Thursday, 21 October 2010

Brighton Religion

Spending a day in Brighton I could hardly miss looking in at St Bartholomew's Ann Street, could I, especially as it was only round the corner from the car park, looming over the blocks of flats like some red-brick cruise liner from a 1930s Cunard poster. Of course I'd seen pictures of it before, Father Wagner's stupendous 1870s marvel which quite justifiably outraged every good Protestant in the Church of England, and just went up the candle from there. But nothing prepares you for the sheer size of it internally. Because the space is unbroken, and the flat wall pillars soar upwards into the dark recesses of the pitched roof, it seems even bigger than it is. The corpus of the crucifix on the High Altar is life size.
You just know that what goes on here is a bit mad, but it's a madness that carries with it such conviction and intensity (the building leaves little option) that you can only stand and gaze - as people clearly do, constantly coming and going while I was there. I wonder whether anyone reflects how bizarre it is that this amazing building stands here amid a downbeat housing estate with a 1960s prefab primary school abutting it on one side.

I do like the freakish confessional booths that look like little wooden Serbian churches!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Melpomene Revisited

You will remember Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy who graces the rectory garden. I encountered Melpomene again on my walk around London today. On the Guilford Street frontage of Great Ormond Street Hospital in Bloomsbury is what looks like a 1930s frieze depicting the Nine Muses. Why on earth this should be on the outside of the Hospital buildings I can't imagine (there isn't a Muse of Medicine), but here is the Melpomene there anyway.

St Pancras Churchyard, Kings Cross

I was in London today on a little tour of wells and springs (and the sites of lost ones). My starting point was Old St Pancras church, which used to have its own well in the vicinity, long since swept away in the changes made to the area when the railway terminus was built in 1868. Given that this will be the starting point of another walk for the LGMG, I was pleased to find the churchyard is such a Gothic place. There is the wonderfully flamboyant sundial memorial to that great Victorian philanthropist, Baroness Burdett-Coutts ...

...; there is the grave of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft; there is the mausoleum of Sir John Soane; and in one corner is the Hardy Tree.

The architect responsible for supervising the work preparing for the creation of the station in the 1860s was Arthur Blomfield. He had little stomach for clearing the graveyard of Old St Pancras, and gave that task to his young assistant to handle, a young Dorset chap called Thomas Hardy. It must have fitted his temperament admirably. The story goes that Hardy planted an ash sapling near the edge of the graveyard, or rather what remained of it, and arranged some of the now-superfluous gravestones around it. The plaque on the fence around the Hardy Tree doesn't go that far, stating only that the stones 'were probably moved around that time'; but the tree has clearly had time to grow around some of the nearest stones. The site has a strange beauty, and a moving quality as a memorial to all those souls whose remains were disturbed by the construction work - perhaps this was Hardy silently acknowledging a debt, and not just to them but also to all the poor inhabitants of the Somers Town and Agar Town slums who were summarily turfed out by the landlords after the Midland Railway bought the land. Hardy would have paid them grim notice as well.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

High Street Gothic

Imagine my surprise to be walking through Guildford the other day and spy this dress in the window of Hobbs of London:

It's pure Gothic Lolita, if that phrase means anything to you, though Hobbs describe the outfit concerned as their 'Limited Edition Military Style Dress', coupled with a 'Spot Trim Collar' and 'Britannia Lace-Up Boots' as illustrated on their website. It's a bit of a different matter from the stuff you might pick up in Camden, though: the outfit will set any Gothic ladies tempted in this direction back £577.

New Arrivals

I have three new prints on my walls. Well, old prints, but new to the house. They are: St Catherine's Chapel at Abbotsbury, Mother Ludlam's Cave and spring at Farnham, and a lovely Gothick view of a Will O' the Wisp in early 19th-century Lincolnshire.

Spotting Providence

The last little while has been unusually depressing for me (and not just for me), and I have yet to unpick it all. A lot of it is to do with my selfish avoidance of trouble and sorrow, and the inability to do anything about a certain amount of it. And so yesterday morning I said to the Boss, 'give me something'.

I went out walking and it completely failed to shake the mood and thoughts. Partway along the towpath walk to town I stopped by the spring at the foot of the hill the ruined chapel sits on. One writer suggests this is a holy well dedicated to St Catherine, which I'm happy enough to run with as Catherine is my patron saint. As I looked at the sparkling water what should I spot but a goldcrest, which flitted to and fro, weighing me up and disappearing before coming back again to drink and bathe in the water, all the while checking I was behaving myself.

And then out of the blue I heard from a person I'd largely given up hope of having any contact from again, suggesting coffee. This was somebody I once hoped for rather more from, but coffee is something. Not much, but something.

A goldcrest and a text were just enough to send my mood in an upward direction and inject some hope into the grey. Just enough. God did not send the goldcrest, nor prompt my friend to contact me. That's not how it works. Rather, in the vast and incomprehensible flow of events, you make contact with and notice just those tiny happenings you need. It's not much, and I assume that God thinks I can make do with this much, and so must. It's not that he suddenly reaches in from the outside of the phenomenal world to make things happen; instead, having decided you believe in him, and having a fair idea of what he is like, you examine your own life and its events to work out what he is about. We thirst, but get just sufficient drops to keep going.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Horace Would Have Been So Proud

Horace Walpole's 'little Gothic castle' in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill, has recently re-opened to the public after a huge restoration which has seen the exterior whitewashed and the rooms stripped of Victorian and later accretions to return to their state when Walpole, the First of the Goths, died in 1797. It's been open for guided tours for a couple of weeks, but Saturday was the first day the public could go round under their own steam. So the LGMG decided to go and look round: never a better occasion for doing so.

If you spurn the audio guide you have instead a little booklet with Walpole's own description of the house leading you round the rooms. The whole place is obviously very, very much a work in progress and while there are spots of magnificence you need a lot of imagination in the more bare and echoey parts. The gardens are full of mud and mire. One of us remembered visiting about a dozen years ago when Walpole's house was being used by St Mary's College and still had its Victorian (and later) furniture, wallpaper and decoration, and was a bit disappointed. The full restoration, including gathering together some of Walpole's collection, is still to come. Having taken that brave decision to take the whole house back to 1797 rather than leave it where it was, I hope the Strawberry Hill Trust can actually follow through. It will, assuming they can, eventually be marvellous rather than just intriguing as it is at the moment.

We were all issued with charming polythene overshoes which fitted better over some Gothic foot attire than others. Still, the staff were delighted we were there. 'Horace would have been so proud', said the lady on the desk.

Grim Fairy Tales

I saw that picture years ago in an encyclopedia of mythology and was always captivated by the figure at the right in the background, the Earth Spider. He's about as nasty as an eight-foot-high Japanese spider demon can be. There he is, weaving his web of nightmares over the epic hero Kuniyoshi.

Last Thursday I went to the Ashmolean for an exhibition of 19th-century Japanese prints illustrating stories of ghosts and demons, and this picture was one of them. I also rather liked the haunted hero who looks out from his tea room to see a landscape transformed into skulls - a skull hill, trees bedecked with skulls, skulls on the grass, even th lanterns. Yes, that's what being nuts is like. The world of Japanese folklore with all its categories of very unpleasant supernatural being is beguiling. One trick I thought the display missed was any relationship to modern manifestations of Eastern ghosts and ghouls - the horrid Sadako prime among them, of course.