A Tale of Two Cathedrals

Autumn and spring are my two favourite seasons and the most changeable. Summer and winter present largely unchanging extremes of weather that are both equally unwelcome in their own way. As the sun struggled to make its first appearance of the year yesterday I decided to visit Winchester, beginning with the Cathedral. Surrounded by a large park where the first cherry blossoms were emerging, snowdrop drifts were beginning to be displaced by crocuses and with gardens where medlar trees grow alongside the ruins of the Chapter House, the Cathedral combines the rather squat Norman architecture with the more fluid lines of the later Gothic perpendicular style. Inside, the north and south transepts particularly show the alien Norman influence, with roughly carved arches being supported by pillars stolen from Roman buildings (it is thought that the Normans were not sufficiently sophisticated to have produced them themselves). Overall, the Cathedral’s interior is rather austere, with much of its decoration having been stripped out at either the time of the Reformation or the Commonwealth. Most of the present decoration, including various memorials and Kempe’s stained glass is Victorian. Some murals have since been restored and several chantry chapels commemorating past Bishops remain wedged between arches, including one for a catholic Cardinal.

More oddly, niches on the retro-choir screen have been filled with a set of icons in the style of the Russian orthodox painter, Andrei Rublev (although two of the saints depicted, Birinus and Swithun, came from Dorchester and Winchester respectively). The Cathedral also has some more macabre oddities; such as a set of mortuary chests in the Presbytery for the Kings of Wessex; Alfred, Cnut, Egbert and the later William Rufus (apparently this was somewhat unwise, since the internment of his bones was followed with the tower falling down). I was then taken on a tour of the tower, proceeding up an extremely narrow spiral staircase, past the bell chamber and sound lantern to the tower. The view of Winchester was rather impressive, showing how the layout of the city was still recognisably medieval.

Following this I walked along Winchester’s high street, past a statue of Alfred and the Victorian guildhall, to The Great Hall. The only surviving part of the original castle (destroyed by Cromwell; later plans for Wren to build Charles the Second a Versailles style palace nearby were rudely interrupted by the King’s death), the Hall is most famed for the object displayed on the wall; a 13th century round table, painted in the Tudor period to depict the Arthur and twenty four of his knights. Immediately outside is Queen Eleanor’s Garden, a recreation of the type of herbaria the castle would have had in the thirteenth century, including a fountain surmounted by a bronze falcon and a tunnel arbour. The plants are specific to the period; camomile lawn, bay hedges, Solomon’s seal, iris, hyssop, hollyhock, lavender and so on. Finally, I walked up St Catherine’s hill, former site of an iron-age hill fort, plague pits and the present site of a MizMaze. The hill offered a particularly good view of Winchester College and the Itchen flood plain.

Later, I went to visit Lichfield Cathedral. While Winchester’s tower is rather squat and unobtrusive, Lichfield’s three spires rise far above the town and across the expanse of Stowe pool. Where Winchester’s white stones gleam in the sunlight, Lichfield’s red sandstone has been blackened and weathered over the centuries. Rather appropriate really, given that the town’s name is derived from ‘field of the dead.’ Accordingly, although the Cathedral is actually more recent than Winchester it gives every appearance of being significantly older. The structure is gothic, modified by George Gilbert Scott, with stained glass by Kempe (I’ve always particularly admired the window showing the reconstruction of the Cathedral after the Civil War) sitting alongside sixteenth century stained glass in the Lady Chapel. I was somewhat surprised to note another icon, this time of Saint Chad in that chapel, presumably having been created by the same artist (Chad’s skull was displayed in an adjacent chapel). Accordingly, much of the Cathedral is essentially high-gothic, though there are some survivals from earlier period; murals whitewashed in the civil war can be seen in the Chapter House where the Lichfield Gospels reside.

Charlecote Park is a largely Tudor house by the river Avon with some later additions; a reconstructed box garden on the front lawn competes with a Capability Brown designed landscape with cedar trees while Jacob sheep graze. The interior is largely notable for its collection of objects from Fonthill abbey; Indian ebony chairs, beds and Chinese Lacquer cabinets mostly. The family seem to have had a taste for the exotic; more than a few paintings of satyrs grace the walls. As is often for these houses, the Tudor collides with other periods; walls covered in damask and furnished with marquetry furniture, a Great Hall whose window is filled with an eighteenth century alabaster fount complete with doves. Returning, I called at St Mary’s Church in Warwick. Rather oddly, the tower of the church ends in a follow gateway where pedestrians can pass under. Much of the rest of the church was redesigned in the eighteenth century and represents a peculiar attempt to build a neo-classical church; urns grace the summit of the walls rather than gargoyles while the windows are gently curved rather than being filled with quatrefoils.

Following this, I returned to Kedleston. I’d been there many years ago and it had struck me as extremely austere and cold. To some extent, this impression still persists. Placed in Derbyshire with its attendant poor weather, the structure is defiantly neo-classical. Its front imitates Constantine’s arch, the entire building being based on a Palladio design. The entrance hall replicates the atrium of a Roman villa, while the saloon is modelled on the pantheon. Much of this was designed as a temple of the arts rather than a house and I quickly found the impressions of my earlier self being confirmed. More interesting was the church, whose wall was mounted with a sundial and skulls to reflects man’s mortality (with an execrable pun on ‘sun dial’ and ‘soon die all’). More interesting was the exhibition of Kedleston acquisitions from his time as Indian viceroy, including Indian ivory and silverwork, Tibetan bronzes and Chinese lacquerwork. The interior has two wooden lids in the floor; lifted up they reveal stone faces of a medieval Lord and Lady Kedleston.

I went to Silchester recently, spending a few hours there and walking around the walls. Not an especially sunny day though, as with Avebury, the ruins do acquire an oddly forbidding aspect when the sunlight falls away. Formerly an important Iron-age and Roman town, little now remains besides the walls and an amphitheatre. I hadn’t visited at this time of year before, and I noticed that bluebells were beginning to come into flower in the woods while the meadow was covered with dandelions. One afternoon later that week saw a heavy April shower. When it stopped raining, the sky was still swathed in dark clouds but the sun was very bright. In consequence, one of the most vivid rainbows I’ve ever seen plunged down from the storm clouds to light up the ground.

Later, I went to visit Mottisfont Abbey. This has actually been a house since the reformation but a cellarium and various surviving arches date back to the medieval period. Stylistically, the house is as much a patchwork as The Vyne, with the redbrick front retaining some Tudor features but the back and flanking wings being in a more downcast eighteenth century style. I particularly liked the parterre garden in front of the house, planted with blue hyacinths and white tulips, with bluebells and wisteria growing nearby. Rooks cawed in the nearby trees. Oddly, a modern mosaic appears in a niche between walls nearby, showing a orthodox icon (in reality the socialite that owned the house) The rest of the grounds also have several tulips displays in black, purple and white with red stripes. Plane trees line the grounds, many of them with mistletoe growing from their branches. The inside is a more nondescript eighteenth century affair, enlivened by some striking trompe l’oeil from the thirties, recasting the drawing room as a gothic palace like Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. The illusion is rather well conceived, even down to a paint pot and brush drawn onto one shelf. Elsewhere, the house had a surprisingly good collection of modern art, ranging from Degas and Vuillard to Lowry (some dark but surprisingly naturalistic landscapes) and the Bloomsbury group (a particularly fine country scene from Duncan Grant with an obvious debt to Cezanne).

The following day, I returned to West Wycombe, where I was finally able to climb the hill (earlier the site of an iron age fort) and then the tower of Saint Lawrence’s Church. The church itself proved surprisingly ornate inside (modelled on the Temple of Palmyra), with Corinthian columns drawing the eye up to the frescos on the ceiling. The yellow Palladian buildings at Wycombe finally seemed to take on the proper Italianate aspect in the sunlight (though I suspect Palladio was not given to using flint as a building material). The grounds seemed mostly covered in an odd combination of yew and willow while some caged parrots competed with nearby rooks. I also went to Grey’s Court. This is a Jacobean house, with a rather nondescript eighteenth century interior; more interesting were the grounds with orchards and knot gardens surrounding the ruins of the original manor. The grounds are strewn with follies like a Chinese bridge and a modern miz-maze with an astrolabe at its centre. Nearby was beech woodland, where the sunlight set the leaves aflame as it fell down on the bluebells below.

Arriving in London, I briefly visited Tate Modern, dwelling on Klein and Rothko’s brooding canvases, Braque and Kandinsky’s cubism and the surrealism of Magritte. Having since visited the Trade Fair Palace in Prague, I’m inclined to take an increasingly dim view of Tate Modern; it’s thematic arrangements of paintings increasingly seems to disguise a rather thin collection. Passing on, I walked past the Houses of Parliament to Tate Britain, for its exhibition of paintings by Turner, Whistler and Monet. "All art," wrote Walter Pater, "aspires to the condition of music," a hypothesis reinforced by Whistler’s appropriation of musical terminology to mark his rejection of realism in favour of aestheticism. The exhibition accordingly presents a problem for the writer in its rejection of the concrete, leaving only the subjective and inchoate. The essential difficult lies in seeing Turner placed alongside two artists that refined his impressionism (arguably he would have gained more by being placed alongside his own contemporaries), the serenity of Whistler’s nocturnes on the one hand and the convulsive explosions of colour proffered by Monet. Where Turner’s serial paintings of the destruction of the Houses of Parliament all appear essentially similar, Monet’s serial paintings of the same landscape always seem different.

I went to see The Downfall, a film that chronicles the fall of Berlin, counterpointing the fate of the pulverised city’s inhabitants with the parties and dinners in Hitler’s bunker. The Downfall has been the cause of much comment that connects it to ‘normalisierung’ novels like Crabwalk by Gunther Grass or other works like The Natural History of Destruction by WG Sebald. These are attempts to reconsider the second world war, noting the atrocities committed by the British, such as the bombing of Dresden (the type of subject where the British have never truly admitted culpability) and the suffering of German civilians.

To a large extent, such comments seem incorrect. While not depicting a caricature, the essential gist of the portrayal of Hitler is to show him as a deluded maniac, often barely seeming human. Blind obedience and fanaticism figure strongly as a lethal combination. Where the comments have more force is the portrayal of the military and those around Hitler. Although it is certainly known that a gulf over military strategy existed between the German government and its military (probably for the Wehrmacht and Navy, certainly not for the SS officers in the film), the portrayal of them as simply loyal and diligent in obeying orders seems to go unnecessarily far in exculpating them. Wilhelm Mohnke, seen pleading to arrest the needless slaughter of troops had no such compunctions concerning the British troops he massacred at Dunkirk. Dr Ernst-Günter Schenck appears a humanitarian throughout, but such compassion was never lavished on the concentration camp victims he experimented on. Traudl Junge is seen as innocent of politics, though in reality Nazism had shaped much of her life. The tendency is to see the German people as victims of Hitler rather than as agents (although Goerring becomes the unlikely spokesmen for the view that the German people had at least colluded in their fate and a coda at the end sees the actual Traudl Junge speaking of how she had come to realise that she should have been more alive to what the Third Reich had been doing rather than denying her culpability). Nonetheless, it still seems difficult not to feel that Claus von Stauffenberg deserved to be described as a victim more than many of the film’s characters.

My view of the film is as such ambivalent to say the least; the film does derive much of its disturbing and powerful effect from a refusal to deal in moral absolutes in one of the very few places where they can hardly be said to seem unwarranted. As I left, a girl seated behind me was crying. "The madness" she said through the tears, "The madness."

Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse presents an interesting cocktail of what could (uncharitably) be called champagne existentialism. The narrator is an uncertain centre who confesses that in a month she would have been differing opinions on subjects, a device that allows Sagan to critique existentialism. Given a choice between being-in-itself and being-for-oneself, no decision can be made. One choice would destroy the hedonism upon which the lives of Cecile and her father depend. The other would destroy what would save them from that hedonism. Her own nausea cannot be overcome.

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty left me with certain doubts as to whether the social novel is as meaningful a vehicle now as it was for the Victorians. The social novel carried with it a number of assumptions that sit poorly with modern ideas. For instance, ideas on social homogeneity (uniting ‘the two nations’) that don’t coincide with more modern ideas on individualism or multi-culturalism, or on the social basis for character that began to seem difficult after Freud. My general conclusion is that to a large extent, the description of it as a social novel is entirely accurate. The main character certainly does allude to Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and there are certain comparisons; the novel depicts a broad swathe of nineteen eighties society and depicts the transition of conservatism from being a party of the landed gentry to being a party of upstart magnates. However, novels like The Spoils of Poynton or The Picture of Dorian Gray seem more apposite comparisons (though it is difficult to see the novel as a moral fable; the crude moralisations of upper class conservatives are typically treated with disdain. Self’s Dorian might accordingly be a better parallel). Where a Victorian social novel would have shown how different parts of society were inextricably joined, Hollinghurst deliberately emphasises the divisions of an increasingly atomised society, as the main character’s homosexuality clashes with both his middle-class background and the upper-class milieu he has become accustomed to. Where a Victorian social novel would have had events like the stock market crash serve as a central deus ex machina, such things are often little more than background here.

Some time ago I came across a book called Herland in a secondhand bookshop. I had not heard of it previously, but was familiar with the author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman from her short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Reading it yesterday, it proved to be a utopian fantasy in the vein of News from Nowhere or Erewhon, founded on both feminist and socialist principles. In common with many other nineteenth century utopian novels, it seems more than a little disturbing today, combining incompatible adaptations of both Marxism and Darwinism (I suspect ‘Galtonism’ might be a better term in the latter case, if less recognisable).

On the one hand, the novel suggests that through "the most prolonged and careful selection and exclusion" cats could be bred that did not threaten birds and that criminal tendencies in the population could be bred out by simply not permitting anyone with such propensities to breed. Much of the novel attributes the superiority of Herland civilisation simply to the absence of any males in the society, thereby eliminating tendencies towards aggression and struggle. In this sense, Herland is little different from the fantasy depicted in The Time Machine, where the classes have evolved into differing species. After all, Wells found Fabian socialism eminently compatible with advocacy of select breeding; "I believe, that now and always the conscious selection of the best for reproduction will be impossible; that to propose it is to display a fundamental misunderstanding of what individuality implies. The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies."

However, it simultaneously dismisses genetics in favour of a view weighted heavily towards the blank slate. During a discussion of the genetic diversity shown by the Herlander in spite of being parthenogenetic, two characters discuss the matter; "But acquired traits are not transmissible… Weissman has proved that… If that is so then our improvement must be solely due to mutation or to education." In fact, education is what is stressed throughout; "however children differed at birth, the real growth lay later – through education." It is in short, the same view of nature that was to be inverted in the twentieth century’s dystopias; "You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable." (George Orwell, 1984). But Herland also implies that the reactions of the three protagonists to Herland is a deeply ingrained one that proves not to be susceptible to any amount of re-education. Gilman’s notions of human nature appear confused at best; the Herlanders react with horror and revulsion to what they hear of male civilisation but also find the prospect of visiting it enthralling and show blindnesses to its worst aspects. The Herlanders reject male society on the one hand, but are enthused at the prospect of abandoning parthenogenetic reproduction.

Melville’s White-Jacket is in many respects a political allegory, drawing repeated parallels between shipboard life and social unrest elsewhere; "were it not for these regulations a man of war’s crew would be nothing but a mob, more ungovernable than.. George Gordon… bowing to naval discipline afloat, yet ashore, he was a stickler for the rights of man and the liberties of the world." The navy are persistently held to account by the standards of the Declaration of Independence; "it is no limited monarchy where the commons have the right to petition… vesting in him the authority to scourge, comform(ing) in spirit to the territorial laws of Russia, which is ruled by an autocrat… for him our revolution was in vain; to him our Declaration of Independence was a lie." Meville notes its rigid social hierarchies and its treatment of sailors in the same manner as slaves are treated on the plantations. However, it seems awkward to place it in the category of realist fiction. It restricts itself to a narrow setting away from society, as much as the novels of William Golding. By contrast, Twain’s Life on the Mississippi depicts the entire social strata along the river from the boats to the towns. Pioneer myths are dismantled by reference to the economic cycles that changed Westward expansion, while the genuine myths of the Indians are treated with scorn. Conversely, Melville’s text is alive with metaphorical references to myth and history. Some of these are political (to Jews in Rome or the Saxons under William the Conqueror), other mythological (the sailors compared to Bacchanals), but all serve to point beyond the immediacies of the social fabric. Equally, the symbolic resurrection of the narrator with the demise of his hated white jacket seems to point to the metaphysical concerns of Coleridge’s albatross or the similar death and resurrection in Moby Dick. The text points beyond itself but seems uncertain as to what.

A friend said a while back that she had been reading Golding’s Lord of the Flies and had thought that the groups in it had seemed far too reasonable and well organised; to a modern reader, the descent into violence is less surprising than the order that preceded it. I made the point that it the time of writing, society and the education system were considerably more hierarchised and deferential, so I wouldn’t be surprised that the groups initially seemed quite ordered. Similarly, I might not find the chaos and death unpredictable but this book was written in a somewhat more genteel age that lacked the benefit of having heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment. On the other hand, it is difficult to deny that Lord of the Flies may have dated somewhat. So, while reading two of Golding’s other novels, The Spire and Pincher Martin, I was interested to see whether they would fare better. On the whole, I think they do.

It’s often the case that an author’s most famous work isn’t their most interesting or even their best, and this certainly appears the case with Golding. Reading Pincher Martin I was struck by how little an equivalent to Meville’s vision of the world outside impinges on what is a remarkably endogenous system. Pincher Martin is a form of inverted Robinson Crusoe, as much as Lord of the Flies is an inverted version of Ballantyne’s Coral Island or The Swiss Family Robinson. Where the latter is humanistic and pragmatic, the former is anti-humanistic and even nihilistic. Golding sees human will in the same terms of Schopenhauer, as a form of violence and even rebellion against god. The extinction of the self in submission is his preference. Similarly, in The Spire, the construction of a spire on a cathedral lacking substantial foundations (the spire sounds like Salisbury, the details on collapsing towers and weak foundations sound like Winchester) proves a form of violent arrogance that corresponds to a psychomachia within Dean Jocelyn. Murders and deaths follow the construction.

I also went to a performance of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast. This was rather odd work is ostensibly an ode to the christian patron saint of music, Cecilia, but this does sit rather awkwardly alongside its main narrative of music’s ability to inspire both love and destruction (recasting the firing of Persepolis in the same terms as the fall of the Troy). The concert was in a nearby church, replete with suitable Victorian high church gothic accoutrements, which made for an excellent setting. On the whole the performance was rather good, with the soprano especially standing out.

Reading Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition and Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander, it occurred to me that much of Edward Said’s theories of Orientalism was as applicable to the opposition of Greek and Persian as it was to the opposition of Christian and Islamic. Said argued that imperialism had its scholarly corollary in Orientalism; "But this has often happened with the "orient", that semi-mythical construct which since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the late 18th century has been made and remade countless times… Every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all the others, that its circumstances are special, that it has a mission to enlighten, civilise, bring order and democracy, and that it uses force only as a last resort." It’s a Foucauldean view, by which the construction of discourse determines power relations, though allowing some humanistic conception of how discourse can also challenge such monolithic views. Similarly, it has been argued that the period between Homer and Sophocles witnessed the invention of the barbarian, a response to conflicts with Persia. For example, in The Persian Expedition Xenophon sees Persia in the same terms Spenser describes the bower of bliss; "if we once to learn to live a life of ease and luxury… then we might be like the Lotus Eaters and forget the way home… to demonstrate to the Greeks that their poverty is of their own choosing." This discourse of Eastern decadence and effeminacy (also seen to some extent in Homer’s portrayal of Paris, and in Plutarch’s description of the Persian king Surena; "his beauty had a kind of feminine quality which did not exactly fit in with his reputation for physical courage") was to persist until its inversion in the modern period. Persia is a mirror of Greece, its equal and opposite; it is only in Ukraine (Mossynoici) that they encounter something alien, described as being completely removed from Greece.

For Xenophon, Persia’s decadence was an effect of the wealth and power of a state far stronger than fragmented and weak Greece, in spite of the efficiency of the Greek Hoplites against the Persian military (the lawless Greek pillagers are in most respects the Barbarians). Following the failure of Athenian democracy, Xenophon clearly admires both Sparta and Persia. For Arrian, the pattern is quite different, with Greece unified under Macedonian dictatorship. His narrative accordingly commences with the destruction of Thebes and the massacre of its inhabitants with the subjugated Greeks later found fighting for Persia against Alexander and his biographer Callisthenes killed for advocating tyrannicide. By contrast, in Persia "he dispossessed the ruling classes and established popular government in their place." Unsurprisingly, a hollow note enters into much of what follows; "our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives; we of Macedon have for generations been trained in the hard school of danger and war." As invasion passes into occupation, Alexander increasingly adopted Persian dress and customs, admitting subjugated peoples into his armies to fuel further conquest. Arrain certainly seems to interpret this as evidence of tyranny rather than tolerance; "Alexander came to allow himself to emulate Eastern extravagance and splendour, and the fashion of barbarian kings of treating their subjects as inferiors " For both Arrian and Xenophon Persia represents an odd combination of partly admired and tyranny and reviled decadence.

The essential theme of The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes: The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett is that Brett’s portrayal of Holmes as lethargic and blazing with energy by turns was to a large extent informed by his own manic depression. It further suggests that Brett strove so hard to become Holmes that his depression was provoked by the character. It’s not unusual for actors to see themselves as being empty, a brass rubbing of the parts they play, but the notion that Brett was otherwise rather gregarious still seems slightly fanciful. The book does have a number of diverting anecdotes though; such as Brett’s visit to the tomb of the figure Doyle based Hugo Baskerville on (an especially large granite slab had been placed over the grave to prevent anything escaping) and of Doyle’s irritation at the burglar of his house being caught by the police rather than through his own deductions. One of the more striking details is of a play Brett appeared in that suggested Moriarty was simply a figment of the Holmesian imagination. After all, no-one other than Holmes saw Moriarty. With Holmes such an isolated figure (Watson’s function is after all to tether Holmes to a world of the everyday that he is otherwise utterly disconnected from), it hardly seems surprising that he would have the need for a figure who was his equal and opposite.