Arts, books, theatre and endpiece
Arts and Crafts, Then and Now
Victoria and Albert Museum
Till 24 July 2005
£11·50 – 0870 906 3883
The V & A exhibition on the Arts and Crafts Movement is especially interesting in that it deals with its effect on art and architecture in Europe, America and Japan, as well as in this country. Here it was a response to the effect of increasing industrialisation and unregulated trade on society. The most influential figures were John Ruskin and William Morris, the former formulating a philosophy of art, labour and society, and the latter putting this philosophy into practice. Morris was a prolific and commercially successful designer, producing works of great beauty and high quality, and stimulating and working with a wide range of artists and craftsmen and women.
Though designed to take people back to the Simple Life, the Movement adapted to both urban and rural lifestyles. The painted furniture and simple shapes fitted as well into a cottage, as a room from Sidney Barnsley’s cottage shows, as into a major country house. This is demonstrated by a wonderful short film of Blackwell, an Arts and Crafts house overlooking Windermere, with tiles, carving, plasterwork, furniture all photographed in idyllic sunshine and redolent of the house’s beautiful surroundings.
A wide variety of embroidery skills flourished, and there are magnificent wall hangings – the four panels entitled Progress of a Soul by Phoebe Anne Taquir are both beautiful and technically astonishing. There are simple dresses, fashionable at the time, exquisitely smocked and decorated with delicately embroidered flowers and leaves. There are wonderful church ornaments and furnishings, including a majestic cope designed by Ninian Comper and, and a dalmatic by Christine Angus, a positive riot of babies and toddlers designed for Holy Innocents, and owned by Westminster Abbey.
These designs, ideas and objects continue to influence us today. William Morris fabrics have never gone out of production, and the beautifully clear alphabet used by London Transport is that designed by Johnson in 1916.
In America the Arts and Crafts Movement caught on quickly and produced architects and designers of great originality. Charles and Henry Greene created houses and furnishings using abundant local timbers. The Prairie School, based on wealthy and economically vibrant Chicago explored the relationship between the houses and the often open and dramatic landscapes where they were built. Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses that were meant to be seen as part of the landscape itself. Gustav Stickler edited the hugely influential The Craftsman including designs for a smaller simpler homes, as shown in a ‘Craftsman’ interior on display. Some of the larger houses are shown in a fascinating short film: money, space and raw-materials were on a totally different scale from that available to English architect.
Across Europe the Arts and Crafts Movement revived and stimulated local crafts and traditional techniques. Vienna, still the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, produced beautiful ceramics, jewellery and objects of domestic use. Scandinavia, Germany, and Central Europe, where life was hard, saw a revival of traditional carving and weaving skills, with tapestries and furnishings drawing on Norse legends and images.
In Japan the Mingei (Folk Crafts) Movement was rather late, officially established in 1926. It valued and collected Japanese folk crafts, and was a combination of many influences, old and new, east and west, rural and urban, and was a great influence on the middle classes as Japan emerged into the twentieth century. The ceramics and objects on display, including work by Bernard Leach, who lived and worked some time in Japan, show how traditional skills were used to express modest ideas in a new and arresting way.
This is a large exhibition, much of it familiar, but full of interesting surprises as one realizes the far-reaching influence of the artistic and philosophical movement which started in this country at the end of the nineteenth century.
THE TEXT FESTIVAL
Art Gallery, Bury, Lancs
Till 27 November 2005
‘Art can be read as poetry and poetry can be viewed as art.’ This is an imaginative collection of exhibitions centred on the art gallery of this once prosperous northern town. Many of the prints and installations contend vigorously with the quality of words and the power of signs; neon and video both feature, but the most vivid medium remains paper, even when passed through the shredder, bundled up and sold as ‘things not worth keeping’.
There is humour – my own favourite being the medicine bottle filled with ‘English vocabulary tablets’; there is energy – Bob Cobbling (1920–2002) has room full of powerful poster poems and pictures (till the end of May). Note however the lack of stone; there are no carved letters for example, which is an odd omission when this whole, modern exhibition is set (most effectively) within the solid, staid context of Victorian architectural values and next to a gallery of sentimental nineteenth century genre painting.
