Imitations of Imitations

The family phonograph, which the advent of the evening set in action, was another musical machine I could hear through my verse. On the veranda where our relatives and friends assembled, it emitted from its brass mouthpiece the so-called “tsiganskie romansi” beloved of my generation. These were more or less anonymous imitations of gypsy songs – or imitations of imitations. What constituted their gypsiness was a deep monotonous moan broken by a kind of hiccup, the audible cracking of a lovesick heart … At their worst, they could be likened to the apache stuff composed by mild men of letters and delivered by thickset ladies in Parisian nightclubs. Their natural environment was characterised by nightingales in tears, lilacs in bloom and the alleys of whispering trees that graced the parks of the landed gentry.” 

(Vladimir Nabokov – Speak, Memory)

(n.b. if you click on the links in this piece, they will play you a tune …)

The town where I live is often visited by a band, who set up and play on a bridge over the river. The man I take to be their leader (an accordionist) is always there. Sometimes he plays alone, often he is accompanied by a trumpeter. Occasionally their number swells to four with the addition of a trombonist and, I think, a saxophonist. Although they play in a style that I think of as ‘gypsy jazz’, I do not recall a guitarist or a fiddler. Their accents, from the brief exchanges I have had with their leader, suggest that they have their origins somewhere in Eastern Europe, but that they are gypsies is pure supposition on my part.

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Their repertoire is eclectic, and varies with the seasons : at Christmas (when they were at full strength) they played ‘Jingle Bells’ ; in the Summer ‘In the Summertime’. ‘Love Theme from The Godfather’, ‘Sway’ and ‘My Way’ are other particular favourites. Whatever the source of their material, it is played at roughly the same tempo, punctuated by whoops. I enjoy hearing them play, and always give them a little money when I pass by.

Recently I heard them playing a tune which I thought I recognised, but could not quite place. When I next passed them, I identified it as ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin, a song I had not heard for some time ; I may be wrong, but I think it is now less well-known than it used to be. I do not recall any popular cover versions, or it being a favourite with talent show contestants or used in adverts, and I doubt whether it is often played on the radio. In my memory, though, it was, for a time, inescapable.

That lies in the brief interval between the time when I am sure that I can remember nothing clearly, and the time when I think that I can remember public events with some degree of accuracy. I believe it was the first song I was aware of being ‘Number One’, and understanding that this was thought to be, in some way, significant. It seemed to be there (both at ‘Number One’ and in my world) for a very long time and, given that I had not yet understood how the charts worked, I knew of no reason to think that it would ever end.

As a small child, songs seemed to me to be natural phenomena, quite beyond my control, which appeared at random out of the aether and then disappeared again with no reason or rhyme. I think this is how the very young tend to experience life anyway, but the effect was accentuated by my circumstances and the historical period through which I was living. My parents were not particularly interested in music, and we did not have a record player in the house (I’m not sure I had ever seen a physical record, or had much idea what one was), so that the concept of owning a song and being able to summon it up at will was unknown to me.

We owned a radio, but this was only capable of receiving what it described as the ‘Home Service’ and the ‘Light Programme’ (it teasingly advertised the existence of more exotic possibilities such as ‘Hilversum’, but, even when I had worked out that twisting the dial enabled you to change stations, that conjured up only a frustrating sonic furball of static). This was the prime time of pirate radio stations, but none of their vessels were moored off the Fylde Coast, and, even if they had been, I doubt whether my parents would have been inclined to tune in, or that our radio would have been capable of receiving them. So, if it was music we wanted, which my Mother sometimes did, it was the ‘Light Programme’ or nothing (the ‘Third Programme’, as far as I knew, was devoted entirely to cricket commentary).

This ‘Light Programme’ was devoted to ‘light music’, a jumble of light orchestral music, show tunes from various decades and the lighter end of pop music ; to preserve its lightness, the heaviness and darkness which weighed down and cast shadows over the music of the latter years of the decade was excluded. Once a song had been admitted into this canon it never left, even if it survived only in pureed form, as performed by one of the various vocal groups (the Mike Sammes, Swingle or Kings Singers) or light orchestras. Even when a song was in its prime (particularly if it was by an American artiste) it would be as likely to appear as a cover version by some British singer as in its original form.

After the ‘Light Programme’ split into Radios 1 and 2 in 1967, Radio 1 tended to play only songs that were currently in the charts (with the exception of the occasional ‘rave from the grave’, introduced by a comical sound effect) ; Radio 2 continued with the ‘light’ mixture much as before, but felt even less obligation to play new songs (not that I was aware of any of this, as our radio could no more receive Radio 1 than it could ‘Hilversum’). A few programmes were broadcast on both frequencies, two of them being the Top Twenty (as I was soon to discover) and Junior Choice, which was the only programme I can remember my parents actively encouraging me to listen to (perhaps so they could have an hour to themselves on Saturday mornings).

