Thursday, August 03, 2017

First Day in the U.K.: And Six Graves Along the Way

My first day overseas is always the roughest. I cannot sleep on the flight over, and I slept only 2 and 3 hours on the nights leading up to the flight. A delay at JFK put me on the M40 later than I planned. Driving on the left doesn't throw me; in fact I kind of like the roundabout approach to traffic flow. What does give me problems are the narrow roadways with hard curbs, even on many country lanes. It takes a while to judge the distance to the curb. Once you are going at a certain speed, bumping the curb that first time will probably not do much harm; nor the second time. But the third time is usually the charm. Sure enough, I had a flat. I pulled down a little lane and parked in front of a nice home with acreage. This was not the first time I've had to change a tire overseas; or the second, or the third. I open the boot of the car to get the spare and jack and found that it was empty. I called Europecar and discovered that they don't provide spares anymore--they would call a service that would find me and change the tire. Well, okay then.

So, I settled in to wait. The owner of the house drove out in a black Range Rover to suggest I park somewhere else, but I explained my predicament and he left me alone. I could see my itinerary for the day slipping away. Truth be told, it was overly ambitious anyway. I had planned to tag Churn Knob where the preaching of St. Birinus converted the pagan Saxon king Cynegils in 637, the shrine of St. Birinus in Dorchester Abbey, the Church of St. Margaret and the Holy Well of St. Frideswide at Binsey (also the inspiration for the “Birnsey Poplars,” the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins), Hailes Abbey and the adjoining church with the incredible wall murals, St. Kenelm’s Holy Well, St. Kenelm’s Church in Romsey, Wightwick Manor (home of collection of Pre-Raphaelite art and William Morris decorative arts), and Much Wenlock and the Shrine of St. Milburga. This may also illustrate why I travel alone so much of time; I tend to wear-out traveling companions. But none of that was to be, and it was raining of course.

My rescuer arrived within an hour of my call. He turned out to be a bright-eyed young man with a thick accent. He said I could wait in the car while he changed the tire, but I answered I would stand out there with him. I asked if he were Russian, or from the Balkans. Poland, he said. His name was Pavel, and he has been in the U.K. for about 5 years, just returning from a holiday at a beach near Cardiff with his wife and daughter. He told me his dream was to go to America, but that visas were non-existent. Once he had obtained his British passport, however, he hoped to travel to the U.S. on holiday. He wanted to spend a month in our country, seeing New York City, the Big Canyon, and Detroit. I questioned his choice of Detroit, and he replied that it was his wife's idea, that she wanted to visit the home town of Eminem. I suggested that Chicago might have more to offer. I gave him my card and told him if he ever makes it to the U.S., to contact me and I would show him Texas. He promised he would do that. I told him that the number in my email address was the year of my birth. He looked at me funny, and said he would not have thought me older than age 45. Such intelligent,perceptive people, these Poles.

So, I was soon on my way again. I would like to say that I didn't bump any more curbs, but that would be a lie. And I didn't give my altered plans a second thought. What I was meant to do was talk with this young Polish immigrant, not check off sites on an over-planned itinerary.

I was able, however, to visit a few churchyards along the way, where I paid my respects to six individuals. That is an old fashioned habit of mine.  I show honor to the deceased by visiting their places of burial.  The current popularity of cremations dismays me, or at least in those cases when the ashes are not subsequently buried.  Apart from being unmoored from history, tradition and theology, uninterred cremations give one no place where one can honor the deceased.  I understand this is not absolutely true in all cases, but I still believe it is a consideration often overlooked today.  I would have liked to have visited the graves of Edith Sitwell, Christopher Dawson, and Steven Runciman, among others, but these sites simply were too far removed to be practical. I did, however, stop by Shepherd's Lane Cemetery in Beaconsfield, All Saints Churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, and Wolvercote Cemetery outside of Oxford where I paid my respects to the following disparate individuals:
G. K. Chesterton monument, carved by Eric Gill.

G. K. Chesterton:  Chesterton is an obvious choice for me.  One can easily find fault with something he wrote, considering the breadth of his writing.  His blatant militarism during the Great War, for example, is jarring.  But he certainly wasn’t alone in that, and faced with the sheer volume of his writings, I find myself largely in agreement.  Chesterton had no time or sympathy for the English aristocracy and class system.  He took a dim view of capitalism.  Although he is so closely identified with Catholic polemics, the fact is that it took him a long time to come around, and most of his work was written prior to his conversion.  Chesterton wrote with such clarity and good humor.  In contrast, I respect but never warmed up to C. S. Lewis.  I could easily visit his grave on this itinerary, but it is not at all compelling for me to do so.  Chesterton, on the other hand, is one of the most likable of authors, regardless of what you think of his positions.  
George Orwell's grave

Eric Arthur Blair:  George Orwell was undoubtedly one of the most consequential writers of the twentieth century.  And I think most would agree that his works have stood the test of time, being as popular and instructive now as they ever were.  After the November election, people started reaching for their Orwell.  I was not surprised to see cheap paperbacks of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” popping up in airport newsstands.  Orwell wrote with consistent moral clarity and authority.  And like Chesterton, he had little use for Great Britain’s entrenched class system, though recognizing how it had colored everything.  He died early, in 1949, and is known mostly for “Animal House,” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” though these works came near the end of his career.  He wrote much, much more.  My son’s favorite it “The Road to Wigan Pier,” from which he can quote selections.  From that book, Orwell mused that he hoped for a civilization in which ‘progress’ meant something more than “making the world safe for little fat men.”  So do I.  Memory Eternal, Eric Arthur Blair.

