How The Napoleon of Notting Hill can educate us

In an 1874 letter to members of the Augustinians of the Assumption, Venerable Emmanuel d’Alzon, who founded the congregation in 19th century France, spoke about the “radical denial of the rights of God” in the post-revolutionary period. Society then – as now – did not understand the order of things and did “not want the truth to serve as its bedrock.” And he observed that “ever since society ceased to rest on this doctrinal foundation, we can see…the resulting turmoil.”

Like other thinkers and figures of the time, d’Alzon recognized that the disenchantment of the world caused profound disorder. His solution to this was to “proclaim everywhere in the world the rights of God, of Jesus Christ and of his Church.” To do this, the Assumptionists had to focus on education in all its forms. Elsewhere, d’Alzon had written that “humanity needs to be taught, but first we need to give humanity a heart of flesh, as Scripture says, to replace the one becoming like stone in its chest.”

I open with d’Alzon for two reasons. First, I am indebted to the Assumptionists and d’Alzonian thinking; I was educated by the Assumptionists at Assumption College in Massachusetts, now Assumption University, and briefly considered a vocation to the congregation. Secondly, I believe his observations on the turmoil of the modern period have much to teach both intellectuals and artists.

D’Alzon can help us approach art because art, good and bad, has an educative dimension to it, particularly a moral one. To demonstrate this, I’d like to take a moment to compare him to T.S. Eliot. In Religion and Literature, Eliot observes that modern literature seems to express “no higher ideal to set before us than [absolute liberty].” It has been “corrupted by…Secularism, that it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.” If we are exposed to this and do not think seriously about what we are reading, then, Eliot says, we will receive an improper formation, one that puts us at odds with the Truth. Emmanuel d’Alzon would likely agree with Eliot and has, in fact, used artistic language to talk about the seriousness of human formation. He has noted that the soul is “like a block of marble” that like the sculptor’s block can be chipped away meticulously until it becomes a work of art.

A good example of a novel that can shape the reader and demonstrate where we moderns have become unmoored is G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. In the aforementioned essay, Eliot identifies Chesterton as a propagandist, used in its original sense to mean propagation of the faith. But despite its rather overt sensibility, the novel works quite well for my purposes.

It’s apt to describe The Napoleon of Notting Hill as a story about education and ideas – in particular, the Christian idea.

Before the novel – which is set 80 years after its publication date – begins in earnest, Chesterton’s introductory note runs through a litany of modern “prophets,” each of whom has offered a particular vision of what the future might look like – from H.G. Wells saying “science would take charge of the future” to Edward Carpenter’s assertion that “we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do.” These are all attempts at what Eric Voegelin called “immanentizing the Eschaton.”  [Editor’s Note: From A New Science of Politics, Eric Voegelin, 1952: “The problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized. Such an immanentist hypostasis of the eschaton, however, is a theoretical fallacy.” The term “immanentizing the Eschaton” would become a satirical way of describing utopian thinking.]  

That so many people would strive for utopian solutions makes sense, because, like d’Alzon, Chesterton would have encountered similar disordered thinking. Ideas take root and spread. All these “prophets,” having jettisoned God, still needed to find ultimate meaning, in the form of capital-s Science or something else. But the order of things cannot be separated from God, and human life cannot be reduced to a series of predictions and numbers. Reality is deeper than ideological fads, and life is not a series of “cold mechanic happenings,” to quote from Chesterton’s poem he includes as an epigraph. Instead, it’s all bound by joy.

The novel opens in a London “almost exactly like what it is now.” Chesterton’s third-person narrator tells us that the people of this time have “absolutely lost faith in revolutions” and instead have accepted “Evolution,” in the sense that any changes must be done “slowly and safely,” as in nature. This flattening of the human spirit had resulted in the death of democracy, because “no one minded the governing class governing.” England, seemingly a world-bestriding colossus, because it seems to have conquered Athens, Jerusalem, and Nicaragua, was “now practically a despotism, but not a hereditary one.” The narrator tells us that “someone in the official class was made king.” The passive voice there suggests the passivity of the population, and indeed, in the next sentence, the narrator says that “no one cared how; no one cared who.” We then learn that, unsurprisingly, “everything…had become mechanical.”

Into this comes Auberon Quin, a comic figure whom the narrator describes as godson of “the King of the Fairies.” Apparatchiks of the regime arrive at Quin’s house and, to the shock of the people present, announce that he has been named king. Later that day, King Auberon makes a humorous speech in which he announces his desire to save “from extinction a few old English customs.” He suggests a form of local patriotism, in which each borough of London “shall immediately build a city wall with gates to be closed at sunset.” These places will be “armed to the teeth” and will “have a banner, a coat of arms, and, if convenient, a gathering cry.” Intellectuals turn “purple with laughter,” while others are “purple with indignation.” Most have their “minds a blank.” But not one Adam Wayne, who is there watching with “burning blue eyes.” He takes Quin very seriously.

It makes sense that Wayne would take Quin seriously. A mechanized, flat world is an inhuman world. People float through it like seaweed in the deep, because they have been given nothing to believe in. This is a world that isn’t foreign to us, but nor was it foreign to Chesterton or d’Alzon. The latter, in discussing his vocation to the priesthood – he founded the Assumptionists and became a religious later – observed that France had become a “decrepit machine.” Because it was “dangerous to try to repair,” he reasoned that the best approach would be to become a priest and press on the culture “with all the weight of the rights it had no authority to give.”

For d’Alzon, humanity is “deeply wounded” by “indifference and ignorance,” both of which “imply a total lack of faith.” His solution to this, as was mentioned, was to provide a serious education, one that would “penetrate” the world with “the Christian idea.” It would otherwise be in danger of collapsing. D’Alzon’s description of France and of his vocation should remind us of what Chesterton says about England in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are striking similarities of language: machine, indifference, a loss of faith.

Another point of comparison: the reactions to d’Alzon’s decision to become a priest mirrored the reactions to Quin’s speech. He was from an aristocratic family. People were shocked that, as they saw it, he would renounce his inheritance to become a priest. In an 1830 letter, D’Alzon had chided a friend for not wanting “at all to be reasonable,” going as far to say, “I scare you in a priest’s robe.” In the same letter, he offers his thoughts on the state of France. In addition to describing France as a “decrepit machine,” he observed that “sovereignty did not exist any more in the Palais Bourbon than at the Tuileries.” This was a “society that was so sick, one could have influence only in separating oneself completely.”

The England of the novel is also a sick society and one that truly lacks sovereignty. In effect,  Quin is providing a kind of education. The fact that he views things as a joke fits his character as a “Fairy.” But fairy tales themselves – and Chesterton wants to link The Napoleon of Notting Hill to the fairy tale tradition – discuss very serious things. In his essay “Fairy Tales,” [Editor’s Note: Included in his 1908 book, All Things Considered], Chesterton points out that “if you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales.” He closes the essay by observing that fairy tales find “the great mystical basis for all Commandments.”

