Category Archives: Extraordinary Places

Swimming in the River of Time

News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest, Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance (1890) by William Morris

 

 

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Kelmscott Manor, the beautiful home of William Morris. K. Manwaring, 2018

 

News from Nowhere is an iconic ‘fantasy’ novel from the Arts and Crafts visionary and polymath William Morris. Although it is an important work for its lucid dramatisation of Morris’ Socialist ideals, on the surface it appears to be a work of the Fantastic (a timeslip narrative with a loose science fictional device): a man called William ‘Guest’ (a thinly-veiled alter ego of the author) goes for a swim in the river Thames in the late 19th Century and emerges in the early 21st Century, to see a vision of England transformed into a place of restored beauty, craftsmanship, and co-operation. Guest explores this land, with the Thames providing the common link, as he slowly wends his way upriver. The novel’s extent is demarcate by two of his homes: in Hammersmith and Kelmscott, and focuses on a stretch of the river that Morris knew well. In this sense the novel is geographically unambitious, but in many other ways, it was thinking big – certainly beyond the consensus reality of his day. Morris reimagines reality according to his principles, providing a blueprint to aspire to, for some at least.

Morris’ utopia is vividly imagined and alluring on the surface, as pleasant to dip into a wild swim in a glittering river on a summer’s day: an aesthetic and harmonious Arts and Crafts utopia, with an emphasis on ‘work for pleasure’, common ownership, co-operation, and liberty to choose where one lives, one’s profession, and one’s morality. The self-governing anarchists live in beautiful houses, wear beautiful clothes, and make beautiful things. It is perhaps all too good to be true, and in most fictional utopias this is when the protagonist discovers the ugly truth, the mask slips, and they find themselves trapped in some nightmare.

Well, for some, Morris’ utopia undoubtedly would be.  It is perhaps a bit like living in a Tolkienesque Shire – a bucolic aesthetic that belies some worrying subtexts. For a start, it is completely Anglocentric – Morris depicts a very English utopia: what has happened to the rest of the world is not discussed, except for a brief, disparaging reference to America being reduced to a ‘wasteland’. There is a worrying emphasis on women being pretty – every female Guest meets is assessed in this way. The novel is clearly written from a male gaze. There is nothing ‘wrong’ about appreciating female beauty – but when it becomes the chief characteristic, the defining trait, that is problematic; in addition, the women are on the whole portrayed as being content in domestic roles, or being a bit empty-headed (except for the stonemason and the free-spirited Ellen, who is inquisitive and seems to know more than she lets on – a portrait of Jane Morris, similarly ‘snatched’ from the working classes; in the way Guest is clearly Morris himself?). Also, New from Nowhere is very white, cis-gendered, and straight, but Morris was writing from his time (late 19th C) even though he was imagining the early 21st Century. His imagine didn’t stretch far enough to imagine alterity. His vision seems impossibly idealistic, and relies upon the common decency and common sense of the masses – everyone being nice and abiding by agreed values – which, as we can see at the moment, is very unlikely, even when laws are enforced…There is the odd crime of passion, but these are forgiven by society as the perpetrator is left to come to terms with their actions. Yet human nature doesn’t tend to be that enlightened. Even if one society achieves this level, there will always be other groups wishing either to seize its resources or simply destroy it (as Aldous Huxley imagines in his heartbreaking utopia, Island).

Yet, Morris’s ‘utopian romance’ is a hopeful act of positive visualisation – a thought experiment for the world the Socialist Morris wish to see manifest. For him it was a vision much-longed for; and one he tried to implement with his restless energy and huge output. He perhaps achieved in at Kelmscott and the other centres of Arts and Crafts activity.

Now there is an appreciation of artisan skills, of the hand-made, the hand-crafted, the home-grown – farmers markets and craft markets are very popular; and Transition Town schemes are skilling people up for the ‘power down’… Alternative currencies such as LETS and Timeshare have been trialled, but the lack of money seems the least convincing of Morris’ notions – though with the devastation caused by Neoliberalism, perhaps the one that needs addressing as urgently as the environmental one. We need the replace the false economy of venture capitalism, of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ (based upon finite, dwindling resources and catastrophically damaged biosphere) with the more sustainable one of Deep Ecology.