As the name suggests, this was a programme for children, which broadcast a predictable repertoire, composed, mostly, of comical novelty songs, such as ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano‘, ‘Would You Like To Swing On A Star?’ and ‘Nelly the Elephant‘. It did, though, allow a few more contemporary songs to slip through, presumably those that were thought particularly suitable for children, most of which seemed to be intent on gently intimating to me a presentiment of loss : I remember ‘Puff the Magic Dragon‘, ‘My Name is Jack‘, ‘Excerpt From A Teenage Opera’ and, particularly, ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers. ‘Those Were The Days‘ would have fitted into that category quite well, and hearing it every Saturday morning may have contributed to my impression that it had become inescapable.

It could have permeated my environment through other routes : light entertainment shows on the television (which usually featured musical interludes), the tannoy at football matches, fairgrounds and amusement parks, brass bands, whistling milkmen, girls returning arm-in-arm from a night on the town (heard through an open window). It may even have been adapted into a football chant. Then, of course, there was ‘Top of the Pops’, which I had begun to pay attention to, in the hope that a strange-looking man with his head on fire whom I had once glimpsed, might reappear (he never did, but by then I was hooked).

I am not sure that I precisely liked Hopkin’s song, but I was fascinated by it and sensed that it hinted at some kind of change. On the one hand, it marked a beginning : its themes of nostalgia and regret were novel to me and offered a frisson of adulthood ; on the other, I was dimly aware, in the way that animals can sense the approach of Winter, that it prefigured the end of something, though what that was I had no way of knowing. In retrospect, I suppose that it was the ‘Sixties, though that would have been meaningless to me (born at Christmas in 1960 I had never known anything other than the ‘Sixties and I had no real sense, as children tend not to, that the world ever had, or could be any different from what I had known).

Once, I would have had to leave this Autumnal half-memory, of something not wholly understood but enticing, undisturbed. If I had wanted to hear the song I would have had to find a record shop that stocked a copy. If I had wanted to watch a contemporary performance I would had to wait for a clip to turn up on some kind of nostalgic TV programme. If I had wanted to learn more about the song, its singer or authors, its progress up the charts or its posthumous life, I would have had to visit a library, thumb surreptitiously through reference works in a bookshop, or enter the netherworld of fan clubs and fanzines. No doubt, this would all have demanded too much time and effort to be devoted to a passing fancy. As it is, a few idle clicks are enough to lead me through a potentially endless series of links, subjecting my fragile, hazy, intimate memory to both a kind of ‘reality check’ and a spin through a hall of distorting mirrors.

I can substantiate that the song was around for a very long time. It was released on 30th August 1968 (when I was seven), reached Number One on 24th September, stayed there until 5th November and made its final appearance in the charts on 22nd January (by which time I was eight). It was in the charts for roughly one sixteenth of my life up to that point, and perhaps an eighth of my conscious life. I suppose I must have been in my last year at infants’ school, and my youngest sister had been born the previous December, but I find I can retrieve no particular memories from this period.

I can find three contemporary videos of Hopkin performing the song on YouTube, none of which, I think, can have been the one I would have seen on ‘Top of the Pops’. Judging by some rudimentary attempts at scene-setting (in one she is sitting in a ‘tavern’, next to a bottle of unidentified booze, in another (mysteriously) she is posing against a backcloth of a seaside promenade), they have been extracted from some light entertainment show, probably continental.

Mary Hopkin

The first thing that strikes me now (as it would not have at the time) is how young she looks (she was barely eighteen), and the incongruity of her singing such a world-weary song. To be so widely popular, the song’s appeal must have stretched from teenagers, perhaps attracted by her connection to the Beatles, to the middle-aged and old, who may have known her from ‘Opportunity Knocks’ (also, I think, where I would first have encountered her). The lyrics’ appeal to the old is obvious ; to the young, perhaps, it offered the chance to experience a novel emotion at no cost to themselves.

It is also striking how, at a time when most English music was faux-American or ‘very English’ (in the manner of the Kinks), the song has a decidedly ‘European’ feel. The arrangement (by Richard Hewson) includes a balalaika, hammered dulcimer and clarinet, as well as the swirling strings that he was soon to apply to ‘The Long and Winding Road’ and some abortive sessions with Nick Drake.

Although the song was credited solely to Gene Raskin, it is of Russian origin. Raskin was a Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, who wrote novels and plays (which may account for the self-consciously ‘literary’ diction), and performed as a folk singer in a duo with his wife. Raskin wrote only the English lyrics ; the tune, although it is often referred to as a ‘folk song’, is from a Russian song called ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu‘ , by Boris Fomin, with original lyrics by the poet Konstantin Podrevsky.

 

The song dates from 1924, and was first recorded by Fomin’s partner, Tamara Tsereteli, and, more famously, by Alexander Vertinsky.

