New light on the Lakes

NEW LIGHT ON THE LAKES

We’d been dreaming about Andalusia. But plans sometimes must be altered, and so one August evening we found ourselves instead entering into Ulverston, thirteen hundred miles from Andalusia, and even more distant climatically, culturally, and historically.

The Lake District – “England’s Switzerland”, Manchester’s playground, stamping-grounds of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, magnet to millions of tourists, subject of a billion photos, noted for traffic jams, tea-shops, lake cruises, mint-cake, and hikers in fluorescent cagoules. These images were unappealing, especially when juxtaposed with thoughts of Spain. Our prior experiences had been grey days around Ambleside, trooping in everyone else’s damp wake, reading the same rain-spotted information boards, and taking the same photos. I had also come here on a coaster, coming alongside at Silloth on Christmas morning, and had vague remembrances of cold, empty streets, flour mills and the smell of fertilizer. The effect of such impressions had hitherto been to make us defer exploration when there were so many other places, and so little time. But as I plundered my bookshelves, the District soon loomed into shape – and by the time we were climbing to our cottage through lanes of bruised bracken, the great glitter of Morecambe Bay below and sheep-smelling hills rising up all round, any lingering regrets were vanquished.

The ninety square mile District was divided historically between Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland, but in 1974 it was all subsumed into the new county of Cumbria (to considerable chagrin). There are sixty-four lakes, including Windermere, England’s biggest at over ten miles long and nearly a mile wide, and Wast Water, its deepest at 258 feet – a product of high rainfall, plus the impermeability of volcanic rocks. Some waterbodies still hold Ice Age relicts like Arctic char and vendace, fish rare elsewhere and threatened even here by non-natives. There are 180 mountains of over 2,000 feet, including Scafell Pike, England’s highest at 3,209 feet. This strongly marked landscape is sparsely populated outside the summer season, with its largest town, Kendal, having fewer than 30,000 permanent residents. Small wonder the area has attracted superlatives since the English started to take an aesthetic rather than utilitarian interest in landscapes, at that eighteenth century cultural cusp when Augustan tastes were toppled, wilderness turned into scenery, and emotion and self-realisation began to be exalted over reason and restraint. 

In 1769, Thomas Gray could still find these mountains “very rude and awful with their broken tops”, but the following year William Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, a lawyer’s son who would become the area’s greatest interpreter and publicist, and England’s Romantic-in-Chief. His Prelude recalls a childhood spent chiefly outside, by the Derwent which “flowed along my dreams”, or out on screes and slopes, catching woodcock, robbing ravens, or just rhapsodising – epic walks, summer swims, ice-skating, cliff-climbing, wild winds, “distant Skiddaw’s lofty height…bronz’d with a deep radiance”. Presently he started composing poetry to “find fit utterance for the primary and simple feelings” (Dictionary of National Biography), developed democratic sympathies, met Coleridge and Southey, and settled with his sister at Dove Cottage overlooking Grasmere. 

His penchant for recreational walking was much mocked – “His legs were pointedly condemned”, joked English Opium-Eater Thomas De Quincey, who moved into Dove Cottage after the Wordsworths, and improbably became editor of the Westmorland Gazette. Wordsworth’s character was also assailed, particularly when his poetry strayed into bathos (notoriously, “SPADE! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands”) and his politics turned Tory. His outlook was ridiculed by, among many others, William Hazlitt, who scoffed that Wordsworth “sees nothing but himself and the universe”. Some moderns are even less forgiving, like Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) – “He went from being a great Romantic to a great Victorian, and the transition required much renouncement”. Solnit even regrets he did not die in his late thirties, which might admittedly have been inconvenient for him and his family, but would luckily have left “his image as a radical intact”. Notwithstanding such charitable considerations, Wordsworth’s Weltanschauung – an amalgam of love of nature, fascination with the past, slightly philistine patriotism, and unbounded sentimentality – still permeates the Lake ambience and England’s view of itself.

Behind all Romancing, and even when the weather is fine, the District feels unyielding. Even Beatrix Potter’s treacly tales have a granite-gleam of toughness, her Peter Rabbits, Jeremy Fishers and Jemima Puddle-ducks anatomically correct under all the anthropomorphism, product of a lifetime observing and depicting fauna and flora (she had a special interest in fungi, and in 1897 presented a paper to the Linnaean Society of London on “Germination of the spores of the Agaricineae”). An even solider achievement was that she was able to bequeath 4,000 acres of the area to the nation upon her death in 1943, courtesy of Mr. Tod, Tommy Brock, and the Tailor of Gloucester. Less comforting animals were Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs, the labrador Rowf and the Jack Russell Snitter of his searing 1977 anti-vivisection novel, experimental subjects who escape from an animal research centre to live wild for a while aided by another tod, the starving stoniness setting for the moral desolation of the experimenters. 

This was for centuries a frontier zone whose clouded hills could at any moment unleash moss-troopers and reivers. It got coopted into wider wars, one Civil War legend telling how Sir Robert Philippson (a.k.a. “Robin the Devil”) of Belle Isle on Windermere rode right into Kendal’s parish church in angry, unsuccessful search of one Colonel Briggs, a Parliamentarian who had besieged his house. A century later, on Midsummer’s Eve in 1745, twenty-six respectable witnesses saw a Jacobite army on Souther Fell, a place no force could possibly have been, a fata morgana for a time of anxiety. 

