Fimbulwinter

The rains of last year have given way to a protracted winter that has seen snowdrops and crocuses buried in snow. By Easter, the worst of the snows had receded but it was still bitingly cold and the air still saw flurries of snow suspended and thrown by the wind between fitful bursts of sunlight. On the way up to the Midlands, I call in at St Mary’s church in Iffley to see the new stained glass window by Roger Wagner. I’d seen Wagner’s painting of Didcot power station recast as a Menorah during Oxford artweeks a few years ago and the new window is in keeping with that style, with the crucifixion cross recast as a flowering tree of life. The cobalt blue glass forms a logical companion to Piper’s nativity window opposite.

Arriving back in the Midlands, I have a look at Tutbury church, another Romanesque building characterised by its beakhead carvings. The church and nearby castle are set high up on a hillside and the snow is still thick on the ground, although the donkeys at the castle don’t seem too concerned. The church interior is rather stark, with thick Norman columns remaining although a Victorian apse with a pointed arch has been introduced. I also look at the nearby church at Hanbury, which combines extensive Victorian stained glass and Minton tiling with a set of Puritan monuments, and the church at Barton Under Needwood with its octagonal apse and Flemish stained glass. The following day, I travel down to Croome Park. Here Capability Brown had turned marshland into a recreation of a river with a parkland dotted with follies, beginning with a gothic revival church. Mistletoe hangs on the still bare tree bows. Rather oddly, the interior of the church was designed by Adam, creating an effect reminiscent of some of Wren’s gothic churches. Although the Bath stone exterior rather resembles an Oxford chapel, on the inside everything is in white and grey,including the collection of family tomb monuments. I walk down through some of the park’s follies, including a rotunda and an orangery to the house. The parkland is being replanted with an arboretum to recall a collection that was once as large as Kew; sunlight plays on the Bath stone of the follies while the Malvern hills in the distance remain covered with snow. As with the chapel, the house’s Bath stone exterior gives way to an Adam interior, including a Georgian long gallery with surviving ceiling, wall frescos and marble fireplace caryatids. On the way back, I stop at Pershore and visit the Abbey. The surviving building seems oddly mutilated with the scar of the destruction of its transepts during the restoration still evident in the patchwork brickwork and the buttresses added later to support the tower. The interior reminds me of Tewkesbury, gothic rather than romanesque but still dark and with little light filtering through to the interior. Save for a crusader tomb and some painted Tudor monuments the interior is rather stark, although the Victorian crossing design is rather striking.

The following day, I visit Burford in Shropshire. The church interior was renovated by Aston Webb and comes with stained glass on knights of the round table and elaborate wooden ceiling angels. More striking is a medieval monument made of painted wood, a heart monument, a painted stone and a diptych that contains Tudor paintings of the local family. The exterior of the church is lined with small gargoyles that were added in Webb’s design. Following this, I visit Shobdon in Herefrodshire. It’s rather difficult to characterise the interior design here; it’s not Baroque in the way Great Witley is and it isn’t gothic revival in the way Strawberry Hill is; it’s perhaps best described as a form of ‘Rococo Gothick.’ Up the nearby hill are the surviving elements of the original Romanesque church, arranged into an incongruously gothic revival folly.

I then spend a day in Coventry. I hadn’t been inside the guildhall on my last visit, so I was interested in a great hall filled with medieval tapestries, Arts and Crafts tapestries from Morris & Company and a mixture of Victorian and medieval stained glass. In nearby Holy Trinity church, I’m amused at a plaque for George Eliot; an odd tribute to an atheist writer. I also have a look in the new cathedral; the gloomy and dark cathedral recalls that of Romanesque churches but the amount of stained glass and latticed ceiling imply an exercise in modernist gothic. The jagged geometricism of the architecture combined with the amount of cavernous space that would normally be filled with pillars and screens do rather little to endear the place. Lastly, I have a look around the Herbert Art Gallery; the twentieth century collection is the best thing here, with two works by Lowry (one of Ebbw Vale the other of a dark church), a Mondrianesque painting by Nicholson and an op-art piece by Philip Wetton. The nineteenth century is only notable for an early Rembrandtesque work by Holman Hunt.

