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A Glimmer Of Cope: Adelle Stripe On The Modern Antiquarian
Adelle Stripe , September 14th, 2020 08:32

In the first of our subscriber-exclusive Low Culture essays, Adelle Stripe opens her battered copy of Julian Cope's The Modern Antiquarian and argues that this guide to Britain's neolithic remains has a strikingly modern relevance

Julian Cope at Silbury Hill, Wiltshire by Cat Stevens. All other photographs courtesy of Adelle Stripe

The first literary event I ever attended was a date on The Modern Antiquarian book tour at Leeds Waterstones in 1998. Having been to countless since, I can confirm that it was the finest, and therefore the Ur-reading against which all others will be judged. It helped that the author, Julian Cope, was a bona fide popstar who was quite happy to stand up in front of an audience and ad-lib his way through 60 minutes of discussion about stone circles, which was the subject of his new book. He marched into the room wearing a leopard-print hat, matching fake-fur coat, juggler leggings, big sunglasses and a pair of enormous platform boots that took his height to approximately 7ft 6in. It was an outfit that clearly meant business. At the time, I had scant knowledge of the strange pagan world that was the object of his obsession. This had culminated in him spending most of the previous eight years traipsing around windy landscapes creating this new guide to the forgotten megalithic sites of Britain that were first constructed in the late Neolithic period.

His voice was rich, velvety and ever so slightly posh; Cope was unlike anyone I had ever seen or heard before. In the grim meat-and-potatoes land of late-90s fashion, he looked like he had landed from outer space. And not in a contrived way either, though truth be told he did look like a bit of a berk. What he said that night connected with me on a superficial level. Why would we travel halfway around the world to visit the Nazca Lines or Chichén Itzá, when there were equal treasures on our doorstep, he asked. Easy for you to say that, I thought to myself, when I could barely afford the bus fare into town that night, never mind a trip to the Isle of Lewis to look at some old stones. However, my interest was piqued, as I had recently devoured a copy of Head-On and thought perhaps there was something of interest in what the Arch Drude had to say. According to Cope, Avebury, in the Marlborough Downs, was as culturally significant as The Stooges, which gave me cause to investigate his claims further, and even now, 22 years later, I am still chipping away at this idea.

Now, for the sake of this story, I’m going to say that I bought a copy of the book that night, priced £29.99, and that Julian signed it for me afterwards (embrace the myth!). The reality is it was far too expensive on a H&M-fitting-room wage, so it would be another year or two before the hallowed tome finally made its way into my possession. My copy is scratched, a bit faded, and a little grubby on the corners. I have been dragging the damned thing around muddy fields for two decades, convinced that the book itself has some mystical significance. It has witnessed arguments on Dartmoor, epiphanies at Castlerigg, first dates at West Kennet, grief at Arbor Low, blowjobs on Silbury Hill, and perhaps, most recently, the end of lockdown at Sunkenkirk, where visitors squirted antibacterial gel on their hands after touching its quartz-veined stones. Since its acquisition, I have visited a paltry 22 of the 300 sites in the book, which isn’t too bad going considering I am incapable of driving. Julian faced the same predicament and didn’t learn to drive until he was 34, at which point he realised he was no longer prepared to rely on others to cart him around the country, and from then on his journey of discovery of megalithic Britain began.

Tellingly, an image of Callanish’s cruciform shape was used on the cover of his 1992 album Jehovahkill and marks the beginning of Cope’s Modern Antiquarian period. Prior to its recording, he was depressed, and in his “Paul Weller phase, composing music that I felt nobody was getting”. Writing in The Sunday Times, Cope recalls that when his friend Pete de Freitas of Echo And The Bunnymen died, he was overwhelmed with grief and visited Avebury, which provided a sense of calm and “inspired a lunatic awe”. In the following years he decamped there and brought up his family in the area, where he was jokingly referred to by Coil’s John Balance as Lord Yatesbury. As one of his personal heroes, Gurdjieff, once wrote: “Awakening begins when a man realises that he is going nowhere and does not know where to go.” It was at this uncertain point in his life that Cope transformed himself from a popstar into a serious researcher of ancient history and created what would become one of the most important contributions to British culture in the late 20th century. There are few frontmen who can lay claim to being invited to deliver a lecture on Odin at the British Museum, such is the respect he is accorded. (Although when he arrived at the lectern, he wore so much hairspray that it set the fire alarms off and the sold-out audience had to be evacuated. Far out!)