But in April 1778, there was an actual incursion, when John Paul Jones landed at Whitehaven – a shipbuilding, trading and whaling port linking the “Three Kingdoms” of England, Scotland and the Isle of Man – with thirty men from the U.S.S. Ranger. He hoped to torch hundreds of ships as they languished at low tide, crammed in tightly between the piers. But the wind was against them, and the sky was already paling when they made landfall. Jones and his party landed at the southern fort and spiked its cannon, while half of his force went to the northern part of the harbour to set the ships alight. The latter resorted to a public house, ostensibly to get a light for their incendiaries, but seem to have been sidetracked by the stock. When Jones rejoined them, he found no ships had been burned because no-one had a light. Even when they finally obtained one, their arsons went awry, most of the fires fizzling out, and others quickly extinguished by locals  – who had been alerted by a Ranger crewman apparently anxious about anyone getting hurt. Jones withdrew ignominiously, taking just three prisoners and leaving behind a few hundred pounds’ worth of damage, and a reputation as dastardly pirate. (The town only pardoned him in 1999.) The seriocomedy continued as he headed to Kircudbright to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, only to find him from home, meaning he had to make do with the family silver, including Lady Selkirk’s still-hot teapot, which she gave up after a short but probably strained interview. 

This was also a District for criminals, the Lancaster assizes passing more death sentences than anywhere else in England between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries; about 265 were hanged in the Castle’s “Hanging Corner” between 1782 and 1865. (The assizes also covered Manchester and Liverpool.)

Lune riverbed at Lancaster

Lancaster Castle

Smuggling was common, and a hint of old watchfulness can be gleaned at Roa Island, reached by a narrow Victorian causeway just above the water, and sometimes below it, flanked by salt marsh with a beached trawler and lifeboat, and a dinghy tied to a garden wall. At the end of the causeway rises an early Victorian inn and a thicket of masts, cannon pointing out to sea, and the ‘Gothick’ archway of an excise house framing the channel, and ships and submarines heading into Barrow-in-Furness. Just off Roa is the ruined Piel Castle on Piel Island, an outpost of the English Church Militant, built by the Abbot of Furness to guard against Scottish raids.

Another instance of old interest in this area is the extant post of Guide to the Queen’s Sands, which has existed since 1538, a post-Dissolution assumption of an old monastic responsibility. The Duchy of Lancaster pays the Guide a nominal £15 per annum (plus rent-free use of a 12 acre farm) to lead travellers across Morecambe Bay at low tide. Until the railways came in the 1860s, this was an important route, but it was always hazardous across 120 square miles of mudflats, where the rivers Keer, Kent, Leven (there is a separate Guide to the Leven Sands), Lune, Ribble and Wyre commingle in shifting quicksands and racing tides. As recently as 2004, 21 illegal Chinese cocklers were cut off and drowned – victims of exploitation as much as the early eighteenth century Sambo, “a faithful negro, who, attending his master from the West Indies” died at Sunderland Point near Lancaster, and was buried out under the sands. The present Guide, fisherman Cedric Robinson, appointed in 1963, has occupied the position longer than any of his twenty-four precursors. Seeing pictures of him in action, probing with his tall staff while throngs wait for his word, one thinks of ancient images – St. James and scallops, fishers of men, finders of The Way.

Back on terra (very) firma, the area’s farmers have always scratched subsistence from soil lying like the thinnest of coverlets over rock, their farms surviving only with subventions. The last English wolf was supposedly killed here in 1390. Below their angled, drywalled ‘pastures’ and ‘yow’ pens, the ancient pedlar tracks and corpse-roads over the tops and down into Yorkshire lie thick coal seams, mined from the thirteenth century, and in 2017 being revived after a decades-long hiatus. Whitehaven was epicentre for an industry that brought crucial employment, with some mines stretching miles out under the sea, but also multiple disasters. The pits at Whitehaven, says the Durham Mining Museum, have “probably the blackest record in the annals of coal mining”. The twentieth century bears grim testament. In 1910, 136 men and boys were killed in a single explosion. In 1922, there were 39 – in 1928, 13 – in 1931, 27 – in 1941, 12 – and in 1947, 104. The 1910 explosion was the biggest ever mining disaster in the county, and 64 Edward Medals were awarded to rescuers, the most ever for one incident. Details still stab; when the mine was unsealed after four months so bodies could be recovered, one corpse was found cradling his teenage son and his son’s friend in his arms. Another man had taken off all his clothes and folded them beside himself, insufferable heat not preventing neatness. They also found chalked messages  showing some had survived the explosion, to sign off miserably afterwards in stifling, Stygian timelessness.  

Castlerigg

While men lived like Morlocks below, far above tramped self-exiles and sensation-seekers, revelling in the area’s otherness. These men were as different from miners in expectations and outlook as Keats, whose Hyperion references Castlerigg stone circle near Keswick –

Scarce images of life, one here, one there,

Lay vast and edgeways; like a dismal cirque

Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor…

Then there was Ruskin, looking out from the turret of Brantwood in search of impressions – Turner, trying to capture particular lights on particular stones before all colours altered – Aleister Crowley, an unexpected alpinist, disdainful of the rising generation of “rock gymnasts” he ironically despised as self-publicising – Arthur Ransome, Soviet-sympathising author of the so-British, so-bourgeois Swallows and Amazons books – and Donald Campbell, who died on Coniston Water in 1967 while trying to set a world water-speed record in Bluebird K7 (his body was only found in 2001, and his head is still missing). 

Another Lakes-lover was Alfred Wainwright (1907-1991), son of a stonemason from Blackburn, who succumbed to the fells’ spell on 7th June 1930, staring out from Orrest Head, above Windermere:

I was totally transfixed, unable to believe my eyes…I saw mountain ranges, one after another, the nearer starkly etched, those beyond fading into the blue distance. Rich woodlands, emerald pastures and the shimmering water of the lake…this was real. This was truth. God was in his heaven that day and I a humble worshipper.

