Outré Europe – review of Basile’s Tale of Tales

Basile pic


The Tale of Tales, Giambattista Basile, trans. Nancy L. Canepa, London: Penguin Classics, 2016, pb., $20

Like most Western children, I was reared partly on fairy-tales. Presented in beautifully illustrated Ladybird books, these were as much a part of my early childhood as the house decor, encouraging me to read, and arousing inchoate ideas of an ur-Europe of forlorn beauties, wandering princes, vindictive stepmothers, dangerous fruits, fabulous treasures, ravening beasts, warty witches, magnificent chateaux, and thorn-swathed castles lost in trackless forest. When I encountered the Disney versions I swiftly lost interest in them, boyishly repelled by song-and-dance numbers and tweeness – but still the stories stayed, lodged in my image of myself and the civilisation to which I felt I belonged. It was years before I realised that fairy-tales were much darker and more interesting than Disney or Hans Christian Andersen had led me to believe – and years more before I heard of Giambattista Basile, the most inventive of all fairy-tale writers, and to whom we owe such kindergarten classics as Rapunzel and Cinderella. This beautifully translated, superbly annotated new translation of his Tale of Tales which Benedetto Croce called “the most remarkable book of the Baroque period” – should therefore be of abounding interest to anyone who has any proprietorial regard for European culture.

Establishing the origins of traditionary tales is often impossible, stemming as many do from before written history, and the commonalities of the human condition leading to adventitious parallels even in widely separated cultures. For example, the ninth-century Chinese folk tale of Yeh-hsien is reminiscent of Cinderella – a girl ill-treated by step-relations but aided by a giant fish to attend a great ball attired in kingfisher-feather dress and gold shoes, one of which she mislays, and which is too delicate to fit anyone else until at last the lovelorn royal suitor finds her in a scullery. Tales have also interpenetrated each other to some extent through borrowings and translations. The Arabian Nights, for example, has partly Indian origins, compiled by Ashokan folklorist-intellectuals in the 3rd century B.C. as the Panchatantra, from stories that were old even then (they would not be translated into Arabic until the 8th century). The cities of the Mediterranean littorals have always been interfaces as well as flashpoints, and one of the oldest and greatest was Naples, where Giambattista Basile first bawled lustily for attention circa 1575, newest addition to a socially ambitious middle-class Posillipo clan.

The youthful Giambattista was reared in a rich-historied, Vesuvius-conscious, lushly-grown, staggeringly vital city of around 200,000 souls, caught between unquietly sleeping pagan past and splendid Catholicism, Commedia dell’arte and Counter-Reformation, Harlequin and the Holy Ghost. In summer, he probably swam, as one day I swam, in the swelling Bay beneath the ruins of a Roman summer-house – perhaps that of ogre-like Vedius Pollio, a 1st century B.C. equestrian who fed slaves to lampreys – and doubtless attended High Mass at the Cathedral of San Gennaro where thrice yearly throngs come to see the magical liquefaction of the city saint’s ichor. Etruscan, Greek, Western Empire, Byzantine, Ostrogoth, Lombard, Saracen, Norman, Hohenstaufen, Angevin, Spanish and Near Eastern influences vied in everyone’s ether, while overlapping visionaries like Giordano Bruno, Bernardino Telesio, Caravaggio, and St. Joseph of Cupertino augmented the sensory-intellectual banquet.

Naples’ part-Spanish nobility proving slow to patronise the young Basile, like other ambitious Campanians he decamped northwards, eventually becoming a mercenary guarding Venice’s Cretan outpost of Candia (Heraklion). Here he joined a dilettantish society, Accademia degli Stravaganti (“Academy of Oddities”), and started to write letters, verses, songs and anagrams. By 1608, he was back home, where his sister Adriana had won European fame as a singer, fêted as la sirena di Posillipo. Helped by her connections, he began to garner a literary reputation, as well as that of a skilled administrator, becoming secretary to noble families as far afield as Mantua and later a several-times city governor within the Kingdom of Naples. Although he styled himself Il Pigro (“The Lazy One”), in what must have been limited spare time he turned out poetry and plays, and scholarly editions of mannerist classics in Italian – while also authoring, gathering and restyling the mass of dialect material that would transmute into The Tale of Tales. Circa 1624, he was ennobled as Count of Torone, and continued what an obituarist called his “very peaceful tenor of life” until falling to flu in 1632.

It is ironic that Basile’s scholarly works have fallen into obscurity, and that he should be remembered today almost solely for Lo Cunto de la Cunti (also called Pentamerone, because it consists of fifty tales told within a five day period, and as hommage to Boccaccio’s Decameron), which was not even published until four years after his death. Why he did not have it published is unclear. It was not a question of a sophisticate embarrassed by provincial roots, because he always championed Neapolitan artists and writers. It might have been difficult to find a publisher, translator Nancy N. Canepa suggests,

…in a period in which Spain was striving to consolidate its colonialist regime in southern Italy, a literature whose depiction of local realities was often tinged with anti-Spanish and anti-colonial sentiment was regarded suspiciously by official culture.

Maybe he just did not feel it was ready for publication. But in any case these stories were always supposed to be told rather than read – and told within a limited circle. The collection is subtitled “Entertainment for Little Ones”, but the intended audience was decidedly adult – aesthetes, intellectuals and wits, who would appreciate Basile’s ornate language, lavish metaphors, his torrent of classical and contemporary allusions, sly squibs, urbanity, and lugubrious eclogues on courtly life or moral virtue. Then there is surrealism – such as in The Crow, when a king become besotted by a freshly-killed crow whose blood has leaked onto white marble, and searches ever after for a wife with such colouration of hair, lips and skin. In short, the stories are characterised by what Cambridge don E. R. Vincent called “euphuistic sophistication.”

Older children would, however, probably have been shocked-delighted by Basile’s gleeful descriptions of sex, his paragraphs of profanities, and comical conceits such as elderly and deformed story-tellers beguiling the periods between narrations playing chasing games and hide-and-seek. Then of course there are magical transformations, gore and grotesquerie by the cartload – to the extent that it is sometimes a relief to take refuge in Canepa’s pellucid footnotes.

The Tale of Tales went through several partial or complete Neapolitan editions between 1634 and the early eighteenth century, then passed into Bolognese dialect and at last Italian. In 1846, it made it into German and, in 1848, English (translated by John Edward Taylor, and illustrated by Cruikshank). In 1893, came the best-known Englishing to date, by that bourgeoisie-scourging romancer Sir Richard Burton, whose version, said biographer Fawn Brodie, showed that “…he had forgotten nothing of the gutter argot he had learned in Naples as a youth.” It is fascinating to compare his version with Canepa’s – both full of brilliance and vim, but hers has the edge, perhaps because he was a generalist, whereas she has specialised. In this passage from “The Dove”, he describes an ogress,

…the brow was cut out of Genoa stone fit to sharpen the knife of fear, which sickened all breasts; the eyes were comets, which caused by a glance a trembling of the limbs, and tightening of the heart, and ice upon the spirits, sharpening of arms, and looseness of body; and she brought terror in her face, fear in her eyes, trembling in her steps, and threats in her words. Her mouth had tusks like a wild boar’s, and was large as a dog-fish’s…

While excellent, this seems inferior to Canepa’s:

…her forehead was made of Genoese stone, to whet the knife of fear that rips open chests; her eyes were comets that predicted shaky legs, wormy hearts, frozen spirits, diarrhoea of the soul, and evacuation of the intestines, for she wore terror on her face, fear in her gaze, thunder in her footsteps, and dysentery in her words. Her mouth was tusked like a pig’s and as big as a scorpion fish’s.

Last year, some of this highly-seasoned stufato finally made it to the screen, in Matteo Garrone’s Italo-French Il Racconto dei Racconti, starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones – the latter especially well cast as the king who becomes besotted with a flea and feeds it secretly on his own blood and raw meat until it reaches lamb-size, then kills it and offers his daughter in marriage to anyone who can tell him what kind of animal it was. Naturally, an ogre wins the contest, and the stage is set for yet more fantastical bloodiness.

Illustrator Carmelo Lettere, whose freewheeling cartoons well suit this matter, notes how

In Basile’s text an uncontainable, unseemly, and impure world unfolds itself in elegant and anticlassical fashion.

Canepa similarly stresses a post-modern interpretation of the stories, in which 17th century hierarchies are upturned and found wanting – although this is presumably just to make the collection seem more palatable to today’s readers, rather than to make some oblique sociopolitical comment relevant to today. She highlights discrepancies between the conventional happy endings of many of the stories and their actual content. For example, at the close of The Cinderella Cat, Basile avers complacently “Those who oppose the stars are crazy” –  even though his heroine succeeds by doing just that, even committing murder (one cannot imagine the Grimms’ girl doing that, let alone Disney’s). But any unfolding or upturning only seems to go so far. It seems after all unlikely that the peaceful-tenored fabulist would have wished to unsettle the system into which he had been admitted.

