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

Saturday 28 May 2016

A reflection on my first fifty posts

I started Icknield Indagations in early August 2015, and my previous post, about John Surman, was my fiftieth (in getting on for ten months, so about five posts per month). Why did I start it, and why do I continue? These questions aren't altogether easy to answer. I think my main motive is a desire to share things I find pleasurable; this has been the main thing that's kept me going for 36 years of teaching English and History (the pay cheque at the end of the month has had an influence too), and writing a blog gives access to a potentially bigger, even world-wide, audience. (Though quite a few of my posts, as I'll detail later, would have had much bigger audiences if I'd shared them with my smallest class during a flu outbreak that kept large swathes of students off ill and while all the sporty ones had gone off to play in a match.) Sharing a pleasure more than doubles it,* and the more pleasure in the world the better the world will be.**

I've also found satisfaction in trying to translate my enthusiasms into words. To do so (or attempt to do so) I've had to look more carefully at the picture, church, or whatever, than I would perhaps otherwise have done, which has brought its own rewards. Then I've had to try to rationalise and analyse my response, and crystallise my thoughts by finding the right words (though I'm painfully aware that they're never quite right and often all wrong). It's a bit like struggling to complete a crossword puzzle: there's a challenge and a goal, and a reward when you finish. When I press the 'publish' button there's a sense of if not quite a job well done, at least of a job done.

Another motive that all bloggers must share to a greater or lesser degree is the desire to make a mark in the world, to be noticed. I didn't expect this blog to be a popular success or an internet sensation (so at least I'm right sometimes). After all, its main raison d'ĂȘtre, Hertfordshire churches, is, it's fair to say, something of a minority interest, and the same can be said about most of the other subjects I've chosen to write about. The very name of the blog consists of one word that will mean little to most people and another that's obsolete and thus utterly obscure, so I wasn't intending or hoping to reach a mass audience. But I'd be lying if I said that I was completely indifferent to how many readers I have.

Given the niche market that this blog appeals to, I don't think the numbers are too bad. As of today, there have been 3,207 page views. (As I understand it, each time someone looks at a post that counts as a page view, but of course it doesn't mean they've actually read it.) That's an average of about ten per day, which I'm sure many bloggers would find risible, but I'm happy with. I thank my readers; I very much appreciate their interest. Perhaps I can be familiar and say: I very much appreciate your interest.

My most viewed post has been the one about locked churches (113 views), which is encouraging if it means that it's causing thought and debate on this subject, very close to my heart as it is. Very much less encouraging is that my second most viewed post, just slightly less popular (if that's the right word), is the quiz question about Stanley Spencer and Gilbert & Sullivan that I set last Christmas. Much less encouraging because less than half of those who viewed the question viewed the answer, which suggests that the question was so uninteresting that more than half its viewers felt no curiosity about it at all.  I'll try harder next time.

Two posts tie for the booby prize, with just ten views each (which means that maybe five people have read them). Perhaps I should be grateful that the first of these has been overlooked, since although it's ostensibly about Tickencote churchyard, in Rutland, it's really an excuse to publish a not very good poem. I'm a bit peeved, however, that virtually no one has read the other, as it's the only post I've written that tries to be consistently amusing; it's a contribution to the Shakespeare authorship debate (on the Stratfordian side - i.e. I think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare). 

An analysis of the countries from which the posts have been viewed is fascinating. Britain accounts for about half the views, hardly surprisingly, and then another third are from the US. Third on the list is Brazil, which is way ahead of most European countries (except Ireland, which is just a little behind). I very much like the thought of people around the world reading, perhaps sitting on the banks of the Amazon, about minor English 17th century church monuments and Edwardian stained glass. To anyone outside Britain who might read these words I say: hello! It's very nice to sort of meet you.

About a month ago there were two days, about a week apart, when suddenly there were more than fifty page views from Russia, and since then not a single one from that country. Whoever originated those views obviously gave Icknield Indagations a thorough trial and then decided it wasn't for them.

Three posts have been entirely or almost entirely pictorial, and a further five are quite brief, just a few paragraphs; the rest take the form of short essays, between about one and two thousand words. Seventeen posts have been about churches (but discuss only thirteen churches, as I've written about three churches twice, and devoted one post to the subject of locked churches), eleven about art, architecture or photography, seven about history, six about books, five about music, and four I can classify only as miscellaneous. (This is a simplification as many posts could equally well be classified in either of two categories: should a post about Pevsner's Buildings of England series, or the covers of the Arden Shakespeares, be counted under books or art and architecture?)