He spent much of his remaining 61 years tramping the fells’ every inch, like them externally forbidding, describing and drawing his routes in seven Swiss-lens sharp Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells, now standard reference works – each dedicated unusually, such as “The men who built the stone walls” or “Those unlovely twins, my right leg and my left leg”. When his eagle eyes failed in old age, he found himself “in a grey mist”, like those he had seen so often descending over arêtes and peaks, seeing maps increasingly only in mind’s-eye. In his posthumous Memoir of a Fellwanderer, he wrote wistfully of a final walk, slipping and stumbling in rain on an ascent made often before – of how his “silent friends…shed tears for me that day.” 

Some north-westerners sought escape rather than entrance, like John Barrow (1764-1848), knighted son of an Ulverston tanner. His career encompassed whaling in Greenland, comptrolling in China, Auditor-general of the Cape Colony, Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty, promoter of Arctic exploration (Alaska’s Barrow was named after him, in 1825; since 2016, it is officially Utqiaġvik, emblematic of ongoing de-Englishing), and President of the Royal Geographical Society. His Monument, a replica lighthouse, crowns Hoad Hill over his hometown, offering aptly vast maritime and montane panoramas. 

Another Lakes-forsaker was Stan Laurel, born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston in 1890, to a vaudevillian family. Brats, Tit for Tat, Saps at Sea, Way Out West, and all the rest play on continuous reel at the town’s Laurel and Hardy Museum, as visitors are reminded of the boys’ brilliance, or inspect the photographs, typescripts, bizarre L. & H. merchandise, and things young Stan knew, including a mangle from an outhouse where he spent hours in punishment for high-spiritedness. Yet while Santa Monica became Stan’s residence, and his Englishness a comic prop, part of him always looked homewards, because he took Ollie there in 1947, and Ollie told the North West Evening Mail “Stan had talked about Ulverston for the past 22 years.” 

We too will return, cured at last of anti-Lakes ennui, old ideas augmented by new lights – “England’s Switzerland” under an azure empyrean, blood-warm walls, Whitehaven cormorants holding out wings towards the Kingdom of Man, the sun declining superbly over a stupendousness of slopes, thickly-treed hillsides tumbling down to lakes like mercury, black-faced sheep on bald sides leading up to incomprehensible viewpoints. 

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with permission

Time’s terpsichorean – review of Anthony Powell by Hilary Spurling

TIME’S TERPSICHORIAN

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time

Hilary Spurling, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016, hb., 510pps

Anthony Powell’s million word, twelve-volume novel sequence Dance to the Music of Time is one of the great achievements of postwar English literature, attracting near-universal praise for its subtle and textured evocation of England between the First World War and the 1960s. Powell’s narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, looks on quizzically as a representative cavalcade of twentieth-century characters cavort across the pages of history, at times following anciently ordained patterns, at others striking out on their own to amusing or bizarre effect. 

In the 1640 painting by Nicolas Poussin which inspired the sequence’s name, a naked, winged, controlling Father Time strums a cithara and looks on enigmatically as dancers representing the seasons revolve, facing outwards, holding hands, while a celestial chariot races through storm clouds above, and cherubs blow soap-bubbles to remind viewers of the impermanence of things. Poussin paradoxically suggests continuity and cosmic lucidity, but also the ever-present possibility of upset; dancers may perform pavanes or tarantellas, but in the end even the most corybantic must come back to the circle. Powell wrote in comparable baroque-classical vein, as if striving to rationalise randomness, impose order onto an increasingly disorderly England. Nicholas Jenkins preoccupies himself with Robert Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, Powell so signalling his own appreciation of the Anglican divine’s stately lugubriousness, his rolling periods and mordant sense, his insistence that everything has been seen before, what will be will be, and we should see chaos in context. Such phlegmatism pervades The Dance’s million words, giving its babooneries black lustre, ballasting what in less sure hands might just have been Jazz Age incidents.  

Jenkins’ England’s most egregious representative is Kenneth/Lord/Ken Widmerpool, whose altering states and styles adumbrate revolutionary wider changes. Widmerpool is a school contemporary of Jenkins, an awkward, ungainly, deeply earnest loner of “exotic drabness”, sniggered at or dismissed, who nevertheless “gets on” surprisingly, first in the world of business, but then in other ways as his attention to tedious details and brisk officiousness help him overtake more likeable but less serious schoolfellows. He is “not interested in anything not important or improving” (Powell), and constantly “closes down possibilities” (Spurling). Chilly relentlessness carries through into all he does, making him the perfect pen-pusher for peace or war, admirer of Wallis Simpson, proponent of deals with Hitler, postwar Labour peer with ties to the Soviets, cuckold, voyeur, and in the end cult thrall, returning to school-style humiliation, dying trying too hard. He rises, and sinks, without trace. In his 2004 Understanding Anthony Powell, Nicholas Birns suggests Widmerpool’s defining trait to be “craven acquiescence to whatever he perceives to be the prevailing power of the day”. Yet the quintessentially twentieth century Widmerpool would have considered himself an autonomous individual and independent thinker. 

This paragon of preposterousness is only one of over four hundred characters populating Powell’s English universe – Widmerpool counterpointed by fusty novelists, outdated painters, alcoholic ex-gilded youths, Young Turk litterateurs, communist activists, confused peers, bed-hopping models, embittered critics, impecunious uncles, oddly impressive palmists, cranks, termagants, block-headed, secretly suicidal army officers, cult-followers turned art agents, a literal femme fatale, and too many others to mention, flashing out or fleshed in expertly, each believable, comprehensible, containing multitudes. We have all had such encounters in strangely significant interiors, small exchanges that over time add up to an immensity – noticed similarly tragicomic coincidences, connections and contradictions – experienced the same disconcertment as time races but much remains the same. Those few cavillers who reject Powell for classism, conservatism, orotundity, parochialism, or triviality misread him severely. At base, The Dance is deeply humane, a universal acknowledgement of our foibles and possibilities; as Powell wrote,

All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary.

