Saturday, April 29, 2006
Above: a scene from the BBC4 film A View From a Hill (typical M R James theme of cynical know-it-all young academic getting his come-uppance).
M R James (1862 to 1936) was a world authority on the European medieval period, and Provost of Kings College Cambridge. His stories often include naive historians (a type I know well) who stumble into menacing situations of supernatural horror. A View From a Hill was a classic M R James story - a young academic goes to a remote country house to catalogue the antiquarian collection of a deceased relative of the current squire, with unexpected results.
Above: Mark Letheren played the main character in A View From a Hill.
The BBC film was extremely well made and acted, with an impressive attention to period detail. The lighting of the film was especially notable. The story was adapted by Peter Harness and directed by Luke Watson.
Other M R James stories I have enjoyed include A Warning To The Curious, about an amateur archaeologist who goes in search of three golden crowns hidden in Dark Age burial mounds near an indeterminate coastal town. I was in a small port recently and noticed this coat of arms (above an old school house) which made me wonder whether M R James used the locality and its history as the basis of his story. It's only a couple of hours drive from Cambridge.
This sense of following the trail of M R James was reinforced when I went to a village twenty miles from the port to look at a sundial carved on the exterior of the medieval church ("the gift of Edmond Hutchinson, Gentleman 1688"). The sun was shining so you can see the time that I took this photograph. The door to the building was locked, and there was no information about who held the key (there are recumbent effigies inside which I would like to photograph).
While I was in the village I had a look around and discovered several curiosities such as this whale's jawbone used as the entrance arch to the garden of a large house. Nearby was an overgrown area with insistent warnings (written on old enamel signs and almost worn away by the passage of time) saying there were deep wells hidden in the undergrowth. It was a warm pleasant afternoon, no-body about.
A possibly M R James connection was indicated by the village pub, which was called The Three Kings, linking in my mind with the three golden crowns in the coat of arms I had seen, and the storyline of A Warning To The Curious. The pub was very well kept, the interior typical of a country hostelry without being fussy or self-consciously "Olde Englishe". Scotch with a beer chaser.
A Warning To The Curious contains a legend of three Dark Age kings who were buried with their golden crowns in burial mounds near the coast. The legend states that if the crowns are ever removed England will fall. Was M R James basing his short story on a real legend?
A date (869) carved on the front of the pub further reinforced the connection with the Dark Ages. The "Dark" Ages are not really dark - there is a huge amount of information available about the early Saxon period. It's just that the Victorian description, based on a lack of written sources, has stuck.
In A Warning To The Curious M R James writes that the supernatural golden crowns belonged to three Dark Age kings who were buried in a series of tumuli (or burial mounds). I walked down a little lane leading from the church and looked over a hedge to see burial mounds in a nearby field. There was a kind of fatalistic predictability about the sight, as if everything in the story was coming true (presumably if I returned under cover of darkness and dug in the tumulus I would find the treasure and be pursued ever-afterwards by the sinister wheezing Guardian of the mounds).
While I was in the area I decided to go on to the next village (three miles) where I knew there was an exceptional Norman font in the church. Gentle sunshine washed the church in a peculiar, slanting, late-afternoon light as I stopped to take this photograph. You can see how big the church is - surprisingly big considering the village only consists of a pub (the Tally Ho!) and the cottages and farms of a large estate.
I parked by the church. No-one seemed to be about. I went up to the door and tried the handle, and to my surprise it opened. Inside the first thing I saw was the font, obviously Norman, but unlike any other example I have seen. Around the church there were many connections with the family that owned the Hall. Their coat-of arms was carved on the pulpit, an enormous family pew dominated the north aisle (stuffed round Victorian hassocks dented by generations of squirearchical knees), the family crypt, also in the north aisle, sealed by a twenty foot square slab, two feet thick, the whole encircled by iron railings (why such a massive weight of masonry - were they trying to keep the living out or, more disturbingly... ?).
High up on a white-washed wall was an Australian flag, commemorating an eighteenth-century son of the village who went off to explore the southern antipodian coasts (doing this mostly in a whaleboat). The silence in the church was beginning to feel oppressive (absolutely no sound of any kind despite the presence of a noisy rookery nearby) so I left the building and went out into the fresh air. Outside the birds were singing, the sun was shining, and my emergence from the church provoked an outburst of cawing in the rookery.
Opposite the church was the entrance to the Hall. I looked at the driveway and wondered how far I would get if I walked down it, hoping for a glimpse of the mansion. In the end I decided that trespassing would be inexcusable (plus I was in a part of the world where intruders are likely to be shot at).
But I decided I would drive around the exterior of the estate and see if the Hall was visible from the road. It took quite a time to circumnavigate the demesne (lots of private tracks leading into it with signs saying Private) but eventually I found this view. Reading Pevsner later, I discovered that the present Hall is actually the former stables (by H E Kendall) converted into a house, and that the main building had been demolished after the Second World War (Pevsner also informed me that a large mound in the park was not a tumulus but had in fact been raised over the grave of a nineteenth-century circus elephant).
In one of those circular associations, that have occurred to me so many times that I am no longer surprised when they happen, I recorded the name of the estate as being Aswarby Hall. And when I researched M J James later I read that Aswarby Hall is the name of the house in the M R James story Lost Hearts (with the infamous hurdy-gurdy music in the BBC adaption). A lot more time needs to be spent going into all this.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
This restaurant in London (in Chinatown) always reminds me of Zhu Guang.
I still get e-mails from Zhu Guang who I worked with at my last company. He has gone back to Nanjing where he lives with his family (who “own” a manufacturing company, although I think it is actually state-owned and masquerading as private enterprise). He sent over a very conventional e-mail photograph album of himself with his Chinese girlfriend, in mannered vignettes, Chinese music playing in the background.
His mood alternates between extreme nationalist faith in the achievements of China (how the nation is moving forward step by step, how they are getting more confidence, how the cities are booming) with a fatalistic expectation that when a great moment of crisis arrives they always lose their ability to act and become paralysed (“pitiful”). He also tells me, often, that the situation is “serious” (without explaining what is serious, or why). My interpretation is that he wants China to be successful, but does not want the Communist Party to be credited with this success (this is just my interpretation – I have no way of knowing whether it is true).
When he was in the United Kingdom he told me that in a field near his parents’ home public executions take place, and when the prisoners have been shot in the head the executioners stick metal chopsticks into the bullet holes to make sure the victims are dead. In the factories the machine operatives become deformed because they are doing the same repetitive movements all day (developing massive muscles in one arm from operating a piece of machinery). As a joke I once told him IT should always kow-tow to Marketing – in response he got down on his knees and performed kow-tow.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
In all the current out-pouring of monarchical enthusiasm in the wake of the Queen’s eightieth birthday (even The Guardian yesterday published a long letter defending the principle of monarchy) we should remember that there has always been a small but very vocal minority who want a republic.
I photographed the above republicans (at least I think they are republicans, they were too drab to be Cavaliers) re-enacting a scene from the English Civil War. They had chosen the old Court House as a backdrop (the building is Victorian and has got nothing to do with the Roundheads). Towards the end of the bank holiday afternoon they packed up their camp and marched in a parade through the streets eventually ending up in a little car park where they self-consciously stopped in a huddle, as if wanting the on-lookers to disperse.
The English Republic under Cromwell was a disaster, leading to extreme religious intolerance, massive internal cultural destruction, and military adventurism overseas (Cromwell crushed Ireland “with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other”). Cromwell called himself the Lord Protector. His cruelty was based upon the conviction that he was right, and that therefore all actions he took were justified (Tony Blair recently announced that he will be answerable only to God and history for his actions in Iraq).
Monday, April 24, 2006
The sun at the weekend has brought the chestnut trees in the garden into leaf. The buds are covered by a sticky gum which protects them from frost. When the sun melts this resin the tree bursts into leaf in a couple of hours. Later in the Spring the tree will produce scented white flowers in dense clusters of upright plumes. In the Autumn the tree produces smooth brown nuts known as “conkers”. The trees are not native to England and were first introduced in the sixteenth century. They now cover the country. The bark can be made into a mild narcotic by stripping it from the tree, drying it in sunlight, grinding it to powder and mixing with hot water (I have never tried this). The conkers can be dried and ground up as feed for horses and cattle (pigs will not eat them).
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Recumbent effigy in a hill-top church.
The inscription said:
Passers-by pause and pray for me
As I am now so must ye be
Since June 2003 I have attended the funerals of my mother, my uncle, two aunts and my sister (two weeks ago). There are times when I have felt mired in death and grief, as if I am sinking into a quagmire that will eventually close over my head (a sensation reinforced by seeing my sister's coffin lowered into a deep hole in the ground - for days afterwards I felt afraid I was about to die myself). There is also the realisation that our hold on life is extremely tenuous - people can be here one day, and gone the next.
But this can also be liberating. I now know (in a way that I did not know before June 2003) that time is running out, and that I must not waste my life on things that are unimportant. Or people that are unimportant - such as my current line manager at work (an unscrupulous office bully and manipulative liar, he can't understand why I am not afraid of him. We have had several confrontations, and each time I have calmly told him what I think of him. He seems genuinely perplexed that his threats of dismissal have no effect on me). Rereading this paragraph, it seems very harsh! I don't mean to say that he's an evil man, just completely self-obsessed and amoral.
Even so, I wish I had a job that was more congenial. Perhaps one where I could concentrate on my writing. At the moment I feel like Charles Dickens forced to work at the blacking factory.
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Patisserie Valerie in Piccadilly. While I waited I had a club sandwich, almond pastry and several cups of tea. The interior is 1950s Belgian-French, modelled on the original branch in Soho (which was opened eighty years ago in 1926). For the West End the prices are quite reasonable. The service was slow, but that suited me as I was in no hurry. I sat on one of the stools at the window bar and meant to read the Evening Standard, but actually all I did was look at the passing people, and the comings and goings at the bicycle rank directly in front of me.
A message on my mobile announced a change of plan, and we decided to meet at the cinema. So then I had to rush. By mistake I got off the tube at Knightsbridge and couldn't work out where to go next (obviously the streets looked confusing as I was meant to get off South Kensington). I went back into the tube station and asked one of the staff if he knew where the cinema was (I regarded this as a very long shot!). He not only gave me complete directions but had seen the film and talked knowledgeably about the actors, the director, other things the director has done. We talked as if we were old friends.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
His clothes are western and formal – he always wears a white shirt and a tie (his collar never unbuttoned). When he talks to customers he uses an assumed western name, as his own name is difficult to pronounce by the uninitiated. He is fairly popular among the other staff, although they sometimes privately make fun of him and his staid ways.
Whenever the departmental awards are given out, his name is always included, although he is never accorded the ultimate recognition of Employee of the Month. He is very astute at IT developments, knows generally about scientific innovations, and listens to the BBC World Service to practice his accent. Whenever he refers to one of the renamed cities he pronounces the name “Bombay”, saying the word distinctly, as if making a point.
In the video conferences he is mostly silent, speaking only when directly asked a question or giving his report. The image he projects is one of profound seriousness, aloof from the levity around him. “Please do the needful” he says (using phrases from pre-1947 textbooks) “and revert back to me in a timely manner”.
Once, however, the video camera was left on during one of the many breaks, and I came back to my (western) meeting room early to see the sub-continental team being served tea by liveried retainers (who always make great show of their servility). The middle-aged supervisor was laughing and smacking the table with his hand, talking at incredible speed in his mother language. It was as if a veil had been lifted for a moment.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Brixton is in the Borough of Lambeth. Most of the population live on four big council estates. Harold Macmillan (Prime Minister in the 1950s) was born in Brixton.
Brixton is at the end of the Victoria line. We left the station and went into the Hive cafe in Beehive Place. The interior was quite sophisticated - blond wood, polished floorboards, grey paint, big stylised bees on the walls, framed colour photographs of beehives, bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We had American coffees. Sitting by the window were two girls excitedly making plans for the evening.
Friday, April 14, 2006
What does this road sign mean? I've passed it many times - it's at a junction opposite the Peacock pub. The surrounding buildings are just ordinary houses. So why do passing motorists have to be routinely advised not to carry inflammables or explosives? It's enigmatic. A sign of the times in more ways than one.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
This prehistoric boat-canoe, found when the marshes were drained, has been made from a single trunk of an oak tree.
These items, up on a shelf so I couldn’t see them properly, are my favourite objects in the museum. They are clay pots (“beakers”) made by the mysterious Beaker Folk. The Beaker People arrived in the area about two thousand five hundred years ago, and dominated the Neolithic people who were already here. They made their beakers, kept pastoral flocks rather than working the land, and buried their dead in round barrows instead of long barrows. Unlike the Neolithic people who lived in family-based clans the Beaker Folk had kings. Eventually the Beaker Folk were displaced by the Celts (who were in turn displaced by the Saxons) and forced into marginal land and forests where they survived as folk memories of the “little people” (they were physically shorter than the Celts).
Mammoth’s teeth found in the drained marsh. Looking down from the escarpment you can see that the whole of the drained inland sea is flat, and criss-crossed by a network of eighteenth-century drainage dykes. Dotting this flat rational Georgian landscape is a series of ten former big islands encircling medieval villages, and numerous smaller islands supporting farms which acted as centres for summer grazing (sometimes these settlements are named “Heights”, the word being a mispronunciation of “islets”, which leads to a surreal experience when you go to the hamlet of Northern Heights and find the land absolutely level). As the marshes were drained all sorts of curiosities emerged (skeletons of strange beasts, blocks of stone from a boat that sank in the middle ages, bronze-age swords cast into the shallow waters as votive offerings and precursors of arthurian myth). You can imagine the stories that would surround the discovery of these mammoth's teeth. The credulous drainage workers must have thought they were dragon’s teeth.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
Panegyric inscription in a country church - Edmund Weaver apparently possessed all the virtues. The crudeness of the engraving adds to the sincerity of the message. The modern equivalent is an obituary in The Times (or Daily Telegraph, or possibly The Guardian if you don't mind being sneered at).
Friday, April 07, 2006
Above: the Scala Cinema in Pentonville Road. The original Scala was in Tottenham Road, but moved to Pentonville Road in 1981 (the Tottenham Road address was taken over by the new Channel 4). The Scala Cinema was significant during the 1980s for showing influential cult art films (the Pentonville Road building is also interesting, being designed by H Courtney Constantine and opening in 1920 as the Kings Cross Cinema, complete with twenty-piece orchestra).
For someone in her early twenties Kim Blacha is a remarkable person, full of innovative ideas about art, culture and design. Her latest project is to write a cultural history of the 1980s with an emphasis upon the influence of the New Romantic movement. From time to time I will be posting extracts from her research on this site, and when the book is finished you’ll be able to buy it here (probably – if I can work out the mechanics).
Kim is dating the cultural start of the 1980s to 13th May 1980 when band Spandau Ballet performed at the Scala Cinema in Tottenham Street, the event being filmed for Janet Street-Porter’s television show 20th Century Box. Spandau Ballet startled almost everyone by being exotic, innovative, original. The media picked up on the new style, which was a distillation of extemporary night-club fashions (independently devised fashions – cognoscenti often making their own clothes, choosing their own meeting places, recording everything in photographs).
Thursday, April 06, 2006
Apsley House seen from inside Hyde Park (photo taken last summer - a wet day in July). The house is the London home of the Duke of Wellington and is also known as "Number One, London". Inside is a museum run by English Heritage with lots of mementos of the Anglo-French wars of the 18 th century, including a colossal nude statue of Napoleon by the sculptor Canova, the political icon towering up the stairwell, making the tyrant look like a giant, whereas in fact he was a very small man (classical nudity, larger-than-life proportions, glistening expensive marble - Canova knew the value of a good image).
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
The London Eye is a sort of ferris wheel constructed on the South Bank and opened in 1999 to mark the new millennium. Originally intended to be a temporary structure, it has now become a permanent fixture to the skyline. It is fast assuming an iconic status as one of the ways London's identity is defined.
I took this photograph close to the Shell Centre, and was surprised at how well it has turned out.
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Above: The culture of the local area has been decanted into a modernist minimalist building that demonstrates a sophisticated marxist (small “m”) theory of architecture (all decoration is bourgeois).
Above: We sat in semi-darkness, which made getting a clear photograph impossible
New cultural centre (absolutely new, less than a year old), comprising lecture halls, seminar rooms, small museum (displaying artefacts previously kept in provincial vaults). Because it focuses on the region I am studying, I am resigned to visiting the centre on a regular basis, even though the experience is dispiriting. Although the buildings are new, everything within is presented in a politically correct format that has become dated, and does not allow variance of interpretation.
Sunday afternoon, and a recital of folk songs collected personally by the performers and illustrating different aspects of village life in the two counties over the centuries. This was pay-sant culture dealing with small farmers, poachers, itinerant workers who would know every field in a ten mile radius, but would never go outside that area. Riddle songs from the 1900 potato boom craze, Morris tunes from the 1820s, hunting songs prefaced with a politically correct apology, and an assurance that fox-hunting was not being promoted or condoned. The songs and poems described topographical features and natural phenomenon (the Jack o’ Lantern lights that form from the methane in the marshes and creep along the ground), plough boys transported for drunken brawling (the county was responsible for the largest number of transportations to Australia in the nineteenth century), a tradition of harvest songs that celebrated by name long-dead farmers renowned for their generosity.
We sat in semi-darkness, which made getting a clear photograph impossible. The performers had a variety of musical instruments which they played, delivering their songs in droning untrained voices. The recital finished with a series of drinking songs, which would have been performed in farmhouses – and when I looked in the little museum next door, in the last few minutes before it closed, I saw a medieval carving of a domestic party scene that illustrated the oral culture we had just heard.
Sunday, April 02, 2006
Saturday, April 01, 2006
Arriving in London early, I went to the National Gallery and looked at renaissance artists of the Venetian school. Titian is admired for his ability to capture character through an accumulation of details, each of which has a symbolic meaning. He is important because he is so comprehensive - painting princes, popes and saints over a period of sixty years.
I had arranged to meet John Bors Edwards on the north side of Trafalgar Square, so when eleven o’clock arrived I simply went outside and there he was on the pavement. Sometimes when you meet people after years of not seeing them you find they have changed utterly, so that you do not at first recognise them. Often they have become bloated caricatures of their former selves. John Edwards, whom I last saw nine years ago, was completely unchanged. Not only his appearance, but his character was unchanged, so that there was none of the one-upmanship you sometimes encounter in old college friends. We shook hands and more or less took up the same conversation we left off back in 1997.
We decided to walk to the restaurant where we were to have lunch. The streets were surprisingly free of traffic. Along Piccadilly, then up Bond Street and across. As we walked through Berkeley Square and along Charles Street I experienced a very profound sense of déjà vu, brought about by the combination of walking through Mayfair and talking to John Edwards. It seemed as if we were in the 1980s once again (say 1989) and still at college, and on our way to Dartmouth House. Past the Running Footman pub, past Dartmouth House, turning right at the Chesterfield Hotel and then right again into Curzon Street.
The entrance to the Mirabelle restaurant was through a very understated lobby area. Once inside, the sense of the 1980s, which had accompanied me since the corner of Bond Street, became overwhelming in its intensity, so that I felt a little giddy (or was it an attack of Stendhal’s Syndrome after visiting the National Gallery, or was it just hunger because I hadn’t had any breakfast?). We left our packages at the front desk and followed a heavily-accented young woman as she led us to the art deco bar area.
Mirrored walls, lots of white marble, big displays of lilies. John Edwards was concerned that he wasn’t wearing a tie. I told him no-one bothered with ties these days (but actually he was the only one in the Mirabelle not wearing one. We ordered drinks and I was brought a (very strong) Scotch and soda.
There was a bowl of olives on the low table in front of us, and John Edwards consumed all of these so that a second bowl had to be brought.
“Don’t put this into your diary” he warned, “I know the sort of details you pick up on.”
We were ushered from the bar into the dining area. More white marble and displays of flowers. No windows, the light coming down from a glass ceiling.
“How did you know about this place?” John asked me.
In reply I made a (half-true) joke about working my way through the Michelin Guide. But also my choice of restaurant had been influenced by my brother’s interest (actually more an obsession) with the secret services, the buildings on both sides of Curzon Street being formerly associated with MI5 and MI6. Up until about ten years ago the Mirabelle restaurant had been a sort of unofficial staff canteen for British agents. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, is supposed to have observed the real “James Bond” regularly having lunch there (the real James Bond’s name was Sidney Reilly although his real real name was Shlomo Rosenblum, born in the Ukraine in 1873 - after the Russian revolution he became a British agent and won the Military Cross for his work against the Soviets. He “disappeared” while on a mission into Soviet Russia in 1925).
Even though the security services moved out in the mid-1990s, a sense of mystery still pervades Curzon Street. The building opposite the Mirabelle had been the MI5 Registry, and was the first building in London to have security cameras installed (heavy cumbersome cameras - they were hidden in a special canopy). The buildings (disguised as blocks of 1930s offices) had no windows on the ground floors, and inside the walls and ceilings were covered in aluminium sheeting forming Faraday Boxes designed to prevent computer data being read from outside the room. The complex had its own self-defence force, and below ground was an impregnable fortress known as the Citadel where the Royal Family were supposed to have sheltered during the blitz of the Second World War (there were discreet machine gun portals pointing towards Hyde Park where the German paratroopers were expected to drop - even in the 1950s these guns were manned day and night).
MI5 is supposed to deal with internal threats to the United Kingdom while MI6 counters external dangers. These two departments grew out of a series of specialist security operations such as MI6 dealing with codes and ciphers, MI4 aerial reconnaissance, MI10 weapons analysis etc. Conspiracy theorists are convinced there is a “MI17” which counters incursions by extra-terrestrials.
Omelette Arnold Bennet, lamb with clams, strawberries in a sort of champagne custard. Only mineral water to drink. The food was well presented and the staff very efficient - as good as any in Paris.
We talked about various people we knew. I updated him on the downfall (a veritable Gotterdammerung) of Alan Nixon. He described his army career and how soon he expected to be a major.
After the meal we got a taxi to the Victoria and Albert Museum where we went to the central courtyard, a red-brick quadrangle, where there is an open-air café. We ordered drinks and sat there in the mild air, a light breeze blowing. It was nice to just sit there doing nothing, talking about the past.