I intend the main focus of this blog to continue to be Hertfordshire church architecture (with other subjects thrown in as they take my fancy). I've written about only twelve Herts churches (plus one in Rutland); Pevsner lists about two hundred in the county, so, even though a proportion of those I'll judge to be not aesthetically or historically significant and thus not worth blogging about, I've got a long way to go. Literally a long way to go, in some cases, as so far most of the churches I've covered have been quite near my home and I'll have to get round to the more distant ones sooner or later.(However, Herts is one of the smallest counties, and nothing in it can be much more than an hour's drive away.) For obvious reasons, I've written only about open churches yet, but if I'm going to be comprehensive I'll have to face the challenge of getting into the locked ones.***

One thing that puzzles me is that at the top of the blog it says 'Followers: 2', and on the home page (not accessible to the public) it says 'Followers: 0', yet when I publish a post it gets half a dozen views in minutes, and a couple of dozen in the first 24 hours. So despite the computer's gloomy predictions, clearly some viewers are signed up. I'm also puzzled that there have been only two comments, one of which went to my email and so doesn't appear on the blog. Maybe my lack of technical expertise has an effect (the section inviting readers to comment looks different on this blog to that on other Google Blogger sites), or, much more likely, I haven't said anything provocative or controversial enough to be worth a response.

Once again I'd like to say thanks for reading (assuming anyone has read this far); I hope you'll continue to follow my indagations and share some of my pleasures.

Some of my older posts that you might like to look at if you've not seen them before:
The Grimes Graves Venus: a prehistoric (or is it?) fertility symbol from Norfolk
Eric Forbes-Robertson: a nearly forgotten late Victorian/early 20th century painter who was also an actor
An ill-tempered rant about the phrase 'on a regular basis'
Kenny Wheeler's 'Sweet Time Suite': a jazz masterpiece, with Youtube link
T H White's 'The Sword in the Stone': the two competing versions
A fragment of autobiography about my first French teacher
George Orwell in Wallington
Alec Clifton-Taylor: a geological television star
John Collier: a painter contemporary with Forbes-Robertson and not nearly as obscure, but still too little celebrated

* Sharing a pleasure obviously doubles it because the pleasure of the initial enthusiast becomes that of the person with whom it's shared, creating two pleasures where before there was only one. But the first person also has the pleasure of knowing they've brightened someone's life, and the first and second persons can get extra pleasure from discussing their now shared interest. What's more, the second person might go on to share their new pleasure with someone else, and so on and so on. 

** Philosophically this isn't true, as it's necessary to have some degree of unhappiness or suffering in life to measure your happiness and pleasure against. (If you support a sports team, if your team won every game how long would it take to get boring?) So theoretically there is a possibility that the world could have too much pleasure, and I wouldn't want to live in a world in which everyone was constantly indulging in mindless hedonism, but clearly in reality this isn't going to happen any time soon.

*** The two most popular posts about churches, with about 70 views each, are on Barkway and Reed. The latter surprises me, as it's in most ways not a particularly notable church in a small village.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

John Surman: 'Westering Home' and 'Upon Reflection' - celebrating the seven solo albums, part one

It's fifty years since the great jazz composer and instrumentalist John Surman made his first commercial recording (Local Colour with the Pete Lemer Quintet in 1966), and I'd like to celebrate this anniversary. (By a happy coincidence, this happens to be my fiftieth blog post.) His oeuvre is large and unusually varied, and includes music for his saxophones (and other instruments) alongside brass ensemble, church organ, string quartet (plus a double bass), church choir, male voice choir, and  a vocalist, as well as most conventional jazz formats, from duos with piano to big bands. Trying to survey his whole output in one post would inevitably lead to my writing even more superficially than I do usually, so I've decided to concentrate on the seven solo albums (i.e. albums on which no one but him plays) that he's recorded throughout his career, from Westering Home in 1972 to Saltash Bells forty years later in 2012. (The former has just been rereleased, on folk record label Fledg'ling: another cause for celebration.)