Some of the accompanying exhibitions will come and go; I look forward to the ‘knitted poems’ in June and some of the installations that will appear around the town over the summer. A wonderful idea and great fun: go and see it. And yet. The artists fight, mock, re-invent and manipulate the word, but I was left with the feeling that they are no longer able to reverence the word. The Victorians may have had their faults, but did they not respect the word rather more? Did they not listen a little more closely?
IN SPACE AND TIME
Gracewing, 140pp, pbk
0 85244 610 1, [£7.99]
When I asked the rector for help on how to pray the Rosary, I little expected to be reviewing a book of such depth and detail. This book as its title implies is not primarily about the mechanics of the Rosary, rather its theology and background in Scripture.
Part one deals with prayer in general and is divided into two parts. Outer Space is concerned with the relationship of religion and science. After references to sub-atomics and astro-physics the author asks, ‘What, you may ask, has all this to do with prayer?’ Her answer is ‘Everything,’ and her explanation is clear and easily understood. She quotes Einstein, ‘Religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind.’
Inner Space is defined as our secret interior life; the inner space where our soul resides. This section deals with prayer and all its aspects. To reach the specific yet transcendent mysteries of the Rosary the author suggests we move from the ever unfolding mysteries of outer space to the invisible mysteries of inner space.
Each of the mysteries is introduced with a passage from Scripture followed by a commentary and a meditation. I found the commentary sections rather long-winded and sometimes over-detailed. This may be due to Miss Rees’ Jewish background and her knowledge of such background information.
As an Anglican I had a problem with the Fifth Glorious Mystery, the Coronation of Our Lady. Why did it take so long to be included? On a lighter note I was fascinated to learn of the origin of the European flag. In conclusion Ruth Rees has produced a thought-provoking book, which I feel has drawn me closer to Our Lady.
SCM Press, 248pp, hbk
0 334 02987 2, £19.99
Deans make the news for all the wrong reasons. Only a few years ago we were all agog at the machinations at Lincoln and the Consistory Court where the then Dean, Brandon Jackson, stood accused, then acquitted. We now wait with barely baited breath for the ‘trial of the century’ at Ripon. Trollope has much to answer for. Cathedral closes have gone beyond satire. We are in the realm of prurient intrusion. There are no winners in what is a tragedy for some or a farce for others. Even as we devour the details and savour the comic potential, there must be an element of genuine concern for the harm it does to the Church. As we revel in schadenfreude we must feel some regret that the Church has gone beyond parody.
This book does not deal in scandals. It is a sort of Desert Island Discs of deans. The Very Revd Trevor Beeson (sometime of Winchester) has selected twenty-two deans for pen-portraits. The selection is on no discernible principle: some were successful, some not, some stayed too long, some went too soon, some were good fun, some were gloomy, some were clever, some were too clever by half, some were good at some things, some were good at other things. He tops and tails the book with two chapters, one an introduction of mind-numbing banality. Did you know that ‘many Friends…make a very important contribution through voluntary work as welcoming stewards, guides, cleaners, library, shop and refectory assistants’? Fascinating. It is the word ‘very’ which gives his prose a Pooterish quality. Lest that be mistaken for praise by those who find The Diary of a Nobody funny, it is not meant to be.
In the final chapter our intrepid guide tells us of ‘spectacular developments,’ ‘new challenges,’ ‘a national outcry’ followed by a ‘happy solution,’ a bishop ‘far from sympathetic,’ ‘a long-running and damaging conflict,’ a ‘sad saga’ (alliteration there, clever), scholars ‘are fairly rare birds’ nowadays, members of chapters have to engage in ‘wide-ranging activities,’ and so it goes on and on its dreary way. It is easy and undemanding prose, fluent, facile, surface gloss, cosmetic but there is no heart or guts in the writing, nothing to grip. It is a modestly successful soufflé.
Armitage Robinson (Westminster), Inge (St Paul’s), James Welldon (Durham), and Walter Hussey (Chichester) do not emerge at all well. Robinson is too much the ascetic scholar, remote, unconvivial, angular and difficult: Inge wrapped up in the world of journalism and gloomy introspection. Welldon as the bete noir of Hensley Henson is sketched as an enormous, fat buffoon. It is the most unsympathetic portrait in the book but I warmed to him more than I was supposed to. Anybody who could get up Dean Beeson’s nose and the nostrils of Henson could not be as bad as he was painted. Hussey did his great work at St Matthew’s, Northampton, but by the time he came to Chichester he seems to have abandoned religion for an aesthetic of beauty and was only interested in cramming as many works of art into his cathedral as possible. I exaggerate, but not by much.