Morris’ vision is a message in a bottle cast in time’s stream, and although it has many alluring qualities, perhaps it is not radical enough, as it clings to some medieval paradise that never was, yet these thought experiments are worth undertaking. Morris throws down the gauntlet for us all to imagine the world we would like to live in.

 

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The river Thames begins near Kemble, K. Manwaring 2018

 

 

Kevan Manwaring 17 June 2018

 

 

 

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The Pattern of Friendship

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Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious, 1933

 

Eric Ravilious was a multi-talented English painter, designer, illustrator, muralist and wood engraver whose tragically brief parenthetical dates (1903-1942) contain an extraordinary career and life that touched many lives, in particular the remarkable nebula of talent that coalesced around the Royal College of Art classes of the early Twenties: Edward Bawden, Barnett Freedman, Thomas Hennell, Douglas Percy Bliss, and John and Paul Nash. The women were equally talented – Helen Binyon, Peggy Angus, Edna Marx and Diana Low. Elaine ‘Tirza’ Garwood, who went on to marry Ravilious, excelled at depictions of everyday lives: well-observed vignettes of social history that were witty, and ironically aware of the fault-lines of society.

Inspired by William Rothenstein – a ‘father’ figure to this unofficial movement, who encouraged his pupils to explore different forms, to be catholic in their approach; and the presence of Paul Nash – one of most important artists of the 20th Century, who, though he only taught two terms at the RCA, had a huge influence on his cohort. Nash, like Rothenstein, practiced not a ‘top down’ kind of teaching, but one that flattened the usual hierarchies, with teacher and students getting stuck in together and learning as they went, through practice. Nash greatly encouraged his protégés, and was instrumental in setting up opportunities for them, artistic commissions and contracts in the real world (Ministry of Transport; the BBC; book publishers; Wedgwood; Ministry of War), deconstructing the elitism of a Fine Art disengaged from society. Book design and illustration, fabrics, wallpaper, public notices, murals, pottery, posters and prints – nothing was beyond their remit or abilities.

 

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The Long Man of Wilmington, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

Through the painstaking research of Andy Friend, curator of the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne and author of Ravilious & Co.: The Pattern of Friendship (Thames and Hudson, 2017), we now know how this loosely affiliated band of artists and designers inspired and supported one another. Friend was instrumental in creating this major exhibition, which opened at his gallery last year, and has toured Sheffield and now Compton Verney.

 

White Horse of Uffington, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

Ravilious, whose art, after long decades of (relative) obscurity, has experienced a huge surge of appreciation, is rightly the star of the show. His work, appearing with increasing frequency in magazines, newspapers, websites, postcards and prints, is rapidly becoming iconic. His apparently ‘austere’ or understated style chimes with the zeitgeist (one that is finding a consoling fiction in the ‘keep calm and carry on’ vintage aesthetic of WW2). It could be accused of the same (strangely) cosy nostalgia, and of being all surface and no substance – but there is something more going on in his work, which makes its effect linger. The South Downs, which Ravilious made his own (after a productive year at a much-loved ‘Furlongs’), are depicted in soothingly muted tones and a series of pulsing lines, suggesting movement, a frozen wave, electrifying the ostensibly still, empty scene with a charge of nascent energy – as though the slumbering giant of Albion was about to awaken. The foreground is often focalised by a piece of machinery – a watermill creaks in the wind, a steam train passes a white horse chalk figure, a plough breaks the undulating downland with its perpendicularity, a gypsy caravan contrasts the stark silhouette of winter trees. There is a tinge of melancholy, perhaps, in the often muted light, but there is also something infinitely soothing in the quietude they depict. And the light is always there, in the breaks in the line and thinning washes of colour – as though just below the surface, about to irupt through at any moment. Immanence and evanescence are intrinsic qualities in the work of Ravilious – no surprise then his favourite times to paint were sunrise and twilight. He spent his life trying to capture this fleeting light, a moth to the flame.

