Monday, 29 August 2016

Requiem aeternam

Last night I had the strangest dream…..







Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war



Introitus







The house is quiet.  Its old stones shine in the moonlight, but all is quiet, save for the Glis Glis in the rafters.  I fetch a portion of Stilton and a glass of Port and take myself up to my room, settling alone in the nursery for sentimental reasons….




I wake suddenly. A gleam of light splashes like paint.  The rocking horse whinnies in fright.  




I see pictures on the wall.  George Galloway, in a hat, standing in front of a grim grey building.  Fettes College, the alma mater of Tony Blair…..





A film is running in my head: The Killing$ of Tony Blair, a Michael Moore style reminder of Mr Blair’s career, from wunderkind to anathema, but an anathema of untold riches.  I see Cherie Blair’s Muslim sister extend her disdain; I see Robin Cook make his resignation speech in the House of Commons, Jeremy Corbyn behind him, fighting the autocracy that took war to Iraq.





I see talking heads spin incredulity with long words. I see grim and violent images of people shaking hands, and grinning, and being shot and being hanged.  I see Clare Short state that In the court of public opinion, he [Tony Blair] is despised.




This montage of allegations and accusations, this rehearsal of the known and the believed, clouds my night with horror.  As in the nightmares of my youth, there is no escape, and nor is there instant remedy. 





But then the image shifts, and I am in the orchestra at a concert.





Dies Irae  

We are about to perform the Mozart Requiem.  Ivan Fischer is conducting.  Soloists and the Collegium Vocale Gent are dispersed among the Budapest Festival Orchestra.  



I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again


The Albert Hall is filled with the well-fed and the well-shod, and the lights dazzle me as the music begins.  I think of the thirty-five year old wunderkind ailing and composing his own Missa pro defunctis, perhaps poisoned by suggestions and by responsibilities.  Where were his Masonic friends when he needed them?




The music uplifts, and soothes.  In the empty night there is sadness, but woven over the underlay of Galloway’s cheap carpet the words ask for rest and comfort in death. 




Whatever role Tony Blair has played in the death of the Labour Party, those death throes are ongoing and, like a prognosis of fatal disease, the exact cause may not be laid at one door alone.  Whatever financial killings he has made through J P Morgan, he is not the only fat cat enriching himself on the poverty of others.





But the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people following the 2003 invasion (and the flourishing of Daesh) constitute an unanswered bloodstain on the face of humankind. George Galloway said (in raising funds to produce his film) that It will take him (Tony Blair) all [the way] to The Hague, to a war crimes trial and to the slamming of a cell door shut behind him.




As Henry Barnes wrote in The Guardian, The film contains nothing so incendiary. Nor does it tell us much new about the Chilcot report. But it is an entertaining ramble through well-publicised allegations and a slick run down the rap sheet for those who need a reminder of Tony’s avarice.




Lux aeternum

In the meantime, Let everlasting light shine on the victims of war, and let Mozart’s divine music grant them Eternal Rest.  And may Messieurs Blair and his friend Bush consider the results of their decisions….





I wake from the fitful night.  The sun shines on the golden fields under an azure sky.  A fly wanders uncomprehending on the window glass.  




In Italy the earth is shaken. My vast empty house is safe.  My words fly up, but my thoughts remain below…..

Libera Me


And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed







And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground





Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war


ED MCCURDY (1950)











George Galloway was chairman of the Scottish Labour Party, 1981; General secretary of War on Want, 1982;  Labour MP from 1997 until expelled from the Labour Party in 2003; Respect MP until 2008; endorser of the Leave option in the 2016 referendum on EU membership…...  broadcaster and now front man for The Killing$ of Tony Blair








Monday, 22 August 2016

Dickens & Rochester

Cloisterham - A city of another and a bygone time





.....the massive gray square tower of an old Cathedral rises before the sight of a jaded traveller.... 