Tsereteli

Vertinsky

Dorogoi Dlinnoyu’, with its troikas, sleigh bells and mournful seven string guitars, is squarely within the tradition of ‘tsiganskie romansi’ (gypsy romances), as described above by Nabokov, when reminiscing about his pre-revolutionary adolescence. The reference to ‘the apache stuff composed by mild men of letters‘ may well be a reference to the lyricist Podrevsky, and Nabokov would have been subjected to renditions of it ‘delivered by thickset ladies in Parisian nightclubs‘ if he had ventured into such establishments during his years of exile in that city, where it had been first popularised by the his fellow exile Vertinsky.

A Russian would have had to be in exile to have heard ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu‘ performed publicly after 1927, when it was banned, under suspicion of encouraging nostalgia. In 1929 the All-Russian Musicians’ Conference suppressed the whole genre of ‘tsiganskie romansi‘ as counter-revolutionary. Podrevsky had his property confiscated, and died in obscure circumstances in 1930. Fomin was briefly rehabilitated during the war, but, in 1946, fell victim (alongside Akhmatova) to an ‘anti-poshlost campaign‘ and died of tuberculosis in 1948.

Following the slight thaw after the death of Stalin, the song was allowed to resurface and achieved new popularity as a ‘folk song’ (its authors remained officially indescribable) ; one of the earliest new recordings was by Nani Bregvadze, who was honoured as a ‘People’s Artist of the Soviet Union’ in 1993.

Bregvadze

And among the very numerous other Russian versions, to prove the tone need not always be wistful, there is this frankly alarming rendition by the Red Army Choir.

Red Army Choir

In 1968, the song’s appeal crossed not only generational but national boundaries. Hopkin recorded it in French, Spanish, German and Italian, as did Sandie Shaw, who had released her own, less successful, English version (a rather half-hearted effort, but seeming too cool for her own material was always part of her charm). In France, the French-Italian-Egyptian diva Dalida recorded a more authentically jaded rendition (in a very loose translation as ‘Le Temps des Fleurs’) and Vicky Leandros a conventionally pretty one.

Dalida

Leandros

In one language or another, the song reached number one or two in eighteen countries, including every country in western Europe (bar Italy, for some reason) and North America, so it was not only in my childish imagination that it seemed inescapable. It must have been so through most of the Western world throughout the Autumn of 1968.

I am wary of attributing the popularity of a song to its having captured the feeling of a moment (the best-selling single in Europe throughout the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘Velvet Revolution’ was ‘The Lambada’), but it is hard not to feel that ‘Those Were The Days’, in its mild way, prefigured the end of the ‘Sixties, a year before those events in ‘popular culture’ which are usually supposed to have marked it (Altamont, the Manson killings).

Looking through the events of 1968, there were plenty of reasons for anyone still left elated by the supposed ‘Summer of Love’ to be feeling deflated by the Autumn.  The year had begun with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated ; in June, Bobby Kennedy. By the Autumn, the événements in Paris (the most dramatic example of the student unrest that had also broken out in Britain, the USA, Germany and elsewhere that Spring) had come to nothing. President de Gaulle was re-elected with an increased majority in June and, in November, Richard Nixon was elected President.

Of those events, the only one I remember being aware of at the time (apart from Vietnam, which seemed to be always rumbling on in the background) was Kennedy’s assassination, but I do clearly remember the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which took place on 21st August, a week before the release of ‘Those Were The Days’. In the week it left the British charts, Jan Palach (a Czech student) famously set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. The burns specialist who treated him wrote of his motivation for doing so :

“”It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises.”

I am not, I think, suggesting that post-revolutionary tristesse was solely responsible for the song’s popularity ; a pretty girl (or a selection of pretty girls) singing a hummable tune always went down well in those days.  Some older people may have felt that ‘those days’ were the peaceful ones before students began rioting and listening to loud rock music.  No doubt most active soixante-huitards would have preferred to work off their frustrations by listening to Les Rolling Stones or Les Doors.  In North America, the song was often interpreted as an expression of nostalgia for the heyday of the pre-electric folkies.

Nonetheless, I can imagine it permeating the air of mainland Europe in much the same way that it seemed to seep, uninvited, into my small world on its North-Western fringes (particularly given that those were the days before people took to piping music directly into their heads via earphones) ; creeping out from jukeboxes into the cafés where the soixante-huitards smoked and plotted their revolutions, puzzling the Czechs twisting the dials on their old radios in search of accurate news from the West (perhaps even locating the mysterious ‘Hilversum’), providing a mocking counterpoint to their hopes with its pretty, kitschy, resignation.  And what effect, I wonder, would it have had on the Russians, as they entered Prague, some of them, perhaps, under the sincere impression that they would be greeted as liberators, to hear their own dear ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu’, with its troikas and sleigh bells, being trilled back at them in several unfamiliar languages by strange young women in mini-skirts?