Where Beeson succeeds is in what is by far the best portrait in the book and the best written. He gives each Dean a soubriquet – Walter Matthews, The War Hero, Eric Milner-White, The Master Glazier, a disappointing essay this, Ernest Southcott, The Prophet – and to Richard Church, Dean of St Paul’s he accords the title ‘Saint.’ It is apt. Here he evokes that strange, elusive, compelling soul. He was plucked by Gladstone from a country rectory in Somerset where he had the care of two hundred people to the Deanery of St Paul’s. Of course, there was more to him than a country parson. He possessed noble virtues, a fine mind, and courage. He was intimately involved in the early days of the Oxford Movement, and was its first and most distinguished historian. He knew, admired and loved, Keble, Newman and Pusey and was one of the Proctors who saved Newman from condemnation by the only court he valued, his peers in the University of Oxford, by exercising a veto over a move to condemn Tract XC. He succeeded at St Paul’s not by what he did, nor what he initiated, nor how he preached, nor how he administered (his gifted colleagues on the Chapter did those things better) but by who and what he was, a thoroughly good man, a saint.
ROBERT E. LEE: ICON FOR A NATION
Brian Holden Reid
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 271pp, hbk
0 297 84699 X, £14.99
It is rare, if not unique, for a military commander whose major campaign ended in defeat to be remembered, honoured and revered. Robert E. Lee was such a soldier. In Richmond, Virginia there is an equestrian statue of Lee, ironically carved of Maine marble. It weighs twelve tons and measures a little under 62 feet. Lee sits impassive and erect astride his horse; his features as striking in marble as they were in life. Yet this impressive statue commemorates a general who surrendered his troops which brought to an end the American Civil War and the dream of an independent Southern Confederacy.
Bury the fiddle-music and the dance,
The sick magnolias of the false romance
And all the chivalry that went to seed
Before its ripening.
It commemorates a man who fought, as is popularly imagined, for the retention of slavery; a cause beyond the pale of civilized values: but good men fight for ignoble causes.
The Confederacy fought for a constitutional principle that for them transcended the question of slavery. They fought for the right of the states of the Union to determine their own laws and governance and to secede from that Union rather than be subject to the tyranny of the majority. The North fought for the primacy of the Union over the states, effectively for their coercion to the prevailing moral and economic ethos. Of course, the question of slavery was not absent from the conflict. But not all in the North were abolitionists (Lincoln himself was not in the forefront of abolition; but he was clear on the constitutional principle) and not all in the South were keen retentionists. Lee was ambivalent about slavery; ‘he disapproved of slavery in the abstract but kept slaves none the less’ and was ‘never…a fervent believer in secession and states’ rights.’ But he felt loyalty to his state and answered its call to arms by resigning from the United States Army to command the forces of Virginia.
By common consent he was the outstanding general on either side in the Civil War. Some were more dashing, some more daring, most were in his shadow. But at Appomatox Courthouse he surrendered to the other great general of the War Ulysses S. Grant. For much of the war, Lee proved that small armies could defeat larger ones and, unlike many of the generals with whom Lincoln had to deal, Lee displayed exemplary tact and finely-tuned political shrewdness. With limited numbers of troops he followed an offensive strategy which was ‘the product of clear-headed calculation, not rash thoughtless gambles’. Throughout he retained a fine and civilized sensibility. He was a gentleman who yet possessed guile and cunning in his strategy that could be breathtaking. He was hardly ever heard to refer to his opponents as the enemy but he always spoke of ‘those people.’ He retained his humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances.
After the War, Lee came to represent the dignity and the soul of the defeated South. His impassive stature, the steady look which gazes out from the photographs (especially from that of Matthew Brady, the finest of war photographers), the hint of melancholy in the eyes and around the mouth, the courtly and gentlemanly reserve with which he endured the defeat and the surrender of his cause and the slights that came in their wake – unlike some he never received the rehabilitation of citizenship before he died – all combined to make him, as the title of the book claims, an ‘icon for a nation.’
