Whitstable & Canterbury history: Watling Street by John Higgs

Age old question still relevant

Watling Street is a new book by John Higgs.

As the name suggests, it involves a journey along the old Roman road that stretched between Canterbury and Wroxeter, and which was itself laid over a prehistoric trackway which may have gone all the way from Dover to Angelsea.

That, at least, is the journey that our author takes.

Written in the same year as the Brexit referendum, John uses the symbol of the road as a way of examining the conflicts of identity that lie at the heart of the British psyche.

Who are we, exactly?

Picts, Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans, Cavaliers and Roundheads, all fought for control of this road. More recently we’ve seen our country divided along ideological grounds, between Leavers and Remainers, between traditionalists and innovators, between those who “want our country back” and those who seek to give our land a new mythic identity.

The question is: what is the nature of the country we want back? And whose country is it anyway, given that most of it is privately owned and off-limits to the majority?

On the Canterbury leg of his journey John is accompanied by a certain well-known writer and postal worker of your acquaintance; which is how I managed to get a copy of the book before its publishing date.

Of course the most famous story about Canterbury is the one telling of the rivalry between Archbishop Thomas Becket and his former friend and mentor Henry II, which, as we all know, ended in bloodshed.

John and I use this story to illustrate the perennial conflict between politics and spirituality; between the ruthless politician willing to kill for his ambitions, and the spiritually engaged person willing to die.

In the process we draw parallels with a more recent conflict: that between Tony Blair, the politician responsible for the violence in Iraq, and Brian Haw, his most prominent critic.

Tony Blair, of course, is internationally renowned, while Brian Haw is in danger of being forgotten. It is this injustice that we seek to redress.

If you’d like to find our more about Watling Street, John Higgs will be appearing at Waterstones in Canterbury on Wednesday the 19th July at 6.30pm.

You may well spot a certain well-known postal worker in the audience.

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Links:

Podcast featuring John Higgs and CJ Stone talking about Brian Haw (plus oodles of other interesting stuff): https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/watling-street/id1257578517?mt=2

John Higgs writing about Watling Street for the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170710-the-road-that-led-to-1000-stories

John Higgs’ blog: http://jmrhiggs.blogspot.co.uk/

Oddfellow’s Casino – The Ghosts of Watling St (Official Video): song based upon Watling Street by John Higgs:

John will be appearing at Waterstone’s Rose Lane branch on Wednesday 19th July at 18.30. Details here: https://www.waterstones.com/events/watling-street-john-higgs/canterbury-rose-lane

Further appearances:

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Whitstable literature: Playing Possum by Kevin Davey

Another literary figure to watch

I’ve just finished reading Playing Possum by Kevin Davey. It is a new novel, set in Whitstable.

It is an intriguing book, but also quite disorientating as the story keeps fracturing across time and genre in a way that makes it difficult to know where you are.

thomas_stearns_eliot_by_lady_ottoline_morrell_28193429
“The central character is an American poet, Thomas Stern, who astute readers will quickly recognise as T.S. Eliot”

I suspect this is deliberate. The central character is an American poet, Thomas Stern, who astute readers will quickly recognise as T.S. Eliot.

Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land, was supposed to have been written in a shelter in Margate, and it is to Margate that our fictional character is travelling before his journey is cut short and he finds himself in Whitstable instead.

The year is 1922, the same year The Waste Land was published.

That poem famously made use of overheard conversations and found quotations, and there is a fair scattering of this in Playing Possum too. Part of the pleasure, particularly for students of Eliot, will be in tracing the references.

The novel reads like a series of clues to a story you have to construct in your own head and is full of the most astonishing and vivid writing. It’s almost as if the author is channelling the spirit of the dead directly onto the page, as if he’s fashioned a time-telescope through which we can look in on the scene all those years ago.

Most of the action takes place between the Duke of Cumberland and the Bear and Key and many of the events really did take place. So there’s a film, The Head of the Family, which was shot in Whitstable in the early 20s, and a political rally under a gas lamp between the two hotels, in the place known as the Cross, the forgotten omphalos of the town.

The novel also cuts to scenes taking place in the present, with drunken conversations of the sort you would recognise in any pub.

Our town is currently marking its place on the literary map. Not only do we have Julie Wassmer writing detective novels set in Whitstable, and a thriving literary festival, but there are an ever growing number of writers and artists working here as well.

Kevin Davey is definitely one to watch.

You can buy the book here.

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From The Whitstable Gazette, 29/06/2017

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