Hilary Spurling knows Powell’s creations better than most, as compiler of 1977’s Invitation to the Dance, the indispensable handbook to Powell’s dramatis personæ. “Bowled over” by The Dance at eighteen or nineteen, she worked her way onto the literary desk of the Spectator, and so was able to meet her hero. As she began to make her own name (as biographer of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Paul Scott, Henri Matisse, Sonia Orwell, and Pearl Buck), she and her novelist/playwright husband John drew close to Powell and his wife Violet, at liberty when passing to drop into The Chantry, the Georgian “house with a driveway” he had always sought, for tea and scintillating talk. Powell secured her the job of writing the Invitation, and eventually asked her to be his biographer on the understanding, she writes, “that nothing was to be done for as long as possible”. When he died in 2000, she commissioned an outsize cast of his head, which peers onto their London garden as he once surveyed the entire city and century, a face of marked alertness, with slightly upturned nose  as if still scenting all winds, and owl-like eyebrows. If the Invitation allowed Spurling to display her organisational ability, this book proves her subtle understanding of Powell’s many milieux, and reveals flair and force that often rival her subject’s. 

An earlier Boswell-manqué, Michael Barber, found “certain doors were closed to me, and certain resources withheld”. He nevertheless published correspondence Powell might have preferred to forget, such as 1920s animadversions against democracy and liberalism, and a 1992 letter in which he opines “…much against my taste I would have been for Franco in a preference to a Left dominated by Communists”.  Spurling loyally does not mention Barber’s 2004 book. Powell’s politics should not be overstressed; he was averse to all ideological or religious commitments (although he had superstitious tendencies). His sole political action was helping stave off a communist takeover of the National Union of Journalists. Unlike some of his creative contemporaries, he had no wish to reform human nature, or upturn England; to borrow the title of The Dance’s third instalment, his was usually an Acceptance World. Powell produced several volumes of memoirs, but they are often opaque, as tantalised James Lees-Milne noted –

[Powell] discloses nothing about himself, but is revealing, albeit cautiously, of his contemporaries’ follies.

Like his creation Jenkins, like Poussin’s Time, the author was enigmatic, watching rather than acting, assessing rather than judging.

Happily Spurling’s delicacy of touch gives us a sharp picture of Powell in his subfusc strangeness, born in 1905, elfin only child of an irascible and stingy army officer who had been at Mons, and his much older wife, both of whose antecessors could have come from Surtees or Thackeray. We find him forced through loneliness into feats of imagination and introspection, drawing, making up stories and reading, often age-inappropriate books like Aubrey Beardsley and Havelock Ellis, interesting himself in actual or fanciful genealogies. “He found his own obscure stability in a distant heredity”, Spurling reflects, compensating psychologically for military-posting peripateticism by dwelling on “grounded for centuries” Radnorshire antecedents. Like his mother, he would always be “glad to see ghosts”. 

Powell would have no fixed address until despatched to a Kentish boarding school aged ten, a Spartan-to-squalid establishment whose pupils were fed rancid meats, and sometimes augmented their diets with raw turnips stolen from a nearby farm. Here he befriended Henry Yorke, who later wrote successful novels as Henry Green (they broke eventually, because of Yorke’s pomposity). Thence to Eton, where being standoffish and unsporting he might have suffered, but he landed luckily under the aegis of Arthur Goodhart, one of the few housemasters who took more interest in the arts than sports. Even Goodhart found the future novelist difficult to plumb, but Powell would later say his Eton days had been the most important of his life, when he found community, and started to see the world as it was. Amongst innumerable other observations, Powell filed away for future use the stigma attached to Yorke, ribbed by schoolmates for unorthodox sartorial choices, just as later Widmerpool’s persona and even destiny would be partly determined by having once worn “the wrong kind of overcoat” at school. Mrs. Spurling has been extraordinarily assiduous in identifying the originals of numerous incidents and characters that years later would step into The Dance.

Powell went on to Oxford, where he languished listlessly, conscious of being neither rich nor well-connected. But there he found Evelyn Waugh, who became a lifelong friend (and whose posthumous reputation Powell would help rescue, earning him Auberon Waugh’s enmity) and other appreciators, including Maurice Bowra. There were mind-expanding encounters with Dostoevsky, Eliot, and Proust amongst others, deep discussions, and European travel during the holidays. 

After Oxford he worked at the faction-riven, stuffy Duckworth publishing house, dealing with authors whose often atrocious texts he was expected to assess, sometimes up to fifty a week. This taught him how not to write, and the acquired habits of focus and swift summation would be of massive benefit later, both as in-demand reviewer, and dreamer-up of The Dance, turning out instalments to a private master-plan over twenty four years. Friendships accrued with notables like Robert Byron, Constant Lambert, Adrian Daintrey, and the Sitwells, and he became a Territorial Army officer. Somehow he found time to become a novelist, drawing 1931’s Afternoon Men from the lives around him, and locations like his lodgings in Shepherd’s Market, a raffish-risqué island in the middle of Mayfair. 

