Saturday, 29 December 2012

Reconstructing Salzburg

Salzburg is Mozartkugeln. Marzipan; a bit too sweet. Salzburg is Mozart. That's all you hear about.

In fact, Mozart may have been born here, but he didn't spend all that much time here - travelling about Europe as an infant prodigy, and getting out of Salzburg as soon as he could to make his fortune in Vienna. (A good plan, slightly spoiled in the execution, though according to some scholars he wasn't as poor as has been made out in the hagiographies.)

If we look at Salzburg through Mozartian glasses we will miss the most interesting historical moment - the moment when Salzburg changed decisively from a medieval cathedral city to a modern urban landscape. And if we get stuck into Mozart's Salzburg we'll also miss another composer worth listening to, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

There's something revolutionary about Biber's music. His use of scordatura for instance, in which he uses different violin tunings to achieve particular effects (something guitarists are more used to, these days); he makes the violin a fully polyphonal instrument, creating huge landscapes of counterpoint out of just a few touched-in notes. He uses programmatic devices, such as the Battaglia, a depiction of military action in music, in which he introduced polytonality four centuries before Bartok and Stravinsky got hold of the idea, or uses birdsong as a base for a melody. He was fascinated by the attempt to create great metaphysical structures for his music; in the Mystery Sonatas, he portrays the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, starting in normal tuning and then moving through different scordature till he returns, in the final great Passacaglia, to normal tuning. He struck out on his own path, and it's a fascinating journey. (Listen to Andrew Manze playing the Passacaglia and you'll find it's a mystic mandala, slowly spiralling round until it has you completely hypnotised.)

Biber was born and spent the earliest part of his career in Bohemia; but he knew a good thing when he saw it, and having come to Salzburg on business, decided to stay on. That was in 1670; Biber spent the remaining 34 years of his life working for the Archbishop.

Salzburg then was way ahead of other cities in its development. That started with Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau, Archbishop from 1587 to 1617, who commissioned a new baroque design for the cathedral and built the Mirabell palace, and started laying out the city with fine public squares and fountains - a development that continued under the next two archbishops, over the next half century. When Biber arrived in Salzburg the city had been transformed; it was the first fully baroque city north of the Alps, and he gave it the music it deserved.

Trying to see Salzburg through Biber's eyes is instructive. While Mozart saw a city under the autocratic, archaic rule of Archbishop Colloredo - and saw it from the perspective of a young man who had been feted in London, Paris, Munich and Vienna - Biber had spent his time in Kromeriz, a fine little town dominated by its Archbishop's Palace, but nothing like Salzburg. (It didn't even have a cathedral; the palace was only the summer palace for the Archbishop of Olomouc.) Biber would have seen Fischer von Erlach's Trinity Church with its dynamic curved facade being built - it was finished in 1702, two years before Biber's death; he would have seen the new Cajetaner church going up; he saw Fischer's Collegienkirche in the building, too, though he didn't live to see it finished. Baroque Salzburg was still a work in progress for Biber; for Mozart, it was a bit of the past.

When we travel, we reinvent cities, or reconstruct them. The Indian restaurants and sari shops of Whitechapel disappear when we explore Jack the Ripper's London; when we look at Shakespeare's London we don't see the Shard, or the Hop Exchange and the nineteenth-century industrial heritage of Southwark. Mozart's and Biber's Salzburgs are other constructs; but the difference is that in the case of Mozart, Salzburg has made an industry out of that reconstruction, while in the case of Biber, I had to do the work myself.

Sometimes the DIY reconstruction is the best; using the eyes of the imagination and a guidebook, or Wikipedia, to reconstruct the city of a certain time. (I worked with my father to do this on the Podtours Norwich 1450 guide - and that was fun, including the discovery of a medieval political chant and some major aldermanic skulduggery.) You are an archaeologist of the imagination. Defoe's London, or Blake's, would be interesting; or Mozart's Prague - if you must do Mozart...

You may be wondering what set off this post. Quite simple; on my last visit to Salzburg, noticing a plaque on a wall near the Franciscan church, commemorating Biber. And then having to put up with Eine Kleine Bloody Nachtmusik, for the hundred and eighty-ninth time, belching out of the loudspeakers at lunch.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Travel expands to fill the time available

Bucket lists are the in thing. Ten places to see before you die. A hundred places... Or a thousand places to see before you die, a book that has become terribly popular.

It's a neat idea; that there's a finite list. That you can do them all. Tick, tick, tick. Done.

So I'm making the final preparations for my second trip to India. Last time I saw the south, and Rajasthan, and a little (far too little) of Gujarat. This time for the north, and the great central plains, and the Himalayas. I have six months this time - three last time - and even so, I'm wondering how I will cram it all in.

