Friday, 30 April 2021

On the Isle of Portland, with Thomas Hardy

When Lockdown lifted and travelling became possible, we escaped for a few days to a small island neither of us had visited before. This was the Isle of Portland, lying off the Dorset coast and attached to the mainland only by that great tombolo of shingle, Chesil Beach. I took with me Thomas Hardy’s last novel. I’m glad I did.

 

If you had asked me a month ago which of his novels Hardy had set partly in London but mainly on an island he described at different times as ‘the Isle of Slingers’, ‘this island of treeless rock’, ‘the oolitic isle’ and ‘the peninsula carved by time’, I’ll admit I wouldn’t have known. It’s The Well-Beloved and even now I’m not sure how it should be pronounced – ‘Beloved’ in two syllables, rhyming with that absurd modern euphemism for ‘secondhand’, pre-loved? or three, as in ‘Dearly Belov-ed’?

 

It’s a strange book. Originally serialised in the Illustrated London News in 1892 as The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, Hardy revised and republished it as a single volume with its shorter title in 1897. At 150 pages it is hardly a full-length novel; more like a novella divided into three sections: ‘A Young Man of Twenty’, ‘A Young Man of Forty’ and ‘A Young Man of Sixty’. The young man is Jocelyn Pierston, a promising sculptor who pursues his image of ideal beauty and ideal womanhood from one woman to another. 

 

It’s a tale (on one level at least) of frustration and frequent disillusion. I found Pierston’s progress as voyeur, pursuer, predator even, makes uncomfortable reading, but the story is ostensibly presented by Hardy as a Victorian version of the Pygmalion myth, in which the sculptor is more in love with his own fantasy of an ideal woman than with its reality. The reality is represented by three generations of young women – mother, daughter and granddaughter – all called Avice Caro. Things don’t end happily for any of them, nor for Pierston himself. Between the sculptor and the third Avice there is an age difference of almost forty years. Hardy himself was thirty nine years older than his second wife, Florence Emily Dugdale.

 

Hardy knew the Isle of Portland well. History and topography matter in The Well-Beloved, as do landmarks and locations. Most of these are precisely situated and instantly recognizable. We were staying in an old quarryman’s cottage at the end of a lane that began by the Portland Museum, opposite the gatehouse to Pennsylvania Castle. Before this neat little house became a museum, it was previously known – on the strength of Hardy’s story – as Avice Caro’s Cottage. Beyond our Airbnb, the lane became a path winding under the arch of Rufus Castle, down to the coastal path and the steep steps leading to Church Ope Cove. This lane and these places, renamed Red King’s Castle and Hope Cove, loom large in The Well-Beloved. Even our holiday cottage gets a mention.

 

Upstairs I found a framed Indenture dating from 1802, transferring the freehold of the cottage between two brothers, Bernard and John Stone; the witness to this transfer, transacted ‘according to ancient custom time out of mind’ in the parish church, was Henry Pearce. Originally, in The Pursuit of The Well-Beloved, Hardy had spelt Jocelyn’s surname Pearston. 

 

Portland only gets one mention in Claire Tomalin’s 2007 biography, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. Hardy and Florence visited the Isle in 1923 and ‘had themselves driven to Portland Bill to visit a new friend, Marie Stopes, who had settled in a lighthouse tower there’. (p.350) I’m pleased Tomalin adds that Hardy’s host for the day found him ‘boyish and twinkling […] eager to climb to the top of her tower and out onto the roof to see the circular view.’ Hardy had a head for heights,* his novels containing several memorable and sometimes visionary descriptions of landscapes and places seen – and heard – as if from on high and afar. One night the ‘young man of forty’ goes out in pursuit of Avice and from the highest point of the Isle takes in 

 

…the stars above and around him, the lighthouse on duty at the distant point, the lightship winking from the sandbank, the combing of the pebble beach by the tide beneath, the church away south-westward, where the island fathers lay‡ [….] He seemed to hear on the upper wind the stones of the slingers whizzing past, and the voices of the invaders who annihilated them, and married their wives and daughters, and produced Avice as the ultimate flower of the combined stocks. (p.77)

 

Tradition has it that when the Romans first invaded the island, they were assailed by stones hurled from the slings of the natives. Even in the mid 19th century – Hardy’s story begins in the 1840s – those who came over to the island from mainland Wessex were considered ‘kimberlins’ (foreigners) who threatened the islanders’ ancient customs and practices. But Hardy, though a kimberlin himself, loved this island ‘standing out so far into mid-sea that touches of the Gulf Stream soften the air till February’. In his Preface to the 1912 Wessex edition of The Well-Beloved he confessed it was ‘a matter of surprise that the place has not been more frequently chosen as the retreat of artists and poets in search of inspiration (p.3).’