Love affairs came inevitably along, culminating in Violet Pakenham, the daughter of Lord Longford he married in 1934, who gave him two sons, and would become merciless, priceless dissector of each Dance volume’s first draft. He tried to become a Hollywood screenwriter, and issued four more novels – Venusberg, From a View to A Death, Agents and Patients, and What’s Become of Waring? – each in some way prefiguring his magnum opus. He got to know Graham Greene, George Orwell and everyone else who figured on the sometimes incestuous cultural scene (Greene fell away, piqued by Powell’s insufficiently fulsome review of The Heart of the Matter). Even with all her access and skill, Spurling sometimes struggles to lift him clear of his context; he had almost too many flamboyant contemporaries, who flare up and briefly outshine Powell’s steadier flame. But it would be impossible to do a better job with so “frightfully buttoned-up” (Powell’s self-description) a subject, and in any case he is inseparable from the cultural ferment she evokes so capably. 

War service entailed long absences and marital difficulties, but afforded a mass of material for the military volumes of The Dance. Demobbed, he suffered from aimless depression, and expended vast intellectual energies reviewing, sometimes a book a day for publications like the Daily Telegraph, Punch, and the Times Literary Supplement. He became close to Malcolm Muggeridge (who later cooled, jealous of Powell’s superior reputation). 1948 saw his John Aubrey and His Friends, the easygoing, inveterate quidnunc clearly speaking to Powell across centuries. Then along came 1951’s A Question of Upbringing, and The Dance die was cast. Between installments, Powell used his influence liberally to bolster or create careers, like those of Kingsley Amis and V. S. Naipaul – the latter long an intimate, but eventually an ingrate who trashed Powell’s oeuvre once his old mentor had died.

As he garnered grey hairs and honorary doctorates, and became a Companion of Honour, he came to be dismissed by callower critics as fusty, out-datedly English, vaguely Tory, his European outlook and experimentalism occluded by externalities of accent or attire, such as being the last Travellers’ Club member to maintain the habit of wearing a hat during lunch. But over the years of writing The Dance his reputation generally held up, each volume awaited keenly by connoisseurs, some awarded prizes. 

Forty-two years after the appearance of the final volume, Hearing Secret Harmonies, Powell is still relatively widely read, but few would have understood better than he the contingency of celebrity, the evanescence of fame, bubbles popping from the pipes of Poussin’s putti. Oeuvres ought to be constantly reexamined, and reputations renewed, if even the greatest works of imagination are not to slide down time’s interstices. Spurling’s subtle salute to her friend will be of  service to his shade, and conducive to a nuanced view of his century. 

This article first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is republished with permission

Upcoming Chronicles reviews

My review of Kassia St. Clair’s engrossing Secret Lives of Colour will be in the July 2018 issue of Chronicles

I have also just sent them my review of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century (no idea yet when that will be published)

The Camelot-Chequers axis

Grand Union Flag

THE CAMELOT-CHEQUERS AXIS

Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain

Christopher Sandford, Lebanon, N.H.: ForeEdge, 2017, hb. 300pps

Cultural historian Christopher Sandford’s enquiring eyes range widely, playing over everything from cricket to Kurt Cobain, the Great War to The Great Escape, Conan Doyle to Eric Clapton, and countless other late nineteenth and twentieth century Anglosphere interests. Although conservative in some ways, he empathises easily with un-conservative subjects, or at least is able to tease out counter-intuitive realities from modern myths. So in Satisfaction, his 2003 biography of Keith Richards, he revealed such shocking truths as that the counter-cultural icon ne plus ultra likes few things better than Surrey and evensong, and that the large beakers of lethal-looking liquid carried ostentatiously onto many a reputation-tarnishing/burnishing chat-show are actually iced tea.

JFHM2

In his 2014 Harold and Jack, he inspected the unexpectedly warm relationship between the stuffily Conservative Harold Macmillan and J.F.K., the acronymed epitome of Sixties chic and ‘radicalism’. Now he plumbs more deeply into Kennedy’s background, character and development, underlining his earlier findings that the demi-god of old Democrats was more manager than moralist, so anti-communist that he supported Joseph McCarthy, pragmatic on ‘civil rights’ and heedless of early-onset feminism, romantically attached to certain traditions, and conservatively conscious of what he described as “the abyss under everything”. All this is intrinsically interesting, and objectively important, as Kennedy’s attitudes help explain the whole course of postwar history, especially the persistence of the globally crucial US-UK alliance notwithstanding Suez and other potential points of cleavage. It is also elegantly told, full of sage asides and amusing observations, such as on Alec Douglas-Home, “whose misfortune it was in the television age to resemble a prematurely-hatched bird”.

At the kernel of this story is the at times ambivalent relationship between J.F.K. and his bluntly outspoken father, whose 1938 appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St. James seemed inexplicable even at the time. By October 1940, when he was replaced in this most important of postings by John Gilbert Winant, Kennedy père had made himself deeply unpopular with the British media, politicians and even the public, called “Jittery Joe” for acerbities about British preparedness and his advocacy of accommodating dictators, sneered at as likely crooked, an arriviste as well as a snob. His views were perhaps predictable from the head of a clan most of whose members clung onto old Irish-American, anti-W.A.S.P. resentments, and never relinquished them, at least as late as the time of Ted Kennedy. J.F.K. himself could switch on the Irish angle for domestic political purposes, and sometimes drew parallels between the Irish-American and other immigrant experiences – but he simultaneously, noted Hugh Sidey,

…delighted in the romantic accounts of the rise of the British Empire, and the great figures on the battlefields or in parliament who made it possible.

His sympathy for those who felt alienated by W.A.S.P. America was always tempered by distrust of their occasional overreaction, what he called the “venom and bitterness” of Leftists like Harold Laski. In 1958, he would write (perhaps that should be type) a booklet called A Nation of Immigrants, but like his equally insulated youngest brother he did not foresee what venomous and bitter use would be made of such vapidities.