India lends itself to lists. The Taj Mahal. Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, the 'golden triangle'. The lovely thing about listing India is that it's quite authentic; you can't be in the country long before you realise that it's a country whose geography has been seen in numbers and lists for centuries, even millennia; the twelve jyotirlingas, the four great Char Dham shrines that mark the extremes of the country, the Seven Sacred Rivers.

So you might think it's a question of marking up the Rough Guide, and then ticking the boxes.

But it doesn't quite work like that. Once you get interested in an area, you find more and more things added to the list. For instance, take Kedarnath, the northern sanctuary. I'm going to try to get there round about the time the shrine opens, which is currently estimated as 28th April; it's closed during the snows of winter. Now, getting to Kedarnath you'd think would be enough. But then I read that hardier pilgrims go on from Kedarnath to perform the Five Kedars pilgrimage - visiting Tunganāth, Rudranāth, Kalpeshvar, and Madhyameshvar - reflecting the fivefold nature of Shiva. Five more shrines. How could I not be drawn to them?

And so though you start with a single place, you end up with far too much on the list.

I could end up with an infinity of places to visit. I vow: "I'll go back" - back to visit the Tamil temples I missed last time (including Gangaikondacholapuram of the glorious name), to visit the Keralan hills, the Orissan marshes...But I've said I will not go back, not this time. Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new...

Even in Rome and Venice, cities I've been revisiting for twenty years or more, there are places I haven't yet been, small churches and tucked away corners that are on my list, that most first-time travellers wouldn't even know existed. Come to that, every year I look at the Heritage Weekend open days for Norwich and realise there are still surprises for me in my own city.

So travel somehow has a way of expanding to fill the time available, if you let it. What seems to be a relatively tractable list of sights to see branches out, becoming more detailed, like a river flowing to the sea through a delta of more and more choices, till at last, you have an infinity of possible places to go, and you're up against the constraints of mortality. Too many places... too little life.

I can't believe Alexander sat and wept that there were no more worlds to conquer. What a limited mind he must have had.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Weird English

Famously, the Académie Française is said to have banned the term 'weekend' from the French language. (I can't actually find chapter and verse on this anywhere, just a lot of people saying that weekend is banned. Actually, the truth appears to be more complex; the AF wanted it spelt week-end, not weekend, and has recently come round to relaxing that rule. At least according to some reports. However, I've not found definitive chapter and verse on that, either. Quebec French, with or without the Academie Francaise, doesn't use the word weekend anyway - it's la fin de semaine.)

Anyway... what gets me going is not the use of English words in French. It's the way the French make up words out of English, but which aren't actually in the English language.

For instance, le relooking. J'ai fait le relooking de ma maison - I gave my house a makeover. Yes, I know that you can get 'the look', and I know that the prefix re- means 'again', but I'm sorry, relooking is not English. It's not French either.

Or then there's the 'best of' (sometimes 'bestoff'). In L'express recently I found that chocolatier Pierre Marcolini "boyage une cinquantaine de jours par an pour éditer des tablettes 'signées', fruits de rencontres à haute émotion avec des irréductibles de la qualité qui lui ont cédé au prix fort leur best of." Now in English, the word 'of' generally needs a noun after it; but 'best of' has become a noun in French. It doesn't have to be the best OF anything.

I've just discovered another great one; when you make a documentary about the making of a film, it's called "le making-of."

As for 'le fooding' - don't get me started!



Fossils

I've a new interest in country walks at the moment. Most of the fields near our French house are coming under the plough; the old colza stubble and the fallow is being ploughed under, before the new crops are planted. The landscape glints with grey flint brought to the surface.

Every so often, a fossil turns up. They're sea urchins; some rounded, some more conical, and a very few (a distinct species, micraster) are charmingly heart-shaped. I'm intrigued by the variety; some are in hard white or cream coloured stone, others seem porous as if made of sandstone; very rarely, I find one black as jet or the shining white of quartz.

I've started collecting them. I've also started noting my finds on a Google map (https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=215861518575701132761.0004cdaf98b8cce5d5d7d&msa=0); it's fascinating how some fields turn up fossils every couple of yards, while others are completely devoid of any fossil interest at all. The valley of our little winterburn for instance has almost no fossils; the fields above the marl pits are full of them.

I took a look at the marl pits the other day; there's a little lane goes past them, hardly unused except by dog-walkers and families going blackberrying. The cliff faces, glaring wet white, stand back from the path, separated from it by underbrush and sparse, thin trees. They're pure white, till about thirty centimetres from the top, where there's a single dark streak of flint. It looks about ten centimetres deep; that, I suppose, is where the fossils lurk. The layer is so thin; above and below it, nothing.