 

Tiger Moth, Eric Ravilious, 1942

Seeing the artists and designers side-by-side makes for some interesting comparisons. Paul Nash is the major figure, whose ‘daemonic urge’ outshines his brother’s, John, but in one painting (the interior of a wood) John outdoes his brother; Ravilious’ luminous works punctuate the show like a starry firmament, but occasionally even his work is outshone by his peers: Bawden (in the night scene of dock-sides), Freedman (in his submarine lithographs), Tirza (in her exquisitely observed and rendered engraving), but none of it is competitive. There is just a healthy cross-fertilisation. The lesser occasionally outshines the greater, and collectively they created an extra-ordinary outpouring of work, as Enid Marx reflected in 1989: ‘I have no illusions when it comes to my own standing, it’s all a matter of a number of individuals forming a collective school. In the arts this has always been so … the lesser pebbles become sand.’

Eric Ravilious became a war artist – and his palette darkened (as can be seen in a quartet of dramatic paintings executed for the Admiralty). He was in familiar territory depicting the industrial and mechanised in the landscape for the Army, but he had a yearning to experience flight, and this new element left him exhilarated, but floundering for a new vocabulary. Gone were the certainties of the distinct sky-line, the contours of the downs and undulations of the fields. In a final, calamitous posting, he was sent to Iceland and joined observational flights above the epic glacial landscape. It was on one of these, in 1942, he went missing, leaving behind his widow, Tirza, who struggled to receive a war pension due to her husband’s ‘disappearance’ rather than death (no body was ever found). Yet deceased he undeniably was, slipping from this world with the same deceptive lightness of his work. He flew into the light and did not return.  Upon his death, one of his closest friends, Edward Bawden, said of Eric, that ‘his life was like his art, graceful and long-lasting in its effects.’

Ravilious and his contemporaries ennobled the everyday in their art and design, capturing a sublime expression of conscious and sensibility from the twenties to forties – one that had a texture of realism but with a graceful lightness that danced free of its matrix.

Visiting it with talented friends felt resonant – for in our own pattern of friendship (stretched between Wiltshire, Somerset, Devon, and Gloucestershire and further afield, but converging in the quirky, creative crucible of Stroud) we have a modern microcosm of a similar creative cross-hatch: artists, novelists, poets, musicians, singers, crafters, print-makers, storytellers… In our own little way we are carrying the flame.

 

Beachy Heady, Eric Ravilious, 1939

 

With thanks to Kirsty Hartsiotis and Chantelle Smith.

Ravilious & Co: the pattern of friendship, by Andy Friend, is published by Thames and Hudson, 2017

The Pattern of Friendship exhibition is at Compton Verney Art Gallery until 10 June 2018:

http://www.comptonverney.org.uk/thing-to-do/ravilious-and-co/

 

 

 

The Democracy of Water

Walking the Isis Way
(5-7 May 2018)

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Sun- and water-worshippers by the Isis, Port Meadow, Oxford, 6 May 2018

Over the May ‘bank holiday’ weekend (a funny way to mark a very special time of year – Beltane or International Workers’ Day are far more meaningful) blessed by glorious weather (for once!) I walked a 50 mile section of the Thames Path, a national long-distance footpath. Earlier in the year, when it had still felt chilly, I had run to the source from my house – a brisk, muddy ten miles – where a stone in a sleepy meadow near Kemble marks the official beginning of the 2nd longest river in England. It is rather shy to begin with, and doesn’t show its face until a field or two away. By the time it intersects its first road, it is a mere gleam in the grass, pristine as a May morning. It seems delicate, vulnerable, like any young soul – but it tentatively makes it way in the world, growing more confident with each winding mile, nurtured by supportive brooks and underlying acquifers, and in its hesitant movements it is as beautiful as a foal. Reeds flow like a mane beneath its transparent veil. It is hard to imagine this pellucid stream grows up to become TS Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’ but a great destiny awaits it – monarchs and bards will grace its currents, commerce and history will crowd its banks.

 

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The mighty Thames begins. Kevan Manwaring, Early Spring 2018

 

 

I walked this first section, to Cricklade, with a poet friend of mine, Brendan Georgeson, a couple of years ago. And then I walked the next section, from Cricklade to Lechlade, with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, in the early Spring – when it was still a bit nippy and dreary. Still, a lovely pub lunch awaited us, which made it all worthwhile.