 

Pierston by contrast was an islander who had learned to sculpt by chipping away at fragments of

white stone picked up in his father’s quarry. However, his subsequent fame as an artist in London, his becoming a Royal Academician, counted for little with the quarrymen of Portland. Yet today sculpture here is something of a tourist attraction. One morning, we walked a narrow stretch of the Island’s clifftop coastal path in search of Tout Quarry, a maze of old workings now converted into a Sculpture Park. I wonder if Pierston, the disillusioned ‘young man of sixty’ abandoned by his art and his women, would have recognised himself in Antony Gormley’s image, chiselled out of a sheer rock face there, of a man Still Falling?

 

© Adrian Barlow

 

Quotations above are from the excellent Wordsworth edition of The Well-Beloved, edited by Jane Thomas (London: Wordsworth editions, 2000).

 

Illustrations: (i) The view in early evening towards Rufus Castle and the English Channel from the garden of our Airbnb cottage on the Isle of Portland.

(ii) Antony Gormley’s sculpture, Still Falling (1983), in the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park, Portland. Photographs © the author.

 

Notes

*I have written before about Hardy’s head for heights, in Thomas Hardy’s Bird’s Eye View.

 

 ‘the church away south westward, where the island fathers lay’: I am intrigued by these ten words: their fourteen syllables and unusual metre exactly anticipate the length and metre of some key lines (lines 3, 4 and 7) in Hardy’s poem ‘Beeny Cliff’, written after the death of his first wife Emma. Scanned as a line of verse, rhythmically this line divides into two equal halves, the second being the reverse of the first: di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di followed by dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum. Hardy had worked hard to achieve this effect because he had rewritten the second half, which in 1892 had appeared as ‘where the original Avice lay’. Compared with the resonant sound and significance of ‘the island fathers’, ‘the original Avice’ was crude and clumsy. 

To my mind, ‘Beeny Cliff’ is one of the most poignant of all the poems Hardy wrote in the immediate aftermath of Emma’s death, and I can’t help wondering whether the metrical virtuosity of the poem doesn’t owe something to this apparently random (but carefully revised) line buried in The Well-Beloved.

Hardy also wrote a poem entitled ‘The Well-Beloved’, set not on the Isle of Portland, but at Kingsbere (Bere Regis), the village in whose church lay the ancestors of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

I have written elsewhere about Hardy’s fascination with time in his poetry: Short Measures (ii): Time and Thomas Hardy. 

Friday, 9 April 2021

Posthumus, alas! Where is thy head?


    Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume,
Labuntur anni nec pietas moram
    rugis et instanti senectae
                                                adferet indomitaeque morti.                                     
                                                             Horace, Odes, II. xiv

 ‘Alas, Posthumus, O Posthumus, the fugitive years hasten away and mere piety can delay neither wrinkles nor the onset of old age and indomitable death.’*


I must admit it wasn’t Anglican piety that drew me to Ely Cathedral on New Year’s Day, 2010, but the need to take some photographs for a series of lectures on Cambridge architecture I’d been asked to give to the Cambridge Green (formerly Blue) Badge Guides. I wanted pictures to demonstrate the links between the Bishop’s Palace at Ely and the Gatehouse of Jesus College, and between the Wren Library at Trinity and the north transept of the cathedral. I wanted, too, to re-photograph the interior of the second finest cathedral in England on a day when the clear winter sunlight made flashlight unnecessary.

 

It was very cold in the cathedral, and even the formidable Gurney stoves in the aisles could barely offer local warmth. These great ribbed cylinders, each surmounted by a Queen Victoria-style crown, must be terrific gas-guzzlers, but they used to be coal-fired. I have a clear memory of being in the cathedral on a bleak and gloomy winter afternoon many years ago and seeing an aged verger pushing a trolley laden with buckets of anthracite from one Gurney to the next. It was like a moment from an M R James ghost story – ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, perhaps, for which I suspect Ely was the setting. In the half-light, there was something sinister about the glow of the red-hot stoves. 

 

However long ago was that? I found myself murmuring a barely-remembered line of Horace: ‘Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume’. To my surprise, I could recall the exact date: 1st January 1975 - thirty five years ago to the very day. What’s more, I could remember exactly why I was there. I had been attending a course at Madingley Hall (my first) which ran from 28th December over the New Year until 2nd January. On the last afternoon, one of the students announced she was going to drive over to Ely Cathedral, which she had never visited before, and asked if anyone would like to join her. In those days I had no car and was only too happy for the chance to re-visit the first intact medieval cathedral I’d ever seen.

 

(Why say ‘intact’? Why ‘medieval’? Because I was born in Birmingham: so the first cathedral I ever entered was St Philip’s, a fine Georgian building, and the first medieval cathedral in which I set foot was the ruined shell of Coventry. Then, when I was six, we moved from the Midlands to the Fens, and Ely in those pre-Beeching days was just a short train journey from Wisbech.)

 

The Madingley course was on Shakespeare’s late plays. It was run by John Andrew and Leo Salingar, and one of the guest lecturers was Richard Luckett, then a junior fellow at St Catharine’s College but for many years afterwards the Pepys Librarian at Magdalene. He and I had been at the same school (St.John’s, Leatherhead) and in the same house. I reintroduced myself to him after his lecture and we kept in touch until we each had left Cambridge . Richard was a remarkable person,  one of those people one may not have  known well but whom one is grateful to have known at all.  