Basile was vastly original, obviously, but his urbane auditors would have recognised all kinds of antecedents. Beneath all the phantasmagorical, sometimes disgusting detail – guitar-playing crickets, the decapitated being reanimated, a wizened dyer who bleaches and pins her skin to fool a king into sex, geese being used as toilet paper, cockroach suppositories – lie deep, millennia-old structures, like palaces swallowed by forest but visible from the air. These tales are crammed with traditional tropes, some of the 2,500 enumerated so laboriously (and, one suspects, slightly joylessly) by folklorists Aarne and Thompson.

The book starts with one, “The Supplanted Bride” – the unsmiling princess Zoza forced into laughter by witnessing an argument between an old woman and a boy, ending up with the enraged crone (after a gratuitous flash of her “woodsy scene”!) cursing Zoza for laughing. This curse inevitably involves the princess being cheated out of her prince by an ugly and foolish slave, who marries him instead. But kindly (and apparently inegalitarian) fairies, equally inevitably aid Zoza, and social equilibrium is regained, after a salutary (but un-serious) tossing and goring. These stories are more psychological safety-valves than moral lessons or political messages. As Iona and Peter Opie observe in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974),

In the most-loved fairy tales, it will be noticed, noble personages may be brought low by fairy enchantment or by human beastliness, but the lowly are seldom made noble. The established order is not stood on its head.

Classical and medieval literature are, as Canepa notes, full of fates being circumvented, gods being outwitted, monarchs being lampooned or traduced, heroes who can be monsters, time-slips and bizarre metamorphoses. As these ideas endlessly return, so too do character-types, imagery and styles. Basile’s “unexpectedly modern” heroines are not actually more empowered than, say, Clytemnestra or Salome. Basile’s contemporary-feeling grossness was prefigured in Rabelais, his surrealism in Aristophanes, or works by Bosch and Arcimboldo. The author’s “stylistic hybridity” is a reflection, simply, of unconfinable genius, rather than a model for literature (or society) then or today.

Basile was gleaning in ancient fields, but he added piquant persona to all the things he found, making them his own – but also oddly ours, aspects of an outré Europe that subsists below and still feeds into modernity. Those who wish to know more about Naples, Italy, the 17th century, the baroque sensibility, and the wildest shores of Europe’s identity ought to avail of the rare opportunity to read this foundational, fantastical farrago.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the April 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission


Rise of the Dominatrix – review of Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning by Charles Moore


Rise of the Dominatrix

Margaret Thatcher: Not for Turning

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2013, 859pp

When Margaret Thatcher died last April, the obsequies were at times almost drowned by vitriolic voices celebrating her demise. There were howls of joy from old enemies, street parties, and a puerile campaign to make the Wizard of Oz song, “Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead!” the top-selling pop single (it failed, narrowly). The extravagant hatred evinced by some shocked some, but it was in a way an entirely suitable send-off for a woman who always loathed ‘consensus’. She may be the last Conservative whose demise will evoke more than a yawn.

This is former Spectator and Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore’s first book, but it is an assured production, steeped in its subject, judicious in its handling of history, coloured by his journalistic instinct for revealing and amusing anecdotes. In this first of two volumes, he follows his heroine from birth up to what “may well have been the happiest moment in her life” – the October 1982 victory celebrations after the recapture of the Falklands. His heroine she may have been – and this is why she approached him to be her biographer, on the understanding that publication would be posthumous, and interviewees knew she would never read what they had said – but he maintains critical distance. There are 54 pages of footnotes referring to innumerable interviews, and a seven page bibliography, assembled over 16 years of what must have been at times an all-engrossing project, whilst incidentally editing Britain’s best-selling broadsheet newspaper. We will need to wait until the companion volume, Herself Alone, to get Moore’s assessment of her legacy, but for now, Not for Turning equips us admirably to understand what she was like as person and politician, why she was the way she was, and suggest why she would succeed in many ways, yet fall short in others.

Moore’s researches were at times made more arduous by his subject, a naturally private person who was always, as he reflected in the Daily Telegraph after she died, “keen to efface the personal”. Her memoirs gloss over emotions or incidents about which we would like to know very much more, or lend “Thatcherism” greater coherence in retrospect than it possessed. But luckily she was intrinsically honest, and Moore early learned to read subtle signs –

All politicians often have to say things that conceal or avoid important facts. She certainly did this quite often; but she did it with a visible discomfort which often undermined her own subterfuge.

This complex personage pushed into the world in 1925, and lived above a commercial premises in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a town even now a byword for provincialism (despite having been Isaac Newton’s hometown). It was one of two grocery shops run by her father Alfred Roberts, who when he wasn’t selling sausages to Midlandian burghers was Mayor and a Methodist lay preacher. “If you get it from Roberts’s – you get the BEST!” was the shops’ slogan, and her parents’ rectitude, work ethic, and attention to detail would stay with their daughter.

School was preparation for a life of application. A contemporary remembered – “She always stood out because teenage girls don’t know where they’re going. She did.” She unsurprisingly excelled in declaiming from sturdily middle-brow poets – Tennyson, Longfellow, Kipling, Whitman. Serious, too, was her sojourn in Somerville, regarded as the cleverest of the female colleges in Oxford, where she read Chemistry and thrived even under a Leftist principal.

The young Margaret Roberts, notwithstanding the pervasive progressive miasma, was already obstinately Conservative, although she had not yet refined her particular brand. She joined the Oxford Union Conservative Association (OUCA) and became its president, and co-author of a pamphlet destined to be combed over by obsessives in later years. At that time, the Conservative Party was a mass movement, and a means of social mingling, and many joined for social as much as political reasons, or simply to find a spouse of the right Right type. Moore suggests that she likewise saw OUCA as an “opening of the door”. She took elocution lessons, and met as many influential people as possible, always inveigling herself somehow onto the top table at dinners. Yet her letters to her parents and older sister Muriel are often apolitical, rarely even mentioning the War, unexpectedly spotted with spelling mistakes, full of family, clothes and rare romantic interests, the latter discussed in briskly British terms. When she first met Denis, her husband-to-be, she told Muriel that he was “a perfect gentleman. Not a very attractive creature”. (He remembered her almost equally coolly – “a nice-looking young woman, a bit overweight”.)

After graduation, she worked in industry, and in 1950 stood for Parliament for the first time, in the solid Labour seat of Dartford in Kent. She conducted a dynamic campaign, characterized by her contribution to a debate hosted by the United Nations Association, which featured her Labour opponent Norman Dodds and other speakers even further Left:

I gave them ten minutes of what I thought about their views! As a result Dodds wouldn’t speak to me afterwards and Lord and Lady S. [Strabolgi – an old Scottish title Italianized in the 16th century] went off without speaking as well.

She made an impressive 6,000 dent in the Labour majority. It is characteristic that at the count she told her activists that the next campaign would start the following morning.

She married Denis in 1951, the start of a quietly contented partnership that lasted until he died in 2003. As well as his earning capacity and a business brain useful whenever his wife needed to comprehend company documents, he brought to their alliance some social status, a large fund of commonsense, and a willingness (even now rare for men) to take a back seat. Performing household tasks – she cooked when she could, and enjoyed tidying (an everyday application of what Edward Norman called her “pre-existing sense of neatness and order in society”) – assuaged the faint guilt she clearly felt at being something of a Bluestocking.

Needing to earn more money, she trained for and practised at the Bar, and the experience added to her near-mystical respect for law of all kinds. She later systematized this passion for precedents –

As a Methodist in Grantham, I learnt the laws of God. When I read chemistry at Oxford, I learnt the laws of science, which derive from the laws of God, and when I studied for the Bar, I learnt the laws of man.

Between work and family, she politicked tirelessly, resenting even holidays as wasted time. (There is a telling photo of her in this book, on holiday in the Hebrides in 1978, walking in business clothes along a beach, staring at her watch.)

In 1958, she applied for selection in the north London constituency of Finchley, where the electorate was approximately one-fifth Jewish. This suited her, perhaps predisposed to philo-Semitism by her Nonconformist upbringing, certainly always admiring of law-abiding, hard-working people, and she impressed from the start. At one selection committee meeting, one astute member whispered to another, “We’re looking at a future Prime Minister of England”. Later, she would be strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers like Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman (the latter a fan of this journal), and was a strong (if not uncritical) supporter of Israel. Macmillan once joked that her Cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians”. Yet she also came under fire from constituents for upholding Oswald Mosley’s legal right to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. She was of course selected, then elected in the 1959 election, and in 1961 got a junior ministerial post as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. Her anxiety to prove herself and achieve something was immediately evident, with her Minister grunting to the Department’s top civil servant “She’s trouble. What can we do to keep her busy?”

As the Kingdom lost its Empire it also lost its way, and her Party drifted directionlessly. Quite apart from the threats to order and freedom posed by different kinds of socialism, ranging from Soviet-funded Marxism to saccharine egalitarianism, the economy was dominated by sclerotic state-owned concerns, with attempts at reform usually stymied by ultra-Left trade unionists. There was a decline syndrome of spiralling spending, ballooning inflation, inbuilt inefficiency, and industrial (in)action. The Conservatives seemed powerless to act, or even to think, although monetarism was gaining ground among cleverer Conservatives. Thatcher was frustrated by the Party’s unwillingness to engage in what she could see was an ideological rather than a mere electoral battle. Emblematic of Conservative complacency was the reaction of the free-market Economic Dining Club, whose members were reluctant to let her join, fearing she would dampen their masculine conviviality, and compel them to engage in discussions before dinner.