John Surman was born in Tavistock, Devon, in 1944. He first caught the attention of the British jazz scene by playing the often ponderous (in the hands of lesser players) baritone sax on Mike Westbrook's debut album, the very fine Celebration in 1967. Surman also played the more nimble soprano sax, and the bass clarinet (then not as well-known as a jazz instrument as it is today), and composed some of the music. His own debut album as a leader, John Surman (it must have taken some ingenuity to come up with that title), from the following year, must be among the most surprisingly double-sided recordings. Side one comprises happy, sunny, foot-tapping calypso-jazz; surely no one could dislike this. But listeners who heard the first side and bought the LP on the strength of that alone were in for a shock, as when they turned it over they discovered that the second side has elements of discordant, confrontational avant-garde free jazz. I like it very much: familiarity with side two reveals that it's nothing like as anarchic as it at first appears to be, and it's often beautiful, though sometimes challenging, uneasy listening.

The two faces of this recording gave notice of the multifariousness of his subsequent music. In 1969 he formed the free jazz group the Trio (with bassist Barre Phillips and drummer Stu Martin), but  even in this context the lyrical side of his playing often surfaced. This contrast is also found in his first solo album, Westering Home, in 1972. (The title presumably refers to his West Country roots.) This might well have been the first multi-tracked solo recording by a jazz multi-instrumentalist, i.e. one on which one individual plays everything and plays several different instruments.* Surman is quoted on Wikipedia as saying:

I took a break from being on the road. This was just around the time when mono had become stereo,** and then - in a flash - multi-track recording became possible. I was fascinated by the possibilities of, say, three bass clarinets on different tracks improvising together. Plus I had a curiosity about 'radiophonics' and tape manipulation and Pierre Henry's musique concrete. So it was in that spirit that I started work on what was to become Westering Home.

On it Surman plays, in addition to baritone and soprano saxes and bass clarinet, piano, descant recorder, melodeon, organ and/or synthesiser, gentle percussion, and what sounds like a trumpet (though it's buried in the mix so it's hard to be sure).  There are also some (what I assume are) electronic or tape sound effects on 'Jynjyg', which sometimes sound like birdsong, sometimes like trombones, and sometimes like the Clangers. The album establishes the format for the subsequent solo albums: some pieces are pure solos, i.e. one musician playing by himself with no overdubs, some consist of two, three or more instruments electronically overlaid on top of each other, and in some an instrument plays (or instruments play) over a recurring melodic motif (a riff, in a word, or ostinato if you prefer). (On later recordings I assume that these underlying instrumental backdrops are repeated by electronic means, by using sequencers and so on, but on this album they were probably recorded in real time.)

The first piece, 'Mock Orange', begins with what are perhaps finger bells (and sound rather like Buddhist prayer bells, or a bicycle bell warning a pedestrian that they're about to be run over),  a delightful opening to the seven album sequence. A duo of soprano saxes query and quest over a piano (the only time a chordal instrument features), sounding plaintive and folk-like. 'Watershed' is similar in mood, its descant recorder sad and longing, like a call from a far and distant time. (You can listen to it on Youtube*** here.) 'Rill-a-Ree' begins with solo baritone, very sombre and beautiful; at times the theme statement is like a penitential hymn tune played at quarter speed, but eventually an almost jaunty riff appears, while the baritone continues to ponder and probe, making use of multiphonics**** and getting faster and higher, ending the tune and the album on a literal and metaphorical high note. 

Some pieces seem designed mostly to explore the sonic possibilities of the instruments. 'The Druid' begins by exploiting the lovely woody sounds of the bass clarinet, and especially its bottom notes, while 'The Walrus' produces gorgeously weird sonorities by overlaying three bass clarinets, (and there is something endearingly walrus-like about these sounds), and by sometimes making use of their upper registers. 

Perhaps my favourite piece is 'Hornpipe', which begins with a melodeon playing what sounds very much like a traditional hornpipe dance tune (but perhaps is a Surman pastiche), with the odd discord thrown in to prepare us for what's to come. A baritone soon breaks in and the mood changes; there are Coltraneish sheets of sound, and after a while a soprano takes up the challenge and a frantic but exhilarating duel begins, each instrument trying to outdo the other in finding different timbres. The melodeon briefly tries to reassert itself, but fails. 

Westering Home is a highly accomplished first exercise in this new medium of solo multi-tracking. At times listeners might feel that it's getting a bit noodly and lacking focus (as at the end of 'The Druid', perhaps), and fans of the later, more obviously melodic Surman might find some of the free jazz-influenced moments tough going, but I'd ask them to persevere. The later albums can be treated as background music if you want to (though they certainly deserve and reward closer listening too), but Westering Home is far more assertive and acerbic. Some of the album is rather mournful in mood (every composition appears to be in a minor key), but the overall effect is uplifting.

