Monday, 19 October 2009

Etruscan Places

A long bus ride to the hospital for a blood test this morning. Fifteen or so despondent-looking people ahead of me in the deli-counter-tickets queue, so I spend twenty minutes browsing the charity second-hand bookshelves (I do already have something else to read with me - of course). The shelves appear much sparser than earlier years - is everyone selling their old books for quick cash on e-Bay in these straitened times? Lots of Edna O'Briens for some reason, but several of the more enticing titles do not pass my 'unacceptable brown stains' test and, at 50p per paperback I want something moderately decent for my money. (The school Christmas bazaar only charges 20p for paperbacks after all.) Mills & Boon romances are apparently allowed to go for just 20p each but this bargain price must have started a rush and now there are no Mills & Boons to be had. Displaying my 'Discriminating Reader Who Does Not Live in a Rambling Farmhouse Lined With Bookshelves' persona (for a change), I settle on one very slim (less than 1 cm thick) volume: a 1950 Penguin copy of Etruscan Places by D.H. Lawrence. It bears the beautiful dark red colouring of the Travel and Adventure Penguin strand - strikingly unusual after the more familiar dark green and cream (or is it discoloured white?) and orange and cream of other old Penguins. All I know about the Etruscans is that they were obsessed with death and no one knows exactly what they thought about it because their language remains undeciphered. As a result, probably not much in the way of Adventure in this volume.)

I leaf through the book and on page 29 read about B (B?) who expresses surprise at seeing the phallic stones by the doors of many tombs. 'Why, it's like the Shiva lingam at Benares!' he/she declares.

DHL notes, 'One can live one's life, and read all the books about India or Etruria, and never read a single word about the thing that impresses one in the very first five minutes, in Benares or in an Etruscan necropolis: that is, the phallic symbol. Here it is, in stone, unmistakable, and everywhere, around these tombs. Here it is, big and little, standing by the doors, or inserted, quite small, into the rock: the phallic stone!'

It's good to see Lawrence clearly resisting the self-censoring tendencies of other writers of his time in his travel writing as well as his novels, but the book opening naturally at this particular page is disconcertingly apt. Is some ghostly DHL turning the pages for me?

Lawrence goes on to say that the phallic stones look as though they are part of the rock:
'But no, B. lifts one out. It is cut, and is fitted into a socket, previously cemented in. B puts the phallic stone back into its socket, where it was placed, probably five or six hundred years before Christ was born.'
I wonder if the cement was originally used to foil phallus-stone-collecting souvenir hunters (probably a largish group).

I queue up to pay for Etruscan Places at the WRVS stall where it stands out like an unsore thumb among the coffee-drinking outpatients. On the way home, a fallen leaf on the path exactly matches the autumnal red of the cover and I pick it up and bring it home as a beautiful but rather impractical bookmark.

1 comment:

  1. ahh DH and phallic stones sounds like an interesting read.
    Love old penguins and what an apt bookmark.
    I have very much enjoyed visiting your blog.