On other matters, she was more old school – in favour of corporal and capital punishment, against pornography, drugs and easier divorce. But she was never a reflexive moralizer, voting to legalize both homosexuality and abortion (the latter because she had met a despairing disabled child). Whatever her private views on any subject, she was then (and would always be) “trapped in moderation”, to borrow the title of one of Moore’s chapters – compelled to work within a framework where the odds were always against her.

Natural allies lacked stomach – for example, businesses refused to help in the fight against the closed shop, because they wished to avoid unpleasantness, and the alternative would be too complicated. Again, in the 1960s and 1970s, even many Tories wanted comprehensive education, and although she managed to save 94 grammar schools while Education Secretary (1970-1974), she was compelled to allow 3,286 comprehensives. She hated the egalitarian educational orthodoxy, although sometimes she would have to defend it publicly. Moore cites one interview in which she claimed that primary schools were “much better…much more progressive”, while she was saying privately to aides that all those schools offered was “rag dolls and rolling on the floor”.

She had learned how to combine being a conviction politician with being a pragmatic politician – and to ensure that when she had been bounced into a course of action she should make her unhappiness known to the Right-of-centre grassroots. She was sincere, but she was also a superlative Party manager. Yet she really tried. “You came out of a meeting with her”, one Education official remembered, “feeling that you’d had three very hard sets of tennis”. But he remembered her fondly; she was unfailingly kind and generous to staff.

Good luck came to her aid when Ted Heath refused to take her leadership challenge seriously, and in 1975 she took his place as Conservative leader, the first woman to lead any major Western political party. She revelled in the attention, and did not mind being hated – “The day that I am not causing controversy, I shall not be doing very much”. She was the last Conservative leader willing to endorse inequality – “Equity is a very much better principle than equality”. She attracted contumely even from her own advisers for supporting Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Zbigniew Brzezinski was astounded to learn that she was “inclined to favour the white position”; in one speech she even said “The whites will fight, and the whites will be right.” In the end, on Rhodesia as on so many other matters, she bowed to inevitability – but arguing fiercely as she retreated. (Moore notes laconically, “What happened much later in Zimbabwe…was to confirm Mrs. Thatcher’s pessimism”.) She attended what despairing F.C.O. officials called “disturbingly right-wing” meetings in America, building bonds that would be of material benefit during the Falklands War (although Moore is at pains not to hyperbolize the ‘special relationship’). In a famous 1978 interview, she infuriated the Party establishment by speaking on immigration, a subject on which she had said little before, saying that many Britons feared “they might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. But she hoovered up votes that would otherwise have gone to the National Front, then on the cusp of breakthrough, and delivered huge swathes of the white working class into the Conservative camp. (She would never do anything substantive about immigration, although the numbers approved for citizenship dipped during the Eighties, from circa 72,000 a year to around 54,000.)

The incompetence of opponents also helped propel her over the Downing Street threshold in 1979, “undoubtedly”, Moore writes, “ the most truly conservative person…ever to reach No. 10 in the era of universal suffrage.” She was also almost certainly the last PM who would pay no attention to popular culture, or even the media – and who was so innocent that she once gave TV cameras the two-fingered V for victory sign the wrong way round.

Although she faced great resistance from within her own party – the so-called ‘Wets’ who regarded her as vulgar – their intellectual incoherence gave her a great advantage. At times, however, she missed opportunities, perhaps partly out of relict deference to these grandees, certainly because she often acted intuitively rather than strategically. Her intellectual influencers rarely combined political intelligence with their incandescence, so she had to rely on less ‘sound’ careerists who watered down her wishes – not that she was ever the anarcho-capitalist many wailed she was. Little happened on the economic front until she and Geoffrey Howe pushed through the 1981 Budget, largely against her Cabinet and ‘expert’ opinion, but as this book ends the economic battles that would define her mostly lie ahead.

She was also under fire, almost literally, in Ulster. She patrolled in uniform, Boudicca-like, with the troops in South Armagh’s “Bandit Country”, and would send handwritten letters to the families of killed soldiers – her Unionism all the more impassioned because she had lost one of her closest friends and allies, Airey Neave, to an INLA bomb. She found herself having to deal with rampant terrorism, hunger strikers, the oleaginous Charles Haughey, international opinion, and her own diplomats – and one can see how just a few years later she would sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement against her own instincts.

Moore provides other portents of future failures – such as her relative lack of interest in the EU, and her reaction to the Brixton riots of 1981, a typical Thatcher combination of strong rhetoric, followed by appointing a leftwing judge to conduct the enquiry. Not just trapped in moderation, she was also becoming trapped in political correctness. She was also making enemies of many senior Tories through sheer brusquerie. The scene is being set for eight years of effort and isolation, leading to treachery, talismanic exile, finally sad dotage when she would appear only infrequently, a tiny ex-titan towered over by men who affected not to notice that her famous features had fallen on one side, and her lipstick was askew.

But for now, we close the book and the curtains on Act I with her finest hour – those seventy-four days between April and June 1982 when the Falklands were in global play, and the PM was thrown upon her inner resources and not found wanting – guided to victory by her personal compass, and her willingness to trust to the courage and skill of the armed forces. At the memorial service at St. Paul’s that October, she stood funereal and indomitable beneath Wren’s great dome, determined that the military, not she, should take the credit – while the Whispering Gallery within the Cathedral and outside was alive with patriotic approbation, the Iron Lady as evocation of Elizabeth I, personification of a patria both beautiful and doomed.

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

My Scots Gothic travelogue for Chronicles

Old North photo 7 - ponies on Traprain

The July issue of Chronicles contains my travelogue about Lothian – Iron Age equestrians, Traprain Law, the legend of the saltire, Rosslyn Chapel bizarrerie, Mary Queen of Scots, Covenanters, Edinburgh cemeteries, Scottish independence, Greyfriars Bobby, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta…

“Pity Poor Bradford”


“Pity poor Bradford”

Bolling Hall has squatted on its plot since the fourteenth century, hunched against the wind and rain of the West Riding – a North Country architectural essay in dark yellow sandstone looking warily down a steep hillside onto Bradford’s vale. Old though the building is, the estate’s foundations go deeper than Domesday, when Conqueror companion-in-arms Ilbert de Lacy abstracted it from someone called Sindi, his reward for sanguinary services rendered during the Norman invasion and the subsequent Harrying of the North.

De Lacy’s motte-and-bailey has been overbuilt, and his line is long extinguished, but other owners likewise felt the need to guard against restive locals, rival families, religious opponents, apolitical marauders, wolves, the Great Boar of Cliffe, or whatever other elementals might watch and wait from tangled woods, stony slopes and bog-cotton dancing moors. The family crests of manor-holders, scratched in black-and-white onto a window lighting the stairs to the Ghost Room, constitute a subfusc sort of heraldry, one informed by everyday sights as much as classical or chivalric conceits. There are martlets for the Bollings and Tempests, oak trees for the Thorntons, owls on a bar sinister for the Saviles, cudgel and shield-bearing wodewoses for the Woods, hunting horns and chevrons for Bradford. They feel like the arms and achievements of provincials attuned to rurality, and modest in their pretensions – although Robert Bolling overreached himself during the Wars of the Roses and was temporarily deprived of the estate. (A later Bolling, Edith, married Woodrow Wilson.)

The oldest part of the present building has been identified as a pele tower, although these are more usually associated with points yet further north, in the “Debatable Lands” between Scotland and England. Yet pele towers are likely enough in this valley long accessible only from the north, where the laws of London or even York held only spasmodic sway. Even with later fenestration which streams greyness into the Great Hall, and Adam-style remodelling, Bolling keeps a fortress feel, a sense augmented by dark Jacobean panelling cut deeply with cut geometric patterns, strapwork, acanthus leaves, flowers, birds and lions’ heads, interspersed with rubicund oils of English faces, and even a death mask of Cromwell. The Hall possesses what the poet-topographer Peter Davidson calls “northern rooms, rooms that expect nothing of the weather”. It could be a Hollywood haunted house, and indeed there is a legend attached to the Duke of Newcastle who slept here in December 1642 on the night before his planned attack on the almost defenceless Parliamentarian town. Bellicose before retiring, he came down palely the morning after, claiming he had been visited by the apparition of a weeping woman begging him to “Pity poor Bradford”. Whether genuinely believing he had seen a spectre, or just hung over, the Duke’s martial descent of that day was marked by relative restraint, with just ten deaths recorded.

The defences of Bolling never needed to be tested but enemies of an odd kind came upon it anyway, creeping up its hill in increments of meaner dwellings, so that now two aspects of the Hall look onto semis and a car park, and there is a noise of traffic where once there would have been bleating or birds. But this civic slight is in its way appropriate, in this region where melancholy falls as readily as rain.

Sometimes it seems almost a requirement to portray the North of England as  a single vast and tragic landscape. The imaginative equation of North with dearth goes back as far as Roman legionaries tramping gloomily up the Great North Road to garrison the edge of the empire at Hadrian’s Wall (although Septimus Severus died at York, and Constantine took the purple there). It gathered pace as the locus of English power slowly migrated south, as monarchs roamed their realm less frequently, ecclesiastical power centred on Canterbury, and parliaments fixed at Westminster. The great families of the North found themselves becoming provincials – and slightly untrustworthy ones. From the London point of view, they had too often been kingmakers or breakers, too often Catholic, too rich, too swaggeringly insolent, and their centres of learning at York and Durham were cultural as well as temporal rivals.

