Visiting Kilpeck

img_3593Over the last year I keep coming across references to the Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, so I felt I was meant to visit it. It’s a fascinating place: built on an ancient site (and who knows what lies beneath the current building?), the church as it now stands is thought to have been built about 1140. It’s in an egg-shaped graveyard, because an old superstition indicates that this prevents the Devil from hiding in corners, and the area is likely to have been considered sacred due to its pure springs as well as other more obscure phenomena. You can read more about the church on its excellent and informative website, which also has an app (the app is basically an audio guide, which is a good idea but as we had children with us we didn’t get to use it!)

The church is Romanesque, the 10th century precursor to Gothic style, which as I understand means that churches described as Romanesque have a lot of arches and circular parts (apologies here to the more knowledgeable)! It’s also wonderfully carved, by craftsmen of the Hereford School, whose work appears all over the county and is remarkable for its vivid detail. The south door is wonderfully carved, with designs which look vaguely Celtic to me, including a (disputed) Green Man at the top of the right hand pillar, along with birds and foliage. The church is particularly famous for its 85 corbels (these are what I would have called gargoyles, but the technical difference, the guidebook tells me, is that gargoyles have a purely decorative purpose, while corbels actually support some part of the building). These include a famously rude sheela-na-gig, a female figure who may be intended to ward off evil spirits, or might be a Celtic fertility symbol, or indeed a warning to the lustful – but no doubt she is the most frequently photographed part of the building!

The church is also situated on in the ley lines identified by Alfred Watkins in his book The Old Straight Track, so Kilpeck has become a site for the curious, be they Christian, pagan or somewhere in between, because of the church’s reputation for being a site where differing approaches to the spiritual merge – in the building itself, at least.

There is a castle behind the church, somewhat earlier (though by less than a century) than the church, which was probably once the administrative centre for the area. There is little of it left, but with the spectacular views of Herefordshire one can see that it was a perfect spot to defend an area. It was captured by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and demolished, hence the very few remaining walls.

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A tour of Glasgow School of Art

20170318_114646_resizedRecently I had a weekend in Glasgow, and visited the School of Art for a Rennie Mackintosh tour and talk. In 2014, the wonderful building caught fire, and consequently the building is under restoration; I was impressed by how the student who led the tour (who did an amazing job) explained both how tragic the fire was, given that many original pieces designed by Mackintosh were lost, but also how GSA is seeing this as an opportunity to move on, to create something new which continues the spirit of Mackintosh’s work (you can read about the new works of art being created here). Consequently the tour took place in the Reid building opposite the original School; the Reid building was completed shortly before the fire, and like the original building was designed by an architect who won a competition to design the building, Stephen Hall, which is very much in the spirit of the original building, echoing and complementing Mackintosh with its “language of light”. Like Mackintosh’s building, it has three columns of light, and the building plays with light in reflections, use of shadow on white paint, and strategically placed windows and light wells.

MackintoshThe tour begins with a detailed model of the Mackintosh building, correct down to the smallest detail, which gives a sense of the features: obviously it’s not the same as being inside the building, but perhaps I know more about the outside of it because I’ve seen the model, and I’ll remember that when I go back in 2019 when the restored School building opens. The model allows us to see the blossoming Mackintosh roses on the outside of the building, a metaphor for art and especially for the blossoming of the creative minds of the students who enter the School, closer than would be possible on the original. The tour guide discussed the famous Mackintosh rose, as ‘nature in the service of art’, both a beautiful design and one which has creative significance in its transformation of the fragile flower into enduring art. The Mackintosh building was unusual for its time, begun in 1897: it was not symmetrical, was quite plain in its design, especially on the side which faced Sauchiehall Street, yet with Scottish baronial influences which add an “element of poetry”, the guide suggested.Margaret_MacDonald_-_The_Heart_Of_The_Rose

The Reid building contains a room of Mackintosh furniture, which is a delight: it also indicates the extent to which he controlled every aspect of the design of GSA, from clocks to easels, cupboards to drainpipes. It was also a pleasure to see his wife, Margaret MacDonald’s The Heart of the Rose (read more about this and its restoration here). This golden, glowing panel which was criticised by contemporaries (though apparently Klimt liked it) indicates fertility, female sexuality and the cycles of life and birth; it’s wonderful to see it in person.