During the period of Reconstruction, the South did suffer the burdens of a defeated people imposed by a victorious and vindictive Congress, despite the attempts at amelioration by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. One of the consequences was that the South looked back to the battles for the Confederacy with a romantic nostalgia, a golden age of fighting for liberty and their way of life. But it was, as the poet Stephen Vincent Benet wrote, a ‘false romance.’ It was an inverted romanticism; a romanticism born of disillusion and pessimism, of defeat and humiliation. Like most romantic effusions it was an illusion. Lee became the personification of that lost world of gallantry and bravery, of a noble minority standing up to an over-bearing majority, and doing it with grace and honour.
Another consequence of the way the North treated the South after the War, and the fierce resentment it engendered, was that, once the southern whites had recovered their confidence and their political and economic dominance, and hedged about the freedoms granted to the black population by a system of apartheid, the rights and liberties of black Americans were set back several generations until the resurgence of the same issues in the 1960s.
Lee did not live to see those consequences played out. He died in 1870. He emerges from this admirable book as a great general, and a great man. He was better, much better, than the cause for which he fought.
KING IN EXILE
James II: warrior, king and saint
Sutton, 454pp, hbk
0 7509 3082 9, £25
If history is a series of defining moments, the tragedy of James II, the last Catholic King of England, is captured in the lasting image of his removal from London to Rochester at the insistence of his son-in-law William of Orange who had occupied the capital. Having missed the tide, the royal barge was severely buffeted by the Thames rapids near London Bridge. As the oarsmen battled to keep afloat, King James remained impassive. But it was less the impassivity of stoical self-control, than the impassivity of a paralysis of thought and action which gripped him when faced with a crisis.
Apart from a persistent and disconcerting tendency to split the infinitive, (Fowler is unduly tolerant) John Callow has written a highly engaging, fluent, fascinating and vivid study of James II in his sad and dispiriting exile which begins with the events of December 1688. James had not inherited his father’s epicene cultivation but had inherited his political ill-fortune. He was a brave soldier but an insensitive, bovine politician; a king whose high doctrine of kingship, derived from divine approbation, did not commend itself to his subjects. The title of the book also claims for him the title saint. Marital infidelity and illegitimate offspring aside, James was a devout and dutiful Catholic, having converted in his youth and so endangering his right of succession in the Exclusion Crisis of his brother’s reign. He developed a stoical and penitent piety. Like his father, his sufferings and sorrows, however self-inflicted, were compared with those of his Blessed Saviour; and there was for some years after his death a cultus for his beatification and canonisation. It seems to have petered out, having floundered in the tangled undergrowth of Vatican bureaucracy.
In December 1688, in the weeks before his final departure from England into exile he effectively laid ‘the foundations of Jacobitism, the ultra-royalist movement that was to bear his name, and to define the nature of his future role and persona within it. He was to stand for the dignity of monarchy in times of the greatest peril, and to cast himself as a man of sufferings, betrayed and vilified for his beliefs.’ But not before he attempted to regain his kingdoms. The high watermarks of the Jacobite cause occurred after his death with the uprisings of 1715 and 1745, both of which ended in failure. The failure of the ’45 enhanced the romantic illusion, not least through the personal attraction of Bonnie Prince Charlie before his subsequent descent into a bloated, dyspeptic drunk.
James’ attempt to recover his kingdoms ended at the battle of the Boyne; lucidly and excitingly recounted here. He was unfortunate that his troops failed to kill King William III during a chance encounter before the main battle began, but he was also, to a degree, the author of his own misfortune by his uncertain grip and indecisiveness when the battle was joined. His military expertise, of which he had been proud, deserted him at this crucial moment. As Cowell tartly comments: ‘His defeat at the Boyne had laid bare [his] failings as a general and revealed the all too slender grounds on which his reputation as a formidable soldier had been built, rendering his recourse to military symbolism and authority untenable.’ He left Ireland ‘having learned little and forgotten nothing,’ not unlike the French monarchy on the eve of the Revolution which brutally swept them away.
