John Sharkey – A Final Review and a Fond Farewell

Today I noticed that my copy of The Meeting of the Tracks, by John Sharkey, who died last week, had appeared in a prominent position between book-ends on a window sill. How did that get there I wondered? Later it came to me that it would be nice to put the review I did of that book onto this blog. The book, published by Carreg Gwalch, came out in 2004 and I set about finding the review in my computer archive for that year. I searched for a good hour but it was not there. Disappointed I left the computer alone, and went to get some lunch. Stirring the soup and thinking about the good conversations John and I had shared over the past ten years, I found myself saying aloud to him, ‘Well John, sorry darling. I’d have liked to blog it but it’s gone. Unless you know better of course!'( The touch of sarcasm because John was prone to argue any decision to the bitter end.)Half an hour later, soup spoon in my mouth, into my brain came the words ‘Random Collection’. My reply to this suggestion was that as I only created a folder of that name in 2013 it could not contain the review. But when the words returned with an insistent repetition, I went to take a look and there, of course, it was. Apparently I had moved the file, and erased the original though I have no memory of doing so. I recognise that the most likely explanation for what happened was that my subconscious went searching while I made my soup, and that it had nothing to do with John finding it. But those of you who knew him will know, there was something in his smile and a twinkle in his eyes if he won an argument and  as clear as day I saw him, as I opened the file and in my surprise I shouted aloud ‘Oh My God It Is Here!’ If you never read it, and you were one of his many friends or acquaintances now might be a good time to acquaint yourself with the things he loved – the ancient Celts and their art.

THE MEETING OF THE TRACKS

Rock Art in Ancient Wales

by John Sharkey. Review by Liz Whittaker

‘The fun in writing this book has been following up the observations, hints, asides and suggestions of earlier writers. Antiquarians, prehistorians, travellers and archaeologists have unknowingly contributed to the making of the work although any conclusions drawn are mine.’

Chasing around looking for ancient carvings, cupmarks and spirals on monoliths and burial passages is not everyone’s idea of entertainment, but reading about them here is fascinating, the more so because though the subject matter is obscure, it is imbued with Sharkey’s passion and within the first few pages it becomes apparent that this is not a dry re-hash of archeologists’ views but as he makes clear in the above quote, he is having fun with both the research and coming up with new ideas.

He draws on art, poetry and legend and this varied material keeps the work stimulating, transporting the reader, as it does, beyond the mere recording of place,size and shape of carving into the realms of imagination and inspiration. He introduces the work of Edward Lhuyd the scholar and natural historian who was Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in the 17th century, and whose writings include the first recorded sitings of ancient stone carvings.

Challenging the preconceptions of the establishment and the assumption that ‘one explanation fits all’, Sharkey observes that Wales has its own symbology and works his way intuitively to fresh conclusions. His impatience with the lack of imagination and original thinking in archaeological spheres is seen as inevitable, as his is a visionary approach to the subject and an attempt to bring light to bear on  what he refers to as the ‘hidden ritual configuration and the enigmatic quality expressive of much of the wild countryside of Wales’.

The symbolic markings are less profuse in Wales than in Ireland and in Brittany, but just as curious and even more curious is the fact that they do not last forever once they are exposed to the light. It is as if once seen, they fade and disappear over time to the naked eye, and only become observable when treated to rubbing. The description of this in relation to the Blaenawen stone and the Ty Illtud cover-stone expose a mysterious process which gives an incredibly life-like characteristic to the stones. It is, Sharkey hints, as though it is of their own choosing they show or hide their decoration, and is an example of what he feels is the ‘two-way’ communication between ancient rock art, laid down by men in the past, to the men of today.

It becomes apparent very early in the text that Sharkey’s fascination with his subject is profoundly enduring. This, the last in a quartet of books exploring layers of history and mythology in carved stone which he has completed during the past ten years, marks a kind of personal evolution in his opinions and his mode of expression. His knowledge, his particular blend  of intuitive guesswork and scholarly research, plus his moments of wry insight into the peculiarities of what he does, make this an accessible and informative read.

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