22 February 2013

Windsor Great Park

A Right Royal Entertainment

One summer, many years ago, I was a guide in Dunrobin Castle, ancestral home of the Dukes (and then the Countess) of Sutherland. My job was to sit in a window seat of the grand drawing room and to make sure no one touched the displays, which included vast Canaletto paintings of the Doge's Palace and Mortlake Tapestries, as well as priceless furniture and objets d'art. The flow of visitors was steady, and some would stop to ask a question or two. One day I remember two couples from Yorkshire came through, and, at the risk of stereotyping, I can still see one of the men before me now. He was tall, late middle aged, with thinning grey hair and a red face. His brown corduroy trousers were held up by golden braces over a check shirt finished off with a woollen tie. He looked around, with something like ecstasy, surveyed the gardens below the window, laid out on the model of Versailles, breathed deeply, clutched his braces, and sighed, "EEEE, th' very atmosphere gives ee Kulchur!"

In more recent times I lived quite near Windsor for some years, and recently had reason to return. By chance, one of the grand dames of belles lettres had just been misinterpreted in a speech she delivered for the London Review of Books at the British Museum (on February 4th) and a twitrumpus had broken out about how she dared attack a member of the monarchial family.... As has now been widely discussed the Prime Minister clearly had not read the speech and other commentators had leapt to "defend" Kate Middleton/Cambridge without seeing that Ms Mantel was pointing out the dangers of misrepresentation in the press, and in history, of women in royal marriages.

Eton College

Anyway, having been stirred to consider the effect of royalty on our insignificant lives, I wandered the precincts of the castle at Windsor, ventured across the river to peer into the hallowed courts of Eton College, and then walked the distance through the Great Park, admiring the ring-necked parakeets in the ancient oaks of this royal hunting ground. 

Ring-necked Parakeet - Gorgeous Invaders
The four thousand eight hundred acre park is wonderfully varied, from the horticultural pleasures of The Savill Garden, on the East side of the park, near Englefield Green; through the neatly clipped polo pitches past Smith's Lawn; to the rhododendrons and azaleas of the Valley Gardens; 

along the shores of Virginia Water, 

past the ruined Roman colonnade of Leptis Magna (which George IV had imported); to the Village (built in the 1930s to house estate workers), where you can buy ice creams in the Post Office; across the A332 into the relative wilds of Cranbourne Chase; 

then back up to the peak of Snow Hill with its equestrian statue of George III modelled by Sir Richard Westmacott as Marcus Aurelius (though said to emulate √Čtienne-Maurice Falconet's late eighteenth-century statue of Peter the Great in Decembrists Square, St Petersburg).

The Long Walk

This statue, known as The Copper Horse, dominates the two and a half mile view down the Long Walk, or rather closes the view from the Castle, across the deer park.

Looking the other way from the hill you can see the Royal Lodge (for fifty years the residence of the Queen Mother, but since 2004 that of the Duke of York) as well as the Royal School and Cumberland Lodge. 

Marcus Georgius III - Rex Imperatore

My favourite spots are the wild woods of The Dell near Bishopsgate, and the Heather Garden, which is fenced off just near the Polo Grounds at the top of the Valley Gardens,

but I must acknowledge that the park has given me, and my family, much fresh air and relaxation over the years, and it is a great resource for all, from wayward princes to the hoi polloi

Prince Harry (on right of picture), bodyguard and friends

But back to the Castle. Founded by William the Conqueror and then built up by Henry II on a rocky rise above a bend in the Thames, this is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world (it has five hundred residents). It has apparently been the home of 39 monarchs, several of whom have enlarged and restored it from time to time, and it is now the favourite residence of Queen Elizabeth II, who had to do her own bit of restoration when the State Apartments were drastically singed in 1992.

Stand-up entertainment - Victoria Regina

This is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the UK, and at £17.75 a head it is probably one of the most lucrative, though there is plenty to see, once you get in past security. The glorious gothic of St George's Chapel and the miniature masterpiece that is Queen Mary's Dolls' House (with flush toilets and working lifts) are particular highlights, but the Royal Collection, with paintings by Rubens, Holbein and Van Dyck, takes some beatings. The very atmosphere gives you culture!

And this is where I am reminded of the controversial lecture by Hilary Mantel. "Is monarchy a suitable institution for a grown-up nation? I don’t know. I have described how my own sympathies were activated and my simple ideas altered. The debate is not high on our agenda. We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs." It is splendid entertainment, from the Changing of the Guard to the pageantry of a service in the Chapel. Windsor Castle is a living piece of history, not, like, for example Schonbrunn or Versailles, an example of past glory preserved in a block of amber. 