And so to this early May weekend – with temperatures reaching the hottest on record – I set off for a solo three-day trek, picking up where I left off, from charming The Riverside Inn, Lechlade, and making my way to Dorchester-on-Thames, a sweaty forty-five plus river miles later. Although the Thames Path continues all the way to the Big Smoke, officially ending at the Thames Barrier, I was most interested in this section, the bulk of the Upper Thames, which technically terminates at Goring and Streatley, but I had walked into that area in 2004, when traversing the Ridgeway. And I had my sights set on the prominent and well-loved landmarks of Sinodun Hills, aka Wittenham Clumps, aka Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, as an end-point. Immortalised by the landscape painter, Paul Nash, who painted them obsessively, I had been drawn to them for years and finally visited them while researching folk tales of the county (Oxfordshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2011).  They once were claimed by Berkshire (hence another one of their saucy epithets, the ‘Berkshire Bubs’), but for the purposes of this trip, I was claiming them as my place of psychogeographical pilgrimage.

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Wittenham Clumps sketch in watercolour, ink & chalk, Paul Nash (1912)

Also, the idea of walking the Isis rather than the Thames, appealed to my mythopoeiac sensibilities – reclaiming the name from its contemporary negative connotations (it belonged to an Egyptian goddess long before silly men got hold of it), this is the traditional name of the river until it reaches Dorchester-on-Thames (where it is conjoined by the river Thame), only then is it truly the Thames. Interestingly, its Celtic name was Tamesis (‘darkly flowing one’), which is uncannily like a compound of ‘Thames’ and ‘Isis’. To the Celts every body of water, spring, well, pool, lake and river, was a potential gateway to the Otherworld and many had a resident spirit to which offerings were made. In Bath, where I used to live, the goddess of the springs, Sulis, was worshipped. Even the conquering Romans acknowledged her, shrewdly assimilating the local cult by rebranding her ‘Sulis-Minerva’, and naming the city Aquae Sulis. Around Bath flows the river Avon, not the Avon of Stratford fame, but this is a common river name, derived from ‘Afon’, a Brythonic word for water. I suspect the locals were reluctant to reveal the name of the goddess, although we know of Sabrina (Severn), Belisima (Ribble), and of course the Thames (Tamesis), to name a few. Note they are all female. It is so telling that a feminine river is turned into a man: Old Father Thames. His statue (a hefty patriarch by Raffaelle Monti) once adorned the source, but was moved to St John’s Lock in the mid-70s after vandalism. It is an impressive sculpture, but I can’t help feeling it should be in Dorchester, and the Upper Thames should be graced with a monument to Isis (or Tamesis). After all, it has its own distinct geology and ‘feel’, as distinct from the Middle (London Borough) and Lower (downriver and estuary) Thames.

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 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet (1863)

Walking the river in solitude and peacefulness for three days I became intensely physical aware of the shape of the river, its sinuous meanderings, which it was hard not to see as feminine curves. The slow, breathy rhythm of my effort became a kind of extended foreplay, as I traced the hypnotic dance of Isis – mesmerised by her soothing song and constant flow. For much of the time I was in a non-verbal, liminal space. Thoughts were softened into impressions. I was reading the river in an embodied way, beyond language, beyond even conscious thought. The heat, light and near silence worked its spell. The scintillation of the sunlight upon the shifting surface intimated at unfathomable mysteries. Waterfowl, water- and river-bank users, the passing detail of a house, a moored vessel, a tree, or a bridge, occasionally arrested my attention – but all seemed like part of the river’s dream. It was easy to see why so many great literary classics have been borne by its waters: News from Nowhere, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Three Men in a Boat, Heart of Darkness…Ironically, I hardly wrote a thing. What inspiration the river gave me I carried away in my soul and soles. I taught me some valuable wisdom: surrender; grace; quietude and solitude; patience; effort and reward; flow, guidance and release. All seem blindingly obvious, but mean little without an embodied, visceral experience to hard-wire them into the body-mind.

 

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Bathers at Asnieres, George Seurat (1884)

 

Yet the egalitarian gifts of the river await all – and one need only spend some time on its banks, or in its water, to receive its gifts. A real highlight of the whole weekend was the wild-swimming. On the first day I went for a sneaky dip in the middle of nowhere and it felt almost illicit (but certainly most welcome after a hot day’s hike); but on the second I arrived at Port Meadow, on the edge of Oxford, to discover a kind of free festival of the river taking place. Crowds of water-worshippers had descended along the banks equipped with picnics, BBQs, inflatables, books, sound systems, and high spirits. It was like walking into an updated French Impressionist masterpiece: the sublime languor of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnieres, the bold sensuality of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the crowdedness of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.