There is also some furniture on display from Glasgow’s Willow Tea Rooms, one of which we visited later that day. The stylised furniture was designed by Mackintosh and MacDonald along with the waitresses’ uniforms and every other detail; the manager’s chair is on display at GSA, and our guide pointed out the significance of the tea rooms not only for their aesthetic appeal but because they offered a respectable alternative to the pub for women, as well as providing employment for women, making them a significant part of female history in Glasgow.

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Book review: Weatherland

9780500292655I like English weather, on the whole. I’m not one for too much sun, and providing it isn’t catastrophic (and I don’t have to drive in it), I enjoy the drama of mist, heavy rain, snow, and the occasional sunny day. I like seeing the effects the changeable weather has on the garden and on my moods. But for me as for most people, the weather is a backdrop to our daily lives, and one which, travelling by car, living in centrally-heated homes and working in air-conditioned, often windowless offices, we can increasingly ignore. This, as Alexandra Harris’s book suggests, is a shame.
Weather is important. The landscape is shaped by it, and many writers and artists believe that national character and temperament are shaped by the climate. Harris’s book, subtitled ‘Writers and Artists under English Skies’, explores how the English weather has been depicted from Beowulf onwards. Along the way, she considers how the weather affects people, and how and crucially why it is included in literature and art. Is it just a backdrop, or used for pathetic fallacy? It’s often much more significant than we think, it seems: human insistence on relating the weather to ourselves (writers who write better in Spring weather, for example), or anthropomorphising it, trying to make sense, find patterns, using faith, science, myth or art to explain it: we can’t ignore the weather. This determination to make something which is impervious to us make sense on our terms is fascinating, because it tells us more about the human condition than it does about the weather, even if it is simply in the recording of daily weather.
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‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, Norman Garstin (1889, Penlee House)

Harris explores an enormous and impressive range of works, drawing on social thought, history, science and the arts to explore how our relationship with the weather has changed over the centuries. Swift’s hatred of hot weather, Shelley’s desire to be a cloud, Ruskin’s concern that the skies were being spoiled for us by science: these are things I’d not really considered before. Harris’s gift is for writing in a manner both erudite and entertaining, which I thoroughly enjoyed in her last book, Romantic Moderns, and this is no less fascinating, making obvious things which are all too easily overlooked.

Harris’s deepest interest seems to be in Virginia Woolf, whose work is constantly preoccupied with weather conditions, and the book returns frequently to Orlando, in which the action takes place over four centuries, and the weather is observed (satirically): the Victorians are dark and damp, for example, while the twentieth century is bright and dry. Apparently Wyndham Lewis disliked English weather, suggesting in his Vorticist manifesto that it should be ‘Blasted’, because it was inappropriately dull and changeable for a modern machine age.
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Reading Weatherland has made me want to return to books I know well, including several of Woolf’s, both to consider the ways in which the weather is important in them, and because ‘the weather in which we read affects our understanding of a book’ (p.349). The recent spell of hot weather prompted me to think that the English do become a little mad in our brief spells of sunshine, and this is borne out by Harris’s reading of The Go-Between, for example, but, of course, ‘significant weather is suspect when it gets into fiction’, as she notes when discussing Julian Barnes’s work: weather in books can be made to produce certain effects, to resonate with the characters’ feelings, to cause certain events to happen, and though these things might happen in real life, they seem improbable in fiction. But weather does do surprising things in real life, of course, because our lives are still, in so many ways, bound up in the climate, as the powerful and disturbing conclusion of Weatherland emphasises.

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‘Wet Afternoon’ by Eric Ravilious (1928)

As our changing planet forces us to consider a future of increasingly extreme weather conditions, in an anthropocene age where humankind has, finally and disastrously, affected the weather, this is a book which explores the literary and artistic memorialising of the weather of the past, and invites us to consider our own experiences of weather. As Richard Mabey says, we all experience weather differently, and it affects us in diverse ways, which is, of course, the essence of why it has proved such a significant aspect of literary and artistic inspiration, but after finishing this book, I feel that our experience of the weather is part of being human, of living on this planet. It is a cliche to say that the cycle of the seasons reflects the cycle of our lives – one more way in which we try to tame nature, perhaps – but the elemental experience of Lear’s battle with the storm on the heath, for example, reduces humankind to its most vulnerable, and asks us to consider life in a very different way:
Lear.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!         runciman_lear_heath_ngs
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
[…]
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.

