Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Friday 25 March 2016

A Happy March 25 New Year to any readers this blog might have

'Stonehenge I', 1973, Henry Moore, (intaglio print and lithograph)
Most cultures celebrate the New Year in the spring or autumn. For example, Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, is usually on March 20 or 21, and Ugadi, New Year's Day for the Deccan region of India, generally falls in March or April. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is most often in the early autumn, while Gujaratis celebrate Bestu Varas in October or November. 

Why, then, do Western cultures, and cultures influenced by the West, celebrate it on January 1, and why am I wishing you a Happy New Year today, March 25?

As the earth doesn't pass a marker post on its journey round the sun, any date that's chosen as marking the new year is bound to be questionable and random, but some dates are more questionable and random than others. The most questionable and random of all is January 1. What happens in nature on that date? Absolutely nothing. It's just the middle of winter, and not even the exact middle (which would make some sort of sense), merely an insignificant day in the earlyish part of that season. (Throughout this post I am writing from the perspective of the northern hemisphere; apologies to any readers below the equator.)

The Romans were the first people to make January 1 New Year's Day, in 153 BCE. (Previously, until 222 BCE, it had been May 1, and the Ides of March (March 15) after that.) Quite why they did this remains obscure, at least to me. Professor Wikipedia explains that this was the date on which the Senate was convened, and when civic officials took up their posts, but that doesn't explain why January 1 was chosen for these events. I once read somewhere that the new year was the beginning of the military campaigning season, so, as the Empire expanded and troops had further to go before reaching the areas where they were to be operational in the spring, the date of the new year had to be put back to give them more travel time. This sounds vaguely plausible, but I don't know if it's true.

There are four dates that could justifiably be chosen as New Year's Day: the winter solstice, on or about December 21, the shortest day and longest night; the spring (or vernal) equinox, on or about March 20, when day and night are of equal length; the summer solstice, on or about June 21, the longest day and shortest night; the autumn equinox, on or about September 23, when once again day and night are equal.

'Stonehenge IV', 1973, Henry Moore, (intaglio print and lithograph)
As I implied in the opening paragraph, most cultures chose times around the equinoxes, when the major seasonal changes occur, as their new years. Early cultures must have watched the turning of the seasons far more attentively and anxiously than we do now. Everyone knows that Stonehenge is aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, but less widely known is the alignment with the winter solstice sunrise. This must have been a key event in the lives of the people then. It's easy to imagine that they observed the shortening days nervously, fearing that if they displeased the gods (or however they imagined the forces governing nature) the nights would go on getting longer and longer until there was no daylight at all. The solstice must have been joyously celebrated, as they knew (or at least hoped) that at last the light would start to overtake the dark. It's possible, even likely, that this was their new year, and this seems to me to be a thoroughly suitable date to chose, though as far as I know no existing cultures have adopted it.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, conventions considered to be pagan were abandoned and Christian ones invented. The Second Council of Tours in 567 decreed, entirely sensibly in my view, that January 1 was not the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, they seem to have failed to rule definitively on when exactly the year did start. Throughout the Middle Ages (and well into the Early Modern period) the new year was variously observed in different places in Europe as Christmas Day, March 1, March 25, and Easter. Christmas Day makes some sense, as it's near the solstice, March 25 is near the equinox, and Easter is sometimes near it too, and at any rate is always in spring. (It's obviously symbolic that the Resurrection is celebrated when nature is reborn.) Where March 1 comes from I'm not sure, but it too is in spring.

Why did they choose dates near rather than on the solstice and equinox? The answer to this is that they did choose exact rather than approximate dates. The Julian calendar had been instituted in the 1st century BCE, and by the 6th century CE the dates were already significantly out of synch with the seasons. So by 567 the spring equinox occurred on March 25.

March 25 seems to have been the most commonly accepted date for New Year's Day, at least in the British Isles. This explains, incidentally, the date of Christmas, which some find puzzling. It's symbolically satisfying that Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel and impregnated by the Holy Spirit on the first day of the year, and March 25 is still celebrated by Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation (also known as Lady Day). As the human gestation period is nine months it naturally follows that Jesus was born on December 25.