His credit with his protector King Louis XIV fell; their relationship cooled and Louis publicly criticized him and rejected his services. This was a debilitating blow to James and a bitter humiliation. His cause became little more than a minor aspect of Louis’s foreign policy. As opportunities to regain his crowns slipped further away, he retreated to the restricted and formal life of the exiled court and his thoughts turned increasingly to his holy religion. The hunting field no longer diverted him, his sexual desires declined, and his morose contemplation of the withdrawal of God’s favour led him to greater religious introspection. He found spiritual sustenance at the monastery of La Trappe. This may not be surprising when he was greeted on his first visit by a prostrate abbot who said, ‘God visits us in your person.’
His public adherence to Catholicism had taken some courage but gained him no political advantage: yet he could have done no other. His faith was profound and his observance faithful and severe, reminiscent of that of Philip II of Spain. He shed no tears and was unrelenting in his hostility when his Protestant daughter Queen Mary died. There was no paternal softening of his rigid view of her political betrayal and religious heresy. He died in 1701 having attempted to orchestrate his passing but not quite succeeding: it was a sadly fitting end.
THE CHRISTIAN YEAR
Keble Press, 260pp, pbk
1 905108 01 X, [£9.99]
A little cookery book that comes from the vicarage of the church dedicated to John Keble, hence the title. It reminds me greatly of my school cook book, for O level cookery. However the format is not in the remotest sense similar, for it is set out following the liturgical seasons. All the recipes are said to be well tried and tested by the vicarage family, and at first glance this seems to be confirmed, as many, dare I say it, seem rather dated – if there is such a thing as fashion in cookery. However, there are lots of ideas that I have not come across before as the author takes her inspiration from dishes her mother cooked, when she was a child growing up in Nova Scotia.
In her introduction, Rosalie makes connections between eating and religion as well as the secular and social aspect of meals, she relates this to personal happenings and I particularly warmed to the story of her surprise at her mother-in-law serving smoked salmon as suitably penitential food for Good Friday. I can think of clergy who wouldn’t be at all surprised, indeed would positively demand it!
All the recipes seem quite straightforward to make and the methods given are precise. My main criticism is the use in many recipes of commercial products; my school cookery teacher would never have permitted it. Such things as evaporated milk, Kraft miracle whip salad dressing, and so on.
WHAT HAPPENS AT THE MASS
Jeremy Driscoll osb
Gracewing, 134pp, pbk
0 85244 637 3, [£7.99]
This is a careful exposition of the Mass (the Roman Missal version), unfolding the mystery of the ritual, by explaining exactly what happens and why at every stage. Like the modern rite itself, it is uneven, and clergy (experts all) will surely disagree with some of his interpretations, and moreover the particular text he follows will soon be superseded. For all that, this is an excellent, beautifully clear description of why the Mass is so central to the Christian life.
Imagine adult confirmation candidates asking, ‘But why do we do this?’ Carefully, scripturally, you outline what we do and why. A year later, your descriptions, explanations will have begun to fade or grow dull. Give them this book. If you have been orthodox it will not undermine anything you have said, it will not create critics of your own liturgical style, but it will reinforce the great truths you are seeking to pass on, it will reinvigorate the mystery. That being so, you might do well to read it first before passing it on.
THE MYSTERY OF MARY
Gracewing, 285pp, pbk
0 85244 650 0, £14.99
The preface states that this book, written for the 150th anniversary of the definition of the Immaculate Conception, presents ‘a realist perspective, not reducing the concrete aspects of Mary’s gifts and privileges to mere symbols…and not confusing doctrine and devotionalism.’ We have here ‘a theological and doctrinal panorama concerning Mary, in a historical perspective.’
For Haffner Mary is a ‘microcosm or synthesis of the whole of theology,’ and devotion to her cannot ever be a detached esoteric activity separated from this total theological context. Eastern Orthodoxy would agree with this theology, where their emphasis is on the being of Mary, in the economy of salvation, while Western theology has focussed on Mary as an example and as a disciple. In short there is no Christian theology without permanent relation to the person and role of Mary in the history of salvation. Most Protestants have ‘drifted away from the proper attitude towards Mary, which Martin Luther had indicated on the basis of holy Scripture,’ due to Rationalism.
The sequence of chapters develop this theology in relation to the familiar aspects of Mary; Daughter of Sion, Handmaid of the Lord, Full of Grace, Mother of God, Ever a Virgin, Disciple of her Son, Assumed into Heaven. Questions of spirituality, devotion and pastoral practice are not dealt with directly: such devotion to the Mother of God must start from sound doctrine. ‘It is thus necessary that all theological reflection take due account of the presence of Mary, and of the relationship of the whole of theology with the Marian mystery.’ There is a select bibliography and a good index.