As for my gypsies, my Tziganes, who may or not be real, I wonder whether they are playing ‘Those Were the Days‘, ‘Le Temps des Fleurs‘ or ‘Dorogoi Dlinnoyu‘ ; an imitation of an imitation, or an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From Utopia to Atopia : Milton Keynes and Magna Park

 

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“What is missing in the American landscape is not so much the absence of historical memories, as the romantic illusion has it, as the fact that no hand has left a trace in it. This relates not merely to the absence of farm-fields, the stubbly and often tiny scrub-like forests, but above all the streets. … They bear no imprint. Because they know no traces of shoes or wheels, no gentle footpaths along their edge as a transition to the vegetation, no side-paths into the valley below, they lack that which is mild, softened, rounded in things, on which hands or their immediate tools have worked. It is as if no-one had combed the landscape’s hair. It is disconsolate and inconsolable. This corresponds to the manner of its perception. For what the hurrying eye has merely viewed from the car cannot be retained, and the latter sinks as tracklessly, as the traces on such fade away.” *

Two popular attitudes to Milton Keynes are to treat it as a joke, or to applaud the “utopian” “idealism” of those who planned and built it. The former camp imagines it to be inauthentic and soulless, deriding its “concrete cows” and its “plastic” football team, guilty of identity-theft from another, more authentic club ; some still, perversely, associate it with “Thatcherism”, largely on the basis of a couple of once all-pervasive TV adverts and a song by the Style Council. The other faction remembers it as a late flowering of “herbivorous” post-war thinking, a sincere attempt to harness modernism to provide a cleaner, more pleasant way of life (in the tradition of the garden city movement), with a herbal-scented whiff of hippy mysticism. Some of these (particularly those who live there) are fiercely defensive of the purity of the original concept against compromise, as if fearful that their “city” will become what its detractors imagine it to be.

My only previous experience of Milton Keynes involved being driven around it at night (in the pre-satnav era), and getting hopelessly lost. In theory, looking at the grid plan around which the “city” is based,

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that should be hard to do, the intention being that you should drive in at one side of the “city” and proceed in a straight line through to the other. This might be true if you have understood the principle behind the arrangement of streets and are happy to have your movements dictated by the logic of the grid, or, perhaps, if you have lived there long enough for landmarks (even individual roundabouts or trees) to have lodged in your mind. If not, then like many things that are logical, the arrangement feels counter-intuitive (in fact, willfully anti-intuitive), the effect disorientating, as if you were an animal (a spider, a cat) climbing a sheer wall made of some man-made substance that offers no natural purchase.

One of the first things I saw, having arrived in Central Milton Keynes by bus, was a sign confirming my prejudice (as a non-driver) that it does not aim to be hospitable to the aimless stroller :

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drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all have their allotted spheres here, their predestined routes, and the walker’s realm lies through a web of underpasses.

The shopping centre itself (there are, in fact, two a little way apart) is also arranged in a kind of grid of alphabetically labelled blocks, with exits at regular intervals between them.  There is no hierarchy between these exits (no main entrance or exit), few of them give any indication where they lead, there are few landmarks other than shops and few maps ; our stroller** soon loses his bearings, becomes disorientated and finds himself with no idea where he is in relation to where he came in, or whether he has passed the same place twice (for reference, the exit nearest the bus-stop from Northampton is the one closest to Burger King).

Once outside the shopping centre, the impression is of endless straight lines : walkways, “boulevards”, flyovers, underpasses, dual carriageways, all of which seem to lead straight to the vanishing point of the horizon, as if a child has drawn them to demonstrate their grasp of perspective :

It is so unlike anywhere else (the patchwork tracings of civic and private needs and desires that make up the mind-map of the average English town) that the mind gropes to relate these “boulevards” to constructs of the imagination, such as “Huysmann’s Paris”or “Chandler’s Los Angeles” or the ideal fantasy cities of Le Corbusier.  Everywhere our stroller has the sense that behind it all there is some central controlling consciousness, that it is, as it were, a product of intelligent design, and that there is – if only we could see it – a plan.

In Milton Keynes two idealisms rub against each other : the desire to give concrete expression to a world of ideal forms struggles with the need to provide a benign habitat for its human inhabitants. Central Milton Keynes is not designed to be inhabited, but used purely as a zone of consumption (of fancy goods and burgers in the shopping centre, of “culture” in the cultural quarter, of religion in the ecumenical “cathedral” that embodies the modern belief that emptiness is next to holiness), but it has, nevertheless, attracted inhabitants, hardy life-forms rolled in sleeping bags under every underpass, taking tenuous root in routes which were meant for perpetual motion ; in shanty towns, on the fringes, fringe religions take hold

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and everywhere, mucking up utopia, are the traces of habitation – fag ends, cartons, cracks in the pavement, weeds, detritus, vomit, scribble.