For more than a thousand years Christendom celebrated the new year in spring, not January. Some find this very difficult to accept, but the picture above provides visual proof. It shows a page from the baptismal records of Stratford-on-Avon parish church (the cross marks the entry recording the baptism of Shakespeare's sister, Joan, on April 15, 1569). You can see that the dates before March 25 are reckoned to be in the previous year.*

When the Gregorian calendar (a necessary and welcome reform) was introduced to most of the Catholic world in 1582, it was decided that the year would revert to beginning on January 1. This is a mysterious decision; a date in spring could easily have been retained, and the world would be better-ordered now had Pope Gregory XIII done so. If it was thought that it was confusing to begin the year in the middle of a month, March 1 (which was already New Year's Day in some people's estimation) would have been a sensible compromise. Or, more radically, as the calendar was undergoing a major overhaul anyway, it could have been adjusted a little more so that the spring equinox was on March 1. Whether these possibilities were considered I don't know. But presumably Renaissance humanism had made classical culture something that even the Church wanted to imitate, and so the Roman date for the new year was adopted, condemning the world to a simply daft convention.

'Stonehenge A', 1973, Henry Moore, intaglio print and lithograph
The date of the new year didn't officially change in Britain until the abandonment of the old Julian calendar and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which happened as late as 1752. (England, along with some other Protestant countries, had previously refused to accept it, as it was seen as Popish.) However, well before then many or even most people accepted January 1 as the de facto beginning of the year. It's clear from Pepys' diary (written in the 1660s), for example, that he acknowledged this, but I'm not sure why.

When Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, the Julian calendar was eleven days out of synch with the seasons (and therefore with the Gregorian calendar and much of the rest of Europe). This had some bizarre consequences; for example, Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes (the author of Don Quixote) both died on the same date, April 23, 1616**, but they didn't die on the same day.

If the year begins on March 25, then the reason for the otherwise seemingly bafflingly random beginning of the UK tax year, April 6, becomes clear. In Britain in 1752 eleven days had to be dropped from the calendar; people went to bed on September 2 and woke up on September 14. (Some were unhappy at this change, but the stories about riots provoked by it seem to be untrue.) However, the Treasury wanted the year to remain 365 days long so they extended the tax year, previously beginning on March 25, by eleven days. So for the rest of the century the tax year began on April 5. 1800 would have been a leap year in the Julian calendar but wasn't in the Gregorian, so once again the Treasury added an extra day. Since then the British tax year has started on April 6, which is just the kind of wonderfully logical illogicality that I love.

Spring - this is so obvious that it shouldn't need saying, yet it's ignored by everyone who persists in accepting January 1 as New Year's Day - is the beginning of the year. In mid-winter nature is dead, or at least dormant; nothing is being renewed or reborn. Spring is when life restarts. Daffodils spark into bloom, birds are chirpily flirty, tractors arduously plough the fields, farmers expectantly plant seeds, lambs and calves struggle onto wobbly legs, hibernating animals woozily wake up, the days get warmer and evenings at last begin to get lighter and we begin to consider the possibility of sitting outside. Exactly when spring begins is a matter of dispute, but whenever it does, that's New Year's Day. You can make a very good case for New Year's Day being on the spring equinox (March 20 in 2016), but I prefer the traditional time-honoured date of March 25. It was good enough for a millennium and more, and it's good enough for me.

* If the year begins in March, then the names of the months September, October, November and December (meaning the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months, respectively) make sense.

** Disappointingly, this turns out to be not exactly true. Most reference books state that this is when Cervantes died, but recent research has established that he died on the 22, and was buried on the 23.

Sunday 13 March 2016

Learning to look with Alec Clifton-Taylor

Alec Clifton-Taylor (1907-85) in Bradford-on-Avon
Alec Clifton-Taylor's television series Six English Towns was first broadcast in 1978. I can't have watched it on its first run, because I didn't have a television then; I suppose I caught it on a later repeat. He begins the first programme of the first (of three) series (on Chichester) explaining that he intends to offer the viewer 'an exercise in looking', and that's just what the programmes are. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that Alec Clifton-Taylor taught me the art of looking.

