Terrible News

The Helyar Arms, one of the oldest pubs in the Yeovil area (and a landmark in East Coker) has closed, according to the Western Gazette.

This time it might be for good; there’s talk of turning it into a block of flats.

I knew the Yeovil area had fallen on hard times but this is really bad news.  There’s been a pub there for hundreds of years!

I really wanted to go to this old pub if I can ever make it back to East Coker.

The Elusive Past

A while back I had a flash that I don’t know what to make of.  The clothing kept shifting between Regency and Tudor, though we were sitting around in an oak-paneled parlor seated around a table singing Dowland.  There was this one fellow off gazing out the window looking melancholy, with black hair, and a painting of the same handsome young man on the wall.  It came to me that he was called “Spaniard” disparagingly although he was English born and bred, because of his comparatively dark features.  I was a woman of the upper middle class at least, and I had affection for this dark man.  I turned as I was singing and sang to him, inviting him to join, but he just looked dejected.

I didn’t think much of it; there was nothing in this that didn’t seem like something I already know.  I knew that songwriters like Dowland intended their work to be performed sitting around at tables and formatted their pages accordingly.  I also knew what a Tudor room looks like because I’ve seen pictures, and I knew it was not unusual for someone to call a person “Spaniard” in Northern Europe if they were a little bit darker.  Also, the fact that we were doing distinctly Tudor things but I kept wanting to picture Regency clothes and hairstyles gives me serious questions about how legitimate this is, because the type of social singing around tables that had defined the era of Dowland had been replaced with semicircular arrangements in Parlors by Regency times, as far as I know.

It’s persistent, though; last night I had a mental image of sitting at a desk writing with a quill, and the end of a wide billowed sleeve was a cuff with deep wavy scallops on it, not unlike the ends of some Tudor women’s sleeves.  Once again, there’s nothing there that I couldn’t have guessed with what I already know.

Then just today, my fiance and I were discussing working together more closely on creative projects and the subject of singing lessons came up (he’s a rather good singer).  It gave me a sense of deja vu and I thought of that first flash I had.

I don’t know what to make of it; like my memories of mid-19th century California, anything I couldn’t have confabulated or that I can solidly confirm a highly specific detail of isn’t there; I don’t have some intimate detail like a friend’s car or a childhood home that I can confirm with the available facts right now.

It seems the trail gets colder the further back you go; things that nobody thought to write down or draw (or even photograph) get forgotten about, then after about six hundred years large parts of the remaining narrative have been lost or destroyed.  Go far enough back and much of what we know of recorded history comes from a few inscriptions on stone here and there, and anyone whose name wasn’t carved in stone is completely forgotten about.  Eventually, even stone may hold on to its secrets as inscriptions are chipped away or damaged by erosion, earthquakes, and vandalism, or languages are forgotten.  Priceless artifacts that record the few remaining scraps of the ancient past still get stolen, vandalized, and destroyed in wars even now.  Go far enough back in the annals of human history and all we have are fragmented skeletons and blackened stains in the soil strata from campfires to say “Humans were here.”  In ten thousand years, if there is anyone alive, who will remember us?

Two poems come immediately to mind that might elaborate the emotional impression this leaves on me.  The first one “The Children and Sir Nameless” by Thomas Hardy, and the second, interestingly enough, is “East Coker.”  It haunts me to think that these could be genuine past lives for all I know, and the details that could nail it down may never come to light because the traces of the past die, just like people do.

I’ll keep recording these flashes from before John’s life but so far, it’s been hard to find any specific confirmations in any of them.  It’s a shame too; I’d love to confirm that I was Longespee in particular, but I’m not going to bullshit myself into thinking I have more than a weak circumstantial case for having been anyone before John.  Having enough circumstantial evidence to make an educated guess as to how I spent my last 137 years is remarkable enough, and I shouldn’t get carried away and try to make this more than it is.


East Coker Slide Show

Someone has put together a slide show of the village of East Coker with audio of the poem “East Coker” by TS Eliot:

Of course I got a chill from noticing just how little the village has changed since John’s time.  The roads are paved and marked now, there’s a lot more modern signage than there used to be, and to me, the Helyar Arms just looks wrong without a thatched roof (then again, I noticed about half of the thatched roofs have been upgraded to tile or shingles in the mean time).  

Also, there was one house at 4:07 that has a gate with iron anchors on it.  I feel weird about that one because my gut tells me that the gate was there in John’s time, even though my judgment tells me that the iron work is probably 1910s or later, judging by the style.  Now I’m curious as to when that gate was added.

It would be awesome if someone familiar with the history of East Coker could find this blog.  I still haven’t found Higher Lodge (where John lived according to the 1891 census).

Possible Trigger?

I think, in hindsight, I may have figured out what triggered me to recall past lives, and it’s not what I thought.

In 2011, my father (who knows I’m a big fan of the rock band Queen) got me a book written by Queen guitarist Brian May called “A Village Lost And Found,” because he knows how much of an Anglophile I’ve always been.  The book is about how Brian’s hobby, collecting stereo slides from the 19th century, led him to track down a mysterious village pictured in a series of slides from the 1850s.  It sat on my shelf for several months before I finally unwrapped it and looked at it.

This look at mid-19th century English village life may have helped me connect the dots and figure out why I felt so confused by the overall look of the villages I traveled to in the 2000s, looking for the one that felt like the right place but not sure what I was looking for.  What I noticed in these books was that there were many familiar features- clothes drying on front lawns, different monuments and fences in a churchyard, pollarded willows, and very ragged edges between roads and roadsides- that are missing now from the clean, sanitized, highly-gentrified rows of thatched cottages and pristine pubs that make up the English countryside today.  The feeling I got from it was such that I felt like I’d found the missing piece.  It just looked right to me.

