Saturday, July 13, 2019

England and Wales, 2019

     I am back and rested after spending 15 days in the U.K.  While I always enjoy coming home, the truth of the matter is that I was not quite ready to return.  I felt much at home  there.  James and I had a lengthy discussion about the nature of eccentricity, and maybe their broader capacity for acceptance of that sort of thing perhaps explains it.  Like our country, you can find most anything you are looking for in the U.K.  There are innumerable other aspects to the British, for good or ill, but I was largely seeking one thing:  village life and the pastoral.  I am pleased to report that it yet survives.  While it is not exactly Orwell's vision of "old maids cycling to Holy Communion in the morning mist," enough remains to be recognizable and appreciated by this Anglophile of long-standing.  Reservoirs of ways of life are deep and tenacious here, and they have an almost infinite capacity to muddle on through things.  If you seek this, however, you must leave London and the Home Counties far behind as quickly as possible. 

     This trip had a definite purpose.  My youngest son is English, though he has not had much exposure to his native country, and what he has had has been in modern, urban Britain.  As his American naturalization ceremony approaches, and he becomes more at home as an American, we both thought it would be advantageous to spend some time in the country of his birth, soaking up as much history and culture as we could along the way.

     I charted an ambitious itinerary, though hardly the marathon of some of my previous expeditions.  After making a stop in London's Kensal Green Cemetery, I left the city as quickly as possible, making first for Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum, then on to a small riverside inn in nearby Holywell.  As luck would have it, they were having their annual well-dressing festivities at the Holy Well of St. Ivo, right down the way.  The next day, we were on to Ely, a quick visit with my Spanish friend and almost-cousin Andres, then Little Walsingham, and around the Norfolk coast and back into the East Midlands, staying at an old Edwardian hotel in the working-class town of Wellingborough.  Then with a few stops along the way, we made our way to the misty Peak District, but not before a stop Leicester Cathedral for Richard III and at the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub in Nottingham.  The first item of business was to purchase some proper English duds for me in Bakewell:  a rain jacket and a pair of wellies.  After partaking of the Peak District for a couple of days, we dipped into Birmingham to view the Pre-Raphaelite works there, then stopped by St. Kenelm's Church and holy well, then the Arts and Crafts masterpiece of Wightwick Manor, before settling-in for a number of days in the Welsh Marches.  Although we technically stayed in far western Shropshire and Herefordshire, we were all over eastern Wales as well.  The attractions here--hiking in the most scenic region of the U.K., snug little pubs, Guinness and homemade gin,
holy wells and ruined abbeys, old churches and new monasteries, book stores galore, and local cider--really made this the heart of our trip.  From there, the too-touristy (for us) Wye Valley, a dip into Bath for James, paying literary homage at Mells and The Chantry, then pushing on to the west coast of Cornwall, staying at a 16th-century farmstead in Poldark Country, only steps away from the bluffs.  We enjoyed this locale every bit as much as the Welsh Marches, though our activities were more confining to coastal walking and hanging out at our pubs of choice.  After several days there, and a side trip up to Clovelly in Devon, we began the somewhat melancholy return towards London;  a stop at Cerne Abbas to see the Giant, then T. E. Lawrence's cottage, then on to the Chiltern Hills where we made a few more literary tags, as well as tooling around "Midsummer Murders" territory.  On our last day, we visited the Orthodox Shrine of St. Edward King and Martyr at Brookwood, before meeting a longtime acquaintance of mine at Heathrow Terminal 5.

     I was in full history professor mode, and the trip definitely took on historical and literary overtones, with me overseeing a variation of Six Degrees of Separation for a number of British authors and artists.  Centering on the interrelated notable English families of Asquith and Horner, with stops at the graveyards in Mells and Sutton Courtenay, I was able to link together Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, Sigfreid Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Fr. Ronald A. Knox, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Alastair Graham, Steven Runciman, Steven Tennant, George Orwell, Prince Antoine Bibescu, Patrick Leigh Fermor and others.  And from a small stretch of country road in the Ewyas Valley, I brought in Fr. Ignatius, Digby Dolbein, Francis Kilvert, Eric Gill, David Jones, and Bruce Chatwin.  Visits to favorite bookstores in Brampton Bryan and Hay on Wye, necessitated that I had unpack the extra soft suitcase that I had folded up inside my main bag.

