The Ascent of Kinder Scout by Peter Riley, Longbarrow Press, 2014. £5.00 Sterling.
Kinder Scout is a high moorland plateau in the English Peak District. It was, in April 1932, the scene of a mass trespass by around 400 walkers who were protesting against its enclosure for grouse shooting by the Duke of Devonshire. On their return, a number of the leaders were arrested and tried for unlawful assembly and breach of the peace. That wasn’t, however, the end of the story; the legacy of the trespass was the founding of the Rambler’s Association and the passing of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949.
Peter Riley’s The Ascent of Kinder Scout is, on one level, a record of a walk made in the footsteps of the original trespassers in the company of others unnamed, perhaps as part of the 2012 80th anniversary celebrations. It’s a poem in 39 paragraphs, primarily prose but with a five-paragraph excursus in verse quite early on.
The trespass is one link in a long chain of acts of resistance to land enclosure that illuminate British history, from the 12th Century peasant resistance to their newly-established Norman overlords through the Levellers movement during the English Civil War and the writings of the anti-Corn Law campaigner William Cobbett. In a country not much given to revolution, this is a key thread of radicalism running through British history.
The Kinder protest must also be seen in the context of early 1930s British politics, and especially the rise in popularity of Socialism which came in the wake of the Great Depression. These events inevitably impacted on poetry, with the emergence of those poets associated with the magazine New Verse, a heady mix of Marx and Freud, Mass Observation and Surrealism, the latter leading to the emergence in the following decade of the New Apocalypse poets, Including Nicholas Moore who Riley has championed.
These radicals, both working class activists and middle-class poets, had lived through one World War and its aftermath and were about to see a second. As the first generation to benefit from the 1918 Education Act, they had the tools needed to engage in a process of learning about power and its implications. As Riley writes early in this work, ‘The foundation of the state is not violence but education.’ This statement, apparently straightforward on first reading, gains in complexity as Riley questions the role and value of the state a few paragraphs later, concluding that it ‘makes everything possible, and makes strangers of us all.’
He also calls into question the value of education, specifically literacy:
They taught us to read and we thought we were so grand as to join heaven and earth. But all we did was wallpaper over the crack between myth and science and lose our homes. The farmer’s wife sang a truer song, told a sweeter story, of hope and despair hand in hand walking back into society.
This last word forming an integrative counterbalance to the divisive state. It is no coincidence that the verse excursus, which echoes the song Goodnight Irene, follows on immediately after the prose paragraph from which I have just quoted. This interlude sits in the twin shadows of war and emigration, of ‘promise betrayed’ and ‘all the bathos of the modern state’.
In an article called Poetic Description and Mass Observation in a later issue of New Verse, Charles Madge wrote:
MASS-OBSERVATION is a technique for obtaining objective statements about human behaviour. The primary use of these statements is to the other observers: an interchange of observations being the foundation of social consciousness. The statements are useful also to scientists who can each utilize them in his own way. The number of scientific interpretations of a given body of material is only limited by the number of scientific interpreters. Poetically, the statements are also useful. They produce a poetry which is not, as at present, restricted to a handful of esoteric performers.
The immediate effect of MASS-OBSERVATION is to de-value considerably the status of the “poet.” It makes the term “poet” apply, not to his performance, but to his profession, like ” footballer.”
This technical description seems to me to illuminate Riley’s approach to prose poetry, if only at a slant. He eschews the overtly poetic and relates his observations, both visual and mental, to contemporary post-Thatcherite Britain; the town of Hayfield, from where the trespassers set out, for instance, ‘could all be wiped out at any moment by a falling aeroplane or a Tory axe’.
Riley observes the physical environment with the same keenness, not infrequently shot through with a sense of the surreal nature of reality:
In it now I reach Kinder Downfall, the pool catching the sun half way down the slope below, the line of water tossed in the wind in an arena of broken strata. And walk on ever barer ground to pause at the summit trig point, denuded even of peat, a grey desert of gravel and scattered boulders.
While the social and political contexts of the original trespass offer one way into Riley’s poem, there are other equally valid avenues of approach. As always in his work, the act of walking is a means of self-discovery. In this, The Ascent is close to his wonderful long poem Alstonfield; in both poems the walk, though grounded in specific geographical and social realities, provides a framework in which the objective and subjective can interweave.
It is telling, for instance, that the ghosts the poet/walker encounters early on the ascent are not those of the protesters but rather of figures of his own early youth. There are memories of his parents, who ‘died into this, in the long brick terraces of the Manufacturing Districts’ while the poet escaped and ‘built [himself] a parenthesis’ in which the ascent is being made, the poem written.
If the radicalism of the 1930s led to the foundation of a more just and inclusive Britain after the War, things have now changed. As Riley finished the descent he turns back and observes:
On the horizon Kinder Scout is a shadow lost in the black sky, an enormous gravestone in memory of the welfare state.
Which is immediately followed by a ‘but’, an assertion that the legacy of the Kinder trespassers was the establishment of a promise which may have been broken but which still endures, a promise based on ‘an achieved purpose’. The poem ends not with defeat but with a quiet celebration of that achievement and the qualities that form its permanent bequest to the here and now: ‘Persistence, optimism, grace.’
A note on production:
The Ascent of Kinder Scout is a handsomely produced little book, as readers of Longbarrow publications might expect. The good quality paper, clear, crisp printing and A5 landscape format work together to make it a pleasurable object in the hand and to the eye, and the cover paintings by Paul Evans enhance the book greatly.