As the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary has fostered among various Christian traditions a deeper understanding of the significance of Mary in the history of salvation, so this book will enlighten further those who are seeking a deeper awareness of Mary’s role in theology, Church and devotion. This awareness will be crucial if the divisions in East and West are to be healed in that unity Mary’s Son wishes for his Church.
Illumination from the Book of Hours
British Library, 160pp, pbk
0 7123 4849 2, [£9.95]
What an extraordinary richness of artistic and devotional achievement lies in the many thousands of medieval Books of Hours, huge numbers of which have yet to be properly studied. Many of the illustrations from this selection in the British Library collection had never been photographed before. They deserve to be better known. Including this simple portrayal of the Visitation, from a Flanders prayer book of c.1500.
BLESSINGS & PRAYERS
A pastoral companion to the Ritual and to the Book of Blessings
Canterbury, 270pp, hbk
1 85311 367 0, [£16.99]
This is an unofficial Roman Catholic collection of blessings, based upon earlier official collections, mostly but not entirely for use by parochial clergy. I am not yet sure how well it succeeds, for only actual, practical use can in time give the answer; but an initial read is most encouraging.
There are, rightly, certain expectations surrounding formal and informal blessings, of people, houses, objects and events. The older books have fine language but may not always be easily understood (especially if the language is Latin) and are generally inordinately long and repetitive by modern standards. However, many of the newer books, Roman as well as Anglican, have prayers that are so easy, contemporary, specific and sentimental, that they sound only like ‘nice prayers’, and fail to carry the weight that people so often (and not unreasonably) expect.
This neat, slightly old-fashioned book seems to be a most sensitive compromise, as useful to Anglicans as to Catholics, covering a satisfactory range of probable occasions, and with enough material to be helpful to the non-ordained (Readers?). Also an excellent introductory essay.
THE CHURCH IN ANGLO-SAXON SOCIETY
OUP, 620pp, hbk
0 19 822695 0, [£35]
This book may have no direct lesson to teach us, but at a time when the ancient parish system is under serious attack from (often more recent) dioceses, sometimes in name of a return to the older ‘minster model’, this comprehensive investigation into the development of both (minster and parish) in the Saxon period means that this should be required reading for our church planners.
This is solid work and a demanding read, but Blair offers an unexpectedly rich and fascinating history from very sparse and elusive sources: there is far more that can be said about the church in this country in the seventh and eighth centuries than we had till now supposed. I am only a layman in historical terms, but it has seemed to me in all my study until this book that far too much of the history in this period was but extrapolation back from the eleventh century.
We have until now had a vivid picture of many of the extraordinary individuals who took part in that unique explosion of Christian culture from 650 to 750 – Hilda, Wilfrid, Cuthbert, Bede, and so many more – and a detailed understanding of the late Saxon church structure in the century before the Conquest; but very little means of linking the two.
Blair does not write his history backwards. He shows why the new Christian structures appealed so much to the rulers of mid-seventh century ‘England’ and why the monastic minster model answered their social and economic needs. It is a subtle and remarkable story, of how the Church offered a solution to the aspirations of a people and initiated a cultural and economic revival – the sheer energy of it all is exhilarating. Rather than trivialize the author’s theme by a poor summary, let me simply assure you that if and when your diocesan or his minions talk to you about the ‘minster model’ as a basis for creating more ‘clusters’ of parishes and reducing clergy numbers, he is on very shaky ground if he claims any authority from history.
The minsters, many of which were presided over by those powerful and energetic royal princesses, were centres of learning, culture and power of sufficient status and significance to have no need of a mere diocesan bishop. They were a new way of being church, against which the old-fashioned, continental, urban model of a bishop was often powerless. Even the later development of the more localized parish church (tenth and eleventh centuries) grew out of more settled, secular needs and desires, rather than a centralizing diocesan project.
This is a serious academic milestone, and it will influence all subsequent church history of the period, but demanding as it is, it is full of stimulating material for the rest of us caught up in the current turmoil that is the future of the Church of England. It will also be of immense value to local historians: the topological emphasis, the placing of these church foundations within their landscape, is rich with suggestions and possibilities.
