Saturday, 31 January 2015

Perambulations with Pevsner

Pevsner (n): an authoritative but quirky architectural handbook, any one in the series of county-by-county guides, properly entitled The Buildings of England; eponymously so called after founding editor, Nikolaus Pevsner.

It’s not the least of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s achievements that he is possibly the only man in English publishing history to have given his name not just to one reference book (no mere Bradshaw, Brewer, Burke or Crockford he) but to a whole family of reference books; most were written by himself, and all bear his imprint if not actually his imprimatur. Pevsner completed the first series of The Buildings of England in 1974, and died in 1988; but new editions and editions of new sub-series, such as Buildings of Scotland, (and Wales and Ireland) continue to appear.

The first county book appeared in 1951; Pevsner aimed to publish two a year. In the succeeding sixty years many have been revised, sometimes two or three times, and now a third generation of architectural historians is at work, led by Simon Bradley, the present series editor, who has just published a revised, enlarged Cambridgeshire to acclaim. I was given it at Christmas and have been reading and admiring it ever since. It has to be admitted, though: Pevsners are no longer as portable as they used to be. I bought my first, Bedfordshire, in 1974, and could carry it around in the pocket of my mac. In those days I cycled everywhere, having no car, and rather resembled the chap in Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, taking off my cycle clips in awkward reverence – a manoeuvre that could almost count as a genuflection, if the church looked the sort of place where such a thing was expected. Sir Ninian Comper used to say that a church should bring you to your knees on entering; nowadays, just carrying around a Pevsner might do the same for you. Let me illustrate my point.

The original volume, Cornwall (BE1), was a paperback – as they all were at first. Penguin used to publish them, and Pevsner always acknowledged his debt to Sir Allen Lane for supporting the project from its earliest days. (Nowadays, the series is published by Yale). Cornwall measured 7 by 4½ inches, had 251 pages and weighed 7½ oz.; my Bedfordshire (1968, hardback by then) had grown a half-inch taller, boasted 414 pages and weighed 13oz.; Simon Bradley’s new Cambridgeshire (2014) by contrast, is nearly 9 x 5ins, has 790 pages and weighs 2lbs.

An expanding series, therefore, but the remarkable thing is that the format has stayed unchanged since 1951. Maps of the county, with every town and village marked and grid-referenced; an introduction providing pre-historical, topographical and architectural overviews of the county; next the gazetteer, with every church mentioned, no matter how briefly, and  other buildings of significance identified. For larger towns Pevsner provides architectural walking routes he calls ‘Perambulations’. In the middle of each book a swatch of photographs – grey and grainy at first, high definition colour now –  illustrating the architectural and decorative highlights described in the text . Pevsner made a point of seeing everything he described, so his descriptions alternate between rapid-fire architectural shorthand and pithy tut-tuts of praise or disappointment. Thus, from Cornwall, and on the same page, for Portreath he says simply,

The Church of ST MARY, by Wightwick, 1841, is rather depressing, with pointed windows and a bellcote.

For Poughill he seems to have transcribed his notes almost as he must have scribbled them down (his record was nineteen churches visited in a single day):

ST OLAF. A Danish dedication. Nave of four bays; N aisle with arcades of Cornish granite standard section, but shorter than usual (late C14?); S aisle with thicker projection l. and r. of each of the standard hollows (cf. St Veep); quatrefoil decoration of the abaci.

For Pevsner it was important to instruct readers how to ‘read’ a building, so he wasn’t afraid to use technical terms. But he always included at the end, along with an index of artists and architects and an index of places, a glossary. This glossary, expanded like the series, is now available as an app.

Pevsner didn’t drive. Cornwall is dedicated to ‘TO LOLA, who drove the car’. Lola was his wife. Later on, eager young researchers used to chauffeur him; some in time co-edited counties with him or indeed became editors of the later revisions. He inspired great affection and loyalty. Simon Bradley doesn’t drive either. While working on Cambridgeshire he was given rooms at St John’s College, and in his Foreword duly acknowledges that ‘Not the least of the amenities provided by St John’s for this non-driving author was a pass for the college bicycle sheds.’ He thanks his family and friends for ferrying him out to ‘Areas of Cambridgeshire beyond the practicable reach of pedals or public transport’ (much of rural Cambs. is far beyond the bounds of any bus route) and ends by thanking ‘Bridge Cycles of Magdalene Street for repairs and advice’.

I’m glad to applaud a new book that follows a great tradition, a tradition one can say confidently was begun by a single man. Pevsner was beguilingly eccentric in some ways, dauntingly precise and systematic in others. He came to love England: nobody knew it better, architecturally speaking, than Pevsner did. He described himself, in writing the Buildings of England, as an outsider, but saw this as an advantage. In the Foreword to Herefordshire (BE25, 1963; the midpoint of the series) he defended his decision to write most of the series himself because

 the outsider keeping in mind the whole of England and perhaps even something of the continent seems to me to have overriding advantages …. It is not that I want to hog the whole enterprise [a few lines later it’s a ‘crazy enterprise’]. On the contrary, I want to live to see it completed, and I am only anxious to preserve a certain unity of approach and treatment.

He did; and his successors have gone on preserving it in a manner he would have applauded. So, even if the books no longer fit in our pockets, we still have many reasons to be grateful to Pevsner - the man and the eponym.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: Pevsners including the first, Cornwall, (1951) and Cambridge, (3rd, ed. 2014).