There's something a bit magical about these urchins. When you pick one out of the plough, and it's not chipped or fractured by the ploughshare, but complete, well rounded, it has a wholly satisfactory heft and weight to it as you pick it up. It's a perfect geometrical form; if you're lucky, all five radiating lines of spine sockets will be clear and deep. Sometimes, particularly with the micraster, the marks are so finely etched that you can hardly believe they've survived so many millennia; tiny patterns as delicate as snowflakes.

Micraster is a Late Cretaceous fossil; that's 60 to 100 million years ago.That doesn't mean much to me; I can't put it into context. But today, I found a different fossil; a tiny cockleshell attached to a small chip of flint. And suddenly, those years seemed to telescope - a shell in a field, just like the shells I used to find on holiday at Wells next the Sea; living and dead, ancient and modern, held together in a single moment. Strangely, in that single moment I appreciated for the first time the immense age of these fossils.

By spring I'll be laughing at this sudden enthusiasm of mine for fossil collecting. But it's taught me something; something I'd never have found out without a few days' obsession, walking along the furrows with my head down and my eyes open.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Interesting translations

Sometimes a translation suddenly enlightens. With a flash of light we see the difference between two cultures, two ways of thinking, two habits of life.

For instance, I was recently browsing a number of French recipes to see what I should cook for dinner. Suddenly I realised that all the small dashes of liquid - a splash of milk, a little wine added to a sauce - were described as so many 'cuillères de cafe'. In English, literally, that translated to 'coffee spoons'. But we would actually say teaspoons.

In that difference you find the huge difference between the coffee-drinking French and the tea-drinking English; the café au lait of breakfast time or the thick, small, black coffee, and the mug of builders' tea or the pot of breakfast tea.

There's also a certain abstraction to the French language that just doesn't work in English. I read today of the mothers of Srebrenica; a photo of three women mourning over the coffins of only recently identified dead were described as lamenting 'un etre cher' - literally, a dear being. We could never be that abstract in English without a charge of chilliness or emotional distance being laid against us. (I can't imagine a French novelist being told to 'show not tell'... there's a fearsome abstract and idealising strain behind Perec, Robbe-Grillet, and Christine Brooke-Rose, French in all but language and nationality).


Sunday, 20 May 2012

The pelican in her piety

The pelican in her piety is another of those medieval symbols that needs to be 'read'. I got introduced to it in Norwich Cathedral - there are several good examples there.

The first thing you need to know is that the pelican doesn't always look much like a pelican (except in Victorian medievalising work. The Victorians had good pelicans to copy from, notably those in St James's Park). The pelican quite often looks more like an eagle. In fact, that's logical, since the pelican is pecking her breast to feed her fledglings on her own blood. It would be difficult for a real pelican to do that - but easy for a bird of prey, with a more rapacious, hooked beak.

Secondly, the pelican is usually sitting on her nest, with her chicks around her. You'll see her pecking her breast, and if she's in colour you will see the drops of blood. She is a self-sacrificing parent, ready to hurt herself so that her chicks can live.

That makes her a symbol of Christ atoning for the sins of the world. Her blood is Christ's blood, shed for mankind. In the hymn 'Adoro te devote', Thomas Aquinas calls Christ 'the loving pelican', before asking to be cleansed in his blood. The pelican also crops up in bestiaries, never the most accurate naturalist texts but extremely useful for explaining medieval symbology.  The pelican can also, more generally, represent the virtue of charity.

You may find pelicans on the arms of colleges (both Cambridge and Oxford colleges of Corpus Christi, to which the pelican, as a sign of the Body of Christ, is obviously relevant), and occasionally on pubs. But they're more often to be found in ecclesiastical contexts (of course, the colleges originally were religious institutions); on bench ends at Swavesey church, Cambridgeshire, and Hexham Abbey; on the lectern of Norwich cathedral (without the chicks); on roof bosses (Norwich, again, Widdecombe church, Southwark cathedral).

Think the pelican lectern in Norwich cathedral is actually an eagle? Take a better look, and you can see the blood swelling out of the wound the bird has made with its beak. And there's another little pelican on one spandrel of the west door.

The Victorians loved the pelican - it was one of the symbols that got picked up in the Gothic revival and by the Oxford Movement at the same time - and you will see Victorian pelicans all over the place; on tombstones, for example, and on tiles, and in stained glass, where the subject often neatly fits a roundel.