In contrast to the formality of ancient history, there is an enduring appeal to Cope’s musical career that stretches beyond conventional audiences. Football casuals from northern towns loved him; he was an anomaly in their record collections. He always had a devoted following in Glasgow, for example, where ‘Sunspots’ was the record most stolen from house parties in the 1980s. Bobby Gillespie recalls how The Teardrop Explodes were one of the inspirations for early Primal Scream, with the middle-class choirboy vocals of Cope providing a sense of exoticism in contrast to the hard, masculine environment that surrounded them. I first stumbled on Cope’s music through older male friends who would lend vinyl to me in exchange for the occasional pint. I was a music head, hungry to listen and with an opinion on everything. I read the NME and Melody Maker religiously and was always captivated by Cope’s interviews, in which I would stare at pictures of him crouching with a large turtle shell on his back, or lampooning police at the poll tax riots dressed as a papier-mâché alien named ‘Sqwubbsy’ with a giant baby’s head, considering if he should assassinate Margaret Thatcher. But it was on Channel 4’s Star Test where the introduction really began. Staring at a computer screen, and clearly off his gourd, Cope selected his own questions and bounced around the room like a mad chimp. I was immediately hooked. Even when he’s clearly on a chemical plane, he still has total clarity. He’s the eternal clown; funny and self-deprecating, but also a charismatic communicator who can take oblique ideas and make them palatable, which is part of his charm.

One of the most impressive aspects to the narrative of The Modern Antiquarian is the sheer determination that Cope showed throughout its development. He is a driven man, with a renowned discipline that transcends his musical output and spills rapidly on to the page. Vision, persistence and determination, in his opinion, are the reason why he continues to create such a large volume of work, not any innate talent or genius. Frustrated by the large number of books he had to cart around with him as part of his megalithic field research, he decided to write his own comprehensive version to save other people the hassle. Many of the books he cites were rarities, as the now out-of-print The Modern Antiquarian is today. Throughout the mid-90s, as his peers were caught up in the tedious Britpop explosion, Cope buggered off in his car to live in Travelodges and play random gigs in village halls around the British Isles to pay for the research. Over time, Cope wrote the book he wanted to read and condensed his knowledge to create a new pathway through the subject.

Viva Las Vegas! The author visits Stonehenge in 2007

The sites I have visited over the years are often situated on plateaus, in the most sacred landscapes, and the fact you can actually walk inside of them and stare at the stars above makes them far superior to the tourist trap of Stonehenge, which is off-limits and adjacent to a noisy road. It is the Las Vegas of stone circles, one that was built at the end of the period, to reflect what had gone before, as opposed to the wild, futuristic vision of its predecessors.

Alongside Avebury and Dunnideer in Aberdeenshire, Callanish on the Isle of Lewis is of great personal significance to Cope. It is spellbinding, but a pain in the arse for most to reach as it requires a massive road trip and a ferry. Thankfully, it’s a site for only the most committed traveller and keeps the selfie-stick brigade at bay. It is formed in the shape of a Celtic cross with five rows of standing stones and a chambered tomb at its core. Cope takes great care in giving credit to the outstanding work of Margaret Curtis, who argued that Callanish was a giant lunar observatory; she believed that the stones were positioned to play optical tricks on pilgrims at pivotal points in the calendar, such as summer and winter solstice. Gaps between the stones were frames with a ceremonial purpose, where the moon became a stage light as it rose. According to Cope, the ancients were the first glam rockers: men wore make-up and costumes, and pilgrims visited the sites to dance, sing and be invigorated. It was cosmic drama and a form of pagan rock & roll, with deer-antler masks, animal skins, the beating of drums, and wild dancing and singing. It is believed that Callanish was not only a site of religious devotion but also a stage where communal bacchanalian behaviour was celebrated. A bit like the Berghain of ancient Britain.