I have blogged elsewhere about Pevsner, on the Kempe Trust website:

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Short Measures (vii): Edward Thomas and the end of winter

Short Measures: an occasional series in which I discuss a very short poem (12 lines or fewer). For copyright reasons it’s rare, unfortunately, that I can choose a poem written in the past fifty years or more. 

With Christmas over, New Year past and the days getting longer, I hope it isn’t too soon to look forward to the end of winter. In Edward Thomas’s writing, signs of spring are much sought-for but elusive. ‘And Spring’s here, Winter’s not gone’, he says in But These Things Also, while another poem begins and ends with the kind of conditional optimism that defines Thomas: ‘Spring returns, perhaps tomorrow.’  Here’s a single-stanza poem  also devoted to winter’s end:

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, winter pass.

Four lines, three commas, two viewpoints, one sentence: as I have found so often in this series of Short Measures, the structure of this poem depends on opposites – here, the 360° viewpoint of the birds high up in the elms looking down ‘over the land’ contrasted with the narrower vision of the poet below.  After reading this poem, Thaw, for the first time, I thought I might condense it still further by creating a haiku to see what, if anything, would be lost:

What we could not see
rooks at their nests saw: snow half-
thawed, and winter pass.

I suppose my three lines just about sketch this idea of contrasted viewpoints; but in my struggle to fit everything into 5+7+5 syllables I’ve lost entirely the ebb and flow, the slow build-up of the original poem. Even though I have used the same final words – ‘winter pass’ – in the haiku, I simply get there too quickly. Thomas withholds the climax of the poem (which, syntactically, is also the object of the seven-word main sentence, highlighted in bold above) until the very end - as I have withheld it in my haiku, though the effect is spoiled by my having added the word ‘and’.

And, indeed, it’s not just the ebb and flow I have lost. A word like ‘speculating’ is too cumbersome, and simply too big for a haiku, but in Thaw it is perhaps the most important word of all, drawing attention to itself both by its length and by its unexpectedness. Thomas has used the word not to mean ‘gambling’ or ‘hypothesizing’, but in its earliest sense (first usage 1599, according to the OED), which is ‘being on the watch’: specula in Latin means a watch tower.  Once we realize this, then we understand why the rooks are ‘at’ their nests: they are at their posts (crows’ nests?) as sentinels, and it is their responsibility to observe winter ‘pass’. In the same way, they look out ‘over’ and not simply ‘at’ or ‘down on’ the land.  And their cawing sounds the all-clear, heralding the approach (if not yet the arrival) of spring.

‘Speculating’ is crucial, too, in terms of its reverberations across the poem: it picks up the sound of the first syllable of ‘freckled’ and – slightly less proximate – the sound of ‘delicate’. There are other reverberations, also: ‘cawed’ and ‘thawed’, obviously, but ‘saw’ belongs here too. The image of the land ‘freckled with snow half-thawed’ is worth a moment’s reflection. Freckles are darker spots on lighter skin; thus it isn’t exactly the snow that freckles the ground: it's the ground peeping up through the melting snow that creates the freckling effect the rooks observe. So, in passing, it’s worth pondering why Thomas calls the poem ‘Thaw’ when he says at once that the snow is only ‘half-thawed’. But a thaw sets in when thawing begins; once the thawing is over, so is the thaw. And with the end of the thaw, Thomas says, ends winter’s grip on the land. This is what the birds see.

Thomas is acutely interested in, and conscious of, birds. By my count he refers in his poems to at least twenty-three different species from herons to wrens thrushes the most frequent. Sometimes, though, he is tantalized by those he can’t identify: in The Unknown Bird, the ‘three lovely notes’ he keeps hearing are

As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if the bird or I were in a dream.

And in another winter poem, Snow, Thomas invokes but does not name a ‘bird of the snow’ whom a small child believes hunters have shot:

            ‘They have killed a white bird up there on her nest,
The down is fluttering from her breast.’

 Here the bird on her nest echoes the rooks at their nests. Other than in ‘Thaw’, however, I believe rooks only appear once (in ‘February Afternoon’, along with ‘parleying starlings’ and ‘white gulls’).  Still, whatever the bird, it’s Thomas’s ability to see things from their point of view – literally and metaphorically – that is startling:  ‘Must I be content with discontent,’ he asks in The Glory, ‘As larks and swallows are perhaps with wings?’  Has any other poet ever thought to wonder whether birds get fed up having to fly everywhere? Come to that, who else (with the possible exception of Thomas Hardy in ‘The Darkling Thrush’) has ever regretted that the birds are able to see ‘what we below could not see’?

In the end, though, Thaw is about the passing, the death, of winter. The fragile ‘flower of grass’ in line 3 retrieves a verse from Isaiah: ‘The grass withereth, the flower fadeth’. The end of summer and the end of winter are irreversible. To Edward Thomas, the succession of the seasons is more than a preoccupation: it approaches an obsession. He seems almost to define himself in relation to the cycle of the year. In his prose work, The South Country, one entire section is headed ‘The End of Winter’; in his poems, too, he is constantly on the look-out for signs of Spring and hoping for better times. And if this is only implied in the miniature poem Thaw, in a longer poem like March even Thomas can crow with the rooks:

Now I know that Spring will come again,
Perhaps tomorrow.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: snow on the Wiltshire Downs. I have written once before about Edward Thomas and these downs in winter: World and time: a blog on the Og.

Here are the links to my previous posts in the 'Short Measures' series: