Norman and Saxon

The gothic surroundings of Lichfield’s chapterhouse perhaps make for an odd setting for an exhibition dedicated to the Staffordshire Hoard, but it is one of the few places where the Hoard can be supplemented with other Saxon exhibits from the region, like the Lichfield Angel and the Gospels. The exhibition also contains a number of reconstructions of helmets, swords and seaxes, based on fragments of cheekpiece and sword pyramids. A lot of the exhibits show a very similar style to the pieces I’d previously seen in Stoke on Trent, with garnets set into intricate filigree gold spirals on fragments of crosses, weapons and jewellery. Nonetheless, some seen quite striking, like a stylised seahorse design. Elsewhere in the cathedral, the medieval stained glass is away for restoration, creating a somewhat disconcerting brightness inside the formerly gloomy interior.

After visiting the cathedral, I pass onwards to Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire. It’s a somewhat odd structure, a newer version of the Carolean Sudbury Hall, down to the elaborate wood carvings and plaster work decorating the ceiling, but the interior almost groans under its attempts at splendour. The main hall features a staircase decorated with frescos by Thornhill, the sort of things normally reserved for a much larger structure like Chatsworth or Greenwich Palace. Some of the more unusual features are the ‘Gothick’ corridor, lined with wallpaper replicating tracery designs, the neo-Moorish gazebos and the long gallery being detached from the house and standing apart in the garden. Afterwards, I visit the nearby church, perched high up on a hill. Storm clouds are gathering in the sky by this point and the church takes on a rather sinister aspect, particularly as the churchyard proves to be full of rather ancient and large tombstones and one rather bizarre tomb depicting a railway accident. The church interior was renovated by Street and is accordingly rather dark, with monuments by Chantrey and Roubillac clustered in the shadows.

The following day is taken up with a visit to All Saints at Claverley. The church interior is a mishmash of Gothic and Romanesque, as well as being lined with allegorical frescos of battling knights, consecration marks, lions and dragons as well as Early English carvings of faces being eaten by strange beasts that rather remind me of Kilpeck. The interior also contains a fine alabaster tomb, medieval tiles and a dual set of Norman and Saxon fonts. On my way back, I call in at St Mary in Adderbury, with its extraordinarily well preserved misericords.

A few weeks later, I go to a Temenid dynasty exhibition at the Ashmolean. The gold retrieved from the burial mounds at Aegae proves the most interesting items; oak and myrtle leaf wreathes, an image of Medusa from a cuirass, as well as a silver jug carved with an image of Silenus. Other items include ceramic clay heads and red figure ceramics. There are a couple of newly opened galleries in the Ashmolean; Maoist propaganda posters (suspiciously looking like advertisements for musicals) and Indian paintings.

Tarr by Wyndham Lewis offers a refreshing counterpoint to some of the author’s later works and the didacticism of novels like Lawrence’s Women in Love, instead suggesting a plurality of views that rejects both bourgeois conformism and romantic individualism alike. Instead, Lewis sees the self as a set of masks; "The closest friend of my Dr Jekyll would not recognise my Mr Hyde and vice versa; this rudimentary self I am giving you." Conversely, at the same time, it has an essentialist view of character; "humour may be exactly described as the most feminine attribute of man – and it is the only one of which women show hardly a trace." At other points, these two are opposed; "in the interests of his animalism he was about to betray the artist in him." In Tarr, the two sets of masks represent philosophical opposites, just as the opening declaration of Blast contains the same set of opposed concepts that it both blasts and blesses. For Lewis at this point, dichotomies are never something stable but rather something that tends to collapse in on themselves, hence many of Tarr’s orations seem an attempt to formulate a somewhat convoluted via media between Kreisler and himself; "an attempt to get out of art and back into life again… the sex instinct of the average sensual man had become perverted into a false channel." Much of this can be attributed to the anxiety of influence Lewis seems to have felt towards figures like Stirner, Nietzsche and Marinetti. In the case of the latter, much of Blast‘s stance is derived from Marinetti and the text describes itself as futurist at various points. However, it also condemns Marinetti for his romantic ‘automobilism’ and goes out of its way to praise Da Vinci as a Futurist, taking a diametrically opposed view of the art of the past out of what looks like contrarianism. Picasso and Kandinsky receive far more praise in Blast than Marinetti but it is the latter’s language that it is used to codify the attack on him; not an unusual scenario, as many manifestos of that period aped Marinetti’s tropes whilst articulating Kandinsky’s thoughts. By the same token, in Blast‘s self contained monodrama Enemy of the Stars (in many ways a parallel rendition of Tarr stripped of the novel’s realist veneer but retaining its carnivalesque parody of the Promethean hero), a copy of Stirner is thrown out of the window but the opposition of Hanp’s bourgeois predilections (Tarr) and Arghol’s romantic individualism (Kreisler) again proves far from stable; "He had wished to clean up.. accumulations of self… this man has been masquerading as me… Arghol has preached a certain life, and now insolently set an example of the opposite." To Lewis, romantic individualism is essentially a risible product of the bourgeoisie. Later on, Lewis further knocks down the opposition he has set up "in the old style, two distinct, heroic figures were confronted and one ninepin tried to knock the other ninepin over. We all today… are in each other’s vitals – overlap and intersect and are Siamese."

Reading Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is somewhat odd experience; in his afterword, Pullman notes that he normally supports plurality in interpretation but that in this instance he feels more obliged to offer a context for the novel. Certainly, the title leaves little room for plurality in interpretation but the novel still seems more more ambiguous than the title or afterword might suggest. For example, the novel assigns naturalistic explanations to many of its events but many still retain a certain degree of unexplained supernaturalism; even if the mysterious puppet master is stripped of being angel or demon by the end of the novel, his ability to foresee and manipulate events remains as unexplained as Christ’s miracles at the start of the novel. Equally, the moral dichotomy established between Christ and Jesus gets routinely undermined by some of Christ’s criticisms of the nascent theology; "if it were true that only children could be admitted to the kingdom, what was the value of such adult qualities as responsibility, forethought and wisdom… God surely created the Gentiles too and there are surely good men and women among them." Equally, Christ’s complaint that the stories Jesus tells manipulate the emotions while unfairly introducing extra-legal elements into his replies, has some force to it. When Christ observes that "to him, the kingdom of God is coming very soon and it makes no sense to be cautious and prudent" it reminds me of AC Grayling’s observation that New Testament Christianity was a millenarian cult that made no concessions to practicality in its belief in the apocalypse; in reality, the meek will not inherit the earth and turning the other cheek is not necessarily a sensible thing to do.

I’ve always been inclined to regard Plato as a great historical villain, turning Western culture away from empiricism and towards the transcendental. Reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics goes a long way towards reinforcing that prejudice; lacking any real interest in the mind body problem or the moral dilemmas of later philosophers, Aristotle’s notion of virtue is situational, grounded in social practice; "it is not easy to see how knowing that ideal good will help a weaver or a carpenter in the practice of their own craft… it does not appear that the physician studies even health in the abstract." At times, Aristotle sounds like Rorty in his dismissal of metaphysical preoccupations; "the virtues we acquire by first having practised them, just as we do the arts."

Going to the Proms this year, I’ve listened to Britten, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy, De Falla (which came out rather better than either Debussy or Ravel who perhaps lack the necessary force needed for a venue like the Royal Albert Hall), Tchaikovsky, Verdi (a wonderful performance of the Requiem) and Handel. In the case of Rinaldo, the performance wisely decides to resist a historical Crusaders versus Saracens interpretation that would impart considerably more weight to the libretto than it could reasonably be expected to bear. Nonetheless, their camp St Trinians versus Monty Python and the Holy Grail interpretation goes to the other extreme, seeming to mock a text that gives a female character a remarkable degree of prominence and sway.

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