Maybe it was also predictable that some of Joe’s high-spirited and intelligent offspring should have asserted their independence against so prickly a patriarch, with both Jack and his older sister Kathleen footing it featly across high society dance floors and (sometimes literally) into the arms of the aristocracy. Kathleen was dubbed “Debutante of 1938” by the press, and in 1944, she would assimilate so far as to marry “Billy” Cavendish, Lord Hartington, against the wishes of her parents, who disapproved of both his Conservatism and his Protestantism. (The marriage ended in the worst way after only four months, when he was killed by an S.S. sniper in Belgium.)

That same season which saw Kathleen’s coming out also stood her younger brother in good social stead, although one dance partner, Deborah Mitford, later the Duchess of Devonshire and a close friend, found him “rather boring but nice”. (Her mother was astuter, saying “Mark my words, I won’t be surprised if that man becomes President of the United States”.) Jack found he fitted in with a certain type of upper-class Englishman, sharing their sensibilities and tastes, sometime even outdoing them in stereotypical English attributes – lightly-borne education, social ease, understated emotion, self-deprecating humour, easy-going sexual mores. Even at times of near-catastrophe, he kept himself in check, for example saying of the overnight appearance of the Berlin Wall or the discovery of the Cuban missile emplacements that things were “quite tricky”. As the author observes,

There was a part of America’s thirty-fifth President, whether innate or acquired, that was more ‘English than the English’

Kennedy seems to have seen aspects of himself in the great English Whigs, re-reading David Cecil’s 1939 masterpiece The Young Melbourne almost annually, Victoria’s future first prime minister rather foreshadowing Kennedy’s flexibility, priapism and privilege.

Like his historical hero, the clubbable, libidinous Kennedy had a serious side, many remarking on his ability to switch in an instant from connubiality to Czechoslovakia, or the weather to the Wehrmacht, reading hungrily, meeting everyone who was everyone, watching Commons debates, and travelling on the continent. His ideas did not always diverge that much from his father’s – Sandford cites an October 1939 Harvard Crimson editorial by J.F.K. which called for compromise with “Hitlerdom” – but just two months later he was at work on what would become 1940’s Why England Slept, a perfectly-timed anti-appeasement tract which became a bestseller. The book, written in a style which, Sandford notes, “could be suggestive of a light fog moving over a hazy landscape”, and edited heavily by New York Times writer Arthur Krock, might never have been published had Kennedy’s father not promoted it (including, according to Paul Johnson, secretly buying up thousands of copies to be cached at Hyannis Port) – an example of the anomalies in their relationship, great loyalty despite geopolitical disagreements.

The friendships J.F.K. forged before the war, the insights he accrued, go a long way to explain his indulgence of Britain at times when other Presidents might have lost patience. None of this means that the U.K. was ever anything other than a junior partner in the relationship, but possible Airstrip One humiliation was avoided thanks to Kennedy’s understanding of Britain’s cultural-political position, and his ability to be able to pick up a hotline direct to Macmillan (who was Kathleen’s uncle by marriage) or spend weekends with David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador whom he had befriended in prewar London (to the disgust of Lyndon Johnson). Washington’s ambassador to London, David Bruce, was also congenial to Macmillan, the two reportedly beguiling lulls between Cuban Missile Crisis phone calls by reading Jane Austen to each other.

The President’s pragmatic and – occasionally – generous approach to British needs was facilitated by Macmillan’s answering pragmatism, with both leaders agreeing on the awfulness of the Soviet system, the need for arms control and orderly British decolonisation, the desirability of closer ties with Europe. Besides, Britain was genuinely useful, with its global reach and sense of history. Dean Rusk and other close observers also agreed on the importance of Macmillan’s and Ormsby-Gore’s advice and support during the Missile Crisis (although Kennedy did not inform Macmillan for five days). The President, Robert Kennedy remembered,

needed to unburden himself and listen to the man he’d come to privately know as ‘Uncle Harold’

There seems little doubt that Macmillan made a signal contribution, if an unquantifiable one, during those “quite stressful” (this understatement is Macmillan’s) days. The goodwill engendered lingers in the Anglo-American ambience, even if the actual achievements of that period are few in number (Sandford suggests 1963’s Partial Test-Ban Treaty may be the only “imperishable event”).

The last chapter is dominated by an outline of Kennedy’s last visit to England, in June 1963, peccant in its descriptions of dinner at Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peaks”, in a fug of damp labradors and cigars, poignant with the President’s visit to Kathleen’s grave at Edensor, laying flowers and praying in the Derbyshire drizzle – poignant also because we know the closing of his chapter is just five months away. As Macmillan recalls watching his “Dear friend” ascending by helicopter into a cloudless summer sky at the conclusion of his visit, it seems to him in retrospect almost as if he had witnessed a transfiguration. All that charisma, energy and intelligence, just lifted away  – and leaving so little behind.

This review first appeared in the November 2017 Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

Old North – wanderings in Lothian

Sparta-2

OLD NORTH – WANDERINGS IN LOTHIAN

Ravens over North Berwick Law – could any phrase be more hyperborean? I turned the words over lazily as I watched the birds fifty feet above, circling and diving on each other, flicking expert wings, commenting incessantly on their sport as they alternately dropped or upheld the thin blue vault. Below the volcanic cone of its Law, the town lay snoozing along the Firth of Forth. Somewhere on its yellow beach my wife was watching our son delve sand with a four year old’s intensity – a ludic, pointless activity like that enjoyed by corvids, an in-the-moment celebration of physicality, space and sunlight.

