Seraphic Surrealism

Gloucester struck me as one of those places that are too small to hide their contradictions. Firms of stockbrokers occupy buildings next to pound shops. Much of the town feels down at heel, with the inevitable display of decaying seventies shopping centres and boarded up windows, while the other half seems to thrive quite nicely with the influx of tourists, as a statue of Nerva announces the town’s historical credentials. Even the sights to be visited are essentially divided between former docks and a cathedral that was once a Monastery. As a place, the layers of the past are evident, the contour of the present and future rather more difficult to discern.

Inevitably, it’s the cathedral I’m most interested in. Whilst looking at the cathedral lantern, I notice something on the grass; shattered plaster adjoined to what seems to be the decapitated head of a pheasant. My initial suspicion was satanic rites, although the disappointing truth proved to be vandalism of the Motectum art installation by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva, wherein casts of angels are painted and mounted with the heads of ducks and chickens. It’s an interesting concepts; angels are almost invariably depicted with the features of humans and the wings of birds (i.e. peacock wings in medieval painting) and this concept neatly inverts that. The results rather remind me of Ernst.

The interior of the main cathedral nave is quite similar to Tewkesbury, with round Romanesque arches and thick pillars. By contrast, the quite and cloisters erupt into a frenzy of gothic, whose organic rather then geometric character reminds me of Geiger or Gaudi. The stained glass in the cloisters filters the air with polychromatic phovic clouds, creating a rather surreal effect. I mistake some of the glass for Burne Jones, with Christopher Whall being the actual artist; with the usual Minton tiling much evident, the Victorian presence at Gloucester is quite obvious, as with one of the side chapels decorated by Gambier Parry. Stained glass by Thomas Denny represents a small concession to modernity. The ambulatory design again recalls Tewkesbury, with the tombs of Osric of Mercia and Edward the Second. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for Edward, exiled to a provincial tomb and denied Westminster.

Outside, I step through one of the cathedral close arches and find myself confronted with a gothic monument to a bishop burnt by Queen Mary and the church of St Mary de Lode. The inside of this feels rather empty, with the space formerly filled by box pews never really having been given a new task. It’s the oldest church in the city (Roman mosaic is still visible in its foundations) the parish church at the time the cathedral was still a monastery, and the sanctuary still clearly shows its Norman design. I walk to the ruins of Greyfriars, dissolved in the reformation to leave only a set of skeletal arches. Blue irises flower in the churhyard alongside a modern set of carvings of the green man and the devil. I finally come to the docks, which remind me a little of East London or even parts of Copenhagen; the latter is more representative in that the buildings have been repurposed rather than demolished (there’s even a small Mariner’s chapel still), although you don’t have to go too far along the canal to see derelict Victorian warehouses, with the paint peeling off the riverside columns and ghost signs imprinted on the brick. The buildings closer to the centre have inevitably become shopping centres or apartments.

The following day is taken by with a visit to Osterley Park, via Charles Holden’s strangely monumental tube station with its constructivist tower. The park itself is rather beautiful, with pochards and mandarins swimming on the lake as swans and coots tend to their young. Lupins grow in gardens dotted with the customary follies. The house itself is a product of architectural nostalgia, a deliberate Tudor revival of a building constructed by Sir Thomas Gresham. The exterior combines Tudor ogee cupolas on redbrick towers with a Corinthian portico decorated by Sphinxes. By contrast, the Adam interior is uncompromisingly classicist, the Eating Room is decorated with pastoral scenes of Roman ruins, the staircase is decorated with a Ruebens fresco showing the glorification of the Duke of Buckingham, the Drawing Room ceiling is modelled on a Palmyran temple, via West Wycombe, while a Dressing Room feigns the appearance of Etruria. A tapestry room is perhaps rather more traditional; I’m amused by the incongruous presence of a badger. Guardi paintings of Venice hang on walls throughout; I’m quite struck by two Mother of Pearl Chinese ships, one with a dragon figurehead, the other with a phoenix (representing the Chinese Emperor and Empress respectively). The Chinese Emperor also features in a Gilray print showing a British emissary grovelling before him. The Prince of Wales and Sheridan also come in for attack, as does the King, shown as an Oriental potentate being resisted by the Duke of Wellington.

The following week is taken up with a return visit to Salisbury. I begin with the Church of St Thomas, which I’d missed on my previous visit; the interior is dominated by the largest surviving doom painting, although it also boasts a wooden Tudor memorial panel and a chapel painted with medieval murals and whose ceiling is decorated with wooden angels but which is otherwise filled with Georgian furniture. The nearby Poultry Cross is also surprisingly ornate, with a set of carved angels around the central column. The city museum also proves unexpectedly interesting with exhibits like stuffed Great Bustards, clay pipes decorated with images of the Great Exhibition, snuff boxes in the shape of coffins and funerary monuments dedicated to the memory of the rotten borough of Old Sarum, a Turner painting of Stonehenge, a set of Rex Whistler paintings of Wilton Hall, a giant puppet and hobby horse used for Tailor’s Guild processions, a Roman mosaic, beaker people skeletons and Auroch horns. There’s also a section dedicated to Pitt Rivers, including the usual wunderkammeresque items like a Dugong tooth, obsidian axes, Tibetan saddles and a skull measuring device. I had noticed several streams running through the city, but apparently it originally had several open water channels, like modern Freiburg, that were eventually closed for sanitary reasons. Inevitably, the cathedral is more familiar, but I note a few things like the modern font where water reaches a flat mirror-like surface before pouring off through four rivulets, a Sudanese Madonna and the Long Division sound installation, where fragments of slate with texts engraved are scattered throughout the cloister gardens as hidden speakers intone the words. Long Division begins as the clock chimes the hour and there follows a sequence of sixty hushed exchanges, timed to the divisions of the clock. The whispering phrases gather in intensity second by second, falling silent again at the start of each new minute.

In terms of reading, I had just finished reading Zweig’s Beware of Pity. It’s a book I have ambivalent feelings about; its focus on the idea of the feminine as a form of trap, a lure from masculine virtues, is one that disquiets me. Like Zola’s Nana it sees the decadent forces that sap a state’s fibre as being essentially female and bound in either case to lead to collapse. It’s not difficult to read disability as a proxy for gender, a critique of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where the elements conventionally identified with civilisation become feminine snares opposed to martial world of the regiment; "it’s precisely on men like Kekesfalva, who have in the past been so energetic and ruthless that giving way to their feelings has such a grave effect." Nonetheless, the book is more subtle that this. If pity is often seen as a feminine virtue, Zweig draws a distinction between its soft, sentimental aspects and the harder aspects of self-sacrifice. The distinction means that the narrator is at once victim and criminal, hard and weak. Such distinctions are also essential to Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, where the opening sections are witness to a diatribe on the progressive decline of Western civilisation that goes a long way to explaining Eliot’s interest in the novel. The depiction of Felix’s Jewish roots in particular, shares Simone Weill’s preoccupation with deracinement, the alienation of modernity. The Nightwood is essentially a state of moral reflexivity. Nonetheless, the depiction of the inverts that epitomise this condition is more dualistic than this would suggest; "What is this love we have for the invert… the girl lost, what is she but the Prince found?.. when a long lie comes up it is a beauty."

Italian Hours by Henry James offers a perspective on Italy that is quite familiar from Ruskin, one dwelling on the same history and architecture that the Futurists were later to demand the destruction of. James occasionally describes himself as a flaneur, a term Baudelaire had conceived of for an industrial city like Paris or London, but in many ways, James defines his observations against the present; "Venetian life, in the large old sense, has come to an end and the essential present character of the most melancholy of cities resides in its being the most beautiful of tombs… no young Sienese eye ever rests upon anything youthful… everything has passed its meridian." James writes that "the greater part of the life about you goes on in the streets" but in practice he tends not to dwell on streetlife as a subject; indeed, it is significant mostly by its absence. The only obvious exception is the documenting of a riot in Rome. There are other respects in which the Jamesian perspective is an odd one. Most obviously, although James gives up much of his descriptions to the subject of ecclesiastical architecture he doesn’t have any great feeling for religion itself, as with the following description of a young priest; "though I wasn’t enamoured of the carnival myself, his seemed a grim preference and his foreswearing of the world a terrible game." James repeatedly notes that Catholicism is a diminished force in Italy; "where you go in Italy you receive such intimations as this of the shrunked proportions of Catholicism and every church I have glanced it… has given me an almost pitying sense." James effectively sees the churches less as a part of any living religious life but as a set of melancholy deserted temples; ruins before the fact. When James does go out on the streets the results are often similar, as he laments the demise of picturesque traditional dress and complains of tourists who are there for exactly the same reasons that he is; "the place has passed so completely in the winter months into the hands of the barbarians… its most ardent life is that of the tourists." Where he does encounter modernity he does not greatly care for it; "of interesting architecture, fruit of the old idleness… Leghorn is singularly destitute."

Chekhov’s short stories offer several variations on themes of rural virtue. Without a title depicts a simple story of the appeals of urban vice opposed to rural asceticism, while The Head Gardener’s Tale satirises the very idea of pastoral virtue andThe Robbers shows the precise converse, a story of the appeal of rural vice against the tedium of bourgeois and urban virtue. Equally, one of the things that leaps out from Ginsberg’s poetry is the internalised homophobia. Like Burroughs, Ginsberg lauds the queer lifestyle as a form of rebellion even as he uses terms like faries and fag.

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