Upon Reflection (1979) was Surman's first recording on the ECM label, beginning a long association that has lasted until the present. (You can hear the whole album on Youtube, with some annoying adverts, here.) The first piece, 'Edges of Illusion', begins with over a minute of synthesiser ostinato before the lead instrument (bass clarinet) enters. This is music that takes its time and refuses to be hurried - there are no harmonic changes in more than ten minutes - in the manner of some minimalist or ambient compositions; most of the other tracks are much busier, however.

Some listeners find the synth sounds (especially of the relatively crude 70's models) used on many of Surman's solo recordings unattractively tinkly. This is obviously a matter of personal taste; in some moods I too find them blandly new-agey, but much more often I rather like them. Anyway, Surman uses synths with tact and discretion; they feature prominently on only two pieces on this album. The second is the album's last composition, 'Constellation', in which they ripple rapidly like reflections in moving water (which is perhaps the source of the album's title).

Westering Home has its parodic dance in 'Hornpipe', but Upon Reflection has several dance-like pieces that are clearly meant to be, and are, enjoyed unironically. 'Edges of Illusion' has a fairly lengthy passage played on soprano sax that begins simply as a discreet counter-melody, but turns into an elegant tune like that of an 18th century dance, perhaps a bourree or allemande. 'Caithness to Kerry', played by unaccompanied soprano, is a 6/8 jig that would hardly raise an eyebrow if it were played at a ceilidh, and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.  The aptly titled 'Prelude and Rustic Dance' has a choir of wind instruments setting up a vigorously rhythmic riff while a soprano rejoices and skylarks over the top. (How easy it would be to dance to, though, I'm not sure, as it keeps switching between sections in 6/4 - not a standard dance time signature - and 3/4.)

'Following Behind', played on baritone, has no overdubs but instead uses an electronic echo to set up
an infectious rhythm, sounding as if several instruments are (as the title suggests) following each other. It's a shame that it's less than 90 seconds long. 'Beyond a Shadow' creates a suitably umbrageous, even sinister mood, while a baritone indulges in Westering Home late-Coltrane pyrotechnics, and what sounds like a glockenspiel (but is probably a synth) glitters in the dark. 'Constellation', on the other hand, is another piece that feels like a dance and gradually builds up to an almost ecstatic conclusion.

Upon Reflection is altogether more approachable than the previous album; it has some attractive melodies and is varied in mood, and the pieces are more obviously composed (though incorporating plenty of improvisation) rather than experimental. Except that one or two of the pieces are little long (and one is too short), it's very hard to find serious fault with it.

My original intention was to write about all seven solo albums in one post; having written 1800 words on just two I realise this was too ambitious. There's more to follow, when I get around to it, on Withholding Pattern, Private City, Road to St Ives, A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe, and Saltash Bells.

* Bill Evans triple-tracked his piano on Conversations with Myself as early as 1963. Is this the first example of this technique? Is Paul McCartney's McCartney album from 1970 the first ever multi-tracked solo album by a multi-instrumentalist? (Though his wife Linda provides some backing vocals, so it's not quite 100% solo.) If anyone can enlighten me I'd be grateful; Doctor Google seems to be mute on these questions.

** The first mass-produced stereo record was released in 1957, and by 1968 all major record labels had stopped recording albums in mono, so by 1972 stereo was very well established.

*** I've expressed doubts about the ethics of Youtube before, but I won't labour the point.

**** Multiphonics is the simultaneous production of more than one note on an instrument (such as a saxophone) that normally produces only one note at a time.

Thursday 19 May 2016


This is the second chapter. In the first (see here) I wrote about my relationships with books until the age of twelve or so. I now continue the story through my teens.


I can’t remember much about the books I read as a younger teenager. Joe Pettit, my English teacher in my first year at the Forest, gave us J. Meade Falkner’s tale of adventure and smuggling, Moonfleet, which thrilled me; I still have the exercise book in which I wrote my first primitive attempts at literary criticism about the novel. I remember him reading Poe’s short stories to us, which I quite enjoyed, though I’ve never been very interested in hearing things read aloud; on the whole I tend to feel that reading is an essentially solitary activity and that sharing it dilutes its purity. (I’ve got almost no interest in being uncomfortable in a stuffy tent and listening to someone read something I could much more conveniently read in my own sitting room.) Though I’m very happy to talk about books once I’ve read them, of course. (Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the things I enjoy most about being an English teacher is that I get to read aloud.)

