Abroad Again

Peterborough initially rather resembles Stevenage in presenting a rather drab and dilapidated face to the world. It’s only when one comes to the Cathedral Square that it becomes a little more interesting. The church of St John the Baptist is a medieval structure, substantially restored by the the Victorians, with painted ceiling bosses, an elaborate rood screen and stained glass by Kempe. Outside again and a brassband are playing beneath the arches of the town hall in the square as I walk over to the Cathedral close. The cathedral is a striking mixture of the Romanesque and Perpendicular, with an elaborate gothic facade, medieval wood panelling on the ceiling and Norman arches in the transepts, as well as Pearson’s 19th century high altar and cosmatic mosaic. The most striking details are gothic vaulting at the East End and the Crossing ceiling.

A few weeks later and I find myself on a train returning to Bristol. I walk along the harbour, past the looming rows of Stothert and Pitt cranes to the SS Great Britain. It’s something of a gimmick but the dry dock has been covered with a layer of glass, above which water streams. From above, it looks as if the ship is afloat while from below it gives the impression of being underwater as beams of sunlight are refracted by the water. Walking round the corroded hull of the ship on the dry dock floor accordingly makes for a somewhat odd experience. On the ship’s deck there’s a good view of the prettily painted houses perched on the hill over the harbour; below deck the ship’s engines are working. I then cross the Avon and walk up to the suspension bridge at Clifton and the observatory at Clifton camp before crossing Clifton Down and past Christ Church to the cathedral. Clifton cathedral is an odd building; a stark cavernous space that resembles an opera house more than a conventional church design. The most striking part is the stained glass, made up of various fragments of glass rather than fitted panes. I walk back down into central Bristol via the Cabot tower, before noticing that the Lord Mayor’s Chapel is open, which proves to have an extraordinary collection of monuments, stained glass and a beautiful chantry chapel with medieval stained glass and tiling. I then travel onwards to Arnos Vale cemetery, particularly looking at the graves of Raja Rammohun Roy and the Challnger family.

Back in Oxford, I spend sometime at the Botanical Garden, where I notice that the garden how features Cannabis, Mandrake and pots for forcing Rhubarb

The Museum of Innocence is in many ways the most realist novel from Orhan Pamuk, featuring a plot that in many ways recalls various nineteenth century novels. Nonetheless, as we are warned when Pamuk refers to "the visitor stubbornly wed to realism" where identity is typically something fixed and immutable in novels of that kind, in Pamuk the novel always remains conscious of how identity is constructed, most obviously by comparison of the Turkish identity to the Western other ("I wouldn’t follow those dastardly casanovas in European novels") but also through media like films, which feature prominently here (along with mirrors and the various ghosts of Fusun that Kemal sees); "I saw hiw much Fusun’s indignant glances and the rest of her pantime geatures over to the expressions of Turkish films… over time the persona I assumed in her presence came to supplant my true self". In so far as Pamuk has created a real museum of innocence this always represents his most deliberate attempt to externalise the complexities of identity into physical objects; "I was discovering the astonishing powers of consolation that objects hold.. museums are the repositories of those things from which Western civilisation derives its knowledge… my Father’s death had turned these familiar props of childhood into objects of immeasurable value, each one the vessel of a long past." The novel emerges as an attempt to found a similar Turkish repository of the quotidian ("what Turks should be viewing in their own museums are not bad imitations of Western art but their own lives"). For example, the last days of Yali and Kemal’s engagement are spent "the vestigial presence of a vanished Ottoman culture could furnish what we had lost as old lovers." As often in Pamuk’s novels, there is also the sense of a noumenal beyond the phenomenal, as with the repeated references to time as a concept beyond the linear; "this realm’s defining property was its timelessness… this is the timeless world… beyond this timeless space was the official world outside." The world equally emerges as something that is the product of the individual mind; "the world troubled me, it was a puzzle whose pieces were all out of place. The moment I saw her they all fit back together."

At the start of Red Plenty Francis Spufford suggests that "this is not a novel. It has too much to explain to be one of those. It is not a history either, for it does its explaining in the form of a story, only the story is the story of an idea… best to call it a fairytale then." Of course, as Spufford also notes, in fairytales the narrative does play out an idea of wish fulfilment while the narrative here plays out a tragic path that does look a lot more like a novel; fairytales are not generally in the habit of questioning their own premises in the way Red Plenty questions the viability of central planning (although it does leave open the question of whether central planning could ever have worked, being written at a time when Western neoliberal dreams of plenty have been found equally wanting). Of course, the majority of Russian twentieth century novels focus on the political aspects of Soviet communism (the gulags or the show trials, as in Grossman or Silzhenitysn), Red Plenty focuses instead on the economic aspects, these after all being what ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. The focus on the economic is much more typical of English novels than Russian but even here some differences remain. A novelist like Dickens or Eliot will create a large canvas with a correspondingly large amount of characters, who initially seem unconnected but are drawn together by the course of the narrative, demonstrating the interconnected nature of everyone in society. The fate of the principal characters serves as an exemplar of the fate of society at large. Conversely, while characters in Red Plenty do represent certain concepts, it is the story of an idea in its own right, and is not illustrated through the story of any central protagonist. Nor, as one character muses, does it attempt to demonstrate the interrelated nature of its characters; "He was thinking to himself that an economy told a kind of story, though not the sort you would find in a novel. In this story, many of the major characters would never even meet, yet they would act on each other’s lives just as surely as if they jostled for space inside a single house, through the long chains by which value moved about." In many respects, Red Plenty could perhaps be best regarded as a new form of novel (a contradiction in terms, I know) which retains the aspects of the novel (economic and social history) that cannot be easily dramatised and ignores the rest (the characters as individuals rather than as emblems of certain concepts).