Monday, 20 April 2015

St Mary, Stratford St Mary

Back to our jaunt into Essex the other week.  I was struck by the church of St Mary, at Stratford St Mary.  It is a genuine Late Medieval church but given a thorough restoration at the end of the 19th century like an illegal steroid injection.  Just look at the tracery in the north porch windows, like something out of the Medieval Holy Roman Empire. The inscriptions in the flushwork are genuine, and like that at Long Melford hint at contemporary high levels of literacy - otherwise why bother if nobody could read?  Inside wasn't at all unpleasant; lofty Late Perpendicular Gothic, although everything as been given a thorough re-tooling.  However the nave roof looked pretty, and pretty genuine, and there were some equally pretty patterned glass in the south chancel chapel and painted screens.  I suspect who ever painted the screens also painted the mural on the north wall of the chancel.  The south side is blank.  Pity.
Beside the church were a couple of very old and very attractive houses, but life in them must be difficult with the A12 thundering along behind them and the village street in front a busy sliproad.

Friday, 17 April 2015

'The End of the Affair' - Graham Greene

I thought I'd make a return trip to Greeneland, having read 'Brighton Rock' some months ago.  And it was a odd experience.  At times, as I read, it was a visit I did not want to repeat, for they do things differently over there.  And in it's underhand, sly sort of way it was quite repellent.  At times.  And I write as a christian, although not a terribly good one.  So you would think I would be on side.
For the want of a clever sound bite I thought I could define 'The End of the Affair' thus: 'a meagre work for a meagre time'.  I mean that it is a novel set just after the war (published 1951) in a time austerity and rationing, and somehow that is reflected in the story - and I don't mean in an obvious "Where's my ration book?" sort of way.  I think I mean it's a bony, awkward read.  I should rephrase my soundbite: 'an austere novel for an austere time'.  In a way it's a novel about poverty, not a lack of money per se, but a general sort of shabbiness and down-at-heel in a nation that had fought itself to exhaustion.  Perhaps I could even substitute 'drab' for meagre.  Because it's that too, set as it is in what sounds a very drab suburb of London.  (Greene lived for a while on the north side of Clapham Common.) The poverty this novel is interested in is of the spirit.  It's not just an attitude that infects the characters: Greene, the writer, seems to have to interest in, say, food, or decor, or any of those telling little details such as you might find in a much better religious novelist as Francois Mauriac. At least none caught in my memory.
'The End of the Affair' is about a novelist, Bendix (He has a Christian name which is hardly used.  The use of the surname is enough to suggest all sorts of alienation) and a husband and wife, Henry and Sarah Miles.  Henry is a high minded civil servant who is busy building Jerusalem.  What historians refer to as the 'Post War Settlement'.  Perhaps we are to contrast husband and wife - a hint of W B Yeats poem 'The Seven Sages' -his 'A leveling, rancorous, rational sort of mind / That never looked out of the eye of a saint / Or out of drunkard's eye.'  Sarah, obviously not the Whig in that relationship, does, in her own way, both.
As the title suggests the novel deals with the aftermath of an affair; an affair between Bendix and Sarah that occurred a year or so beforehand in the last months of the War (and shadows Greene's own affair with Lady Caroline Walston); an affair that was like the sudden flare up a firework, though not a particularly ostentatious firework as far as I can remember, or, if I were to be really honest, care.  And that is the problem (my problem) with this novel; I ended up not really caring about any of the characters.  There seemed little in the way of redeeming feature in any of them.  In the end I felt the whole thing false, unnatural.
It was a struggle to get to the end though thankfully there were times when the book suddenly did splutter into life.  Firstly there was the point when the  narrator changed from Bendix to Sarah, when the reader is presented with  excerpts from Sarah's diary.  Then there was suddenly an immediacy of language that hitherto the novel has lacked.  It is the narrative of Sarah's transition from 'drunkard' to 'saint' as she wrestles with her nascent faith, when she turns from Henry's earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly one.  Left bereft by Henry's vocation, and unsatisfied with her affair with Bendix, she makes her own in God.  And I suppose that is it: Greene was happiest when writing to, or about, God.  We see  this later in the novel in the scene with priest who comes to Henry's for dinner.  Thirdly, and unconnected with the previous two, there is the meeting between Bendix and Waterbury, when Greene allows us to contextualize Bendix in the wider world of literary London.  Indeed the novel until that scene is particularly narrow, claustrophobic.  It may explain the poverty of spirit I mentioned above: Bendix is a man obsessed, certainly riven with jealousy, with no eye for anything else.
Oddly that dinner scene invoked in me a number of similarities with Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited', published in 1945 - not at all obvious I suspect - but they are there never the less: the hard fought rearguard action against God, the clash over the wishes of the deceased/dying.  Both books, one suspects have the same didactic purpose - both, after all, are about conversion.  Both narratives are circular - are about revisiting the past.  And both, of course, are novels about War - both the historic event and the war within ourselves between faith and sin as witnessed by Sarah Miles in 'The End of the Affair' and Lady Julia in 'Brideshead Revisited'.
As a result of reading this book I suspect that Greene was a thorough going Augustinian with a poor view of humanity after the Fall and it's 'harsh necessity' of committing sin.  And I suppose that must be at the heart of my dislike for this novel.