Ray Winch, my English teacher for the next few years, gave us copies of Trollope’s The Warden to read in English lessons, but I don’t think I got beyond the first few pages. (I’m concentrating on prose fiction here, but I’ll add that I was ravished by The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night in Ray’s lessons.) I find it hard to think of any other novels I read as part of school; I can’t even remember which novels I ‘did’ for O level. I went through a fairly brief Agatha Christie phase (perhaps brief because Ray said he didn’t like them as the characters weren’t believable, which now seems to me to miss the point somewhat). I liked the thrillers of Alistair MacLean; Ice Station Zebra was a favourite. (My friend Dave Peacock showed me a short action story he’d written which I admired, and the highest praise I could think of was that it was as good as MacLean.) There was a series about a boy called Danny Dunne who I think time travelled. One book I know had a powerful emotional effect on me, but I remember almost nothing about except the title, was Is It Always Like This?; it dealt with social deprivation. The interweb tells me that it’s by Ray Pope and was published in 1970, when I was twelve or thirteen. Secondhand copies exist, but perhaps I’d be disappointed if I read it again. I borrowed this from the library, as I must have borrowed many others now forgotten.

I liked the library, and liked reading, but owning and collecting books was important too. What age was I when I first started compiling a catalogue of my acquisitions? Ten or eleven? It was a hardback W H Smith notebook, which I divided into two alphabetical lists, one of authors, the other of titles. I even wrote a foreword, which I think stated that I preferred the Biggles books dealing with the First World War to the later ones, which still strikes me as a pretty sound literary judgement. (I used this book later to draft some execrable poems; I might still have it somewhere.) Later, in my mid-teens, I started keeping a list of all my books, this time in no order, just as I bought them, jotted down in an exercise book. I kept this up for several years, to what purpose I’m not sure. 

I made several books by cutting up waste computer paper that my dad brought home from work (it had print on one side) which I then stapled together with recycled cardboard covers. I don’t know why I did this as surely I must have been able to afford to buy notebooks; I suppose I just enjoyed the manufacturing process. Most of them I filled with the lyrics and guitar chords of the songs of the Beatles, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and a few others. But one I used to write what I called ‘silly stories’ and comic poems (Spike Milligan must have been the biggest influence, with Monty Python not far behind), giving the volume the title Light Blue Touchpaper and Retire Immediately.  I think some of this was probably not too bad, and I bitterly regret that I lost it many years ago. One story was a zany (a word then much in vogue to describe Goonish/Pythonesque humour) version of the Three Bears; all I remember of it is the line, after a description of an explosion, ‘He jumped to his feet. He had to jump to them because they were half way across the room.’ I churned out a lot of stuff like this, mostly for my own pleasure though I think I sometimes read them to schoolfriends. The loss of this book is partly compensated for by the existence of my Second or Third Year English exercise book, which contains two stories in this vein. The title of one, ‘Stonehenge is a Greenhouse’, gives something of their flavour.

By my mid-teens I’d started to see myself as someone with some sort of literary pretensions, and expanded my reading accordingly. Four novelists I ‘discovered’ at about this age (fifteen/sixteen) were Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. I read Waugh because of Ray’s influence, and found that the cynical humour of Decline and Fall perfectly chimed with my own. (The later, more serious novels, full of Roman Catholic propaganda, I found and find less agreeable.) I went through a brief science fiction phase, which lead me to Brave New World, which in turn lead me to Huxley’s other novels. I read nearly all of them (in the grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics editions), probably understanding at best 50% of their contents. I think I liked After Many a Summer best; I still have affection for Chrome Yellow, his first one. We read Animal Farm in English lessons, which lead naturally to Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was probably the single biggest literary influence on my mid- to late-teens. (In an A level History lesson Dr Rees, another favourite teacher, once brought up the subject of teenybop groups, then very much in the news, and I took a highly moralistic line, stating that the way they exploited young girls for gain was wrong. He asked me where this rather puritanical world view (I don’t think he put it like that) came from, and I replied Orwell.) England Made Me was I think my favourite Greene novel at this period.

A less literary novel I remember moving me very much was called Summer of ’42 about American teenagers and their adult awakenings during the war. I still remember a sentence from it: ‘It was either love or cholera, preferably the latter, which is curable.’ I thought this witty and profound, and must have something for me to remember it more than forty years later. I also read some books from my parents’ collection, notably the entertaining middlebrow Doctor series by Richard Gordon.

