Martin Wall came west for work. Rescued from the ‘ghetto’ of a Nottingham tower block, the would-be author’s new role with psychiatric emergency services in Worcestershire placed him in the Clent Hills. Crossing those surroundings by foot and bus, he pops into ‘the land of the Red Dragon’ and walks to St Kenelm’s Well, experiencing a Damascene moment south of Dudley. Ancestral voices had called him home, to the land of his childhood and beyond.
The earliest passages of the book recall a tricky infancy in south Staffordshire, but, despite manifest hardships and a Dickensian headmistress, Mr Wall’s roots on this dividing line between old west and east, the ancient Welsh and the not-so-ancient English, cultivate his love of time travel. Exploring ley lines and legends, he revives that past in prose. West brims with semi-historical and mythological characters, including Boudica, the songful princess Heledd and newer, more private muses. But it is a land-scape where poetry and struggle sit side by side, with skeletons wedged in wych elms and young heirs tethered to drains. Charting the politics of the Mercians, the Cumbrians and the Welsh, Mr Wall details countless divisions and battles, ‘the end of Celtic resistance in the lowlands’ and the ghosts that endure.
The Stiperstones in the ‘lost lands’ near the England/Wales border
Loosely structured, at the author’s admittance, the book also embraces Simon Evans, Cleobury Mortimer’s postman bard, and the alcoholic auto-biographer Archie Hill. It protests today’s failing rural infrastructure, the lack of ethnic diversity in the countryside and the degradation of Britain’s pubs, the BBC and the Glastonbury Festival. However, alongside its many soap boxes, West is a commonplace book, so loaded with quotation and allusion that the final two pages of notes and a ‘select’ bibliography belie the library on which it feeds. Journeying along A. E. Housman’s highways or through the Shire of Tolkien’s imagination, Mr Wall has Bruce Chatwin brushing shoulders with the priestly poet of Onward, Christian Soldiers, Carl Jung and the lead singer of Led Zeppelin (who provides the elliptical foreword).
It’s all delivered with a goodly dose of the psychogeographer’s dialect: liminal, palimpsest and the like. Luckily, there is richness enough in Mr Wall’s own writing. Chatty and haughty, self-conscious and unstintingly personal, it flits like a butterfly, challenging the reader with its enthusiasm for a proudly worn knowledge. When the author finally settles, gazes at the landscape he loves and trusts his inner voice, West can reveal both wonder and wisdom.
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