So what tradition is it exactly that Julian Cope follows? If he is the Modern Antiquarian, then we can draw links back to Francis Bacon, who in 1605 described readings of the past based on antiquities as “unperfect histories”. And in many ways, what Cope created adds to that description. His unperfect view of what these sites were used for is open to interpretation, guiding the reader to make up their own minds as to their true intent. Cope follows in the footsteps of such luminaries in this field of antiquarian research as William Stukeley and Aubrey Burl, who once remarked on the importance of the outsider in this area of study: “It is strange how rarely advances in stone circle research have been made by an archaeologist.” Like Burl, Cope’s observations from the fringe gave him unique insight, and although partly a scholarly work of essays and footnotes, The Modern Antiquarian is not bogged down with dry fact. It is lyrical, personal and poetic, complete with anecdotes, photographs (including his bare-breasted wife, Dorian), poems and maps. But perhaps most importantly, his prose is accessible to readers and lacks the formality of most writing in this field.

Cope’s innovative gazetteer opened up the landscape to a whole new generation of walkers, psychonauts and amateur historians. Unlike many archaeological accounts, there is no concrete conclusion, as it is a work that explores suggestion, albeit with a frequently esoteric angle.

His engagement with etymology and symbolism is particularly revealing, as he demonstrates the links between our own contemporary language and Goddess culture. His theories wouldn’t look too out of place in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough or Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, which also follow a similar trajectory in which the end of matriarchal culture marked a downturn in civilisation and the ascent of an aggressive masculine culture that still dominates contemporary life. This prehistory maps the indigenous pagan tradition of ancient Britain, an era in which the vast landscapes of Britain, from Cornwall to North Yorkshire, Orkney and North Wales, were united by megalithic structures that were built communally by pre-feudal societies. Beyond the Channel, there are countless examples of European sites that connect our shared pre-Christian culture. Long Meg and Her Daughters in Penrith has similarities with Cromeleque dos Almendres in Portugal, and the great stone ship henge of Ales Stenar in Sweden. The Iberian Peninsula contains many impressive examples of these structures, and the rock-cut tombs at Delphi in Greece are similar to Cornish dolmens and burial mounds. A collective fascination with building these grand stone shapes for ritualistic purposes echoes throughout Europe; even Socrates once remarked of the ancients: “If a rock was known for telling the truth they would listen to it.” Later on, in biblical times, God instructed Moses to build him an altar of unhewn stone, a tradition that continues in many contemporary churches. In a time when Britain has chosen to dislocate itself from Europe, these sites remain a symbol of unification that spanned various tribes, languages and beliefs. It is interesting to note that when the Romans invaded British shores and started to build roads, they often used the connecting megalithic sites as a guide. For example, the A1 runs parallel to the Ure-Swale Plateau, so there is a convincing argument to suggest that parts of our current road network were first mapped by ancient Britons.

There are links between our own contemporary predicaments and those of the communities that built these structures – 5,000 years ago slash-and-burn farming techniques triggered environmental ruin across much of the landscape, and even 2,500 years ago ancient Britons were complaining about population explosions and perceived lack of space. When Christian culture finally arrived, many of the sites were consumed by the new religion through an act of syncretism, and the book lists chapels and churches that were built using these sacred stones, such was the significance of the sites. Cope believes that visiting and studying these sites has a spiritual importance, it is a “nourishing and healing act”. Although of no religious or spiritual persuasion, I do understand his point. I frequently feel invigorated after visiting them, and providing they are unoccupied, can sit in quiet contemplation for hours, cross-legged as clouds pass overhead. When I first bought this book I had little knowledge of history, or landscape beyond the local, and had no interest in wearing cagoules or walking boots on a weekend. It represents a change in my own personal perception, when I began to take an interest in literature and history, eventually going on to study classics and theology in a formal setting many years later. The Modern Antiquarian pointed me in a new direction – it was a tool for the emerging autodidact buried within that transformed the assumed banality of the English landscape into something magical and eternally compelling.