Other birds and beasts have their meanings too - dogs, for instance, often symbolise fidelity, so female effigies which have a little lapdog under their feet on medieval tombs aren't naturalistic portraits of a lady with a pet dog, but praising her faithfulness.Not all animals have simple meanings - the lion may appear as a symbol of strength and fortitude, but may also appear as a devouring beast; in Italy, the columns of Romanesque church porches are often supported by lions which maul or chew on human bodies, symbols of the carnivorous, bestial appetite which must be resisted and overcome. (Or, of course, a lion might appear in other contexts; with wings, he is the symbol of St Mark, or of Venice; four lions sitting around or under a young man generally show Daniel in the lions' den. It all depends on the context.)

You don't need to know these meanings to be able to see a Gothic cathedral and appreciate its architecture, of course, nor to appreciate the beauty of a page of illuminated manuscript. But to see the cathedral as it was intended, as a sort of encyclopaedia of God's creation, with every created thing in its place, and to see it as a construct of meaning, as well as stone, you need to be able to read it - and that means learning the alphabet of symbols, of which the pelican is just one part.

The Three Living and the Three Dead

Understanding medieval art and architecture is not easy. The terms of reference - the visual shorthand - used by medieval culture are no longer ours. The Reformation made big changes in Protestant countries, but even Catholic iconography has changed. Many of the symbols well known in the Middle Ages have been forgotten. So to interpret what you see in medieval art, sometimes it's necessary to study the symbols before looking at the art.

The Three Living and the Three Dead is a narrative, found in a 15th century English manuscript as 'the three dead kings', but going back to the thirteenth century. Three kings go hunting (hunting is always seen as a sign of worldliness, if not of actual sin). In the depths of the forest, they meet three walking corpses, who turn out to be their ancestors, and advise them to mend their ways and turn to God.

The corpses say: "As you are even so was I, and as I am so shall you be." They warn the kings of their mortality; they are a memento mori write large. (That's something that particularly resonates in 15th century culture, with its concentration on mortality; this is the date at which we find the early cadaver tombs - tombs with an effigy of the living person on top, and a corpse shown below - and at which memorial brasses often show the deceased in his shroud.)

You don't often see this legend represented in sculpture, but it's a common theme of wall paintings. For instance the Camposanto in Pisa includes this story - with one of the living holding his nose at the stench of the rotting corpses - within the Judgement mural. Several Norfolk churches also apparently have instances of this theme, though I haven't seen them - something I should remedy soon!

So whenever you see three corpses, and three living figures, whether the corpses are lying in their coffins or dancing about, it's probably a reference to this legend. It's intended as a reminder of our mortality, but more than that, it's intended to make us think seriously about living a good life. After all, the story implies, you never know when you might meet death.


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Architecture 101

I was brought up church-crawling. I remember visiting churches in Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and then further afield - I did a few crawls with the Church Monuments Society as an undergraduate - and I've now supplemented it with what I suppose you'd have to call temple-crawling and mosque-crawling as my travels have taken me around the world.

When you spend half your childhood learning the difference between Norman, Early English and Perpendicular architecture, it's quite easy to forget that many people don't have that advantage. So for those not gifted with parents or teachers who got them started, here's a very basic primer for Western European architecture, from the early days to today. I've attached the names of just a couple of really excellent examples.