Quin’s speech, then, awoke something in Adam Wayne. To use d’Alzonian and scriptural language, you could say that Quin replaced Wayne’s heart of stone with one of flesh. And because his kingship sets off the events of The Napoleon of Notting Hill –Wayne decides to lead a rebellion, and this inspires others – we might say that Quin has effectively brought about a re-enchantment of the world. Indeed, Wayne says as much, both at the beginning of the novel and at its end. He says Quin has given him a desire to “fight for something greater,” noting that “this leadership and liberty of Notting Hill is a gift from your Majesty.” Wayne has been reminded that the purpose of human life is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict has noted,” is one of “greatness.” And he thus sees that there is a “mystical basis for all Commandments.” Now fully awakened, he believes these things are worth fighting for.

For Emmanuel d’Alzon, this was the exact purpose of an education, which he called a “great and magnificent work.” Through this, “we refashion the being of our students.” D’Alzon hoped the world would “receive [the Christian idea] by individuals who will be taken up with it.”

Adam Wayne was taken up by this idea of Quin’s, and it reshaped the world as it is. He brings it from a mechanized, empty flatness to “fairyland” and “elfland.” It leads to a re-enchantment and, à la d’Alzon, reorders the being of the world.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that both Wayne and Quin function as a dual symbol of “fairyland,” which, as Chesterton observes in “Fairy Tales,” is “a world at once of wonder and of war.” Wayne remarks that he and Quin “are not two men but one man.” He continues, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

It is not merely that you, the humorist, have been in these dark days stripped of the joy of gravity. It is not merely that I, the fanatic, have had to grope without humour. It is that though we seem to be opposite in everything, we have been opposite like man and woman aiming at the same moment at the same practical thing. We are the father and mother of the Charter of the Cities.

In effect, he is saying that the complete picture of the created order is a place “of wonder and war.” This is the full picture of human life. Quin and Wayne broke the mechanized imposter that, demiurge-like, was posing as the created order and made things real again.

How, then, does The Napoleon of Notting Hill educate the reader, both then and in the present? Chesterton deliberately sets the novel in a London not far removed from the one of 1904 and peppers it with real places, in addition to references to real people. The reader from 1904 would then be able to recognize his world in the text. Then, if he is attentive, he would start to ask questions: are things detached and mechanized? Where do we find meaning today? What is the cause and purpose of my life? Am I ordering my life toward good and appropriate things? And so on. We do have a real-life example of this. According to Dale Ahlquist, president of the Society of G.K. Chesterton, Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary, was inspired by the novel to seek Irish independence.

But despite its references to early 20th century things, this is not a novel that is time-locked. We can read it and still be edified; the problems discussed by d’Alzon, Eliot, and Chesterton have persisted.

Consider Quin’s reflection during Adam Wayne’s initial audience with him at the beginning of the novel. He says that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” This madness consists of being obsessive about politics, caring for money, and thinking yourself right. These of course are perennial human concerns, but then Quin gets specific. He accuses people of trying to “spoil my joke, and bully me out of it, by becoming more and more modern, more and more practical, more and more bustling and rational.” This joke-spoiling and bullying has of course accelerated greatly since Chesterton’s time – leading to confusion and unhappiness, and eventually maybe even destruction.

As the American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor once observed in Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose, “in the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness.” She continues: “It is a tenderness which, long cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”

We can objectively call this true. The 20th century was one of theories, each of which, like Chesterton’s prophets, attempted to bring about utopia, but instead led to millions and millions of deaths. But this confusion has persisted. As Walker Percy observed inhis posthumously-published Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, ours is a “deranged age…because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

In 2017, in an essay for Crux on both d’Alzon and education, I pointed out that the Department of Education lists its purpose as “foster[ing] student achievement” and “preparation for global competitiveness.” I observed that we tend to see education as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Seven years on, the US Department of Education still lists its purpose as “preparation for global competitiveness.” Then, as now, these are buzzwords, but they also tell us something about how we view education:  a mere means to an end, a way to place people into a culture with only the basest of aspirations. When we are taught that there are no higher things, we will be led to believe that life is a mechanized existence, as described by both Chesterton and d’Alzon.

In a way, it’s all more of the same. Various techno-utopians have proposed that the solution to the human condition is to place us in a “metaverse,” where we’d live our lives in virtual reality. In City Journal, Jacob Howland has detailed the “destruction” of the University of Tulsa, where he holds emeritus status. Entire programs were eliminated or consolidated into minors: Greek, Latin, philosophy, religion. This, he pointed out, will result in students who are “credentialed, but…not…educated.” Sadly, his university is not unique.

But what are the results of this? A profound sense of malaise, particularly among the young.

Perhaps reading The Napoleon of Notting Hill – and having a good teacher discuss the novel with students – might provide a way forward for students who are feeling stifled by our deranged age. It would show them that the ideas that undergird our modern culture are ones that flatten the human spirit. They would not have to become revolutionaries or leaders of statelet neighborhoods, like Michael Collins or Adam Wayne, but perhaps they could be awakened to the idea that there is something profound about human existence. This is the purpose of good art and literature–to show people that there is a higher ideal than Eliot’s “absolute liberty” – because absolute liberty is  little more than nihilism.

I can speak to this. I felt a sense of aimlessness when I’d finished high school, with vague ideas about becoming a doctor or a politician, but then, while at Assumption, I received two gifts, which cannot be separated:  the Catholic faith, which I reverted to as a student, and liberal education. My professors – although not trickers or jokesters! – were my Quins. They awakened something in me and gave my life a telos. I don’t think it’s an accident that liberal education is often deemed a kind of lunacy. Quin and Wayne were seen as lunatics, but Auberon Quin notes that “the whole world is mad, but Adam Wayne and me.” I am thankful that I pursued this “madness,” and was given access to the truth.

An education that featured books like The Napoleon of Notting Hill would send readers and students on a search, resulting in a deeper engagement with tradition, and helping settle the turmoil of our age. It might help sweep away the sadness and hopelessness that plague so many people today, by reminding us that the world is enchanted, and guiding us along “the starry streets that point to God.”

The ghost coast

Adam ran his hand over his balding scalp. The dunes shimmered all around – expectant, empty of any movement except his, although he knew rare beetles trundled through rough grass, and he could hear toads, chirring contentedly somewhere amongst orchids and buckthorn. He couldn’t see the sea from here, but it would be far out at this time, perhaps exposing the ribs of the Sprite, which had foundered here fatally in 1888.

A track wended up a slope surmounted by wind-tortured hawthorns and a World War Two pillbox – an outsized armoured helm in lichened concrete. This had always been a watchful coast, wary of invaders or worried by water, fearing one day it might break through to complete the drowning of Doggerland. There were times – more and more often – when Adam remembered the world’s hugeness, and hardness. Its terrible hardness…

He sighed, and sweated up the slope. Bone-weary though he was, his eyes were darting everywhere. He had tofind it. Had to. It would be his first. It would be his last. It would crown the day, this year – in fact, his nature-watching life. And it would be the perfect sign-off for this place, which he’d soon be leaving for good.

Angela had loved it here. So many days here with her, sharing the exultance of seeing some creature that according to the textbooks shouldn’t be there at all, some visitant magically manifesting thousands of miles outside its accustomed range. Once, when lying beside her under bushes, watching a vagrant warbler almost never recorded outside Central America, she had breathed just audibly, “It’s like a miracle!”

So it was – although there was also sadness surrounding such wanderers, so far from home, never to return, fated to end among unfamiliar dangers, trembling in unaccustomed cold, calling out plaintively into unanswering air for flock or mate.

Birds had been Angela’s passion – house-sparrows as much as any exotic warblers. She had never taken any species for granted since reading as a girl about the passenger pigeon. They had even given their daughter the name of Martha, in honour of the elderly endling which had fallen to the floor in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the last representative of flocks which had once broken branches by sheer weight of superabundance. On that proud day at the font in sunlit St Michael’s, with smiling family all round, they had never considered their choice might be so portentous…

Adam was more interested in insects. They had fascinated him since he was four, after a hoverfly had alighted on his outstretched hand like a benediction, a gold-and-black bejewelled being gracing his hand in a God-ray of sunshine slanting through trees.

He had lived insects and arachnids since, keeping ants and stick-insects, rearing moths, watching Attenborough, reading books like The Life of the Spider and The Soul of the White Ant, habitually turning over stones and rotten logs – in incessant search of insect lives, their meanings, their secrets, their symbolism.

Medieval illuminators had made minibeasts into miniature marginalia, and philosophers had seen them as metaphors of society and statecraft. The bee-kings that became queens as science advanced – the toiling workers so infinitesimal in themselves, but whose united efforts brought strength and sweetness to the world. Adam owned a small 1660s still-life, an anniversary present from Angela – a Delft bowl of apples, grapes, pears, and pomegranates, festooned with delicate butterflies – a Golden Age representation of Earth’s bountiful interconnectedness. Insects intersected with everyone everywhere always; their fall would also be ours.

He had become an academic, a writer of papers and addresser of conferences, a campaigner and charity trustee – so often dull and dry work, filled with frustrations, but energised always by that childhood encounter, and then the prospect of the whole planet losing its pollinators – losing its life. Losing its soul.

Whenever things got bad, there was balm in the multi-legged multiverse that began outside his back door. He would switch off machines and go into the garden – there to lose himself in the polished elegance of earwigs, watch whirligigs writing in an unknown language across the pond, or look into the compound eyes of bee-flies and wish he could see the world their way. Invertebrates had more sense than some vertebrates. Their unflagging energy was humbling as well as inspiring, an example of courage to him and to everyone – how they would resurge after every reverse, like bees building each spring, or Robert the Bruce’s spider in the cave. Insects had seen dinosaurs pass; woodlice would probably see us out.

He interested himself intimately in insects’ activities, intervening like a god when provoked by some miniscule plight. Even today, with his mind filled with his quest, he stooped to move a burnet moth caterpillar from a bare sandy tract that from its perspective must have seemed miles wide, and placed it on the sappy stem of a ragwort. Caterpillars found out in the open were often dying, he knew, driven insane by parasites eating them inside. But maybe this one might just make it. And anyway, it was indecent to leave a helpless creature – just as sick people deserved treatment, at whatever cost, and however distant the chances of success. However futile, even – however blackly written in the book of mitochondrial heredity.

An emperor dragonfly angled electrically into view, and he watched it zigzag away like an escaped ampere – a spectacular insect, whose even larger ancestors once darted over drowned Doggerland. Land and sea so often seemed interchangeable along this littoral, confusing even the animals. He sometimes found insect-falls along the advancing edge of the sea – ants, devil’s coach-horses, ladybirds – tiny fragments of feeling kicking their legs helplessly or crawling desperately away from the water at the salt end of all things, pitifully paralleling the great human-falls of history. He always lofted as many as he could away to safety, although aware he was making little difference, and that all safety was at best a postponement. Under every summer beachscape lay freezing physical forces, under sun-warmed wavetops a constant churning of cold deeps, and under the fine sand sliding earth plates, all part of the constant longshore drift of life into detritus.

As Adam aged and ailed, some of his students joked that he looked like a late-summer lepidopteran. Mr Mothman, they called him – an upright and ugly imago. His skin grew dry, thin and chitinous, and his bones increasingly prominent, as if he was turning inside out, developing an exoskeleton. But why shouldn’t his softness hide inside? Life had so often shown him need of a carapace.

How he wished Angela could have been here today, of all days.

Late yesterday evening, when Adam had been reading a local nature blog, he briefly stopped breathing. Just a few casual words, written by a local nature-guide, mentioning that a Camberwell Beauty had been seen the previous day. It was the most wonderful of shocks. A Camberwell Beauty!

For much of his life, Nymphalis antiopa had been flitting through Adam’s imagination – an apparition flapping always in front, just out of reach. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t known of the butterfly’s existence. But then his first home had been on Coldharbour Lane, where the butterfly was first recorded in 1748, by a man named Moses Harris, who called it ‘Grand Surprise’ to register his astonishment at its size and striking appearance – richly maroon wings, with blue dots and creamy yellow fringe, and powerful un-butterflyish flight.

It had stuck out even in Moses Harris’s still semi-rural, semi-magical London, with Camberwell still famous for fruit growing, and Peckham Rye nearby, where Blake would soon see angels in the elms. Science itself was still in a state of wide-eyed and wondering innocence, where each day brought discoveries which could still be attributed to God’s benevolent grace, and clustering new species were named after characters from Greek myth. There had been many Antiopes in Attica, but Adam was sure the Beauty must have been named after the daughter of Aeolus, or the consort of Helios, or maybe in honour of both, seeing that the creature was the most perfect union of air and light.

The boldness of the Beauty had clearly compelled Harris, who as well as being an entomologist, had also been an engraver and theorist of colour. Adam had sensed the other man’s aesthetic and aurelian excitement across the gulf of years – although for Adam excitement had always been mixed with melancholy, because the Beauty hadn’t been seen in Camberwell since the early twentieth century.

Others people had noticed, and mourned the butterfly’s absence. It had been referenced in literature and music, and there was a huge mosaic of one on a building in Burgess Park, moved there in 1982 from a demolished 1920s printworks, which had used the already rare butterfly as emblematic of their expertise. Adam remembered the mosaic in its prominent original location, and being told that the Luftwaffe had ironically used it as a navigation aid for raids.

But Adam felt the insect’s absence almost physically – felt it like a folk-memory of destroyed wildness, felt it like the pains amputees imagine in absent limbs. He almost envied the long-dead who had glimpsed the Beauty in habitats like those he had known – battening in Brixton back-gardens or fluttering up Forest Hill, or beating between the Hammer Horror monuments of Nunhead Cemetery, a Gothic shade among the white angels and the ivied urns – the Germans’ name Trauermantel (‘mourning cloak’) so suitable in that context, so redolent of the insect’s elusiveness, and adjacency to extinction.

Nymphalis was quite common elsewhere; Adam had even seen a subspecies in Sweden. But it was surrounded with special significance for him and all English lepidopterists, including the Edwardians who were the last to see it in London. Those Edwardians, with which Camberwell always seemed synonymous – those bicycle-clipped, moustached City clerks, with their copies of Illustrated London News, and Elgar on wax cylinders – so often seemed frozen in photos, fixed in period the way old collections of coleoptera were pinned to museum boards. But they had been wonderfully alive in at least one respect – to have had even an outside chance of seeing Beauties in their rose-gardens, flying in from some other realm to enrich their Arts and Crafts universe.

The Camberwell Adam had known as a child, then heard about as an adult – an anthill without purpose, a place of bad air, cars, crime, and riots – had seemed daily less likely to throw up Beauties. So now, one had kindly come to him, was waiting for him, possibly just over this hill – his personal ‘Grand Surprise’ sipping the sap of a willow, or winging royally across rabbit-nibbled clearings, the ultimate prize for hours of exertion on the hottest day of the year, the culmination of a life’s longing. This was circularity. It felt a little like – destiny.

How could it have come? Some came over the sea in some years, but very few, and never this far north. There were theories about pupae carried in cargoes of Scandinavian timber. There were also rare private rewilders, eccentrics or idealists who raised and released animals they felt ‘belonged’, animals which had a moral right to be in particular places. Aged eight, Adam had met one, the famous Leonard Newman, who had signed Adam’s copy of Complete British Butterflies in Colour – a book outdated even then, but still on Adam’s shelves. Newman had reared thousands of Beauties and let them fly in Kent one hopeful spring, then waited…and waited…and given up.

Adam knew why Newman had done this; skies that had known the Beauty must one day know it again. But he wanted to think this specimen had somehow made its own way here, acting on some unknown impulse, linking his early life with his late – bringing old London to modern Lincolnshire. It would be kismet – completion – closure.

He had sometimes worried that if he ever caught up with the Beauty it might feel like an anti-climax. Species ticked off lists were like sports trophies – wholly inadequate, tinny mementos of a very different day, a different outlook, whole other worlds of happiness and health. And this just wasn’t any species. The Beauty dwelled by itself. It had flown in front of him for so long that finding one might feel more like losing something. But if this was a risk, it was one he had to take. What else would he do? What else could he do? It was his nature. Angela would have understood – and Martha.

He fantasised hotly, the sun boiling the reddened skin of his scalp. There might be more than one. A venturesome individual might be the vanguard of a viable colony. Could this bold outrider be a scout – the crest of a climate-adapting wave, coping with change by expanding range? He knew, in truth, this was a fancy too far; the Beauty liked cooler climates. But somehow, somewhere among all this global destruction and private desolation, some species must find a way forward, lead a rebirth and recolouring of the cosmos. How wonderful it would be if at least a few beautiful things could defy the world’s contagion…Was that too much to ask? There was so much loss, so much waste and death…

He stopped to get breath, and looked up, to see the sun well on its way to the west. There weren’t many hours left. There were never enough. There was never enough time for anything. Angela and Jane were also now flying in front… He pushed on through trees and across a wide wasteland, while a large butterfly on the highest branch imperiously flared indigo wings, and indifferently watched him pass.

Keystone State – Pennsylvania’s place in old and new America

Image: Derek Turner

The widely-travelled American author Bayard Taylor wrote in 1866 about his native region:

The country life of our part of Pennsylvania retains more elements of its English origin than that of New England or Virginia. Until within a few years, the conservative influence of the Quakers was so powerful that it continued to shape the habits even of communities whose religious sentiment it failed to reach. [i]

In my boyhood years of the 1960’s and 70’s, I spent a lot of time in a rural section of Taylor’s Chester County, where my Quaker ancestors settled over 300 years ago, and where some close family members were still living. The farms there seemed well-ordered and prosperous, life moved at a slower pace, and there was a quiet, gentle, modest quality in many of the people whom I encountered. The rolling fields, haunted woods, and centuries-old homes always drew my attention. These landscapes were sometimes lush, and at other times they showed a stark beauty. Andrew Wyeth piercingly portrayed that latter quality in the adjoining Chadd’s Ford region, in “Pennsylvania Landscape, 1941,” and depictions of the Kuerner Farm.

During my teen years, I noticed that the east-coast Megalopolis was encroaching on this area. New housing developments, shopping strips, and busier roads presented glaring, distracting contrasts, but didn’t completely break the spell yet. I learned that utopia means “no place,” and is not a reasonable expectation where any humans go to and fro, but still there had been something special here, independent of but intertwined with my own nostalgia.

One day, around the year 2000, I was driving along an old, sunken Chester County road, a canopy of overarching trees above. I slowed to a stop when I saw a few horses walking across the way ahead. The riders, proceeding to or from a fox hunt, were dressed immaculately in scarlet coats, and they all politely doffed their caps at me as I waited for them to cross. Not a sight that one expects in most of today’s America.

Living a few hours away, in a congested, grimy, industrial city, I still had to remind myself that this rural spot wasn’t a utopia. Sorrow, conflict, poverty – these things, of course, are to be expected everywhere. But there was that pleasing blend of qualities that kept drawing me back to Chester County as an adult, long after my close relatives there had died. Along with the beautiful landscapes and the pleasant old architecture, there was an embattled, intangible something which had lingered on here and there. Compared with other places I had lived, there had been a balance and proportion – order along with freedom, well-preserved nature amid agriculture, and some communities that stayed within a smaller, more humane scale. Was it the same quality that Bayard Taylor had described?

William Penn in 1666

Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn probably wouldn’t have approved of fox-hunting, but he revered the fundamental liberties and rule of law—sometimes violated, sometimes renewed—which Englishmen had inherited since the days of Magna Carta and before. Penn had been a studious, reflective boy, and he acquired an appreciation for history and the classics. He was convinced that substantial elements of liberty, and law based upon consent, stretched back to the Anglo-Saxons, and then further back to some of the Britons who met Julius Caesar. He praised the English who had been “as resolute to keep, as their Ancestors had been careful to make those excellent Laws.”[ii] While urging the protection of that English constitution, along with his concept of “liberty of conscience,” Penn insisted that limits must also be established to preserve peace, civil order, and virtue. According to Penn biographer Andrew Murphy,

Penn’s radical argument for liberty of conscience always sat alongside a conventional, even austere, notion of personal morality. Denunciations of sin and vice went hand in hand with calls for the toleration of conscientious dissent, and the two campaigns mutually reinforced each other.[iii]

Penn’s liberty of conscience meant that English citizens should be allowed to freely seek, worship and meet their own obligations to God, as long as they were not acting treasonably. He worked tenaciously for many years on behalf of his ideals, getting arrested several times in the process. In an England with an established church, following decades of severe religious conflict, liberty of conscience seemed radical and threatening to some, but Penn was no revolutionary. He believed that while all were equal before God, society was naturally hierarchical due to human variation. Along with other Quakers of his day, he valued private property, family, and of course those English liberties. Although Whiggish, and hoping for a more meritocratic society rather than ranks based upon birth, he was loyal to Charles II, and developed a close, friendly, working relationship with Charles’ brother and successor James.

The young Penn had been groomed by his father to rise in the lofty circles of Charles’ court, but he disappointed his parents when he converted to Quakerism as a young man. Quakers were looked upon with suspicion by many Anglicans, and were among the religious dissenters in England who continued to be severely persecuted by Parliament, Anglican authorities, and some magistrates after the Restoration, although Charles and James favored toleration.

Along with that persecution, Penn was troubled by the licentiousness which came out in the open, after moral standards had loosened following Charles’s Restoration. During the social and political unrest which erupted against Catholics and other dissenters in 1678, he wrote to fellow Quakers in England that he feared God would punish the nation for rampant immorality. He also hoped that the virtues of his comrades and other “conscientious and well-inclined people” would “shine unto others, in these uneven and rough times that are come, and coming,” and that God would therefore show mercy. Like the Puritan John Winthrop, who had earlier led the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Penn believed that he and his fellow Friends “must show ourselves to be that Little City and Hill of God.” He urged them to resist worldly temptations, and act as good examples:

Let us be careful not to mingle with the crowd, lest their spirit enter us instead of our spirit entering them…. Yet can we not be unsensible of their infirmities, as well as we shall not be free from some of their sufferings; we must make their case as our own, and travel alike in spirit for them as for ourselves.[iv]

Within a few years, Penn had an opportunity to try to make those dreams a reality on a large scale, by forming the new colony of Pennsylvania.

In 1681, as Penn was devising Pennsylvania’s initial constitution and laws, he wrote to settlers already in the colony that, “whatever sober and free men can reasonably desire for the security and improvement of their own happiness I shall heartily comply with.”[v] “Reasonably” was key, and his government would have a significant role to play in buttressing morality. In his Preface to the Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, Penn stated, “Liberty without obedience is confusion, and obedience without liberty is slavery.” His first set of laws for Pennsylvania stated that “offenses against God…, which excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness, and unreligion, shall be respectively discouraged and severely punished.” Such offenses included foul language, drunkenness, fornication, gambling and other activities, as well as crimes such as assault, murder and treason. Clearly, government was to have a punitive role, as well as positively encouraging virtue, yet everything hinged on the nature of the people. Penn also wrote in his Preface, “Let men be good and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill they will change it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it.” This was echoed years later by the American founder John Adams, who wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[vi]

Penn elaborated on why government should circumscribe human behavior: “There can be no pretense of conscience to be drunk, to whore, to be voluptuous, to game, to swear, curse, blaspheme, and profane,” since such behaviors “lay the ax to the root of humane society, and are the common enemies of mankind.”[vii] Not all of us with a traditional bent will agree that all forms of gaming contribute to the undermining of a society, but many of us would agree that Penn’s general principle is sound.

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, there were “comparatively few crimes against morality or order” in Pennsylvania and Quaker New Jersey before 1755:

At the same time that the laws of the Quaker colonies were comparatively mild as regards capital punishment, they punished very harshly acts of disorder in which one citizen intruded upon the peace of another In Pennsylvania, penalties for crimes of sexual violence against women were exceptionally severe. The lash was used abundantly… Something of this Quaker testimony of peace and order entered permanently into the cultural fabric of the Delaware Valley…. Rates of violent crime remained comparatively low. [viii]

English Quakers were not the only inhabitants of early Pennsylvania. Before Penn’s proprietorship, along with Indians, there were Dutch, Finns, Swedes and English Anglicans present. Germans, Welsh and Irish soon arrived. Penn was beleaguered by political discord that arose in his new colony, even within the Quaker communities. His own sometimes combative and disorganized nature didn’t always help matters, nor did his need to spend much time away in England, defending his proprietorship and handling other concerns. Factions formed, ethnic and religious strife occurred, and conflict with neighboring colonies flared and continued for several years.

Is it a stretch to say that Penn’s principles, along with those of his fellow Quakers, helped encourage and maintain that “arcadian” quality that I witnessed? The ethnic and religious troubles in early Pennsylvania subsided eventually, as the English and Protestant culture took root and maintained its predominance for a long while, with that special Quaker influence that Taylor emphasized. In the American colonies, cultural variations among discrete groups of English colonists such as Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers, and Borderers clearly resulted in regional differences, which continued long after the American Revolution.[ix] The distinctive cultural aspects of the Society of Friends shaped, and were shaped by, Penn’s thought and actions. An important element of the liberty which Quakers offered, and with which they differed from others such as the Puritans, was what Fischer called “reciprocal liberty,” meaning that “every liberty demanded for oneself should also be extended to others.”[x] Penn’s liberty of conscience was one example of this general principle. And along with Quaker political and religious tenets, so many of their social characteristics continued, from their early years in England on into the 20th century. Penn’s appreciation for independent farmers, and a Quaker concern for the responsible use of one’s property, had an impact on the landscape of rural southeastern Pennsylvania. As I studied the Quakers of the 16th and 17th centuries, I was struck by how profoundly they had influenced my parents’ and grandparents’ ways and manners, as well as my own beliefs and preferences ranging from taste in dress to thoughts on social rank to yearnings for quiet, for social peace, and for order.

Historian Bruce Catton remarked that America has long had a significant “rowdy strain” in its population.[xi] This seems true, but from America’s early years onwards there were also those many quieter colonists, who made their own long-lasting cultural impact.

Today, in the counties first established under Penn’s proprietorship, other, rowdier cultural influences sometimes shout down the quiet, modest ideals of the Society of Friends, and the ordered liberty inherited from England. Yet not all the land is covered by concrete. And not all the words of William Penn have been thrown down the memory hole, at least not yet. In 2023, government bureaucrats tried to get rid of a statue of William Penn in a Philadelphia park. A public outcry ensued, which pressured politicians to stop this cultural vandalism for the time being. And although Bayard Taylor’s hometown of Kennett Square has changed substantially, his beautiful home, Cedarcroft, still stands.

Until a few years ago, I sometimes visited a grand, old oak tree on the grounds of the London Grove Meeting House, where Quakers had gathered since 1714. The tree was standing when William Penn was in North America, and I was saddened when I learned that it toppled in 2023. It was partly the loss of a beautiful, stately, historic, and gracious old tree that tugged at me. But was this also an omen, to be considered along with the rampant cultural destruction of recent decades? Then I learned that over the years, many people had collected acorns which that old oak had sired. And after its fall, more people traveled to the meeting-house grounds to collect more acorns, from this tree which had already nourished so many spirits.


i Taylor, Bayard, The Story of Kennett, 1866, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8680/pg8680-images.html#link2HCH0024

[ii] Penn, William, England’s Present Interest Considered, with Honour to the Prince, and Safety to the People, 1675, The Political Writings of William Penn, introduction and annotations by Andrew R. Murphy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002), https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/murphy-the-political-writings-of-william-penn

ii Murphy, Andrew, William Penn: A Life, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018: p. 133

[iv] Penn, William, To the children of light in this generation, called of God to be partakers of eternal life in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, and Light of the World, 1678, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N11856.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

[v] Penn, William, “To the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania,” April 8, 1681, The Papers of William Penn, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982, Vol. 2, p. 84

[vi] Adams, John, “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts,” Oct. 11, 1798, https://oll.libertyfund.org/quote/john-adams-religion-constitution

[vii] Penn, William, An address to protestants upon the present conjuncture in II parts, London, 1679, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A54098.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext

[viii] Fischer, David Hackett, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 586, 589

[ix] See Fischer for a very interesting, thorough examination of this

[x] Fischer, p. 603

[xi] Catton, Bruce, This Hallowed Ground, New York: Vintage Books, 2012

Sex and the Enlightenment city

Libertine London: Sex in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis

Julie Peakman, Reaktion Books, 2024, 352pps., £25

With Libertine London: Sex in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis, Julie Peakman has given us an intimate portrayal of women’s sexual activity during the long eighteenth century, which ran from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to Waterloo in 1815. Peakman ends her long century in 1830, but I doubt if many readers will quibble at her fifteen-year addition, since many of the chapters that make up Libertine London are a fine introduction to the social history of the period, which aims to look at that magnificent yet squalid era through the eyes of the sex hustlers of the time.

