On 11 September, the world changed forever: DH Lawrence was born. To celebrate that special day in 1885, I’ve arranged to go for a stomp across his childhood home of Eastwood with other members of the DH Lawrence Society.
Eastwood was a booming coal mining community at the turn of the twentieth century, but Lawrence wasn’t a fan, and bemoans the destruction of the natural landscape in his early novels. Although Emile Zola had written about coal miners in Germinal (1885), and Vincent Van Gogh slouched off to Belgium to live among the miners he painted, Lawrence was the first writer to portray them from the inside. He didn’t hold back. Eastwood has never forgiven him. Neither has the literati.
His books were consistently banned, and he faced censorship throughout his career. Consequently, he turned his back on England in 1919, cursing “the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They've got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed.” He set off with his German wife Frieda, who he nicknamed the Queen Bee, travelling the globe in search of Rananim: a community of like-minded people. But there was no-one like Lawrence, so he just kept on moving. He lived in Sicily for a bit, but was irritated by the locals who were “so terribly physical over one another” like “melted butter over parsnips.” “Beastly Milano” was no better, “with its imitation hedgehog of a cathedral”. So he set off east for Mexico, stopping off in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he got bad guts and took it out on the Buddha “Oh I wish he would stand up!” Lawrence was a proper mard arse, raging at everything. It’s why I love him so much.
By the time I arrive at my destination I’m fifteen minutes late. Nobody is around. Given that the average age of membership in the DH Lawrence Society is seventy, I naively presume I can catch them up and leg it across the field. But they’re nowhere to be seen. I start shouting, which attracts the attention of a herd of cows in an adjacent field. They start to chunter over, perhaps thinking I’m the farmer rather than a disorganised reader wanting to recite bits of Sons and Lovers at relevant locations on a six-mile circular walk. Then one of them kicks out a leg like he’s dancing. They start to pick up pace. Some run into each other. They’re not bulls, are they? They’re charging now. There must be sixty on them. I peg it towards a hedgerow in the middle of the field and within seconds I’m circled by angry cows.
I shout at them to piss off. They take turns mooing and staring, like they want a fight. I begin to walk away calmly, but they follow, less calmly. Then, one at the back panics and starts to run, setting off the others. I make it to a nearby tree and clamber up, waving my copy of Sons of Lovers at them, telling them to fuck off. They’re having none of it. They want me dead. I can see it in their “wicked eyes.” Lawrence could name every flower, plant and tree. I haven’t got a clue what tree I’ve scrambled up. I just know it’s prickly and my hands are bleeding.
As I stare at the cows and the cows stare back, I think of Birkin in Women in Love when he tells Ursula he wants their connection to be founded on something beyond love, “where there is no speech, and no terms of agreement.” This was definitely a moment of no speech and no terms of agreement. Just a lot of stamping and mooing. “This is the wrong book” I scream, waving my copy of Sons and Lovers. FFS! This isn’t Women in Love.
In Women in Love, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen end up singing and dancing naked in front of a herd of Highland cattle. It’s one of many incidents that have wrongly led Lawrence to be classified as a dotteh author. Nothing could be further from the truth. He believed that in privileging the intellect, we’ve lost touch with our more intuitive and instinctive senses, what he described as blood consciousness. He was more pagan than pervert.
I spot a man in wellies in a garden on the edge of the field. He has to be the farmer; he looks like a farmer. I scream at him from up my tree. Eventually he looks up; too casual for my liking, but at least I have his attention. “You ok?” he shouts.
“Of course I’m not fucking ok. These cows want me dead.”
“Do you want some help?”
“Of course I want some fucking help.” He climbs over his fence and plods over, clapping his hands at the cows who immediately disperse. “Just got to clap at ‘em,” he informs.
He asks if I’d like to be escorted out of the field and I say yes, of course I want to be escorted out of the field. I consider giving him my copy of Sons and Lovers but decide against it as I’ve highlighted my favourite quotes. I tell him that it’s DHL’s birthday today. He nods. I don’t elaborate further. Once over the fence I give him a clap. He walks off. Not just cows, then.
When I get back to my car I smoke three cigarettes on the bounce and then speed out of Eastwood as fast as I can. I’m in such a rage that I pull over to call my girlfriend. She’s more of a hornet than a Queen Bee. I’m always scalding her for her poor time management so she revels in my misfortune. She’ll store this day forever. Never forget it. 11 September will forever be cowgate. Rather than DHL’S birthday. Or the date when two planes flew into two towers.
As I head home, I clock the blue and yellow hell that is Ikea. Lawrence wasn’t a man for flat-packed philosophies but he did love his DIY. Aldous Huxley said Lawrence “could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.” If the girlfriend ever dumps me, I’m using that quote for my Tinder profile.
Although I missed the walk, I’ve unwittingly celebrated elements of Lawrence’s personality on his birthday. He hated the herd mentality, despising any group that attempted to force its will upon him. He hated the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and how this slowly removed man from nature; the cows were a curt reminder that nature still has some fight left in it. Lawrence couldn’t get out of Eastwood fast enough and this led him to live a nomadic life across the globe, often in abject poverty. “I find I can be anywhere at home, except home,” he lamented.
Later in the evening, the radio reports there’s been an increase in tuberculosis in cows. To stop this spreading, 33,500 badgers will be culled in autumn. Lawrence died of tuberculosis. He was my age, 44. Perhaps the cows were trying to tell me something. Instead of running, I should have listened.
James Walker’s Memory Theatre project will be published in 2019.
The Digital Pilgrimage online