The place that I was reminded of most was Magna Park, a 550 acre distribution centre in South Leicestershire, which is its doppelgänger or twin, a denial of one of its kinds of idealism and the fulfilment of the other. Milton Keynes is inviting to visitors (“Come to Milton Keynes”), Magna Park discourages them (it describes itself as a “private estate”, and I was unsure, when I visited it, whether I was meant to be there at all). The architecture of Central Milton Keynes is meant to be seen (the main shopping centre has been listed by English Heritage) ; that of Magna Park is not designed to be seen (it is assumed that there should be no-one there to see it), but to be invisible (the only attempt at design of the vast, windowless sheds is that some are painted sky-blue, to make them, from a distance, blend in with the sky).

There is no philanthropic idealism behind Magna Park, no thought of better lives ; it represents pure functionality, and, in that, represents the fulfilment of long nurtured dreams.

In the hour-and-a-half I spent in Magna Park I saw three other human beings (one a security guard and one in a high-visibility jacket, spraying luminous hieroglyphics on the pavement). No-one lives there, and there are none of the amenities that inhabitants require (no shops, no pubs, no cafes ; no playgrounds, no lavatories, no homes or homeless ; no production and no consumption ; no libraries or churches (so no religion too – it’s easy if you try)).  But it is, in many ways, an ideal place to live. Like Milton Keynes, it has wide, tree-lined boulevards arranged, logically, around a grid.

It has excellent public transport links, with three bus stops and a half hourly service to both Hinckley and Lutterworth. It has its own secluded wood, with a willow-fringed pond, that gives the impression that yours are the first human feet to tread there :

Above all, there is no trace of human habitation : apart from a defiant scattering of fag-ends around one of the bus stops, there is no litter ; there are no cracks in the pavement, no moss between the paving stones, the hedges are precisely and immaculately trimmed, there are no dogs, no children, no chewing gum, no sound of human voices, no laughter or crying (and weirdly, when I visited it, no birds). It is almost pre-lapsarian in its pristine perfection.

Although they are invisible in their big sheds, there are said to be 7,500 workers in Magna Park, but the dream is, of course, that automation will soon enable their elimination. If the same principle that drives the driverless cars which are being trialled on the wide, straight boulevards of Milton Keynes can be extended to the caravans of lorries that connect it to Magna Park, the last traces of humanity there could be eradicated, leaving it a heavenly, immaculate place, where no-one goes and which no-one ever sees, both Utopia and atopia.

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*Theodor Adorno – Minima Moralia.

**Me.

 

Faced with Porphiry

Luton Airport Parkway to Harpenden: a walk with Nicholas Faxton.

For a long time, not long ago (from February 2002 to March 2016), I used to wake early. I would leave the house at 6.30 and, by 7.40 approximately, I would be passing through Luton Airport Parkway railway station. In the afternoon, I would leave work early, and, by 5.40 approximately, I would be approaching the same station from the other direction. As I say, I did this every day, five days a week (barring holidays), for a little over fourteen years.

By being in the same place at the same time over such a long period of time (something that would, otherwise, only be experienced by a participant in a scientific experiment, or an art project of some kind), I could observe the landscape changing, in two ways. On the one hand, there were temporal, lateral changes : new buildings were built, old ones demolished, towns sprawled ; crops would rotate in their fields ; supermarkets changed hands, and their neon signs changed with them. Early on, a landfill site was gouged out from a patch of scrubland, festered and flared for some years in the early light, then slowly grassed over, leaving only a scattering of gas-relieving periscopes to warn of the space it had once occupied.

On the other hand, there were cyclical changes : I developed a minutely calibrated sensitivity to the light blooming, then shrinking and contracting again, until, at its lowest point (the Scandinavian months from November to January), the first point in the journey where I could see the outside world more clearly than my own reflection was the landscape immediately beyond Luton Airport Parkway ; it seemed to me unusually beautiful, even the shimmering pools and shining cupolas (or so they appeared in the subdued dawn light) of what was clearly a sewage farm.

Any sight (it is true) would have seemed sweeter to me than, and a relief from, the darkness visible in my reflection, and it is perhaps this, or a simple lack of curiosity, that prevented me from looking into what it was it was that I could see, and why that landscape, with its wooded slopes, its picturesque lakes, and the briefly glimpsed facade of a great house, seemed too good to be true, too true to nature.

About six or seven years into my making this journey, I discovered that the house I could see was called Luton Hoo, and that its grounds, rather than being a happy accident of nature, had been landscaped by Capability Brown. The house itself had been, in the course of several fires, through various iterations, designed first by Robert Adam, then by Robert Smirke. It had been owned by the Earls and Marquesses of Bute, “a Liverpool solicitor” and Sir Julius Wernher, an Edwardian diamond magnate. By the time it had occurred to me to visit the house, which apparently contained an art collection, that was no longer possible, it having been converted into an hotel in 2007.