We were only a small group - not more than fifteen or so. Several of us were young teachers, but one student was the then recently retired Agnes Latham, shortly to publish her Arden Shakespeare As You Like ItFor me it was a memorable course in every way. I would not have spent the most rewarding years of my career teaching in Cambridge for the University’s Institute of Continuing Education, if I hadn’t spent those six days at Madingley. And I remember the exhilaration of the classes, held in the Hickson Room. Leo Salingar, the distinguished scholar of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, was developing his theory that Shakespeare’s profoundest insights were found in the comedies, not the tragedies. His book Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy  had just appeared in print and contained chapters elaborating the ideas he teased out with us on that course. 

He and John Andrew sparred cheerfully, Leo defending Cymbeline against John’s tongue-in-cheek charge that the play was almost unactable and all but unreadable. “Why should Shakespeare have sent poor Imogen all the way to Milford Haven, for goodness sake?” asked John. Leo, of course, had the answer. “Is there any scene in Shakespeare more absurd,” demanded John, “than the moment when the hapless Imogen wakes from her drugged sleep to discover a headless corpse beside her, which she promptly mistakes for her beloved Posthumus?” (It actually belongs to the treacherous Cloten.) “It doesn’t have to be absurd,” argued Leo: “act it and see.”

 

And we did. On New Year’s Eve, in the Saloon, we rehearsed and then acted scenes from the late plays. Anne, a drama teacher from Solihull, gave a performance as Imogen which won great applause, and no one laughed when she reached the lines:

 

O Posthumus, alas,

                        Where is thy head? Where’s that? (IV.ii.320-1)

 

People said Susan Fleetwood, playing Imogen that year for the RSC, could not have done better. My performance too was praised. I was the headless corpse.

 

Adrian Barlow

 

 

Illustrations: (i) Ely Cathedral, seen from the south east; (ii) Madingley Hall, home of the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, Photos   © the author

 

*Translator’s notes: (i) I don’t believe in literal translation of poetry. Here I have picked up William Cowper’s echo of Horace in ‘The Poplar-Field’: ‘My fugitive years are all hasting away’. (ii) pietas of course means devotion to one’s friends, family, ancestors and country – as in ‘filial piety’ – rather than religious observance and behaviour.

 

Richard Luckett (1945-2020): summed up by The Times in its obituary of him (19.12. 20) as an ‘unworldly and whimsical Cambridge don, polymath and Pepys Librarian [….] One of the fabled dons of his time, Richard Luckett came to embody Magdalene College, Cambridge. His fund of recondite knowledge was a continual source of comedy and delight to all who knew him, but it also enabled him to enhance the fabric and collections of the college, its music, its reputation, and the scholarly endeavours of others in many disciplines.’

  

Monday, 5 April 2021

On unreliable memoirs

‘Never underestimate titles.” This was a mantra I repeated to students, young and old, many times throughout my teaching career. I used it particularly when talking about poetry, but it’s not the titles of poems alone that deserve our attention, and I’m intrigued by a new book by Marina Warner, reviewed recently in the Times Literary Supplement, Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An unreliable memoir. Both title and subtitle invite comment. 

In non-literary contexts, of course, the word inventory can suggest a long list of contents, often laboriously compiled. Whose heart has not sunk on arriving at a holiday cottage to find  an inventory of all the knives, forks and teaspoons, together with a warning about forfeiture of deposit if a single spoon is subsequently found to be missing? One prefers to be trusted.

 

So it’s a surprise to come across Marina Warner adding the subtitle ‘An unreliable memoir’ to warn readers that she herself is, well, not to be taken literally at least. The TLS reviewer, Ann Kennedy Smith, reminds us that ‘Warner’s books include novels and short stories as well as studies of female myths, iconography and fairy tales’. These suggest a preoccupation, not with the historical as such, but rather with the enduring and dangerous potency of myths. I remember that Warner’s 1994 Reith Lectures, Managing Monsters, were as challenging as they were entertaining: beginning with the myth of the She-Monster, she went on to examine the threads linking ancient heroic myths with modern male machismo. In the last lecture she dissected modern myths of national identity (‘Home: Our Famous Island Story’); post-Brexit, her words spoken then should surely haunt us now.

 

I like literary reviews to give me a clear sense of what a book is about, how it is shaped and what are its strengths and weaknesses. Whether or not I shall go on to read the books being discussed – and, of course, most of them I won’t – I want to finish reading a review feeling glad to know more about a book, a subject, an author than I did before. Ann Kennedy Smith makes clear her enjoyment of Warner’s ‘imaginative retellings’ and in a single sentence both points to a key theme of Inventory of a Life Mislaid and describes how the book works:

 

This is a wonderfully rich, partly mythical memoir that sifts through the past to connect a family’s secrets to the deep-rooted colonial assumptions that still resonate in a post-Brexit Britain.

