Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Grass Carnified

Talking of the cycles of nature, here's Sir Thomas Browne in the first part of his Religio Medici:

 'All flesh is grass, is not only metaphorically, but litterally, true; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves. Nay further, we are what we all abhor, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not an allegory, but a positive truth; for all this mass of flesh which we behold, came in at our mouths; this frame we look upon, hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devour'd our selves.'

'Carnified' is one of Browne's 775 neologisms. A pity it hasn't lasted as well as his 'carnivorous'.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Natural Burial

Today a lonely impulse of delight led me to visit, for the first time, a 'natural burial ground'. I'd heard that it's alive with butterflies this summer, and that alone would have been enough reason, but I was also interested to see what a 'natural burial site' looks like, or indeed is.
 Alive with butterflies it certainly was - meadow browns, gatekeepers, ringlets, skippers and (common) blues in abundance, plus brown arguses, small coppers, late marbled whites, commas, peacocks, etc. And what it looked like was not a burial ground but a large wildflower meadow, with young woodland and a lake - nothing above ground to show that this is a burial place, except perhaps the minimum-impact glass pavilion. There's a reason for this, I discovered: no vertical memorials or markers are allowed, except for trees (native species only - quite right too). The whole idea of 'natural burial' is to be reabsorbed into the earth as soon as is naturally possible, leaving no lasting mark on the landscape (stone markers, even if horizontal, are not allowed).
 I was rather attracted by the idea, I must admit. Earth to earth, taking our place in the cycle of nature. Of course I have my own ideas about the kind of ceremony I would like to send me on my way, but as for the actual disposal of the body - or rather the ashes - I'd be quite happy for it/them to go this way, returning to the earth in surroundings like these, amid wild flowers and butterflies.
  It's a feeling that, I suspect, is in the ascendant, and natural burial is certainly becoming increasingly popular. The difficult idea of bodily resurrection no longer seems to make much sense to many people; the body surely belongs to nature and will return to it, whatever the fate of the soul. So why not recognise the fact, and help it on its way? Especially if it can be done in a dignified manner in such pleasant and appropriate surroundings.
 And yet, as a monument man, a wanderer in churchyards and reader of epitaphs, I cannot help but feel a strong nostalgia for the times when the dead were memorialised in enduring ways, when fine craftsmanship, even great art, was employed to that end, leaving a rich and glorious legacy of church monuments and (in a smaller way) carved stones and epitaphs.
 In the parish church a few hundred yards away from the natural burial ground, there's a grave board that reads
'In memory of Alfred Lemon, who died May 2nd 1851, aged 14 years.
When missing sorrow weeps the past
And mourns the present pain
How sweet to think of peace at last
And feel that death is gain.'
 Not great verse, not a great epitaph, but a genuine expression of grief and hope that has come down to us across more than a century and a half. With natural burial there will be no such survivals - nothing, after a short while, to mark the life, the death, the loss. Does this matter? Probably not, in an age when we seem to have lost the art of memorialising the dead, when even the urge to do so seems weak. And yet...



Monday, 17 July 2017

In Lucem: A Mystery

Strolling in one of my local parks the other day - a park I've known for nearly 60 years, and of which I thought I knew every inch - I was astonished to happen on something entirely new to me. It wasn't exactly hidden away either, but in the lawn by the boating lake, near the grand herbaceous border and just yards from the lakeside path - how on earth had I missed it for so long? This was a park I played in as a boy, it's adjacent to the grammar school I attended for seven years, I've walked there more times than I could possibly compute - and yet I'd somehow missed this.
  What was it? Good question. It was - and is - a small engraved stone tablet overlooking a miniature pool of water, the lowest point of a shallow V-shaped dip in the ground, into which a narrow brick path leads and from the other side of which it emerges. The whole thing is barely ten yards wide/long.
  It is, I have discovered, a remnant of the fernery that was part of the once famous garden that was incorporated into the park when the council bought the land. Why and how this curious feature survived I have no idea - can it really have been there all through my long years of walking in this park and failing to notice it?
  And what about the motto engraved on the stone? In lucem lucrum, ludum. I can see that it's something to do with light, profit and game/play - but what does it mean? And what can it possibly have to do with the cultivation of ferns? Any ideas?

Sunday, 16 July 2017

My Problem with Pugin

Over the weekend, in the course of my researches, I found myself in the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate, a place I'd never visited before. I was greatly impressed by the magnificent location - harbour, cliffs, wide sandy beaches facing the sunny South, panoramic views of sea, sky and town (largely free of high-rise disfigurement) from the end of the harbour wall - and the fine Regency and Victorian terraces, crescents and squares that rise above the shore. No wonder this was such a popular watering place in Victorian times - so popular that in places every other building has a blue plaque commemorating some eminent Victorian's sojourn.  Today Ramsgate is clearly poised to be the next Margate - i.e. to be discovered, colonised and revitalised by arty/hipsterish London types - but it seems to be a slow process. What it needs perhaps is a new art gallery along the lines of Margate's Turner...
  What it has got, as its prime architectural/devotional attraction, is Pugin's church (now a shrine) of St Augustine, to which I naturally bent my steps. Lacking the spire that Pugin intended, the church has a rather dumpy aspect from outside, and the dark flint from which it is built does nothing for its beauty - but the glory of this church is, everyone says, its interior, the architect's masterpiece, the church he built for himself, with his own money, exactly as he wanted it. I entered with high hopes of an overwhelming aesthetic experience - but I'm sorry to say that, to my disappointment, I felt little more than a cool admiration for Pugin's architectural brilliance and ingenuity, and for the fine craftsmanship on display.
 The church, for me, lacked anything of the truly numinous, and I found the sheer relentlessness of its earnestly 'correct', highly detailed Gothic oppressive and rather distasteful.  What is the point of a Gothic revival that simply reproduces the Gothic in an age to which it is essentially alien (well, in as much as Gothic is ever alien to the incorrigibly anti-classical, anti-modernist English imagination)? As Heraclitus pointed out long ago, you cannot step twice into the same river; it will have flowed away. The re-creation of a supposedly authentic Gothic style - as against the reimagining and development of it for another age - is essentially an arid exercise, whatever the passion that might have fired it, and at St Augustine's, I'm afraid, it feels like it. Or rather it felt like it for me. I almost preferred Ramsgate's other Gothic revival church, St George's, where the Gothic is superficial, purely decorative, essentially Georgian, but somehow more fitting. Certainly more Anglican. Maybe that's my problem, my Anglican soul.  

