The Compasses lies on the edge of an old straight track in a hollow that shelters it from the blast of the southwest wind. It’s in the hamlet of Chicksgrove. You can still see the outline of an oppidum in the field below, where Chilmark stone was mined in Roman times. A second-century Roman bust was found a few hundred yards away, alongside the lane, and somewhere up on the ridge is an ancient British fort that I’ve yet to investigate.
A thatched two-storey inn dating from the 14th century, The Compasses – named after a stonemason’s tool for marking out curves and right angles, not the instrument for navigation – is hard to locate on a map. ‘It’s one of those places, if you’re looking for it, you can’t find it,’ says Rob Hill, a surveyor who lives nearby. ‘You glimpse it out of the corner of your eye – and it’s there.’
It’s sheer luck that one of my favourite pubs is also my local.
I’ve tramped there on many a sunny evening, a twenty-minute walk that takes me behind the Anglo-Saxon tower of the church where I was married and my children were christened, and then across cornfields on a path parallel to the narrow river where no less an angler than Arthur Ransome flicked out his line for small wild Nadder trout.
For thirty years, I have ducked my head and passed into the low-ceilinged, dark front room and ordered a pint of Butcombe.
‘A healthy primitive people do not advance far towards civilisation before they develop communal gatherings for special purposes,’ wrote Alfred Watkins in his classic book on ley lines, The Old Straight Track. Like Stonehenge, fourteen miles away, The Compasses sits on a very ancient route – if you take these things seriously. Watkins did: ‘The old straight track decided the site of almost every branch of human communal activity.’ The original inn was a place for meeting the community’s emotional and superstitious requirements, with a horn lantern to show where the door was, the welcoming light placed in a window slit that was covered not with glass but bone or parchment.
The Compasses came into being out of our need to come together, not merely to fraternise but, loosened by ale, to intellectualise and philosophise. It was to Chicksgrove what the coffee house is to Vienna, the cafe to Paris, the diner to New York. It was the glue that bound together the immediate neighbourhood. Before the medieval traveller who stepped inside was dangled the intoxicating promise of having revealed to him ‘new facts in other branches of knowledge outside his ken’, in the words of Watkins.
* * *
There is a wall to the left of the bar where I like to stand and sip my beer. My story begins six years ago, opposite that wall, with a discussion about the eminent Australian writer Patrick White. I was chatting to a local poet, Keith Musgrove, whose wife had recently died, and saying how forcibly she had reminded me of the heroine in White’s masterpiece, Voss, for the Everyman edition of which I had just written an introduction. Keith had not read Voss, but was now intrigued to do so.
A fortnight later, we met on our usual patch of weathered brown carpet, a few feet away from the wall, and clinked glasses. I was keen to know what Keith thought of Laura Trevelyan and whether he also saw parallels with his late wife, Sara. He agreed that Laura had plenty in common with Sara and that White’s novel was powerful, though by and by Keith went on to speak with equal fervour of another novel he had read.
A novel as powerful as Voss? I was thirsty to hear more.
Keith had come across it by accident. Recommended a book by his niece, he had taken a glance at the opening page and put it back on the shelf, only to notice a novel with the same title right next to it. He opened this one and never put it down.
‘What’s it called?’
‘The Power of the Dog,’ he replied, and promised to drop it off the next day.
The author, Thomas Savage, was new to me: an American novelist from Salt Lake City who had died in 2003 and whose novel, published in 1967, had appeared only in an American edition. With some hesitation, I opened the book and started to read. Like Keith, I did not stop.
The following month I was in London having lunch with my paperback publisher, who had republished John Williams’s novel Stoner to enormous success. She was on the hunt for more overlooked titles, and I didn’t hesitate to suggest The Power of the Dog. An exhilarating drama involving two brothers, set in 1920s Montana, it was better even than Stoner, I told her.
Soon after, she emailed to say that she had bought a copy, read it, and bought the rights. I rang Keith to tell him the glad news that Thomas Savage would now be gaining a posthumous new lease of life, all thanks to our conversation in The Compasses.
The Power of the Dog was published by Vintage in 2016; it sold many thousands of copies and was judged to be ‘entirely deserving of its Stoner comparison’. And then, three years later, came another email from my publisher, this time informing me that The Power of the Dog was to be made into a film, directed by Jane Campion and starring Elisabeth Moss and Benedict Cumberbatch.
In the meantime, The Compasses had changed hands.
The new owner turned out to be the son of my former publisher, Tom Maschler. Old hands at the bar watched with falcon eyes to see whether Ben Maschler would realign the decor, rip up the worn carpet, brighten the gloomy (to some) interior. But the only change I observed was an improvement: Ben took down from the wall opposite my habitual standing spot a soft-focused photograph of mist rising over the fields, and hung in its place a primitive oil painting of an Australian landscape that reminded me for some reason of Tasmania, an island that has long been part of my life and about which one traveller has memorably written, ‘For Europeans, it represents the literal end of the world: if you travel any further you are on your way home again.’
One weekend, Tom Maschler came to visit, and during his stay I went to talk with him. He reminisced about the writers he’d published: Bruce Chatwin, Ian Fleming, Gabriel García Márquez, Ian McEwan. But there was one writer, he said, who had impressed him more deeply than any of his authors. It was Patrick White. ‘Whenever Patrick finished a book,’ Maschler said, ‘he wanted me alone to come out to Sydney where he lived, and I would go to my hotel and read the manuscript and have dinner with him, and that became a ritual.’
It was invigorating to speak to someone who had known White and I told Maschler of my own passionate admiration for Australia and its prickly Nobel laureate, and the strange way this had led, first to the rediscovery of Thomas Savage and then to a Hollywood film, after a chat in what was now his son’s pub.
This story stirred a memory. Maschler said, ‘Patrick gave me a painting that used to hang in his study at the period when he would have been writing Voss.’
‘Do you still have the painting?’ I asked.
‘I’ve given it to Ben. He’s hung it in The Compasses.’
‘It’s on the wall to the left of the bar.’
* * *
Early surveyors were called ley men or rod men and carried sighting staves like wands. Rob, who trained as a buildings archaeologist, is a member of a mummers’ group whose plays feature characters who shuttle seamlessly between ages.
One Christmas evening, I watched Rob’s troupe file into The Compasses to perform a medieval miracle play that had evolved through the centuries to embrace personalities diverse in time and status, such as Father Christmas, King George, the Turkish Knight and the Doctor. Over a glass of Butcombe, Rob and I discussed the stone wall against which I’d seen his mummers perform their street theatre – interpreted by Rob as a simple allegory of life, death and resurrection. ‘Psychic researchers have a theory of entrapped energy,’ Rob said. He seemed to have some sympathy with the idea. He once surveyed the roof space of an early mental hospital outside Warwick. ‘I was locked in with my assistant, I’m the only one who has keys, and there’s a security guard outside.’ Suddenly, he heard noises down below. Screams, thumps, bangs, the huge slam of doors. Rob and his assistant looked at each other, as if to say, ‘What do you expect in a building like this, with so much energy and emotion locked up for 150 years?’
Upon having to listen to a story encompassing Patrick White, Keith Musgrove and his wife, Thomas Savage, Jane Campion and the Australian artist Max Watters, Rob cast another estimating glance at the wall (built out of what he described as ‘semi-coursed random rubble’) and Watters’s newly hung painting of a sheep station in the Hunter Valley. ‘A resonance builds up. You can’t find a word for it because there isn’t a word. You can’t put a probe on it and say “X or Y units of resonance”. It’s something our senses feel. An “atmosphere” is probably the best word. I take off my professional hat because I can’t prove it, but I know it’s there. I just accept there is something happening.’
By way of conclusion, Rob said: ‘Perhaps the best answer does not come from asking: “Why am I experiencing this?” Turn it round. What is it about this place that is creating that atmosphere, and where is it coming from? Ask: “Why is this place here and what makes it survive?”’