 

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Luncheon of the Boating Party, Pierre Auguste Renoir (1881)

The atmosphere could have been overwhelming after two days of near solitude, but the prevailing energy was of sheer delight. One could almost hear a collective whoop of joy at the final unequivocal arrival of summer. There seemed to be a competition to display as much flesh as possible. Bright young things flung themselves with giddy abandon into the awaiting embrace of the Isis. The pool by Fiddler’s Island was especially popular, with teenagers lining up on the bridge to dare each other into increasingly wild dives and hysterics. Passing by much of these antics, I finally acquiesced to the irresistible tide of hedonism and, stripping down to my shorts, plunged in. Emerging from the refreshing coolness to bathe my beaded limbs in the strength of the sun, I savoured the endorphin glow – feeling wonderfully alive and thoroughly blessed by the Isis. All can enjoy the democracy of water.

 

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Bathers at Fiddler’s Island, K. Manwaring, 6 May 2018

‘A River Runs Through It’: my 4 page Thames Path feature appears in the summer issue of Cotswold Life. available from newsstands across the region now, or direct from the website:

http://www.cotswoldlife.co.uk/home

For information on the Thames Path national trail visit:

https://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/thames-path

 

 

Visions of Albion

William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion

Petworth, 25th March.

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‘Visions of Albion’ offered an excellent overview of Blake’s time in the county (when he stayed at a cottage in Felpham on the south coast, 1800-1803), in the handsome surroundings of Petworth, now a National Trust property, and formerly the home of Lord Egremont and his wife, the Countess (who were both patrons of Blake and his widow).

 

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Blake’s Cottage, Felpham, Photo by K. Manwaring, 2017

 

Facing increasingly financial difficulties in London, Blake took the suggestion of the poet William Hayley to move to the pleasant cottage on the coast (‘the sweetest spot on Earth’, as he described it) as a lifeline. Hayley helped secure him the accommodation and provided him with several commissions for engravings and paintings. At first these were a great boon, but Blake started to see them as a bane, draining his creative energies and distracting him from his own visionary work. Yet he was not unproductive on that front. While at Felpham he wrote and illustrated two epic poems, ‘Milton’ and ‘Jerusalem’. In the former he penned the then untitled verse that was set to music by Parry in 1917, going on to become an unofficial national anthem (what Blake would have made of Tories, Last Night Prommers and WI members singing his invocation to the spiritual city of Jerusalem, which he saw as an emanation of the giant Albion, we can only speculate). In the latter epic poem, Blake wrote, ‘In Felpham I saw Visions of Albion’, and clearly it was a stimulating time for him, reflected in the artwork and writing on display at Petworth.

 

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The Last Judgement, William Blake, 1808

Chief among these are the three paintings commissioned by the Egremonts: ‘The Last Judgement’ (painted for the Countess, who was suffering her husband’s many infidelities and was perhaps considering his fate… In the painting the Countess herself is depicted rising to Heaven with her children); Lord Egremont was to request ‘Characters from Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ and paid Catherine Blake (by then Blake’s widow) a princely sum of eighty guineas for the painting on muslin. Also on display are the luminous watercolours Blake undertook for his friend and patron Thomas Butts of Biblical subjects – the graceful lines are clearly those of a trained engraver, and the colours of muted greys perhaps reflective of the Sussex coast (they vary dramatically from the intense, infernal palette of his London engravings). His three years on the coast (the only time Blake lived away from his beloved city) lingered in his artwork – nearly twenty years later his was to limn ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) which visibly draws upon remembered seascapes. The wild seas are perhaps indicative of the fact that Blake’s time in Felpham was not all idyllic. It was punctuated most violently by an altercation in his garden when he found two soldiers (invited by the gardener) who he forcibly ejected. He frogmarched one (Schofield) to the nearby pub. Hot words were exchanged, which landed Blake in court, charged with sedition (and physical assault). The latter charges were dropped (Blake initially defended himself), but the former could have had him doing the gallows dance if not for the intervention of Hayley’s solicitor. He was acquitted, but the incident left him badly shaken, and soured his time in Sussex. Even in Arcadia the iniquities of life had found him. It was time to return to the land he knew, London.