Monday, 13 April 2015


To return to our days in Suffolk, now a fortnight ago.  On the Monday we headed south over the border in to Essex and the ridiculously beautiful village of Dedham.  There is really only one street and it is a real treasure.  There's even a tasty bit of English Baroque.

After that embarass de richesse the parish church was abit of a let-down.  The only things to catch my eye were these two funerary monuments: one Baroque the other latest Perp.  The latter must have served as an Easter Sepulchre.

If that were not all in addition to this Dedham has been very lucky in the twentieth century to be the base of Classical architects Raymond Erith and his successor Quilan Terry.  Their work is to be seen around the village and very good it is.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

London: the British Museum and Wilton's Music Hall

The bf and I went up to London yesterday.  It was a beautiful spring day when we arrived in the capital and we strolled down from King's Cross station to Lamb's Conduit St, which has a great selection of independent retailers and places to eat.  After lunch we popped into my friend Ben Pentreath's shop 'Pentreath and Hall' which he runs, (along with an architectural and interior design practice) with his business partner Bridie Hall.  It's always a visual treat and a good place for ideas.
From there we went to the British Museum and the exhibition:  'Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art'.  The museum was impossibly crowded, but the exhibition calm.  In fact there was an almost religious air such is the place, the reverence indeed that these sculptures have in the Western Canon.  They are foundational.  And I have to admit the experience was quite moving at times; these statues seemed to exist simultaneously in two planes: the physical and, well, the spiritual.  It was as though they were caught up in their own thoughts, (the contemplation of their own existence), and their presence in our three dimensions was merely incidental.  A lot has been said about the 'humanism of the Greeks' but there was definitely something religious about much of this art.  It mustn't be forgotten that this art was produced in a pre-modern civilization and hence drenched in the religious.  This other-worldly, even transcendent, quality, may however be the consequence of the loss of the original colour, but I'd like to think that this was not the case.  It would be a mistake to believe that this representative art is merely a copy of life: it is not there is something definitely 'artistic', something transformative, in the work.
And before you think that this exhibition was solely about monumental depiction of the divine there was a lot of other work: some of it funny and grotesque, some of it domestic.  I will point you in the direction of the small and exquisite bronzes that dot the exhibition, easily missed in the midst of all that monumental white marble.  What unites them all is the amazing quality of the work.  There was example after example of the most sublime technical virtuosity.  I find it almost incomprehensible that Greek cities were just filled with this stuff; incomprehensible too the cultural explosion that produced this work.  Work that is almost out of time - and hence 'Classical'.
The final room of the exhibition was a slightly strange affair.  All too diffuse.  In one corner a map (the same map as the beginning of the exhibition) showing the extent of Greek civilisation and cultural influence.  This was by no means detailed enough.  By it were two sculptures; a beautiful head of Alexander the Great and a Buddha from Gandhara.  Neither was quite enough, but the culture of the Greeks in Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent is perhaps another, and exciting, exhibition.  The centre of the space was however, occupied with a dialogue between two great Antique sculptures the 'Belvedere Torso' (on loan from the Vatican) and one of the reclining Gods from one of the two pediments of the Parthenon. Both statues have suffered from the effects of time and that is what I took with me.

