In Pursuit of Edward Thomas


Cycling After Thomas
, David Caddy (160 pp., 10.00, Spout Hill Press)


This is a puzzling, frustrating book which I expected to enjoy, but then didn't. On the surface, it promised to be a belles-lettres - style account of a cycling trip undertaken in the wake of a similar journey made by the poet Edward Thomas in 1913, later written up as his prose book In Pursuit of Spring. Unfortunately, although David Caddy has some interesting ideas and makes occasionally enlightening links, the execution of these ideas left me unimpressed.

Thomas cycled across England, from Clapham to Salisbury, then onto the Quantocks at a very important time in his literary development. He had been producing prose works at a great rate between 1900 and 1913, much of it commissioned literary hack-work, but with occasional, more personal projects, such as his biography Richard Jefferies
, published in 1909. In the middle of 1914, he met Robert Frost, then living in England, and Frost convinced him he should be writing poetry. After this, the poems poured forth from him, beginning in December 1914 and continuing up to his  death under fire in Arras in April 1917.

Thomas' poems have grown in popularity and importance since; he is lionised by writers such as Ted Hughes and Andrew Motion and represents an 'English' tradition cut violently short with the death of many Georgian writers of the period. More recently, Matthew Hollis' acclaimed biography, Now All Roads Lead to France
has shone a light on his final years and was serialised on Radio 4. The canonical status of his dam-burst of poems, produced during the First World War, seems assured.
 
The fate of his prose, however, seems less certain. Some books are out of print and long-forgotten, others simply literary work 'by the mile', as he walked and cycled across the country during a period that now seems remote to us. Caddy's take on this is that Thomas represents an alternative 'English' radical tradition, if that doesn't seem too oxymoronic. His book name-checks the likes of Hazlitt, the socialist Edward Carpenter, William Cobbett, cricket commentator John Arlott and he asserts  links with newer names such as Richard Thompson, Eliza Carthy and the playwright Jez Butterworth, whose Jerusalem
picks up a number of folk-related threads.
 
This would make quite an intriguing thesis if it had been drawn together with a little more care, a little less repetition and a whole lot less psychogeographical ramblings in a style reminiscent of Iain Sinclair. I admire Sinclair's work, but am compelled to admit that it is verbose, rambling and name-checks a lot of his 'inner circle' repetitively, not to say obsessively at times. These faults also bedevil this book: chapters overlap, paragraphs repeat earlier material, and the whole shebang has been proof-read (if at all) by a small mammal with only a hazy working knowledge of English grammar and punctuation. At first, I thought these were isolated slips, but when I came across the poet Louis MacNeice having undergone gender realignment to 'Louise MacNeice' (p. 122), I gave up. Sad to say, also, that as the journey progresses, whilst we hear quite a lot about Caddy's own life and interests, Edward Thomas remains just a shadowy figure: he may have been cycling after Thomas, but he doesn't catch him.
 
   M.C.Caseley 2013