 

 

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Elizabeth Ilives was a remarkable woman, by all accounts. K. Manwaring, 2018

 

The small but fascinating exhibition displays the legal proceedings of Blake’s trial, plus his handwritten descriptions of his commissioned work, a letter from Catherine thanking Lord Egremont and other archives – rare editions and prints, alongside Blake’s originals, still luminous and arrestingly strange after all these years. Thomas Philips iconic portrait of Blake from 1807 portrays him in a borrowed studio coat and packages him as the romantic poet, eyes fixed on higher things, pen ready to channel the divine downloads from his angelic Muse – his lightning rod to the gods of his very singular pantheon. For a brief while, during his Felpham years, patronised by nobility, Blake tasted their ambrosia.

 

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Illustration for ‘Northern Lights’, by Philip Pullman

 

Alongside the Blake exhibition is a small display of Philip Pullman ‘lantern slides’, the illustrations the author provided for ‘His Dark Materials’. Pullman, a dedicated Blakean, is the president of the Blake Society. As a writer-artist he qualifies himself to join a rarefied fellowship that included Blake, Rossetti, Peake and few others who achieved excellence in both. Pullman makes no bold claims about his own artistic ability, but the metonymic motifs are strong designs that adorn the text handsomely. They are perhaps closest too Blake’s wood-cuts, a series of which are displayed at Petworth (a commission by Dr Robert John Thornton of ‘Pastorals of Virgil’). As a carpenter, Pullman no doubt found an affinity in this exquisite working of his dryad material. Elsewhere in the North Gallery of the main house – a sizeable hall filled with statuary and paintings there are works by Turner and Fuseli (a kindred spirit in his use of symbolism). The house itself is packed with social history, both upstairs and down; the Capability Brown gardens extended as far as the eye could see but farther than legs wanted to carry; the daffodils and follies made us linger awhile but eventually we departed, knowing other treasures await for future visits.

 

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Ionic Rotunda, 1766, Petworth, in the Capability Brown gardens, K. Manwaring 2018

 

 

 

Uncanny America: Day 7

 

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Winchester House, San José.

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 7 – California

And with a whoop we crossed the state border into California! We knew how the Settlers must have felt – yet the Great Plains had not finished yet. We still had Death Valley to traverse. Here we marvelled at the petroforms – lines formed in the volcanic debris, stretching for miles snaking across the eerie emptiness. No one quite knows what they are for – although there are plenty of theories. They seem akin to the Nazca lines of Peru. ‘Landing strips for UFOs, clearly,’ was J’s unhelpful suggestion.  The Sequoia national park offered natural wonders – some of the oldest living things on the planet. The trees here were just on a different scale entirely to what I’ve been used to and I walked among them truly dwarfed. Our road-trip had begun with tacky artificial ‘World’s Largest’ attractions and ended with the real thing.  We both spent some time communing with these silent giants.  We lunched at the park, then carried on. After a week on the road we were keen to reach our destination but we had one essential detour to make – to the Winchester Mystery House! It took us quite a while to get to San José – we didn’t have to stop and ask for directions though, although we couldn’t help singing the corny song, our spirits lifting as we neared our destination.  We’d made it to the West Coast – yippee! And so – like Scooby Doo and his gang (my Thelma to J’s Daphne) we took our mystery mobile to the Winchester Mystery House. Sprawling over six acres, this seven storey structure contains an incredible 160 rooms (apparently the owner never slept in the same bedroom twice to confuse the spirits of the slain which haunted her conscience), 2,000 doors, 10,000 windows, 47 stairways, 47 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. It belonged to the widow of  William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. Sarah Winchester, nee Lockwood Pardee, was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1840. Known as the ‘Belle of New Haven’ Sarah received all the privileges her parent’s wealthy lifestyle could afford. She spoke four languages and played the piano well. She married William in 1862 and they became the toast of New England society. But then in 1866 tragedy struck when their beloved daughter, Annie, died tragically of the mysterious illness known as Marasmus. Sarah was grief-stricken and inconsolable, falling into a deep depression from which she never fully recovered. Fifteen years later this was compounded by the death of her husband by tuberculosis. This seemed to have been the last straw. After, the widow Winchester sought the advice of a medium – the Boston Medium – who told her the deaths of her loved ones were the result of the blood staining the Winchester family, from all the victims of the repeat-action rifle which had made their fortune – Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, et cetera, et cetera. Legions of the dead. The only way to appease these spirits was to move west and build a house – and ensure that the building work never stopped. The perpetual banging would mirror the sound of the rifle, and the confusing labyrinth that would result would ‘baffle’ the angry ghosts. Such a house would ensure a place for her in eternity. And so Sarah followed the advice of the Boston Medium and headed west, secured some land near San Jose – an unfinished farm house – and ordered for the work to begin. This continued to her death (heart failure in the middle of the night) on 5th September 1922. Then the workmen downed tools – leaving nails half-hammered into the walls. Mrs Winchester, the heiress of the Winchester fortune, had been a philanthropic recluse – using her vast wealth to not only fund the perpetual building work but also the founding of a medical center (sic) for the treatment of TB. Although children from the neigbourhood were welcome – treated to ice-cream and allowed to play on her piano – Mrs Winchester was fastidious in her privacy, apparently wearing a veil and sacking any workman who saw her face (though she paid her workers twice the going rate). She was said to have retired to the Blue Room every night, wearing one of thirteen coloured robes, and there with the use of a planchette board, consult the spirits for construction advice – in this case, the term ‘cowboy builders’ seems to have been apt. The house still stands as a creepy testimony to a life cursed with tragedy – and to the fact that having great wealth is not a guarantee of happiness.  It was with some relief we left this chilly place, back out into the glorious Californian sun – and made our way north to San Francisco. We whooped at the sign that announced we had arrived at our destination city. I was looking forward to exploring all the landmarks – Union Square, Chinatown, the City Lights bookshop – but for now, we ran the gauntlet of the freeways to the bay and pulled up in a layby to enjoy the view … of the Golden Gate bridge. We popped open a bottle of chilled white Californian wine to celebrate.  We’d made it!