Most of the novels I read were 20th century, but I dipped into earlier literature. I tried Oliver Twist, without much enjoyment, and I loved Three Men in a Boat and The Diary of a Nobody. I leant the former to my first serious girlfriend, Elaine, and was really perturbed when she said she didn’t like it. My first inkling of the perplexities of intellectual incompatibility. The latter contains what I still sometimes quote as the funniest sentence ever written: ‘I left the room with dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.’ (And the second funniest: ‘I am a poor man, but would gladly give ten shillings to find who sent me the insulting Christmas card I received this morning.’)

I was gripped by The War of the Worlds. I had the big fat volume of Wells’ complete short stories, and was overwhelmed by them. (I suspect they’re the best things he wrote.) Can it be true, as memory suggests, that I used to read them aloud to schoolfriends during lunchtimes? I think it is, though perhaps it happened only once or twice. I remember sitting in the sun on the grass bank by the railway line, reading, perhaps, ‘The Red Room’. Another fat collected edition that I’m now reminded of is that of Oscar Wilde. I was enchanted by the fairy tales and The Portrait of Mr W.H., and thought The Picture of Dorian Gray very sophisticated, though I don’t suppose I really understood what was going on.

The novels I studied for A level were George Eliot’s Silas Marner, which didn’t make much impression on me, and D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, which did, though I’ve not read much Lawrence since. By this time, if not before, I was as interested in poetry and Shakespeare as I was in novels, and I have a memory of deciding to grow my hair long in order to be a poet, though this can’t be literally true because my hair would already have been long, as it was more or less obligatory for younger males to wear it thus in the mid-seventies. 

Buying and owning (and entering into my catalogue) books was as important and nearly as time consuming as reading them. In my teens the nearest secondhand bookshop was William Smiths in Reading (nothing to do with W H Smith, and long gone), but there was a charity shop in the old Wokingham town hall. I frequented this, buying lots of stuff I’d now regard as rubbish. For example, I bought two copies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream  in nasty mean Edwardian school editions with red covers; two copies because, identical in every other way, they had different printing dates and I was under the sad illusion that one edition might be rare and valuable. I don’t think this misapprehension persisted long. On Saturday mornings I often visited the new (as opposed to secondhand) bookshop nearly opposite where Woolworths used to be, and spent hours deciding what to spend my money on. A Penguin of, say, a Waugh novel cost about 35p, which even allowing for inflation must be less than the £8.99 that the same book in the same edition would cost now. (To be precise, 35p in 1974 is the equivalent of £3.82 now, so by this measure paperback novels are significantly more than twice as expensive as they used to be.) The orange spines of standard Penguins dominated my shelves, though the grey of Penguin Modern Classics featured strongly too, as did the blue of Pelicans. When I had a little more money to spend (after birthdays and so on) I’d take the train to Reading for Smiths, the first proper secondhand bookshop I visited regularly (it had an excellent new department as well). I’d spend happy hours sifting through their stock.

The first secondhand bookshop I can remember visiting was in Broad Street, Wokingham; I looked for, and found, some Biggles books, so I would have been ten or so. This began a long and continuing love affair with secondhand bookshops. I like them partly because they’re cheaper, obviously, but more importantly because you’ve got no idea what you’re going to find, and there’s always a chance you’re going to discover a real gem. New bookshops are all very well in their own way, but there’s a finite number of books they might stock, drawn from those currently in print, and furthermore their stock will probably be pretty similar to that of the shop in the next town. (Assuming that, post Amazon, there is a bookshop in the next town.) Every secondhand bookshop, on the other hand, as well as stocking a selection of all the books ever published, a practically infinite number, is unique. They appeal to our primitive hunting and treasure-seeking instincts; I just know that one day I’ll walk into an unassuming shop and find, among the dross, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall illustrated by Paul Nash, or C H B and Peter Quennell’s Shell Guide to Somerset, or Anthony Powell’s The Acceptance World in its dust-jacket, or a thousand other exciting possibilities.

The internet, with its searchability, has dimmed the charms of secondhand bookshops by killing some of the thrill of the chase, but only a little. If you know exactly what quarry you’re after, usually you can track it down on Abebooks, but the especial pleasure of secondhand bookshops is that you might find things that you didn’t know you wanted because you didn’t know they existed. What’s more, secondhand books are old and so by definition are more interesting than new books. They have a history, a patina. Incidentally, this is why I, unlike many collectors, rather like neat previous owners’ inscriptions on the endpapers, though I draw the line at underlinings and marginal comments.

