Mavis Cheek brings Marlborough’s land of the living dead into loving life
“Land of the living dead” is how one historian has brilliantly described the soft chalk hills that surround Marlborough with their prehistoric sites where early man settled and prospered.
Now Mavis Cheek has brought them alive with a remarkable new novel, unlike any of her previous 14 that have so entertained an admiring audience with their wit, humour and wondrous sophisticated sex.
From her home in Aldbourne, she has populated the landscape with a story filled with vitality and colourful characters about the symbols of love and enduring love itself – old and new.
What she has cleverly done is to marry up, literally, a new version of Dorset’s famed Cerne Abbas Giant, the carved in hillside fertility symbol, with the Lovers of Valdaro, the pair of young male and female skeletons locked in an eternal embrace, which were discovered in a Neolithic tomb in Italy four years ago.
And she has woven that into the lives and loves of the fictional village of Lufferton Boney, with arrival of red-haired archaeologist Molly Bonner – dressed in long, leather, black and shiny boots and a daringly short muslin, pink and frothy skirt – to investigate The Lovers of Pound Hill.
“Wiltshire is certainly full of ancient places, ancient honourings and ancient atmosphere,” Mavis explains. “If you are going to use a county in which to express fictional ideas about the past and the present, then Wiltshire is just about the perfect place.”
Her own interest in archaeology, partly sparked back into life by the work her daughter Bella has been doing at the Jurassic Museum, in Purbeck, inspired her latest fictional fantasy.
“We used to watch Time Team avidly, though the Jurassic is way before the time I’m writing about, when creatures rather than man walked or swam,” she says.
“I can’t remember when I put the two ideas together – the Lovers of Valdaro and the naughty old Cerne Abbas Giant. It just happened. I used to have a cottage near Bridport in Dorset and Cerne Abbas was one of the places we visited. You could climb all over him – and I mean all over.”
“It seemed a neat device to re-invent the Giant as The Gnome and relocate the lovers from Italy here to Wiltshire. I really do not know how it happened – no notes or build up to it at all. I just began and stopped when it ended.”
As she tells readers in a note in The Lovers of Pound Hill: “I was playing around with these ideas and the way we feel we are so sophisticated and advanced in our ways now compared to the superstitions and rituals of the past, and thinking that for all their being thousands of years old, those rituals and superstitions seemed to be very powerful and exact and full of meaning.”
And it all has a modern message for today’s troubled society.
“My lovers of Valdaro are clearly in an embrace that’s as recognisable today as it was then – it’s loving, between a man and a woman in their prime, and refutes those ideas much beloved by the Flintstones about stone age man hitting his woman with a club by way of foreplay,” she says.
“Tenderness was as much a part of a relationship then as now. What ancient people new and respected and understood was the natural world – something that we seem to have managed to neglect and lose sight of over the years.”
“They understood it ad used it but did not over exploit it. We can’t say we have the same sensitivities.”
For someone from a cosmopolitan London background, a broken early marriage and a career in the art world, Mavis has surprised many by taking off for country life, initially renting a cottage in Ramsbury in 2003.
But it has paid off in distinct ways and style, in particular her creation of the Marlborough Literary Festival last year, which reappears again in September with another array of acclaimed writers for whom literary matters.
Yet, while organising these new events, she has herself delved into archaeological digs, to help provide the authentic background for her new novel. She discovered farmer Martin Green, winner of the Pitt-Rivers award for independent archaeology, who let her loose to dig on his land in Cranborne Chase, in Dorset.
“He was really helpful, a mine of information,” she recalls. “You can go on his farm if you contact him. He will give you a tour. And the book he wrote is great, too.”
“Years ago I did a dig at Winchester Cathedral which was absolutely riveting. Ancient bones and artefacts that you are the first person either to see or touch for hundreds or thousands of years simply take my breath away.”
It is undoubtedly a novel she enjoyed writing, the more so because of its slightly absurd, heightened reality and humorous quality involving so many characters.
“It’s also a book that has almost nothing of me in it, nothing t all auto-biographical, which is something of a freedom after some of my previous novels,” she insists.
“Basically, the message is that love will always triumph over lust, decadence and trash of celebrity culture – or at least in a Cheek novel it will.”
The Lovers of Pound Hill by Mavis Cheek, published by Hutchinson at £12.99.