rucksack full of cans each, past the vegan burger vans, me and Joe and Ian, to the barriers where the security guards lurk in their hi-vis tabards, some of them with walkie-talkies, the police keeping a low-profile in the background, the spot-lights like beacons in the night - it’s dark now - the sound of the generators like a low murmuring repetitive growl. There’s a body of people waiting to get through the barriers, a bustle of bodies. They’re searching some of us for glass bottles. No one cares if we’ve got any drugs or not, it’s glass bottles they’re worried about.
I like that. That seems right. That’s what Arthur and the Wiltshire constabulary and English heritage and the round table would have agreed. Not openly, but by an understanding, by a nod and a wink as it were. The only thing that matters is that people don’t leave broken bottles about.
Health and safety first.
And then we’re through and trudging up the long track to the Stones in the dark by a fence, all these bodies moving through the dark, the murmur of voices, the sound of footsteps falling into line.
Tramp, tramp, tramp.
And rattling conversation. And bodies swaying to and fro, moving near to each other and then away again, moving in and out of view in the half-light.
A mile. A mile and a half. Step by step, through the long, dark night.
And me keeping an eye on Joe cos even though he’s 26 he’s still my son. And anyway, he’s the best for conversation.
I’m not worried whether he gets lost or not. I’m worried in case I get lost.
Another barrier. More security. More searches.
They have the metal barriers formed into a number of parallel funnels so you have to go into single file with a security guard watching over each and searching anyone they are suspicious of. They don’t bother to search me cos I’m an old guy, but they do ask me to take my rucksack off. “What have you got in there?”
And they nod me through.
Past more burger vans (or tempura vans or Thai green curry vans or whatever) where I catch sight of Dice George who - rarely for him - doesn’t look miserable. In fact he looks - dare I say it? - happy. Not outrageously happy. Not hysterically happy. Not dripping in ecstasy. But with a sort of warm, companionable glow. Like whatever it is he’s been planning these last few years, some part of it has come off.
George is one of the veterans. Lives on a bus. Has a cycle generator for his stereo, and a wind generator for whatever. For his lap-top maybe. Runs a Website from there. Green anarchist spiritual revolutionary. Has seen some hard times, no doubt. Has kept the faith through all the wilderness years, through all the loss and all the decay. The loss of dreams. The falling apart of community. Maybe he had a right not to be entirely happy all the time. But that companionable glow must mean something. It must mean that we’ve won something at last.
And now, there they are: the Stones in silhouette in the semi-darkness, those custodians of our accumulated wisdom, so venerable, so ancient.
Some people aren’t all that impressed when they first see Stonehenge. They’ve seen much bigger buildings than this. Yes. But then you tell them how it got built, with antler picks and flint, with rope and with A-frames made of lashed logs - how many man hours it must have taken (how many million?) - and you ask, “what for?”
To map the stars. To measure the Earth. To predict the seasons. These colossal stones dragged here from such distances. It’s not just it’s physical presence that matters: it’s its intellectual presence. The force of organisation. The sense that it connects us back to some deep, ancient intelligence that is our own.
I hate all those cosmic Von Daniken-type theories: you know, Stonehenge was made by aliens. Why? Why not us?
We made it - people like us - and we should be justifiably proud.
We’re cleverer than we think.
OK, so we’re in the compound near the Stones, it’s about 10.30, we have beer in our rucksacks, and a long night ahead.
The first thing I have to do: I have to take Joe to see the Stones. He’s already been calling himself Joe Henge. People ask his name and he tells them: “Joe Henge.” It reminds me of when he was a boy and he used to make up names for himself. He refused to accept my name for a while. He wasn‘t Joe Stone then either. He called himself Joe Station back then, back when he was about seven or eight. Now he’s Joe Henge.
It’s his first time here.
We walk in a straight line towards where the silhouette of the monument stands out bleakly against the night sky, across the henge ditch, and into the Stones themselves.
It’s fairly early yet, so there’s still room. Later it gets so packed you can’t move in there. But, right now, we sort of ease our way through the crowd into the centre. It’s already fairly full. There’s drumming going on - a persistent, consistent cross-cutting beat - and a sort of background babble, interspersed by the occasional rising cry, like a roar of ecstasy from the heart of raw humanity.
This is one of the remarkable things about the new Stonehenge (if I can call it that): this new gathering that’s been occurring since access was regained in 2000. There’s no ceremony in there. No sedate worship. No rituals and religion. Just this: this erupting volcanic noise from the bellies of all the people gathered in there, just sort of rising up and then bellowing out, people raising their faces to the sky, and letting rip with whatever sound they can muster. A cry of triumph. A cry of merriment. A cry of wonder perhaps. It’s intermittent, and irregular, but once one person starts all the rest join in. It isn’t saying anything, as such. It doesn’t mean anything as such. It just is. It’s the individual cry multiplied, a hundred times, a thousand times. Each person crying from their own selves into the universe, as each cry joins with the others, as they resound around the silent Stones sending echoes to the stars.
What does it say?
Just this: “I am here!”
“We are here!”
"We are real!"
"We haven’t gone away!”
© 2012 Christopher James Stone