Thursday, 13 July 2017

'A genuine interest in all the details'

Recently a quotation from William Morris caught my eye: 'The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.'
 Naturally one is chary of any statement beginning with those words; most are no more than pious nostrums. But in this case, I think Morris was really on to something. In my experience of bored, unhappy and world-weary people, I've found that they nearly all have one thing in common - they don't at all closely notice the detail of the world around them or take any real interest in it. Their minds are on, as it were, higher things and bigger pictures - a recipe for unhappiness if ever there was one. 'Short views,' as Sidney Smith counselled his depressed lady friend. The shorter and more concentrated the better - close attention to what is there, leading ultimately perhaps to that long-sought goal of 'living in the moment', at least getting somewhere near it. Paying attention is, it seems to me (and to many others), one of the three essentials of living a reasonably happy and balanced life in this world (the other two being something like humility, gratitude, a sense of perspective, and gusto, enjoying what can be enjoyed, taking pleasure in the things at hand. These two ultimately derive from the third, paying attention, so it is in that sense the most important.)
 I'm deeply suspicious of 'research findings', unless they confirm what is already known or intuited or belongs in the realm of 'common sense'. So I was glad recently to come across some research investigating why some people regard themselves as 'lucky' and others as 'unlucky' - what distinguishes the two types? The key finding was that the 'lucky' were those who paid attention and were alert to what was around them, while the 'unlucky' paid only partial and selective attention, their attention being more inwardly directed, and missed much of what was going on (thereby missing opportunities to turn their 'luck').
 If paying attention can be extended into 'taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life', so much the better (though there's a snag perhaps in the word 'genuine' - can a genuine interest be acquired or must it be innate? I think it's probably the former.) An interest in such details means that your chances of ever being bored are dramatically lowered, as these details are all around you all the time (especially in this digital age). It also means, usefully, that you'll always have something to talk about with those people - the majority - whose minds are not on higher things and bigger pictures (though, in my case, a large blank spot containing most sport, all cars, high-tech gadgets and other 'man stuff' can be a problem in male company).
 The more we take an interest in the detail of the world around us, the more richly interesting and involving it becomes - the more you see, the more you see there is to see (to paraphrase John Sebastian). The specific is invariably more interesting than the generic, and it is more present; we experience the world through its specifics. Who could be bored when there are swifts flying? 'Smell the roses' is not a bad injunction - pause, experience this one specific thing; that is living. But before I turn into a latter-day Donovan offering a gift from a flower to a garden, I'd better stop. Only adding that a genuine interest in all the detail of daily life is certainly invaluable to any blog writer.





Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Technical note

I've been having very frustrating problems with my temperamental internet connection - hence recent sparsity of posting. I'm hoping it will settle down now and online life will resume its even tenor...

Back to Ivy

'"No one can speak in this house without meaning too much," said Nigel.'

  Yes, I've been reading Ivy Compton-Burnett again, in whose fictional houses - all essentially the same house - no one can speak without meaning too much, without subtexts of things meant but unspoken seething dangerously near the surface.
  This time I was feeding my ICB addiction with A Father and His Fate, published in 1957 and one of the shorter, funnier and more readable novels in the oeuvre. The theme is similar to The Present and the Past (the clue’s in the title), which I also read quite recently.

‘“It is the future we must think of,” said Constance [in A Father and His Fate]. “It is useless to pursue the past.”
  “It is needless,” said Audrey. “It will pursue us.”’

  Miles Mowbray, the monster at the centre of A Father and His Fate, is, as ICB’s male monsters go, a relatively benign one, a pompous, grandiloquent and absurd figure (whose absurdity is constantly being pointed up by his sharp-witted nephews Nigel and Rufus). However, when fate presents him with the opportunity – or appears to – he steps in briskly to steal his nephew’s fiancée, his junior by decades, and propose to marry her.
  This, or something very like it, actually happened in my own family, when my much-married and philoprogenitive great-grandfather stole his son’s fiancée and married her, fathering several more children. Miles Mowbray’s plans, however, are thwarted when the past makes an unexpected reappearance in the present. Unexpected, that is, by everyone except the reader, who will have seen it all coming; Ivy’s plots are nothing if not flimsy. She is the perfect exemplar of the Aristotelian distinction between plot and action: her plots are perfunctory to the point of absurdity, but the action of her novels – which unfolds almost entirely through the dialogue – is rich, complex, layered and dense with meaning. Yes, too much meaning.