Monday, 26 June 2017

A Different Church

My church crawling took a new turn over the weekend when, with my cousin, I visited this one - Lud's Church in Staffordshire. Hidden away in woodland known as the Back Forest, in the White Peak, this deep, narrow, moss-grown chasm in the rocks can only be entered through even narrower passages at either end, from which steps lead down into a dank sunless world, with craggy rock faces towering on either side, and trees outlined against a narrow strip of sky above.
 It's a quite extraordinary place, with something of the feel of a naturally formed cathedral nave; indeed one of the more plausible legends about Lud's Church is that it was used for secret worship by persecuted Lollards. More fanciful tales about this handy hiding place have linked it to Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, Bonnie Prince Charlie and local Luddites  - from Lud, the legendary King of England who gave his name to London and Ludgate, to the equally legendary leader of the machine-smashers, Captain Ludd, by way of some local Lud whose name is otherwise lost.
 Others have identified Lud's Church with the Green Chapel where Sir Gawain kept his fateful appointment with the fearsome Green Knight. As the poem describes the chapel as a hollow grass-grown mound (suggesting a barrow), this seems more than fanciful. However, Lud's Church would have made a perfect setting for the climactic drama; it's easy to imagine the sound of the Green Knight's axe-grinding echoing off the walls of the chasm as a trepidatious Gawain steps down into its depths.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Donald's Dream

Here's Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, quoting John Lennon's Imagine today, a propos his dream of a repentant UK seeing the error of its ways and rejoining the EU: 'You may say I'm a dreamer [twinkly pause] but I'm not the only one.' And here's me quoting the late Fleet Street legend Sir John Junor: 'Pass the sick bag, Alice.'
  Donald Tusk is a distressing enough phenomenon in himself, but Donald Tusk quoting Imagine is beyond endurance. Maybe it's time for the EU to drop the Ode to Joy as its anthem (I'm sure Beethoven would be relieved) and replace it with Imagine. 'Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do...' (Isn't it? I can't even imagine no counties - talking of which, I'm off to Derbyshire for the weekend.)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Monuments and Fritillaries

Having made a fine job of cataloguing some 210,000 paintings in public collections in the UK - many of them in store or otherwise unavailable to the public - Art UK now plans to do the same for the nation's sculpture. This is excellent news - but, if I read the description of the project's remit rightly, it seems to omit a hugely significant part of the national sculpture collection: the monuments that stand in our churches. Those in Westminster Abbey alone constitute one of our greatest national collections, but more to the point, so many of the very best sculptures of every period (but particularly the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries) are scattered around the country, often in very out-of-the-way churches, many of which are more or less permanently locked. To be able to access images and descriptions of these works online would surely enhance appreciation of an undervalued treasury of sculpture (as well as, ahem, being an invaluable resource for those of us engaged in writing about English church monuments)...


Meanwhile, the heat wave continues - rather wearing for us humans, but great news for the butterflies. On Monday I was out among them on a favourite hillside haunt, where Marbled Whites were flying in great abundance - even more perhaps than last year - and I saw not one, not two (the suspense!) but six Dark Green Fritillaries [below], each seen individually and all in flight, but unmistakable, and very beautiful. Then this morning, on Ashtead common, I found large numbers of my favourite White Admirals flying, along with slightly smaller numbers of spectacular Silver-Washed Fritillaries. After a run of dismal Junes, these past couple of weeks have been a joyful reminder of what this glorious month can be.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Still a Serious House on Serious Earth

I was delighted to come across this story - not only because it contradicts the received (wishful?) thinking that church congregations are old and dying out, but because of what it says about the church's attempts to woo young people. It is not, it seems, 'youth groups' or the infantile Youth Alpha course that are attracting them, but the 'old hat' stuff: prayer, bible reading, spiritual experiences - and visiting churches and cathedrals. The numinous force field of these buildings - regarded by some of the more go-ahead clergy as nothing more than 'plant' - is drawing young people into the world of faith.
 And yet - as I, an inveterate church-crawler, know only too well - many of these churches stand more or less permanently locked against the world. Let's hope these new findings will boost the Bishop of Worcester's admirable campaign to persuade more parishes to keep their churches open. If you want to 'bring people in' to the church, it would surely make sense to let them in to our churches.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

A Good Haul

A couple of lucky finds at a garden fair yesterday. One was Butterflies by the egregious E.B. Ford - 'the Kenneth Williams of zoology' - the first title in Collins' excellent New Naturalist series. I already have my late father's battered copy of it, but I snapped up this one (a 1946 reprint, still wearing the remains of its dust jacket) as I know someone who'll welcome it as a gift. The other book I bought was a Folio Society volume, The Plums of P.G. Wodehouse (no sniggering please), a selection of Wodehouse gems chosen by Joe Whitlock Blundell and illustrated - half the reason I bought it - by Paul Cox (that's one of his above). Also snapped up - a John Prine CD, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. A good haul, and in a good cause - supporting the local ecology centre and nature reserve, where the Ringlets are happily flying again.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Uncle Bill's Dead Bird - and Georgie's

This fine watercolour of a dead Tree Creeper is by Edward 'Uncle Bill' Wilson, who died on Scott's ill-fated second Antarctic expedition. It was found recently in the expedition's hut at Cape Adare, buried under a deal of penguin guano and dust and quantities of papers - but in astonishingly good condition, having been thereby protected from air and light (and, of course, heat.)
 Wilson was the leader of the extraordinary 'Winter Journey', an expedition whose sole aim was to acquire some Emperor Penguin eggs, which scientists were convinced would afford evidence of the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds. This 60-mile journey was undertaken by Wilson, 'Birdie' Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard in total darkness in the depths of the Arctic winter, with temperatures falling to minus 70  Centigrade. And then a blizzard blew up and carried their tent away, leaving them stranded in their sleeping bags for a day and a half under thick snow (by sheer luck, they then found the tent, lodged in rocks half a mile away)... Cherry-Garrard later wrote a book about it all, accurately titled The Worst Journey in the World. The expedition succeeded in collecting three Emperor Penguin eggs, which survived the terrible journey back to base - only to prove that the scientists were wrong all along.
 Wilson's Tree Creeper painting reminded me of a picture in the Tate - this one, by Georgiana MacDonald...

Friday, 16 June 2017

Browning's Bishop

It's high time we had a poem - and yesterday, as it happens, I found myself reading this, one of the best of Browning's dramatic monologues, in which a dying bishop in 16th-century Rome seeks to assure his undying fame (and his ascendancy over a rival) by securing himself a suitably pompous and assertive tomb...

The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church

Vanity, saith the preacher, vanity! 
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? 
Nephews—sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! Well— 
She, men would have to be your mother once, 
Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was! 
What's done is done, and she is dead beside, 
Dead long ago, and I am Bishop since, 
And as she died so must we die ourselves, 
And thence ye may perceive the world's a dream. 
Life, how and what is it? As here I lie 
In this state-chamber, dying by degrees, 
Hours and long hours in the dead night, I ask 
"Do I live, am I dead?" Peace, peace seems all. 
Saint Praxed's ever was the church for peace; 
And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought 
With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know: 
—Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care; 
Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South 
He graced his carrion with, God curse the same! 
Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence 
One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side, 
And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats, 
And up into the aery dome where live 
The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk: 
And I shall fill my slab of basalt there, 
And 'neath my tabernacle take my rest, 
With those nine columns round me, two and two, 
The odd one at my feet where Anselm stands: 
Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe 
As fresh-poured red wine of a mighty pulse. 
—Old Gandolf with his paltry onion-stone, 
Put me where I may look at him! True peach, 
Rosy and flawless: how I earned the prize! 
Draw close: that conflagration of my church 
—What then? So much was saved if aught were missed! 
My sons, ye would not be my death? Go dig 
The white-grape vineyard where the oil-press stood, 
Drop water gently till the surface sink, 
And if ye find . . . Ah God, I know not, I! ... 
Bedded in store of rotten fig-leaves soft, 
And corded up in a tight olive-frail, 
Some lump, ah God, of lapis lazuli, 
Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape, 
Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast ... 
Sons, all have I bequeathed you, villas, all, 
That brave Frascati villa with its bath, 
So, let the blue lump poise between my knees, 
Like God the Father's globe on both His hands 
Ye worship in the Jesu Church so gay, 
For Gandolf shall not choose but see and burst! 
Swift as a weaver's shuttle fleet our years: 
Man goeth to the grave, and where is he? 
Did I say basalt for my slab, sons? Black— 
'Twas ever antique-black I meant! How else 
Shall ye contrast my frieze to come beneath? 
The bas-relief in bronze ye promised me, 
Those Pans and Nymphs ye wot of, and perchance 
Some tripod, thyrsus, with a vase or so, 
The Saviour at his sermon on the mount, 
Saint Praxed in a glory, and one Pan 
Ready to twitch the Nymph's last garment off, 
And Moses with the tables . . . but I know 
Ye mark me not! What do they whisper thee, 
Child of my bowels, Anselm? Ah, ye hope 
To revel down my villas while I gasp 
Bricked o'er with beggar's mouldy travertine 
Which Gandolf from his tomb-top chuckles at! 
Nay, boys, ye love me—all of jasper, then! 
'Tis jasper ye stand pledged to, lest I grieve. 
My bath must needs be left behind, alas! 
One block, pure green as a pistachio-nut, 
There's plenty jasper somewhere in the world— 
And have I not Saint Praxed's ear to pray 
Horses for ye, and brown Greek manuscripts, 
And mistresses with great smooth marbly limbs? 
—That's if ye carve my epitaph aright, 
Choice Latin, picked phrase, Tully's every word, 
No gaudy ware like Gandolf's second line— 
Tully, my masters? Ulpian serves his need! 
And then how I shall lie through centuries, 
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass, 
And see God made and eaten all day long, 
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste 
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke! 
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night, 
Dying in state and by such slow degrees, 
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook, 
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point, 
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop 
Into great laps and folds of sculptor's-work: 
And as yon tapers dwindle, and strange thoughts 
Grow, with a certain humming in my ears, 
About the life before I lived this life, 
And this life too, popes, cardinals and priests, 
Saint Praxed at his sermon on the mount, 
Your tall pale mother with her talking eyes, 
And new-found agate urns as fresh as day, 
And marble's language, Latin pure, discreet, 
—Aha, ELUCESCEBAT quoth our friend? 
No Tully, said I, Ulpian at the best! 
Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage. 
All lapis, all, sons! Else I give the Pope 
My villas! Will ye ever eat my heart? 
Ever your eyes were as a lizard's quick, 
They glitter like your mother's for my soul, 
Or ye would heighten my impoverished frieze, 
Piece out its starved design, and fill my vase 
With grapes, and add a vizor and a Term, 
And to the tripod ye would tie a lynx 
That in his struggle throws the thyrsus down, 
To comfort me on my entablature 
Whereon I am to lie till I must ask 
"Do I live, am I dead?" There, leave me, there! 
For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude 
To death—ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone— 
Gritstone, a-crumble! Clammy squares which sweat 
As if the corpse they keep were oozing through— 
And no more lapis to delight the world! 
Well, go! I bless ye. Fewer tapers there, 
But in a row: and, going, turn your backs 
—Ay, like departing altar-ministrants, 
And leave me in my church, the church for peace, 
That I may watch at leisure if he leers— 
Old Gandolf, at me, from his onion-stone, 
As still he envied me, so fair she was! 


Saint Praxed is Santa Prassede, a virgin saint of the 2nd century who gave all her wealth to the poor and the Church - one of the little ironies of this poem. Like many of Browning's monologues, it creates a tension between self-deception and self-revelation, insight and delusion, the glimmer of how things might yet be and the gravitational pull of how they inevitably will be.
  It was first published, rather surprisingly, in Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany, a publication edited and largely written by Thomas Hood. Some years later, in his Modern Painters, John Ruskin acknowledged that 'It is nearly all I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of The Stones of Venice put into as many lines, Browning's being the antecedent work.'