In the book’s corresponding BBC documentary, Cope once remarked: “People don’t go anywhere nowadays, unless there’s a sign.” The great appeal for him as a researcher was to discover the burial chambers, stone circles and henges that were scattered across the length and breadth of the country. At the time of its publication, there was rarely any indication from the roadside that these sites existed; the ‘brown signs’ of English Heritage weren’t common, so it was frequently left for the intrepid walker to find the sites of Bronze Age and Neolithic Britain through Ordnance maps or word of mouth. In 2020, of course, everywhere has a sign, such is the curse of social media. The only ‘location tagging’ we had in 1998 was through books and maps. Now, everything is instant. I often wonder if our new digital era is damaging the mystique of these once secluded places? For example, the hashtag #stonecircle has 71k posts on Instagram. I’m a hypocrite to criticise, of course, and found it hard to resist posting a photograph on a recent trek, only to be besieged by requests to share the location. Naturally, I refused, and told them to buy a copy of the book, only to discover it sells for an eye-watering £350 secondhand online. One thing I have recently observed is that many stone circles are now signposted from roadsides, although thankfully many of those listed inside Cope’s book can only be found with a hardcopy map, prepared effort and physical determination. It is a treasure hunt for those willing to brave the foul British climate. Cope is sensitive to the sacred energy of these places, writing: “It would be immoral for them to be signposted or treated like official heritage sites.” Little was he to know that his hardbound book would go on to sell 20,000 copies in its first print run, thus unleashing a wave of visitors, including myself, into far-flung corners of the land.

Cope is a natural signposter, regardless of what he happens to be writing about. Krautrocksampler, Japrocksampler and Copendium are all manifestations of his musical obsessions and provide readers with a treasure trove of material to discover. At his best, Cope symbolizes the obscure depths of 20th-century counterculture, a period left partially undamaged by the instant access of our new digital era. His great skill is to make convincing arguments on whatever he happens to be enthusiastic about at the time. When he once spent a prolonged period in Tamworth building rooms out of toy cars, taking vast quantities of LSD, and speed-walking around a local mound (which inspired the song ‘Reynard The Fox’) for seven hours a night, he somehow spring-boarded from that insane repetitive behaviour into writing books, with much more concrete results. So why did this self-confessed rock & roll shaman walk away from the stage to write a megalithic guidebook? Joseph Campbell once wrote that the celebrity adores his audience, and will walk on tightropes, or dance with dangerous animals. But the hero will do it even when there’s no audience. For Cope at the very least, I suspect he’s in his element performing only to the empty page. Although a fan of his work, I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as an acolyte, and he’s certainly not a hero in any sense of the word. I’ve always believed anyone who refers to themselves as a ‘shaman’ is a tosser who is probably doing it to get laid or make themselves sound more interesting than they actually are. However, in Julian’s case I’ll let him off the hook. He more than makes up for it in other ways.

A visit to Sunkenkirk, 2020

A classic example of the self-sabotaging “non-career mover”, Cope is of the old school that believes success breeds confusion, and will gladly turn down offers to republish his back catalogue out of principle. It shows an element of integrity and lack of materiality. In some ways, it’s also a respect for transience, and like the KLF, who have deleted their back catalogue, he has deliberately allowed his books to go out of print. In Cope’s world, nostalgia equals death, which is perhaps the same reason he didn’t turn up for The Teardrop Explodes’ Mojo Inspiration Award in 2010. Making things unavailable ensures a legacy and preserves the myth. And after all, what’s more important than that in the grand scheme of history?

Adelle Stripe’s Sweating Tears with Fat White Family is published by Rough Trade Books. Special thanks to Lee Brackstone, David Keenan & Robert Gillespie for their input