Wednesday 15 November 2023

The St. Francis window in Christ Church Cathedral

To Oxford, on St Frideswide’s Day, for Christ Church Cathedral’s annual Patronal Eucharist with its traditional procession to the shrine of St. Frideswide in the Latin Chapel. This year, though, the service included a second procession: to the west corner of the north transept for the dedication of a new stained glass window, presented to the Cathedral in memory of a much loved and admired Law Don in the College, Edward Hector Burn. It was for this, the dedication and my first chance to see the new window, that I had come to Oxford.

The light was already fading fast when the service began at six o’clock. I had arrived early, hoping to have time to visit WH Auden’s discreet memorial in the chapel at the east end of the south aisle: a small stone square, placed on the floor near where he used to sit when attending early morning communion every Sunday. Auden only came if the liturgy was from the BCP:

The Book of Common Prayer we knew

Was that of 1662:

Though with-it sermons may be well,

Liturgical reforms are hell.


The injunction on Auden’s memorial, ‘Bless what there is for being’, is a quotation from a poem of his, ‘Precious Five’, about the five senses; surprisingly, this would also be an apt epigraph for the Cathedral’s new window, which celebrates St. Francis and his love for the natural world. Like all good stained glass, it challenges you to keep looking and to keep coming back to look again. At first sight, seen at a distance from the nave, the design looks almost abstract though with a strong sense of movement. The lower third of the window is predominantly patterned grey (almost a kind of grisaille), though with strong upward flashes of light and dark green and occasionally blue. Come closer, and you can see that the patterns are ferns, grasses, leaves, stems and twigs, even (in the lower, right-hand section) the gnarled and twisted branches some may recognise as belonging to the famous Jabberwocky tree in the Christ Church garden. 


Come closer still:  in the centre light a small grey figure seems to be emerging from the surrounding

foliage and flowers - and this is Francis. Not Francis as he is usually seen in stained glass, however: I don’t know that I have ever before seen a St Francis without a halo, nor one whose head is covered by a cowl. His young face looks straight out at us, his long right hand is stretched across his body. There is something touchingly diffident, almost defensive, about this Francis: he seems perhaps overwhelmed by the natural world all around him. And suddenly the colours are stronger, richer – for the first time gold and red appear – and now, as one follows the colours upwards, flowers and birds both exotic and domestic fill the tops of the three lights and, above them, the tracery. Patient searching will reveal other animals too: creatures of the field, bees, even the pet dog that belonged to Edward Burn – the latter identified only by his initials, EHB, framed at the bottom of the centre light.


The service begins with a processional hymn. From the ante-Chapel at the west end of the Cathedral emerge the choristers, then representatives of the college and University, then a cluster of mainly elderly and mainly well-dressed men and women, members of the Order of St. Frideswide, scuttling down the aisle to keep up with the rapid pace set by the girls and boys of the choir. A solemn procession this is not, at least not until the Verger, wearing a black gown trimmed with scarlet panels and tassels, leads in the Cathedral clergy, the Dean and the Bishop’s party wearing golden vestments – copes, chasubles, dalmatics. It is an undeniably impressive spectacle, and the hymn is hardly long enough to allow the Bishop to reach the High Altar, commit his crozier to the deacon’s care and his mitre to his chaplain’s, and begin the liturgy.


After the introduction, the canticles and the Gospel reading, the Dean preaches a fine sermon. She describes the cathedral as a palimpsest, a stone document which successive centuries have altered by erasing or overwriting the old architectural features with new ones. Our cathedral isn’t a museum, she says; it’s dynamic, it evolves. In the medieval period it was full of stained glass, only a little of which still survives. In its place came some fine glass of the 17th and, later, the 19th century – most impressive of all, perhaps, the St. Frideswide window in the Latin Chapel, designed by Edward Burne-Jones and installed in 1859, when the artist was only 26. And now a new window has been added, the first addition to the Cathedral’s stained glass for over 120 years. Its subject, St. Francis surrounded by the natural world, could not be more timely or more necessary. The Dean hopes that this window, designed by John Reyntiens and created in his London Studio, will speak to all who care to look, to enjoy and to reflect on it.


Now comes the St. Frideswide procession, in which we are all encouraged to join. Led by an acolyte swinging a thurible of incense, we follow choir and clergy into the Latin Chapel and assemble around the shrine of the saint. It is very pleasing to hear an extract from the ‘Life of St. Frideswide’ read in the original 14th century English. Clouds of incense (the acolyte now in full swing) accompany the description of how Frideswide’s father, pleased that his daughter wanted to become a nun (and in the very church where today she lies buried), sent for the Bishop of Lincoln to perform the ritual of admission:


The byscop for the kynges heste thuder he cam hymsulf

And share hure in the nonnerie with hire felawes twelve.