 

There’s a great review here by A S Byatt (someone whose work I admire and whose judgement I trust!)

King Arthur and Tintagel

One of my abiding interests from childhood is the myths of King Arthur. I dragged my parents round places such as Glastonbury Abbey (the alleged burial site of Arthur – one of several) and Tintagel  Castle (revenge, perhaps, for all the churches and stately homes!) I read and reread the myths, from children’s retellings to Chretien de Troyes, Malory, Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth (I was once asked to leave a history class at school for reading this under the desk, ironically) and, latterly, Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of medievalism (shared by the Victorians more widely), also painted some Arthurian myths, and I’m interested in those, too. I’m less concerned about the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there was such a person (and if there was, he certainly couldn’t have been the medieval king he is depicted as) and more interested in what the myths mean to us, and what we do with them. It seems fair to say that the myths of Arthur and his Round Table have been associated with either those interested in mysticism, or those with an overabundance of misguided patriotism, but there are plenty of serious scholars, too. The constant reinterpretation of the myths, in poetry, fiction, art, films and more, is an indication of the enduring nature of the legends, but the ways in which these stories are used tells us more about the society in which these interpretations were created than it does about Arthur himself.

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The stories are age-old, including chivalry, fighting, power, magic, love, adultery, faith, death and human fallibility. They come from all over the place – the stories we are now familiar with have been pieced together largely from Welsh, Cornish and French tales, and there is no ‘pure’ or ‘true’ version. But the stories of Arthur and his knights, their adventures, their search for the Holy Grail, the doomed love-triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot which brings down a kingdom, have resonances throughout history. Arthur, after his mortal wound, is taken to the mysterious Vale of Avalon; he was said to be ready to return when Britain needed him (and, interestingly, during WW1 some people apparently believed he would return). There are echoes of Christianity in this: as a good, pure man and leader, Arthur is figured in the myths as Christ’s representative on earth, whom death cannot kill and will one day return to save those in need. The chivalric code of Arthur’s court is set up as an idealised society in which all are welcome, all are brave, good, mutually supportive, and so on. (Actually the details of the stories indicate something more nuanced than this, though).

Places which are associated with Arthur are extremely popular. We visited Tintagel recently, which is known as the legendary place of Arthur’s birth to Ygraine and Uther; Merlin is said to have smuggled him away to live with another family (Sir Bors, I think). Tintagel Castle and village make much of this connection, and as we climbed up to the castle I told my small son some of the stories of Arthur (bowdlerised for children!) Surrounded by sea, high up on the cliffs, it’s an evocative place, despite the extremely tenuous Arthurian connections. I notice that another castle is being excavated near Tintagel, which is expected to arouse the interest of Arthurians (see here).

I was also curious to visit King Arthur’s Great Halls. In the 1930s, Frederick Thomas Glasscock acquired a Victorian house on the main street in Tintagel, and set about turning into how20160716_153528 he saw King Arthur’s court. This slightly barking idea has led to a fascinating place: the first room contains thrones on which one can sit and listen to a recording of Robert Powell reading the story of King Arthur, which is illustrated by some striking paintings by William Hatherall, which are very much period pieces. Each painting is lit up at the relevant moment in the story – my son loved it. Then one moves down a corridor which contains beautiful stained glass by Veronica Whall, loosely Pre-Raphaelite in style, featuring the coats of arms of the knights of the round table. The real destination, though, is the Great Hall itself: with 52 types of Cornish granite. There is a Round Table, along with thrones and suits of armour. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way: remarkably kitsch, and indicative of the passion some people have for Arthur himself. You can find out more about the Halls here. There are various other places in the area, all which take equally seriously their position so close to the birthplace of King Arthur; perhaps we will visit those another time. Tintagel was fascinating, but I was happy to return home and read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

