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A copy of my latest MTgf blog-post - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
A copy of my latest MTgf blog-post

A Winter Stillness


Before Christmas, I inevitably went up to town for an annual luncheon of (o blessedly useful periphrasis) a subset of members of my club.


I had intended to be in Vienna for the New Year, in the Goldener Saal, to hear Prêtre conduct that lovely ritual that is the Neujahrskonzert, from the first waltz to the last handclap of and after the Radetzky March.


The kindly weather intervened, giving ample warning that It Were Much Better Not.  Pleasant and indeed worthy though it had been; enjoyable and harmlessly enjoyable as such pleasures are; much as one misses the tafelspitz and the käsespätzle and all the sweet things over which the happy shades of Sacher and Demel hover approvingly; disappointed as we all are that I am not able to join various distant and pitiably Not British cousins for the hols, from Berchtolds to Pálffys to Trauttmansdorffs: the fact remains, I cannot repine.


It is of course a well-worn jest to say that one or another insufficiently demotic personage has stepped down from this, that, or the other thing ‘to spend more time with his possessions’; after all, there is an entire political party – and several half-ones – devoted to the politics of envy.  This is rather a silly dismissal of an important truth, one borne home upon us as the winter weather forces us to stillness and contemplation: from time to time, it is good for one to sit quietly and be aware of, become reacquainted with, what one possesses – if only to make certain that these material objects do not in fact possess one.


With the current lovely, balmy spot of global warming (globaloney to that), one slows, stills, falls silent; and one observes.


I once wrote, of the persistence of pastoral in English letters and why it is that it is ‘[i]n the liminal space poised between the fields we know and the surrounding and encroaching Wild, and still more in the places falsely thought secure and suddenly assailed, where plot points fall upon the unsuspecting like bolts from a clear sky, the writer of detective fiction, of thrillers, of fantasy, and of horror, may best make himself at home’, that


Lord Dunsany’s Faery was the place ‘far from the fields we know’: all the more reason to be sure we know those fields before we journey questing into the perilous realm of Faery itself.


… the countryside and the village are symbols of stability and security, of order.  Yet they are also, as I have noted, liminal spaces, at a very narrow remove from the atavistic Wild.  Arcadia is not the realm even of Giorgione and of Claude, with its cracked pillars and thunderbolts, its lurking banditti; still less is it Poussin’s sun-dappled and regularised realm of order, where, although the lamb may be destined for the altar and the spit, all things proceed with charm and gravity and studied gesture; least of all is it the degenerate and prettified Arcady of Fragonard and Watteau, filled with simpering courtier-Corydons, pallid Olympians, and fat-arsed putti.  (It is only family piety that prevents me from taking a poker to an inherited coffee service in gilt porcelain with bastardised, deutero-Fragonard scenes painted on the sides of every damned thing.  Cue Wallace Greenslade: ‘… “Round the Horne”, with Marie Antoinette as the dairymaid and Kenneth Williams as the manager of the camp-site….’)


No: Arcadia is the very margin of the liminal space between the safe tilth and the threatening Wild, in which Pan lurks, shaggy and goatish, and Death proclaims, from ambush, et in Arcadia ego.  Arcadia is not the Wide World nor the Riverbank, but the Wild Wood.  And in that wood are worse than stoats and weasels, and the true Pan is no Francis of Assisi figure, sheltering infant otters.  The Wild that borders and penetrates Arcady is red in tooth and claw.


… The village green and the local are safe and familiar, the church and its churchyard stand protective over the mysteries and the Four Last Things – … the farms and fields are, in Dunsany’s phrase, the fields we know.


Yet outside this charmed circle of protection, ancient and terrifying things prowl.  The church is old and its tower casts a long shadow, circumscribing a circle of safety as the sun rises and sets: but outside that circle, who does not sometimes catch a glimpse of a chalk horse coming to midnight life, or a ghostly procession winding round the stones of the henge?  It is these forces’s intrusion, their sudden, fierce irruption, into the secure world of the familiar and indeed the boring, that has the greatest force of impact.


… Am Fear Liath Mòr is a presence of the Wild; dire things can be all too easily imagined upon the West Country moors when Old Crockern is abroad; the Wild Hunt sweeps past on a wave of fear.  But it is when the coppiced, managed, intimately-known bluebell woods of daytime become a tangled forest of night, in which strange, goat-horned shapes rear up suddenly against the moon, it is when the quiet lanes of noontide become lych-ways in the darkness, that real terror is possible in the writer’s hand.  The Wilderness has ample room for horrors, as vast as itself: but it is the sudden bestial horror in the moonlit country lane that can cause your reader to fumble hastily to light more lamps of an evening.


