Saturday, June 25, 2005


The Green Lane to Nowhere

When I toured bookstores for Not Even Wrong, I ended my readings with a selection from another author altogether -- from a book that, in fact, I had chanced across in the Piccadilly Waterstone's just days earlier. I'd never heard of it or the author before, and I just picked it up off that store shelf because... I don't know why, actually.

Sometimes that just happens.

The piece I'd read from was about a local eccentric, quite possibly autistic before there was really a term for it, and how he'd become an odd but curiously vital part of his community. For one thing, his house was like a museum of prewar British life: he'd never updated much of anything, including the plumbing.

The book was An Audience With An Elephant by Byron Rogers; the publisher touts it as a tour of English eccentricity, though there's a good deal more in there that's simply unclassifiable. One story that still haunts me a year later is of a visit to a long-abandoned munitions factory that produced immense quantities of bombs over several centuries; workers sat on one-legged stools, so they couldn't nod off and allow an unchecked reaction to blow themselves and the surrounding countryside off the map.

I'm halfway into another collection of his, The Green Lane to Nowhere: The Life of an English Village. They're drawn from columns Rogers wrote about his Midlands village of Blakesley, where he proudly retains the sublimely useless post of Warden of Paths. I'd be surprised if it's sold more than a few dozen import copies in the US. But they actually do have it on Amazon, and it's a wonderful slice of the quiet beauties and absurd melancholies of English village life. Rogers does things like read the forgotten diaries of the village headmaster from a hundred years ago, climb into the vertiginous local bell tower, and try to track down a vicar who disappears leaving his vicarage door ajar and half-eaten food on the table, like a landlocked Mary Celeste.

A sample:

"What are you like at heights?"

The question surprised me, for the tower did not look that high. "You'll be surprised," said Phil. "It's a bit odd up there."

The church was extensively rebuilt in the 1890s... the pillars and interior walls, even the gargoyles, are now of hard Victorian stone, except the little door to the side of the bellropes, which, like men on the frontier of fairyland, we crouched to enter. Beyond that door is the thirteenth century. No hardness here, everything is blurred with use, and the winding narrow stair makes you think you are entering the heart of stone. There is much white dust.... Here everything moved. It is a cluttered place, of wood and metal and wheels, where if you steady yourself against a bell, it begins to roll...

By the end of it, Rogers is virtually fleeing for his life down an ancient trap door. It's splendid stuff, and he really does deserve a wider audience.

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