     In addition, I was able to visit with several literary acquaintances made through the years.  We had tea with Nicolas and Frances McDowell, proprietors of The Old Stile Press, at their lovely home on the Wye River.  We talked of many things, including the Richard Barnfield and Alice Meynell works I received from them.  Late in the trip, we had a fascinating meeting with Tom Sawford at a Middle Wallop pub.  If enthusiasm counts for anything at all, then Tom is far ahead of the game.  He is responsible for this website devoted to all things Patrick Leigh Fermor.  Tom presented me with a first British edition copy of Between the Woods and the Water, for which I was deeply touched.  Finally, at Caffe Nero in Heathrow Terminal 5, James and I visited with my longtime correspondent, Keith Marshall and wife Noreen.  Keith is the moving force behind The Anthony Powell Society, of which I am a founding member.  We enjoyed a quick hour discussing AP, parting with hopes for future meetings.  And in one obscure and only tangentially literary association, we chatted with a nice elderly monk, whom I had met before, at the Orthodox Shrine of St. Edward King and Martyr.  I thought this jogged something in my memory, and once home discovered he had been mentioned in passing in the recent biography of Sir Steven Runciman.

     We largely stayed in small inns, usually just a cluster of rooms above a pub.  This suited to a tee.  We probably had nicer rooms in the venues more on the hotel end of the spectrum, but at the cost of the low key ambiance we were after.  I believe that the countryside was something of an eye-opener for James.  And I'm not above learning a thing or two along the way myself, even at my age.  Over a short course of time, I became a full-fledged convert to the British style of drinking ale and beer; no more ill-considered complaints from me along those lines.  In fact, I now actually prefer it that way, and a pint of Guinness in particular.  James was an excellent coach in this regard.  I do not mean to imply that it was all boozy Guinness nights.  On some days I opted for G & Ts.   

     Given my interests, we found ourselves visiting a number of old churches, both large and small.  There are, sad to say, simply too many of them, given the U.K.'s post-Christian, if not post-post-Christian culture.  Some of the smaller churches have been converted to other uses, while others sit closed up amidst overgrown churchyards.  The lucky ones still have a semblance of parish life, sometimes even a vibrant one at that.  The larger churches and cathedrals are the ones where I feel most removed from any real sense of holiness or that it is still even a place of worship.  And whether large or small, seemingly all have to resort to using their building for community centers, concerts, plays and lectures to try and make ends meet.  The larger cathedral churches are sometimes roped off, where admittance is charged to stroll through the sanctuary (such as in Ely).  Pleas for donations are everywhere.  Many of them post figures of how much it costs every day to keep the church open.  I am suspicious of these figures, but if true then I think I would just throw up my hands in hopelessness.  

     Without being too judgmental about it all, I would say that the problem is baked-in.  In Orthodox lands, the scale is much smaller.  Even in larger churches with a soaring dome, the interior space is actually quite small and intimate.  And the simplicity of Orthodox design means that these churches could be rebuilt or restored or repaired through the ages relatively affordably.  The English churches, once they left the simplicity of the Anglo-Saxon age and moved into the Romanesque and then the Gothic high Middle Ages, seem to me to be ever more difficult to maintain or repair given their height and immense size.  I'm not sure how they will be able to do it, going forward.  If the U.K. were still a land of church-goers, then this would not be a problem, but it hasn't been that for a long time.  One thing I have noticed, is that in their interpretive instructions to visitors, they often note how the church had once been awash in color, before, of course, things started going off the rails in the English Reformation.    

     In one Norman church, tucked away in a corner of Radnorshire, I showed James an
exquisitely sculptured font dating from the early 1100s; said to be the best preserved from that era in the entire country.  Amidst the intricate design was a Norman version of the Harrowing of Hell, a familiar subject in Orthodox iconography.  Six weeks earlier, half a world away in a tiny Orthodox church high in the remote Caucasus mountains, we viewed the same scene, albeit on a frescoed wall.  More than anything else we've seen and talked about recently, this spoke to the overall unity and universality of the Faith prior to the Reformation. 

