Saturday, 30 January 2016

Molly Dancing in Ely, Little Downham and Upware

Last weekend was spent with the bf.  We had nothing much planned except a trip into Cambridge to see the Ronald Searle exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but then on Thursday evening quite unexpectedly we both received a tweet from one of our friends inviting us along to a folk dance event in Ely on Saturday.
And so there we were, Saturday morning, standing outside 'The Cutter Inn' on the riverside in Ely in brilliant sunshine watching Molly Dancing - the first 'station' of a day long event, 'The Mark Jones Day of Dance', hosted by the Ousewashes Molly Side.  This was my first experience of Molly Dancing and I, for one, was thoroughly enjoying it.  So much so that, when the sides moved from Ely to 'The Anchor' and 'The Plough' both in Little Downham and, finally, 'The Five Miles from Anywhere' on the banks of the Cam at Upware, I persuaded the bf that we should follow.  Each station, I should add, ended with a communal, simultaneous dance by all the Molly sides present - the first, in which they all danced to 'God Spede the Plough', was particularly moving.
Molly Dancing is a form of folk dance originating in East Anglia - I've always thought of it as a particularly Fen land tradition.  It has formal, almost ritual, qualities that might suggest to some roots in ancient pagan religion but it's origins are more prosaic and are likely to be found in the Modern Era. It is however linked into the English Ritual Year by being associated with winter and especially with Plough Monday - the first Monday after the Feast of the Epiphany - quite the leanest time of the year and was originally performed by agricultural workers.  The earliest written record is from the 1820s, and one of the things that differentiates it from other forms of folk dance like Morris is the element of cross-dressing among the traditionally all male side.  Molly is 18th century slang for the gentleman of my persuasion.  The dance also has a number of peripheral participants (they don't dance): a 'sweeper', or 'broom-man', and an 'umbrella-man'.  Faces are invariably blackened.  The custom died out in the 1930s and was revived in the 1970s.
Since its revival Molly has gained in popularity nationally, spreading across the country beyond it's original region - there is even a Molly side in the U.S. This was demonstrated by the other sides taking part on Saturday:  Black Anis Molly, Good Easter Molly Gang, Holly Copse Molly, The Norwich Kitwitches, Mepal Molly, Oxblood Molly Dancers, Seven Champions Molly Dancers and Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians. Some coming from a far as Bournemouth to take part. The styles of dress and approach were very different; some rather cheeky and knowing - Pythonesque even, others deeply serious.  In particular I'd like to mention Seven Champions and Old Glory Molly.  The former's dance had a satisfying heft to it, and it was accompanied, effectingly, by a solo singer, the only side to do so.  And then there was Old Glory Molly; there is something 'eldritch' - to use a Scots word - about them.  Something, oh so slightly unsettling.  Certainly something verging on the chthonic about the musicians - all women - in their black and green costumes as though they had just stepped out of the Greenwood, or from a Medieval poem, or even from the 'Unseen'. 'Darkly pastoral' has been used to describe the music of Jim Jupp aka 'Belbury Poly' and it suits 'Old Glory Molly' pretty well too.
I'm looking forward to next year.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Own work - Life Drawing XVIII

Yesterday I returned to Life Drawing.  Here are my efforts.  As always in order of production.

