Sunday, 23 July 2017

Augustus Hare:A Spectacularly Unhappy Childhood

The other day I took a book from the shelf that I must have reviewed (perhaps for The Listener?) back in 1985 when it came out, but of which I remember very little indeed. It's a biography: Augustus Hare, Victorian Gentleman by Malcolm Barnes. I thought I'd have another look at it, by way of a break from my fiction reading.
 Augustus J.C. Hare was one of those Victorian writers who were very successful in their day but soon sank below the horizon as the century turned. He wrote a wide range of popular travel guides - his Walks in Rome was the most successful - as well as biographies of aristocrats (he adored the nobility) and family histories, but he was also an autobiographer on a grand scale. His Story of My Life runs to six fat volumes, supplemented by Memorials of a Quiet Life, the life and letters of his mother in three volumes. No shortage of material for the biographer, and Malcolm Barnes (who also edited an abridged version of the autobiography) makes good use of it.
 What I had remembered of this biography was that Hare had an unhappy childhood. Re-reading it, I realised just how unhappy. Even by the standards of Victorian children born into ultra-evangelical families with sadistic leanings, Hare's was a spectacularly unhappy childhood. Given away, for purely selfish reasons, by his natural mother, young Augustus was raised by his father's sister, Maria, a death-obsessed evangelical who was firmly convinced that children are innately evil and that sin must be driven out of them. The idea was that, by denying a child anything that might give them pleasure, the will could be broken and the child 'saved'. This was mainstream stuff in evangelical circles at the time, and Maria's harshness was softened to some degree by natural affection, so that life with 'Mother', however oppressive, was bearable to Augustus, and even had its pleasures.
  Unfortunately there were others on the scene, whose attitudes to child-rearing made Maria's look like the utmost leniency. Augustus's uncle Julius, the Rector of Herstmonceux, lived nearby and dominated Maria and Augustus's life with his demands, his strictures and his ferocious presence, in which the boy was expected to sit still, in silence, and be totally ignored. But worse was to come after Julius married Esther, a sister of F.D. Maurice, the 'saintly' theologian and Christian Socialist (saintly to Charles Kingsley and many adoring followers, 'puzzle-headed' and 'wrong-headed' to Ruskin). Esther set about tormenting the unhappy Augustus - for his own good, of course - with all but psychopathic relish.
 As well as being made to sleep through the harshest winter weather in a solitary unheated room and (despite his chilblains) wash in the morning in water that was often frozen, he was also forced to eat sauerkraut precisely because its very smell made him sick. On other occasions, delicious puddings would be presented at table, with every display of relish, only to be taken away again intact. Esther also decreed that, on Sundays, Augustus should be locked into the vestry for three hours between services, with only the rats for company. But the climax of her campaign of vicious sadism came when she took Augustus's favourite cat from him and hanged it from the branch of a tree, taking the boy out to see its quivering body.
 When not suffering this brutal domestic regime, Augustus would be enduring a succession of horrendous boarding schools (one run by the father of Francis Kilvert, the diarist) where conditions were so appalling that he longed to be home. In the course of all this, he often, unsurprisingly, fell seriously ill, on one occasion being obliged to wear a kind of iron cage over his body for months on end.
 Happily, there were times when more agreeable people entered his life - one of them Walter Savage Landor, with whom Augustus dined regularly when attending a school near Bath, the meals with Landor saving him from starvation. Augustus revelled in the conversation (or monologue) of the old man, who would sit with his white Spitz dog on his head while holding forth. The Hares were phenomenally well connected, and not all of their connections were ecclesiastical - a fact that stood Augustus in good stead in later life when cultivating the aristocracy, with many of whom he could claim some kind of cousinly connection. This was a man who was never happier than when attending a house party at one or other of the stately homes of England.
  That Augustus Hare was capable of happiness at all - that he became a sociable, well-liked and apparently well-adjusted man with a successful career - after such a start in life as he endured is little short of miraculous. Indeed, it's a wonder he survived at all.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Poetry of Labels