He was educated at Bishop's Stortford College (does this mean that like me he was born in Hertfordshire?), and Queen's College, Oxford, where he read history. He then spent a year at the Sorbonne, but his father, worrying as parents are prone to do about their children's future prospects,  induced him to leave and go into insurance-broking. However, he was so miserable that he persuaded his father to allow him to go to the Courtauld, where he trained as an art historian (still a relatively rare subject in Britain at the time), and graduated with a first in 1934. He became a lecturer at the University of London Institute of Education and the Royal College of Art, and during the war served in the Admiralty. He returned to university lecturing in 1945 until he became a freelance at the age of fifty in 1957, and lectured throughout the world, including thirty-two states of the USA.

He wrote reviews for Country Life, and probably for other publications too, and advised Leicestershire County Council on the purchase of art works for display in schools. (I doubt very much if such a job exists today.) He didn't publish his first book until 1962, when he was fifty-five, and it's his masterpiece. If he'd never written anything else, nor made a single television programme, The Pattern of English Building* would still guarantee him a seat on the top table at the banquet of writers about England.

As he explains in the Foreword, 'the principal purpose of the book' is 'to try to increase the pleasure of those who travel about the country with open eyes', (truly a noble and praiseworthy ambition), by showing 'the close relationship between the geology of our country and the traditional materials which go to the making of the pattern of English building.' So the book is arranged neither chronologically nor stylistically nor county-by-county, as architectural guidebooks generally are, but according to the materials from which the buildings are made. Some of the chapter titles give a flavour: 'Limestone', 'Tiles', 'The Unbaked Earths', and some of the running headings are even more enticing: 'The Varieties of English "Marble"', 'Whitewash and Applied Colour', 'Shingles and Weather-Boarding'. Reading the book, packed as it is with years of looking and learning, enables you to notice and appreciate details that would otherwise go unobserved.

He co-wrote books about stone and brick, and contributed essays on geology and building materials to eighteen volumes of Pevsner's monumental series The Buildings of England. He wrote about cathedrals and churches, notably English Parish Churches as Works of Art (1974), which, as its title reveals, again avoids trotting out the usual stylistic or chronological approaches in favour of a more original perspective. In it he concerns himself solely with whether buildings and their contents are beautiful or not; you can't read or listen to him for long without realising that he is a man of strong opinions about good and bad buildings. (To oversimplify somewhat, local materials = good, materials imported from elsewhere = bad.) I don't always agree with him - he never misses an opportunity to knock Victorian stained glass, for example - but he always argues his case knowledgeably and urbanely, and he always makes you look more intelligently and pleasurably.

Having waited till he was fifty-five to publish his first book, he left it till seventy before he became a television star. He presented a programme about Gothic architecture in the series The Spirit of the Age in the mid-70s, and this lead to his being commissioned by the BBC to write and present Six English Towns (made in 1977, broadcast the following year), which was an instant hit. This in turn lead to Six More English Towns (1981) and Another Six English Towns (1984), and he became a familiar and much-loved figure.**

Much of the success of the programmes can be ascribed to his genial charm. He's everyone's favourite grandad, abundant chalk-white hair sometimes crazily anarchic in the wind. He wears what looks like the same light grey suit for the majority of the eighteen programmes, daringly donning a rather dashing brown one for what proved to be the final episode.*** He talks with just enough of a patrician accent to give him authority but not enough to make him seem outdated or pompous. And he has the gift of talking at just the right level, using technical terminology but explaining it as he goes along without sounding patronising. He doesn't need any gimmicks (though he does have two little tics that can become a bit annoying once you've noticed them: he frequently and quite noisily sucks air into his mouth, sometimes mid-sentence, and occasionally he gets caught for a fraction of a second with mouth wide open and face contorted, especially as he emphasises something). He just talks, and occasionally gives a little demonstration (for example, of how pargetting is done in the programme on Saffron Walden), and the camera shows us what he's talking about. It's as simple as that.

