My first chance to go anywhere this year was a rather dark and cold trip to West Wycombe church. The mock-Palmyran interior seems rather forlorn in the dim light of an English winter. I’d forgotten about the snake curling its way around the stand on the wooden font towards the doves at the top or the Flemish glass in one window. Outside, red kites turn somersaults in the air. The English winter seems to befit Waverley Abbey rather better; the ruins stand by a river accompanied by a range of pillboxes and dragon’s teeth from the second world war.
A few weeks ago I’d visited Oxford. Walking around North Oxford past rows of gothic castles contorted into modest little buildings, I realised how much the Victorians must have changed the face of the city. This seems particularly so when I walk into Worcester College’s chapel. Not one of Oxford’s more famed buildings, as presumably the exuberant interior design by Burges is rather too florid for many tastes; for example, the pews all have carved animals ranging from the customary lions and unicorns to rhinos, dodos and sperm whales. I decide to look at some more of the buildings Burges designed and Cardiff Castle seems the obvious place to start. Accordingly, the following weekend I find myself stepping through the doors of Cardiff’s art deco central train station. The city seems unusual for the sheer number of arcades that form warrens between its streets, some curving sinuously around other buildings. I look at the animal wall before entering the castle; lions, seals, pelicans, lynxes, bears and vultures are all depicting scaling the walls. Similarly, the interior shows monkeys reading, pigs playing the bagpipes and a strange stork whose tail ends in a serpent’s head playing the trumpet. It would be easy to read much of this as a satirical catholic comment on Darwinism but the effect equally seems to veer somewhere between Carollean surrealism and paganism. The castle itself rather reminds me of Neuschwanstein or the Leighton House, all hyperreal fantasies designed to facilitate escape from the modern age. Just as arts & crafts houses were built with the comforts of gas lighting, so the reconstructed Roman walls had corridors built into them to allow walking in poor weather. I walk onwards through Bute Park towards LLandaff and the cathedral. Daffodils, Cherries, Tulips and Hyacinths are all in flower. Looking out from what looks like a pleasant village green, complete with war memorial, the cathedral is below beneath the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. Unlike Winchester, Salisbury or Lichfield it sits within a hollow, which gives it the air of a parish church. In practice, the building is rather large and has a rich variety of styles; romanesque arches above the doorways, gothic arches, Pre-Raphaelite reredos and stained glass, more stained glass by Piper and a modernist sculpture by Epstein that hangs on a concrete arch above the nave.
Backtracking towards Cathays Park, I have a look at the art gallery. The atrium has some rather odd sculptures; a crusading knight flanked by Tommies from the first world war as well as an odd triptych derived from Bachelard. Not the best collection but not without interest; a Salvator Rosa landscape, Panini landscapes and a pair of Hogarths. Some attention is given to a pair of Welsh painters I wasn’t familiar; Thomas Jones (I particularly like his romantic The Last Bard) and Richard Wilson’s landscapes of Wales and Italy. Scenes of travellers beset by bandits undermine the picturesque aspect of the landscape. The Victorian section proves to be quite good, with painting by Madox-Brown, Millais, Tissot and quite a few John Brett landscapes. A Welsh landscapes gallery has a few especially impressive paintings by Piper, Kyffin Williams, Lowry and Lionel Walden’s Steel Works, Cardiff at Night. Finally, there’s a small impressionist exhibition; the usual Monet lilies as well as some of his Venice paintings, Cezanne and Manet still lives and some Rodin sculptures. Leaving, I walk back towards the Bay. The street I walk along is lined with boarded-up houses, betraying a rather familiar story. By contrast, the Bay itself is a glittering illustration of the Bilbao effect, with the steel fountain tower and the Millennium Centre. I find myself rather liking the centre; the revival of the Roman tradition of inscriptions on public buildings in combination with the use of traditional Welsh materials like Slate make it a rather ‘readerly’ building. Regrettably, there isn’t time for a ride on the merry-go-round by the Pierhead building and I have to turn back to the train station.
I’ve finished reading Gaskell’s Ruth. As a novel this begins in a similar vein to Eliot; "the traditions of these bygone times, enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances whcih contributed to the formation of character." Nonetheless, Ruth like Silas Marner or The Scarlet Letter is a particularly good example of the tension between the novel and the romance. As a novel, it operates within the constraints of a specific place and time, as well as of causality; Ruth and Benson’s deceptions are inevitably found out and duly castigated. As a romance, it plays out a fantasy of moral redemption that is dependent on those deceptions ("our telling a lie has been the saving of her"). By the same token, much of that redemption is attributable to empathy and natural feeling ("I do believe Leonard’s father is a bad man and yet I live him… it was one of the faults of her nature to be ready to… value affection almost above its price"); but it is surely the simple absence of a sense of duty in Bellingham that leads to Ruth’s downfall as much as an absence of empathy. The result is that the novel does have a rather polyphonic conception of morality; "she has turned wrong into right and right into wrong… the sophistry by which I persuaded myself that wrong could be right."
By contrast, Moore’s Esther Waters depicts the same subject in a naturalistic manner without reference to the romance or to fables; while Esther struggles in life there is no tragic demise or moral redemption ahead for her. Nonetheless, some of his ambivalence towards his subject isn’t dissimilar from Gaskell’s; both Esther and Ruth’s innocence is responsible for their respective downfalls. Moore’s attitude towards religion initially seems much more critical than Gaskell’s "it’s a strange thing that religion should make some people so unfeeling… religion is easy enough at times , but there is other times when it don’t seem to fit in witha body’s duty… I haven’t forgotten God but must do my duty to my husband" an attitude later re-iterated towards Fred and the Salvation Army’s prosecution of the betting at the pub, with William viewing them as puritans. Nonetheless, if Esther is given no deathbed conversion, William does undergo one, coming to accept that the betting that had supported his family had been wrong, even as Esther’s disapproval becomes rather blunted in its severity; "she had always disapproved of the betting… there was a great deal in life which one couldn’t approve of.. there were worse places than the King’s Head."
Food cooked: Black miso chicken, Fabada, Jerk chicken with spicy potato salad, Bakewell tart, Tanzanian Fish Curry, Goulash with Czech Dumplings, Romanian lemon cake, Roe and bacon spaghetti, Greek fish with orange and pine nuts, Pork with Prague-style stuffing, Catalan Duck with Pears, Salmon and Feta Spaghetti, Pan fried Roman lamb, Chicken Donburi, Tarragona seafood stew, Lone Star Steak, Burgers with blue cheese and gherkins, Cholent, Damson Gin, Glögg, Swedish potato salad, Duck with Ponzu dressing, Czech rabbit with cream sauce, Ostend fish gratin, Fish stew and sour cream mash, Lamb shanks with beans, Han hock with honey and mustard, Waterzooi de volaille a’la gantoise.