A little earlier, I had become aware of a path that ran parallel to the railway line, seemingly a rough track. Sometimes there were cyclists, occasionally walkers, whose cloudy exhalations, on cold mornings, mimicked the steam rising from the sewage treatment beds. I could not see where they were travelling to, because the path passed from view as the train put on speed.  Shortly after the sewage farm, on the other, left hand, side of the track, I could see a path emerging from under a railway bridge, which led, in the middle distance, to a building which piqued my curiosity. Its purpose was not obvious, and, in its setting, between the sculpted contours of Capability Brown and the homely curves of arable Bedfordshire, it struck me as incongruous and unenglish (something Sicilian, a little Russian), without belonging to any more exotic style of architecture that I could readily identify.  Every morning (unless it was raining), I thought how much I should prefer to be walking that path to that building than continuing my journey to London.

Eventually (and you must remember here that the internet was not as informative in those days as it is now), I learned that the path was part of the Lea Valley Walk (which, in its later stages, and in a previous life of mine, I had lived near to and sometimes walked), that it followed the route of the old Luton to Hertford Railway, and that its second leg led from Luton Airport to Harpenden. It took me several more years before I found the time and the inclination to walk it, but have now done so three times, the first time in Autumn, the second in Spring, and the third in the last week of 2016.

Although the route is signposted at the exit to the station, my usual inclination to follow my nose (and my disinclination to walk alongside a dual carriageway) at first led me astray, but, after a few diversions, I emerged from an underpass

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directly underneath a nose-to-tail train of aeroplanes, in the moment that they had burst through to take-off and were accelerating to gain altitude.

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Having been on one of those planes some weeks previously, I felt the closed eyes, aching ears and surreptitious prayers ; I was relieved to be outside, on that path, perhaps the observed and not the observer.

I would say that, of the three seasons, the walk is at its best in Autumn (unfortunately, I appear to have lost the photographs I took of it on that occasion), but, on a clear and frosty morning, I caught it in its Winter best.

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It resembles other paths which once were railway lines, in terms of its flora and occasional fauna, albeit, in its early stages, unusually well-stocked with mature trees (responsible, I suppose, for making its beginnings invisible from the train).

Curiously, by some trick of perspective, or by design, Luton Hoo itself cannot be seen from the path, only its grounds.

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At one point, there is a bench before which three spirits of the Lea Valley loom to obstruct the view.

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The figure on the left is Eric Morecambe, on the right is the founder of the Luton Sea Scouts (who apparently make use of the artificial lakes of Luton Hoo), and, in the middle, is Capability Brown himself.

For about half an hour the path and the railway proceed side-by-side, until, like two friends falling out on a walk, the path veers away to the right over a viaduct crossing the Lea itself, rounds the sewage farm (which is less attractive than it looks from the train), and, passing under a railway bridge, emerges at the beginning of the road that leads to the incongruous building (the path itself continues on to Harpenden).

The road, which has no footpath beside it, passes over the Lea, which, although the day had started brightly, was half-obscured by fog

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before leading me to what announced itself as St. Charalambos, a Greek Orthodox Church.

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If I had visited when I had first noticed it, I would have found an Anglican Church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, but that had been abandoned in 2008. Pevsner (I only know this because I have searched the internet) has this to say about it :

“1840-1 by Benjamin Ferrey. Neo-Norman. Facade has 2 large round Norman piers flanking the entrance, and open staircases with Norman colonettes turning left and right. Asymmetrically placed turret.”

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The church has a modest churchyard, containing a scattering of small monuments, most of them, apparently, to the inhabitants of the small village of East Hyde, or to those employed, in some way, at Luton Hoo (one of them in the shape of a heart).

 

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The churchyard slopes gently upwards to a precisely-trimmed wall of yew, through which is visible a monument of a type that I associate most with Highgate Cemetery (I lived nearby for some years, and used to stroll there when I had nothing else to do), whose proper name seems to be mausoleum  (the word that seems to suit is catafalque, but that is wrong).

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This mausoleum (or catafalque ) belongs to, commemorates, and, presumably (I have never been quite sure of the mechanics of such interments), houses the body of Sir Julius Wernher (as we have seen, the one-time master of Luton Hoo).

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The Mausolea and Monuments Trust describes it thus :

An exceptionally elaborate Gothic Revival monument.  The sarcophagus, which is faced with porphiry and supported by six bronze lions, is sheltered by a lavishly carved stone canopy.  The quality of both the materials and workmanship is of the very highest order.”

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At its corners stand four quasi-angelic figures, each representing what I take to be a virtue (though in some cases, the symbolism is obscure to me).

In addition to Sir Julius himself (whose mortal remains occupy, I imagine, the great lead sarcophagus (faced with porphiry) itself), there are smaller plaques to commemorate his family, as follows:

Alice Sedgwick, Baroness Ludlow, 1862-1945 (his wife)

Lady Zia Wernher, 1892-1977 (his daughter-in-law)

Major-General Sir Harold Wernher, 1895-1978 (his second son)

Derrick Julius Wernher, 2nd baronet, 1889-1948 (his son and heir)

George Michael Alexander Wernher (only son of Sir Harold), died at Reja 4 December 1942 aged 24 and buried in a military cemetery in Tunisia

Alex Pigott Wernher (youngest son), died at Ginchy, France September 10, 1916

One plaque is blank.*

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Pharonically, within the enclosure of yew, but apart from the family, there are two smaller monuments, which read :

Harriet Sessions, 12 February 1934, for 39 years faithful housekeeper and friend of Sir Julius and Lady Wernher

Margaret : M. Eleanor Pryce, d. 29 June 1928, lifelong devoted friend of Julius and Lady Wernher

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There is also a very small monument, completely obscured by moss, which might have commemorated a dog.

Although, on my first visit, I knew nothing of Sir Julius or his family, I recall feeling that this unexpected enclosure of yew and its porphiry-faced casket, to which I had been drawn, seemed somehow to contain a compressed weight of history, set against the lightness of the English countryside (or, as I wrote in a notebook, rather cheaply “A little corner of an English field that is forever Mitteleuropa“).

By my second visit, I was able to flesh out the bones.  I understood the connection with Luton Hoo (which, I learned, had been decorated by the designer of the Ritz Hotel). I knew that Alice, his wife, (nee Mankiewicz) was nicknamed “Birdie”, was painted by Sargent and, after the death of Sir Julius, had remarried a Lord Ludlow.  Sir Derrick (the second baronet) had married Theodora Romanoff (an exiled Russian noblewoman, though not related to the Royal Family).  Sir Harold’s wife “Zia” was born Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby, the daughter of an exiled Russian Grand-Duke (and grandson of a Tsar) who owned Kenwood House and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.  Tracing the web of family conections (by hopping from one Wikipedia page to another) soon spiralled vertiginously, back to Pushkin and forwards to a handful of Duchesses of Westminster, and other names, too numerous to mention, familiar from the society pages.

I picture Sir Julius selecting the spot where his mausoleum was to be built, fussing about its design, and riding out from Luton Hoo from time to time, (taking, I suppose, much the route I took), to see how the work was progressing (I am assuming it was built while he was alive), and, in time, a sad, grand, procession from the great house when it was time for him to take occupation of his chosen resting place. I picture, too, a succession of other sad processions taking the same route, in due course, to add new bodies (or, if not that, new inscriptions), and others, less sad, but still reflective, a short drive, or a pleasant walk on a Summer’s afternoon away to lay flowers or pay other respects. The mausoleum’s architecture echoes the mediaeval shrines that held relics of the saints, and seems calculated to invite pilgrimage. It is, of course, some time now since any descendant of Sir Julius has occupied Luton Hoo, and the number of those who can remember their occupation of the house, or most of those commemorated by the mausoleum, must be dwindling.  I wonder how many, other than me, have found themselves, impelled by some unknown instinct, making what feels as though it is, regardless of its object (I doubt Sir Julius, in life, was quite saintly), a pilgrimage of sorts, and how few of us could describe quite what drew us there, or what it might mean.

* From ‘The Camden New Journal’, 13 May, 2010 “An heiress to a vast diamond fortune who shunned her aristocratic family in favour of a quiet life in Highgate was found dead by a care­taker, an inquest heard.

Anna Wernher, daughter of Sir Derrick Julius Wernher, 2nd Baronet, was found dead in her home in Langbourne Avenue on the Holly Lodge Estate in February. Described as a “recluse,” the inquest heard that she had cut all ties with her family, whose fortune was made by her grandfather Sir Julius Charles Wernher, 1st Baronet, in the diamond mines of South Africa. 

Alexander Wills, a close friend of Ms Wernher, said that she complained of feeling “very unwell” when he spoke to her three weeks before she was found.“It was par for the course because she was never feeling very well,” he said. “I didn’t take any particular notice and said to her ‘give me a ring when you’re feeling better and I’ll come and have some tea’.”  That was the last time Mr Wills spoke to Ms Wernher, who he described as “suspicious” of medical care. 

It is believed Ms Wernher will be buried in the family mausoleum in East Hyde, Bedfordshire.”

******************

After leaving the churchyard, I retraced my steps and rejoined the path that led to Harpenden, where I enjoyed a toasted bruschetta and a cup of caffe latte, before taking the train home, passing back through Luton Airport at about, I suppose, 3.40.

Time taken : 2 hours approximately.

Degree of difficulty : very slight.

 

 

Dreams of Leaving

From December 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler

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For a few years after they were married, our parents managed a butcher’s shop, the end building of a deformed 1930s’ crescent of ten shops, a series of white concrete cubes with elongated windows, unornamented, geometrical, exiguous. California had come to the outskirts of Northampton, futuristically prefiguring the society of consumption. The building was redolent of absent sunshine, leisure and romance ; although it was not long before the rain seeped through the flat roofs and in fungoid green stains on the inside walls, and subsidence cracks veined the already maculated concrete with black, and the parents separated and returned to the familiar red brick terraces from which they had unsuccessfully tried to anticipate their future release.” (Jeremy Seabrook : The Everlasting Feast)

I think I remember reading, some time ago, that W.H. Auden had once described his ideal as being to live “a Mediterranean life in…

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A Midlands Romance

From November 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler

 

ptdc0585-2“The only thing romantic in the Midlands is the names of the professional football clubs – and football, generally speaking, is not a romantic game …

The towns are, perhaps, not meant for summer, summer’s delights and summer’s games, and only when the fogs come down and blur their grim, unlovely lines and the street-lamps mingle with lights from stalls and shops to deck them out in a boisterous blaze do they become warm and human. 