A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful, with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air. Changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs of birds, scents from gardens, woods, and fields - or, rather, from the one great garden of the whole cultivated island in its yielding time - penetrate into the Cathedral, subdue its earthy odour, and preach the Resurrection and the Life. The cold stone tombs of centuries ago grow warm; and flecks of brightness dart into the sternest marble corners of the building, fluttering there like wings.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood






Rochester Cathedral is the second oldest in England, having been founded in 604AD by Bishop Justus. 






It was a favourite place of Charles Dickens, who spent part of his childhood in nearby Chatham, and who ended his days at his home at Gad's Hill Place, just outside the town. 






Dickens incorporated several buildings within the town, and nearby, in his writings, and his unfinished last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was set in the city, disguised under the name of Cloisterham.


An ancient city, Cloisterham, and no meet dwelling-place for any one with hankerings after the noisy world. A monotonous, silent city, deriving an earthy flavour throughout from its Cathedral crypt, and so abounding in vestiges of monastic graves, that the Cloisterham children grow small salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses, and make dirt-pies of nuns and friars; while every ploughman in its outlying fields renders to once puissant Lord Treasurers, Archbishops, Bishops, and such-like, the attention which the Ogre in the story-book desired to render to his unbidden visitor, and grinds their bones to make his bread.




Rochester, A Misty Morning, by William Adolphus  Knell, c 1840


It was while staying at the Bull Hotel (now the Royal Victoria and Bull, where Princess Victoria stayed overnight in 1836) that Mr Pickwick walked across Rochester Bridge and mused:

On either side, the banks of the Medway, covered with cornfields and pastures, with here and there a windmill, or a distant church, stretched away as far as the eye could see, presenting a rich and varied landscape, rendered more beautiful by the changing shadows which passed swiftly across it, as the thin and half-formed clouds skimmed away in the light of the morning sun.  



Old Rochester, before the building of the railway, by Ernest R Fox, c 1893


In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Edwin's uncle, John Jasper, opium addict and Lay Precentor of Cloisterham Cathedral lodged in the eighteenth century timber house on top of the fifteenth century Chertsey's Gate. 

They all three look towards an old stone gatehouse crossing the Close, with an arched thoroughfare passing beneath it..... (though this is actually the Deanery Gate.)






Another character in this novel, Hiram Grewgious, who is a lawyer and guardian of Rosa Bud, Edwin's betrothed, peeps into the Cathedral. 'Dear Me,' he says, 'it’s like looking down the throat of Old Time.' Old Time heaved a mouldy sigh from tomb and arch and vault; and gloomy shadows began to deepen in corners; and damps began to rise from green patches of stone; and jewels, cast upon the pavement of the nave from stained glass by the declining sun, began to perish... all became grey, murky and sepulchral, and the cracked monotonous mutter went on like a dying voice, until the organ and the choir burst forth, and drowned it in a sea of music. The Mystery of Edwin Drood






A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity. So silent are the streets of Cloisterham (though prone to echo on the smallest provocation), that of a summer-day the sunblinds of its shops scarce dare to flap in the south wind; while the sun-browned tramps, who pass along and stare, quicken their limp a little, that they may the sooner get beyond the confines of its oppressive respectability. 







The town is dominated by its Norman Castle, which was built in 1128 and has the tallest keep of its kind.





Huge knots of sea-weed hung upon the jagged and pointed stones, trembling in every breath of wind; and the green ivy clung mournfully round the dark and ruined battlements. The Pickwick Papers




Behind it rose the ancient castle, its towers roofless, and its massive walls crumbling away, but telling us proudly of its own might and strength, as when, seven hundred years ago, it rang with the clash of arms, or resounded with the noise of feasting and revelry.....  The Pickwick Papers





From the battlements there are far reaching views over the town and up the Medway, and one notable building (the white house in this picture) is known as Satis House, from which Dickens took the name for Miss Havisham's home....




Richard Watts, a local benefactor, lived here in the sixteenth century and in 1573 he entertained Queen Elizabeth.  Her pronouncement on his hospitality was that it was satis (enough), hence the name.....