Occasionally I went further than Reading to buy books. In 1975 or 76 I went to see the Rolling Stones at Earls Court (I’ve never been a fan, but I think someone had a spare ticket and either gave it to me or sold it to me cheaply). I spent the afternoon in Charing Cross Road, ending up with two heavy carrier bags and a rucksack full of books, which of course I had to take into the concert with me. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but looking back on it it seems rather comical, the bemused roadie-like doorman searching through my bags, my struggling up the stairs to the balcony with them and having to somehow accommodate them in the less than ample leg room, then settling down to watch Mick Jagger strutting his stuff, a Spinal Tap-style codpiece between his legs (or so I like to imagine), a selection of the world’s literature between mine.


Note: in this and the previous chapter, all the front covers illustrated are as far as possible from the editions that I remember reading in the 60s and 70s.

In the third and last chapter I intend to ponder the question of why I like books.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Radwell church, Herts - where Time doesn't stand still

Radwell is approached down a dead-end street that ducks under the forbidding A1(M) and continues to the River Ivel. But despite the motorway it is peacefully pastoral, like nearby Newnham. The church is treated rather brusquely by Pevsner; he dismisses it as 'mostly of the 19th century', which is not completely untrue but hardly an adequate description. I trust that when, one long awaited day, the 3rd edition of the Hertfordshire volume of the Buildings of England sees the light it will do the church more justice. (He does cover the contents reasonably comprehensively, however.) 

The earliest datable features are the mid 14th century chancel arch and slightly later south doorway, and the walls are probably coeval. 

They were apparently plastered (again, like Newnham) until relatively recently; only the east end hasn't been stripped. The exposed materials are pleasingly hodgepodge, with flint and clunch rubble together with carstone pebbles. (Carstone is an orangey-red rock very typical of Bedfordshire buildings; Radwell is just yards from the county boundary.) In the picture above some brick is also visible, and just below the top left some tiles (could they be reused Roman bricks?).

The east window, and perhaps the tower arch (which supports no tower), are of c.1500; all the other architectural features are Victorian (1875 and 1882), including the attractive south porch, and, best of all, the oak and copper bellcote with splay-footed spirelet. I especially like the view from the east; the eye moves from the obtuse angle of the east window up to the almost equilateral triangles of the chancel and nave gables, then to the various geometrical shapes at the base of the spirelet, and finally to the acute angle of the spirelet itself pointing to the sky.

In the vestry this bill for the 1875 restoration is displayed, totalling £407 19s 9d
There is a reasonable amount to see in the church, especially considering that it's small and heavily restored, but try to visit on a bright day. All the windows that haven't got stained glass are frosted, presumably in an attempt to create a 'religious' atmosphere, but the effect is gloomy and submarine. Here, and in other similarly afflicted churches, clear glass should be substituted when funds allow.

The stained glass (of 1881) in the east window is in the style of the early 16th century (appropriately, as that's when the window itself dates from) and is successful, but the other stained glass, of twenty or so years later, is feeble. According to Church Stained Glass Windows all the glass is by the prolific firm Ward and Hughes, and it's alarming to see how their standards fell around the turn of the century. Sadly, this was the case with most late Victorian and Edwardian stained glass manufacturers.

There's a crude, battered late medieval font, and several brasses (worth looking at if you like that sort of thing).

Over the tower arch (not the chancel arch, as Pevsner says) is a fine royal coat of arms from 1825 (i.e. George IV), though it's hard to see properly (or photograph) in the murk high up in the roof.

Jacobean chancel rail
But what makes the church worth going out of your way to visit is the fine sequence of monuments from the late Elizabethan to the mid Georgian periods. They've been brightly gilded and painted in fairground colours, probably fairly recently, though I suspect that they would have originally been just as loud. Some will find the colours gaudy, or even in poor taste, but I think the monuments look splendidly ostentatious, just as those commemorated intended. You don't shell out a small fortune on a monument and then want it to go unnoticed.

I'm not going to list the most notable monuments chronologically or topographically, but in an aesthetic crescendo.

This one commemorates Catherine Pym, 'a woman of meek and humble disposition' apparently, who died in 1750. I like the way the curtains are tied back by gold ropes and the three owls in the heraldic shield. The monument is surmounted by a flame, symbolising the Holy Spirit.

Ann Plomer died in 1625; she has a gryphon and two badly sunburned My Little Ponies on top of her monument.