Football is their proper game, and, seen in the lights of the trams as they sway over lines glittering in the December rain, the stop-press columns of the evening papers with their long lists of scores and results take on a mystic significance …”

Meet me on the corner when the lights are coming on and I’ll be there – I promise I’ll be there …”

Quotations from Dudley Carew (“To The Wicket”)…

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Transitory Things in Lamport

From February 2016.

The New Crimson Rambler

 

Lamport trees

Lamport is a small village on the road between Market Harborough and Northampton, which I have often passed through, but never made time to visit until last week, prompted mainly by reading “A Child Alone : the Memoirs of ‘BB’“.  ‘BB’ was the pen-name of D.J. Watkins-Pitchford, a naturalist, artist and author whose books I enjoyed as a child and have sometimes alluded to in writing this blog.

Watkins-Pitchford grew up in the Rectory at Lamport (now, inevitably ‘The Old Rectory’)*

Lamport Rectory Lamport Rectory

which is next door to the church of which his father was the Rector.

All Saints, Lamport All Saints, Lamport

and directly opposite Lamport Hall, the family seat (until recently) of the Isham family.

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Lamport Hall

As young D.J. was an imaginative child and kept at home rather than sent to school, he would have had plenty of time to contemplate the motto of the Isham family, which is inscribed at least twice on…

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Forgive What We Have Been, Amend What We Are

From October 2012.

The Crimson Rambler

A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to Lincoln Cathedral.  It has its fans (Ruskin, Pevsner) but – magnificent though it is

it seemed to me to have an uneasy atmosphere, something that suggested it was not quite happy in its skin.

The Cathedral was rebuilt and greatly enlarged by St Hugh of Lincoln, the exemplary 12th century Bishop, who was canonized shortly after his death. The Cathedral invites visitors to imagine themselves as mediaeval pilgrims visiting his shrine.  It’s true that many pilgrims would have been attracted by Great St Hugh, but more would have  there to venerate this shrine (what’s left of it) – the shrine of Little St Hugh.

Little St Hugh was a nine-year old boy, the son of a woman called Beatrice, who disappeared from his home on July 31st 1255.  On 29th August his body was found in a well in the…

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Twilight of The Bones

From March 2012.

The Crimson Rambler

“All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.” G. Orwell – England, Your England

Since the football club that I support moved to a ground that is inaccessible by public transport, I have been spending my Saturday afternoons watching a mixture of sides in the United Counties League – Harborough, Desborough, the Rothwell Corinthians, but mostly Rothwell Town (“the Bones”).

But, as the sign above illustrates, it looks like I shall have one less option for next season – or, at least, if the club survives, they won’t be playing at their long-time home at Cecil Street.

The club was founded (as “The Swifts”) in 1895, and have spent time in the Northamptonshire League, the Leicestershire League and the Kettering League…

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Peace And Light In Long Eaton

From December 2011.

The Crimson Rambler

I recently satisfied a long-nursed curiosity by visiting Long Eaton.  I don’t know about you, but I find that, if I hear an announcement about where a stopping train is going to stop often enough, I develop a growing urge to visit that place : I hear about Long Eaton several times a day – “Passengers for Langley Mill, Alfreton, Long Eaton and Derby change at Beeston …”.

I wasn’t there for very long (I managed to combine this trip with a visit to that other faraway place with a strange-sounding name East Midlands Parkway) but long enough to get the gist of the place, as it were.

The main thing to note about Long Eaton is that it is very long.  One very long road running alongside a canal with houses strung out alongside it.  The walk from the station to the centre of town took about half an…

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Merrie Men and Mad Men

From February 2011. (I never did write about Pugin.)

The Crimson Rambler

Between Christmas and New Year I visited Peterborough – to see the Cathedral – and Nottingham – to see the British Art Show 7 (In the Days of the Comet), which I see has now transferred to London.  While in Nottingham, I also took the opportunity to visit Pugin’s Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to St Barnabas (about which more another time, perhaps).

On my way from the Cathedral to the Castle (where part of the Art Show was on display) I came across this along Maid Marian Way (which sounds delightful, but ain’t) –

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– the window of what seems to have been a mediaeval-themed “banqueting hall”, now closed down due to the recession.  These Brueghelian figures must, I think, have been used to create an atmosphere of Merrie Olde Englande for the revellers, but now look as though they are making a desperate effort to escape the ruins of the building (it reminds me…

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