I've just been cleaning the oven with a product that, the label assures me, 'laughs in the face of baked-on food. Without the need for rubbing, scrubbing or agitating, it dissolves stubborn baked-on grease, oil and fat within minutes... Simply sponge or brush on and after five minutes wipe off for [a] gleaming, sparkling oven every time.' The Directions include the soothing injuction, 'Leave to dwell for five minutes.' I like that 'dwell'...
  Needless to say, far from laughing in the face of baked-on food, this cleaner sighed weakly and capitulated. Even with a deal of rubbing, scrubbing and agitating, it left behind a black impasto of rock-hard gunk, from which only the major promontories had been rubbed, scrubbed and agitated away. Not a gleam or a sparkle to be seen, and if there was any laughing, it was the gunk laughing in the face of the puny oven cleaner that promised to much. I covered the bottom of the oven with a patented liner (that also promises much) and hoped for better days.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Round the Corner Smith

Born on this day in 1863 was Charles Aubrey Smith, who, as C. Aubrey Smith, enjoyed a very successful film career playing Hollywood's idea of the 'archetypal Englishman' in a string of films from the 1920s through to the 1940s. Before that, he had tried his hand as a gold prospector in South Africa, where he succumbed to pneumonia and was pronounced dead by doctors. He also had a successful career as a cricketer, playing for Sussex and once leading England to victory in what turned out to be a Test match against South Africa (no one was quite sure at the time). He was chiefly a fast bowler, bamboozling the batsman with his long, curved run-up that began somewhere around deep mid-off. As he reached the wicket, 'Round the Corner Smith' would suddenly appear from behind the umpire, often with unnerving effect.
  In Hollywood, Smith formed the Hollywood Cricket Club, which he ruled with a rod of iron, expecting any English actors in the vicinity to turn out and play. The pitch was of imported English turf, and the HCC games afforded much amusement to the locals. Once, while fielding at slip, Smith dropped a tricky catch and sent his English butler to fetch his glasses, which he duly did - on a silver salver. Smith put them on, and promptly dropped a sitter, at which he whipped off his glasses and growled, 'Damn fool brought my reading glasses.'
  When in England, Smith would often visit Lord's. Once a member spotted him in the pavilion and remarked to another member, 'That chap looks familiar.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'Chap called Smith. Used to play for Sussex.'

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Grass Carnified

Talking of the cycles of nature, here's Sir Thomas Browne in the first part of his Religio Medici:

 'All flesh is grass, is not only metaphorically, but litterally, true; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves. Nay further, we are what we all abhor, Anthropophagi and Cannibals, devourers not onely of men, but of our selves; and that not an allegory, but a positive truth; for all this mass of flesh which we behold, came in at our mouths; this frame we look upon, hath been upon our trenchers; in brief, we have devour'd our selves.'

'Carnified' is one of Browne's 775 neologisms. A pity it hasn't lasted as well as his 'carnivorous'.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Natural Burial

Today a lonely impulse of delight led me to visit, for the first time, a 'natural burial ground'. I'd heard that it's alive with butterflies this summer, and that alone would have been enough reason, but I was also interested to see what a 'natural burial site' looks like, or indeed is.
 Alive with butterflies it certainly was - meadow browns, gatekeepers, ringlets, skippers and (common) blues in abundance, plus brown arguses, small coppers, late marbled whites, commas, peacocks, etc. And what it looked like was not a burial ground but a large wildflower meadow, with young woodland and a lake - nothing above ground to show that this is a burial place, except perhaps the minimum-impact glass pavilion. There's a reason for this, I discovered: no vertical memorials or markers are allowed, except for trees (native species only - quite right too). The whole idea of 'natural burial' is to be reabsorbed into the earth as soon as is naturally possible, leaving no lasting mark on the landscape (stone markers, even if horizontal, are not allowed).
 I was rather attracted by the idea, I must admit. Earth to earth, taking our place in the cycle of nature. Of course I have my own ideas about the kind of ceremony I would like to send me on my way, but as for the actual disposal of the body - or rather the ashes - I'd be quite happy for it/them to go this way, returning to the earth in surroundings like these, amid wild flowers and butterflies.
  It's a feeling that, I suspect, is in the ascendant, and natural burial is certainly becoming increasingly popular. The difficult idea of bodily resurrection no longer seems to make much sense to many people; the body surely belongs to nature and will return to it, whatever the fate of the soul. So why not recognise the fact, and help it on its way? Especially if it can be done in a dignified manner in such pleasant and appropriate surroundings.
 And yet, as a monument man, a wanderer in churchyards and reader of epitaphs, I cannot help but feel a strong nostalgia for the times when the dead were memorialised in enduring ways, when fine craftsmanship, even great art, was employed to that end, leaving a rich and glorious legacy of church monuments and (in a smaller way) carved stones and epitaphs.
 In the parish church a few hundred yards away from the natural burial ground, there's a grave board that reads
'In memory of Alfred Lemon, who died May 2nd 1851, aged 14 years.
When missing sorrow weeps the past
And mourns the present pain
How sweet to think of peace at last
And feel that death is gain.'
 Not great verse, not a great epitaph, but a genuine expression of grief and hope that has come down to us across more than a century and a half. With natural burial there will be no such survivals - nothing, after a short while, to mark the life, the death, the loss. Does this matter? Probably not, in an age when we seem to have lost the art of memorialising the dead, when even the urge to do so seems weak. And yet...