At the king’s behest the bishop came in person and cut off her hair 

alongside her twelve companions’ in the convent. [share : sheared]


At this point, we too are cut off – by the fire alarm. 


First the bell, and then a stentorian recorded voice barking at us to leave the cathedral; the verger, having abandoned his tasselled gown, reappears in a high-viz jacket exhorting members of the congregation not to go back for their coats (it is raining outside). Eventually we are all out, and for fifteen minutes we huddle in the nearest corner of Tom Quad, wondering whether we shall be allowed back in or whether the whole service will have to be abandoned and the new window remain undedicated. ‘If they really wanted so much incense,’ I heard someone mutter within hearing of the Dean, ‘they should have remembered to turn off the bloody fire alarm.’ 


But all is well: we are allowed back in, the liturgy is resumed and soon we are processing again – and rather less formally this time – to gather around the St. Francis window. It is remarkable how rapidly the atmosphere of the service is re-established: Prayers are said and thanks expressed:  for the life of Edward Burn; for the generosity of the donor; for the vision of the window’s designer and for the artistry and craftsmanship of those who made that vision a reality (stained glass is always a collaborative art).  At the climax of  the act of dedication the Bishop asperges the window and says:


I dedicate this window in honour of St. Francis

And hallow, bless and consecrate it

For the adornment of this holy place.


 As we return to our pews, I am struck by what I have just witnessed, by the sense that hallowing a window and sprinkling it with holy water is as much an act of faith in the future as an acknowledgement of our need to remember the past. Can I have been the only person to have had this thought?  


I think not, for this is one service I shall always remember. A fire alarm set off in a cathedral by a cloud of incense is a story too good to be wasted. No doubt it will become a tale ‘that has often been told and often been changed in the telling’. But I hope there’s every chance that this beautiful, challenging window will survive for centuries, long after the fire alarm has been forgotten.


Adrian Barlow


Illustrations: photographs © Jane Moyle, by kind permission.


I have written several times in my blog about stained glass, e.g:

Reading Stained Glass: Corpus Christi and the Pelican

George Herbert’s ‘brittle crazy glasse'


Auden’s verse about the Book of Common Prayer comes from the poem ‘Doggerel by a Senior Citizen’ in his posthumous collection Thank You, Fog (Faber, 1973)


‘The Life of St. Frideswide’ (whose original name was Frithuswith) comes from The Shorter South English Legendary, a compilation of the lives of the early English Saints, mostly dating from the 13th to the 15th centuries.


 ‘a tale that has often been told…’: I have slightly adapted the words of Thomas Becket in TS Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral (Faber, 1935), when he speaks of how, in time,

…age and forgetfulness sweeten memory

Only like a dream that has often been told

And often been changed in the telling. (Act 2, p.69)


Wednesday 21 June 2023

Paris, ‘patrimonie’ and roofs

We have just returned from a week’s holiday in Paris and Versailles. Before setting off I read the second most exhilarating book I have encountered since last Christmas: Rooftoppers,1 a novel about Sophie, a twelve-year-old girl in Paris searching for her mother. Almost everyone else in the story believes her mother to have drowned in a tragedy in the English Channel; Sophie herself had only been rescued by chance after being found floating in a cello case. It’s a book by the award-winning children’s author, Katherine Rundell. (I should explain here that the most exhilarating book of all I’ve read this year is a new biography of the metaphysical poet John Donne.2 The author is an Oxford don, a fellow of All Souls, the same Katherine Rundell.)

We stayed at a hotel in rue de Richelieu in the 2eme Arrondisement, close (as it happened) to the magnificently long building that formerly housed the Bibliothèque Nationale until President Mitterand modestly decreed that a new national library, the  Bibliothèque Francois-Mitterand, be built next to the Seine. Across the road was the École Nationale des Chartes: ‘Grand établissement d’enseignement supérieur au service de l’histoire, de l’histoire de l’art, de la philologie, de l’archéologie et des métiers de la conservation du patrimonie et des bibliothèques’This lofty description, spelt out on the wall of an actually rather modest building, was also translated into English and – though possibly not for the benefit of any passer-by who could read neither French nor English – into Latin. I’m struggling to think of anywhere comparable in England, somewhere that at least embodies heritage, even if it does not teach patrimonie; All Souls,Oxford, perhaps– or not? 