Theatre Royal, York
And on tour
There were many men who had fought in the Battle of Mons in the First World War who would tell how they saw the miracle of the angels of Mons, divine intervention bringing victory to the allies. In reality it was fiction taken as fact – a short story, The Bowmen by Arthur Machen.
The reality of the battles of the Great War was quite different, and R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 play is a cameo of that reality, a reality of which he was a part. Set in an officers’ dugout, it is a graphic display of the cold terror in the hearts of the soldiers, each of them dealing with it in a different way.
For the 22 year old company commander, Captain Stanhope, whisky is the solution, for others a faked illness, or a resignation that the worst will happen, or a total lack of imagination of what the worst might be. Just out of school, 2nd Lieutenant Randolph is ignorant of the danger and anyway has an absolute trust in his old school hero Stanhope.
When the colonel brings orders from on high that there must be a recce into the German trenches (only 60 yards away), he and Stanhope both know that the stupidity of senior officers will once again bring death to men under their care. The veteran Sergeant Major, with far more experience of battle than the green young officers in immediate command, questions but nonetheless accepts the suicidal order to send his men in.
The play is set in the three days leading up to Operation Michael (Der Kaiserschlacht) which began on March 21 1918, the most intensive German offensive of the Great War, and one in which Sherriff himself took part. This gives him the right to challenge so bitterly the misconceptions that were fed into the minds of a public lacking the advantages of an on-the-spot media presence.
Journey’s End is directed brilliantly by Jonathan Fensom, who leads the actors to bring out their best in illustrating the writer’s intentions. The play ends with what is truly a journey’s end for all the characters as the German offensive begins, in what the theatre manager had warned me would easily be the noisiest conclusion I had ever experienced. He was right.
On Shrubs and Shrubbery
There is a world both wildly exotic and quintessentially English; at its best a vision of ravishing splendour, at its worst of blowsy camp excess; a world which in the Twenties and Thirties enjoyed the enthusiastic patronage of the aristocracy and which changed the way in which we went about our national cult, but which is now deeply unfashionable; a world which over the last twenty years has been split by a bitter and intractable schism about authority and order.
I write of course of the rarified enthusiasm of the rhododendron gardener. Only sixty years ago in the aftermath of war George VI managed to extract £11,000 from a Labour government to buy rhododendrons for Windsor Great Park; now the Prince of Wales goes to his wedding with a hellebore in his button-hole, and the rhodos languish at the RHS shows while everyone goes off to peer at Dairmud Gavin’s coloured balls and Dan Pearson’s meadows.
But the rhododendron lovers continue to guard the sacred flame, and in damp woodland coverts and Cornish coves each May sees a revelation of Himalayan magnificence. Many of these gardens were lost to neglect after the Second World War, and have only recently been rediscovered in all their glory. One of the great northern shrines of the rhododendron cult was Parcevall Hall in Yorkshire, where Sir William Milner divided his time between backing Fr Hope-Patten’s plans for restoring the pilgrimage to Walsingham, and filling his ancestral hill-side with exotic oriental flora.
Sir William was among that most select group of gentleman amateurs, the rhododendron hybridiser. This is a calling which requires a lot of time and a lot of space, as each cross produces dozens of seedlings which need to be grown on until they flower, often years later, most of which then usually have to be thrown away as inadequate. When Milner died and his house became the retreat house for the Bradford diocese, his hybridising records were lost, and many of his choicest plants were rescued and distributed around other famous northern gardens such as Temple Newsam and The Hollies.
However, over the last twenty years, the garden at Parcevall Hall has been restored, and the area most recently brought to light is Little Tibet Wood, so-called because it is filled with choice rhododendrons collected in the wild in China, and the best of Milner’s hybrids. Slowly but steadily, the surviving contents of the nursery beds are being identified, so that the parentage of the Milner hybrids can be established. When this is done, visitors will be able to see the remarkable fruits of Sir William’s labours, in the site he designed for them.
Parcevall Hall is owned by the College of Guardians of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Now that the shrine gardens are being restored, would it not be fitting to plant there a Milner rhododendron, so that in May, Our Lady has an ample floral homage, a tribute to the skill of one of the principal restorers of her shrine?