Lady “Margot’ Asquith:  Lady Asquith seems an odd choice, coming on the heels of Chesterton and Orwell.  She was the second wife of Lord Asquith, the British Prime Minister in the years leading up to the Great War.  Margot Asquith was, however,  a formidable personage in her own right.  Even so, I never knew of her before studying the life of Stephen Runciman.  

Even a superficial reading into the literature of the interwar period of English history leaves one with the distinct impression that the same people were all at the same cocktail parties, all lounging about the same drawing rooms, all at the same country house fortnights, all sneaking a bit of sex with the same other people’s wives, etc.  Margot Asquith offers about as much insight into this incestuous and self-perpetuating web of connections, power and influence as anyone.  
The relatively modest tomb of Lord Asquith and wives

I enjoy playing Six Degrees of Separation with these people, but usually takes no more than three degrees.   Margot’s stepson died a war hero and lies buried in France.  He had married Katherine Horner of Mells, Somerset, daughter of a simple country squire of ancient lineage and the former Frances Graham, also Margot’s great friend.  Frances Graham was the hauntingly beautiful model of Edward Burne-Jones, and other Pre-Raphaelite painters, as well.  Burne-Jones was the uncle of Rudyard Kipling (fun, isn’t it?)  

Margot was aunt to Stephen Tennant, noted aesthete and the “brightest of the Bright Young People.”  She was stepmother to Lady Helena Bonham Carter, the grandmother of the actress of the same name from all those Merchant Ivory adaptations of E. M. Forster.  The Asquith’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Romanian diplomat and aristocrat, Antoine Bibesco, also kinsman to the husband of author Marthe Bisbeco, which brings us back to Steven Runciman.

Both Runciman’s parents were Liberal Party politicians, immensely loyal to the Asquiths.  The good-humored historian was not a snob in the conventional sense of the word.  He used his lower-runged upper class status to open doors to archives, private collections and useful informants, rather than to social ascendancy.  Margot Asquith first enlisted Runciman to help nudge along her nephew.  Although the earnest and discreet Runciman shared the same inclinations as the flamboyant Stephen, he was repelled by Tennant’s indolence.  Later the young man would find a more congenial partner in Siegried Sassoon, and they were, in fact, a couple for a number of years.  Runciman parlayed his Asquith-Bibesco ties first to an interlude with Edith Wharton in France, and later into the Romanian aristocracy; the Bibescos, the Mavrocordatas, and the Cantacuzenes.  Similar doors opened for him in Bulgaria and Greece, and before long the young man had established himself firmly in Balkan and Byzantine studies.  To his credit, Runciman fully appreciated the advantages of his birth and connections.  As his grave in the Scottish lowlands is outside the scope of this itinerary, I will have to just note this bit player, you might say, in the life of Steven Runciman.
Luthien and Beren (the Tolkiens)

J. R. R. Tolkien:  If I made no others, this is one pilgrimage I was determined to make.  And concerning him, I will say the least, for there is simply no need to do so.  His life’s work speaks for itself.  One quote:  We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.  Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a “sub-creator” and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.

Prince Dmitri Obolensky: He was born into one of the wealthiest families in Russia, but that accounted for nothing as the Revolution broke out when he was just one year old.  The family made its way first to Malta and then to England.  Obolensky became a protegee of the older Steven Runciman, and the two formed a close and long-lasting academic bond.  Obolensky established an enviable reputation in Byzantine Studies.  I have two of his books, some of my earliest acquisitions as I was building a Byzantine collection.   
Grave of Dmitri Obolensky and Mary Tolstoy

Hamo Thornycroft:  Though largely unknown today, Thornycroft was the most noted British sculptor in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.  The Thornycrofts were an artistic family all around, in both painting and sculpture.  I learned of Hamo through the autobiography of his nephew, Siegfried Sassoon.  Some of his best known works include the famous statue of Alfred the Great in the roundabout at Winchester, “The Mower” at Kew Garden, and a bit closer to home, the statue of Teucer at the Art Institute of Chicago.  Thornycroft was a strappingly handsome man.  British authors Edmund Gosse and John Addington Symonds were both besotted with Hamo, apparently after skinny-dipping excursions in Goring Creek.  Thornycroft, however, was not given to that sort of thing, so their affections remained unrequited.
Tomb of Hamo Thornycroft


Bill M said...

Yay! More travel writings! :)

Bill M said...

I have friends traveling in England and Scotland this week, and I'm envious. However, I did (somewhat unexpectedly) get a chance to visit Kodiak Island this Summer, and paid my respects at the (now emptied) burial site of St Herman of Alaska. There was an air of quiet and peace over the place...but also a sadness, as his monastic settlement is all but abandoned there. (Monks still live on Spruce Island, but at another place.)

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