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

 

Uncanny America: Day 5

 

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Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!

Day 5: New Mexico

As we entered New Mexico the waves of heat rippled like mirages on the long road stretching to vanishing point ahead. We’d been on the road for nearly a week and were starting to flag a little. Perhaps the prospect of what waited for J made her increasingly apprehensive. We’d been driving hard and were in need of some serious R&R – and so I insisted we stopped at the Blue Hole. It’s an 81 feet deep natural artesian spring of crystal clear water – an oasis in the desert, and oh boy, what welcome relief! We splashed around in it – having got there early enough for it to be reasonably quiet – and lolled about on sun-loungers in our sunnies and skimpies, flipping through magazines (or reading Devereux’s book on Mysterious Ancient America in my case), sipping ice-cold drinks. We had left London with the trailer, plenty of water, a full bowl, and the air-con on full and he was wagging furiously by the time we got back – giving us a bark, as if to say, ‘Hell, why do you get to have all the fun?’ Somehow, I don’t think they’d let a mahmout in the Blue Hole. Feeling refreshed we went on our way.  We gladly sailed by the turn-off for Las Vegas (where everything bad about America is conveniently in one place) and decided not to take the big detour south – for the ‘obligatory’ pilgrimage Roswell and Area 51. We knew it was going to be cheesy and full of alien tat, (J had been there). Yes, it holds an iconic (an overused word) place in American popular culture and I used to love The X Files, but J said I’d find it disappointing (’just a few old hangars and lots of tacky alien truck-stops’). However, what we decided to go and see instead were the Very Large Array dishes – another cinematic landmark (as featured in Contact, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, etc). Truly awe-inspiring and enough to make anyone wonder if the truth was ‘out there’. We stopped here for an explore – the visitor ‘center’, was informative, and they served excellent coffee, where I made notes. That night I suggested we pitched up in the desert to do some star-gazing – because I’d been bitten by the bug. There was something about these wide skies that made you just want to look up. It is no wonder then that the earliest (Paleo-Indian) cultures seemed particularly obsessed with the movements of the stars and the sun. There is evidence of their presence here from 14,000 years ago. We spent the afternoon visiting the Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, marvelling at the  estimated 24,000 pieces of rock art left by the previous inhabitants of this land. London was taken on a very long walkies as we trekked around the Western Trail. It was hot work, but worth it. These wonders had been here a long-time, preserved by the extra-ordinary climate and isolation. The petroglyphs often depict animal and human forms in geometric shapes swirling with patterns, thought to be a depiction of the entoptics resulting from trance-states – Peyote art. It is easy to imagine having a vision out here in this hallucinatory place.