But the question still provokes me. Is monarchy a suitable institution? Is the continuation of the aristocracy and an antiquated system or privilege and honour acceptable. Doesn't the phrase "William the Conqueror" cause some discomfort? What if we thought about each succeeding dynasty as a conquering one? With William the Norman French language became the tongue of the court. With George I came German and the House of Hanover (he spent about one fifth of his rule abroad and though fluent in several languages, was reputed not to handle English that well, certainly at the start of his reign). And when did we get this House of Windsor? I doubt if Michael Gove will insist that future generations of school children are taught the Royal Proclamation of King George V in The London Gazette: no. 30186. p. 7119. 17 July 1917, which went: "Now, therefore, We, out of Our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce that as from the date of this Our Royal Proclamation Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor, and that all the descendants in the male line of Our said Grandmother Queen Victoria who are subjects of these Realms, other than female descendants who may marry or may have married, shall bear the said Name of Windsor......" nor that the name he wanted to lose was Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (a branch of the House of Wettin), and why? Well, there was a war on, and ordinary citizens, such as David Herbert Lawrence, for example, were made to feel very awkward by their compatriots if they had any sort of connection with Germany (D H Lawrence had a German wife.....) [And wasn't it rather obvious at the same time that Mountbatten was only an attempt to anglicise Battenberg?]

The Queen - out of steam?

And why Windsor? The word derives from Old English for a winch by the river, though that was probably not considered relevant. I expect it was more that the castle is one of the most imposing and resilient pieces of masonry since the invention of the Motte and Bailey, and it had a convenient railway station, and was only 21 miles from Marble Arch..... I wonder if the location would have been so popular had George V anticipated the current tendency for one jet aeroplane every thirty seconds to take off from Heathrow and roar only a few hundred feet over the royal bedchambers?

Anyway, continuing in republican train of thought, I would make a proposal. Despite Kate Middleton/Cambridge's bump and the plethora of other royals who might leap to the throne given half a chance, this dynasty cannot go on indefinitely, and so perhaps it really is time to modernise the monarchy? Firstly, the title: I suggest we call the leader the Quing? Get rid of the sexist distinction between King and Queen, and regularise in the spirit of actors..... Then abolish all other titles as being obsolete, redundant and divisively unnecessary (as Italy did with no loss of any notable pride among the proud).  So Charles is just Charles, and Fergie is, well, nobody.  Then remove this problem of inheritance. Need a constitutional monarchy be hereditary? I don't see why it should. This would have saved Henry VIII so many wives, and would save us so many column miles of speculation over the Cambridge progeny. And then have an election, ad ogni morte di papa as they (used to) say in the Vatican. Everyone could then have a say in the continuation of the realm. And finally, the name. The House of Windsor has had its day, and seems to me to smack of domination. How about somewhere more proletarian, more cosmopolitan, more egalitarian? Somewhere not far from Windsor, perhaps? How about the House of Slough? A perfect recognition of the reality of the United Quingdom.

I feel better now. No hard feelings, Liz. We do all love you, though perhaps not everyone feels so good about some of the others in the family.

But then, wait. What did Hilary Mantel actually say? "The debate is not high on our agenda. We are happy to allow monarchy to be an entertainment, in the same way that we license strip joints and lap-dancing clubs......" Do I detect a derogatory note here? Or is this pure pragmatism in muscular prose? Is my proposal taking the whole issue too seriously? 

And then, wait again. Suppose my plan was adopted, and we had an election? Good Grief! We could end up with Sandi Toksvig (or should that be Talkswhig?) who would say things like, "It's my country and I'll do what I like..." in her State Opening of Parliament speech, and refer to "My wife and I..." at Christmas. Or perhaps worse, we could have Hilary Mantel..... Or Barbara Windsor? Of the House of Slough???

No. I have overstepped the mark. I retract my proposal. After all, what is wrong with being designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, precision-made, and capable of going from perfect bride to perfect mother? 

Let's leave things as they are? At least for the moment..... The royal family gives us grand entertainment and, "Th' very atmosphere gives ee kulchur!"

16 February 2013

A War in Italy

From the papers of the late Peter Colville Gibbs

My first uniform - 1943

Having started my undergraduate studies at Hertford College, Oxford, at the age of 19, in September 1942, I was mobilised as 130083 Pilot Officer Technical Signals Radar (RAdio Direction and Ranging) in the Royal Air Force. I was commissioned because I was academically in the top 5% achievers at High School Certificate, and as a scientist I was in demand.  I was interviewed by C P Snow and taken on to do technically demanding tasks.  I could not become a pilot because of my eyesight, and I would have joined the Navy, after my grandfather, Lieutenant James Richard Gibbs RN, but I was picked to enter the RAF.

Initial training took place at RAF Cosford, near Wolverhampton, and I then moved to RAF Cranwell, in Lincolnshire.  Then, as Radar Technical Officer in the 304th Mobile Signals Servicing Unit, I was posted to an Intermediate Ground Control Intercept Station (a development of the Chain Home radar installations linked to Bentley Priory) on Foulness Island in Essex, from March to May 1943, where I instructed, among others, a young WAAF named Anna Stella McMullin.  In addition I was introduced to Range and Direction Finding, which even now still intrigues me.  Foulness, which was the first land encountered by the Luftwaffe on bombing raids to London, was decommissioned as surplus to requirements in May 1943 (though later it became important as part of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment).

