Friday, 18 October 2013

Reading Stained Glass (ii): Wittersham in the Isle of Oxney

In Reading Stained Glass (i): Rouen, earlier this year, I discussed a small medallion from a huge early 13th century window in Rouen Cathedral. This intensely coloured medallion, depicting Christ washing his disciples’ feet before the Last Supper, was so high up it was difficult to see with the naked eye. By contrast, I want to write now about a 20th century eye-level window in a remote village church in Kent, which appears to have barely any religious connotation,  and mainly consists of palely coloured glass so clear that the churchyard trees outside almost become part of the picture.

This window, in Wittersham Church in the Isle of Oxney, is a memorial to John Body. It’s a simple two-light window, each light full of small lozenge-shaped pieces of plain hand-blown glass. Most of these quarries (to give them their technical name – which comes from the French carr√©: square) are clear, though some are tinted very pale blue, lemon, pink or green. Each light is also surrounded by a border made up of three elements: a narrow outer ribbon of clear glass and a central ribbon of vivid, varied blues, interspersed irregularly with small patterned gold squares or oblongs. These sometimes intrude into the narrow inner band of clear glass, though never into the outer. Every one is different, and all are painted black on gold with a cheerful naivety.

In the bottom right-hand corner of the window, the border frames a curious little figure: a cowled monk,
no more than a couple of inches high, and easily overlooked. But he has an important job to do. The monk is the emblem of the Whitefriars Studios, home of the illustrious stained glass firm of James Powell and Sons, and the initials either side of the monk, J H, indicate that this window was the work of James Humphries Hogan, Chief Designer of the company before and after the Second World War. Beneath the monk, the date 1947 indicates when the window was made and installed.  Hogan died the following year, so this was one of his very last windows.

All these bits of information help us the better to understand the window; for with windows, as with books, reading means looking, contextualizing, reflecting and then looking again, this time seeing the window in a clearer light. However, there is much more of this window to take in. First the dominant images: in the left-hand light a green dragon stands on a clump of grass with, beneath it, a Latin motto enscrolled thus: VETERI FRONDESCIT HONORE. Then in the right-hand light, three wheatsheaves, emblems of harvest, and beneath them a biblical text BEHOLD A SOWER WENT FORTH TO SOW. This is almost too long to fit across the glass, so the words ‘went forth’ are reduced to half-size lettering. Odd, don’t you think, to have a text about sowing seed accompanying an image of already harvested corn? Presumably the idea is to suggest that, in the context of this window at least, the seed fell upon fertile ground.

Beneath the two main images in the Wittersham window, running across the two lights and ignoring the stone mullion that separates them, is a dedication. The lettering is an excellent example of mid-20th century calligraphy: it’s beautifully clear but just a little self-conscious with its interlinking loops and a hint of the formal script of an earlier age. It is the exact opposite of the Gothic script that was the lettering of choice for Victorian stained glass inscriptions. The inscription reads:

In loving remembrance of  JOHN BODY of
Wittersham Court who died 5th December 1945
A Man of Kent

This gives little away, though the picture at the bottom of the window offers a clue: it shows a gentleman farmer in a Norfolk jacket leaning on a stick with his faithful sheep dog beside him: it’s after the war; the world is at peace again, so his flock may safely graze against a bucolic background of meadow, spinney, church, farmhouse and newly thatched haystacks – the ladder still propped against one of them. ‘All is safely gathered in’, in fact. The whole image, running across both lights of the window, suggests a man at peace with the world in a world at peace: he has lived, after all, just long enough to see the end of the Second World War.  It’s a picture of what Candida Lycett Green in The Oldie – my current magazine of choice – calls ‘unwrecked England’.

There is another important clue, however. The Latin motto belongs (as does the emblematic dragon) to the Royal East Kent Regiment, ‘the Buffs’. It means that the regiment ‘flourishes’ (frondescit) with ancient honour’ – though some translators render it thus: ‘Its ancient honour is evergreen’. A quick internet search will tell you that Lt. Colonel John Body was a career soldier whose regiment was The Buffs and who commanded the first British troops to enter Baghdad in 1917. He was awarded the DSO and Bar and many other decorations, which, sic transit Gloria mundi, ended up on e-Bay. Astonishingly – to me at least – after the war he became Master of the Tigris Vale Foxhounds in Mesopotamia. Eventually he retired from the Army, came back home to Kent, happily exchanging the Garden of Eden – Milton speaks in Paradise Lost of  ‘Tigris at the foot of Paradise’ – for the Garden of England. There he was a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the County.  He lived quietly at Wittersham Court, respected by all as a countryman passionate about preserving the countryside.

Such a man was John Body, and I like to think that it’s as he would have wished, that none of his wartime or civic distinctions should appear on the inscription on his memorial window.  So what might look at first like a rather bland example of mid-20th century glass offers on closer reading a subtle and moving example of post-war English stained glass  by a designer, James Hogan, who deserves to be better remembered: an understated celebration both of an immemorial England that has just survived five years of war, and of a Man of Kent, soldier (the dragon) and farmer (the wheatsheaves) – literally then,  ‘ A Body of England’s, breathing English air’.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: the John Body memorial window, in the church of St John the Baptist, Wittersham. I am grateful to my friend Peter Hart for supplying the photograph for this window, which I have yet to see for myself.