  • Big, dark cave. All over.
  • Big, dark cave with some form of lighting, and paintings. Lascaux,Altamura.
  • Huts. Villanovan / Etruscan funerary urns sometimes modelled on the round hut, quite realistic.
  • Greek classical architecture. Pillars supporting roof allegedly modelled on tree trunks supporting the roof. Pediments (triangular gable). Arcades. Parthenon, temples at Paestum.
  • Romans. Discovery of really good cement - arches, domes. Great engineering - aqueducts, roads, bridges. Use of brick. Pantheon, Rome; aqueducts at Nimes, Merida, Segovia.
  • Early Christian - in both Rome and the East; the basilica (aisled hall, with arcade each side and apses - semicircular niches -at the ends). Mosaic. Churches at Ravenna, Rome.
  • Byzantine - development of style in the Eastern Empire; all based on the dome, development of centralised church plans - 'cross in square'. Churches of Aya Sofya, St Sergius & Bacchus, the Chora, in Istanbul (Constantinople): church of Dafni, Athens; churches of Thessaloniki. (Also in the Balkans - monasteries of Sopocani, Gracanica.)
  • Carolingian. After the Dark Ages, Charlemagne reinvents the Roman Empire and Roman architecture. Aachen, his palace chapel.
  • Romanesque. Round arches, tendency to be massive, thick-walled. Development of the cruciform church with central tower. Barrel vaults (like a tunnel) or wooden roofs. Three storey buildings - arcade, triforium passage, clerestory (highest window level). Use of decorative arcading. Norman castles - first stone built fortresses, around 1100. First stone built private houses since the Romans.Norwich cathedral and castle; churches of Caen, Normandy; great Rhineland cathedrals (Mainz, Speyer, Worms); Cluny, Autun, Vezelay. Churches of Palermo mix Norman and Arabic styles. In Italy, Florence cathedral baptistery; Pisa cathedral, tower and baptistery. In Spain, Santiago cathedral.  Stone houses in Chartres, Lincoln.
  • Gothic - kicks off with Saint-Denis, work of Abbot Suger, about 1130. Pointed arches, ribbed vaults, better engineering means thinner walls and higher buildings. Flying buttresses invented - allow wall to become almost all window, taking weight instead of wall. Great French cathedrals - Chartres, Laon, Bourges, Notre-Dame, Reims, Strasbourg. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris. In England Salisbury Cathedral. In Germany Ulm, Cologne. Not so common in Italy, and late in Spain. Later styles become more local - Perpendicular in England (King's College Chapel), Flamboyant in France, Isabelline and Manueline in Spain and Portugal - and more complicated, delicate, lacelike.
  • Renaissance - return to round arches, taking Roman architecture as a model - regularity, rationalism, mathematical proportions (Leonardo's man-in-circle-in-square). Starts in Italy, mixes with Gothic style as it spreads. Florence - San Lorenzo, Palazzo Ruccellai, Palazzo Medici. France - chateaux of Chambord, Anet; England - Inigo Jones's Queen's House Greenwich, and St Paul's, Covent Garden. Emergence of the idea of town planning - regular squares, circuses, long straight streets.
  • Mannerism - Renaissance basics but with a twist - Michaelangelo's Piazza on the Capitoline; Palazzo Te, Mantua; popular in Netherlands - Antwerp city hall.
  • Baroque - takes the same basics but goes to extremes - really huge (St Peter's) or tiny (Sant'Ivo, Rome). Drama, theatrical. Bernini, Borromini. Baroque cities - Turin, Valetta (Malta), Noto (Sicily). Spreads to German world - Karlskirche (Vienna), Asamkirche (Munich). In England, Hawksmoor (Christ Church, Spitalfields) and Vanbrugh (Blenheim Palace).
  • Palladian / Colonial - reaction against the baroque in England goes back to Renaissance ideals. The Adam brothers - country house style reduced to fit Georgian terraces; style exported to America as colonial. Part and parcel of a late 18c to early 20c trend that I call the
  • 'Neo' styles - neoclassicism/Empire style in France, neo-Gothic or Gothick or Gothic revival in England, Biedermeier in the north; nothing is new, but old styles are eclectically taken from and adapted to advances in engineering and construction (eg cast iron). In Barcelona, Modernisme (c1900) borrows from Japan, Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque.
  • Art nouveau/Jugendstil/Arts & Crafts - natural forms, flowing curves, colour. Most influential in decor, but also in architecture, around 1890-1910. Paris metro signs by Guimard; Secession building, Vienna; Casa Batllo, Barcelona. Beaux Arts style in the USA.
  • Art deco - 1920s and 1930s, rectilinear, 'streamlined', geometrical and self-consciously modern - Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Brussels; Rockefeller Center.
  • Modernism - simplicification, functionalism - "form follows function", elimination of decorative details.  New materials - chrome, glass, concrete. Sydney Opera House; Seagram Building, New York; Bauhaus Building, Dessau.
  • Post-modernism. Does to modernism what mannerism did to the Renaissance - witty reinterpretations  - AT&T Building, New York, is modernist skyscraper but with classical pediment on top. References to the past, to classical style.
  • Organic - difficult to say exactly what this style is, but when you look at some of Frank Gehry's work, or Zaha Hadid's, or the 'Peanut' building at the Weald and Downland museum in Sussex, (or the 'Gherkin' in London) you can see it's based on natural forms and organic curves, rather than on rigid rectangular forms. Increasingly common.
Wikipedia does all this in much more detail, but that's a good gallop through the ages!

By the way, one of my favourite books ever on architecture is Osbert Lancaster's very funny From Pillar to Post: English architecture without tears. It's highly recommended - it is a gentle romp, very specifically English, and with recognisable social types illustrating the social history of our architecture - the languid wimpy arty type, the no-nonsense retired colonel, and the vampy lady, turn up in age after age.

I have to say though that the title is wrong on one count. I cannot possibly read this wonderfully illustrated, but quite accurate, book without tears - of laughter.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Local history - reading the runes

I took my father out to lunch a while back. We managed to get to the Bristol Arms at Shotley Gate just in time for lunch - an excellent prawn curry washed down with some Adnam's Ghost Ship. Afterwards, we wandered the foreshore, looking at the port of Felixstowe on one side, and the town of Harwich on the other - Shotley is sited on a peninsula between the Stour and the Orwell, so that there's river pretty much all round, and it takes a while to get your bearings.

