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).

Bristollian

After visiting Bath and Gloucester and in recent years, Bristol was high on my list of places to visit this year. Unlike Gloucester, Bristol doesn’t come over as a preserved relic of the heritage industry where historic buildings vie with down at heel charity shops, but parts of it nonetheless resemble London (or Birmingham if you’re not feeling generous) rather more than Bath. Cranes and construction abound everywhere, although very few of the modern buildings repay much attention. I arrive at Bristol Temple Meads station, which has to count as one of the most ambitious station designs outside St Pancras, with its gothic revival facade and sweeping shed roof. The first thing I come to is St Mary Redcliffe, which has to count as one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve seen, with the almost Moorish gothic detail and Boschesque corbels on the ocatgonal porch standing out. The vaulting easily equals any cathedral, although the amount of gilding is in excess of any of them. I also rather like the chaotic pendulum design; a pendulum that see-saw depending on random water motion. Other odd details include a whalebone donated by John Cabot and a not especially lifelike sculpture of Queen Elizabeth. I walk over the Avon to the ruined church of St Peter’s, where the walls and tower still stand after the interior and ceiling has been bombed out; the park it stands in is also home to the ruined walls of Bristol’s castle. From here, I walk into the centre, past the baroque Christ Church with St Ewen with its twee clock automatons, Wood’s Corn Exchange with its three handed railway time clock and elephant, lion, penguin and platypi motifs, the Camdenesque St Nicholas market with its iron roof before heading onto Everard’s art nouveau printing works building and the church of Church of St John the Baptist, built into the city walls as a gateway. The church of St Stephen proves to be closed, although the elaborate tower and gothic entrance were probably worth the walk in their own right.

I then take a diversion by walking up Park Street to look at Bristol University’s Wills Memorial Building; this is perhaps the point where Bristol most resembles Bath, with rows of Bath Stone houses lining the hill like crenellations. Walking back to the Cathedral Green, I have a look at the statues of Queen Victoria and Rajah Rammohun Roy (firmly standing away from one another) and of John Cabot before the Council House (along with plaques to various twinned cities built into the pavement). The modern council house is actually well worthy of note in its own right, as is Holden’s nearby design for Bristol Library, with its bizarre green tile and marble entrance hall creating the somewhat odd impression of it being underwater. Nearby, is the old Abbey gateway with its romanesque arches and the cathedral itself; a somewhat squate structure that compares rather unfavourably to St Mary Redcliffe. At first glance on the interior, the same unfavourable comparison could be made, until you look at the intricate aisle vaults, the Norman chapter house, stellated tomb monuments or the ornate Lady Chapel. I walk back into the centre to look around Wesley’s New Room Chapel, a predictably sparse building offset rather by a a rather pleasant octagonal lantern design. Finally,I walk back to the station, past the bombed out ruins of the Temple Church.