The Tudors unroofed the great Cistercian abbeys of Jervaulx, Rievaulx, Fountains and Byland, gelded the Prince-Bishops, started to centralise the legal system, and house-train the Percys, Howards and Cliffords. The North was just too close to Scotland to feel fully safe, and even after the crowns were united in 1603 longstanding fault-lines remained. Well into the eighteenth century, the North was seen as marginal, outside the English mainstream, a redoubt of recusancy potentially sympathetic to Stuarts, its untrammelled nature offending against both the logic of the Age of Reason and the aesthetics of the Age of Taste. Even when the beauties of Lakeland began to be discovered by poets, aquatinters and garden designers, they were slightly shivered at, seen as unreal, unpeopled, dubbed “Horrid” or at best “Picturesque” – places to be looked at rather than lived in.

The Industrial Revolution eventually made the North central to the English economy, making vast amounts of new money whilst undermining the aristocratic order – in a few cases literally, with landowners mining coal almost under inherited houses. When the borough of Bradford came into being in 1847, it contained no fewer than 46 coal mines. Encouraged by the Calvinistic municipal motto Labor Omnia Vincit, furnaces blasted day and night, chimneys choked, hammers clanged and cogs clicked, mills clattered and drifted lung-filling fibres – and 30% of all children died before attaining their teens.

The ugliness associated with industrialisation actually reinforced Southern notions of the North as a place apart. Seen from the safe South, Northern towns were increasingly seen as the haunts of grim-visaged Gradgrinds, building themselves vulgar villas while turning sturdy peasants into sickly slum-dwellers. Beyond the ragged edges of the ever-expanding towns, the savage scenery of moors seemed perfect habitations for Heathcliffs, ideal locales for a hundred Dotheboys Halls. The Devonshire-born Nicholas Nickleby’s reaction upon first seeing Wackford Squeers’ appalling academy is one of a Southerner feeling suddenly very far from home  –

As he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.

The names alone of places and people sound stark – Blubberhouses, Mytholmroyd, Uriah Woodhead, Savage Crangle, Hardcastle Crags, the ominous Nab Wood Cemetery and Crematorium, and countless others. Wanderers are furthermore constantly being arrested by disquieting associations, such as the plaque in smart Skipton that indicates the Bull-baiting Stone, or an antlered bronze demon looking saturninely out of a sunny New Age shop window in the same town, faintly disturbing among the trash of tarot. Such things can be seen in the South too, but they seem to have an extra level of significance when backdropped by low-lit moors and sharpened by frost.

Nouveau-riche mill-owners, mine-managers and middlemen aped aristocratic manners and manors, attended ostentatiously at chapel or Low Anglican services, endowed and administered charities, but were always seen as bumptious, unlikeable and unscrupulous. However irreproachable many may have been, even when they were like Titus Salt, they were easy targets for either snobbish satire or socialistic critiques such as the Bradfordian playwright J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, in which a mysterious detective turns up late at night to quiz the inhabitants of a huge new house about the suicide of a local girl, exposing the callousness of the family and their recently-risen class.

Even now, with the old industries at last starting to be replaced, to the Southern English mind, the simple words “The North” as glimpsed so frequently in Transport Medium typeface on roadsigns connote both stonewalled fields and urban decay, poverty, grimness and lostness – to which can now be added vague but not unfounded notions of dangerously alienated Muslims. Anyone who ventures north of the significantly named “Home Counties” soon realises that this stereotypical view effectively means West and South Yorkshire, and Lancashire and Tyneside conurbations. The vaster Yorkshire comprising the lonely landscapes of the North Riding, and the semi-submarine East Riding with its drowned towns and dreams of the Hanse, not to mention history-clogged York itself, does not really enter into this equation. Nor do the Lakes, Durham Cathedral, the walls and rows of Chester, Carlisle, Liverpool, Newcastle, or Northumberland – all of them of course in the North, but not intrinsic to that particular understanding.

The Industrial Revolution itself has become the object of nostalgia as its rawness mellows into Grimshaw and Lowry tones, and the uncompromising communities that coalesced around milling, mining or steel are seen through a prism of foxing monochrome stills from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Guardian journalists still (and with justification) bewail the economic hollowing-out caused by Thatcherism, the once-powerful industries sacrificed to City speculators, steel, mining and milling workers fly-tipped into an abyss of welfare dependency and social squalor. Leftists take a special interest in the town because of its exploitative past, its innovations in education and medicine, and its role in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1893. (The present government is trying to make political inroads hereabouts by talking of “Northern powerhouses”, with devolved powers and better railways – suitably Victorian solutions for a town of phlegmatic traders.)

Leftists who emote about the North rarely have practical ideas as to how global economic trends can be reversed, and also tend to be uninterested in the Immigration Revolution that accompanied de-industrialisation and exacerbated the area’s social splintering. To them, it seems of little consequence that a quarter of Bradford’s 523,000 residents are Muslims, many cleaving to ultra-orthodox interpretations. Perhaps somewhere now in the city there are a few more idealists like Tanveer Ahmed, who in March went all the way to Glasgow to murder an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had “disrespected Islam” by wishing Happy Easter to Christian customers. Immigrants have long been attracted here by the wool-trade, which once made Bradford “wool capital of the world”, but had gone into irreversible decline by the time the first Asians arrived. The new immigration was therefore badly-timed as well as different qualitatively from the European incursions of the mid-19th century onwards (whose most unlikely product must be that composer of lush tone-poems Frederick Delius, who lived in the district still called Little Germany).

To a certain Panglossian kind of commentator, the race riots of 1985 and 2001, and the public burnings of Satanic Verses in between, were passing epiphemonena, regrettable but understandable products of low education, unemployment, Tory cuts, and social segregation caused chiefly by white racism. They would rather focus on such heartening factoids as that Bradford was declared “Curry Capital of Britain” in 2013 – that nearby Hebden Bridge is louche home to an unusually high number of lesbians – that Heathcliff was a victim of anti-Roma prejudice, and his creator of gender inequality – that the town had critical ethnic mass to host the 2007 International Indian Film Festival awards.

They would also be largely indifferent to the epic echoes of the pre-modern county, its still visible castles, churches, halls and houses, its mental habits and myths. If they were to visit Bolling, they would be most interested in the working conditions of turnspits. At Skipton Castle, they might glance up at the grand gatehouse, with its forward-looking family motto Desormais (“Henceforth”), but they would not find it strangely sad that Lady Anne Clifford, who placed the hopeful word there circa 1649, would be the last representative of a dynasty that had once commanded allegiance

From Penigent to Pendle Hill,

From Lenton to Long Preston

And all that Craven coasts did tell

They with the lusty Clifford came

Well brown’d with sounding bows upbend

On Clifford’s banner did attend.

What could neo-Puritans comprehend of the experiences or motivations of an Anne, who held the Castle three years for the King, or even bloodier-minded ancestors like Robert Clifford who entertained Edward I, and who chose to live in this dangerous zone so that he would never miss an opportunity of fighting the Scots? Another was  John Clifford, who had already earned the nickname “Black-faced Butcher” by the time he fell at Towton aged just 26. Even the most peaceable of the tribe, Henry (called by Wordsworth the “Shepherd Lord” because of his long exile in the hills) led the Craven contingent to victory at Flodden. No doubt all these would be adduced as arguments for historical inevitability, products of the irrational military-aristocratical complex, yet more reasons that order had to end. As for the Saxon high crosses in the church at Ilkley, with their writhing beasts and worn Jesus, they would be seen as stelae marking the resting-places of ancient delusions – a disdainful sort of analysis for some reason never extended to the ideas expressed in the West Riding’s mosques.

And what would urban chatterati make of Yorkshire’s underlying nature, its hard-edged pastoralism, its sudden stabs of beauty, more evident again now that mines have been backfilled, mills become apartments, and waterways transport fewer toxins? What would they think of if they were to walk under the sky-supporting arches of old abbeys drowsing along peaty rivers, knee-deep in summer flowers, their hedges silver-spangled with cobwebs on frosty mornings? Probably just that this was the inevitable end of an unsustainable system. They might smile at Geoffrey Hill’s playful poem, “Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654”, which subverts urban and proletarian associations by projecting Arcadian and Renaissance imagery onto a winter’s day during the endless-feeling English interregnum –

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.

Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.

The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don

bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages

from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun

swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.

We live like gleaners of its vestiges

knowing we flourish, though each year a child

with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down

for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors?

But the best known poet celebrant of Yorkshire is Ted Hughes, whose most relevant collection for these purposes is his 1979 Remains of Elmet, honouring the little kingdom that rose and as unostentatiously expired in what is now West Yorkshire some time between the fifth and seventh centuries. The collection is as elegiac as the title suggests, and in some respects is itself rather dated. But “The Trance of Light” both looks back on a semi-mythical shire where small kings and Great Boars really did co-exist, and forward to a day when the last looms and Low Churchers go down to join the ancient Britons, the pinched life ends, and his beloved hawks can once more clutch creation in their claws –

The upturned face of this land

The mad singing in the hills

The prophetic mouth of the rain

That fell asleep

Under migraine of headscarves and clatter

Of clog irons and looms

And gutter-water and clog-irons

And clog-irons and biblical texts

Stretches awake, out of Revelations

And returns to itself.

