The Ghosts of Cambry

Canterbury is a city of fiction and ghosts, with the cathedral at the heart of both.

From Chaucer’s pilgrims to the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett to the countless lives commemorated on its walls and in its tombs, Canterbury Cathedral is all but a shrine to spectres and stories.

And nowhere is this partnership better illustrated than in the legend of St Eustace.

The story is told in a 15th century wall painting found in the northern aisle of the quire.

From the bottom to the top, it illustrates the story of Eustace’s conversion followed by the testing of his faith through the loss of his wife and two sons. It ends with the execution of all four members of the family and their entrance to Heaven.

Conversion and loss. Heartbreak and strife. Struggle and martyrdom. Is it any wonder that Russell Hoban found inspiration in it?

And that inspiration germinated into “Riddley Walker”.

“Walker” is Hoban’s best-known adult novel, first published in 1980.

Set in Kent, the book takes place roughly two thousand years after nuclear war has left the planet in ruins.

Civilisation has regressed to something approaching the Iron Age, and knowledge of computers, heavier-than-air flight and other such technology have descended into myth and legend.

So where does St Eustace come into this?

Due to the devastation inflicted to the world, Riddley’s people share a universal destruction myth as opposed to a creation, a story which blends elements of St Eustace, Adam and Eve, and real world history.

Thus St Eustace becomes Eusa, representing both the saint and the USA.

Passed down through generations, confused and twisted through retellings, the legend changes and stays the same.

Similarly, the world that Riddley inhabits is both familiar and alien.

Canterbury has become Cambry and Folkestone Fork Stoan; the countryside is full of deadly feral dogs; and everyone from our time is long dead and gone.

In “Walker”, the ghosts and legends that haunt Canterbury and Kent are us.

We are the long dead, the half-remembered who fill every town and city through which Riddley passes.

To Riddley, we are mythical beings who sent pictures through the air, who built flying machines, who brought down destruction upon the world.

As distant to them as St Eustace and his family are to us.

And perhaps that’s why “Walker” resonates so strongly with us still.

It serves both as a memento mori, and as a reminder of those who came before whom we shall someday join.

Men, women and children. People who walked Canterbury’s streets. Whose worlds have faded, but whose stories linger on.

Just as ours have and will.

Just like ghosts.

This piece was originally posted on Readwave.

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