It has been surmised that without an effective Radar system the Battle of Britain might not have been won, and Foulness was one of the stations from which Ground Controllers sent height and position information of hostile aircraft to Bentley Priory which relayed it to British Fighters in the air, enabling them to intercept enemies with surprise and economy, both by day and night.  Given the accuracy of this information, pilots could then lock on to targets with their own in-board AI radars when in range.

Such was the importance of this tactical system that our strategic planners had the foresight to envisage at a very early stage the desirability of mobile systems to support our land and sea forces when they returned to the offensive.  So it was that I was sent to RAF Renscombe Down, also known as RAF Worth Matravers, another now-defunct training camp (the camp sign is now on the wall of the Square and Compass pub which itself is otherwise still much as it was in 1943).  Here there was a training establishment equipped with a variety of radars on wheels, which were subsequently deployed in support of most of the major operations in the Mediterranean.

When my training was complete, I was sent to Algiers, by sea, on the 17th June 1943 (please see http://www.richardpgibbs.org/2015/04/1943-road-to-algiers.html for the full story of this journey - Ed.)  The journey involved a fair amount of inebriate camaraderie on board a heaving troopship through the Atlantic.  The combination of trepidation and excitement, combined with the throbbing enclosure of a small ship, made my first excursion from home a memorable blur!

Dalla Rupe Tarpea, Via Veneto 13, Roma, February 1945.  Peter Gibbs top left

Attached to HQ of the Northwest African Coastal Air Force (NACAF), I moved along the fringe of the continent to a Mobile Signals Servicing Unit (MSSU) camp in a cork forest outside Philippeville (now Skikda).  I had been posted, “pending disposal” and apparently a certain Squadron Leader thought that filling the position of Radar Officer with, “an absolute greenhorn,” would bring the name of the Unit into “disrepute” but the Wing Commander disagreed.  Along the coast were a chain of radars which had been put in place from Algiers to Tunis following the successful landings earlier in the year.  These were a mix of Air Ministry Experimental Stations (A.M.E.S.) types 500 and 300, Chain Home Low and Chain Home respectively.  The CH were long range fixed aerial arrays suspended between tall wooden towers, while the CHL variant had rotating antenna which provided a searchlight beam of radio waves that an airplane, even at relatively low altitude, would reflect back towards the source.  They worked rather like searchlights, and, although the technology was primitive, I still find it fascinating.

The MSSU’s job was to service these stations by providing spares – for example replacing ruptured transmitter valve filaments - and dismantling and repairing electric generator sets (each station had two diesel and one smaller petrol driven machines) to ensure a round the clock supply of power.   Since I cannot recount any precise examples of their usefulness in the air war in that theatre it can only be speculation that their very presence may have deterred the enemy from making bombing sorties to make life in the nearby war territories at least uncomfortable.

As the war in the Mediterranean went forward we were moved to Bizerte (recaptured by American troops from the Germans on May 7th 1943).  This was a major assembly point for the next stab at the soft underbelly of the Axis powers, primarily the invasion of Sicily.  But then I was sent to follow the British 1st and American 5th Armies to Salerno (scene of intense fighting to secure the beachhead between September 9th – an armistice with Italy had been signed on the 8th - and 16th) at the end of September 1943.  I spent two or three nights there, struggling with Long Wave sets on the beach with the discomfort of working under heavy artillery bombardment. Although we were not aware at the time, the whole operation had come close to disaster.  As I later read in Norman Lewis’s “Naples ‘44” “Official history will in due time set to work to dress up this part of the action at Salerno with what dignity it can.  What we saw was ineptitude and cowardice spreading down from the command, and this resulted in chaos.  What I shall never understand is what stopped the Germans from finishing us off.”

However, the bridgehead having been secured, we moved up to Frattamaggiore, a village on the north-east side of Naples not far from Caserta (about the time the Allies reached the Volturno on October 6th) to spend the winter in a disused flax barn as part of a stores unit with technical personnel.  After a quiescent turn of the year when our duties lay chiefly in maintaining close liaison with the mobile radar installations in the Bay of Naples, on Ischia and at Sorrento, and inland, providing cover in particular for 324 Wing of the RAF which was established at Capodichino airfield (now Naples International Airport).  The radars were no doubt situated with tactical care, but it so happened that one, a Type 15, was very attractively located on the island of Ischia, and another on an even more delightful site on a promontory which was part of the garden of a villa in Sorrento with a splendid view of Vesuvius and the whole expanse of the bay of Naples. Vesuvius decided to entertain us (in March) with a spectacular eruption from which the lava destroyed villages on the slopes √† la Pompeii.  As Spike Milligan recorded (in "Where Have All the Bullets Gone" March 10th 1944): "Yes, Vesuvius had started to belch smoke at an alarming rate, and at night tipples of lava were spilling over the cone. Earth tremors were felt; there was no more inadequate place for a thousand bomb-happy loonies.....  Due to the smoke, it was dark before sunset.  A strange unearthly light settled on the land....."