Bristol Arms. Remember that.

We watched a Thames barge coming downriver; a great container ship heading for port; a little fishing boat steaming for the lock gates to Shotley marina. There's always something moving on the river. Oystercatchers were browsing the low-tide shoreline; we walked out along a spit of crushed seashell that hissed underfoot, and the birds rose to the air to move along the shore, settling again fifty yards away. Canada geese flew overhead. As we turned around and made our way back to Shotley Gate, the tide was coming in, silently and slowly; I wouldn't have realised, but when I looked for the little spit we'd been standing on, it was gone, only a little island remaining free of the water, perhaps not for much longer.

The village of Shotley itself is at the top of the hill, with Shotley Gate on the shore; you move from marina to farmland in five minutes' walk (or two minutes' drive). The port of Felixstowe with its massive cranes and bulky boxships seems marooned in a sea of green, an industrial landscape strangely out of sorts with the gentle farmland around it.

And the church, in fact, is nowhere near the village - it's stuck away in a tiny hamlet even further away from the river. It's an interesting church, part fifteenth century Gothic with a hammerbeam roof - rough ends to the timbers where the angels must have been hacked off in the Reformation - yet with an eighteenth-century classical chancel. Its tower, meanwhile, may once have been one of those wonderful East Anglian towers that stand tall and stately, dominating the estuary from its hill; but at some point it tumbled, and now it's short and stubby, ill-matched with the soaring clerestory.

Now I was looking for the royal arms over the chancel. There was a dark coat of arms there, but I didn't recognise them. Instead, the royal arms were hanging at the west of the church. So what was this coat of arms? I didn't recognise it at all.

The chancel is quite something. The east end has a Venetian window, finely classical, and the chancel arch too is a classical Roman form, in dark oak; all the furnishings are dark wood, too, though the standard of the carving is way below the standard of Grinling Gibbons. There are Moses and Aaron shown in their regalia on each side of the altar, rather provinicial but nonetheless attractive paintings; there's a plaster barrel vault, which somehow doesn't look quite straight; this is the triumph of sobriety, Protestantism, and good plain English architecture.

It turns out that the chancel was rebuilt by the rector, the Hon. Henry Aston. But he wasn't originally an Aston; he was a Hervey, and took his wife's name on his marriage. Now, Hervey is the family name of the Marquesses of Bristol, and despite the name of the peerage, they're relatively local - Ickworth Hall, Suffolk, having been their home till 1998.Guess who owned the right to nominate the rector? So the younger son of the first Earl of Bristol was given the job by his father. (Though on perusing the peerage, it seems to have been Charles Hervey who was rector here, not his brother, so there is some confusion in the sources; something's got garbled, as it so often does.)

Father shows me the next clue -  the tomb of John Hervey, 1840-1926, who was rector here for 56 years. His father, son of the first Marquess of Bristol, was first rector at Ickworth - well, naturally - and later, Bishop of Bath and Wells. (John was  his fourth child, and first son.)

Clued up, I start looking for more hints of the Hervey/Bristol connection. And there they are. A 1907 stained glass window which is a memorial to the third Marquess of Bristol - MP for West Suffolk, and Lord Lieutenant of the county.


Plenty of Herveys. That is, Bristols. And at this point, I remember the Bristol arms. Even though the pub is a mile or more away, down by the waterside, it has the same patronage as the church. The Herveys must have pretty much owned the village.

Shotley would still be a fascinating place if I didn't know about the Herveys. But when you read the runes, when you put the clues together, you see how the place has an added depth - you understand a little piece of history. (One reason that I am no fan of pub renamings such as the 'Woolie' in Norwich, which used to be, far more appropriately for a city where mercers and dyers made so much money, the Woolpack. Fortunately we have another Woolpack which still carries on the name.) It's one reason you'll often find me trying to read the Latin epitaphs in a country church, my lips moving as I make the effort of trying to remember whether this word is in the genitive or ablative case, and what locupletatus means.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Binche and the Carnival

A fortnight later and the tune in my head is still there; less insistent, less forceful, not as loud, but still beating away like a pulse.

You don't forget the Binche carnival easily.

The parade on Sunday seems ordinary enough; groups of revellers in costume, with their brass bands. There are devils, ghosts, musketeers, peasants, little Chinese mandarins, huge contingents of Smurfs (this is Belgium); there is Michael Jackson, there is Che Guevara - no, there are at least a dozen Ches - but sadly no Elvis.