 

‘Sifting through the past’; it’s from her excavation and selection of events, photographs, objects and memories that Marina Warner has reconstructed the story of her parents’ unlikely marriage. In doing so she has set out to reclaim for her mother, Ilia, the identity she buried when, as a young and penniless Italian wartime bride, she married a much older ex-Etonian army officer with a colonial self-assurance quite unadapted to the post-war era of Imperial retreat. From the TLS review, one learns that Marina Warner’s book ‘unfurls at an unhurried pace, and embedded in the text are lengthy digressions, some previously published as essays in the London Review of Books’. This sounds a cautionary note, but one partly muted by the reviewer’s concession that, ‘If occasionally these asides slow down the narrative pace, they are never dull.’

 

A memoir, strictly speaking, is history and/or biography written from personal experience. There must always be a subjective element to such a book, sometimes explicitly defined by its title –Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1966), for example, published a year after Churchill’s death by his long-standing friend, Violet Bonham-Carter. You wouldn’t expect a memoir often described as ‘an affectionate portrait’ to be as objective as an historical biography. 

 

But memoirs should be distinguished by something more than subjectivity.  The author Alison Light, whose book A Radical Romance: A memoir of love, grief and consolation, won the 2020 PEN Ackerley award for literary autobiography, just recently reflected on the experience of writing memoir. It gave her, she says,

 

…room to reflect on earlier selves and on the on-going illusion of being a self. Memoir is often closer to reveries and dream, evoking the lyrical rhythms of poetry rather than prose. As it moves through different kinds of time and ‘times out of time’ – falling in love, illness, mourning – narrative or plot gives way to images and scenes. I had the sense of halting, even defeating, time.

 

This account surely gestures towards a kind of poetics of memoir writing, marking out a territory quite different from the characteristically linear landscape of history. It suggests to me that if a memoir is ‘unreliable’, this isn’t because it is untruthful or inaccurate but because its ambitions and literary resources are essentially different.

 

I can think of some eminent historians who would have no truck with my tentative distinction, but one historian who articulated something similar, based on his own experience of writing both history and memoir, was Richard Cobb (1917-1996). After a distinguished career largely centred on the French Revolution, he began in later life to publish a number of memoirs. Introducing A Classical Education (1985) he admitted:

 

This is a very personal account, written from my own memories, such as they are, and often embellished by my own imagination. I have not aimed at absolute accuracy, being more concerned with readability; this is not a historical narrative, and I am not always sure at what stages fictional inventiveness takes over from the chronicle of memory.

 

Such honesty is disarming – reassuring, too, for anyone who (like me) has spent time during this past year of lockdowns trying to put onto paper memories and impressions of their own life. Truth is, we are all unreliable narrators and might as well admit it at the outset. Let Jane Austen, writing in Emma:, have the last word: ‘Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.’

 

 

Adrian Barlow

 

Sources:

Marina Warner, Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An unreliable memoir, (2021)

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Planted in Foreign Soil’ (review), Times Literary Supplement (26 March, 2021), p.20

Alison Light, ‘A Radical Romance’ (discussion of her memoir A Radical Romance: A memoir of love, grief and consolation (2019) in 9 West Road, University of Cambridge Faculty of English alumni magazine (March 2021) p.16

 

Friday, 26 February 2021

Lives of Houses (ii): My Father’s Study


This is the second of two linked posts taking their title from a book I much admire, Lives of Houses.  In the previous post I introduced the home in which I lived as a young child: the Rectory of Tydd St. Mary (below), at the southern tip of Lincolnshire. The recollections that I offer now illustrate, I hope, the following claim by Hermione Lee:   So it is with most imaginative returns to a lost home: the excitement and interest of dreaming one’s way back into the past life of the house also involve emotions of longing and missing.’1

 

Not all Fenland rectories were as imposing as Tydd’s. When Lord Peter Wimsey came to stay at Fenchurch St. Peter, he found (as Dorothy L Sayers explains in The Nine Tailors) that handbell-ringing practice took place in the largest room of the Rectory, the dining room. Even so, the table had to be moved back against the wall to allow space for just eight ringers to sit in a tight circle.  Every year at Tydd Rectory, by contrast, the annual supper for bellringers and sidesmen took place in our hall, a room large enough to have once hosted all the stalls from the Village Garden Party when rain forced everyone off the Rectory lawns.  

 

For this important supper a long table had been laid for twenty-five people down the centre of the hall. But the meal was only the prelude to the evening’s main event:  while pudding dishes were cleared away, the bellringers re-arranged themselves to give a recital of Christmas carols. They stood at the far end of the hall, behind another table on which handbells were placed ready to be picked up and rung as required. My brother and I were allowed to tiptoe downstairs in our dressing gowns and sit on the bottom step to listen. I only heard this once – in other years, I was away at boarding school – but that candle-lit performance is still unforgotten.

 

This hall was not part of the original Georgian parsonage, which was much more on the scale of Fenchurch St. Peter’s fictional rectory. When Tydd was dramatically enlarged in 1855 (architect: JH Hakewill) what had been the modest entrance hall, dining room and sitting room were all knocked into one long draughty space. But the staircase was still in its original position and beside it ran the short passage leading to my father’s study.