Far to the west, Edinburgh bustled under haze. North in the Firth the guano-whitened Bass Rock glinted at ships heading to Leith. Eastwards, Tantallon Castle stood guard on its seas-smashing headland – while to the south the Lothian hinterland rolled away towards the Borders’ small hills and histories. North Berwick is a pilgrim port turned resort, emblematic of the many sides of Scotland, a country caught always between Catholic and Protestant, Gothic and classical, magic and science, chivalry and coolness, sentimentality and severity. These “Debatable Lands” have often been occupied, and cross-cutting legacies have been left, as at Athelstaneford, “the birthplace of Scotland’s flag” for a legendary ninth century Saxon-beating saltire-in-the-sky, which yet has a wholly Anglo-Saxon name.

Edinburgh is airy and crepuscular, a city simultaneously of clear views and deep shadows. The Royal Mile that runs from the basalt crag of the Castle to Holyrood below the extinct volcano of Arthur’s Seat is grandly processional, but its tall townhouses are simultaneously undergirded and undermined by innumerable secret spaces hacked into its sandstone. Over centuries, cellars, drains, dumps, foundations, graves, sewage sumps, shops, shrines, sleeping accommodation, stores and tunnels were jammed in democratically and unhygienically atop each other to maximise the cramped space behind the city walls – making of the Old Town “a quarry, rather than the habitation of men”, as Hazlitt marvelled in 1822.

Necrobus

The skull-and-bone motifs long favoured by local funerary monument sculptors might almost have burst out of unquiet earth, enriched as it has so often been with the remains of altercating denominations, or ambitious families, like the Black Douglases, whose sixteen year old 6th Earl and even younger brother were served a black bull’s head on a platter while dining with ten year old James II at the Castle in 1440, after which they were executed.

Something of ghostliness reaches even into regal Scotland, with the Palace of Holyroodhouse breathing of Mary, Queen of Scots – near-saint or near-Antichrist to some Scots, to others symbol of a small kingdom subjugated, child-queen, twice widow, browbeaten by impossible Knox, perpetual prisoner, toy of European events, tragic victim of cousinly spite, a lone woman adrift in a sea of troubles. Her chambers make a melancholic suite, with deep carved ceilings, a cassone resembling a Roman sarcophagus, a cabinet with bleeding heart inlays, devotional oils (Head of Christ, Head of the Virgin, Death of St. Jerome), and tapestries showing the downfall of Apollo’s son Phaeton, who lost control of his father’s sun-chariot and was killed by Zeus to stop him burning up the earth. Even the cornucopia reliefs are grisaille, as if to suck life out of what ought to be joyful motifs, while a plaque in the Outer Chamber shows where screaming David Rizzio died of fifty-six knife wounds.

Edinburgh also has less Gothic ghosts. In the Scottish Parliament is preserved a soporific 1706 debate about exports and imports – redeemed solely by ending mid-sentence, on 27 November, the day the predecessor Parliament became outmoded, the “auld sang” of free Scotland stopped in mid-note, the scribe having thrown down his quill in sorrow, or maybe simple relief that daily drudgery was over. Canongate Kirk is equally pedestrian-piquant, austerely Anglican with its Dutch-gabled exterior, and interior palette of duck-egg blue, clear glass and dark stone. The view of one Very Reverend Dr. Andrew McLellan is highlighted, “God is space and light and reason and ordered beauty”. Could any theology be more Protestant? Outside, Adam Smith slumbers among many other ex-Edinburghers, many small businessmen – plumbers, bakers, confectioners, painters – plus the odd minor aristocrat, poet, or friend of Walter Scott. Smith’s upper-case inscription reads – “The property which every man has in his own labour as it is the original foundation of all other property so it is the most sacred and inviolable.” Could any epitaph be more prosaic? Strange to remember Smith lived in the former house of the 4th Earl of Panmure, a Protestant, yet also champion and follower-into-exile of the Old Pretender, the old ways. As if to highlight Caledonian contradictions, a modern sculpture called The Last Chimaera writhes all to itself near the gate, monstrous hybrid and young boy contending for Christendom.

Greyfriars

Reflections on fate’s flukes are also provoked by Greyfriars, a former Franciscan monastery just inside the Flodden Wall, in whose kirk the National Covenant was signed in 1638 in an outburst of righteous/self-righteous anger. In 1679,1,200 Covenanters captured at Bothwell Brig were imprisoned ironically beside the church, part of their pen later incorporated into the graveyard. Vaulted tombs and columned slabs line the walls of the “Covenanters’ Prison”, gloomily adorned with stone crania, ribcages and teeth, the dead pinned down by pious hopes, and nineteenth century ironwork to deter “resurrection men” who stole corpses or even added to their number to further then-modern medicine. A few decades later this grisly locale would become known as backdrop for the perfectly Victorian tale of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who for thirteen years slept nightly on the grave of his owner, and sighed his brown-eyed way into susceptible hearts the breadth of Britain.

It is remarkable Rosslyn Chapel survived the Knoxian rigours. Begun in 1446, this confection is easily Scotland’s most over-the-top piece of ecclesiastical architecture, so showy it feels un-British, resembling most obviously Belém church in Lisbon. Nikolaus Pevsner dismisses possible Portuguese connections – “the individual decorative forms used at Roslin are drawn, almost without exception, from the stock of Late Gothic foliage types” – but even he acknowledges Rosslyn’s uniqueness as ensemble. There were iconoclast attacks, and after 1592 the chapel fell into disuse; there was further vandalism in 1688, collateral damage of the “Glorious Revolution”. When William and Dorothy Wordsworth came in 1803, the lush stone foliage was festooned in living counterparts, the ceilings sagging, the corners piled with dirt, the windows gone; “The wind is now thy organist”, Wordsworth romanced in “Composed in Roslin Chapel During A Storm”. It was only after Queen Victoria visited in 1842 that it was decided to save it, and restoration continues, boosted vastly by featuring as stage-set for The Da Vinci Code.