But it's not choreographed; one contingent is mainly Che Guevaras, but also contains a couple of phantoms and some peasants, and a couple of guys in strange Tommy Cooperesque outfits with fezzes and stripey waistcoats. Every one carries something in his right hand; a placard, a tray with champagne bottle and glasses, a billhook, a basket of strawberries, a huge plastic foam rifle. From time to time, marchers drop out and wander into one of the local bars, or share a bottle of beer and a fag with a friend in the crowd, or stop to exchange kisses on the cheek with their acquaintances. It's all a bit shambolic, and that's the case for everything that goes on during Carnival; timings are approximate, and any procession is likely to include numerous beer or champagne stops.

They don't really dance, either. They shuffle, and turn round and round within their company, and punctuate the music by lifting whatever they hold in their right hands; but that's all. Not the shimmying samba of Rio or the rhythmic verve of calypso or soca.

Yet there seems to be one rule that isn't transgressed; they only play one tune. There are 26, some people say 27, tunes allowed in the entire carnival, and tonight somehow they're only playing one. When I went to bed, it was playing in my head, and it carried on doing so for the next fortnight.

Fast forward to the ramassage, in the early hours of Shrove Tuesday morning. It's still dark; Binche's houses loom dark in the orange lamp-light. From a long way away we hear the shrill, plaintive tone of a clarinet playing a snatch of melody. Somewhere else, a bass drum starts; bom, bom, bom, bom, interminable, like a death march.

Down below the great walls, a first detachment of Gilles lumbers, their white-covered heads stark, their drummer pushing them forwards. Their inexorable march, the clack of their wooden clogs on the granite setts of the road, the fierce sharp rattle and snap of a snare drum from one of the side streets; it is all faintly sinister.

They stop at a house, dancing on the spot. The door opens. Time for champagne. (It's five o'clock in the morning.) Glasses are handed out. We wait. Some time later, they set out again. Now there are six Gilles, instead of five; like giants or ogres, wearing those huge clogs, their torsos stuffed with straw, their suits covered with symbols - crowns, and lions, and stripes and flags, all in the Belgian colours of black, yellow, red.

Glimpses of interiors every time a door opens make us feel as if we're in a gallery of Vermeers, but with starker lighting - a contrast to the dim streets. One house seems right out of the nineteenth century with its caged canary, a crucifix and a two years out of date calendar on the wall; another is a modern artist's house, full of bright stained glass and polished wood. By the time the procession reaches the main street it's nearly seven-thirty, and the Gilles are massing outside the bars, and inside the bars, holding glasses of champagne in their hands. The Gilles drinks champagne, and eats only oysters and salmon; this is the last of the fat days, before the rigours of Lent.

One little boy Gille is accompanied by an even smaller boy with a snare drum, and his mother - a procession of one. (How could you not smile?) A Gille goes everywhere with a drummer. That's one of the rules. In the crowd, two Gilles decide to visit their friends in the next bar - confusion, as they try to find a drummer, and then the shattering fusillade of noise as they set out, bludgeoning their way across the packed pavement outside.

Up by the station, the Gilles are gathering in their hundreds. And at last, on go the masks, the symbol of Binche, with their sightless green spectacles and curly painted moustaches; and the Gilles are terrifying, battalions of them all marching on the Town Hall. In the afternoon, the terrible Gilles show their softer side; the masks are laid aside in favour of tall ostrich-feather hats, and the bundles of twigs they carry in the morning are replaced by baskets of oranges, which they throw into the crowd.

Standing on a wall to get a better view, I'm next to a red devil. Aged about eight, I think. She catches fifty oranges; I catch none.

And this is only the second parade - there's another to come, by lamplight, that evening. In the narrow streets, the Gilles dance to the red light of flares. The carnival started in the early hours, and it doesn't finish till the fireworks are over, at nearly eleven; and even later, as we head for our car, we can hear the brass bands still playing.

I can still hear that tune. I don't think it will ever go away. It will fade, it will become less insistent; but it will always be a part of me, and my feet will somehow always know that rhythm.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Our household gods

Lares et penates; the household gods. We think of God as a single, omnipotent presence; but if you were Roman, you had your own gods, the gods of your household. Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, were all very well, but it was the household gods who had to be propitiated every day, and the ancestors, whose masks were kept in the house.

In India, too, there are household gods; Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, guards thresholds and ensures wealth, or Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and learning. Near me in Norwich, an Indian cafe has a little Krishna shrine in it, just the way it might have a Cats Protection League calendar on the wall. In a house just outside Aleppey, where I waited for my canoe to pick me up, I took tea under the watchful eyes of two Krishnas and a hologrammed Shirdi Sai Baba, as the portable TV flickered.