I have written about this part of the Kent-Sussex border once before:

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Machiavelli at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

Philip Bobbitt , American presidential adviser, academic and author, describes himself soberly as a constitutional lawyer and historian of diplomacy and strategy. Others show less restraint. The Spectator has recently likened him to Indiana Jones, and the New York Observer has labelled him ‘the James Bond of the Columbia Law School’. More alarming still, a reviewer of Bobbitt’s influential but controversial book on modern states and modern war, The Shield of Achilles (2002), called him ‘Satan’s Theologian’.

He has just given one of the opening lectures at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, and I was asked to introduce him. I thought this might be daunting – after all, Bobbitt was President Clinton’s senior director for Strategic Planning, and he’s a man who numbers both Henry Kissinger and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, among his admirers. (Of whom else in the world today could that be said?)  I am happy to report, however, that we got on very well, and even found two things at least in common. First, we discovered we’d once lectured at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, during the same weekend (he on International Relations and I on David Lodge’s fiction).  Second, we were the only two people at the Festival that afternoon wearing ties.

Literature Festivals celebrate the written word through the spoken word. They are also of course a sophisticated form of market place: the speakers nearly always have a book to sell. Philip Bobbitt’s is his new study of one of the world’s great bogeymen: Old Nick personified, Niccol√≥ Machiavelli.  

week, and am very glad to have done so. It’s far from simply a revisionist re-reading of The Prince: it’s a clear-eyed, humane attempt to explain why Machiavelli and his book still matter. Reminding us that Machiavelli never wrote ‘the end justifies the means’, Bobbitt argues that

the nature of the state – its commitment to the common, public interest which embraces all classes and groups under law – is what makes the state a worthy recipient of the devotion that Machiavelli felt is its due. Ends matter, and not just any ends will justify any means.

Two things have greatly enriched my reading of The Garments of Court and Palace. First, Philip Bobbitt writes as an historian whose deep understanding of history is tempered by his wide reading of literature. The first hint of this comes in the book’s dedication

For Guido Calabresi
Il miglior fabbro

– which of course echoes Eliot’s dedication of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound. Then the first chapter has as its epigraph a snatch of dialogue from Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons:

Thomas More: Master Rich is newly converted to the doctrines of Machiavelli.
Richard Rich: Oh no.
Duke of Norfolk: Oh, the Italian. Nasty book, from what I hear.
Margaret: Very practical, Your Grace.

Plays in fact appear often in the book. Bobbitt might be expected to cite The Jew of Malta’s Prologue:

To some perhaps my name is odious;
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machiavel.

But other plays, too – Pinter’s Betrayal, Stoppard’s Arcadia and Frayn’s Copenhagen – are invoked to illustrate a critic’s point that ‘Machiavelli’s irony does not involve simply saying one thing and meaning its opposite; it more often describes an attitude that embraces two possibilities at the same time.’

This willingness to create a dialogue between Machiavelli’s writing and the writing of later ages is the second thing to appeal to me. Both in The Garments of Court and Palace and in his Festival lecture he has admitted that “my rendering of Machiavelli is an example of what Jorge Luis Borges called a writer’s creating his own precursors”. At Cheltenham he gave, as an example of this, the way TS Eliot ‘created’ a John Donne so particular and so persuasive (and so like Eliot?), that it has become almost impossible to imagine anyone before Old Possum ever imagining Donne differently.

Just as Eliot ‘created’ a new Donne in order to explain and justify his own theories of literature (the dissociation of sensibility, above all), so Philip Bobbitt has created a new Machiavelli to be his own precursor. He calls his book a ‘commentary’ on The Prince and the Discourses, but some critics have suggested that The Garments of Court and Palace equally invokes Machiavelli to act as commentator on Bobbitt’s theories about statecraft and today’s ‘market-state’.

Is this hubris on Bobbitt’s part? I don’t think so. True, he admires the man (whom he calls ‘our sublime predecessor’) but his message – and this book certainly carries a message – is an urgent one: we ignore Machiavelli at our peril. His contemporaries missed his point; we can’t afford to:

In our case it is not the hegemony of foreign states that threatens us – though we are so accustomed to thinking in these terms that we scan the horizon restlessly for potential competitors – but rather internal dissolution and disgust with our own institutions.

If this sounds more like Savonarola than Machiavelli, Bobbitt’s message is nevertheless clear: ‘We cannot be guided by Machiavelli, but we can be alerted by him.’  At the end of the book, in an unexpectedly personal Acknowledgement, he notes that the world into which his son was born last year “is in many ways a far better one than the world into which I was born, and a far less dangerous one than Renaissance Florence”; he concedes, though, that it is “not without formidable challenges”. Not many writers, I imagine, readily go into print to acknowledge a debt to Machiavelli, but Philip Bobbitt does. Describing how he and his young wife “first met in a seminar on The Prince and The Discourses," he concludes The Garments of Court and Palace on a note of touching incredulity:

It now seems that, for all my many debts to Machiavelli , this will prove to be the greatest.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: a corner of the Cheltenham Literature Festival site, Imperial Square, Cheltenham, 6 October 2013

Philip Bobbitt’s book, The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World That He Made, is published by Atlantic Books: ISBN 9781843546849.