We went to 'Polpo at Bird and Ape' for an early dinner.  As a loyal reader of this blog may now realise Polpo is a bit of a favourite of mine.  It was the bf's first visit.  We started with Chopped Chicken Liver crostini, and then shared a Fritto Misto, Pork and fennel polpetti, and really delicious salad of Zucchini, Parmesan and Basil.  We going to have a go tonight in re-creating the latter.

Our evening was spent at Wilton's Music Hall in the East End.  I have wanted to visit the place for some time, and it really, really did not disappoint.  A small Victorian building tucked away in a side street, it has been restored in a particularly atmospheric manner. The hall itself is magnificent, rather  as you might imagine Vanbrugh or Hawksmoor having a go at designing and not over restored.  In fact it seems, thankfully, they have done mere that which is necessary to protect the structure - the walls, for example, have been stripped to the original surface but not repainted.  The lighting is perfect: trails of tiny lights hanging from the central ceiling rose like a bell tent.  Quite breathtaking.  The reason for our visit was an evening of early silent comedies bought to us by the Lucky Dog Picture House, the people 'dedicated to recreating the original cinema experience'.  It was a fantastic evening. A brilliant job they did of it: five musicians playing witty, clever original music. There were six films in all; 'Undressing Extraordinary' (1901), 'Mary Jane's Mishap' (1903), 'The (?) Motorist' 1904, 'A Dog's Life' (1918) and after the interval: 'The Lucky Dog' (1921), and 'Liberty' (1921).  The last was the funniest: Laurel and Hardy in a broad, physical farce that culminated in a literally breath taking scene on the top of a skyscraper.  I have to confess that thanks to watching Laurel and Hardy films as a child on television I have not had a great liking for this sort of stuff, but it is a completely different experience seeing these films with live music and an audience.  As I have said on this blog before, do not hesitate, if you have the chance, to watch these films in the manner in which they meant to see.  It is wonderful thing to do.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

'My Night with Reg'