Monday, 17 July 2017

In Lucem: A Mystery

Strolling in one of my local parks the other day - a park I've known for nearly 60 years, and of which I thought I knew every inch - I was astonished to happen on something entirely new to me. It wasn't exactly hidden away either, but in the lawn by the boating lake, near the grand herbaceous border and just yards from the lakeside path - how on earth had I missed it for so long? This was a park I played in as a boy, it's adjacent to the grammar school I attended for seven years, I've walked there more times than I could possibly compute - and yet I'd somehow missed this.
  What was it? Good question. It was - and is - a small engraved stone tablet overlooking a miniature pool of water, the lowest point of a shallow V-shaped dip in the ground, into which a narrow brick path leads and from the other side of which it emerges. The whole thing is barely ten yards wide/long.
  It is, I have discovered, a remnant of the fernery that was part of the once famous garden that was incorporated into the park when the council bought the land. Why and how this curious feature survived I have no idea - can it really have been there all through my long years of walking in this park and failing to notice it?
  And what about the motto engraved on the stone? In lucem lucrum, ludum. I can see that it's something to do with light, profit and game/play - but what does it mean? And what can it possibly have to do with the cultivation of ferns? Any ideas?

Sunday, 16 July 2017

My Problem with Pugin

Over the weekend, in the course of my researches, I found myself in the Kent seaside resort of Ramsgate, a place I'd never visited before. I was greatly impressed by the magnificent location - harbour, cliffs, wide sandy beaches facing the sunny South, panoramic views of sea, sky and town (largely free of high-rise disfigurement) from the end of the harbour wall - and the fine Regency and Victorian terraces, crescents and squares that rise above the shore. No wonder this was such a popular watering place in Victorian times - so popular that in places every other building has a blue plaque commemorating some eminent Victorian's sojourn.  Today Ramsgate is clearly poised to be the next Margate - i.e. to be discovered, colonised and revitalised by arty/hipsterish London types - but it seems to be a slow process. What it needs perhaps is a new art gallery along the lines of Margate's Turner...
  What it has got, as its prime architectural/devotional attraction, is Pugin's church (now a shrine) of St Augustine, to which I naturally bent my steps. Lacking the spire that Pugin intended, the church has a rather dumpy aspect from outside, and the dark flint from which it is built does nothing for its beauty - but the glory of this church is, everyone says, its interior, the architect's masterpiece, the church he built for himself, with his own money, exactly as he wanted it. I entered with high hopes of an overwhelming aesthetic experience - but I'm sorry to say that, to my disappointment, I felt little more than a cool admiration for Pugin's architectural brilliance and ingenuity, and for the fine craftsmanship on display.
 The church, for me, lacked anything of the truly numinous, and I found the sheer relentlessness of its earnestly 'correct', highly detailed Gothic oppressive and rather distasteful.  What is the point of a Gothic revival that simply reproduces the Gothic in an age to which it is essentially alien (well, in as much as Gothic is ever alien to the incorrigibly anti-classical, anti-modernist English imagination)? As Heraclitus pointed out long ago, you cannot step twice into the same river; it will have flowed away. The re-creation of a supposedly authentic Gothic style - as against the reimagining and development of it for another age - is essentially an arid exercise, whatever the passion that might have fired it, and at St Augustine's, I'm afraid, it feels like it. Or rather it felt like it for me. I almost preferred Ramsgate's other Gothic revival church, St George's, where the Gothic is superficial, purely decorative, essentially Georgian, but somehow more fitting. Certainly more Anglican. Maybe that's my problem, my Anglican soul.