Now, it is peculiarly the case that, in the country – and, I rather think, even in town – being winter-bound and weather-bound brings the verge, the borders, the frontier between the homely and the Wild, to one’s very door.  Even, for some of us, all but withindoors: in such weather as this, I know, I am well-advised to stand away from windows and doorways, by a good few feet, as the old pile is rather by way of being a howling, draughty wilderness intermittently warmed in spots.  (And this without bringing the Wild withindoors with one, for all my jests that, if this keeps up, I shall have to accommodate the pigs in the long gallery: the Gloucester Old Spots, at any rate, feeling as I do that the Tamworths may have the Rose Room and welcome to it).


So: one turns inward.


There has been much in the Great World, the Wide World beyond Riverbank and even the Wild Wood, at the edge of the bounds of Mr Badger’s country and Toad Hall, that I might have written of since last we spoke.  I am glad, now, that I eschewed comment.  This season and this weather brings home to us all how trumpery even the most portentous concerns of politics or economics or even principle are at bottom.


Or perhaps not: the passing show is a sad distraction; yet the truly important issues of principle, even when drearily expressed in political and economic crises, we may see with new eyes, refreshed, after Candide-ly surveying our own gardens for a time.  Quite soon, I expect, I shall be writing of our tragedy, that we live now neither in an Age of Reason nor yet an Age of Faith, but, rather, in a squalid Age of Intellectual Dishonesty; and I shall do it better for having had this enforced period of reflection.


Item: there is a meme doing the rounds on at least one site I engage with.  It begins innocently enough: How many books has one read this year?  How many has one re-read?  It swiftly degenerates, of course, into the modern obsessions, not only of comparatively inoffensive distinction (ratio of fiction to non-fiction) and inane self-adoration (most inspirational, most perspective-changing), but of the usual rubbish (ratio of male authors to female authors and All That – as if it mattered a damn.  Pernicious idiocy).


Well, I am notoriously a voracious reader, and rarely happier than when buying books.  Yet I find that I am increasingly a re-reader, even more than I was in my happily bookish youth: and I was unnaturally given to re-reading books, to having old friends and long-term companions in books, even then.  A new book, a new author to discover, is a wondrous thing; yet novelty as such is simply a lure, and a depressingly commercial one.  Glossy tosh, simply because it is ‘new’, is no substitute for old treasure – and my great treasures in what is not, I admit, a little room (in fact, it is difficult to navigate the old place, as there are stacks of books in literally every room), range from, oh, Herodotus and Homer to Miss Read and Barbara Pym, from Conan Doyle to Sayers to Anthony Price.  What spare moments had I wasted, had I not had to hand Gissing or Somerville and Ross or Boswell’s Life of Johnson to slip into, with utter familiarity and comfort?


Or, again, take music.  There is, actually, good music being made even today, and from sources on their surface unlikely as well as likely.  (There is also a stunning amount of utter balls of course.)  I shall be fifty soon enough; yet I am capable of enjoying, mildly, even the Kooks and the Killers and Death Cab for Cutie.  I am in fact quite impressed by the work of, say, Jamie Cullum and of Mika, who – it is a pity so few of his fans will know this – writes in fact very well, and handles ’cello parts with real competence in his arrangements.  And yet … I shall be fifty soon enough, and if that is little enough time to look upon a tree, as Mr Housman rightly noted, how much less time is one mere mortal lifetime to dig ever deeper into the Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art of Fugue.  Or Sumsion, or Finzi, or Frank Bridge, for that matter.


And so in this enforced stillness and solitude, it is well to look anew at the material objects that surround one with a familiarity so great that one has ceased to notice them.  For one thing, it is a melancholy pleasure to correct oneself, as when some desultory research revealed, embarrassingly, that the ‘inherited coffee service in gilt porcelain with bastardised, deutero-Fragonard scenes painted on the sides of every damned thing’ that I mentioned before, is in fact not cod-Fragonard, but the Real Thing (which, if anything, makes it worse, and lowers my respect for le Vieux Jean-Honoré and the son he raised, plundering his own talent and his father’s bones.  Bloody Sèvres). 


Yet it is also an unalloyed pleasure to muse – and in a house necessarily overstuffed by the testamentary vagaries of inheritance in a dying-out and no longer numerous family, there is much to muse upon – it is pleasant to muse upon what material objects have to tell one.  Why, for example, is it pleasant to the eye to look upon plate and cup and saucer, Rockingham and Crown Derby, chastely white and delicately adorned with banded gold and unobtrusive flowers; why, uplifting (in small doses) to observe and respond in a similar manner to the invention and craft of the Zimmermans and Balthasar Neumann in pilgrimage churches decorated in the Wessobrunner manner; and yet, why intolerable to confront a surfeit of confectionary white and gilt clobber in a collection some thrice-damned great-aunt lumbered one with?  Why are fluted pilasters with Corinthian capitals in a room so generally satisfying, from the Pazzi Chapel onwards?  (And, come to think of it, why, o why is Cuvilliés’ Amalienburg so damned annoying?  And why, for that matter, is what’s left of Norfolk House so equally annoying, and in the same fashion?)


Why, again, is it that Claude, and still more Watteau and Fragonard, fail to move or to compel belief or to satisfy, whilst Calraet and Cuyp, Vermeer, and particularly Constable, reach one so deeply?  Is it that a horse by Stubbs or a haywain by Constable, Paulus Potter’s young bull or Vermeer’s plain interiors, seem palpable, all sweat and hay and river-water, manure and clover, honest light and housemaidly beeswax?  In what world did it come to seem reasonable and natural for walls to hold a jumble of canvases, landscapes and portraits, cheek-by-Tessa’s-jowls with antlers and stag’s heads and the trout of yesteryear?  Why is it pleasurable in winter to tie trout-flies and scan seed-catalogues: is this the root of poetry itself, emotion recollected in tranquillity?


How is it that I am gratified so greatly by a small painting – the size of the screen upon which you are quite likely reading this – by a friend of my mother’s, depicting a very small church, now effectively redundant but not, even now, deconsecrated: in a churchyard that is now a meadow, increasingly surrounded by a wood, with only a footpath by; its porch plain and shallow, the nave but three bays in length, its spire a trifle out of true (and it is the spire, not the painting of the spire, that is wonky: all of my mother’s friends in the arts were in every sense professional)?  Well, partly, of course, because it is a small, superb work of art: mere æsthetics make it pleasurable.  And naturally, I am fond of it as a link to my mother, and her friend who has also now been seconded from the Church Militant to the Church Triumphant.  Yet there is more to it than these elements.  Even did I not know which small Gloucestershire church the painting portrayed, I should take pleasure in knowing and recognising – from its characteristic landscape setting and its characteristic architecture, the set of its spire and the floor plan, and all the evidences of my sense of sight – that this is a Gloucestershire, rural, largely Norman parish church.


For you see, one can come – quite readily – to recognise these things: the characteristic family features of East Anglian churches, Somerset churches with Somerset towers, Devon churches with their waggon-roofs and remnants of roodscreens and their ‘Devon rings’ of six.  Even so, one can train the eye to recognise, with pleasure, the clues of field-patterns, or walls, or farm gates, or the way in which a roof is thatched, or how a chimney is built and where it is placed, and be able to know at once in which county one is.  A sense of place is a thing good in itself.


Yet it is good in its effects as well, and in what it leads to.  One begins to think, and to wonder.  One may be moved to become an anorak in some passionate interest, and that is a very good thing to be.  Gissing’s Henry Ryecroft, in that book whose sweetness of temper is little inferior to anything of Walton’s (Izaak’s, I mean, but the same is true in music of Sir William, now I think of it), writes, ‘What were honey to me if I knew nothing of Hymettus and Hybla? – if my mind had no stores of poetry, no memories of romance?’  There are men who have been inspired by the most humane of humane letters to take up beekeeping and other country pursuits; there are beekeepers, farmers, anglers, and devotees of sport who have tumbled almost by accident into the larger and freer world of great literature by way of their passions.  It is a curious thing that beekeeping, farming, angling, and country life have produced, since civilisation began, more great literature, and more happy literature, than any other pursuits: observe how this is so, from the Georgics to the brilliant miniatures in prose of Martin (and Anthea) Bell’s marvellous father, the most underrated English author of the past century (Adrian Bell: it is sad that I must specify).