I went up to London yesterday for a matinee production of Kevin Elyot's award-winning play 'My Night with Reg'.  This current production marks the anniversary of the first production, The Royal Court Theater, Sloane Square, and originated at The Donmar, before being transferred to the West End, at the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue.
I have to confess that this was my first visit to a West End Theatre.  The Apollo is a small  theatre, the auditorium a wonderful confection of the Edwardian rocaille - 1900 by Lewen Sharp, who is an architect I've never heard of before.  Anyway it is delightful theatre and just the right size for productions of this scale.
And the scale of this play is small: a six hander.  There is only one set, the drawing room of a ground-floor flat in London with a conservatory that belongs to Guy (Jonathon Broadbent).  I haven't been much of a theatre goer, so my experience is limited, but I suspect that the set was designed 'narrow' rather than deep to push the action forward.  The set is also isolated by a wide neon strip that occasionally springs to life with pulsating colour.
For those who don't know 'My Night with Reg' is a comedy set in London in the early eighties and concerning the lives of six gay men.  It opens just as a flat-warming party is about to begin.  In the conservatory painter Eric (Lewis Reeves) is finishing the decorating.  The first guest arrives, John (Julian Ovenden).  He and Guy are old friends from university days and the conversation quickly turns to a undergraduate play which was directed by Guy.  Appropriately enough (on many levels) the play in question is Eurypides's 'The Bacchae'.  The priapic John starred as the god Dionysus.   Dionysus, the god of tragedy (the presiding deity of the Athenian Dionysia where tragedies were performed in competition) and this play is also a tragedy in that it deals with the after-effects of the Aids epidemic as it was then in the early 1980s. Eventually the other guests arrive: the wonderfully theatrical Daniel (a bit of a tour du force by Geoffrey Streatfield), who is also Reg's partner, on a flying visit, and, eventually Bernie (Richard Cant) and his partner Benny (played with a real cocky sexuality and vigour by Matt Bardock).  Reg, we never meet, but is a constant presence throughout the play, as it darkens from a comedy of manners into something, as the facades shatter, deeply moving and poignant told through three scenes, played here almost continuously, the light only dimming between times.  (The first one caused me just a little confusion as the characters who speak last in the first scene are the first to speak in the second.)  It is perhaps Reg, then, who is the presiding deity of this play (not John), the unseen deus ex machina who messes up people's lives, and yet inspires such love in all he touches.  Elyot aptly follows the classical rules of tragedy by having the deaths take place off-stage, but only follows two of the Three Unities laid down by Aristotle in the Poetics (of Action and Place) ignoring the third by spreading out the scenes over four years.  I remember being struck at the curtain call by the look of physical and emotional exhaustion on the faces of Julian Ovenden and Geoffrey Streatfield, and rightly so for this play is, in its own way, as ruthless and pitiless as any other tragedy, as un-merciful as 'The Bacchae' itself.
On reflection, it seems that is possible to always, at the beginning of the play at least, divide the cast in half:  half working-class, half middle; half university educated, half not; half in relationships, half not, and so on.  And perhaps importantly half promiscuous and half not.  Perhaps it is those with the  education that remain the most underdeveloped emotionally, the ones desperate for love, but place themselves in positions where that love will remain always unfulfilled and/or crushed.  They are perhaps also the ones who are unable to change - they are shown continually reliving the past.  The ones who, at the end of the play, are unable to reach out to one another and offer comfort, for they are the ones like the Bacchae who have been driven mad and are unable to see the pain they inflict for what it is.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Lavenham and Long Melford

On Sunday we headed out to the excellent farmer's Market in Lavenham.  Lavenham is a gem - a rather self-conscious gem - of a medieval town; though it is possible to turn a corner, even at the heart of the medieval core, and find oneself in a completely Victorian street. It's plan is very different from Hadleigh; there is a 'proper' Market Place, and a tight network of streets laid like a tablecloth over a hilly terrain.  The Market Place formed one locus for the medieval town, the mighty parish church of St Peter and St Paul the other, but what linked them in both a very real, physical way and a deeply spiritual manner was the Guildhall of the Corpus Christi.  This was the most important guild in the town in the late Middle Ages.  It wasn't a trade guild as such but a collective of the elite of the town and it was given over to charitable works.  The current building was built in 1512 and I would like to believe that for a few short years at least the annual procession of the Corpus Christi made a station at the hall, or perhaps commenced there.  Perhaps something to one day re-enact.  A mimesis, and an anamnesis, of what has been lost.  During the reign of Edward VI the guild was suppressed and the building fell into a number of uses.  It's preservation, like that of the whole of Lavenham due to it's industrial decline.  Poverty curiously enough is quite good at preserving things.  The Guildhall is owned by the National trust and while the ground floor is largely 'empty', the upstairs have now been given over to various interpretative 'things', which I'm not sure I really like.  I much prefer to be left to my own devices.  The ghostly voices saying 'Goodbye' as you leave are particularly repellent.

In the afternoon we ended up in Long Melford - another Medieval town and like Hadleigh, essentially one long, very long in this case, street.  Unlike Hadleigh the whole procession of the street reaches summation in the village green and the spectacular parish church of the Holy Trinity.  Like all churches in this part of the country it is an opulent display of the wealth generated by the medieval woollen industry.  There are beautiful houses too along the western edge of the Green, the Trinity Hospital, and two country houses in close proximity: the austere Melford Hall (pictured) and Kentwell Hall, both built by wealthy clothiers.  The green reminds me of the sort of area you find between Kew and Ham in West London.  It feels definitely 'Southern'.  Don't ask me to explain. I can't.  The other part of the village, south beyond the bridge over the Chad Brook, is at times quite urban in feel - the scale of some of the buildings greater than those in either Lavenham or Hadleigh.  It is the more work-a-day end of the village; there are warehouses and a maltings (now flats).

Holy Trinity is a massive church, nearly all the work of  the late middle ages - the  superb tower is much later: early twentieth century (1903) by the great G F Bodley, and is perfect. (I don't care what other critics say; it is just the right style and scale.)  The exterior is covered with a tattoo of flushwork, some of it recording the names of all those who paid to rebuild the church.  Unfortunately the church has lost its pinnacles.  The interior is wide and spacious; remarkably we have some idea of what it looked like in before the Reformation because a member of the parish, Roger Martyn (Church warden 1554 - 1558), left a record of all that was lost.  He even hid things in his own house to save them from the hand of the destroyer in a belief that they would eventually restored to worship.  It was not to be.  Much was lost but there are a considerable number of stained glass windows in the church surviving from the Middle Ages and they are really worth a closer study.  Much more surviving glass than most other parish churches.  H Munro Cautley in his book 'Suffolk Churches and their treasures' suggests that the glass was hidden too to protect it from zealots like Dowsing who made tours of East Anglia smashing up stuff they thought idolatry.   As if to confirm this theory the English alabaster relief of the Nativity (below) was found buried under the chancel floor. There is also the intimate and opulent Clopton Chantry (must have been quite overpowering when complete) and the unique Lady Chapel.  Usually the Lady Chapel (i.e. dedicated to the Virgin Mary) in an English Medieval parish church is formed in one of the aisles, only rarely, as at Long Melford, is there an (almost) separate building like you might find occasionally attached to a cathedral or abbey church.  Obviously the parish of the Holy Trinity had pretentious to grandeur.  That said it is a wonderfully beautiful and atmospheric little building with whitewashed walls, clear glass in the windows and a brick floor.  Domestic is scale, it has a unique floor plan:  the chapel itself is centred in the midst of the building with an aisle or 'ambulatory' running all the way around.  This is not evident from the exterior - the three cables on the east wall suggest a basilican plan, i.e. nave and aisles.

Monday, 30 March 2015


I've been away with the bf house- and cat- sitting in Hadleigh, Suffolk.  I've posted a couple of photos of the house in question in an earlier post.  Hadleigh is one of those small market towns with which Britain is blessed.  None of the architecture is outstanding, in the sense of being grand or monumental - in fact it's all very domestic in scale and improvisatory, accretive - but together they make up a greater whole.  And rather attractive the ensemble is, and to take away one element would damage the entirety. Thankfully there hasn't been too much of that, though it was apparent during our stay that there are problems with through traffic.
So what makes Hadleigh unique?  The core of Hadleigh is a long ribbon of medieval development; only the area around the parish church to the west of the High St represents any departure from that.  This Medieval core is formed of two streets: the wide High St and its southern continuation, the narrow Benton Street. Like most other towns and villages in Suffolk there are a plethora of Medieval half-timbered houses - though no concerted attempt has been made to turn them back to their medieval states, as was done elsewhere.  I think Hadleigh is too work-a-day place for that.  Nothing too self conscious here, these houses retain their post medieval fa├žades and additions - pargetting, sash windows and the like.  That's why I say the town has a feel of improvisation to it.  In addition there red brick, and later, stock brick houses (a good development of the latter between the High St and the parish church).  In short everything is pretty harmonious.  The nearest Hadleigh gets to monumental, (I suppose it just about qualifies), is the Deanery Tower beside the west end of the church, a late medieval brick tower - the rest of the original structure has disappeared.
In addition, and this is a small but important detail, there are good independent retailers too; bookshop, deli, butchers, that sort of thing.