 

This was the one room of the Rectory that still had an 18th century feel. Lined with low cupboards and tiers of shelves almost to the ceiling, it could have housed a very respectable library. Dad’s collection of books was mostly theological, biblical and pastoral, with just a scattering of other subjects: travel guides, especially Switzerland; CS Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and, among only a few novels, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond.2 I wish now that I had talked to him about both these books, which in their different ways I much admire. But by the time I could have done, he wouldn’t have been able to remember them. 

 

Although it was a big room – or so it seemed to me then – it always had an inviting feel. After breakfast we’d troop from the kitchen to the study for family prayers. I liked kneeling where I could peep at the blue Delft tiles lining the fireplace. There were two armchairs, an occasional table for coffee or a glass of sherry on Sundays, and Dad’s desk in the bay window. Here he sat each morning writing letters, attending to church business and editing the monthly parish magazine. And always, while he worked, he shared his study with an ancient black deed box looking down from the highest bookshelf behind him. Inscribed below the lock, in fading white lettering, were the words ‘WILLS & BOUVERIE’.

 

Endowed by two former rectors of Tydd, the Wills and Bouverie Charity paid for the clothing and education of four poor boys and four poor girls of the parish. The original rectory must have been built in the days of Dr. John Wills, though how much time, if any, he spent here I cannot say. Not only rector of Tydd, he additionally held the living of a village in Somerset while also being Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, from 1783 until his death in 1806. Between 1792-1796 he was even Vice-Chancellor of the University. John Bouverie, likewise, held the living of Tydd in plurality with one in Sussex; but he was also a Prebend of Lincoln Cathedral, so will have needed to keep at least a toe-hold in the diocese. He was a cousin of the great Tractarian, Edward Bouverie Pusey, and I can’t resist picturing Pusey ‘longing for holiness’ in this very study. 

 

Every afternoon my father visited his parishioners – he thought this among his most important duties as Rector. After tea he’d retreat to the study to prepare his two weekly sermons, Mattins and Evensong, all duly dated, numbered and catalogued. (Eventually, my mother stuffed a pouffe with them: she had not the heart to throw away his life’s work.) 

 

I am still puzzled why my father ever decided to come to Tydd. For me, the move from Birmingham to the Fens was the moment I felt myself coming alive, but my father was a Londoner who’d never lived in a village, knew nothing about farming or country life; he must have wondered, for the first few months at least, whether he hadn’t made a terrible mistake. But one night, before his first year was out, he went after supper back to his study to tidy his desk, turned on the light and was astonished to see an old man sitting in the bay window.

 

My father never told me of this moment, but he did tell my mother who – not long before she died – told me. Dad had recognized the man at once: his white beard and frock coat gave him away. He was the Rev. Charles Benjamin Lowe, who had been rector of Tydd for nearly forty years; he had died in the Rectory in 1904. A sepia photograph of him hung in the church vestry. The old man turned in his seat and appeared, if not to smile, at least to nod, as if acknowledging my father’s right to occupy this study that had once and for so long been his. 

If you had known him, you would not have called Norman Barlow an impressionable man; all the same, this singular encounter seemed somehow to reassure him that, after all, Tydd and this house were where he and we were meant to be, and that our time here would be well spent. And so it was.


© Adrian Barlow

 

1. Hermione Lee, ‘A House of Air’, in Lives of Houses, eds. Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee, University of Princeton Press, 2020, p.31.

2. Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, Collins, 1956. This novel is celebrated for its opening sentence: '“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

 

Illustrations

(fig. 1) Tydd Rectory 1961. Photo credit: Adele I Miller

(fig.2) Dust jacket of The Towers of Trebizond (1st edition, 1956)

(fig.3) Tydd St Mary Parish Magazine, April 1960

(fig.4) The bay window (nearest to camera) of the study at Tydd

 

  

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Lives of Houses (i): The Rectory, Tydd St. Mary

 

 Lives of Houses is a book that has preoccupied me for nearly twelve months. I first read it just as we entered Lockdown #1 last March and now, as we wait for the arrival of spring and the longed-for end to Lockdown #3, the thoughts and ideas it prompted a year ago still impress themselves upon my mind and my imagination. It’s a book that asks questions about our relationship with the houses in which we live, or have lived: how houses shape, and are shaped by, the people who inhabit them from one generation to another. The book is a collection of essays edited by biographers – Hermione Lee and Kate Kennedy, both closely associated with the Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford – and the contributors include historians, poets and novelists. Those whose houses are the subject of individual essays include Britten and Sibelius, Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bowen, Charles and Mary Lamb, Tennyson, Yeats and Auden (twice).

 


Two particular questions, posed in Hermione Lee’s Preface to Lives of Houses, nagged at me as I


read the book a first time and nag at me still: ‘What does it feel like to long for a lost house?’ and ‘What presence do the ghosts of vanished houses play in our lives?’  Between 1956 (the year of Look Back in Anger) and 1963 (Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis) I lived in an extraordinary old house in a Lincolnshire village deep in the Fens that lie around The Wash. Tydd St. Mary was my father’s parish; St Mary’s was his church and the Rectory - all twenty something rooms of it plus three acres of drives, lawns, borders, walks, wells, woods, orchards, an earth closet and a walled kitchen garden, not forgetting the pigsty and chicken run, stables and coach house – was our home. 

