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Having the courage to follow intuition
on 12 November 2013
Although this book is flawed, it is still a diamond. Beautifully written, it reads like a thriller that I devoured in a week. The quality of writing is excellent: Robb talks to you as a friend, although one who may be overestimating your ability to understand. Still, better that than being patronised. It is a very honest account of a man who was busy being a scholar of French literature when a revelation burst upon him and changed his life.
Some people switch off as soon as the word `alignment' is used. Ley lines, spirit tracks, landing strips for aliens - it's all woo-woo stuff. This book, however, is in the class of the magisterial work of Alexander Thom and John North on Neolithic astronomy, but its subject is the much more recent Celtic world (using the word `Celtic' here as convenient shorthand).
It happens to be my own field of research and it was as if a room I'd been exploring with a box of matches was suddenly floodlit. He picks up on many things I thought were more or less my own discoveries, such as the scientific use of the eight-spoked wheel (usually described as `attribute of the thunder god, Taranis') and then fully elucidates them. Thus I was won over, but I still read the book as a sceptic.
Most of it is about Gaul but a third from the end he says, `I intended to stop here but...' Thank goodness he went on! For the last third is about the British Isles and it is revelatory.
It seems generally agreed amongst those who find such things interesting that Venonis (High Cross, Leics) was the druidic centre or omphalos of Britain but Robb barely mentions it. Instead he moots an omphalos much further south that struck me as ridiculous (trying to avoid plot spoiling here) until I put the solar-equinoctial grid on the map. With Venonis as centre, very little happens on the lines. With the Robb centre, well, the force of the revelation felt like a punch.
Apart from the stunning line-up of cathedral towns, there was a lot of personal in it: places where I've lived, do live, where friends and family live; places I've visited, several of them this summer, one of them in the past week. The author says towards the end that the map for him is `a huge and complex system of personal reference'. As for the author, so for the reader, and that's what makes this book such a compelling, thrilling read. It's hard for any academic to accept, but an awful lot more happens unconsciously than we are usually prepared to notice let alone admit. The later fate of the sites of Celtic temples and settlements proves it.
So why is this diamond flawed? As with all attempts to give a `map of everything', to join up the dots and show us a revelatory picture, it only works if you leave things out. I was surprised that there was practically no mention of Chartres when it is generally thought that once it was the omphalos of the Carnutes tribe of Gaul. York features on a map but gets no mention. The Fosse Way doesn't get half the notice it deserves and, in order to fit this geological feature to the map, actually gets rerouted, running from Exeter to Lincoln via Gloucester (rather than from Ilchester via Cirencester). This, however, may be explained in the caption to figure 64, but that happens to be a fine example of text that stretches my understanding beyond its capabilities (at least until I've done a home-study course in trigonometry). Having freed the Druids from the stereotype of wizards in white robes, Robb then perpetuates it in his analysis of the Gundestrup Cauldron when he describes one striking figure holding a smaller one upside down as `knowing how to hold a victim of sacrifice' when it could just as easily be the hold upon a newborn- or reborn-being coming out rather than going into the vat.
I recently read John Michell's `The Sacred Centre' and found it sadly disappointing. I realise now that Michell's mistake was to be looking for the geographic centre of each of the British Isles (and a lot of those isles quite small and numerous). I've been making the same mistake. Robb has shown that just as the heart is not the physical but metaphorical centre of the body, so it is with places.
`The Ancient Paths' is a book I read quickly and one that, having finished, I still can't put down. It leaves me with lots of questions and I hope there is more to follow, with more time and space devoted to the British story, particularly its omphalos.