Victoria, the Victorians and us

116365I often have conflicted views about books and TV programmes which deal with real historical figures. There are so many questions surrounding how we react and respond to history, how we filter it through the lens of modern thought, which problematises the narrative. These questions came up quite a lot at the recent British Association for Victorian Studies conference . The topic was ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, and many of the papers addressed how we, as consumers – academics, writers, critics, and also readers and viewers – ‘consume’ the nineteenth century. The plenary panel began with this concept, as Professor Valerie Sanders asked why we seem to want to make the Victorians seem more like us. With reference to ‘Victoria’ the new ITV series on the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Sanders asked us to question whether our approach to popular historical dramas is a help or a hindrance. It’s a good question: no historical retelling is unmediated – there is no such thing as ‘pure’ history, and approaches to the narratives tell us more about us than about them. (For example, Cora Kaplan and G.B. Tennyson both pointed out that the search for hidden sexual innuendo in Christina Rossetti’s poems reflects more on the critic than the poet). This is true of ‘Victoria’, I think. Articles on the series have pointed out that this is an attempt to rehabilitate or recover Victoria from the ‘We are not amused’ image we have of her. Far from being obsessed with covering piano legs with tablecloths (an image passed on to us by Moderns such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, rebelling against their stifling Victorian childhoods), Victoria was a child of the Regency, familiar with vice. This much is true, though her very quiet and isolated childhood implies she was hardly on first-name terms with debauched rakes, but certainly she was more cheerful than popular views have led us to believe (see here for hilarious tales of Victoria).

Television such as ‘Victoria’ is trying to make the dour, older woman of our collective imagination more approachable. The young Victoria is played by Jenna Coleman, young, pretty and well-known; she creates a character who is impulsive, stubborn, fighting with her mother, perhaps slightly drunk on the power she has suddenly been given, falling in love with attractive, unsuitable men (like many teenage girls), and demonstrating a gratifying desire to undermine harsh treatment of the Chartists. Coleman’s hair is also artfully arranged just as the image above left. She looks the part – if prettier – but she is shaped by modern culture. Sanders asked if we like the Victorians more when they seem more like us, and I think that’s the point: for example, Victoria wasn’t that interested in the poor, and not particularly sympathetic to the fate of the Chartists (it was Lord Melbourne whose intervention caused them to be deported rather than executed for treason), but liberal values are important in our society, so the introduction of this element provides an opportunity to show Victoria as relatable. I’m glad the Chartists do feature; they are a significant part of British history, all too often overlooked, though the way in which her dresser brought their fate to her attention, allowing the benevolent monarch to intervene, does have distinct echoes of ‘Downton Abbey’. The introduction of the ‘downstairs’ element has this effect throughout, in fact; I don’t dislike it (in fact I applaud the way in which modern TV and fiction, like academic work, has taken more interest in narratives of working class lives recently) but it does sometimes feel a bit irrelevant or even patronising.

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Lord Melbourne

A similar approach is taken in Victoria’s relationships. Personally I doubt she had quite such romantic feelings for Lord Melbourne (who was distinctly less attractive than Rufus Sewell with his magnetic cheekbones), but she certainly didn’t offer him an almost-proposal, and while it makes good TV, it doesn’t reflect history. Does that matter? I rather think it does, but probably only to purists like me. Of course it’s a fictionalised story – it’s TV, it’s entertainment; the ‘truth’, if we could uncover it, would be far less entertaining (and I am entertained by ‘Victoria’). Instead, we are presented with a burden of emotion in every scene, and never allowed to forget that she is both an impulsive young woman, and a queen. I think this is because, as we are so frequently reminded, human nature never changes, so of course the Victorians are like us. This is something of a fallacy: emotions such as love, anger, jealousy etc might have been the staple diet of literature for hundreds of years, but the way in which we express them, and indeed the way in which we feel them, is subject to change dependent on the society in which we live. But because we want to understand the Victorians, we make them more like us, and this means that we have to fictionalise, turning Victoria into a consumer item neatly packaged for 21st century audiences who probably don’t know much about her.

Academics are encouraged to find ‘relevance’ (a term I dislike) in everything we do. How do we make the past seem ‘relevant’ to students; how do we find ‘relevance’ in Queen Victoria for TV audiences? One way is to suggest that issues we see on our screens are played out in other contemporary arenas. Valerie Sanders mentioned an article in the Telegraph by Kate Maltby which suggests that, despite rhetoric suggesting Theresa May can be likened to Elizabeth I, in fact she is more akin to a young Victoria:

the surprising brutality of Theresa May’s approach to Team Cameron – sacking men like Dominic Raab, Nick Boles and Ed Vaizey, for the crime of friendship with Gove or Osborne – recalls a different young queen. Victoria has a softer image than Elizabeth Tudor, but viewers of ITV’s current hit series … will know her reign started with a ruthless purge.  Sir John Conroy, the disciplinarian who had run her household, was dismissed, and she moved him, together with her own hated mother, to distant rooms in Buckingham Palace. Her refusal to compromise over the Bedchamber Crisis finds echo in the ruthlessness with which May has not accepted even a few token enemies in her Cabinet. Victoria quite enjoyed Swiss holidays, too.