Lastly, I call in at Compon Verney on the way back down south. Glasgow art gallery has lent it a collection of Italian paintings, which amount to a somewhat shallow survey of Italian art from Botticelli and Bellini to Titian and Bordone and thence to Rosa and Dolci before finishing with Anesi and Guardi. It also includes some historical paintings by Camuccini that rather remind me of David’s work from the same period. The Guardi and Anesi paintings form an interesting counterpoint to Neapolitan section of the permanent collection with Canalettoesque scenes of Naples from the likes of Wittel as well as paintings of Vesuvius by Volaire. I think I’d missed the fol art section on my last visit, with its odd mixture of William and Mary teapots, Punch and Judy jugs, Ship’s figureheads Swan shaped pub signs and naive paintings of boxing matches and provincial towns. The papier mache ‘Mexican creature’ from the Marx Lambert collection is particularly striking.

<Back down south, I visit The Vyne to see the Roman ring unearthed at Silchester and linked to a curse tablet. The stream nearby is full; I can’t see the carp that used to lurk at the bottom of the lake. The summerhouse is open for the first time, with a latticed wood ceiling.

Reading James Fenton’s translation of The Orphan of Zhao, I was struck by the extent to which it resembled Elizabethan plays; a tyrant deposed as in Macbeth, a son avenges his father as in Hamlet. But Hamlet is only concerned with revenge as a device and is preeminently concerned with the malaise in its protagonist’s psyche; in The Orphan of Zhao the claims of filial and societal obligation are paramount, leading Cheng Bo to kill his adopted father as soon as he learns of his real identity. The Greek idea of tragedy as being attributable to hubris is remote here. The point it most resembles Hamlet is in the narrative concerning Cheng Ying who allows the death of his own son so that his social obligations can be fulfilled (saving the orphan’s life) but later having to pay for that crime against his own blood.

One of my reservations about a lot of Beat literature is that it tends, in common with a lot of Romantic literature, towards a monologic emphasis on its own mythology. Go by John Clelon Holmes is in many respects a rather conventional realist novel, dwelling on subjects like work and marriage that did not typically feature in the Beat canon. The protagonist is distanced from the “quot;emotional outcasts" that represent the key figures of the Beat movement by being more entrenched in a middle class lifestyle; "that;s essentially the whole genteel pathos of liberalism.. ideas being more important than men… someone who hates the charity of the heart" The novel critiques Hobbes for this but also the Beats themselves (&amoral giggling nihilists") and their attitudes towards women in particular, where girlfriends are shown as being more capable as when Kathryn sneers that Dinah has held down a job while Hart couldn’t – she herself supports Hobbes while he writes in an inversion of the usual gender roles; "she’s really stronger than any of them." It also suggests that the Beat mythology had already become self-perpetuating; "what is all Prometheans are condemned to end in chains… his act is getting tedious and not drawing in the crowds like it used to…he creates biographers wholesale."

BS Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry uses postmodernism as a device to deconstruct the novel. The text is in many ways a very English comedy, not unlike an Alan Ayckbourn play but uses postmodernist techniques to prise this apart, with characters repeatedly alluding to being aware that they are characters in a novel. The narrator decodes reality into a simplistic moral schema, in much the same way as novels do. Where another novel would seek to explicate these events psychologically, Johnson refuses to allow that to happen, saying that plenty of other people had similar backgrounds to Malry; "all is chaos and unexplainable. These things happened. He is as he is and you are as you are… it is just so much wasted effort to explain anything truly." The novel ends rather than concludes, refusing to grant any hermeneutic gratification by suggesting any meaning to the events it has depicted. It’s rather difficult not to see this as a counsel of despair; if the novel cannot be used for the same sort of purposes that Lawrence or Hardy used it for then it has no greater claim, as it admits, than cinema.

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