It was sometimes unbearably hot in Paris – and when I saw water being sluiced along the gutters, I recalled my first visit to the city, in August 1969; then, I had deliberately walked in the gutters to keep my feet cool. It did rain once last week, however: a biblical downpour while we were having supper in the Brasserie Vaudeville, opposite the Bourse. This restaurant originally opened in 1918, just as the Great War was grinding uncertainly towards its end – surely a bold time to start a business? – and it’s somewhere I shall always cherish, for three reasons. First, the food is terrific. Second, it retains all its original and very stylish decoration: Art Deco avant la lettre (the term – but not the style – originating with the 1925 Paris World Fair, the  Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes). Third, since 2004 the restaurant has sponsored a distinguished literary prize, the Prix littéraire le Vaudeville, and photographs of previous winners hang on its walls. Food, style and literature united: ‘They order,’ as Laurence Sterne so rightly said, ‘this matter better in France.’3

In Rooftoppers Sophie criss-crosses Paris, looking for her mother, at rooftop rather than at street level. Taught by Matteo, a boy who lives among the skylights and chimney pots of the city, she learns how to climb, run and jump safely, how to navigate her way from one street – even from one arrondisement – to another; he even teaches her tightrope walking. These are skills that Katherine Rundell herself has acquired. In the Introduction to the novel, she says, ‘I’ve always loved being up high; I love aeroplanes, and mountains, and flying on the flying trapeze. I’ve always been shy, and I love the idea of seeing the world when it can’t see you. When I was younger, I taught myself to walk on a tightrope – I find the feeling of focus and balance and height it brings a miraculous thing.’

The rooftops of Paris are astonishing in their variety, especially in the ingenuity with which extra space is found for rooms in the roof space. Part of the secret, of course, lies in the ubiquitous mansard attic roof, a style well illustrated in Versailles – on a grand scale at the 17th century Chateau and, later, on a domestic scale seen on a series of small shops in the rue Royale. Though the lower section of such a roof has a very steep pitch, the pitch of the higher section is gentler: easier to walk or run across. When Sophie is just beginning to learn, she asks Matteo what is the worst type of roof surface – copper, because it is slippery? ‘Non,’ he replies, ‘Stone tiles, the old ones, from the old days.’ He explains that they are too easy to dislodge, and the noise they would make crashing down might give away the presence of someone on the roof. He prefers slate or copper, and tells her flat roofs are best.

I’m surprised Matteo makes no reference to zinc. Rooftoppers is mostly set in pre-First World War Paris, when zinc was already a regular choice of roofing material:  it had been introduced by Baron Haussmann in the 1840s and apparently now covers 80% of all roofs in the capital. In 2014 an application was made for the zinc rooftops of Paris to be recognised as a world-heritage site, but more recently it is the professional skill of the zinguers, the welders of zinc roofs who have the knowledge and expertise to create these practical as well as aesthetic features of the Parisian roofscape, which has been listed in the inventory of France’s ‘invisible’ cultural patrimonie. I will admit, though, that welded zinc isn’t necessary to the plot of this astonishing novel. In the end, Sophie almost flies across the rooftops to be reunited with the mother no-one but she believed she’d ever meet again. We see them, finally, spinning ‘round and round until they looked less like two strangers and more like one single laughing body’.  

On our last full day in Paris we took a nostalgic train journey to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, passing the University of Nanterre, which proclaims itself L’Université des Possibles. I wonder whether Katherine Rundell has seen this slogan; if she has, I think she’d approve: ‘Never ignore a possible!’ runs like a mantra through Rooftoppers.


© Adrian Barlow


1.     Katherine Rundell, Rooftoppers (London: Faber & Faber, 2013)

2.     Katherine Rundell, Super-Infinite: the transformations of John Donne (London: Faber & Faber 2022)

3.     The opening sentence of Laurence Sterne’s 1768 novel without a plot, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.


Fig. 1 A rooftop view of Paris looking towards the Eiffel Tower and the dome of Les Invalides. This photograph first accompanied my 2013 post, Paris, as I see it

Fig.2 Rooftops seen from ground level (rue de Richelieu)

Both photographs (c) the author

Monday 1 May 2023

At Cheltenham Jazz festival: ‘the natural noise of good'


'I rather like being on the edge of things’, says Philip Larkin at the start of a BBC Monitor programme, Down Cemetery Road, made in 1964. You certainly couldn’t imagine his ever saying, “I rather like being in the swing of things”. On the other hand, of swing, in terms of jazz , he was a passionate advocate. He loved ‘The wonderful music that swept the world during the first half of this century [he was writing in 1970], so wonderful that it sang songs about itself (‘Everybody’s Doing It’, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing’)’.

