At the beginning of The Lark Ascending, King argues that solitary walks give us opportunity for self-doubt and the reliving of anxieties. For this reason he “made certain any walk I undertook of reasonable length had recourse to being accompanied, or perhaps more accurately, salvaged, by music”. He walks with headphones, he says, and sometimes this social-historical travelogue seems to hover and swoop above landscapes as King treads them. Sometimes it wanders where it will. These wanderings can be beautiful, motivic: an articulate exploration of the composer Gavin Bryars’s large piece The Sinking of the Titanic or the route that jazz took from America to the British Isles.
this is a valuably original book. I liked the bursts of vivid passion, the cameo sketches of “post-psychedelic crofters”, the heartfelt account of travellers criminalised after the Battle of the Beanfield, the portrait of Kate Bush triumphantly pulling the levers of Wilhelm Reich’s “cloudbusting” contraption on Oxfordshire’s Dragon Hill. I liked the refusal of easy town-country divisions and the idea of Stan Tracey on a London bus between Streatham and Soho, composing his Jazz Suite Inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, imaginatively uniting Polly Garter, Welsh fishermen and Duke Ellington
Music, then – especially music with obvious links to the landscape – is something of a background presence in much of this book. The foreground is largely occupied by King’s meditative visits to various parts of the country and his interviews with musicians, ruralists, counterculture survivors and filmmakers. It is all very readable, in a journalistic kind of way, and the writing is infused with a distinctive mixture of nostalgia, regret for what might have been and anger at the sometimes brutal repression of elements of the rural counterculture.
Often, the most engaging and enjoyable moments of The Lark Ascendingoccur when King is not discussing music at all. There is a lovely episode, for example, in which we learn of the environmental activists known as Ferguson’s Gang, a group of five or six anonymous women who in the late 1920s aimed to support the activities of the National Trust by delivering to the organisation substantial donations “elaborately sewn into the carcass of a goose”.
But such moments are rare and do little to alleviate the impression that, on closing this book about the elevating reciprocity of music and nature, you have been on a journey that has dishearteningly failed to take flight.
This book fascinates in terms of how such divergent groups engage with landscape, with tradition and with re-inventing tradition. The links between “getting away from it all”, the folk song and a vaguely toxic culture of nationalism and the “health” of the nation are handled well. But too often it merely rattles between topics. There is no actual argument, only incidents that do not cohere, and rather too much about LSD and psilocybin. The underrated Scottish poet John Leyden talked of the skylark which “warbles in a tone less shrill”. It was that lark, not the ethereal, fantastical version from Vaughan Williams, with which I was left.
The Lark Ascending is something more rugged, lyrical and strange than a conventional history. Like the bird of Vaughan Williams’s piece (itself inspired by the 1881 George Meredith poem), it swoops and dives through the century that followed its first performance... [King's] book becomes something quite different, and necessarily so, when it digs deeper into the land and the social history embedded in it. For example, music isn’t mentioned much at all when King strays off, in a Sebaldian style, to explore British people’s political connections to the countryside, and agriculture’s relationship with science... [T]hroughout, King is at pains not to idealise the landscape itself. Pointing out its arbitrary cruelties has another effect though: it makes moments of beauty within it all the more affecting.