As a woman in power, and one who clearly enjoyed the exercise of that power, both Victoria and May provide subjects for debate; we haven’t had many queens, and even fewer female Prime Ministers. The series is timely for raising this question of how a woman can rule, and one suspects the general confidence in Victoria as queen was only slightly lower than that in May as Prime Minister (based on her gender, not views of her politics). ‘Victoria’ suggests that naturally she was a good queen: she might have been impulsive, scared of rats and prone to falling for her Prime Minister, but she was pretty, soft-hearted and prepared to defy those who want to control her. In many ways I think Victoria was a fairly good queen, but ‘Victoria’ is setting her up to be effective only because she has gendered traits which make her recognisable and likeable to modern viewers.

We make the Victorians more like us, then, in order to imply lessons from history; to make the past sexy, if not educational, and also to entertain us. The vast differences between us and them are easily overlooked in the name of entertainment, and perhaps that isn’t too bad, as long as people aren’t simply learning their history lessons from TV. There are, after all, many ways in which the Victorians were like us: they were concerned, albeit in different ways, about the environment, about education, about poverty, health and living conditions; and also about their clothes, their relationships, and more personal aspects. We just can’t assume that this was the same as the way we think about such things, though, and while we might feel closer to the nineteenth century for watching ‘Victoria’, this is an illusion. We need, and enjoy, stories, but narratives constructed for entertainment are just that, not history.

Ancient stones

I’m endlessly fascinated by stone circles, quoits, burial mounds and so on, and West Penwith in Cornwall is full of them. To me they give a sense of an ancient past, one which we can’t really understand, and perhaps our failure to understand the purpose of many of these stones is part of the appeal. These stones have become an essential part of the landscape, part of the natural habitat though made by people of whom we know nothing, or very little. These were not decorative, or practical, but were often, possibly, part of a kind of worship – of nature, of the sun or the stars, of the world around. Interestingly, as far as I know none are situated in sight of the sea.

One of my favourites is the Merry Maidens or ‘Dans Maen’ (Dancing Stones), near St Buryan (images above). The IMG_3235myth is that girls were dancing on a Sunday, in contravention of the Church’s edicts, and were turned to stone – as well as the stone circle, to each side there is another stone, the piper and fiddler who played the music for their dances, transformed as they tried to run away. There is also a burial chamber. As with so many things, the Victorians’ well-meaning attempts at restoration have altered the original circle, possibly adding a stone, and changing their positions slightly. But the site is still fascinating, filled with wild flowers, and despite the regular arrival of tourists it is a peaceful place with wonderful views. There is more detailed information about the Merry Maidens here. Wandering around the circle, the stones are warm to the touch, the grasses dancing where the girls no longer do; there is something magical in the air. There has been speculation for over a century that another stone circle stood close by;

Another popular site is the Bronze Age Men-an-Tol (more details here). This is a fascinating holed stone (which is the meaning of the Cornish name) with two other upright stones, and it has historically been considered part of a fertility ritual, or as having curative powers (one is meant to crawl through it a certain number of times at sundown, or something like that – the legends vary). Again it is a beautiful situation, in open land, surrounded by fields and with a distant chimney of a tin mine on the horizon. The Historic Cornwall website suggests that this may once have been part of a stone circle, and that “the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds” – an appealing idea.

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These stones are part of a pre-Christian pagan landscape, in which the stones were imbued with magical qualities. I’m not someone who believes this is still the case – though there are many who do – but there is something mysterious, ancient and powerful in these places. Madron Well and Baptistry indicates early Christian worship, in the tiny ruined chapel, associated with both pagan and Christian worship, which is near a cloutie tree (a tree with ribbons or rags tied to it). Until recently I understand local Methodists held outdoor services here. This, like many other sites, is looked after by the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, which offers more information on its website. There are many, many more such sites across Cornwall (and indeed Britain), but the concentration of them in Cornwall, and their survival into the 21st century, perhaps indicates the ways in which Cornwall’s physical isolation from the rest of England has enabled it to maintain such a distinct heritage.