So superb to think that it might, and that something substantive remains among all these layered remains.

The article appeared in the June 2016 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

Me on Dr. Johnson in the Hebrides

Latest article for Chronicles – “An Englishman in his Near Abroad”

The August issue of Chronicles has my article on Samuel Johnson’s celebrated trip to the Hebrides – seven pages of Pictish/Celtic legend, Culdees, Vikings, golden eagles, sea-storms, and of course the great man at his most relaxed and clubbable. Not available on line, so you will need to subscribe, but who wouldn’t want to read about Johnson, or places like this?Cuilinns, Skye

Latest article for Chronicles – “Pity Poor Bradford

The June issue of Chronicles contains my article “Pity Poor Bradford” – a travelogue about the West Riding and ideas of the English North, touching on everything from the Normans to  Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill and Peter Davidson via Civil War apparitions and the Industrial and Immigration Revolutions. Not available on line, sadly – but then once in a while magazines (and writers) need to make some money…

My latest article for Chronicles

Identity and Appearances, my latest article for the marvellous Chronicles, is now on-line – although I believe not for very long, unless you are a subscriber (which if you aren’t you ought to be).


The Leopard at large – Lampedusa’s Letters from London and Europe

The Leopard at Large

Letters From London and Europe

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Richmond (Surrey): Alma Books 203 pp., £14.99

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was the last prince of his long and languid line, but soon after his death he became one of the first names in 20th-century Italian letters. The Leopard, his 1958 novel about the last days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the first days of a (theoretically) united Kingdom of Italy, is a postwar classic, justly admired for its ironic, melancholic spirit, its mélange of sumptuousness and sadness, its evocation of an old, tired island at the outset of a (supposedly) dynamic, democratic age. As the hapless Bourbons quit the Sicilian stage forever, the novel’s aristocratic protagonist Don Fabrizio raises a quizzical eyebrow at the redshirted reformers whose motivations he distrusts and whose aspirations he holds in contempt. He admires men of action in the abstract, but has a cynical superstition that the very atmosphere of the island is freighted with dust and debilitation—and that this will soon abrade the strident Garibaldians, as everyone else before. He has long sight and admires timeless immensity, symbolized by his hobby of astronomy, and he believes firmly that the Sicily that has “always” been will always be—weighted down by parched soil, Palladian porticoes, rococo gilt, marble-paved churches, ancient accommodations, and ennui. All initiatives are doomed to failure, and only death is in the end victorious. (One thinks of the 15th-century fresco Trionfo della Morte, which engrosses a wall of Palermo’s Palazzo Abattelis, portraying a mounted skeleton on an écorché steed irrupting into a richly rendered garden to decimate its denizens.)

Don Fabrizio’s cultivation, epicureanism, shrewdness, scepticism, and acceptance of his own superannuation are partly prefigured in his creator, and recur throughout this almost overcivilized correspondence.

The collection was first published in Italy in 2006 as Viaggio in Europa; this is the first English translation. Twenty-eight of these letters were sent by Lampedusa to his cousins the Piccolos between 1925 and 1930, while the novelist was travelling in England, France, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. To these have been added letters to two aunts, four sent to Massimo Erede (who had been in a Austro-Hungarian prison camp with him, and later assisted Lampedusa to get some of his essays into print), one sent to Lampedusa by his mother, and one sent to him by his future wife, Alessandra (“Licy”). A larger collection of letters between Lampedusa and Licy is being prepared for publication. There are also some photographs taken by the author in London, which to be frank have more curiosity than artistic value.

The letters to the three Piccolo siblings (brothers Casimiro and Lucio, and their sister, Giovanna) are densely layered, as befits ingenious and accomplished addressees who, according to Lampedusa’s adopted heir, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (who edited this volume and wrote its Introduction),

…seemed to live in a magical world made up of cultural and personal allusions, a continual game of nods and winks.

This Tyrrhenian Sea of clique in-jokes, Palermo gossip, nicknames, and third-person writing is at first slightly confusing, but each letter is comprehensively (and usually faultlessly) footnoted.

Perhaps less expectedly, there are also puerile sexual jokes, with the Grand Old Duke of It. Lit. devoting an entire letter to the conceit that he is a vendor of testicles. Gioacchino comments,

The sexual chitchat reflected in fact the habits of a certain social class absorbed in otia, not very sensitive, unmindful of what was happening in the wide world.

It seems harsh to dismiss the Lampedusa of the 20s (he was 29 when these letters commence) as “unmindful” of the world. On the contrary, the letters contain not a few reflections on current events—although these now seem unfortunate, consisting as they do largely of concerned queries about the wellbeing of “Il Duce” (like Garibaldi, a slightly ludicrous man of action), pleased references to fatal assaults on anti-Fascists, and almost Der Stürmer-like ruminations on blameless Jews. Gioacchino himself cites a sentence which shows that the allegedly heedless peregrinator possessed a degree of prescience shared by very few others. Visiting Germany in 1930, Lampedusa is fascinated by her surging vitality, the nationalist resentments, and their obverse—the binge drinking, drug taking, frenetic music and dancing, and the public priapism. After watching with disgust predatory homosexuals picking up “overly elegant and overly shaven lads” in respectable restaurants by sending them notes written on the back of bills, he predicts that

…within ten years they will, I think, send every nation a note, by means of the waiter.

But distasteful politics usually takes a back seat to sensate evocation and observation, imaginative and insightful even if almost completely confined to his social stratum. In 1927, a year of hardship for many Britons, the duke was writing about London’s clubland—the “massive, indestructible, secret,” and selective establishments dotted around Pall Mall and St. James’s, almost literal powerhouses where even still society’s shakers do discreet business over excellent lunches or doze in comfortable chairs—“the same armchair for century after century,” as Lampedusa reported with satisfaction. He notices and admires every detail of these understated places, from architecture—“Portland stone which absorbs smuts and transforms them into amber”— to ambience (“the smell of petrol, of tar, of Havanas—the silence of a sacred wood”), comparing them sardonically with Palermo’s nearest, but not very near, equivalent, the Bellini Club. The London clubs, he says, are like lions or panthers to the Bellini’s “common felix catus,” and the transplanted leopard purrs with contentment as he settles back onto his deep-buttoned leather banquette after demolishing a vast lunch. Lampedusa was always an agglomeration of appetites, physical as much as psychical, leading to his nickname of “The Monster” with which he self-mockingly signs off dispatches—capable of gorging simultaneously on Stendhal and Stilton, Baudelaire and beefsteak. In another letter, he admits with a sort of shrug,

The Monster . . . contains in himself not only an angel, but also a pig—of which he is proud.

Beyond London, Lampedusa enjoys an edited England:

An itinerary devised by himself, with his usual acumen, takes him through the most ancient cities of this glorious island. He has carefully avoided the big cities, the industrial infernos . . . and kept above all to the venerable cathedral cities, to the peaceful seats of learning.

That itinerary—Cambridge, Oxford, Ely, Lincoln, York, Chester, Stratford, and Edinburgh via “the amazing serenity of the English countryside . . . a real pastoral scene from Sir Philip Sidney”—calls constantly to the Monstrous mind admired people and assimilated books.

The confusing corridors of the old Red Lion at Cambridge remind Lampedusa of The Pickwick Papers. (Here, a rare mistake creeps into Gioacchino’s footnotes, when he says the reference is to Mr. Pickwick’s time in prison—in reality, it is to the inn at Ipswich where Pickwick blunders embarrassingly into Miss Witherfield’s bedroom.)

Ely is brooding Cromwell country,

…tragic, impoverished, the birthplace of the proud mother of the great Oliver, with its boundless landscape of wretched marshes beneath a leaden sky, where the divine cathedral stands on its rock, austere and yet maternal offspring of the faith of the Middle Ages, raising a prayer which could not but be well received.

York is the city of “the pale and angry rose” (from Henry VI, Part I), whose famed medieval windows

…continue to make the air enchanted, and every other light that has not passed through their otherworldly colours looks like darkness.

Lampedusa was clearly fixated by Gothic fanes, so unlike the Romanesque basilicas of his South, even dismissing Wren’s St. Paul’s as “papier-mâché.” But swinish urges temper angelic architectural appreciation, as he recounts escorting typists down the hill from the ethereal Lincoln Cathedral to the cinema.

Back in London, he has a perfectly Lampedusan errand to undergo, one which combines aestheticism with strict practicality. He is armed with photographs of a Sèvres tea service belonging to the Piccolos, which they have asked him to have valued. Being a prince, instead of going to an auction house he wanders casually into the world-renowned Wallace Collection to consult its famous director, Sir Frederick Kenyon. Kenyon, unluckily, is away, but his never-named deputy (“the most adorable of all old English gentlemen”) ushers him in at once, asks him to sit on the “faded Savonnerie of an armchair of obvious authenticity,” plies him with cigarettes, and proceeds to deliver a deeply learned disquisition on Sèvres—its origins, composition, manufacture, patterning, patination, authentication, and market trends—and the rapt distinguished visitor is in his element, happily at home among lovely things and antiquarians who are not quite his social equals, in “the honey-sweet hive of his mother London.”

