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 L√•ngstrump , 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.