The actual model for Satis House in Great Expectations was Restoration House, which was built in 1587 and is said to be where Charles II spent the night of 28th May 1660 here at his restoration....





Within a quarter of an hour we came to Miss Havisham's House, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred. There was a courtyard in front, and that was barred... I peeped in... and saw that at the side of the house there was a large brewery. No brewing was going on in it, and none seemed to have gone on for a long time....  

On Monday, June 6th, 1870, Dickens was seen leaning on the fencing in front of the house having walked his dogs over from Gad's Hill.  He was observed to be studying the building carefully.  He returned to his home and, on June 9th, he completed Chapter 23 of Edwin Drood. Then, that evening, having complained of feeling very ill, he collapsed and died.



Another link to Great Expectations is the Guildhall, built in 1687, which is where Pip is taken to be apprenticed to Joe Gargery. The hall was a queer place, I thought, with higher pews in it than a church.... and with some shining black portraits on the walls, which my unartistic eye regarded as a composition of hardbake and sticking-plaster.... 






Also in the Guildhall museum there is a reconstruction of one of the hulks, or prison ships, representing the kind of thing that Magwitch escaped from to terrify young Pip in Cooling Churchyard....





Another fine building in Rochester High Street is Eastgate House, which is the 'Nuns' House' in Edwin Drood, where Rosa Bud is educated.  It was built in the late sixteenth century and, though it never was a convent, Dickens describes it as a venerable brick edifice, whose present appellation is doubtless derived from the legend of its conventual uses.  On the trim gate enclosing its old courtyard is a resplendent brass plate flashing forth the legend: 'Seminary for Young Ladies. Miss Twinkleton.'



Miss Rosa Bud and Mr Hiram Grewgious take tea, Luke Fildes


Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, the House was undergoing extensive renovation work, but visible from the High Street is the back of the top floor of Dickens's Swiss Chalet, which had been presented to him by a friend, the French actor Charles Fechter, in 1864.  It was originally assembled across the road from his home at Gad's Hill, and this was his preferred quiet place to write and study in the last five years of his life.




Rochester holds an annual Dickens' Festival in June, and it is not difficult to imagine the writer striding down the High Street even today.  There are many buildings which would be familiar to him, even if he never described them in his books:





And some of the views and alleyways cannot have changed much in 150 years:







And of course there are Dickensian traces in all walks of life, whether in the naming of shops:





Or in the airs and graces of the people and their dogs taking tea on the terrace:






But, in a way, it is the less pretty part of town, further up the High Street toward Chatham, past the now closed 1892 railway station, that seems more Dickensian....





The now derelict Chatham House must have cut a fine figure (and is apparently still remarkable inside):






And I wonder whether Dickens ever sampled beers from the redundant Lion Brewery (once Arkoll's) round the corner (on Hulkes Lane, named after an eighteenth century mayor)?






Other traces of victorian industry remain in the area, though they probably won't be there for long:






And this notice board has a characteristically victorian injunction to children:






At the end of my visit, on my way to the new £26m railway station, one last shop front catches my eye.  A shop front that may well not be with us long, but one which conjures up a different age.  Perhaps the kind of place Alfred Jingle had in mind in Pickwick when describing Rochester?




Ah! fine place.... glorious pile - frowning walls - tottering arches - dark nooks - crumbling staircases - Old cathedral too - earthy smell - pilgrim's feet worn away the old steps - little Saxon doors - confessionals like money-takers' boxes at theatres - queer customers those monks - Popes and Lord Treasurers and all sorts of old fellows, with great red faces, and broken noses, turning up every day - buff jerkins too - matchlocks - Sarcophagus - fine place - old legends too - strange stones: capital.








Anythin' for a quiet life, as the man said wen he took the sitivation at the lighthouse..... Sam Weller, The Pickwick Papers





For more about Charles Dickens and London please see: