Friday, April 12, 2019

The Living Stones

The Living Stones (1957) is one of two illustrated travelogues written by surrealist Ithell Colquhoun in the mid 1950s and recently re-published by Peter Owen. They now come with a foreword by comedian and Colquhoun fan Stewart Lee (who, funnily enough, doesn’t mention the negative view of jokes and comedy she expresses on p212 of The Living Stones).  It is easy to see why they have been reprinted now, in a period where so many people have been delving into folk rituals, ancient stones and hidden landscapes.  The Living Stones is an exploration of what we would now call the psychogeography of West Cornwall.  Ithell Colquhoun may be most familiar as an artist (her 1938 painting Scilla in the Tate is a well known example of bodily forms as landscape - two rocks like a woman’s thighs and a patch of seaweed resembling pubic hair), but she was also prominent in esoteric circles. Lee calls her a gnostic travel guide and says that her drawings and cryptic titles originally drew him to buy these volumes, as part of ‘the long-standing folk-mystic second-hand book bender I’m still on.’

I will quote here from the penultimate chapter, ‘Hills of Michael’, in which Colquhoun describes what she calls ‘the ancient centres of Michael-force.’  One Michaelmas Day she climbed a hill to find Chapel Carn Brea, only to find that ‘the summit was littered with dismal reminders of the war, when a radar station had been established here.’
Disused defences collect about them a miasma-like aura which infects them almost physically; this happens to no other buildings in the same degree. Whether this emanation is due to the residues of hatred, fear, boredom and sex-frustration left by the servicemen who have been stationed in them I do not know, but they constitute a centre of astral pestilence. For this reason alone they should be destroyed, but since a plea for their liquidation based on such grounds would be disregarded, one can only point out their deleterious effect on amenity, which is serious enough.  
Turning from this ‘unsavoury debris’ she looked towards a small granite carn and felt drawn to it as ‘the chief remaining vortex of the Michael-force on this much impaired centre’.
Here, perhaps, was the site of that Chapel of St Michael de Bree, which was granted in 1396 by the Mount’s prior to the hermit Ralph de Bolouhal. He kept a light burning in it for the guidance of travellers and fisherman by night, While during the hours of light its whitewashed walls would serve, like those of many coastal shrines, as a day mark. Leaning against the massive boulders or reclining in the shelter they afforded from a wind which otherwise would have made me cough, I mused for an hour, enveloped in air, space and sunlight.

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