Her husband Sir William Plomer also died in 1625; he's dressed in armour and a helmet is depicted in the roundel at the top, along with more gryphons.

John Parker died in 1595; he is shown in the robes of a lawyer with his wife Mary kneeling behind him, and behind her their son, also John, in armour even more impressive than that of Sir William's. Mary had died in childbirth in 1574, and the younger John must have commissioned this monument to his parents and decided to include himself while he was still alive. His military prowess (or aspirations - I don't know if he had any experience, though it's possible that he fought in the early stages of the Nine Years' War in Ireland) is reflected in the military emblems on the right pilaster, while on the left his father's profession is indicated by a book, quill pen and ruler. 

Mary Plomer died in 1605 in childbirth, like Mary Parker (and like Mary Markham in Ardeley church).  She was 30, and was having her eleventh child. Pevsner calls her monument 'the one object in the church deserving a visit', and, while this is harsh on the other objects, it's true that it's much the most eye-catching, even in its current sadly mutilated state. 

She is seated and impassive, to the point of being expressionless, almost zombie-like. She wears a large ruff, her hair is stiff and her head is enclosed in a huge almost heart-shaped hood, like a helmet from a 1960s science fiction film. She holds an hourglass, an image of mortality, in her left hand. It seems that her right foot rested on a skull, but this has been removed, leaving an awkward stump.

Pevsner says that 'the carving is thoroughly rustic. The creases in the sleeve are still done with the same carving convention as at Chartres about 1150.' I've looked through dozens of pictures of carvings at Chartres, but can't find any that obviously support this claim, so I must be overlooking something.

Chartres cathedral

On the plinth are the ten children who survived infancy; however, two of the six sons are shown notionally behind their brothers, which presumably indicates that they predeceased their mother. The three youngest are wearing what we'd call skirts; it was of course common for boys to be thus dressed until the late Georgian era - it was subsequently that skirts came to be seen in the West as exclusively female wear.

On the right pilaster is this tempting display of fruits, together with a spade and scythe, further images of mortality.

The right pilaster has lost its central motif, but the images of mortality are, rather shockingly, a pair of tibia.  The details on the pilasters  are so similar  to the ones  on the Parker  monument  that  it  seems highly likely that they were made in the same workshop,

Currently sitting on a window ledge is this forlorn figure of Time, eyes downcast, with his hourglass and scythe. However, it belongs with the Plomer monument; there is an iron spike to the left of the main figure on which he should sit, and he should be reunited with it immediately. Furthermore, two other sculptural items are missing from the monument, as the two photos below (which I took in 1993) show. (The skull on which her foot rests was already gone by then.)

Originally she held a chrisom baby. A chrisom was a baptism robe, which was used as a shroud if the child died before it was a month old. The poor baby here looks as if he or she is strapped to a toboggan and is about to be sent off down the Cresta Run; their head rests on a skull. Baby and skull have either been temporarily removed for conservation or safe-keeping, or stolen. I'm a keen advocate of keeping churches open whenever possible (see here); Radwell is generally open, but even if the sculptures have indeed been stolen I remain keen, though deeply regretful. I have emailed the churchwardens to try to discover the sculptures' whereabouts, but as yet have received no reply. (The figure of Sir William Plomer and a brass were stolen in 2000, but the former was spotted in a sale at Sotheby's, having had its colouring removed in an attempt to conceal its origin, and returned the following year. The brass has also been returned.)

The last four lines of the poem which forms part of Mary Plomer's epitaph read (with modernised spelling):

So that the stone itself doth weep
To think on her which it doth keep;
Weep then, who e'er this stone doth see,
Unless more hard than stone thou be.

And it's true that if you pause to reflect you can't fail to be moved by the fate of Mary and her child. More happily, it's also true that you'd need a heart of stone not to be charmed by Radwell and its church.

A medley of 1888 photographs of Radwell hanging in the vestry. They remind me very much of the world evoked by the wonderful diaries of the Rev Francis Kilvert, written in the 1870s. At first the photo on the top left looks like a still from an avant-garde film (L'Annee Derniere a Radwell, perhaps), but a closer look reveals that they're playing tennis.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Ten more random photos


Acrobatic putti Chichester

Column base

Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

Knapped flint, clunch, and a little brick, Puttenham, Herts

Ayot St Lawrence, Herts

HMS Tornado, sunk 1917, in stained glass, Norfolk

Fireplace, Ashridge, Herts

First World War recruitment poster, Canterbury museum
So not a place to go for a quiet meal