Each type gets a chapter devoted to her, starting with the drabs who worked the streets to the bawds who managed the brothels, then up to the courtesans. Finally, the volume culminates with the royal mistresses who were at the pinnacle of the oldest profession.

By dividing these women up into categories, Peakman shines a light on the niche each one inhabited, as well as open up the broader society to the modern reader. The raddled street prostitutes inhabited a world of extreme poverty, as did tens of thousands of Londoners in those days. It was a world where a child could have his head crushed under the wheel of a cart and where street crime was so ubiquitous that even the link boys who carried a blazing torch and were hired to light the way often worked with street thugs who relieved the victims of their wealth.

Many women were actually semi-whores. “Milliners…were particularly known for their sideline in prostitution,” Peakman tells us – as indeed they were until well into the twentieth century. The actresses who trod the boards often supplemented their income with acting of a different kind, as did the girls who sold fruit and nuts at the theatres, which reminds this reader of the legend of Nell Gwynn who took the fancy of Charles II when she offered him an orange from her basket.  Of course, there was also the army of seasonal workers who brought in the crops, along with the milkmaids who sold their product on the streets. Peakman doesn’t mention the milkmaids who were seen by many as innocent country girls, ripe for the plucking, but who this writer suspects knew exactly what they were doing and the role they were expected to play.

Peakman does touch on that theme when she reminds us that brothels could charge extra for a guaranteed virgin and that many a whorehouse bed had a secret compartment with a cloth soaked in red juice that the highly experienced trollop could use to show to her client that she had indeed just been deflowered.

One chapter that jars as it is so unconnected to the rest of the volume is the one dealing with homosexualism during the period. The chapter presents upper class homosexuality between consenting adults as being the norm, and ignores the, frankly, odious nature of the abuse that went on between wealthy pederasts and young boys. When it comes to the rape of servant girls by their employers, Peakman gives us chapter and verse on matters such as the trial of Colonel Francis Charteris in 1730 on a charge of raping a maid. She concludes: “Sadly, as with most aristocratic men who had committed rape or other crimes, Charteris managed to wheedle his way out of the death penalty.” That is true, as he got a royal pardon, but he still had to pay his victim £30,000 and when he died in 1732 his coffin was covered in dead cats before the gravediggers could shovel the earth over it. Libertine London also gives us horrifying accounts of the rapes of young girls, many not even in their teens and discusses the ways in which wealthy, well-connected abusers escaped from what passed for justice in those days.

However, what it does not do is even consider the equally vile crimes committed by wealthy homosexuals against lower-class boys. Two cases spring to mind, and both were covered by the pamphleteers and newspapers of the day, but neither is mentioned by this authoress.

The first is so famous that from the date of the trial in 1772 right up to the Oscar Wilde scandal over a century later, it was debated and chewed over long after all the participants were dead. Captain Robert Jones of the Royal Artillery (he may have been a lieutenant, but is usually given the rank of captain) was convicted of the buggery of a boy of 12. His victim was Francis Henry Hay who spoke clearly and bravely at the trial and almost certainly helped the jury return a guilty verdict, whereupon Jones was sentenced to death. Perhaps needless to say, he was pardoned on condition that he left the country and never returned, and left to live his life in Florence, although it is possible that he never got further than Lyon.

Then we have the matter of General Sir Eyre Coote in 1815 who was involved with some boys at Christ’s Hospital school. This involved the giving and receiving of the birch and did not lead to a trial, but Coote was dismissed from the army. Throughout the nineteenth century, the fictional character of Rosa Coote was used by Victorian writers of pornography as a stock figure that was presented as either the general’s daughter or his niece. It is unlikely that this character would have been created had the readers not understood the reference to the general, even many years after the scandal.

It is impossible to believe that Julie Peakman did not know of these cases as people were writing about them for decades afterwards. Why she chose to ignore them is a matter for her, but it does leave this reviewer wondering why this carefully curated account of upper-class homosexuality was even included in a volume that aims to show the lives of women in the sex trade.

Julie Peakman’s argument as she expresses it is to show us the lives of those women who had transactional virtues by presenting them as the victims of “misogyny,” a word that was not even invented until this century and a concept that was as alien to the long eighteenth-century as it is to many of us in the twenty-first. This was a world of utter poverty for the many and fabulous wealth for the few. Women, being great survivors, have always been aware that they have a commodity in their own bodies and when times are bad they will rent out that commodity to ensure their survival. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the going rate for sex in Vienna was three cigarettes. That is not three cartons of cigarettes, or even three packs, but three individual cigarettes. A girl with three cigarettes could exchange them for three eggs, or three loaves of bread: she could survive another day in other words. It was this need to survive, rather than “the prevalence of men’s unabated lusts and the sexual vulnerability of women” that was at work in Libertine London. That said, this reader did find the conjuration of the spirit of Mary Whitehouse that is implicit in that sentence very entertaining.

One does not need to over think what was going on during this era, and in most of her individual chapters, Julie Peakman presents clear, thoroughly researched and well-written accounts of the lives of many London women. It was a time when men murdered and robbed, with many ending their days dancing the hempen jig at Tyburn Tree, and women survived by renting themselves out. It was a hard time to be poor, is the conclusion that this reviewer took away from Libertine London.

Refracted future

Humani Victus Instrumenta – Ars Coquinaria. 1570s engraving

The Mirror

Tim Bragg, Sycamore Dystopia, 2023, pb., 292pps., £10

Ever since the ancients invented automata, writers have wondered about the implications for humanity, and ruminated about the nature of consciousness. The Industrial Revolution would spawn increasing concern about subservience to machines and “Satanic mills.” The Great War and then Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (from which we get the word ‘robot, based on a Czech word, robota, meaning ‘forced labour’) made many people anxious about out-of-control technology – a theme revisited every generation since, as seen for example in the 1984 action classic, Terminator. Today, the growing sophistication of artificial intelligence has turned a trope into a cliché, the subject of articles, books and documentaries which often really tell us more about contemporary concerns than they do about possible futures. Musician-novelist Tim Bragg’s newest book is therefore in a certain idealist-nostalgic-pessimistic vein; this does not mean it is not distinctive or worthwhile.

As in Orwell’s Oceania, or the pages of Fahrenheit 451, the world of The Mirror is a surveillance society, where the state strives to control thought. Like Bladerunner, there are huge and ugly megalopolises, and androids, and people who might be androids. Like Logan’s Run (film version), there is a mysterious and romanticised threshold that must be crossed. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, the authorities limit fertility. Like The Matrix, almost nothing is what it seems. As in many dystopias, there is an unjust government with a privileged ‘Inner Party,’ sinister secrets, ecological impoverishment, and bleak living conditions for the lowest echelons – and of course ‘red-pilled’ rebels seeking to upturn the system. This highly literate author imbues all these obvious influences with ideas of his own.

He brings the genre up to (future) date, setting his story in 2073, and reflecting upon today’s worries about self-image, the control of data, the time we spend online, the cashless society, the food we eat (insects bulk large in The Mirror’s meals), and the erasure of the past. Every citizen wears a ‘mirror’ device, which delivers a limited range of computer-generated entertainment and information, but most importantly allows the authorities to monitor the population. Emotions and sensations are all suspect – except those provided by pills or virtual reality, from ‘conversations’ with ancestors to sexual intercourse. There seem to be no local or national identities, or even any kind of economy.

The pivotal relationship is between two girls, Mia and Karella, who are arriving at physical and sexual maturity; there seems to be no ‘transgenderism’ in The Mirror world (which is plausible, as those who are so exercised by this today will have exited the scene by 2073). Both characters are well thought-through, and nuanced. Bragg’s emphasis on youthful female sexuality however feels slightly discomfiting, even though of course novelists must always be permitted to imagine themselves in guises or roles other than their own. It is however germane to this story, because both girls are being exploited by a highly intrusive state, with Karella the subject of life-long transhumanist experiments, and Mia being viewed as a brood-mare for a eugenics programme. Their every emotion is parsed for psychological significance, and there are constant interventions – for example a dogged therapeutic insistence on treating Mia’s phobia about swimming (a happy intervention, because her instilled ability to swim matters greatly later).

Like everyone else, Mia and Karella are under the purview of a panoptical ‘Hub,’ and an elite organisation called Earthly Living Kingdom (ELK). Mia’s own mother is an ELK Guardian, a senior operative of a group whose sinister plans become increasingly apparent, and the mother-daughter relationship is consequently complex. Mia’s father is absent – or is he?

There are menacing ELK operatives, partly countervailed by a sub-world of gathering rebellion, led by Ned, an IT expert who convenes a secret cell to keep alive fast-fading arts – in effect, the authentic human spirit, at risk from rationalist thinking, cultural coarsening, and technological reductionism. Mia finds especial inspiration and solace in the music of Bach, which although available through approved channels, has fallen into desuetude. In 2073, those who wish to hear such antediluvian sounds risk seeming at best eccentric – and at worst, refuseniks in ‘need’ of pharmaceutical intervention, or biotechnological ‘rebooting.’ Bragg has clearly thought a great deal about the psychological benefits of music for everyone in all ages, here showing synaesthesia as a means of inner escape from one-dimensional mundanity.

The ‘biohacker’ artist Neil Harbisson, by Hector Adalid. Wikimedia Commons

He handles generally well one of the perennial problems of dystopian literature – accustoming readers to invented concepts and specially coined terminology without interrupting the narrative with long screeds of explication. He has tried hard to come up with new idioms. French phrases are unexpectedly widely used. Anglo-Saxon expletives however appear to have gone out of vogue, to be replaced with what seem now insipid new terms of emphasis (“sparking uterus”), which seems an unlikely eventuality – but maybe this symbolises his surmised society’s distance from earthy realism. Some are more believable, such as “abundant” to express enthusiasm. There is admirable restraint and wit in the conversations between the human protagonists and the Rai robots who do much of the work (and are constantly being ‘improved’ by technologists and theorists obsessed with ‘migrating’ consciousness from human to machine, and even more worryingly back again).

The Mirror is a deeply well-intentioned book, and what is even more important, sensitively intelligent – a worthy reflection on issues which are swiftly becoming salient, and which seem certain to become even more so.

A charm of Ffinches

Alexander Ffinch, by Harriet Lloyd-Smith (2011)

Parallels

Alexander Ffinch, the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel, Divine Art Recordings. DDX 21112

RICHARD DOVE is transported by a new album of organ music

My father adored church organ music. At the weekend, I would often wake to the grand noise of Nôtre Dame, Rouen, or the three manual, 44 stop organ at Freiburg Cathedral (a particular favourite). I was constantly reminded of him as I listened to Parallels, a new CD by Alexander Ffinch.

Ffinch is the organist at Cheltenham College and oversaw a complete rebuild of the organ in 2017. There is an intimacy between player and instrument which is both rare and wonderful. There is also a refreshing boldness in the selection of compositions. Where else could one find Gustav Holst alongside Coldplay’s Chris Martin? As Ffinch explains in the sleevenotes:

Today, one of my daily duties is to play to 700 students at the start of their working day. I am facing a generation with the power to instantly access the music they want at any time and trust me, it’s not likely to be original organ music. So to capture their attention, I have enjoyed turning to classical some pop/rock arrangements to present music they hear elsewhere.

The Coldplay song ‘Paradise’ soars around the college chapel, stirring even the most indolent student.

There are other surprises on the recording – a Suite by Florence Price, an African-American composer who combines her classical training with Southern black American culture. Her ‘Symphony No 1 in E Minor’ was premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The concert was the first performance of a composition by a black woman by a major orchestra in the US. The ‘Suite’ is jaunty, mellifluous and immediately engaging, with jazz phrasing and gospel singing inspiration.

There is a wonderfully atmospheric, gently-paced interpretation of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ benefiting from the resonance of the chapel’s ancient stones.

Dan Locklair’s ‘Rubrics’ is another surprise, and requires Ffinch’s masterful dexterity. After a tumultuous first movement, we move to a gentle second movement using silence as a sort of leitmotif. As the composer explains in the excellent accompanying booklet: “To be sure, it is impossible to have true silence when music is sounded. But the illusion of silence can be suggested.”

The recording closes with Leon Boellman’s ‘Suite Gothique.’ It was early morning when I listened to the Suite and its third movement ‘Prière a Nôtre-Dame.’ My father was almost with me in the room as the melody floated and swirled. Nôtre Dame was his first port of call on any visit to Paris. From this embracing reverie we launch into the thunderous final movement, the Toccata. It awakened the household as Dad was prone to do. Time to put the kettle on.

Is this a dagger they see before them?

STUART MILLSON is appalled to find Mid Wales Opera facing closure

Founded 35 years ago to bring the finest music and drama to rural towns and communities, Mid Wales Opera is a company specialising in bringing pared-down versions of the greatest music-dramas to far-flung parts of the country. 

On Saturday 23rd March, their run of Verdi’s Macbeth came to an end at the c. 500-seat Brecon Theatre (Theatr Brycheiniog), with a capacity audience enjoying Jeremy Sams’s English version of the score. Directed by Richard Studer – and full marks here for the stage lighting and ‘recycling’ of roles among the chorus – Mid Wales’s own glorious opera company succeeded in generating a dramatic effect, just as overwhelming as anything you might hear at Welsh or English National Opera.

How was it possible for an orchestra-pit ensemble, just 15-strong, to conjure much of Verdi’s lush orchestration? Under conductor Jonathan Lyness the resident chamber orchestra, Ensemble Cymru, achieved this miracle – the timpanist also playing the side-drum, and their splendid cellist generating a rich, resonant sound in those dark moments of the drama. 

On stage, meanwhile, Macbeth’s court, began its disintegration: soldiers with a Fascistic air, reminiscent of Richard Loncraine’s film of Richard lll, marched up and down, Lady Macbeth – the brilliant stage presence of Mari Wyn Williams unleashing her amoral powers, and Macbeth himself, sung by Jean-Kristof Bouton, descending into his ‘feverish visions’ as the apparition of the murdered Banquo appears at a castle feast.

