The South Will Rise Again

Travelling up to Staffordshire, I stop first at Dorchester and Chiselhampton. In the latter, I visit St Birinus, with a wonderful painted ceiling and rood screen as well as the Abbey. I also detour to Warwick in order to see St Mary’s church. I’d been here before but on a rather rushed trip, so it’s nice to be able to take time to look at the details; the bears and griffins that serve as the tomb statue footrests in the Beauchamp chapel, the doom painting or the gold weepers.

Arriving up north, the following day is taken up with visiting Birmingham. Once more, it occurs to me that this must once have been one of the most astonishing places on earth, to the nineteenth century as New York was to the present and Shanghai will be to this. The redbrick Venetian arches and Minton tiles on ordinary shops and houses are far more elaborate than anything in nineteenth century London. Inevitably, the modern reality is rather more prosaic with the inevitable rash of closed shops on the high streets, although the presence of various skyscrapers does remind me rather more of London than any other provincial city I’ve visited. There are quite a few things that I’ve not seen before; the interior of the former Midlands Bank (now a bookshop) is wonderful with its blue skylight and elaborate staircases. The Georgian buildings in St Paul’s Square afford a view of a Birmingham I was largely unfamiliar with, save for St Philip’s cathedral. The church of Saint Paul at the centre of the square has a marvellous painted window, one of the few I’ve seen (Kidlington, Shrewsbury and Witley Court being the other places). A walk through the Jewellery Quarter leads to the blue brick entrance to the Warstone Lane cemetery. The tombs are neatly maintained and the grass cut, in contrast to the wild and overgrown cemeteries in London, although the extent of vandalism seems severe. I notice several tombs that seem to be mass burials, while the blackening of the stones from pollution is also decidedly different to London. The same applies to the catacombs cut from the rock across the hilly territory. I walk onward to the adjoining Keyhill cemetery, where the tombs are more elaborate. While hardly as elaborate as London, the tombs are still very ornate here with the usual gothic spires and Roman urns accompanied by images of held hands and lilies. I finish at the church of St Martins, revisiting its alabaster tombs and William Morris stained glass. For the modern period, Paul Maxfield’s bizarre trompe l’oeil murals in the Piccadilly Arcade are an odd addition to the city.

The final day in the Midlands is taken up with a walk in the Memorial Arboretum. The tree planting has come along quite markedly, with Celery Trees, Pecan tress and Japanese Cherry tree among the new applies. The Crab apples are fruiting. There are several new memorials; a Polish memorial and a RAF memorial in particular. I’m bemused to find a horse from a funfair carousel in the middle of the arboretum wood. Covered in butterflies and cobwebs, it’s like a scene from Narnia. The more prosaic truth is that it’s a memorial from the Guild of Showmen.

William Cobbett is often compared to Orwell and the controversies as to whether the latter counts as left or wing also apply to Cobbett. On the one hand, much of Rural Rides is concerned with rural poverty, rotten boroughs and unjustly authoritarian legislation. On the other, Cobbett’s vision is one founded on a romantic conception of man’s relation to the land and from that stems a quasi-feudalistic idea of politics. He values manual labour and has an atavistic aversion to anything outside that, hence repeated tirades against ‘Jews and stock jobbers’ (and oddly against Quakers) as well as his insistence that the population is declining when that was only true of the rural population. He disdains services and praises the King of Spain for banning them. He seems unconcerned with many vital causes of the time, stating that slaves had better conditions than English labourers. While having decried Pitt’s war against the ‘French people’s liberties’ he calls for war against the Bourbons. In some ways, he has as much in common with the far right as with the left. Nonetheless, from Cobbett, comes the stream of politics associated with Ebeneezer Howard, Pugin (Cobbett seems to dislike Dissenters and repeatedly praises Catholics) and William Morris, but Owen is a rather more representative figure of modern leftwing thought.

Reading The Jewish War by Josephus offers a counterpoint to two sets of more familiar narratives. Firstly that of the Bible; where Josephus mentions aspects of the Old Testament such as the city of Sodom, Christianity is not deemed worthy of discussion. Secondly, that of Roman history with one of the few examples of colonial subjects writing back. As both a General who had resisted the Romans and a collaborator, Josephus has a decidedly ambivalent perspective on events. On the one hand, he denounces Jews who had leagued themselves with the Syrians against their fellow Jews, just as Josephus had done ("small wonder we have found foreigners treacherous when we have utterly betrayed our own nation"). He also records the mass suicide of one group of Jewish rebels rather than live as slaves. On the other, religious fatalism is used to suggest submission; "God.. is ranged on the Roman side, for without his help so vast an empire could never have been built up." Arguments in favour of Roman rule build on their respect for the Jewish temple, only for the text to repeatedly record acts of desecration. In part, Josephus seems to admire the Romans, repeatedly contrasting Roman discipline (give or take the occasional coup d’etat) with Jewish civil war and disunity ("wasn’t it civil strife amongst our ancestors… put beneath the Roman heel those who did not deserve to be free"); Jewish military training is modelled on the Romans.