Attending a ball at the French embassy, the lounge leopard lifts mildly malicious eyes from “the contrasting delights of the cardinal-red lobsters and the sky-blue eyes of Belinda” to make catty observations:

Tens of centuries have passed over her body, enveloped in a slim tunic the colour of risotto alla Milanese, and every one has left its mark there: the eighteenth century its powder, the nineteenth its anaemia, the twentieth the deformities brought about by ill-judged sports practiced too late in life.

There is a redolent, ridiculous moment when the current holders of the titles of Bismarck, von Blücher, and Wellington come together by chance —

Diminished and subdued, the national disasters of France kiss bony pomp.

Then it is back to ogling the “silver arms” of Belinda, and an English array of silk-rustling lovelies —

…the Corinnes, the Silvias, the Celias, the Rosalinds materialize, the beautiful women of Yeats, the evanescent apparitions of Adonais, the pallor of Rosetti’s ladies, the fresh grace of Meredith’s heroines.

Then the evening is over, he is out in Mayfair’s night—“For some instants golden hair glimmers through the motor car’s window”—and the Monster pads back solitarily to his hotel.

Loneliness is between the lines in all these letters—evidenced by such clear, dear vignettes, and his scolding when his cousins have been lackadaisical in their letter writing. There is at times almost a kind of desperation for news from home, and we suddenly remember that Lampedusa had suffered what Gioacchino calls “a severe nervous breakdown” in the early 20s. He looks down from a raised train onto nighttime Berlin, and is pierced by painterly “Groβstadt Pathos”—

. . .kilometres of empty streets, flooded with rain, with an endless line of lamps and every now and then a shunting station with a tangle of rails and green, red and white lights . . . the workmen in their leather jackets shining with the rain, and the continual rumble of the trains, and the sublime metropolitan crowd in which every face, for those who take the trouble to look, is a poem of suffering and unease . . . nothing is harder than this city.

But as befits such a sensate sybarite, pathos is also for Lampedusa a “delightful emotion,”which lends point and meaning to the passing mood, moment, era, civilization. In this philosophic wise, he traverses that interdiluvian continent, from Sicily to Scotland and Le Havre to Lithuania, sampling and smiling, observing and aspersing—at once deeply Sicilian and broadly European. His antennae twitch at the ripples of past traumas, the tumult of the present and the powerlessness of politicians, like the halt and hairless senators he watches in Rome—“a veritable forest of crutches and a mountain of surgical trusses”—as they listen obsequiously to man-of-the-moment Mussolini.

Lampedusa’s observations may not be accurate in every detail (Gioacchino: “in [his] correspondence . . . truth is never the highest priority”), but they are always truthful to the character of their author. They also convey perfectly his sense of a congenial continent bootlessly, yet often beautifully, in churn:

I have seen the swans which cleave the velvety waters of the Lake of Love in Bruges; I have seen Piccadilly at midday and Montmartre at midnight; I have seen Michelangelo’s Moses . . . I have walked beneath the centuries-old limes in Windsor and beneath the famous cypresses in Fiesole; I have seen war and the crueller aftermath of war; I have seen Mussolini in his black shirt and young Alice in her court dress; I have eaten cailles truffées au champagne with Lady Vanderbilt and I have starved on the millet of Kriegsgefangen; I have seen the Turners in the Tate Gallery, the Memlings in Bruges and the Raphaels in the Louvre; I know Dante, I love Shakespeare. . . I have been in all sorts of situations and been equal to them all.

Mock heroics—but deeply tinged with melancholy and a zest for love and life imperfectly concealed behind cynical lassitude. Lampedusa may have had faults as a man, but as an epistolist he is more than equal to the task of recalling a closed, charmed Europe that once really existed.

This review appeared in Chronicles in August 2012, and is reproduced with permission. Photo by Derek Turner


Homing in on England – Michael Wood’s The Story of England

Homing in on England

The Story of England—A Village and Its People Through the Whole of English History
Michael Wood, London: Penguin 440 pps, £20

Michael Wood begins with a quotation from Blake:

To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.

This line betokens his aim, which is to zero in on one small English place and use its specific saga to tell the wider tale of all England from prehistory to present.

The place is Kibworth, an outwardly unremarkable assemblage of three settlements —Kibworth Beauchamp, Kibworth Harcourt, and Smeeton Westbury—nine miles southeast of Leicester. It was chosen because it is close to the geographic centre of England and because, since 1270, parts of the township have been owned by Merton College, Oxford. Centuries of busy bursars have therefore kept voluminous records on their every transaction with their outlying asset. Such completeness is rare and, when combined with other evidence, BBC mon- ey, the author’s imagination, and the interested involvement of residents, allows an unusually intimate glimpse into the private life of a place inhabited continuously for at least 2,000 years. Kibworth is “emphatically England in miniature”—a representative locus whose triumphs and travails mirror those of the rest of the country, and which will share England’s fate, for better or worse.

Even in today’s swollen settlements bestriding the busy A6, the alert chorographer can find trace elements of dizzyingly distant times – the spoor of ancient Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans somehow surviving into the pedestrian present, persisting in road routes, hedge lines, field names, and local lore.

Prehistoric people gravitated to Kibworth because of its good soil and its location straddling the watersheds of two major rivers. The Stone Age became Bronze, and the Bronze Agers elided into Iron, almost unnoticed except for the mounds that mark the graves of their important. A huge hoard of Iron Age gold and copper coins bearing “the resonant names of shadowy Corieltauvian kings” was found nearby in 2000. Ro- mans and Romanized Kibworthians living at this “outermost edge of the known world” in their turn mislaid coins, potsherds, and tesseræ. After the Eagles were recalled to deal with sudden home emergencies, Jute and Angle “barbarians” quit their stemlands and breached the Saxon Shore in earnest, turning Rome’s most peripheral province into an outpost of the Germanosphere.

Wood clearly relishes the “Dark Ages” combination of imperial overthrow, natural disasters, and English national nascence. He cites “The Ruin,” a fragmentary eighth-century poem, to indicate with what wonder more imaginative newcomers must have regarded the Roman remains they found:

Wrætlic is þes wealstan; wyrde gebræcon

burgatede burston; brosnaðenta geweorc

Hrofas sind gehrorene,. hreorge torras,

hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime

(“Wondrous wallstones, broken by fate . . . the courtyard pavements smashed, the work of giants, their roofs fallen, the cement on their gates split by frost . . . ”)

Britannia’s new Germanic kings may have been “plunder-lords, deed-doers, ring givers,leaders of men,” who fought one another and fell on long-forgotten fields, but they incidentally invented England. One arriver, an otherwise obscure homesteader called Cybba, bequeathed his name to his worth (an Old English word meaning “enclosure”) and what would become the Leicestershire landscape. These pocket potentates also ensured that England would one day become a Christian country, with enormous consequences. Wood notes,

The Christian narrative is so wedded to the English story, to English culture and, till only recently, to the English sense of identity that we have tended to think it was both inevitable and a good thing…from the eighth century until the twentieth English history to a greater or lesser degree will be Christian.

He alludes to the apocryphal Frisian monarch

who at the last moment stepped away from the baptismal font saying he would rather spend the next life with his brave pagan ancestors, even though in hell, than with the pallid Christians in their heaven

to make us ponder what might have been, had other rulers rejected rather than accepted the teachings of Augustine, Chad, and other visionaries. There is an amusing anecdote of Archbishop Tarsus, who was so disgusted by the understated evangelizing of Saint Chad that he lifted him onto a horse and “told him brusquely to get on with it.” (Quotations in the book are too often unattributed.)

Scandinavians in search of plunder or pasture faced off against the Britons of Wessex along this shifting ethnocultural frontline. Kibworth was just inside the Danelaw, and the numbers of the newcomers were smaller than was long imagined; recent DNA studies suggest that even in the East Midlands epicentre of Viking visitations, only around ten percent of the population were of Danish or Norwegian stock. (Elsewhere, it was between one and five percent.) The region long remained

…poised on the cusp of history, between the no longer and the not yet.

Then came other Northmen from Normandy, in small but significant numbers, to plant chivalry and feudalism largely against the wishes of the insouciant English – the latter collective noun increasingly incorporating Britons, Irish, and Scots as well as Saxons and Vikings.

There commenced contumacious centuries – dynastic struggles, barons’ wars against monarchs, peasants’ revolts against barons, local risings against London, and intra- Christian disputes. Wood illustrates all these complexities through shrewdly chosen anecdotes, like those surrounding the highly symbolic figure of Simon de Montfort – a French-speaking Norman who became an ironic exemplar of English liberties for presiding over the first English parliament. His early trajectory was full of promise, his very name hinting at a great fate. There was a Frenglish chant:

Comment hom le nome? WHAT’S HIS NAME?

He’s called MON-FORT!

He’s in the monde and he’s big and strong;

He loves what’s right and he hates what’s wrong;

And he’ll always come out on top!