Monday, 25 January 2016

London and Dishoom

It'll soon be a fortnight since I was in London for the Celts exhibtion.  For lunch I decided to try somewhere new; it was a toss up between 'Bao' and 'Dishoom - Carnaby', both in Soho.  Dishoom won.  I was not disappointed.
The concept is simple: the four Dishoom restaurants are a loving hommage, in a sort of post-Modern way, to the Parsee run cafes of Bombay - hence the image of the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda over the desk as you walk in.  Judging by the the decor, the originals, which are, alas, disappearing in Bombay, had their heyday in the Midcentury - the 50s, 60s and 70s.  The food culture of the originals represented a unique food culture blending Indian and Iranian influences. The menu then, is a mixture of dishes familiar to British diners such as biryani and the unfamiliar, with a contemporary British twist.  The menu has both substantial dishes - like curries - and 'small plates' as well as things like 'frankies' and 'roomali rolls'.  Breakfast is also served daily.  It was from the small plates that I made my selection.
To begin with I had 'Keema Pau' - a comforting dish of minced lambs and peas, spicy and deeply savoury, served with two toasted buns (they reminded me of brioche).  It was fabulous, so much so I've been thinking of it ever since.  I pushed the boat out with another small dish - 'Prawns Koliwada'.  Hot and spicy plump prawns - slightly crisp exterior.  I needed to cool down after that and had a pistachio kulfi - think 'semi-fredo', rather than icy and rock-hard.  I drank water and the delicious house chai.  The service was friendly and very quick.  In all a delight.  I'm planning a return visit.

Monday, 18 January 2016

London and 'Celts: Arts and Identity'