That's the great thing about household gods. We worship them but we also take them for granted. They're not distant, transcendent gods, but involved with the business of our lives - the baking, the banking, the sweeping of the floor, the joys and the sorrows and even the frustrations.

In Russian Orthodox homes there's a 'red corner' for the ikons. Protestantism, alas, offers no household gods, but instead an all-seeing eye to watch for and punish transgression. It's unforgiving in that way. Nor is a pious text a household god; you can't go to a text and ask it for help, nor weep in front of it. You end up making your own little shrines, of dead butterflies or airfix skeletons or collections of shed cats' claws, whatever it is, some kind of magic like the mummified cat built into the wall in the Aitre Saint-Maclou, in Rouen.

I suppose the Athena poster of the girl in tennis whites scratching her arse would be understood as a household god by any earth-visiting Martian with half a degree in ethnology.

But the days of our household gods are numbered. There's a new shrine on the block. The television first replaced the hearth; it became the centre of the household - so obviously where people have excavated the chimneybreast to put a screen there instead. (O tempora, o mores: I remember sitting in an inglenook in a friend's home in Somerset, reading in the warmth for an entire afternoon, undisturbed.) Now, it's replaced the household gods, too. We give our lives over to Big Brother instead of Ganesh, Nigella Lawson instead of Lakshmi.

We need better gods.

Friday, 13 January 2012

The anti-technology backlash

Technology is a wonderful thing. But from helping us to achieve what we wanted to in life, it has started to fill our lives with things that it wants us to do. Facebook is useful when you want to organise a rehearsal schedule, or communicate with friends in another country. When you end up sitting in the pub looking at Facebook instead of talking to the person next to you, it's stopped assisting and started taking over.

Mobile phones. Wonderful things, except for people who expect me to have it turned on at all times and take calls at three in the morning. Except for marketers who want to send me relentless texts flogging some damn crap or other.

It's perhaps not surprising that we have something of a technology backlash. For instance The Artist has looked at James Cameron's idea that 3D is the future of cinema and said "I don't think so" - let's go back to the silent screen, to black and white, to simplicity. There's a real wilfulness in this - it's partly looking back to a more innocent and simple age in the way of recession-driven nostalgia through the ages, but also I think it's a refusal of technological capabilities that have come to seem too fussy, too overwhelming. (I really hated Avatar; it made me feel seasick, and my eardrums were simply crushed by the overdone soundtrack.)
Vinyl fans are pushing sales of vinyl records back up to levels last seen in the 1980s. A number of photographers and film makers are also heading back to the old tech. There are even those who are adapting their digital cameras as pinhole cameras, to work with the potential of a very limited technology indeed; blurry photos, often in greyscale, where the smeary, blurred nature of the image enables them to focus on atmosphere, to create photographs of incredible abstraction, like Chinese calligraphy.
I have no intention at all of reverting to longhand for my travel writing or novels. The computer has become part of my writing practice; I draft the plot within the document, then start writing the chapters within that plotted structure, gradually replacing the sketch by the worked-out version. But when I'm working on poetry, or thinking out vocabulary and characterisation, for some reason I naturally want to do that on paper. Journal keeping, too, wants a pen; on the PC I can't doodle, play with calligraphy or form, put little drawings in the margin.
And I utterly abhor technology in writing implements. Felt tip and ball pen are alike abominable (except when I'm travelling, and even then I'm picky about the pens I use - either one-euro mauve transparent plastic fountain pens I bought in a sale at Carrefour a few years back, of which I have about twenty, or little Rotring-style disposables). But at home, it's fountain pens; Waterman or Cross, since though I might aspire to a Duofold, my stingy Puritan heart won't let me pay three hundred quid for a pen; or sometimes, an ancient calligraphy pen with a broad nib, that makes swash capitals just the way I like them...
The anti-tech backlash is definitely with us. It seems to be driven by the same desires as the craft and the slow food movement; the desire to feel the real natural material in your hands, not to be alienated or distanced from it, the desire to disintermediate oneself, in a way. The act of writing and the writing itself are linked in a very intimate way by the stream of ink, in a way they aren't when you type on a keyboard.
And I think there's also a desire not to be distracted; to liberate oneself from the flickering fascinations of Facebook and Twitter and Perez Hilton, from the excessive photo-realism of the Photoshopped three-dimensional oversaturated picture, and be able instead to focus on the essence - a mood expressed in a haiku, the silhouette of a mountain, the monochrome lines of a sculpture, the effect of light shining on a grey day.
This of course has nothing to do with real tech refuseniks such as the Amish, or Jehovah's Witnesses who eschew blood transfusions. It's not a religious principle but an aesthetic one; but having been part of some art cultures for a while, I'm wondering whether the anti-tech backlash is now becoming mainstream.