Except occasionally we see him clambering up scaffolding with astonishing agility for a man in his seventies, and once he is pictured perched vertiginously on the triforium gallery of Durham cathedral, a good forty or fifty feet up.

I've already mentioned that he wasn't slow to criticise when he thought it justified, and this has brought him the reputation among the ill-informed of being opinionated (in the pejorative sense); 'chirpy curmudgeon' and 'pontificating snobbery' are two phrases that crop up if you Google his name. This is wildly unfair. What emerges most strongly from his books and programmes is his love of and enthusiasm for good architecture. Although it's true he's not slow to excoriate ugly or out of place buildings or their details, and bad use of materials, especially those from the Victorian period and the 20th century, he is equally quick to give praise when he thinks it deserved, whatever the period. For example, he considers the Millburngate Shopping Centre (built 1972-76) in Durham to have filled an important site 'with tact and ingenuity.' The programmes succeed largely because he communicates his pleasure so infectiously, and we are encouraged and enabled to share his delight.

The programmes also succeed because they now have a period charm. In the programme on Saffron Walden he bemoans the amount of traffic in the town, but by today's standards it looks almost car-free. Music is used very sparingly, and is almost never played underneath speech. (One thing that irritates me about current documentaries is the seemingly incessant music, most of it distracting and unnecessary.) I want to put in a good word for Jim Parker's gorgeous, wistful piece for trumpet and piano, which features as the title music for the last series. The director isn't afraid of silence; the programme on Saffron Walden begins (after the title sequence) with eighteen seconds of near-silence: no music, no commentary, just distant birdsong. Eighteen seconds might not sound long, but current directors wouldn't risk anything like that, presumably fearing that the viewer would lose interest and turn over. The camerawork too belongs to a different, more leisurely age, often lingering over small architectural details for seconds at a time.

The series were issued as VHS tapes, and currently all eighteen programmes are available on Youtube**** (though they're very lo-fi). The first one is here. I find it hard to imagine a more pleasurable way of spending an odd half an hour (or forty minutes in the case of the second series) than sitting down and letting Alec Clifton-Taylor teach me how to look.


* The book went through four editions, the last, published posthumously in 1987, incorporating Clifton-Taylor's latest notes. It's easy to find secondhand copies on the internet, but it's currently out of print, a sad state of affairs for such a key book.

** The eighteen towns are, first series: Chichester, Richmond, Tewkesbury, Stamford, Totnes, Ludlow; second: Warwick, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Saffron Walden, Lewes, Bradford-on-Avon, Beverley; third: Cirencester, Whitby, Bury St Edmunds, Sandwich, Devizes, Durham. I am in the happy position of having the pleasure of visiting Berwick and Sandwich for the first time still to come.

*** You can read an appreciative article (partly) about Clifton-Taylor by Jonathan Glancey, from the Guardian in 2000, here. In it he twice refers to Clifton-Taylor's Viyella shirt, tweed jacket and 'wobbly hat'; he's quite possibly right about the make of shirt - Clifton-Taylor favoured checks or single-colours - but he wears a tweed jacket in only a few episodes, and never I think a hat (he sports a black umbrella when it rains). Glancey is I suspect mixing Clifton-Taylor up with John Betjeman.

**** I've expressed qualms about the ethics of Youtube before. It doesn't seem so bad using it when the material you're watching or listening to is decades old (though the copyright laws don't agree), nor when the material was produced by the BBC, as if you're a licence fee payer you've already paid for it or at least contributed to it. Another factor to be taken into consideration is whether or not the material is available elsewhere. At the moment, the only other way of watching the Six English Towns series is by trying to find copies of the old VHS tapes (none seem to be currently obtainable), so watching them on Youtube doesn't harm anyone's income. But this is about to change. The first series is due to be released on DVD in September 2016 (not by the BBC, but by Simply Media). Wonderful that a new audience will have their eyes opened.