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Book Review – On Silbury Hill, Adam Thorpe

February 17, 2015

This book was published in 2014 by Little Toller books to almost uniformly rave reviews praising its treatment of archaeology, memory and sense of place. It’s been longlisted for the Wainwright Prize and was Radio 4’s Book of the Week. I made a mental note to read it, especially as it seemed to cover my interest in how outsiders see archaeology and the work of archaeologists and, as mentioned previously, the Avebury area is one I know and love. As ever real life got in the way, but eventually I got round to reading On Silbury Hill and I have to say I’m somewhat perplexed. As many of the reviewers remark it is a beautiful volume. The wonderful cover illustration by David Inshaw

is matched inside by work from Paul Nash, Henry Moore and Joe Tilson, and the inclusion of Thorpe’s family snapshots – which could have undermined these artists – adds to the attractiveness. As Rachel Cooke noted in her review, everything about the presentation of this book is delightful, it’s smaller than most hardbacks and would easily slip into a pocket, it looks lovely, but the contents? Not so much.

While I’m somewhat in awe of anyone who manages to write any book, but this ‘rich and evocative book of place‘ seems to be more of a confused jumble of memoir, meditations on religion, historical re-imaginings, nature writing and archaeology.

Some of the memoir sections of the book are fascinating – he writes well about his childhood split awkwardly between his school life at Marlborough College and his family home in Cameroon. His unhappiness at school led him to explore the downs and discover Silbury Hill, since then the monument has been his anchor and lodestone. He talks about the hill in connection with building memories, belonging, identity and family: likening his own life with its sediment of memories and shaped by events to the building of Silbury Hill over several generations. When Silbury Hill became unstable in 2001 Thorpe says ‘I thought: if Silbury collapses, so will I. Psychologically anyway’ anyway’ (Thorpe 2014: 15). At which point I thought I was in for another Fever Pitch style memoir, but no, Thorpe reveals far less of himself than Nick Hornby did. There are hints of upheaval and grief, but these remain hints – and that’s fine, it’s up to an author what and how much they reveal, but it does mean his insistence on the importance of Silbury to his life and mental well-being is largely unconvincing. I would have preferred more memoir, more of his ideas about memories, cyclical time and the way events form us and then give rise to new patterns and purposes: ‘There is no such thing as the past. The hill lives and the generations live within it’ (Thorpe 2014: 119).

The bits about religion are interesting, here’s a man who obviously knows his world religions. Whether they have any relevance to the construction of Silbury (and indeed the whole of the Avebury landscape) is a moot point, but an interesting one nonetheless. However, archaeologists and anthropologists have been exploring similar themes for years, in far more detail and with a much better grasp of the details of past societies and a more critical approach. The same accusation can be levelled at his historical re-imaginings; his shamanistic description of the building of Silbury Hill and his imagining what it would be like to be a young prehistoric man are fine as far as they go but think of the narratives of Jacquetta Hawkes, Ruth Tringham and Mark Edmonds and quickly you realise Thorpe doesn’t go far enough. Likewise his description of the destruction of the Avebury sites relies solely on Stukeley’s description rather than recent archaeological work on the stone destruction which reveals a far more complex scenario. I should say, however, that Thorpe includes an interesting section on gender discussing ancient attitudes to women and reflecting on childbirth and infant mortality. But, again it’s too short, a single page, and elsewhere – with the exception of his imagining a wise woman overseeing the final phases of Silbury’s construction – the past is seen as unrelentingly male. Thorpe also speculates about how and why Silbury was built, whose vision was being followed? Was it a communal endeavour or the result of a particular person and how did that person persuade everyone else? It is when Thorpe is writing about the group/clan/tribe sharing a sense of purpose that you begin to see the craft of the novelist in bringing the past to life, but just as you get interested in his ideas he veers off onto something else and it all becomes a jumble with nothing explored in real depth.

That said, I could have done with more brevity when it comes to the nature writing. Mostly Thorpe writes beautifully of the flora and fauna of the Chilterns and the Wiltshire Downs and I began to see why he’s an acclaimed poet and novelist. It’s his insistence on envisaging Silbury Hill as female and referring to the monument as ‘she’ or ‘her’ throughout that makes me wince, anthropomorphisising/gendering monuments is just plain wrong! Having visited Silbury and having seen many expectant mothers I don’t think the monument looks anything like a pregnancy (Thorpe 2014: 13) and I’m just relieved Thorpe has abandoned the rest of Michael Dames arguments so we don’t get a re-hash of his landscape as gynaecology business. As it is, sentences such as: ‘She is equally unattainable, but my internal prow can still probe her solitude, edging into the verdant gloom of her, of that great and derelict bulge’ (Thorpe 2014: 31) make me say ‘Eww!’ and go away and read something that doesn’t get all sweaty and inappropriately sexual about a great heap of chalk and soil.

I may have got hyper-sensitive and be seeing sexual analogies where there are none, but I also found it a bit worrying the way he writes about investigations by antiquarians and archaeologists, there are lots of references to ‘pokings’ ‘boring’ ‘probing’ and ‘exploitation’. Atkinson’s excavations seem to particularly excise him, every time he mentions Atkinson he seems compelled to add that the dig was filmed (Thorpe 2014: 15, 19, 28 and 46). It’s as if the filming was some sort of additional outrage, a voyeuristic intrusion compromising his beloved hill. And, frankly, I don’t want to think about this!

The archaeology itself? It’s ok, a bit dated in his understandings of the past, particularly the Neanderthals, occasionally wrong – Silbury Hill is not a ‘classic causewayed enclosure, in archaeologist lingo’ (Thorpe 2014: 78) – but these are inevitable mistakes. Didn’t we, in part, invent these terms and understandings for the very purpose of marking out our territory and tripping the unwary? He does go through the different interpretations of Silbury Hill over time and how they have all been affected by contemporary thinking from the Romans onwards and there’s a fairly detailed discussion of left-field thinkers such as Alexander Thom, H.J. Massingham as well as Michael Dames. Additionally there’s a good précis of the work done by the Stonehenge Riverside Project which includes the excellent remark ‘I have tended to see Stonehenge as the Tesco to Avebury’s Waitrose’ (Thorpe 2014: 139-40). A fault many Avebury fans have shared!

I realise this is a rather negative review and I wish it could have been more positive. I had high hopes of this book, and it is a beautiful volume, but it doesn’t go anywhere that I can follow. I found it  frustratingly brief where I wanted more information and too long-winded where I wanted brevity.

If you’ve read it I’d love to know what you think, or if you’ve read anything else by Thorpe – how does this compare?

I can’t imagine I’ll have time to write another post between now and the weekend so I’ll be back next week, for now I’m just going to concentrate on us all surviving half-term!


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