I thought of Larkin when on Saturday, the only sunny day of last weekend, I walked down the road to see what was going on at my local Jazz Festival. Montpellier Gardens, usually quiet and quintessentially Cheltenham, was transformed. A huge blue-and-white big top dominated the scene, but the crowds were all outside the tent, encamped for now in front of the Free Stage: families with very small children claiming what space they could with picnic rugs and baskets; the old – and there were plenty of us there as well – commandeering the few seats scattered around. Everyone else stood, talking, listening to the music, enjoying themselves just by being there.

I retreated to the Bandstand, which was quieter and cooler. (It was from there that I took the photo above: a panoramic image which, somewhat unnervingly, uncoils the wrought-iron circular balustrading of what claims to be one of the earliest bandstands in Britain.) A couple who had also sought the shade asked me what music I had come to hear. Ah, I explained, I hadn’t actually come for the music –  realising as I said it how absurd that sounded. ‘I just like to see people enjoying themselves.’ It was true: there’s something slightly intoxicating about a scene – especially an outdoor scene – where everyone is simply being happy. The couple smiled. ‘Enjoy’, they said.

En joie’. Jazz, his kind of jazz, gave Larkin joy. Twenty years ago, Tom Courtenay did a one-man show about Larkin called Pretending to be myself. The stage was cluttered with packing cases and odd pieces of furniture: Courtenay (who had devised the show himself) set the play on the day in 1974 when Larkin had regretfully moved out of the flat he’d lived in almost since he had become Librarian at the University of Hull. Centre stage was an aged radiogram with, around it, some of Larkin’s record collection.  Courtenay, who looked nothing like Philip Larkin but moved and stood and blinked exactly as Larkin used to do, chose a record and put it on. Sidney Bechet. As the music played, Larkin started to sway, very slightly and never moving his feet. When  the music stopped, he stopped too, and a great smile broke across his face. He just stood and stood there, beaming and absorbed in his own happiness:

On me your voice falls as they say love should,

Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City

Is where your speech alone is understood,


And greeted as the natural noise of good …. (For Sidney Bechet)


I have always admired Tom Courtenay as an actor, and never more than in that moment.

Before I became a teacher, I doubt if I had read much of Larkin’s verse except for ‘Church Going’.  But in my first year High Windows was published and in my second I taught The Whitsun Weddings as a set text. Larkin’s poetry has lived with me ever since. Towards the other end of my career, I was invited by the Larkin Society to give a lecture in Hull at a conference for teachers teaching Larkin. I chose to talk about what jazz had meant to him and how this was reflected in his own writing of, and about, poetry. I started by trying to dispel the image of Larkin as an irredeemably miserable man:

Few things have given me more pleasure in life than listening to jazz. I don’t claim to be original in this: for the generations that came to adolescence between the wars jazz was that unique private excitement that youth seems to demand. (‘Introduction to All What Jazz’)

That first sentence (‘Few things ….’) is echoed over and over in his writing and talking about jazz. I explained to my audience at Hull, that when he had been a guest on Desert Island Discs, Larkin had chosen two records by singers from the Thirties, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. He’d chosen Bessie’s song ‘Down in the Dumps’ because (as he explained to Roy Plomley ) in spite of its title ‘She sounds so full of life and, as she says, vitality’; he chose ‘These Foolish Things’ because, although ‘I always thought that the words were a little pseudo-poetic, Billie here sings them with such a passionate conviction that I think they really become poetry.’ When asked at the end of the programme which of his eight records he would choose if he were only able to take one, he replied, ‘It would have to be one of the jazz records. I can’t live without jazz.’ 

It is interesting, and perhaps revealing, that Larkin wrote so rarely about ‘that unique private excitement’, jazz, in his poetry. This might suggest that he wanted, consciously or otherwise, to keep these two key areas of his life separate. But on the rare occasions when the two come together, the effect can be almost overwhelming. So I went on to compare and contrast Larkin’s bleak but evocative poem ‘Reference Back’ (‘The flock of notes those antique negroes blew / Out of Chicago air’) with his private ode to joy, ‘For Sidney Bechet’Both are fine poems, each repaying the reader’s careful attention, and proving Larkin’s point that ‘at bottom poetry, like all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure’. And when he said ‘like all art’, he was talking about jazz – jazz as he expresses it in poetry: ‘the natural noise of good’.

© Adrian Barlow

All quotations above about jazz come from Philip Larkin’s two collections of essays, interviews and reviews, Required Writing (1983) and Further Requirements (2001), both published by Faber.

Illustration: the Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2023, as seen from the Bandstand in Montpellier Gardens.

