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T.S. Eliot's Village Bares Its Teeth

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These were the center page headlines in the UK's Independent newspaper while I was in England a couple of weeks ago. Not only was I in England, I was in the very village itself -- East Coker, which gives its name to the second of Eliot's famous Four Quartets -- reading the paper over a pint of bitter in the Helyar Arms, the pub that has served the village continuously since the fifteenth century.

The village is truly a picture postcard example of the way much of the English countryside has managed to retain its character and way of life despite being online and not so far from a roaring motorway. It nestles in a soft and dreamy pastoral scene, little changed in centuries, with rolling fields surrounding the village church and thatched cottages and the single pub lining the one narrow street.

There are other villages in England as quaint and timeless as East Coker, but since 1943 and the publication of Four Quartets, it is East Coker that has become an emblem of Englishness, of ancient communion between the earth and those who live on it, a village that transcends time and place. Each of the Four Quartets addresses one of the elements, and East Coker is earth: "the earth of South Somerset, the sandy lanes worn down by generations of carts" as the Independent journalist puts it; and as Eliot says in his poem, "the deep lane/Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon... the stones that cannot be deciphered."

The village had been the home of Eliot's forebears, and it was from here that his ancestor, the Reverend Andrew Elyot, set out for a new life in America in 1669. Eliot traveled the other way. An American by birth, he moved to England in 1925 and became a British subject in 1939, the year he wrote East Coker. He had first set foot in the village two years earlier, and over the next few years it became a mythic place in his imagination.

There was -- and is -- plenty of material in the village to inspire a fertile mind. There is the land of course, with its leisurely rhythm and the cottages that seem to grow up out of the earth; the old alehouse, the Helyar Arms which, I discovered, and contrary to popular stories about English cooking, can give you a wonderful lunch. And the old church, where Eliot's ashes are buried, where crusaders have lain undisturbed for seven hundred years, and where William Dampier was finally laid to rest.

Dampier, born in the village in 1651, was a legendary adventurer who circumnavigated the world three times and was the first Englishman to explore Australia and New Guinea. His memoirs inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. For Eliot, Dampier was a powerful metaphor for ceaseless exploration which ends finally in returning home. Tiny East Coker, home to just 1,750 souls, easily grows large in the mind.

I was there to research a journey for book lovers I am planning to lead next Spring, taking a small group to the landscapes that inspired Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. The idea is to see the land of England through their works and to use their words as inspiration for our own life journey. It was unusually warm in England just a few weeks ago; warmer than Athens was at the time. The stones of the houses glowed like honey, the grassy lane to the church was firm, the narrow main street was empty and quiet.

But there by the door of the Helyar Arms was a notice that shouted in large capital letters: "NO NO NO to the urban extension." I went into the pub and there was a copy of the Independent, though I didn't need to read much as the lady behind the bar told me the story as she served up my pint.

"The local council wants to zone 600 acres of prime farming land around the village to build an eco-town of 3,700 new homes," she scowled. "It will be the end of life as we know it. Except it's not going to happen. Not if we can help it!"

She and the other villagers know they live in a village that is like no other. Because of Eliot's poem, widely considered to be the greatest poem in the English language written in the 20th. Century, they are aware that the village has the status of a global brand. They have established a Preservation Trust which has applied to Unesco for special status for East Coker as a World Heritage Site, though the bid will only succeed if the government in London supports it, which it has so far shown no signs of doing.

The poetry world has also taken up arms. Andrew Motion, England's former poet laureate, has gathered a number of famous writers and scholars to sign the Unesco application. Academics from Oxford, Harvard, Stanford and Chicago have written to South Somerset Council begging them to reconsider, pleading that the area has been immortalized by Eliot as a landscape of deep historical, psychological and cultural value.

For the council, however, strapped for cash as most councils are now, the economic pressure for change is hard to resist, since there are cash payments made to the council for every house that is sold, under a government plan known as the New Homes Bonus. There is no guarantee that the villagers and their supporters will succeed in stopping the plans, but they are doing everything in their power to try. If you want to see East Coker as it is now, you might be wise to join me next May. See the full itinerary here.

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