 

We were never meant to live there. When the Bishop of Lincoln had offered my father  the cure of souls in Tydd, he’d assured him no one could be expected to live these days in a rectory of that size on a stipend of £800 p.a. – even adding fees for funerals etc. and the annual rent from the glebe field. A smaller, modern rectory, to be built in the woods at the further end of the garden, was long overdue. If my parents were willing to camp in part of the existing building, the Bishop said, he guaranteed they’d have a brand-new rectory within a year. “I’ll send the archdeacon down to discuss it with you as soon as you’ve had time to unpack. You can tell him what you’d like.” 

 

Looking after the practical (as opposed to the pastoral) needs of clergy is what archdeacons are meant to do. In Barchester Towers, for instance, Trollope’s Archdeacon Grantly is full of ideas for improving the amenities of the vicarage for Mr Arabin, the incoming vicar of St Ewold’s. The wine cellar for a start: “Arabin, Arabin, this cellar is perfectly abominable. It would be murder to put a bottle of wine into it till it has been roofed, walled, and floored.” That was only the start; the kitchen grate was next to be condemned, and finally the dining room: “You must positively alter this dining-room, that is remodel it altogether; look here, it’s just sixteen feet by fifteen; did any man ever hear of a dining room of such proportions?”

 

The Archdeacon of Lincoln duly came to visit us, a few weeks after we had moved into Tydd Rectory. I remember his visit vividly. He was dressed exactly as Dr. Grantly would have dressed, a hundred years earlier: frock coat, apron, clerical gaiters and a black felt hat with a brim far wider than the sombre Homburg my father used to wear on Sundays. My parents had awaited his arrival nervously. It may have been only a month since they had exchanged Birmingham for the Fens and a cramped vicarage for one of the largest rectories in East Anglia, but this was long enough for them to have reached an unexpected conclusion: they didn’t want a new rectory and they no longer wanted just to camp in the old one – they wanted to live in it, properly. We all wanted to live in it. My brother and I, merely four and six years old though we were, wanted it just as strongly and as urgently: everywhere so old, yet new to us and all of it waiting to be explored. 

 

If the Bishop had been expecting to learn that the Barlows could not wait to move into a newly-built parsonage, he was soon disappointed. To my parents’ relief, the Archdeacon had been delighted by their decision. Far from trying to talk them out of such foolishness, he revealed himself an ardent defender of the traditions of the C of E: “These great old rectories are part of our heritage,” he declared as he prepared to take his leave, “and I congratulate you on being willing to defend that heritage.” The warm glow of the Archdeacon’s approbation was somewhat dimmed, I must admit, when he remembered he’d forgotten his black broad-brimmed hat – had he left on the window seat in the hall, he wondered? He had, and I had been sitting on it.

 

Penelope Fitzgerald, in her biography of her father and uncles, The Knox Brothers, records that when their family moved to a large rectory in Leicestershire in 1884, ‘All the children were so happy there that in later years they could cure themselves of sleeplessness simply by imagining that they were back at Kibworth’. I know how they felt. I know, too – in answering Hermione Lee – how it feels to long for a lost house.  I still feel a certain anguish and, yes, a certain anger that, shortly after we left, our beloved home was brutally carved up and much of it knocked down. Now, almost a lifetime later, Tydd Rectory still lives in my memory more insistently than anywhere else I have ever lived.

 

© Adrian Barlow

 

Illustrations

(Fig.1) Lives of Houses, ed. Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee; Princeton University Press, 2020

(Fig.2) Tydd Rectory: the east front, 1957

(Fig. 3) Tydd Rectory, partially demolished, c.1965

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

In Praise of Street Art

Street art created during recent Cheltenham Paint Festivals is starting to change the face of parts of the town. In the past nine months, when The Wilson has been closed, I have been glad to be challenged, amused, bemused and exhilarated by many of the artworks that now confront me on my daily lockdown walks. Much of the artwork created during these festivals, which last year took place over four days in early September, is located in and around the Station, Waitrose and St. Paul’s areas. Some of the best, though, can be found closer to the town centre. 

Just behind the Royal Crescent, for instance, the Bayshill inn occupies one corner of the St James’ Square carpark and in 2018 the long side wall of this inn was painted with a powerful (but to me rather ominous) mural. A great golden archer, of heroic stature, is poised to fire a giant arrow into a glittering target but his arm is becoming encased in tendrils of vegetation that suggest the arrow will never be fired. It’s an image of arrested motion, eye-catching every time I have passed it, but it has distracted me from noticing until recently another and much more discreet artwork in an altogether different idiom, this one created on an adjoining wall during the 2019 Paint Festival. When the car park is full, you could miss it altogether.