I have written about Larkin before:

Re-reading Julian Barnes: on poetry and ‘the poet’

Saturday 29 April 2023

Yet Sit and See: on the Choruses in Shakespeare’s 'Henry V'

Whenever I think about Henry V, I think about Monmouth /Trefynwy, the Welsh border town where Henry was born and where (long ago) I used to teach. It’s a play I encountered first at the age of eleven, in the worst of all possible ways: reading it clumsily round the class. Four years later I ‘did’ it for O level, and watched the Laurence Olivier film; twenty years on, I took a coachload of my own pupils to see to see Kenneth Branagh playing Henry at Stratford in 1984. That was from Monmouth; there, too, I directed Henry V as a junior school play. I wanted to see if children aged 11-13 couldn’t get much more from the play by acting, rather than from just reading it round the class. Of course they could, and did: two of the boys, for whom this was their first real experience of acting, went on to become professional actors.

We acted in the round. My Chorus of a dozen young children were on-stage all the time, sitting around the edge of the circle and sometimes jumping up to be cheering crowds waving the troops off from Southampton or soldiers on the watch – ‘watch’ a key word in the play – the night before battle. Sometimes they spoke in unison, sometimes alone; at others, a small cluster of voices highlighted one phrase then passed it on to be added to by another cluster. Sometimes they moved as they spoke and perhaps they mimed, suiting the action to the word; at others they were still, letting words alone do the travelling and the audience do the thinking:

For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,

Carry them here and there, jumping ‘o’er time,

Turning th’accomplishment of many years

Into an hour-glass.


An hour-glass doesn’t just measure time; it turns it upside down, making past present, the old time new again. Through all the Choruses – and none of Shakespeare’s plays has more Choruses than this – run the words ‘imagination’, ‘imagine’, ‘imagined’: if our mind’s eye can’t see what the words and actions the players are trying to convey, we might as well leave the theatre right now. Life is too short: momentum is everything. Act 3’s Chorus begins:


Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies

In motion of no less celerity

Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen ….


‘Suppose … Behold …Follow, follow! … Behold …Suppose’:  these repeated words, stretched out across twenty-five lines, turn the whole of Act 3’s Chorus into an extended chiasmus, an hour-glass of words that turn back on themselves while the sands of time keep running.


But the Chorus of Act 4 (my Chorus – I learned it at prep school and still have it by heart) is different. It is the longest of them all and, by contrast with the excited pace of the earlier choruses, here time has slowed almost to a standstill:


Now entertain conjecture of a time

When creeping murmur and the poring dark

Fills the wide vessel of the universe.


‘Entertain conjecture’ – it’s impossible to say these two trisyllabic words quickly: their wide-open vowel sounds demand each syllable be given its full weight. Nowhere else in any of the Choruses do two such long-drawn-out words sit side by side, almost defying scansion. Together the invite us to conjecture/conjure in our mind’s eye this moment in the middle of a long night when sound and sight are almost indiscernible. On the one hand these two senses are personified as creatures creeping and peering over the terrain of the next day’s battle  – a landscape of carnage being engendered in the ‘foul womb of night’; on the other, they are fused into a single thick miasma that has seeped everywhere over the earth and ‘fills’ the great upturned porridge pot that both encloses and embodies the universe. 


In the next eleven lines, the ‘hum of either army’ and the ‘secret whispers of each other’s watch’ at first suggest a sense of balance: fire answers fire and steed threatens steed; likewise the armourers’ ‘busy hammers’ strike a ‘dreadful note of preparation’ from both camps. But now the cocks crow, the church bell tolls, and the Chorus pans from army to army. The French are ‘[over]confident and overlusty’: they impatiently ‘chide the cripple tardy-gaited night’ for limping ‘so tediously away’. The ‘poor condemned English’, by contrast, have nothing to do but wait ‘patiently’, like sacrificial animals ruminating on the fate in store for them. No one could call this ragtag of an army overconfident and over-lusty: half-starved and ill-equipped, they already appear to the moon looking down at them as just ‘so many horrid ghosts’.


Then Harry appears:

O now, who will behold

The royal captain of this ruined band

Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent?


The alliteration of (first) ‘royal’ and ‘ruined’ neatly contrasts the apparently hopeless state of the soldiers with the optimism of their king, a man with no time for the darkness of (second) the ‘weary and all-watchèd night’. Once again the hour-glass is turned on its head and the deadly darkness that had filled ‘the wide vessel of the universe’ is briskly replaced by ‘A largess universal like the sun’.  Harry’s gift for ‘thawing cold fear’ among the soldiers makes him seem godlike. Those wretches who were ‘pining and pale before’, now feel the warm glow of confidence that contact with the king creates. It used to be believed some illnesses might be cured if only the sufferer could be touched by a king, the Royal Touch relieving the King’s Evil (scrofula), for instance. Shakespeare’s ‘little touch of Harry in the night’ taps into this superstition. It’s also the Chorus’s final glimpse of the battlefield on the night before battle. After this, all he can do is apologise to the audience for what’s coming next: as acted, the battle will be no better than a ‘brawl ridiculous’:


Yet sit and see,

Minding true things by what their mockeries be.


