Thursday, 21 June 2012

The longest day

This morning, when I looked out of the window at the muggy grey beyond, it became clear that the only times when there wasn’t a threat of imminent rain was when it was actually raining. That made it hard to believe that this was the day of the Summer solstice. Up here in the northern hemisphere, at least. The height of summer. The longest day. 

And with that rain sheeting down, it seemed to me it might feel extremely long indeed.

The date got me thinking of Stonehenge. Full of mystery, sometimes baleful, always inspiring, it’s an extraordinary place. It was built to align to the seasons and accommodate celebrations of the equinoxes and the solstices. I like to think of the druids out there in December, celebrating the turning point at the depth of winter when the sun turns and the days at last begin to lengthen again; and in June, surrounded by ripening crops, when they would thank the powers that govern the world for the blue skies and the warming suns of summer.

Their latter-day successors were out this morning to celebrate this key point in the calendar. Sadly, this is England. As the photos show, there were more anoraks around than long druidical robes. And they didn’t get to see the sun.

Sunless celebrations
Which makes me wonder whether my long-cherished image of their paleolithic ancestors doesn’t need revising. So I’ve come up with a new narrative which I believe is more plausible.

Picture an irascible stone age lordling summoning his Chief Druid to a conversation that might have gone something like this.

‘So, this Stonehenge thing. The one you’ve been building since my grandfather’s time. Is that it now? It’s finished, is it? Nothing further you’re going to ask me to fund?’

‘No, no, sir. It’s complete as it stands. Nothing more to add.’

‘Just as well. Bloody Sarsen stones. You’ve no idea how much the things cost, do you? And transport from Wales! Never did understand why you couldn’t use local stone. Wiltshire’s made of bloody rock, isn’t it?’

‘The Sarsens are special though, my Lord. And our Stonehenge is the very latest in Europe. We wouldn’t want to use anything but the best for it.’

‘Special, is it? I mean... I don’t want to point out the bleeding obvious... or encourage you to spend any more than you already have... but you do realise you haven’t put a roof on it, don’t you?’

‘Sir, a roof would be completely out of place. No, our Stonehenge is exactly right as it stands. A great monument of man’s gratitude to the spirit world for the clemency of the weather.’

‘Well, that’s not exactly working, is it?’ adds the king, glancing out of the window where rain is continuing to drizzle down the sky. ‘One of the reasons I was wondering about the roof, matter of fact. I mean, celebrating the solstice and all that stuff, you’re going to need umbrellas. And they haven’t even been invented yet.’

‘We shall manage, Lord, we shall manage. And a little rain will not dampen the spirits of your druids, knowing that they are surrounded by Sarsen stone and celebrating in the most powerful stone circle of the known world. Even though there's not that much of the world that we actually do know.’

‘Powerful, is it? Not working is it, though? Weather’s still crap.’

‘Well, sir, it may need a little help.’

‘Help? I knew you’d be asking for money.’

‘No, Lord, no. Money will not be required. A little sacrifice.’

‘Sacrifice? That is money.’

‘No, no, sir. The powers of the earth and air, fire and water, desire only human blood. No payment is required for humans.’

‘Well, that’s true. We seem to have plenty of people.’

‘Indeed, sir. With unfettered immigration, they have been pouring in from the continent.’

‘Yes, yes, I know. You’re always going on about the need to set quotas for immigrants. Well, maybe we can make a start on reducing the numbers through a few sacrifices. Not a bad idea.’

‘And, as you were saying yourself, Lord, some of the young people from the troubled inner villages have been restive. We could surely spare a few of them. They would make a fine sacrifice and also set an example to others.’

‘But will the powers of air and water and all the rest make do with all that? I mean, if we don’t want this riff-raff, why should they like them?’

‘Trust me, sir. They just require human blood. And the victims are all human. Even the foreigners.’

‘And it’ll work? We’ll get some decent weather?’

‘All the authorities agree, sir. A great Sarsen-built circle. Some sacrifices. Wiltshire will be the new Costa Brava.’

‘Well, I hope you’re right. Because if there’s another group we could do without, let me tell you, it’s Druids who don’t deliver. So be warned.’

But as we saw again this morning, it didn’t work. Not that the Chief Druid ended up on the sacrificing slab. He led a coup d’état supported by the faithful against the lack of true belief on the part of the Lordling. Who ended up on the slab himself. 

This led to the establishment of a theocratic regime in which the weather remained as lousy as ever but, with the Druids rooting out and sacrificing anyone who complained about it, everyone quickly realised that it was as good as it could ever be and it was a lot safer to be perfectly happy about it.

Thereby demonstrating the inexhaustible capacity of religion to bring consolation to Man for his painful lot.

The wonder of Stonehenge. And the English summer sky.

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