If you approach from the road what you see first is a grinning blue-spotted white horse with a green bridle and blue hooves. It looks like the sort of horse you might have seen in a children’s book a couple of generations ago. Behind the horse stands a small ginger-headed girl facing the wall and wielding in her left hand a spray can, apparently to paint the horse’s tail. Approach from the other side, though, and the back-turned girl strikes you first. No longer looking so small, but still a child, she wears black boots and odd stockings: left leg, ginger to match her hair; right leg, pale green to match her tee-shirt dress. The stockings are held up by snappy suspenders with blue buttons – blue to match not just the spots and hooves of the horse but (we now notice) the blue jacket of a tiny monkey perched on her left shoulder.

Come closer. At once we see that the girl is not herself spray painted. Unexpectedly, for a paint festival at least, she is created from a very precise assembly of ceramic tiles – 18 by my count. The effect is of a figure in low relief, glazed and standing out against the rough texture of the wall itself. For the wall is rough: red brick bearing traces of long-vanished coats of lime wash, black paint and (towards the ground) of patches of plaster, as if there had once been a dado. This is worth noting because whereas the painting of the archer on the Bayshill’s main wall completely obscures the brickwork (not to mention the guttering and down pipe) here the texture and blemishes of the wall have been incorporated into the picture: the patches of old dirty plaster could be puddles over which the horse is jumping, and the girl is instinctively lifting the heel of her right foot to avoid making her boot muddy. As a background, the reddish-brown bricks of the mottled wall play an important role in highlighting the whole picture – horse and girl together.

I like the reflexive way in which street artists sometimes incorporate the symbol of their profession – the spray can – into their work like this. I could point to several such examples around Cheltenham; but only here, on the Bayshill wall, does the spray-can hold the key to unlocking the whole picture.

On the label is the word LINDGREN, which points us to Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the celebrated Swedish children’s author whose 1945 novel, Pippi Långstrump , introduced the world to an unlikely nine-year-old superwoman. Here is the UK’s National Literacy Trust, in 2020, extolling her virtues: 

Pippi Longstocking has been an incredible role model for three quarters of a century. She’s a real advocate for justice, can sail a ship across the seven seas, carry a horse and beat the strongest man in the world …. We can all be inspired by Pippi Longstocking’s independence, kindness and love of exploration.

From her first appearance Pippi has been described and defined exactly as you can see her on the Bayshill Inn wall; the only thing you can’t see are her freckles. The monkey on her shoulder is her friend Mr Nillson. But who has brought her to this corner of Cheltenham? 

Well, on the spray can’s label is a signature, Chinagirl, with the word TILE in small print underneath. When I had deciphered the ‘handwriting’, the name stirred vague memories of a David Bowie song, ‘China Girl’, written in the 1970s – ‘I’m just a wreck without my little China girl’.  As it happens, however, Chinagirl Tile is the professional name of a young Austrian street artist with a worldwide reputation. Her work can be seen around the world – London, Berlin, Seoul, Tokyo, Auckland – and she has had a major one-woman show in her home city, Vienna, at the Wien Museum. Internationally, she is known for her support for, and encouragement of, women as artists – hence perhaps her enthusiasm for the indomitable little girl  who can be seen at any time, here in Cheltenham, putting art on a wall.

Finally, the spray can’s label carries the initials SSOSVA. I leave you to look this one up for yourself. Chinagirl is a gentle activist, but a serious one. In her manifesto, BRING A DINOSAUR, Rules for Girls who want to be Street Artists, she lists fourteen rules, among them these: 

9. The street is your canvas, a very powerful one too. Even small interventions will be seen.

10. Street art is a tool to send out messages. Use this power/burden wisely.

14. Be prepared to stand your ground.

Pippi Longstocking would agree.


Adrian Barlow 


Photographs © the author.

 

 

 

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Who is holding the baby?

Lecturing on Zoom is a poor substitute for speaking to a live audience, but it’s something I’ve got quite used to now. Just before lockdown I led a study day on Seamus Heaney: sixty students and I, all of us absorbed in shaping and sharing our responses to the language and life of a remarkable poet. I couldn’t have done that on Zoom. The subjects on which I have spoken since Lockdown #1 include Venice, stained glass, the pelican in art, a potted history of punting, and portraits in the collections of The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. In the run-up to Christmas I lectured twice on ‘Looking at the Nativity Anew’ in which I discussed representations of the Nativity story – broadly, from the Annunciation to the Flight into Egypt – in painting, sculpture and stained glass from the 14th century to the present day.

My favourite Christmas card received this year is one published by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. At first glance it’s a touching scene – humorous, even – found in the 15th century Besançon Book of Hours. Had it arrived while I was preparing my Nativity lecture I should certainly have included it. The title is ‘Nativity, Virgin Reading’ (Fitzwilliam Ms.69 f.48r) and indeed the chief surprise of the scene is that Mary is emphatically not nursing her newborn child:  she has delegated that job to Joseph while she sits comfortably in bed, propped up against a plump bolster, absorbed in a book. She wears an arresting canary-coloured kirtle (none of your traditional blue or red) and a white headdress tucked back carefully to reveal a neatly-curled blonde ringlet. The conventional Virgin Mother she isn’t.