Listen -watch -imagine.


Adrian Barlow


Illustrations: (i) A poster advertising the new museum at Agincourt (Azincourt, en France)’’

(ii) the discreet French memorial on a corner of the battlefield. The rough-hewn granite stele contains a simple cross, the one word ‘Azincourt’ and the date 1415. The small stone at its side speaks of ‘courage and faithfulness’ a lesson ‘to be remembered always.’ Photographs © the author.



I have written about Henry V once before, in Bottom, Thou art Translated – into Korean.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

A Toast to Tom

To Oxford, for the funeral of one of our oldest friends. The Crematorium Chapel is full to overflowing, for it is a sad fact that the younger you die the larger the number of people who can come to your funeral. Live to be ninety and you’ll have outlived most of your friends. Tom was just six months short of seventy, a milestone we passed some time ago.

He had a talent for friendship. Though he never married, and always lived on his own, his circle of friends was wide and he worked hard at keeping in touch. He had retired early (very early) but was the lynchpin of a group of friends and former colleagues – the ‘Old Farts’ – who met not often but regularly. Not that they got together to reminisce about the good old days: Tom had little respect for some of his former bosses, especially those he felt had dealt badly with younger members of the organisation. His wrath against his last boss was unfading: if we so much as mentioned their name, he imposed an instant fine of 50p for each offence. He never collected the fines – his good humour simply a way of deflecting his outrage.


Year by year Tom’s diary filled up with a kind of carefully-plotted royal progress, making his way around Britain or abroad to visit family and friends. He never expected any ceremony: he would arrive on the doorstep at teatime encumbered by rucksack, sleeping bag and pillow. These having been dumped wherever he was going to sleep, he was keen for us to go in search of the first pint of the evening.

Good beer always influenced his choice of the pubs to which we would be summoned to celebrate what he laughingly referred to as his ‘official birthday’. Indeed, the standards he applied to beer were exacting: Greene King was denounced for having abandoned hand-pulled ale in favour of what he likened to the Watney’s Red Barrel of dreadful memory. By contrast, he praised Hook Norton beer for remaining true to its origins; to prove the point he insisted we should visit the Hook Norton brewery with him. I thought I knew quite a lot about Victorian architecture; thanks to Tom, however, that day’s visit to the wondrously idiosyncratic but entirely practical five-storey Tower Brewery showed me how much I had still to learn – about beer and buildings.

He was a very good travelling companion.  Before the coming of Covid, continental itineraries usually included battlefields, golf courses and cricket grounds (he was a loyal camp-follower of the Barmy Army). We went on holiday with him at least fifteen times, initially to France, where our first night would be spent in Boulogne, staying at a quirky hotel with two things recommending it to Tom: first, its resident talkative macaw who greeted guests as they came downstairs to breakfast and, second, its proximity to the town’s Welsh Pub. This, though neither Welsh nor a pub, was a restaurant whose seafood, wine and atmosphere Tom relished. He had some special eating places, their locations usually determined by links with both world wars. 

The Old Tom Hotel in Ypres was a favourite, and its signature dish, Eels in Green Sauce, always his first choice; he would cheerfully disregard the dismay of his companions on catching sight of such a plateful. At Arromanches, the Marine Hotel on the edge of the beach (Gold Beach during the Normandy Landings of June 1944) offered another restaurant Tom was always glad to revisit. To see him on a sunny afternoon sitting by the window, ploughing through a pyramid of shellfish and gazing out to sea at the remaining concrete caissons of the Mulberry Harbour was to see a man at peace with himself and with the world.

Tom’s passion was military history, particularly the histories of the two World Wars, though 1914-18 perhaps more than 1939-45. On our first visit, he had offered to find for me the graves of two English poets, Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas, both in Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries near Arras. We duly visited both – though not before my inadequate map-reading meant we got stuck in the centre of Arras, going round and round trying to find a way out; poor Tom’s rage (he was driving) on this occasion was mercifully short-lived and later became a standing joke between us.

 It was with Tom’s help that I first began to understand CWGC and German war cemeteries and memorials as a way of ‘reading’ the cultural history of the aftermath of war.  On that very first visit, he also took us to the Thiepval memorial and the Menin Gate, inscribed with what Siegfried Sassoon described as ‘those intolerably nameless names’; to cemeteries at Neuville St Vaast, at Newfoundland Park (site of the first day of the Battle of the Somme), to Vimy Ridge and to the German Cemetery at Langemark.  Langemark, largest of all the Great War German cemeteries, is surrounded by trees: ‘I’ve never heard birds singing here,’ Tom told us. Later he took us to Rancourt, where the British, French and German cemeteries are within sight of each other, each displaying starkly contrasting ways of expressing the imperative to memorialise. ‘The graves of the soldiers admonish to peace’: these words of Albert Schweitzer are displayed in all the German cemeteries. 

On other visits we found (with difficulty; my map reading again) the Anglo-German cemetery of St. Symphorien at Mons, with the graves of 284 German soldiers and 229 Commonwealth soldiers and a remarkable German memorial acknowledging the heroism of the English soldiers in the first battle of Mons – chivalry indeed. With equal difficulty we located the German cemetery at Vladslo, enclosed by high hedges and guarded by great oaks.  Here we saw the iconic statues of the Die trauernden Eltern (the Grieving Parents) by Käthe Kollwitz. We also visited the daunting Ossuary at Verdun and the grave of Wilfred Owen in the little village cemetery of Ors. Back in England we made almost the most unexpected discovery of all: a huge German cemetery hidden in plain sight on Cannock Chase.

These expeditions opened my eyes to the largely unexplored territory of contrasting British and German approaches to commemorating the dead of two world wars. This subject has preoccupied me now for the past twenty years, thanks to Tom; without him, I would not have been able to write and lecture in Britain, Germany and France about the art, literature and architecture of Remembrance. I can’t speak for my readers and listeners, but for me it has been one of the most important and rewarding subjects I have ever explored.

We didn’t agree about everything to do with the First World War. Once, while we were standing by the equestrian statue of Field Marshal Haig in the main square of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Tom ticked me off me severely, accusing me of underestimating Haig’s achievements and of overstating his responsibility for the huge casualties suffered by British and Commonwealth forces from 1915 onwards. I was duly chastened, knowing that Tom had read far more than I ever would about Haig. (Tom’s library of First World War history was, to put it mildly, extensive; indeed, I understand his entire collection has been given to the Library of his old Oxford college, St. Catherine’s; he’d have been very pleased about that.) 

I’d love to know, though, whether Tom had managed to read a recent book about Haig by the highly respected historian, Robin Prior: Conquer We Must: A Military History of Britain 1914-1945, published just last November.  In the week of Tom’s funeral, this book was reviewed in the Literary Review, according to which Prior argues that, though Haig’s orders ‘betrayed flashes of insight into the sanguine [sic; sanguinary, surely?] realities of the conflict’, these were no more than flashes, ‘stifled by brutal, unwarranted overconfidence’ and what the reviewer called ’Haig’s lethal bullheadednesss’. I think Tom and I could have had a good argument over this book, perhaps after supper with a bottle of Calvados on the table.  Calvados was something else to which he introduced us: our trips to Normandy always involved finding a ferme selling its own Calvados from a barn behind the farmhouse. I shall miss him. Here’s to you, Tom.

Adrian Barlow

Illustrations: (i) Tom on the Isle of Skye, 2016 (ii) The Tower Brewery, Hook Norton (iii) The remaining units of the floating Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches, Normandy (iv) Equestrian statue of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, Montreuil-sur-Mer. All illustrations copyright Adrian Barlow

La Grande Guerre: Elegy in a French Country Churchyard

In Defence of the War Poets: the Battle of Max Hastings

The Great War: writers, historians and critics

Thursday 22 September 2022

'Our Speaker Tonight’: a lecture tour in Germany


September 2022 has been a momentous month, and already it seems more than two weeks since my recent lecture tour to Germany. This was my sixth such tour since 2001 –all of them undertaken for the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft (D-BG) – and it will be my last: after December, I shall be ‘retiring’ from giving public lectures and talks. Why? Well, to be honest, I am beginning to tire of the sound of my own voice addressing an audience, and I want to stop before other people tire of it too.

The lectures I’ve given during these tours have reflected the three subjects – literature, architecture and stained glass – on which my post-career career (if such it has been) as an itinerant lecturer has been based.  On my first visit, I spoke on ‘The idea of Englishness in the Modern English Novel’; in 2014 I offered two topics: ‘If Armageddon’s On: British Poets and the Outbreak of the First World War’ and ‘The Architecture of Remembrance: Memorialising the First World War’. This last, contrasting as it did the different approaches to war cemeteries and memorials adopted by Britain and Germany during 1914-1918 and for the century since, was a sensitive subject and I was nervous about how it would go down. I was struck, though, by the number of people who thanked me for opening up a subject barely mentioned in Germany: ‘No one has had the courage to talk to us about this before,’ I was told at the Humboldt University in Berlin. 