Wood juxtaposes Montfortmania neatly with the post-Evesham reality, the ex- hero’s head daintily dispatched to Lady Mortimer, his testicles affixed to his nose, while his tarred limbs were placed above Gloucester’s city gates.

It was not only war that would winnow England. The Gloucester gates that sported Montfort’s disjecta membra in 1264 would be barred in 1348 in a forlorn at- tempt to keep out the Black Death – the rat-flea-borne buboes that spread at almost a mile per day in that ill-starred year. The January 1349 entry in one Kibworthian’s “omen book” shows dark, hooded figures firing arrows and the inscription

The arrew smites thorow the cloth

That makus many men wel wroth.

About that time the plague announced itself, and Kibworth Harcourt suffered an estimated 70 percent fatality rate, the highest known in England. It left profound psychic scars; even now, the purported plague pit is unploughed.

Like all the East Midlands, Kibworth was prone to Protestantism. Wycliffe was a Leicestershire man, and some of the earliest Lollards came from Kibworth. “I smelle a Lollere in the wind,” wrote Chaucer disapprovingly. (Chaucer was a courtier, and the anti-episcopal urge was always associated with political revolution, like the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt or Sir John Oldcastle’s abortive revolt of 1417.)

Wood demonstrates that rebellions against ecclesiastical and political authorities are a national tradition. He pays tribute to the archetypal awkward Englishman who may be censorious, but knows his rights and is

eager…to lead his own spiritual life – and to help others find theirs.

However, the author is susceptible to the magic of the highly coloured Catholic universe, writing of

…the shrine of St Wistan with its little painted statue of the royal prince and martyr, whose golden hair, it was said, waved each year at the end of May in the long grass of the water meadows below Kibworth.

He is highly critical of some of the consequences of Protestantism

[N]o sooner is Purgatory fading away than a possessive individualism is making itself felt.

Many felt cut adrift from their past and even their family history:

One of the more profound effects . . . was in the long term to sever the relationship between the dead and the living. . . [D]ead Protestants were now beyond the reach of prayer. . . . [T]he Reformation thus radically revised not only the rituals but the process of salvation itself; as one might say, its conceptual geography.

Then there were some of the flawed exemplars of the Reformed religion, for whom “helping others find their own spiritual lives” meant forcing them. The 1650 Act against “Atheistical, Blasphemous and excrable [sic.] opinions” also forbade such horrors as

Whitson-Ales, Wakes, Morris-Dances, May-poles, Stage-plays . . . or such like Licentious practices.

One Protestant Pecksniff was the Civil War-era Puritan vicar of Kibworth John Yaxley, described as

…a great disturber of the peace, by day and night, searching for cavaliers and making great havoc and spoil of people’s goods. . . [H]e constantly preached and prayed.

Even as Charles II arrived triumphantly in London in 1660, Yaxley, still desirous of destruction after nearly 20 years of bloodletting, was hyperventilating:

Hell is broke loose, the devil and his instruments are coming to persecute the godly.

Anglicanism eventually squared the circle, but nonconformist currents persisted in Kibworth as elsewhere and informed the eventual emergence of what we call “the left,” which famously in England “owes more to Methodism than Marxism.” The Lollards became Puritans became Quakers became Wesleyans became temperance campaigners became suffragettes became politically correct politicians.

Wood is arguably of that left, because he sees the island story through the prism of working people rather than courtly chronicles. The Independent’s Nick Groom applauded the author’s “democratic zeal.” Wood also evinces admiration for Engels and E.P. Thompson and their “great works.” But he is a liberal, in the positive English meaning of that word. He may be guilty of wishful thinking – but if so it is caused by quiet patriotism.

Ancient associations entrance. An atmospheric photograph shows the site of the “Spear Tree,” the former Bronze Age burial mound on the Roman road north of Kibworth, which became the place where Anglo-Saxons would gather in wapentake (their assent to decisions signified by brandishing their spears) and continued to be the meeting place of local juries until the 1720s.

Wood’s passion for connections leads him to draw parallels between past and present, sometimes slightly forced. For example, it seems anachronistic to aver that “the genetic makeup of the early Anglo-Saxons was especially mixed,” that the England of the early 11th century was “a diverse, multi-ethnic society,” and to accuse eleventh-century governments of “playing the race card.” He is clearly trying to rationalize the recent immigration that has made Leicester England’s most diverse city. In so doing, he overstates the dissimilarity of the Anglo-Saxons, contradicts his own testimony that the Viking component of the English population was small, and understates the unifying effects of the English language and Christianity. He also omits to mention that there was virtually no immigration into England between the eleventh century and the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The Independent homed in on this, too, recommending that Wood should revisit too-white Kibworth soon,

to see how imaginatively a traditional English identity, already rooted in Roman-British, Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, has accommodated the Asian and Caribbean communities.

That should be “if ” rather than “how.” Can Leicester’s sundry soup of nationalities ever imagine themselves into the English narrative? It seems unlikely. The “mysterious crystallization” that magically gave everyone England appears to be undoing itself. The “givenness of the past” has been taken away. Today, England probably seems more real at Kibworth than in Leicester or London.

Wood also claims that, during World War II,

Kibworth people . . . saw a higher purpose than Churchill’s narrow rhetoric about empire; namely a community of interest with the people of Europe to counteract Germany’s ‘New Europe.’

This is over-intellectualizing. The English fought like tigers mostly because they had no choice, but also because of imperialism admixed (contradictorily) with ‘intolerant’ nationalism.

These imperfections registered, we are left with a lyrical and learned appreciation of one of the world’s most fascinating countries – seen through the eyes of a very few of the ‘ordinary’ people who carried England’s accumulating weight forward against extraordinary odds. Whether they can continue to do so is a moot point, but to date at any rate Wood’s exercise in particularization is a success story.

This review appeared in Chronicles in January 2012, and is reproduced with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner


As I went walking down Broadway…

As I went walking down Broadway…

Cities, like men, are embodiments of the past and mirages of unfulfilled dreams

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Matrix of Man, 1968

The subway train clanked and screeched out of the darkness at last into stretched autumnal sunshine. I rattled northwards in an emptying carriage gazing down on nameless nondescript streets, and sometimes straight into ex-offices within which the same endeavours had probably been carried on from when the building had been erected in the early 20th century up until the last family firm member had locked up for the last time before heading out to suburban superannuation. There was a final rattle and squeal, a glare of water, and I was on the platform thirty feet above 225th Street watching the Bronx-bound train pull complainingly away.

Then I was down on the street, and the sun was bouncing back at me from off the River, and there were leaves turning to gold, and sparrows screaming in the tangled ironwork of the bridge. I was curiously aware of crowding ghosts – memories of the freebooters who had claimed this broad new territory for their crowded Netherlands, its proudly Protestant Stadtholder and their Dutch East India employers. My back was to the Bronx and Yonkers – to my right was Spuyten Duyvil Creek – below the bridge the Harlem River – and beyond the bridge, my chosen companion for the next 14 miles, the Heerestraat or Breede Weg of Nieuw Amsterdam which had gradually become the Broadway of New York.

I crossed the bridge and was back on the island, standing at Manhattan’s northern tip with the famous road already threatening to run away with me, diagonally down more than 200 blocks towards its glamorous terminus, where the tourists stand in lines for hours to board the boats that haul them across the harbour to where the huge, haloed woman holds up a torch to evoke opportunity and America.

Here at Broadway’s little known other end, in Inwood, the streets undulate – mostly down from Manhattan’s spine west towards the Hudson, but even Broadway buckling occasionally as if it can barely hold the topography in check. You get a sudden sense of the old Wickquasgeck Road that ran this way before the whites came.

A 1930s guide to New York said of Inwood,

Rivers and hills insulate a suburban community that is as separate as any in Manhattan

– a turn of phrase simultaneously redolent of security and the proximity of wilderness. Inwood is no longer insulated. The huddled masses of Mesoamerica have overflowed up here, reclaiming the island sold by their distant genetic kin in 1626 for 60 guilders (the agreement was concluded in what is now Inwood Hill Park) – and they have taken over from the Irish and Jewish prewar residents, some of whom must still live in the Art Deco apartment blocks, longing for gentrification.

Lately, the Mesoamericans have been joined by Muslims – all of them jumbled up together in a welter of squalid shops, parking lots, auto-body repair joints, bulldozed spaces where buildings once stood and the graffiti-tagged twisting iron ribbon of the subway track with its screeching stock. Here they are recreating Dominica, or increasingly Algeria, inside the shells of the Anglos’ edifices – selling things that only the most desperate or debased could desire.

In Inwood’s genteel west, they cling onto illusions – fragments of forest and saltmarsh, the Dutch colonial Dyckman House and views of The Cloisters, but east of Broadway Inwood is real and relevant, rich in nylon T-shirts and jogging bottoms, Day of the Dead decorations, plastic statues of the Virgin, latex Halloween masks in the form of multi-eyed Rastafarians or axe-cloven heads, pallid meat from sheep that would have died slowly swinging by their back legs as their throats were sliced open, and tremulous Thanksgiving thighs from the turkeys I saw standing bent-necked in bare metal cages, in a dank, dripping, excrement-ammoniac sub-hell populated by smoking, spitting, swarthy camp guards.

