I said it would take awhile for me to write about my first sight of Stonehenge. I've been home days now, and have slept off the jetlag, and I have just stumbled upon Virginia Woolf's account of her own first sighting of the Salisbury earthworks, in the lovely compilation Travels With Virginia Woolf, edited and with commentary by my favourite travel writer Jan Morris. I had an interview with BBC Radio 4 early today, as they are serializing a dramatized version of my novel, Annabel, next week. As usual after an interview, I went for a coffee in a cafe open to the street, where I could people-watch and read undisturbed. I love the city of Montreal for that. It was so comforting to come upon Virginia's account of her first look at the great stones.
My own feeling about the stones was one of intimacy - the stones are intimate - they speak to you, and they are not inhuman at all but very touching - I sensed the great intimacy and loneliness of a human reaching out to the gods - a temple worn and crumbling yet as permanent as anything we can make: everything is temporary except our loneliness and this reaching out to the skies, the great earth itself, and the sky-bodies that mirror our earth in their roundness, their luminosity, their orbits and pulls and tidemaking and utter forlorn beauty. The stones, pockmarked, left in a field, surrounded by ordinary farmlands whose farmers constantly tend their flocks amid the trying relationship with endless busloads of sightseers... the stones remain mercifully unharmed by our stupidity and ignorance and endless unknowing. They are part of our endless unknowing, and this is what Virginia and I both loved about them.
My daughter was with me. She loved that I took my shoes off and walked around the stones in the grass. We loved that there was room, between the other visitors, to spend time alone with the stones, or feel as if we were alone, with nothing and no one between us and them. The skies of the Salisbury plains, it has to be said, were magnificent - the skies, opalescent and un-stonelike, the opposite of stone in their airiness and luminescence and transitory cloud and light and sweeping veil and vapour, the skies were with the stones as we were ourselves, in a kind of communion. I've been with the stones ever since: they have not left me, and I'm glad about that. They hint, in their intimate yet abiding presence (for they are, as everyone who has seen them attests, including Virginia, smaller than the zeitgeist and the photographs and the collective unconscious would have us think), at the comfort we yearn for if ever we chance to be monk-like, or prayerful, or in wait of a message from some greater thing.
Here is part of Virginia's word on Stonehenge:
We now came out on top of Salisbury plain, & the downs spread without check for miles around us. I suddenly looked ahead, & saw with the start with which one sees in real life what ones eye has always known in pictures, the famous circle of Stonehenge. Pictures give one no idea of size, & I had imagined something on a much larger scale. I had thought that the stones were scattered at intervals over a great space of the plain - so that when we settled to meet the riders at 'Stonehenge' I had privately judged the plan to be far too vague. But really it is a tiny compact little place... otherwise the pictures had prepared me fairly truthfully - as to shape & position that is; I had not realized though that the stones have such a look of purpose & arrangement; it is a recognizable temple, even now.
We promptly sat down with our backs to the sight we had come to see, & began to eat sandwiches: half an hour afterwards we were ready to make our inspection.
The singular, & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge to me, & to most I think, is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it. There are these great blocks of stone; & what more? Who piled them there & when, & for what purpose, no one in the world - I like to repeat my boast - can tell.
I felt as though I had run against the stark remains of an age I cannot otherwise conceive; a piece of wreckage washed up from Oblivion. There are theories I know - without end; & we, naturally, made a great many fresh, & indisputable discoveries of our own...
I love that she sat with her back to the stones eating sandwiches in 1903. In 2011 Esther and I brought sandwiches we'd had made in a lovely little London cafe; cheese and onion on brown bread with lots of butter, wrapped up in wax paper and brown paper.