I have particularly enjoyed visiting cities in the former East Germany. I shan’t readily forget giving a seminar to a group of students from the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena and afterwards joining them for a tour of the city’s bars.  But how I got back to my hotel and how I caught my train the next morning I can neither remember nor imagine. Another time I spent a weekend in Schwerin, that beautiful city not far inland from the Baltic Sea. Our genial host served curried banana soup and explained how he still missed the pre-Reunification era. ‘We’ve lost the old sense of looking out for each other,’ he said.

There are 20 D-BG centres spread across Germany and in the course of my six tours I have visited 17 of them, several more than once. I have happy memories of every centre. The Goethe Museum at Dűsseldorf, housed in the 18th century Schloss Jägerhof, is perhaps the most exotic building in which I have lectured, speaking in a room lined with vitrines full of fine Dresden porcelain. More often, however, my talks have been given in university seminar rooms, none more august than those at the Humboldt; but the building I have most admired is the Essen Volkshochschule. This strikingly glass-fronted building stands in Burgplatz, the very centre of the city, facing the ancient cathedral. The idea of a community college of adult education in Britain being given such prominence and held in such esteem by the city it serves is hard to imagine. I was very touched to be given this time, as a memento of my five visits, a medallion depicting the famous Golden Madonna who sits in Essen’s Cathedral and about whom I have written before.

I shan’t forget the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft, nor the friends I have made. For this ‘farewell tour’, travelling with my wife, I chose to talk about stained glass in British Cathedrals. I began with the earliest windows in Canterbury, the magnificent ‘Ancestors of Christ’, and I quoted the Cathedral’s Director of Stained Glass, Leonie Seliger, who has argued that these windows ‘would have witnessed the murder of Thomas Becket, they would have witnessed Henry II come on his knees begging for forgiveness, they would have witnessed the conflagration of the fire that devoured the cathedral in 1174. And then they would have witnessed all of British history.’

Nor shall I forget the last evening I gave this lecture, on Thursday 8th September. I was in Műnster, a small city heavily bombed between 1943 and 1945 but today rebuilt and at ease with itself and its past. After enjoying a meal of blutwurst mit sauerkraut with our hosts before the lecture, I was anxious that time was pressing and eager to get to the University to check the A-V equipment. Just as we were leaving, the restaurant manager rushed out to tell us the Queen had died. 

Witnesses to history: only two days earlier, in Dűsseldorf, we had seen a large crowd waiting outside the Rathaus to cheer the Sussexes, Prince Harry and Meghan. That same day we had watched on TV Her Majesty standing before a roaring fire at Balmoral, beaming as she saw Boris Johnson out and Liz Truss in. Now, in an instant, the old order had changed: Charles III was King. As one commentator would soon put it, with the Queen’s death, the post-war era really was at an end. Suddenly, my lecture on stained glass seemed rather irrelevant, and indeed the small audience who turned up suggested others might have felt the same. But the A-V worked, I was introduced and began talking. 

I like to keep an eye on my audience when I’m speaking and, after ten minutes, I noticed an elderly and diminutive lady sitting at the back who had fallen asleep. Not even the repeated attempts of someone trying to phone another member of the audience disturbed her. I carried on but soon there was a clatter and a crash as she slid off her chair and hit the stone floor. The ensuing commotion forced me to stop as almost everyone else in the audience crowded round her to help, if help were needed. The owner of the ringing phone rushed outside – to call, I assumed, an ambulance.

But I was wrong. Happily the old lady was not hurt, just surprised and apologetic for disrupting my lecture. Another member of my diminishing audience assisted her home, and the owner of the phone came back and whispered to me that WDR (West-Deutscher Rundfunk) wanted to do TV interviews with me and members of the D-BG about the Queen’s death as soon as possible. Could they wait until I’d finished the lecture?  Yes, but please would I end promptly, because the janitor needed to lock the building by 9 o’clock, and the TV crew would be waiting for us at a café in Prinzipalmarkt.

And indeed they were. It was an unexpectedly memorable way to end my long and happy association with the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft: sitting, beer in hand, with friends old and new, staring into a camera and trying to answer the awful inevitable question, ‘How did you feel when you heard the Queen was dead?


© Adrian Barlow 


Illustrations: (i) The Essen Golden Madonna medallion; (ii) Friedrich-Schiller University, Jena.

Note:  I have written before about two previous tours undertaken for the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft:


Germany, Asparagus and the First World War