Judging from all the election posters that no-one had troubled to translate, the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano – seemingly sated with statesmanship at home – was making a determined play for control for the Sector Externo New York, while for the less public-spirited, layers of over-pasted posters advertised such all-American entertainments as Joe Veras, Toque Dequeda and El Negro. The badly lettered signs in some shop windows announcing “We Accept Food Stamp/Nosotros Aceptamos Cupones de Comida” showed that not all the Rockefellers-manqué had made it.

Great roads have their own logic and pace, and Broadway carried me on out of Dominica Externo into an intersectionland of traffic lights and offices, allowing short detours to examine enticements like the gleam of green at the pleasingly named Swindler Cove, or to watch a fat black traffic warden slumped on a doorstep trying to catch her breath after a gentle stroll, buying a Coke from an African couple pushing a presumably purloined supermarket trolley piled high with Coke cans – where had they got those? I itched to make a citizen’s arrest.

By the time I got down to around 197th, Catholicism-cum-Santeria had given way grudgingly (with occasional relapses) to Judaism. Cohen’s Gentle Dental was advertised by a smiling tooth wearing blue boots, yarmulke-sporting students asked me for directions to the yeshiva, and an ancient scowling man with a twisted back and a smell of rancid clothes took time out from gathering bundles of free newspapers to ask in a heavy Yiddish accent if I could give him a dollar for the bus.

Then Judaism gave way to a braggart non-conformism, with the “Rev Ike” on every Sunday at 2.45pm at the Christ United Church, in what looked like a 1930s cinema – a suitably hideous setting for such a must-miss missionary.

There was no such vulgarity at 155th, where there was set an Episcopalian church in grandly Gothic style to convey the impression of hyperboreal antiquity – set in a neat little garden of well-behaved grass and upright tombstones marking the remains of upright people, with a tasteful sign advertising decorous services to passers-by who would probably prefer to watch the Rev Ike. All New York Episcopalian churches give the same impression of good. gloomy Gotham taste combined with deadness.

Rather than either Ike or Episc, I would always prefer the most joyful sight of the whole walk – a harsh scream above the cars, outstretched claws and a blur of azure, as a blue jay hurled itself argumentatively into a tree in the middle of the road, like its ancestors had been doing hereabouts long before even Wickquasgeck.

I was surprised to notice that the iron gratings on the drains had “Made in India” stamped on them – as I had earlier noticed that almost all Big Apple souvenirs are manufactured in China. But then New York now has an increasingly tenuous relationship with America – let alone the Europeans who founded the city and the country the city once represented. The little man who sat mending clothes in the window below a shop sign advertising “Nordic Cleaners” may well have been a cleaner, but he was no Nordic – and it suddenly occurred to me I had not noticed any Nordics for hours.

And so I passed interestedly across the island, past huge buildings of the strictly functional type so admired by Ayn Rand, and handsome ones in pastiches of European styles, like the American Geographical Society, which looked like it had been plucked from South Kensington – an institution whose staff no longer need to venture far in search of exotica.

At 116th was the little proud universe of Columbia University, where future leaders lolled confidently before neo-classical porticoes, and security guards spoke into handsets below statues presented by the well-rounded sounding 1890 Class of Arts & Mines. By now, Broadway had become more or less tame, because more familiar. Even the topography had flattened out, as if the road was feeling weighed down by buildings that grew steadily taller, and the rare shop windows were selling such essential items as Halloween costumes for dogs. By the time I had reached Columbus Circle, the effigy of the robed discoverer looked absurdly puny against the bulk of the buildings.

There was welcome green relief of London plane trees at 107th with the tiny triangle of Straus Park, named in honour of the Macy’s founder – with its sad 1913 memorial to Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who insisted on staying aboard the Titanic to drown with her husband.

Lovely and pleasant were their lives, and in death they were not divided

runs the inscription from the Book of Samuel, below an unsuitably languid Art Nouveau female bronze. Civilized-looking people sat on benches and read books while traffic thundered past just a few feet away – the racket muffled somehow by the trees.

At Times Square, the neons were blazing details of fizzy drinks and frothy shows, and Broadway heaved with technology-hung drifters wearing refugee chic of T-shirts, anoraks and jeans – the lackadaisical livery of individualists everywhere. Even the mixed-sex, multicultural and frankly unfit-looking police in Times Square seemed to be falling out of their uniforms – the antithesis of the tall stern Irish cops of yore.

But there were more focused presences – an orange-tabarded trade union demonstration, hundreds of capable-looking men bearing placards reading “Proud to be Union”, who looked extraordinarily out of place in this epicenter of indulgence. And there was an even more surprising irruption, as with a Harley-Davidson howl bounced back from the buildings, Broadway was captured briefly by 70-80 bikers, all young black men, helmetless, some wearing rubber gorilla masks, coming at speed into the Square, led by three riders abreast doing wheelies as they stared about arrogantly, like a combination of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes. The police gaped, normal traffic scrambled to the side and phone-cameras were flashed by weakly-grinning watchers who did not realize that this was intended as intimidation, a play for dominance and a defiance of the cops – who indeed had no time to respond before the phalanx had passed out of sight, if not out of hearing. Two minutes after the rumbling bikes had gone, a lone police car headed off in insincere pursuit, its thin siren a gnat-noise compared to the ruckus of the riders.

Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) liked New York, particularly Broadway, although chiefly only by comparison with the rest of America, which she eviscerated in her dyspeptic 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans. Even while lavishing praise, she could not resist a waspish aside:

This noble street may vie with any I ever saw, for its length and breadth, its handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent trottoir, and well-dressed pedestrians…If it were not for the peculiar manner of walking, which distinguishes all American women, Broadway might be taken for a French street.

She was less susceptible to Broadway’s thespian amusements, saying of the non bon ton Chatham Theatre:

I observed in the front row of a dress box a lady performing the most maternal office possible, several gentlemen without their coats, and a general air of contempt for the decencies of life, certainly more than usually revolting.

I wondered what she would make of Broadway now. She might have enjoyed the “farmers’ market” in Union Square – not real farmers but organic campaigners, but bringing a glad smell of hinterland to the city’s over-angular heart. The closer one gets to Wall Street, there is a semblance of civilization in the shape of well-dressed bankers (although Mrs. Trollope would have loathed their employment) and there are a few buildings that would have been standing when she was in the city – including the Dutch-gabled “Deutsches Haus” ar Washington Square (so human-scale I wanted to touch it), the Fraunces Tavern and St Paul’s Chapel.

She probably entered the Trinity Church that then stood on the site of today’s well-mannered building, and would have curled her lip superciliously at the orthography on Obadiah Hunt’s monument, who had died in 1760 at 84 –

From Birmingham in Warwick Shire With his wife Susannah from Credley in Heartford Shire In Oldingland

These Oldinglish are lost in the graveyard loam, along with Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton, thousands of remains banked up behind a restraining wall that looms over passers-by oblivious to the proximity of so many predeceased.

Even the generally nil admirari Mrs. Trollope might have been quietly moved in St Paul’s Chapel, where 9/11 is still raw to the touch. The first time I had been in St Paul’s had been during my first visit to New York, just a month after the attacks, when every surface was covered with photographs of the terrible day, portraits of missing people, anguished appeals for information, ribbons, flowers, flags and pieces of dead firemen’s uniforms. Even my non-American eyes had been pricking, and it had been strangely hard to swallow, as a group of teenagers came together as an impromptu choir, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner with tears streaming unashamedly down their fresh faces.

After nine years, the Chapel still has a similar capacity to move strangers, with its folk art 18th century US Seal above Washington’s Pew, a crudely lettered banner reading


and its permanent display of photographs and a fireman’s uniform surmounted by a police helmet, almost hidden beneath badges donated by emergency services from across the world – recalling those amazing weeks when almost the entire world felt, like Le Monde, that “We Are All Americans”.

Just behind the Chapel lies a sere bone-yard of smashed and standing stones, old trees that outlived the WTC, and a bronze cast of the root system of one tree that did not. Just across the road, Ground Zero sits and steams, while cranes hoist huge girders in pursuance of a vast rebuilding that feels like it will never be complete.

On again I went at last, the road running away with me again, compelling me to finish what I had started – backwards through American history between cliffs of glass and the Canyon of Heroes. Then at last I came to Battery Park and Castle Clinton and beyond a wideness of sky and Bay. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine da Verrazano’s ship tacking up the reach to anchor off the wooded island, the first of many to realize the potential of this prize. What he set in motion in 1524 would reach its denouement for the Alonquians in 1626, for the Dutch in 1664, for the British in 1783, and if the northern end of Broadway was anything to go by, might someday see the overthrow of the Anglos.

Straight ahead, several miles away, Liberty’s vast verdigris virgin was framed perfectly by mooring posts topped by seagulls. Crowds of other travellers were there in the park at the end of the road, talking, laughing and photographing each other with the statue as clichéd backdrop. I took my own to prove that I too had been there, and as a coda to my Broadway album. Suddenly tired, I sat down for the first time in seven hours and stared out across the storied waters, dreaming of arrivals and departures.

This article appeared in Chronicles in October 2011, under the title of “An Englishman in New York”, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner