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.


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Common Day

On Bookham Common this morning, the Purple Emperor hunters were out in force - unlike the Purple Emperors, which were clearly not going to bother flying unless things got a good deal sunnier, if then. The Emperors are notoriously a law to themselves, at times charging around in the oak canopy like the butterfly equivalent of those young men who race Lamborghinis around Knightsbridge, at other times - most - disappearing completely, and at yet others flaunting themselves at ground level in all manner of unlikely circumstances, feeding greedily on the most disgusting things they can find or soaking up the sun on someone's parked car (see the extraordinary Purple Empire blog, passim) -
 And just as I was writing that, I looked up and saw that Countryfile (I only had it on for the weather, honest) was showing the latest Emperor's Breakfast, a tempting collation of fermented fish, stinking cheese and black pudding laid out by the Purple Empire's Matthew Oates and fellow Emperor obsessive Neil Hulme. It did the trick, drawing down an Emperor or two from the canopy to savour what was on offer, and dear old John Craven made off with a piece of the stinking cheese with which to 'surprise' his fellow presenter as they signed off. How we roared.
 No Emperors for me, of course, on Bookham Common, but I wasn't seriously expecting any. The second most showy of our butterflies, the Silver-Washed Fritillary, was out in force - too many to count - and I had the pleasure of seeing half a dozen or so of my favourite, the subtly beautiful White Admiral. And then I had the curious experience of rescuing a Ringlet from the trumpet of a Greater Bindweed. The poor thing had somehow got itself jammed at the narrowest point, perhaps going that bit too far in quest of nectar. It was quite still and I thought it was most likely dead, but when I carefully slit the trumpet and peeled it back, the Ringlet began to flutter weakly and, after a few seconds, flew off and settled on a leaf to recover from its ordeal. My good deed for the day.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Real Thing

Yesterday I was walking, with walker friends, in deepest Kent. Our objective - mine, anyway - was the little church at Otterden, an unpromising Georgian box (the private chapel of the 'big house', Otterden Place) which contains a range of fine monuments, including one by our old friend Epiphanius Evesham.
  It's not a church to visit casually, being almost permanently locked; but, by prior arrangement, the key - a large and serious key - can be had from the occupants of the big house. First impressions of the church interior are little better than those of the exterior - until you notice the monuments against the North and South walls. Three of these amount to a neat summary of English monumental art in the Jacobean period, ranging in quality from good to better to best: two standard forms competently executed and one work of art of a quite new kind. The earliest of these three, which memorialises William Lewin, has two recumbent effigies, man and wife, lying atop a tomb chest, with numerous offspring lined up along the base. Everything is straight off the production line and there is no real individual life in any of the figures. More interesting is a wall monument of a decade later that follows another standard pattern - man and wife praying, facing each other, at a prayer desk (with a daughter kneeling behind the mother). More unusually, there is a baby in a canopied cot separately figured on a shelf below. The modelling of the figures is rather better, but still pretty stiff and lifeless. Both of these monuments might shine more brightly in another church, one where they were not so entirely overshadowed by the sheer brilliance of Otterden's third Jacobean monument - the Evesham*.
  Sir Justinian Lewin, who died in 1620, is shown lying in his armour, his body not in repose but stiffened in death. His grieving wife kneels at the side of the chest on which he lies, her chin on her hand, her eyes, full of sorrow, gazing at his face. This is powerful - and original - enough, but there is still more emotion in the stricken, bewildered face of the child who kneels beside her, tugging at her skirt, desperate to be comforted. This is monumental art at its most convincingly expressive; there is nothing stylised or artificial or about this portrayal of grief - as with Evesham's Lynsted monument, this is the real thing.

  Sir Justinian, who was a gentleman of the privy chamber to James I, was the second son of William Lewin, and therefore has the rare distinction of appearing on two of the church's monuments - as a generic child on his father's and as a fully individual dead man on his own.
  One more thing about Otterden: in 1729, in the grounds of Otterden Place, the Rev. Granville Wheler, the house's then owner, and Stephen Gray succeeded in transmitting electrical current for an unprecedented 860ft along a length of oiled thread. You can read more about that here...

* The monument is unsigned, but is confidently (and surely rightly) attributed to Epiphanius Evesham - whose else could it be?

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Your Chance to See Philip Larkin's Knickers

As I was nodding off last night, I had the strange experience of hearing Philip Larkin chatting with his mother. This was on some late news programme, and they were playing a recording Larkin had made himself on a reel-to-reel tape recorder - a recording that was now part of a big new Larkin archive exhibition at the University of Hull.
  The chat between Larkin and his mother was easy and affectionate, and they obviously got on well with each other - but the inevitable editorial line was to claim that this was an astonishing revelation: was this not the poet who wrote that 'They f*ck you up, your mum and dad'? Oh dear - poor Larkin, to have ended up forever associated with that notorious line above all others. Note to the literal-minded: there are such things as personas, voices... It might have been more apposite to quote a poem like the tender, clear-sighted Mother, Summer, I -

My mother, who hates thunder storms, 
Holds up each summer day and shakes 
It out suspiciously, lest swarms 
Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there; 
But when the August weather breaks 
And rains begin, and brittle frost 
Sharpens the bird-abandoned air, 
Her worried summer look is lost, 

And I her son, though summer-born 
And summer-loving, none the less 
Am easier when the leaves are gone. 
Too often summer days appear 
Emblems of perfect happiness 
I can't confront: I must await 
A time less bold, less rich, less clear: 
An autumn more appropriate.

The exhibition in which the allegedly surprising recording features is Larkin: New Eyes Each Year, and it certainly does promise to take the visitor 'almost unnervingly close' to the poet. Was ever a poet's life so comprehensively archived? Did he really mean for everything he left behind in his house - from Beatrix Potter figurines to S&M pornography, from lawnmowers to knickers, from knitted rabbits to a statuette of Hitler (a gift from his father) - to be preserved and displayed? He took care to destroy his diaries (believed to be largely pornographic), so presumably he was content for the rest to be archived, if that was what the Larkin industry wanted. Perhaps he could see the funny side of all his preserved ties, duly archived, hanging solemnly on display...
  If nothing else, an exhibition this intimate shows that, as Auden wrote of Yeats, he was 'silly like us'. Or, as Jake Balokowsky, Larkin's imagined biographer, puts it, he was just 'One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys'.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Great and the Good

Having been hugely impressed by The Assistant, I've continued my reading of Bernard Malamud with the obvious next (or perhaps first) step, The Fixer. This was the author's most successful novel, winning not only a National Book Award but also a Pulitzer. There was a film version, starring Alan Bates, and The Fixer even turned up in Don Draper's hands in an episode of Mad Man (fifth season, At The Catfish Ball, fact fans).
  I read The Fixer in an edition furnished with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer, largely devoted to distinguishing between good books and great books (which took me back to my schooldays, when I made just such a distinction while discussing Beethoven's symphonies with a teacher - No 5 best, No 9 greatest, I opined). Anyway, Foer identifies The Fixer as a great book because, like all great novels, it reminds us that 'We must do something'. Really? Must we? Don't great novels rather remind us, in the fullest, most immediate and intimate way, what it is to be human in this world, what it feels like, what it means? Something like that, and by that measure I'd rate The Assistant a richer work of fiction than The Fixer.
  The Fixer (to some extent a fictionalisation of a real-life case) tells the story of Jakov Bok, a Jewish handyman who in Kiev on 1911 finds himself falsely charged with the ritual murder of a Christian boy - the old blood libel - and imprisoned awaiting a trial that may never come. We are left in no doubt of the violent endemic antisemitism of Tsarist Russia (early on, a chatty Russian casually advocates the Final Solution) and the brutality and degradation of prison life. Malamud draws us with wonderful skill into Bok's world as he undergoes a succession of misfortunes and hideous torments and remains, by sheer force of will, unbroken and determined to live long enough to prove his innocence.
 The author's problem is to maintain tension as things go from bad to worse to yet worse and Bok's life becomes a relentless catalogue of sufferings. Malamud succeeds, by a skilful deployment of events (few though they are) and clever modulations of pace and voice, of rising and falling hope, from the depths of despair to dreams of freedom, from placid acceptance to the borders of madness. He inhabits Bok's mind completely, and thereby ensure that we do too. I was gripped throughout, avidly turning the pages, but increasingly uneasy as those pages got fewer and the problem of an ending became ever more acute. How could this story possibly reach a satisfactory conclusion? Well, I'm not sure it does - but it's the right ending, perhaps the only possible ending.
  The Fixer is a wonderful piece of writing - a masterpiece of a kind - but for me it just doesn't have the deep multiple resonances of The Assistant, a book that strikes me on reflection as the nearest thing to a great novel I have discovered in quite some while.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Est. 1591

Pictured above is Whitehall, a rather wonderful survival in the Surrey suburban village of Cheam. This historic house is now undergoing a big refurbishment, and as a result much of it is enclosed by hoardings. They bear the name of the company doing the building work - 'R. Durtnell & Sons, Est. 1591'.
 Yes, established 1591 - that's the kind of vintage you don't often come across in these times, when 'Est. 2011' is considered an index of probity and long standing. But how reliable is that 'Est. 1591'? Is the present company really that old? The answer is emphatically yes: this is a family firm that has come down from father to son through 13 generations, and is still based in its original home town, Brasted in Kent. One of the Durtnells' first buildings was Poundsbridge Manor [below], built by John and Brian Durtnall (as it was then spelt) in 1593. When the house was hit by a stray bomb in the Second World War, R. Durtnell & Sons were called in to rebuild the damaged parts, and the Manor is still in splendid shape, a highly desirable (and phenomenally expensive) private house.
  It's good to know that a company of similar vintage to the house is at work on restoring Whitehall.