Summer Diary

Thurifer digs out his Pevsner and his Fowler

 

A long-standing, modest ambition was achieved recently, after a fashion. As a teenager the first orchestral concerts I heard were by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. On successive evenings I heard Schubert’s great 9th Symphony in C Major and Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique. They remain, after fifty-five years, thrillingly, in my memory. He was the only one of the four great English conductors of the early Sixties; Beecham, Boult and Sargent were the others, whom I saw live. He died the following year, before I was to see him conduct Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the opening concert of that year’s Edinburgh Festival. His substitute was Colin Davis. I had hoped to see Sir John at the Hallé’s home, the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Some years ago, they moved to the Bridgewater Hall. It was here that I saw them under their present Music Director, the gifted Sir Mark Elder, in the Berlioz Fantastique (appropriate in the composer’s 150th anniversary year) and Mahler’s mighty and moving 2nd Symphony, Resurrection. Two profound and thrilling concerts. I hope that the resurrection at the Last Day is as triumphant as the apotheosis of the symphony under Sir Mark, who is more than worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as ‘Glorious John.’

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Some years ago, in the Common Room of a minor Oxbridge college, I was teased by a media don for a narrowness of vision as I was only ever seen to read The Daily Telegraph. I pointed out that my reading was wide: I also read The Spectator. In my younger days I also read the New Statesman when it was edited by Paul Johnson then Anthony Howard, but under his successor it became a tedious sociological manual for the professional malcontent. I had gravitated to the Telegraph when The Times began to print news on its front page. As a consequence, I have never read The Sunday Times. Belatedly, I now realize that I had missed something significant in the writings of A.A. Gill. I was aware of him as a controversialist and acclaimed critic, but did not read him. In The Best of A.A. Gill you will find some of the finest, vigorous, eloquent prose of the past thirty years. He was a master of vituperation and evisceration, but also of praise and celebration. He had the ability to make you see the familiar anew and in a different light. Travel writing rarely attracts me, but his is evocative, funny, quirky. He made his reputation as a food and restaurant critic and, a little later, a TV critic. This is to a large extent ephemeral subject matter, but it is the sign of a great writer that, even years later, such passing sensations still engage and amuse. You can admire both his shredding of Morrissey’s autobiography and his encomium to the Alans Bennett and Whicker. He was pitch-perfect in his creation of a bête-noir, the ‘Tristrams,’ to represent all he loathed in the management and tin-eared idiocy found among the ‘creatives’ of the BBC. His autobiographical articles that dealt, in ruthlessly honest prose, with his alcoholism, relations with a beloved but exasperating father’s descent into dementia, and the clear-eyed depiction of his own terminal illness are moving but never mawkish. There is not a boring page, indeed sentence, in this collection. Moreover, remarkably, he was dyslexic.

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‘Going forward,’ ‘totally amazing,’ ‘basically,’ ‘y’know like,’ ‘reach(ing) out,’ ‘the optics aren’t good’ are all phrases to annoy. These sometimes pass out of usage. Something which endures and seems to have been accepted is the split infinitive. I blame Star Trek’s ‘to boldly go.’ I realise that I am an unreconstructed grammatical dinosaur. Fowler’s Modern English Usage regards the rule as ‘unduly revered,’ avoidance of the split infinitive a ‘fetish.’ Infinitives have been split for a long time. Nevertheless, I still find them irritating. In three books recently read, if there was an infinitive to be split the authors split it. Out of step I may be, but I shall continue to strenuously protest its promiscuous use.

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Someone whose ‘optics’ are good is William (‘Billy’) Burges. Dying relatively young (1827–1881), his career was short. Unsuccessful in several competitions for prestigious buildings, those he did complete were masterpieces. Eccentric, fantastical, perhaps opium-induced, controversial, several sackings, he was always fascinating, often inspiring. A roll-call includes St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, Cardiff Castle, Castell Coch, St Mary’s Studley Royal, Christ the Consoler, Newby Hall, Knightshayes Court, Tiverton. There he was dismissed after a turbulent relationship with his client, who preferred Victorian gravity, austere and grand, to the proposed reincarnation of the Middle Ages, and was replaced by John Crace. Nevertheless, nothing can disguise the distinctive work that Burges did. Given what he achieved, it is frustrating to be unable to see his unsuccessful architectural and decorative schemes for St Paul’s and Truro Cathedrals, and the Royal Courts of Justice. He was fortunate to have one of the richest men in the country, John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, as his patron. Both were enthusiastic medievalists standing in the tradition of the Gothic Revivalists, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and anticipated the Arts and Crafts Movement. Burges wrote: ‘I was brought up in the thirteenth century belief and in that belief I intend to die.’ He was kind-hearted and amusing and gathered around him craftsmen and artists of similar temperament, all devoted to him and to their art, seeing it in that perspective as prayer rather than as business. Burges suffered undue neglect and much posthumous denigration from twentieth century Brutalists and Modernists. However, architectural and cultural tides turn as any other and Burges has been sympathetically reappraised, notably in the several works and articles of J. Mordaunt Crook, the primus inter pares of Burges scholars, and Michael Hall. Crook describes Burges’ work at Castell Coch as ‘recreating from a heap of rubble a fairy-tale castle which seems almost to have materialized from the margins of some medieval manuscript.’ With some authority, Professor Crook said that Burges was ‘the most dazzling exponent of the High Victorian Dream. Pugin conceived that dream; Rossetti and Byrne-Jones painted it; Tennyson sang its glories; Ruskin and Morris formulated its philosophy; but only Burges built it.’

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Earlier in the year, after a sustained period of closure, the renovated Scala Santa in Rome reopened to pilgrims. These are the steps said to have been climbed by Christ as he went to be sentenced by Pontius Pilate. They were brought from Jerusalem to Rome in the fourth century and are situated near the Basilica of St John Lateran, the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. By tradition pilgrims ascended the stairs on their knees and by 1723 wear and tear, and a degree of erosion, persuaded Pope Innocent XIII to encase them in wood. Some thirty years ago I went up on my knees, an arduous spiritual and physical discipline even then. Now it would be even more challenging and probably impossible: neither the knee joints nor the heart would manage it. Perhaps the newly-renovated stairs, light grey marble instead of dark wood, and the cleaning and restoration of the sixteenth century frescoes will lift the souls and the spirits of today’s pilgrims to make the task that much more inviting and even more rewarding.

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Following my reminiscence of Brighton and South Coast Anglo-Catholicism and Fr James Holdroyd, Vicar of St Bartholomew’s, earlier in the year, a correspondent has informed me that there was a repertoire of only about twelve hymns sung there. When asked why that was so, Fr Holdroyd said, ‘They’re my favourites.’ When he insisted that ‘Lo, He comes with clouds descending’ was sung on Ascension Day, a priest in choir was heard to expostulate, ‘He’s going the wrong way.’

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A friend was showing a group around a Far Eastern city. They came across the shrine of a local deity. ‘Is that the Virgin Mary?’ one asked. ‘I doubt it,’ replied another. ‘Why do you doubt it?’ ‘He has two heads and four arms.’

2019-09-10T15:40:35+00:00 July 2019 Articles|