Coleridge and Burke alike were pioneers of critical æsthetics.  Think for a moment of how the simplest cultivation of taste – no: more than that: the most basic contemplation of why one likes one thing and not another – can become a sound foundation for a life well lived in action.  Winter- and weather-bound, we may take the gift of uncovenanted time to think.  We may begin by thinking of the characteristic notes of English music, the chromaticism of the English school; or of the deep interrelatedness of plainchant and English poetry, in scansion and in diction; or just why it is that rural pursuits have engendered great literature.  Or, again, you may see East Anglian pargeting – and in it see fear in a handful of dust, ash on an old man’s sleeve, a crowned knot of fire.  You may see the winter trees, boughs bare, and think of how akin they are to fan-vaulting in your parish church.  And suddenly, through these quotidian observations, all heaven and hell come rushing in.  We may (and you certainly ought to do) begin to involve ourselves with Common Ground / England in Particular, or the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, with a water meadows trust or the RSPB or heritage railways or old mills.  You may soon find yourself campaigning for local distinctiveness, with Common Ground; or understanding that Churchill was honestly horrified that the poor were left in circumstances that almost always meant ‘never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savoury, never saying anything clever’ – and why this is a tragedy that must be redressed; you may even begin to think that, although a right charley in many ways, HRH the Prince of Wales may just Be On to Something, something Ruskin noted, in decrying a world that deliberately makes itself uglier than it need be.  You may, for example, conclude that children of all races (even barbarians such as my people, Ancient Britons and marauding Saxons and the occasional Viking and, worse still, a few Vikings speaking a dialect of Rouennais Frog) are trained by surrounding art – or the lack of it: that much of what is repugnant in our time is the product of Brutalism and uglification, of synthetic tosh, bad writing and bad music held out as good, and bad art plastered all over the shoddy concrete walls.


Best of all, you may, refreshed, recharged, and enlightened by this enforced contemplation in the depth of winter, actually start doing something about these ills and evils, and assist in the only worthwhile work, that of giving bread in place of stones to those spiritually and intellectually starving.


Remarkable, really, what one may learn from a Sèvres coffee service in an idle moment.  Or, as Dame Julian might have noted, a hazelnut.

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9 comments or Leave a comment
noeon From: noeon Date: January 10th, 2010 12:44 pm (UTC) (Link)

it is alle that ys made

There is no accounting for affinity among those who have been permitted the savoury, the clever, and the beautiful. A dear friend of mine who is most spartan and ascetic of taste recently remarried - quite happily - to a specialist in the Roccoco. We plan, God laughs. And perhaps the laughter is important as well.

Bloody Sèvres? *laughs* I missed the initial dismissal, but the discovery of authenticity is amusing in itself.

Thank you for reminding me of the hazelnut. Dame Julian is ever a challenge and a comfort.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 10th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes, yes, and spot on.

The laughter is largely what matters. The discovery of authenticity is staggering. And, yes, Dame Julian is indeed ever a challenge and a comfort, and a very present ... well, you know the names AND the pack-drill.

Thank you, as ever.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 10th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC) (Link)

Claude and Watteau

I disagree that Claude and Watteau don't move. Try looking at them again!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 10th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

I assure you, I have done.

For yonks.
fpb From: fpb Date: January 10th, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC) (Link)

Talking about Arcadia?

Do you have any opinions about Guercino? I ask because he is an ancestor of mine and I love most of his work.

It would take too long to deliver a coherent and unstupid answer to this essay. I only want to say that I do not feel the danger of the Wild so much in the edge of the horizon, as much as in the soil we stand on. One day it will devour us; and until then, even in the most familiar surroundings, one has to no more than to turn a corner, to find oneself in both physical and metaphysical terrors never imagined till then.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 11th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

Not cross-eyed yourself, are you?

No squint?

Actually, I like the man, even at his most sub-Caravaggiesque. I've often imagined those two shepherds in the flaying-of-Marsyas and the et-ego pictures as being fruitful subjects of a comedy series. 'Hullo, there's a skull. Wonder who left it there?' Or, 'I say. Apollo's skinning that chap.' Just wandering through Arcady as things go to hell around them, a la Mr Bean or Harold Lloyd or the Tramp....
fpb From: fpb Date: January 11th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Not cross-eyed yourself, are you?

As a matter of fact, I am a bit. And it seems to be getting worse with age. But I doubt that it is from the Barbieri side - none of my close relatives have it.
fpb From: fpb Date: January 11th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Not cross-eyed yourself, are you?

As a matter of fact, I wish he were Caravaggioesque. He is a sensational draughtsman - one can hardly imagine how, before the invention of the camera, anyone could possibly have envisaged the head-on angle at which his Cupid, egged on by Venus, is aiming his arrows straight at the spectator - but he has a tendency to become sentimental when he should be reverent. His Christ and his apostles tend to simper, which is the last thing one would say of Caravaggio's brutal street realism.
l_aqrchard From: l_aqrchard Date: January 15th, 2010 12:49 pm (UTC) (Link)


You must be the only person I know who could say "Bloody Sèvres"...

I completely agree about returning to known pleasures in the kind of weather we've been having of late, particularly reading Sherlock Holmes with the wind howling in the chimney. Have you read any of the biographies of Conan Doyle?

And on that note, I'm going to meditate on the potential of tangled forests of night and lych-ways in the darkness.
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