     Before leaving home, I figured this would be my last trip to the U.K. (as well it might be).  But if I am granted enough time, I will return.  I am already thinking about next summer--Ireland, the Isle of Man and the North.  We will see.  But from this journey, a few of my favorites, below:

     Offa's Dyke Path atop the Black Mountains, even with Llanthony; views of Ewyas Valley and Wales to the west and the Golden Valley and Herefordshire to the east.
     The B4391 between Llanfyllin and Pennant Melangell in Wales
     The road approaching Trevique Farm, off the B2363 out of Boscastle, Cornwall.

     The drive between The Bridges and Church Stretton in Shropshire.
     Offa's Dyke Path in the Black Mountains of Wales
     Coastal Pathway in northwest Cornwall.

     James loved Hay on Wye--no argument there.
     Bakewell in the Peak District is also a contender

     Most any of them

     The Stiperstones Inn, Stiperstones, Shropshire--home of their homemade Whinberry Gin
     The Napoleon Inn, Boscastle, Cornwall
     The Cobwell Inn, Boscastle, Cornwall
     The Jug and Glass, Peak District--where I was introduced to the "Gimm's Cup," a Pimm's Cup topped off with cucumber gin

     James' favorite by far was Abbe Dore in Herefordshire, and I agree.
     For a quintessential village church, St. David's at Kilpeck, Herefordshire is hard to beat


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Thoughts on Cuba

 I have always wanted to visit Cuba.  For years, my cousin Selma and I would talk about it at the family reunion every July.  Last summer, she warned me not to launch off across the Gulf of Mexico without at least extending the invitation to her.  And out of the blue, I also learned that my younger son had a keen interest, as well.

     Back during the days of Cuban-American normalization of relations, I worried that once the restrictions were removed, Americans would rush in and ruin everything before I could visit.  In the current climate of abnormalization of, well, just about everything, that now seems a quaint concern.  Then last November, John Bolton started blathering about the "Troika of Tyranny,"  signaling a possible tightening of current restrictions against Cuba, including travel.  How could I not go?
     The three of us took advantage of a narrow window of opportunity between the New Year and the beginning of the Spring semester.  Travel to Cuba is inexpensive and easier than we are led to believe, as long as you are prepared to play the game of semantics with our officials, if needed.  So, after 5 days in Havana and 2 days in Trinidad on the south coast, here are, in no particular order other than the first, my thoughts on Cuba, as follows:

  • The Cuban people are some of the most open, welcoming and hospitable people that I have ever encountered in my travels.  In the past, that honor was always reserved for citizens of the Republic of Georgia.  To my Georgian friends, I will just say that now you have some stiff competition.
  • The world comes to Cuba, and more than a few Americans.  There are many direct flights from Canada, Mexico and Central and South America, as would be expected.  But there are also direct flights from all over Europe, and even Istanbul.  The fellow travelers one meets are from all over the world, and the pleasures of a Cuban vacation are no novelty to them.  Flights from the U.S. are centered in Florida--Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, with an additional flight out of Atlanta and Newark, I believe.  The Cubans seems particularly pleased that an increasing trickle of Americans are rediscovering their country, despite the rhetoric out of Washington (this of course does not address the flow of Cuban-Americans back and forth from South Florida, bringing in appliances and electronic gear as they come.)
  • The Cuban people seem disinclined to talk about politics, either to laud theirs or to discount ours (no doubt a wise habit of self-preservation that they have taken on in the last 70 years or so.)  Travellers one meets are curious about the predicament we find ourselves in now, and Latin Americans are particularly sympathetic, as many of them have had long experience with bullying tinhorn dictators such as ours.  
  • It would be just as wrong to suggest that everyone is fat and happy in this worker's paradise as it is for us to believe that all Cubans are yearning to break free of the Communist yoke.   I did not at all witness a sullen, downtrodden populace, under the heavy boot of a police state (as Bolton et al would have you believe).  People were going about their daily lives, as happy I suppose, as people elsewhere.  No doubt there are those who feel frustrated at the constraints inherent to their system (and the exodus of the upper and middle classes during the Revolution cannot be dismissed out of hand).  BUT, the Cuban people receive some of the best medical care in the world, all free.  Their college education is also free.  They pay no rent.  Free public transportation is readily available.  And food staples are heavily subsidized.  Would they give all this up for more "opportunity?"  I wonder.
  • Yes, there is still grinding poverty in Cuba.  This failure of the Revolution to live up to its ideals of equalizing conditions is perhaps the most powerful indictment against it.  But, there seems to be no hunger.  Cuba feeds itself.  And one finds, particularly in Havana, Cubans living is enviable locales, dressing smartly, and dining at the nice restaurants along with the tourists.  I do not understand, exactly, how all this happens--surely there has to be something more than just luck of the draw.  We were talking to one young couple--he had spent a few years in Montana, of all places--who lived in a choice terraced flat overlooking the plaza in front of the former Presidential Palace (now the Museo de la Revolucion).  After talking awhile, we learned that yes, his parents lived there with them, and before that it had been his grandfather's apartment.  So there is a continuity, in some respect, of residence, Revolution or not.  I suspect there is quite a lot of that.  Much of the old elite residential areas are given over to embassies and headquarters.  (One wonders why Venezuela, a country with real relations with Cuba is housed in a simple Arts and Crafts Mansion, while the U.S., which has few relations with Cuba is housed in an ugly high rise facing the Malecon.)
  • Cuban food is quite good and healthy--heavy on the fruits and fruit juices for breakfast and heavy on the rice for other meals.  They seem less bread-centric than we are (or at least, I am).  And the servings are more than generous.  For a Texan, I would have to say that it can be a bit bland at times, though this hardly registers as a complaint.
  • Our trade restrictions are just wrong-headed.  It only strengthens the government's position, as economic woes can be blamed on our embargo.  And restrictions on the importation of Cuban rum to the U.S. is a self-inflicted wound for us.
  • Cubans suffer from a bit of the same affliction as some Southerners.  To listen to some of my compatriots, you would think that the Civil War was the only thing that ever happened in the South.  In Cuba, someone would also be forgiven for concluding that the Revolution was the only thing that ever happened here of note.
  • We toured the Museo de la Revolucion, which we found to be fascinating.  I do think, however, that they overplay their hand a bit when it comes to the CIA.  Every bad thing that ever happened is blamed on the CIA, with no proof offered.  Mind you, I do not think that the CIA is innocent of this sort of thing at all.  I just believe it gives them far too much credit.  Just look at all the times they tried to assassinate Castro, who died at 90 in his own bed.
  • I would have to say that music in Cuba is, quite literally, "in the air."  One does not have to go far to hear the salsa beat somewhere, and the Cuban people are quick to break out in dance.  My travelling companions took full advantage of this.  
  • The vintage automobiles are a real thing--a tribute to Cuban ingenuity that so many of them are still on the road.  In Havana, they are primarily the domain of taxi drivers and/or companies, with the convertibles catering to open air tours for the visitors.  In the countryside, one suspects that the vintage cars are used by individuals.
  • Over here, one gets the idea that Havana is a crumbling city.  This is only partly true.  Make no mistake, architecturally, Havana is a grand city.  Beautiful old neo-classical,  beaux arts and art deco buildings predominate around the numerous parks, plazas and public spaces.  Sure, there is modern ugliness, but it rarely mars the traditional neighborhoods.  Many structures are undergoing restoration and fresh coats of paint.  It seems these will be relatively luxurious flats, and I am not exactly sure the clientele intended for them.  And yet, one also sees many grand old structures tumbling down--the Teatro Capitolio, for example, not a few yards from the Capitol grounds.  Often these buildings are blocked off, with some shoring-up in evidence, and with scafolding surround the building.  But, vines sometimes wind their way around to the very top of the scafolding, and trees sometimes peak out from the collapsed roofs of the buildings, indicated years of inactivity.  In short, the Cuban government realizes what they have, but with limited resources seem to be doing the best that they can.
  • The inefficiencies of a state-run system can stand out to utilitarian-minded Americans.  Credit cards are worthless in Cuba.  Every visitor must bring enough cash to convert to Cuban CUCs.  And this must be done at the airport, if for nothing more than to be able to pay for your taxi into the city.  So, with all the visitors pouring into the one international airport, one would think that more than one government employee in the currency exchange booth might be needed; or that there at least could be another employee in the ready to take over when that employee went on break. 

     I am sure I can think of other things to say, and when I do, I will update this list.  I am a little under the weather at present, so will draw this to a close.  The best recommendation I can give for Cuba is the fact that, given enough time, I plan to return.  And I have to say something about my two travelling companions.  When it comes to travel, someone has to put the plan together and arrange all the logistical matters.  That would be me.  And then there are those who make things happen once the plan is in play.  That would Selma and my younger son.  I would travel anywhere with either or both of them.