The military events of the new year involved us intimately, the first being the less than totally successful landings at Anzio at the southern end of the Pontine Marshes.  Together with a Flight Sergeant, a Corporal and a Technician, I was sent to service a CHL radar fixed in the bows of a Landing Ship, Tank (fondly dubbed Large Slow – or Stationary – Targets) that had been sent to join the assault fleet in Pozzuoli harbour.  To ensure its optimum serviceability a small team was despatched with the brief of testing the equipment, nothing more.  The LST 305 was moored out in the harbour and so in desperation (there being no ferries available) we thumbed a lift in an American craft almost full to the gunwales with heavily armed infantry, then boarded the LST via the access ladder.  I was greeted by a 1st Lieutenant who said, “Ah ha, you’re the new Technical Officer are you?”  To which I replied, “Oh, no I’m not.  We’re here to do tests and then we’re off back to base.”  To which the Lieutenant snapped, “Oh no you’re not!  This is a sealed ship!  You’re here for the duration!” It subsequently transpired that the Captain had opened his sealed orders prematurely and so no one could leave the ship because of a possible breach of security.  And so, in innocence and ignorance of their destination, without a toothbrush between us, we set off for the Anzio landings, suffering both privation and some ostracism during the voyage, until we were landed (with some relief!) with the DUKWs, Absent Without Leave, and fearful of the wrath of my martinet CO.  Fortunately we managed to get a lift back to Naples on another LST, and returned to the relative comfort of our Flax Barn.

In February, with the advance contained by German artillery, I returned to the Anzio beachhead as part of a Special Unit attached to One British Ground Control Radar, as the Germans were dropping aluminium foil, confusing the British radar.  The attempt to differentiate between aircraft echoes and ‘window’ (now called ‘chaff’) echoes failed, though the Americans were working on SCR 584 lock-control system, adapted for Ground Control and Interruption purposes, so after a short stay I returned to Naples again.

On February 13th I was detailed to set up a radio link on Monte Trocchio, a few miles from Monte Cassino, to assist with the assault and bombardment of the monastery.  The weather was not good, and the rivers were flooded and the roads extremely muddy.  It was hoped that the bombing would move the Germans back from the Gustav line, but this was not achieved until mid March.

Back in Frattamaggiore we developed enduring memories of the friendliness of Italians.  Ninetta Piccione and her daughter Anna lived in the caretaker’s flat in the Flax Barn next to the Officers’ Mess.  There was a big archway at the entrance through which vehicles could pass, and then a set of rooms around the courtyard.  About fifty servicemen in all, including half a dozen officers (Squadron Leader, Flight Lieutenant (signals) Equipment Officer, Admin Officer, Radio Officer and a couple of Warrant Officers), were stationed there; we had a handful of three ton trucks and 15 cwt vehicles as well as two small cars and some motor-bikes.  Ninetta and her daughter used to give us food tidbits from time to time, including fresh chicken from their small holding.

One particular treat at the time was seeing my first “Grand” opera at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples.  It was a performance of Aida, and I was initially surprised that after the Salerno landings and the confusion of war the opera was functioning at all, though later learned that it had been requisitioned by the British Military Command in October 1943, with the first performance being given on December 26th.  In 1944 there were 434 performances and there were 1672 seats!  However I was most surprised to find that in the box I walked into within the Opera House were two Royal Company of Signals Officers, both of whom were old Berkhamstedians; a certain Bleasdale and, extraordinarily, Peter Handley, my friend and contemporary who later married my sister, Celia.

At about the same time a certain Gunner Milligan was in a Rehabilitation Camp at Afragola, a mere mile or two down the road from us, though it was only years later that I discovered this.  As he recorded in "Where have all the bullets gone?" "What is an Afragola?  An Afragola is a small grotty suburb of Bella Napoli.....  It was a spot I wouldn't give to a leopard.  A field adjacent to this 'spot' is now a transit camp for 'bomb-happy' soldiers and I was now 'bomb-happy', having been dumped here, along with some untreated sewage, following treatment at No. 2 General Hospital, Caserta.....  It's a bleak misty day with new added drizzle  for extra torment.  Mud!  How did it climb up your body , over your hat, and back down into your boots?"

With the fall of Rome, on June 4th, things moved very quickly.  I passed through Rome, and celebrated my 21st birthday (on July 7th 1944) in a three ton truck in the countryside not far from Porto Santo Stefano, on the Tuscan coast.

Later I flew back down to HQ in Caserta, and then joined an assault convoy via Ajaccio in Corsica to the South of France, landing at St Tropez, in September.  With my knowledge of Radar I was constantly chasing the invasion, keeping up behind the front line, detailed to provide the technical back-up necessary for this relatively new kind of warfare.

I moved about considerably in the latter part of the year (1944); firstly being posted to the Gargano peninsula, but then my unit was disbanded.  Following this I was detailed to the Rear HQ of Desert Air force, at Fano, near Ancona on the Adriatic coast, from where I moved up to Riccione in the province of Rimini.  Here I worked with the overall control unit of RAF services (no longer supporting the 8th Army in the Desert).  I supervised all RAF back-up of the Army as it progressed north.  They were Radar and Signals specialists at the HQ to deal with locations and supply of fighter aircraft and early warning radars.  As has been commented, the features of the Italian Campaign were a, “slow, painful advance through difficult terrain against a determined and resourceful enemy, skilled in the exploitation of natural obstacles by mines and demolitions.”  (Report by the Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, to the combined Chiefs of Staff.)

I was in Forli (not far from Ravenna, but only about fifteen miles from the Winter Line) for Christmas, though back in Rome on leave in February 1945, where I stayed in the Imperial Hotel on the Via Veneto and saw “Carmen” at the Terme di Caracalla, as well as something at the Rome Opera House.  I visited Castel Gandolfo, and wandered the streets of Rome, wining and dining with fellows relieved that for us at least the worst seemed to be over.  It was a novelty to be able to enter shops, and I was enchanted by the “Open City” which had miraculously escaped the ravages of war.  A group of us had a fine evening in a Roman Trattoria called “Dall Rupe Tarpea alle Grotte di Enotria.”  At least I think we had a fine time!

Udine was entered by troops of the 6th Armoured Division on May 1st 1945, the day before the Germans surrendered in Italy.  Shortly afterwards I was sent there and was billeted in a German cavalry barracks.  There was little to do, except to keep HQ morale up, which included being in charge of boxing!  I had a wonderful time for a couple of months, fraternising with local people, spending time on officers’ leave at a hotel in Tarcento, and studying Italian with a very sweet local girl, thumbing through the leaves of “Il Decamerone.”  I also enjoyed seeing “Turandot” performed by the La Scala touring company in a rural site somewhere between Udine and Trieste.

My grand-daughters Hannah and Sarah with Amanda outside "my" Hotel

This brief idyll was not to last, however, and I was redeployed, spending a miserable journey south via a transit camp in Naples pending posting, worrying that Anna McMullin back in England (who had been posted to Beachy Head after Foulness and then sent to Gloucester before eventually being demobbed in November 1945) might go off with someone else.  In due course I was posted to the Headquarters of the Mediterranean and Middle East in Cairo, and so travelled by train and truck down to 54 Personnel Transit Centre, Taranto, to pick up a boat for Alexandria and I was in Cairo at the beginning of October 1945. 

Early in 1946 I took leave for a trip to the Holy Land and to Petra, but in July 1946, via a Personnel Transit Camp, I returned to England, firstly to Bentley Priory at Stanmore, home of the Headquarters of Fighter Command, then to Langtoft Radar Station near Market Deeping in Lincolnshire, then Rudloe Manor near Corsham (which covered a vast underground system of tunnels) and finally RAF Uxbridge, 100 Personnel Dispersal Centre, from where I was demobbed on August 28th 1946.

I went home to my parents in Northchurch and contacted Anna, who was working at Harrods and living with her Aunt Dorothy.  I returned to Oxford to complete my degree, and on December 30th, 1946, Anna Stella McMullin and I were married at Sedlescombe Parish Church in East Sussex.

There had been so much suffering in Italy during the year and a half of war on its soil.  The Allies’ final victory was an astonishing achievement, and for bringing such a disparate and exhausted force together and giving it belief to win the day Alexander and Clark, especially, deserve enormous credit.  So too do their air forces, which in their initial blitz gave the men on the ground such a colossal advantage.  And, of course, so too do the men on the ground, who had slogged it out for so long, yet somehow found the energy and drive to go the final yard.” 

James Holland:  “Italy’s Sorrow.”

For the story of my father's journey to, and initial adventures in, North Africa, please see:


7 February 2013

London 3 - Dickens's London

The London of Charles Dickens

The Charles Dickens Museum, 48/49 Doughty Street

I wonder how much of London in 2013 Charles Dickens would recognise? He first came to live in the city at the age of ten, in 1822, when it had a population of about one million. Ten years later it was approximately one and a half and by the time he was forty it was two and a half million. Yes, there are individual buildings, for example churches, the Tower of London, and certain palaces that, because of their importance and their strength, have been there for centuries, as well as a fair number of Georgian buildings and early pubs that have survived, but a great deal of the more vernacular examples of architecture have given way to “progress” or have changed beyond recognition. 

The age of steam, with its hungry need for rail cuttings and stations, swept away some of the old domestic dwellings. The shifting of the docks downstream and away completely rewrote the activity of the Thames. The Second World War did not help preserve the fabric of the city, and the enormous expansion in the twentieth century (Greater London now has a population of 8,173.000) and the advent of motorised vehicles, have certainly aided the obliteration of signs of the world of the horse and the rickety slum.

Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse was at the waterside.  It was down in Blackfriars.  Modern improvements have altered the place; but it was the last house at the bottom of a narrow street, curving down hill to the river with some stairs at the end, where people took boat.   It was a crazy old house with a wharf of its own, abutting on the water when the tide was in, and on the mud when the tide was out, and literally overrun with rats.  Its panelled rooms, discoloured with the dirt and smoke of a hundred years, I dare say;  its decaying floors and staircase; the squeaking and scuffling of the old grey rats down in the cellars; and the dirt and rottenness of the place; are things, not of many years ago, in my mind, but of the present instant…..  (David Copperfield, Chapter 11)

In fact the blacking factory where the young Dickens worked was on Hungerford Stairs, now lost beneath the embankment at Charing Cross, but it was real to the young author and very much representative of the riverside in central London before the banks were built up and the water born traffic ebbed away downstream.

A mist hung over the river, deepening the red glare of the fires that burnt upon the small craft moored off the different wharfs, and rendering darker and more indistinct the murky buildings on the banks.  The old smoke-stained storehouses on either side, rose heavy and dull from the dense mass of roofs and gables, and frowned sternly upon waters too black to reflect even their lumbering shapes.  The tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church, and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom; but the forest of shipping below bridge, and the thickly scattered spires of churches above, were nearly all hidden from sight.  (Oliver Twist, Chapter 46)

The Church of St Magnus the Martyr, one of 51 designed by Sir Christopher Wren, still stands, though it is dwarfed by modern blocks.  St Saviour’s became Southwark Cathedral in 1905, or more correctly, the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overy (which derives from over-the-river), but the nave was rebuilt in 1840 and the modern additions and surrounds, not least the railways connecting London Bridge with Cannon Street and Charing Cross, have obscured some of its splendour.  The actual bridge on which Nancy arranged her fateful meeting, was opened in 1831, so was actually very new in this description (the 600 year old Old London Bridge having been demolished at the same time) but this in turn was dismantled and replaced by a box girder construction in 1973, with the stones being transported and reassembled in the Arizona Desert, having been bought by oil tycoon Robert P McCulloch.  The flavour of the Dickensian river has long since evaporated.

Dickens, whose novel Oliver Twist was selling well, wrote this description upstairs in 48 Doughty Street to which he had moved at the beginning of April 1837.  He was 25 years old, married to Kate and father of a baby.  His sister in law, Mary Hogarth, and his brother, Fred, also moved in with them.  It was a broad, airy street, with gates at each end and a porter in a lodge, and he was to pay £80 per annum rent.  Doughty Street adjoins Mecklenburgh Square, with its gardens which themselves lie next to Coram’s Fields which is a children’s play area on the site of the original Foundling Hospital, still enclosed by the colonnade of the original building, erected by Thomas Coram in 1745.  In Brunswick Square, outside the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, sits a statue of the philanthropist, and to his right is the Foundling Museum, which, although constructed in 1937, contains eighteenth century interiors and paintings from the original hospital.  The stories and memorabilia of the children supported by this organisation would be familiar to Dickens, as he was a supporter of it, and had his own chapel pew there when resident in Doughty Street.

The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square

It is perhaps a coincidence that Foundling number 18,607 was baptized John Brownlow in the Hospital Chapel in 1800.  This gentleman was later to become Secretary of the society and a friend of Dickens.  Was he the model for Mr Brownlow, whose heart was, large enough for any six ordinary old gentlemen of humane disposition, who rescued Oliver from Mr Fang?

Gerrard Street, where Jaggers entertained Pip and friends

Anyway, though London careers into the twenty-first century and beyond, with the Shard now dwarfing St Saviour’s, and Seven Dials no longer being, a maze of streets, courts, lanes and alleys…. lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-top; Jaggers’s home in Gerrard Street now being occupied by Chinese; Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road were not developed until after Dickens’s death; the houses that the family lived in after Doughty Street, in a Devonshire Terrace in Marylebone (not the current one in Bayswater) and in Tavistock Square have long since disappeared; but London is still London, quite distinct in style from Paris, New York, or Rome, and there is still something Dickensian for all to experience.

The Dining Room at 48 Doughty Street

The Dickens Museum, now at 48 and 49 Doughty Street, recently reopened following a £3m overhaul, recaptures something of the domestic scene of the early Victorian period.  It is not difficult to imagine the young novelist at work at his desk here, and the empty bed of his beloved sister-in-law is itself a moving reference to the transitory nature of life. 

The bed where Mary Hogarth died, May 7th 1837.
"I have lost the dearest friend I had....."