  1. Jody Foster is my Number One Heroine!

We concluded our day’s exploring with a real highlight of the trip – the World Heritage Site of Chaco Canyon, the ‘center of an ancient world’, as the official website boasts. This was the hub between 850 and 1250 AD of an intense level of monument building and ritual activity by the Chacoan people. There is too much here to go into – worthy of another blog by itself – but suffice to say, it was awesome. Go and check it out! We found a spot by the Three Rivers petroglyphs – strange carvings high on the rocks, truly in the middle of nowhere. Pulling up in the trailer amid a dusty canyon made me have a Breaking Bad moment. I felt tempted to say ‘Let’s cook!’ I would make a good Jesse Pinkman to J’s Walter White I reckon! After we fixed up some food, we settled in for the night. The stars came out in all their glory – as though they had been newly born, and not fading recordings of long-dead stars. A piece of rock art in Chaco Canyon depicting a many-rayed star, a crescent and a handprint apparently records the time when the Crab Nebula was born (or became first visible), back in 4 July, 1054. The Anasazi were active at that time in Chaco Canyon – and it would seem the petroglyph records this event.  The desert is the place where things are made or unmade. Religions were forged in the fires of such places. The prophets let themselves be purified by its harshness, tested, tempted and transformed. We huddled around a small brush fire – feeling the vastness of the wild, untamed night-desert around us filled with inchoate dangers. It was thrilling to think we were in Apache Country and the state boasted some of the most famous outlaws in the history of the Wild West – the Apache Kid, Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch…! The stuff of legend. And here I was. I was glad of the presence of J and her trusty hound. J got out her guitar (I was hoping she would) and began to strum away – guitars always sound good by campfires, but J can actually play hers well, and, boy, what a voice! It summed up the immensity and the intimacy of the moment. She dedicated to song (’Those Who Have Gone’) to the ancient peoples of this place, the Anasazi, the Hohokam, the Apache, the Navajo. It sent a tingle up my spine. The fire spat as the resin oozing out of the brushwood dripped onto the flames, sending swirls of sparks up into the night.

For the record, here’s J’s song:

Those Who Have Gone

Can you hear them in the sage brush?

hear them in the rain?

Whispers in the canyon,

thunder on the plain.

Footprints on the desert floor

red hand in cave shadow,

Beasts seen from high above,

lines too long to follow.

They linger in the place names,

in old customs, in a word.

They speak to us in dreams,

in songs that cannot be heard.

They are the first people,

those who have gone,

they are the wise children,

those who have gone,

they are the silent stewards,

those who have gone,

they live on in us,

those who have gone.

 

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

 

Uncanny America: Day 4

 

U-Drop_Inn.jpg

U-Drop Inn, Shamrock, Texas

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

Day 4: Texas

Four days into our trip and we’ve been cruising across the surreal vastness of Texas – past Amarillo out into the great empty spaces. Now and then the crushing emptiness is interrupted by a giant cowboy, eyeball, or other piece of kitsch Americana. The whole place has a Dali-esque quality to it.  Our first pit-stop, for breakfast of coffee and waffles was the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn  – an iconic Art Deco-style landmark on Route 66 (I can’t believe we’re travelling it!).  We make a slight detour for Boot Hill, the ‘Cowboy Capital of the Plains’, with its famous cemetery – and it’s like walking into a filmset. Such places are virtually ‘sacred’ landmarks in the mythologized Wild West. This is a Cowboy Dreamtime we’re entering, and I can’t but help feel a little out of place – I’m the anachronism here, the little English girl on the wrong side of the ocean. But J is a lovely travelling companion and makes me feel safe and welcome – she provides my ‘passport’. Doors just open for us, having her around – quite literally. Gentlemen know how to treat a lady round here – tipping their 10-gallon-hats to us, with a ‘Howdy, Ma’am’ and all that. J is being treated like the music star she plainly is destined to become. Texas is the place to ‘walk tall’ – to live up to your own legend. Its roots might be mired in blood and oil, but it reaches for the stars.

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.