I don’t consider this to be cryptomnesia because what I saw first was not a village like East Coker, but the war itself and then memories going back to the beginnings of Yeovil’s suburban sprawl in a terrace of relatively-new houses in the stark but sufficient life of a Victorian semiskilled laborer’s son.  We lived on a well-traveled road near a rail line and my father worked in a factory.  There wasn’t a single thatched cottage in my initial round of memories, mostly just a life on the edge of reasonably well-developed towns, and discovering that he had lived in East Coker- a village I knew as soon as I saw it- was an astonishing surprise.  

But maybe it was an indirect trigger, something that set off the same deep, repressed recollection within me that drove me to seek out this village in the New Forest, about fifty miles east of where I should have been and starting from a town- Lyndhurst- that was not much smaller than Yeovil.  Finally seeing how these types of villages looked in the 19th century may have somehow jogged my memory enough that the important details of John’s life came back to me shortly after I looked at this book.

I can’t believe I hadn’t considered that this book may have done it for me.  Odd to think that I may have Brian May to thank for remembering John’s life and all the rest of my past lives through more than just his music (which has also triggered memories), although I’m really not sure what he’d think of that!

More Coincidences

These coincidences may mean nothing, but I will record them just in case.  Forgive me if I go into “Paul is dead territory,” as my fiance likes to say.

First, a straightforward coincidence: Philip K. Dick attended a high school called Berkeley High School.  My parents met at a high school by that same name in the late 70s (albeit in a different state).  Unless, between lives, I somehow saw their diplomas, I can’t see how this would be anything more than coincidence.

Second, a curious and very roundabout coincidence with Gnosticism involving John’s life.  John spent his late childhood and young adulthood in the tiny village of East Coker.  East Coker was the subject of a poem by T.S. Eliot, which starts with the line “In my beginning is my end.”

Verse 18 of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (one of the Nag Hammadi Codices) reads as follows (emphasis mine):

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us, how will our end come?”

Jesus said, “Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is.

Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.”

Perhaps it’s just another meme being half-understood and repeated with no mind to meaning.  Lately I’ve been very aware of these memes but unable to discern a clear meaning from them, if indeed there ever was one.  I don’t want to lapse completely into making connections that aren’t there but I suppose it can’t hurt to note these coincidences for future reference.

Is This What I Was Looking For?

While going through some photos I took in 2005 while in the New Forest, I realized that I seemed to instinctively take photos of things that looked an awful lot like places in East Coker.

I was in the village of Lyndhurst, a short drive from Brockenhurst and about an hour’s walk from the tiny hamlet of Minstead, which I visited while there.

All along the walk to Minstead, I had this strange feeling that I was going somewhere important, but couldn’t place why the things I saw along the road made me feel this way.  It seems that walking all the way made it sink in that much more, and by the time I got to Minstead I felt something of a letdown when it wasn’t what I was expecting- whatever that was.  The whole trip- like so many trips I took while in the UK- was tinted with a strong feeling of true deja vu.

While the photos I took are hard to tell from coincidence because there are many villages in southern England with similar details, it’s still interesting that I’d take pictures of these things while feeling the vague sense that I was looking for something familiar.

The first possible coincidence is in the names of churches.  In East Coker, there is a St. Michael’s church. While it looks different, there is a St. Michael and All Angels Church in Lyndhurst.  All Saints Church in Minstead looks vaguely similar to St. Michael’s East Coker with its squarer bell tower (at least, it’s the closest thing in the general area).

Now here’s an interesting one.  In East Coker, the cemetery has this peaked wooden lychgate in front.  On the road to Minstead, I passed a similar lychgate.  But the real twist is in the dedication: “Lest we forget: 1914-1918.”  An interesting coincidence indeed, though these types of gates are extremely common as are monuments to the first world war.

Of course, thatched roofs, while sort of rare, are most common in southern England, so it should come as no surprise that a well-preserved village like East Coker has them.  And being a tourist, it should come as no surprise that I took photos of thatched roofs I saw on the road to Minstead.

Then, of course, it should also come as no surprise that the narrow tracks leading to East Coker are similar to those leading to Minstead.

Still, I’m left wondering if these places I gravitated toward- without the benefit of a Fodor’s Guide or anything more than vague guesses as to where to find whatever it was I was looking for- were really part of some subconscious memory of a childhood in an English village, or just luck that I stumbled on a few villages that had a similar feel.

This isn’t the extent of coincidences in the photos I took in England.  For example, a photo from 2003 which I haven’t scanned yet shows this monument in Richmond Upon Thames (not my photo) outside St. Mary Magdalene’s church, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Boer War Memorial in Hereford, where I believe I saw Lord Kitchener’s famous poster.  And once again, this is a common style of civic architecture so the fact that I photographed one like it doesn’t prove anything.  Interesting to note, though, that the monument in Richmond was only a few yards from the tiny, old-fashioned shop which served as our de-facto campus book store, so I passed it regularly, just as I might have passed a similar monument in Hereford.

It’s all so vague and circumstantial, but I can’t shake the feeling that I really did know what I was looking for the whole time I was in England, and I was always very close to finding it but never did quite manage.  I want desperately to go back now, actually travel to these places I missed last time I was there, and see if I get anything more than the looming, at times overbearing sense of deja vu I get from clicking through Google Street View or from traveling to similar places.

“Maybe if I was actually there…”, I keep telling myself.  Maybe if I was actually there…