Not far away, close to the restyled Covent Garden, is the Lamb and Flag pub, its stained wood and rickety stairs little changed in over two centuries, and well-known to Dickens.  A step away from this, in Maiden Lane, is Rules restaurant, also said to be a Dickensian favourite, and also over two hundred years old.  The wanderer in London can follow Dickens trails, be guided on tours, and step into the past in many places, such as the George Inn in Southwark or his friend Thomas Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Row.

And, despite the change in the ethnic mix of London (three eighths of the current population of Greater London were not born in the United Kingdom) there are still the characters that fascinated Dickens and from whom he drew inspiration.  You don’t have to sit for long in the Lamb and Flag, or the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit Street, or the French House in Soho, or downstairs in Gordon’s Wine Bar, to observe faces and types that step right out of the novels, whether it is Mr Micawber (a stoutish, middle-aged person…. with no more hair upon his head…. than there is upon an egg, and with a very extensive face…..  His clothes were shabby, but he had an imposing shirt-collar on,) or Steerforth (so self-possessed, and elegant,) Wemmick (I found him to be a dry man, rather short in stature, with a square wooden face, whose expression seemed to have been imperfectly chipped out with a dull-edged chisel,) or Lady Deadlock (bored to death.  Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady, under the worn-out heavens;) they still perambulate the capital, with their individual foibles and blemishes.  

But when all is said and done, there are things perhaps we must not lament about the passing of time.  Search for a hot water tap in Dickens’s rooms in Doughty Street and you’ll search in vain; likewise a flush toilet.  And be thankful that Tom-All-Alone’s, the ruinous place to which Jo the Crossing-Sweeper crept at night, no longer exists:  It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people…..  these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gasps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever…..  (Bleak House Chapter 16)

Cholera first struck London in 1831 (6,536 deaths), returned in 1848-9 (14,137 deaths) and again in 1853-54 (10,738 deaths).  Much as the romantic may imagine the days of Charles Dickens at No 48 Doughty Street to have been colourful and cosy, not all progress is to be decried.

Goodwin's Court, off St Martin's Lane, dating from about 1690

Seven Dials

3 February 2013

John Clare

John Clare (1793-1864)

I Am

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil'd or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below--above the vaulted sky.
These lines were written in the last period of John Clare’s life, when, for twenty-two and a half years before his death at the age of 71, he was enclosed in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum.

The John Clare Memorial, erected in 1869

Clare was an immensely productive writer, whose fortunes have waxed and waned.  He was for a time a highly praised poet with the same London publisher as Keats, but his rural background and lack of sophistication did not help him up the ladder of fame and his health and behaviour became unstable. 

His best known works tend to be the observational writings that celebrate the Northamptonshire countryside he knew so intimately, with the birds, in particular, that he patiently watched when not working as a labourer.

All nature has a feeling

All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There's nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal it its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.

As Adam Foulds wrote in the Guardian in 2009, Clare is “Our great poet of the present tense…..  His poems connect things by seeing them, un hierarchically, one after the other.”  His language is the natural language of his place and time, with dialect words and common spellings used unselfconsciously:

Autumn Birds

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by,
And darken like a clod the evening sky.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The wild swan hurries hight and noises loud
With white neck peering to the evening clowd.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.

He was also the most sensitive and patient observer, working almost like a wildlife photographer will in this more technical age.  In The Nightingale’s Nest, for example, he tells of:

Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young…..

And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung

And then he writes of the “curious” nest itself:

no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair …..

Deep adown,
The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown ;
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.

Adam Foulds points out how, “the sharp, knowledgeable eye and the whole reacting person are integrated and inseparable.  It is the fusion of these qualities,” writes Foulds, “that makes him both our greatest ecological poet and a great poet of the human condition.”

It is this interest in ecology, the study of the relationship between life forms and the natural environment, that perhaps singles Clare out as extraordinary.  But then the acts of enclosure which upset this balance for him drove him to despair.  Although it would be quite wrong to imagine that the appropriation of land was a new phenomenon (Romans and Normans had, amongst others, had their go at this before) the various acts between 1750 and 1860 took away some 20% of land from the ordinary people and changed the landscape for ever, with ditches, roads, rivers and hedges moved, uprooted or replanted.  What Clare had known as a boy, with his village of Helpston at the organic centre of a field system and common land that had been worked and grazed and played upon by generations, became in the space of some twenty years a very different world and this subject occupied him every bit as much as the delicate interiors of birds’ nests (very different kinds of enclosures).

The Bluebell, where Clare worked as a potboy

In The Lament for Swordy Well he imagines he is the land itself:   

There was a time my bit of ground
Made freemen of the slave
The ass no pinard dare to pound
When I his supper gave
The gipseys camp was not afraid
I made his dwelling free
Till vile enclousure came and made
A parish slave of me…..

And in The Mores he describes the landscape as he fondly remembers it:

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring's blossoms on its brow
Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity
And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon's edge surrounds…..


Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
Is faded all - a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave
And memory's pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now……

Tilleman's drawing of Langley Bush

And in another anti-enclosure poem, Remembrances, he recalls:

Summer pleasures they are gone like to visions every one
And the cloudy days of autumn and of winter cometh on
I tried to call them back but unbidden they are gone
Far away from heart and eye and for ever far away
Dear heart and can it be that such raptures meet decay
I thought them all eternal when by Langley Bush I lay
I thought them joys eternal when I used to shout and play
On its bank at 'clink and bandy' 'chock' and 'taw' and
ducking stone
Where silence sitteth now on the wild heath as her own
Like a ruin of the past all alone…………

and then contrasts it with the present state:

By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors - though the brook is
running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill

Helpston across the fields

In a paper for The John Clare Society Journal (Number 28, July 2009) Ian Waites identifies this very view in a pen and wash picture by Peter Tillemans, a Flemish Artist, who was commissioned in 1719 to provide a set of topographical drawings for a proposed history of Northamptonshire.  It may not be a particularly remarkable landscape, but the rise and fall of the land even in miniature, and the growth of trees and shrubs, have a lasting effect, especially by their absence, and Clare uses this to symbolise the much greater loss.  Of course we remember things not as they were but as they seemed, and part of Clare’s process illustrates the enclosed nature of the memory, retreating into the past as the poet grew older.  As Ian Waites puts it in reference to the discovery of Tilleman’s drawing of the land around  Langley Bush:  "For the first time, we have an authentic visual reference point of Helpston’s open fields for us to gaze upon and further empathise with Clare’s situation and his poetry, and to contemplate while considering the visual nature of his work. From this small sketch we can see exactly what Clare saw in those youthful years before ‘the enclosures came’ – the heath, the bush itself, those ‘grasses that never knew a scythe’, the ‘unbounded freedom’ that he felt under ‘nature’s wide and common sky’ – and it shows just how Clare’s senses were finely attuned to this landscape. For all the critical analysis – of how Clare struggles in balancing his personal grief with that felt by the landscape after enclosure, or of the anomalies in his comprehension and retelling of the changes brought about by enclosure – his identity as a poet was formed both by places like Langley Bush, and by his memory of such a place."

Clare Cottage, the family home for forty years and now open to the public

It is ironic that the last third, almost, of his life was spent enclosed in an institution, where his memories and confusions became all he had.  But then his earlier life had also been enclosed, both in the life of a young labourer and in the confines of his family cottage in Helpston.  It is also ironic that the developments in more recent times, with pylons striding like giants across a yellow land of rape, and the tarmac and the housing, have probably done more hurt to the eye than the enclosures ever did (though perhaps ownership remains a bigger issue?)

The landscape near Swaddywell Pit

In To a Fallen Elm, Clare directly addresses the tree that, “murmured in our chimney top/the sweetest anthem autumn ever made:”

Thou ownd a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by the attribute of words
Thine spoke a feeling known in every tongue
Language of pity and the force of wrong
What cant assumes what hypocrites may dare
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are
I see a picture that thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny…..

His appreciation is sincere, his feeling of kinship with the tree no shallow sympathy.  He knows it both supports an ecosystem and symbolises past freedoms, but “Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways,” and so, “With axe at root he felled thee to the ground.”  As Richard Mabey wrote in 2003 in an article entitled Nature’s Voyeurs in The Guardian, “Clare is not a presenter of nature.  He is a re-presenter, a representative.  He never shows facile ‘identification’ with another creature, but rather a kind of solidarity, as a fellow commoner.  At the very point where the act of writing distances him from the natural world, he joins it again, in the special niche of the ecological minstrel, winging the songs of the silent majority for them.

In one poem John Clare asked What is Life? and what is Hope? and what is Death?

A Poet is Born not Made - Clare's grave in St Botolph's Churchyard

Then what is Life? When stripped of its disguise,
A thing to be desired it cannot be;
Since everything that meets our foolish eyes
Gives proof sufficient of its vanity.
'Tis but a trial all must undergo,
To teach unthankful mortals how to prize
That happiness vain man's denied to know,
Until he's called to claim it in the skies.

But the mist retreating from the morning sun, the bubble on the stream, are images he could, and did, share with us.  Helpston today is not what it was when first he saw the light of day, nor what it was when they brought him back and laid him out in the Exeter Arms before his funeral, but the busy, bustling, still-repeated dream that is life does endure, and with Clare’s help perhaps we are better placed to understand the cobwebs and the thorns.

The road to College Cottage


John Clare - A Biography:  Jonathan Bate (Picador)

The Song of the Earth - Jonathan Bate (Picador)

John Clare:  Major Works (Oxford World's Classics)

The Ballad of John Clare, Hugh Lupton (Dedalus)

The John Clare Society Journal, Number 28, July 2009

Nature's Voyeurs, Richard Mabey, The Guardian, Saturday 15 March 2003

Everywhere an exile, Adam Foulds, The Guardian, Saturday 23 May, 2009

The John Clare Trust, Clare Cottage, www.clarecottage.org