Another busy trip to London on Thursday.  The main reason for my visit was the exhibition 'Celts: Art and Identity' at the British Museum.  And I've been trying to quantify my response to it ever since as this exhibition raised some very interesting questions.  The premise of the exhibition is simple;  modern celtic identity is by and large a construct of Early Modernity based on a limited knowledge of the past and a series of assumptions that fed into, and were in turn fed by, that knowledge.  For the organizers of this exhibition the term 'celtic' is a cultural and not racial category.  The first mention of the 'celts' in written history was by the Greeks, who applied the term 'Keltoi' to people living in central Europe who traded with, and raided, the Classical world.  The Romans referred to the 'Galli'.  'Celt' was not a label that those people used about themselves - but then they left no written record.  And it is certainly not a name used, until the Modern Period, by those we now associate with celtic identities today - Breton, Welsh, Irish and Scots who became literate in Late Antiquity.  Since Thursday I've watched a BBC4 programme 'Meet the Ancestors' presented by Julian Richards and he assiduously avoided the label 'celtic' when he referring to Iron Age burial customs in England.  It was far too loaded a term.
Now to the exhibition itself and the wonderful objects it contains. After a slightly wobbly start we meet 'things'.  Sculptures in the form of enigmatic warriors, or gods from central Europe and later graveslabs and the monumental Cross of St John (a cast) from Iona.  There are great swords and shields, and a spectacular horned helmet - votive offerings that have been recovered from rivers like the Thames and, here in Lincolnshire, the Witham where the ritual deposition of objects continued past the Anglo-Saxon 'takeover' into the Middle Ages.  Objects that because of their antiquity, and their use of a long forgotten visual and symbolic language, are mysterious, evocative things - not fully 'present' to us.  And there is gold - lots of it.  Torcs and penannular brooches and all manner of, well, treasure. The brooches, made in Ireland, are works of immense skill.  They are very small but they are decorated to within an inch of their lives.  Quite stunning.  And oddly, perhaps, it was the small things that remained with me the longest.  Anyway all of these objects are arranged chronological order from the Iron Age to Late/Post Modernity - today; from Paganism to Christianity and secularism.  Simultaneously move across Europe from east to west.  From 'Hallstatt' culture, through the swirls of 'La Tene', through Classical Antiquity to Late Antiquity and what exactly?  Where, perhaps things get tricky, where perhaps that old, and persistent, clear cut notion of a dualism of 'Celt' and 'Anglo-Saxon' perhaps begin to soften.  One of the first objects on display is a gravestone, a 'Pictish' gravestone, and it is decorated with interlace and what are called 'Zoomorphic' animals.  Later on there is a wonderful gold item, a buckle I think, from the Sutton Hoo burial from near Woodbridge in Suffolk and it too is decorated with interlace and most incredible zoomorphic animal.  It is believed to be the work of an Anglo-Saxon goldsmith.  But which is the celtic object and which is the Anglo-Saxon?  They both contain the same motifs.  No wonder than that various other names have been coined to categorize these objects 'Insular', 'Hiberno-Saxon'.  Hanging bowls are another example: originating in late Roman Britain they continued to be made after the end of Roman rule (but in all likelihood outside the boundaries of Empire).  They are decorated with the swirls associated with 'La Tene' culture, and so are markedly 'celtic', but are overwhelmingly found in Anglo-Saxon graves.  In fact both interlace and the zoomorphic figure are believed to originate with the Anglo-Saxons, as did a number of smithing techniques such as chip carving, granular and filigree work, and cloisonne inlays that were taken up by goldsmiths working mainly in Ireland.  At this point in the exhibition it was these objects from Ireland that dominated; there seems to have been nothing comparable made in Wales or Brittany.  There was obviously more of a shared visual culture between the two celt and anglo-saxon than we once believed.
It is at this point historically that in architecture and in the visual arts that the 'celtic' slowly disappears giving way to firstly the Romanesque and then Gothic culture.  It is more, I think, than merely the politics of conquest and colonisation; both Romanesque and Gothic simply presented more compelling visual languages.
And then the long 'Celtic Twillight', which makes up the final quarter of the exhibition.  That cultural 'half-life' that I find so fascinating.  It starts out, oddly enough, with English Antiquarians such as Lincolnshire's very own William Stukely (1687 - 1765), who was happy to accredit anything ancient and not obviously Roman to the 'Celts'.  Even odder was the view Stukeley, a Anglican priest, had of the Druids, who he saw as practitioners of an ideal rational, 'natural' religion.  He inadvertently started a trend that was picked up by the emerging Romantic Movement.  Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) is a notable example.  Williams, 1747 - 1826, was born in Wales, lived in London, and was a mason by profession and a radical in politics.  In London he was active in a couple of Welsh societies 'The Honorable Society of Cwmrodorion' and the 'Gweneddigion'. Like Stukely he re-invented the Druids as followers of 'Natural' religion.  A kin to Deism, I suspect.  He also re-invented the Early medieval Welsh past as a Golden Era of liberal politics - something that still occurs today; you only have to read 'The Rough Guide to Wales' to see that.  Like James Mcpherson, in Scotland he was not averse to fabricating celtic verse.  In 1794 the first meeting of his Gorsedd was held on Primrose Hill, North London.  The ritual was claimed to be authentic.
The exhibition has a number of items objects associated with the National Eisteddfod, which is a descendant of that first meeting in North London.  I was stuck immediately by their secularized religiosity; they either took there cue from 19th century Anglicanism - for instance the banner at the start of the exhibition, or the stole that makes up 'vestments' one of the officals, or looked as though they were designed by use by some group of ritual magicians like 'The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn'.  Perhaps there is some link through the radical Williams to Freemasonry.
Opposite are two Scottish paintings, both luscious in colour and heavily Late Romantic in feel - dreamlike one could say: the famous by the Glasgow Colourists George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel; and the less well known 'The Riding of the Sidhe' by the Dundee artist John Duncan.  Duncan contributed Patrick Geddes's magazine 'The Evergreen', and 'Celtic' was to have a profound influence on the Arts and Crafts movement as it developed in Edinburgh and Dublin, what was called the 'Celtic Renaissance' in Scotland, but which affected Arts and Crafts design in England.  Both these paintings display as shift in attitude to the 'Celtic' from Stukeley and Williams, who saw in the celtic as a progenitor of Enlightenment Values to one in which the celtic is held up as an alternative to Modernity, a place of dream, of mysticism and other values beyond the 'greasy till' to use W B Yeats's phrase.  This view of the Celtic too has it's origin in Romanticism.  It is there in the works of Sir Walter Scott and later W B Yeats and J R R Tolkien.
I have in my collection of pamphlets and guides a catalogue of a exhibition held in Dundee Art Gallery in 1973 of the work of a contemporary of Duncan's called John 'Dutch' Davidson.  The title is 'The Hills of Dream Revisited'  An apt for this exhibition too, for in the nebulousness of the term, in the mystery of the art - of it's not being entirely 'present' to us - 'celtic' becomes the receptacle of both our wishes and our unhappinesses.  We back project on to it.  And it is that that unites William Stukely, New Agers, New Celtic Christians, Nationalists and Romantics, radicals and conservatives.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

St Andrew, Sutton-in-the-Isle

Sutton-in-the Isle stands at the very south-west corner of the Isle of Ely.  I've posted before about one part of the village - the outlying hamlet of Sutton Gault and its remarkable atmosphere. The parish church, dedicated to St Andrew, stands on possibly the highest point in the village towards the eastern end of the High St.  It is a conspicuous element in the landscape, not only for the size of the tower, which can be seen for miles across the fens, but its design: the two top storeys are octagonal, one inside another like a telescope.  Quite a rare thing too, though there are four others in the county (two at the cathedral in Ely), and two surviving in Norfolk.  I can't think of any in Suffolk, though there, as in Norfolk there are a number of octagonal top storeys that sit on earlier circular towers. There is only one here in Lincolnshire, at Boston.  I suspect they were more common than they are now.
The design here at Sutton looks like a mimetic representation of the central octagon of the cathedral six miles to the east.  Pevsner makes this connection in the Buildings of England volume on Cambridgeshire.  However the design, to my eyes, looks a bit odd; it's a tricky thing, visually, the transition between the square and the octagon and the designer at Sutton didn't quite pull it off.  Larger corner pinnacles may have helped. That it was thought appropriate to top the tower with a model of the octagon makes sense as the bishops of Ely, who had temporal, as well as spiritual power in the Isle, had a manor house here in the parish at Burystead on the lane between the village and Sutton Gault  As Pevsner explains, the body of the church (nave and chancel) was built by two bishops of Ely: Bishop Barnett (1366 -73) and Bishop Arundel (1374 - 88).  And they spent a lot of money on this church.  The South aisle in particular is very stylish with a vaulted, two storied porch and polygonal buttresses dividing the bays and lots of ashlar masonry - the rest of the church is built of rubble, and the texture is very appealing.  In contrast the north aisle is quite plain; no ashlar and no porch.  The style is very latest Decorated Gothic, and as in the choir in Wells cathedral (apparently the work of William Joy) which I have blogged about before, the tracery in the chancel windows is just beginning to crystallize into Perpendicular.  The tower which has an ashlar base, is completely Perp, and therefore later than the work of the two bishops.  Looking at it again as I upload these photographs I'm wondering if the change from ashlar to rubble marks a change in the mason, or a hiatus in construction.  Perhaps the top section of the tower was completed much later.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Boxing Day and Oxwich Bay

Christmas was spent in Swansea.  Boxing Day afternoon and we had an itch to get out.  At my suggestion we went to Oxwich Bay on the Gower Peninsular.  It was wonderfully atmospheric and remote-feeling; thick scudding clouds and white crested waves - everything else a variation of slate grey.  The beach is wide and sweeping between two headlands jutting out into the Bristol Channel.  Very beautiful and, for such a overcast day, popular. It's even more popular in summer.  It attracts surfers; there are watersports shops and a rather classy looking restaurant, 'The Coal House' on the beach.  (The Gower, especially The Mumbles, is a bit of a gastro hub these days.)  Behind the beach are great marshes, full of reeds and water which only enhance the feeling of isolation.
 The western headland - at the foot of which is the tiny, blink-and-you-miss-it, village of Oxwich - is covered in thick woodland - a 'hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping [invisible] down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing boat-bobbing sea.'  And there past the hotel (rather ugly) and up a muddy track is the tiny church of St Illutyd in its cramped and crowded churchyard - all whitewashed and snuggled into the damp hillside.  The wide eaves of the slate roof - which spoils the church by not being graded - gives the St Illutyd's a rather Late Victorian, or early twentieth century feel, when it is in fact very ancient.  The present church, which is Medieval, stands on the site of a 6th century monastic settlement.  A remarkable, haunting place.