But the Chapel had long elicited wondering speculation, with its profusion of toothed beasts, petrified forests of turrets, endlessly varied vegetation, furred and upside-down angels, glorious ‘Prentice Pillar’, engrailed crosses (the St. Clair arms), and the unusual Latin inscription from apocryphal Esdras/Ezra,

Wine is strong. The king is stronger. Women are stronger still; but truth conquers all.

An entertaining pamphlet, Rosslyn and the Western Mystery Tradition, sets out some of many mystical speculations in prose as exotic as its subject, with subheadings like “Zerubbabel in Early Masonic Tradition”. Others posit that the acanthus-like carvings are representations of maize (‘proving’ that Scottish navigators visited America in 1398), or that the chapel is a numerological riddle based on multiples of seven, and the flat lintels are occult symbols of pre-Christianity (Pevsner snorts that the lintels were copied from fireplaces). Merovingians, Masons, Rosicrucians, the Sangréal, secret tunnels, Templars, and flying saucers also feature in this modern mythology. Flying saucers may seem out-of-place in this post-modern mystagoguery, but there is strange science-fact in this locale, as it was at Roslin Institute that Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997.

It feels like respite to come to Little Sparta near Dunsyre (“hill of the seer”) in the Pentland Hills, to stroll the half-mile, sheep-smelling track up into the five acre sculpture garden founded by “concrete poet” and “avant-gardener” Ian Hamilton Finlay. The name alludes to Edinburgh’s nickname, “Athens of the North”. Like the real Sparta, Little Sparta is an upstart statelet rejecting its near-neighbour as decadent and overblown.

Here between 1966 and his death in 2006, Finlay gave free rein to French Revolutionary, neo-traditional, piscatorial, Romantic, Virgilian and wartime fascinations, in almost 300 artworks placed precisely around the cottage where he lived, in idea-areas across undulating fields, under parkland trees, along burns, around pools and in a walled garden. It is strikingly effective, the erstwhile soldier turned cultivator, the one-time Orcadian shepherd turned Arcadian in a pocket landscape planted painstakingly by his wife.

The artworks vary greatly, and even beehives are coopted, with names – Sweet Promise, Golden Gain – conveying wry pastorality. “Flute, begin with me” is ones of the first inscriptions seen, the quote from the Eclogue incised below an image of a machine-gun. The 1993 visit of a girl with an eye-patch is memorialised as “Enya came here in the guise of a Cyclops IX 1993”. Classical urns bearing sentimental messages about “purling streams” are beside signposts reading Zur Siegfried Linie (pointing to the cottage washing-line, a reference to the 1940 British Expeditionary Force song “We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line”). Neo-classical pineapple finials are ‘really’ hand-grenades. An ionic column reflects itself in a reeded loch. Slabs carved with “wave” in five languages lead across a billowing lawn thick with herbs. A little bridge reads “Arch, n. an architectural term – a material curve sustained by gravity as rapture by grief”. An iron wheelbarrow is labelled “W. Shenstone 1714-63”, in honour of the disappointed poet and gardener. An outsize golden head of Apollo stares out of the ground under birches, overlooking a dark pool. Saint-Just’s plaintive-progressive words “The world has been empty since the Romans” adorn an empty plinth – and the garden’s best-known feature bears his aphorism “The present order is the disorder of the future”, each word on its own slab in rough vegetation at the highest point of the statelet. Every artwork has multiple meanings, and every plant seems significant, each bloom a welcome guest.

"The present order is the disorder of the future"

“The present order is the disorder of the future”

At Lothian’s 724 foot high heart, Traprain Law, is the Loth Stone, supposed grave-marker of legendary King Lot, purported progenitor of King Arthur’s Sir Gawain, and St. Thenaw, throwing the latter off a cliff upon discovering she was pregnant (wafted to safety, she gave birth to St. Mungo, founder of Glasgow). Sadly for these stories, when a philistine farmer moved the monolith no remains were found. Scrambling up the Law’s sides with a boy on my shoulders, I appreciated its old usefulness as hill fort for the Votadini, from whence warriors set out to attack Angles at Catraeth (probably Catterick in Yorkshire), as remembered in Y Gododdin, an elegy in Old Welsh that is one of the oldest pieces of Brittanic literature –

A single sword / has hasten’d forth upon three hundred horses / Of these, none would return, O world of woe!

Men of the Old North were going forth, and the outcome of their expedition was apparently unforeseen –

Come rise as one, Gododdin’s golden sons / And flow to Catraeth, go with eager speed…

“Splendid slaughter” was expected as the force departed, banners flying “with colours of good wine”, led by Cadfannon, “steersman of steeds / Careering crimson fillies with the dawn.” Similarly surging emotions must have been experienced by those seeing “the flower of Scotland” setting off full-confident for Flodden.

Traprain

The Exmoor ponies grazing the Law were crimsoned by evening rather than morning sun, but they were otherwise likely lookalikes for the Galloways steered by Cadfannon – not tall but strong, long-maned, inquisitive and resourceful, surrounding us where we sat on the ground, snuffling pockets for food, sniffing hair, salivating on hands, looking liquid into eyes, filling everything with snickers, snorts, stamps and whinnies, and that heady atavistic reek of horse. I daydreamed of Epona, horse-goddess to Celts, and as I watched their long shadows against the brilliance felt I heard faintly the sounds of ancient, endless ridings-out, to Gododdin’s foremost borders and beyond, cloppings, canterings, gallops and harness-jingles echoing back from unnumbered years.

This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission. Photographs by Derek Turner