Even more surprising than the clothes she wears is her scarlet, gold-spotted coverlet. This blanket steals the show. Did she and Joseph bring it with them, for use in just such an emergency? It’s almost possible: the hem of Joseph’s blue gown matches the hem of Mary’s red blanket. However, Joseph’s clothes (especially the homespun woollen cowl around his shoulders) are less sophisticated than his wife’s. So, apparently, are his manners: he hasn’t taken off his boots before planting his feet on the edge of Mary’s blanket.

It is difficult to identify the stable space as represented here: is it the modest wooden framework at the head of Mary’s bed? Is Joseph sitting on grass? What are we to make of the elaborate screen in the background, or the grey wall in front of it? Is the wattle-fenced enclosure, where the ox and ass1 have their ringside view of the holy family, the real stable? There is no sign of a manger: all the ass appears to be eating is Joseph’s halo.

These observations aren’t meant to be flippant. The more I study this picture the more puzzling it becomes. Beneath Mary’s bed is a scrubby little plant. There are of course flowers traditionally associated with Mary; but this apology for a lily seems an almost ironic comment on a scene where, frankly everything is turned on its head. Mary relaxes in the manner of an indulged wife able to leave childcare to others; she shows no interest in her newborn son or her husband, squatting as they are on the ground at the foot of her bed. Usually, images of the Nativity depict Mary as a mother absorbed in the baby to whom she has just given birth. But not here. Have you ever seen the Nativity depicted like this anywhere else?

Actually I have: at Magdeburg Cathedral in a carved panel on the end of a 14th century choir stall. (The guidebook dates it with surprising precision to 1363). Mary, sleeping centre-stage, dominates this scene both physically – she is more than twice the size of anyone else in this rather crowded image – and because she is fast asleep. Her head is propped comfortably against her right hand as she lies on an amply-draped couch, and her face betrays simple contentment: her child is born, she has fulfilled the task she was given; let someone else take over, for the time being at least. And someone else is, for a nurse maid (bottom left) is giving an apprehensive Jesus his first bath. 



Joseph, altogether upstaged, is also asleep. His head lies against his elbow which rests on a curious Gothic structure. Does this enclosure really indicate the manger? Here are the ox and ass – rather inexpertly carved, it must be said. I am sure the figure of Mary is the work of a master holzschnitzler: from head to toe she is clothed in loosely flowing garments which nevertheless suggest powerfully the physical presence of a body in repose. The other figures and animals look, frankly, like apprentice work: The scroll held by the three angels is crudely shaped2; so are the arms and hands of the angels themselves. Still, the two shepherds (on the left) have a certain vigour. The cowled figure being reassured by an angel3 has an expressive face and holds a staff that could easily double as a cudgel. I like the cross-legged fellow, so absorbed in playing his own music he appears oblivious to the song of the angels. Traditionally, one of the shepherds always carries a bagpipe: in a 16th century carol, Wat, the ‘gud herdés boy’, offers his to the child in the manger:


‘Jesu, I offer to thee here my pipe,

My skirt, my tar-box,4 and my scrip;

Home to my felowes now will I skip,

And also look unto my shepe.’

                        Ut hoy!

            For in his pipe he made so much joy.

'Jolly Wat' (Anon)5

I have to keep reminding myself it is all too easy to underestimate medieval artists and to be fooled by their apparent innocence. But I find the freshness of their vision, their ability to present scenes and situations in ways so strange to us, sometimes disconcerting. What have they seen that we, for all our self-assured sophistication, may have missed? A brief dismissive smile won’t do. We have to keep looking.

Adrian Barlow

 

Illustrations:(i) Christmas card from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (photo: the author) 

(ii) 14th century carved panel from Magdeburg Cathedral (postcard, purchased from Cathedral shop)

 

Footnotes

1)    The ox and ass are essential components of Nativity iconography, but they are never mentioned in New Testament descriptions of the birth of Christ. Different explanations of their significance can be found: my preference is for the argument that the ox is a ‘clean’ animal in Rabbinical tradition and teaching whereas the ass is ‘unclean’; hence side by side in the stable they represent Jew and Gentile together witnessing the birth of Salvator Mundi, [‘the saviour of the world’].

2)    The length of this scroll suggests that it would have contained the text Gloria in Excelsis Deo [‘Glory to God in the Highest’].

3)    The short scroll carried by the angel addressing the startled shepherd who has picked up his cudgel would have been inscribed Noli timere [‘Fear Not’]. In 2013, it was this Latin injunction that the poet Seamus Heaney  texted from his hospital bed to his wife, as his last words.

4)    Tar-box: a small container once carried by shepherds. It contained an ointment (‘tar’) made from the ash of pinewood mixed with pine sap. This was used as a salve for scratches or scabs on sheep.

5)    This carol, Jolly Wat, can be found in the Oxford Book of Ballads (edSir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1910, p.439).  


My previous post,  A Christmas Card?, discusses a design for a card by the Arts & Crafts artist, Frederick Landseer Griggs. This is one of a series of discussions in which I have focused on works of Art in the collections of The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. To read any of these, click here.