The witches, dressed as 1950s’ office secretaries, but with demonic eye make-up reminiscent of Kathleen Byron’s unsettling appearance in the 1947 film, Black Narcissus, deserve great praise for their unsettling performance. Finally, the end comes for Macbeth as a forest supernaturally advances upon his fortress – actually, the English army in camouflage, although on stage at Mid Wales Opera only the Scottish saltire was raised. (Surely a major omission that the Cross of St. George did not appear?!)

What next for Mid Wales Opera? A real-life dramatic crisis, no less: the shocking removal of one hundred per cent of their grant from the Arts Council of Wales, casting doubt over whether productions of this kind could ever be staged again. Is this a dagger they see before them? It would seem so. But the story is the same, everywhere. Last year, the BBC tried to disband its own elite choir, the famous BBC Singers, and cut its symphonic strength across three ensemblesMeanwhilethe length and breadth of these islands, from Birmingham to Bournemouth, our orchestras and theatres struggle to convince those in power of the vital need for the arts. 

Quite simply, Britain now has a choice: do we just become a TV/consumer society, turning our backs on the splendour and enrichment of music and the arts? Or do we challenge the Arts Council and those in political office for a change in direction? As the wise Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger put it: “Neglect the civilised arts at your peril…”

To support the appeal for Mid Wales Opera, write to Bryn Wgan, Caersws, Powys, Wales, SY17 5QU

Where three counties meet…

The not-so-new castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Image: Derek Turner

Beyond the high watershed to the north of Carmarthenshire, which separates the Rivers Gwili and Teifi, lies the countryside where the three counties of west Wales converge: Carmarthenshire, with Carmarthen town, steeped in legends of Merlin the wizard and Dylan the poet – Pembrokeshire, once called ‘Little England Beyond Wales’ – and Cardiganshire, its wilder, ragged character, wind-bent coastal trees and moor-like appearance, so well captured by the illustrators of the old Shell Guides.

The counties’ confluence is more or less pinpointed at Cenarth Falls, a rocky, densely-wooded gorge hewn out of the land by the Teifi. Known for its former culture of coracles and fishermen’s tall-tales, the Teifi is one of the country’s great salmon and sea-trout (sewin, in Welsh) water-courses, although ironically in our age of supposed greater environmental awareness, the river has never suffered from so much pollution.

Nearby, the smaller River Cych flows through woodland straight from the pages of the Mabinogion, or Gerald of Wales’s ecclesiastical tour of Cambria. After heavy rainfall, dozens of tiny streams and springs bubble from the hilly embankment by the lane that winds through the valley; rooks and the occasional red kite seem to brush the tree-tops. Gerald, or Giraldus he styled himself, knew this district – crossing the Teifi with Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, in their quest to rally men to the Cross and to the Crusades.

The Teifi in spate at Cenarth. Image: Derek Turner

In their travels, the churchmen unearthed many oddities of folklore, not least the tale of a young man who discovered the entrance to a fairy world, but who enraged its inhabitants by stealing treasure from their subterranean kingdom. In fury, the fairies pursued him, retrieving what was theirs, but when he tried to return to the crevice in the earth – the gateway to the hidden realm – all traces of it had disappeared. But, after all these centuries, does another entrance exist? Close to the Teifi, a curious pool may offer an answer…

The home of the Tylwyth Teg? Image: Stuart Millson

Said to be fathomless, the pool (on private land) looks to be the result of floodwater that has spilled over into a small dip of the land by the riverbank. For folklorists, it is a place inhabited by the Cambrian fairy-race, the Tylwyth Teg – the beautiful ones. To this day, some fishermen doff their caps in the direction of the pool, or even offer a libation to the invisible inhabitants. Even unbelievers have spoken of experiencing a peculiar sensation here, of being watched, of someone lurking at the very extremes of their peripheral vision. A few fruit trees stand nearby – the land’s previous owner trimming their branches on a sunny afternoon, remarking how he felt his every move being studied, but not another human soul in sight.

A much more tangible lost world exists on the northerly bank of the river. Like an industrial leyline, threading through woods and knotted thickets long since rewilded by the hand of Nature, runs the trackbed of the old Great Western Railway. Occasionally, from the road (perhaps only a temporary victor over the railway?) the once-neat embankment comes into view, on which the freight of milk churns, coal, and the county solicitor on his rounds, would all trundle by. And if you look carefully into woodland, the bridges which upheld the single track over difficult dips in the terrain are still visible. Weeds and vegetation drip from the stonework – forlorn remnants of steam and country branchlines, ‘henges’ of the railway age, dotted through Cambria.

Forlorn viaduct of the Great Western Railway. Image: Stuart Millson

The district was also known for its many waterside mills, now as silent as the Cornish coastal tin mines, or the colliery wheels of south Wales. One village, Drefach Felindre, was even likened to Huddersfield, so impressive was its industry and wool-making. Some 12 miles away, Cardigan’s quayside, once banked up by trading vessels, still retains some sense of old importance as the Teifi estuary’s commercial port. 

Here in Wales, unlike in south-east England, structures of old industry still stand, symbols of an age long gone, but not beyond recall – an age you somehow feel could be reclaimed. So enduring are the foundations of everything, in this land of long memories.

Un-harkened Angel

Angel

Alex Kurtagic, London: Spradabach, 2023, hb., 997pps.

DEREK TURNER finds mordant fun in a tale of modern alienation

In 2009, Alex Kurtagic published Mister, his novel of a highly-cultured IT consultant operating within what he saw as the hellscape of contemporary Europe – a man too intelligent for an age suspicious of intellectual distinctions, and too independent-minded for a continent in thrall to neurotic pettifoggery. In Angel, we meet a similarly misfitting man, but one with even less adaptive ability – indeed, a man almost without agency. This is a behemoth of a book about a midget of a man, wandering solitarily in the drab wasteland of these times.  

Angel is a student of 17th Century literature at an English university, whose unhappy fate it is to combine refined tastes and fastidiousness with an inability to impose these on even his immediate surroundings. He is physically slight and correspondingly cowardly, chronically short of money, and not even compensatingly articulate. Traditionally, angels enunciate glad tidings, but this one (aspiring poet though he may be) can barely sustain a basic conversation. He is announced to, rather than an annunciator. His most obvious resemblance to Biblical or Hebrew angels lies in his essential insubstantiality.

Angel is surrounded by people infinitely more impressive than he is – especially women, from his formidable mother and sister, and brilliantly inductive fellow-students to the mothering Amelia who (for some incomprehensible reason) pants to enfold Angel in her ample embonpoint. He is an incel, but unlike some incels, not potentially dangerous. He is not even angry – although the debased nature of his university, and society, deserves almost unlimited contempt. Kurtagic’s front-cover oil of his Van Dyck-bearded subject excellently conveys the nervy nature of his character, his twitching worriedness and state of blinking surprise at the awfulness of almost everything.

We do not lose sympathy for Angel as the tale unfolds, because we never really develop any. Even if somehow we could, he would haemorrhage it with his every action, or more precisely inaction. It is only at the very end that we start to feel sorry for him, but we can never feel respect. He is epically inept and wholly dependent on others, unable to perform the simplest task without mishap. He gets a menial job, but can’t manage the hours. He is given expensive things, and loses them. He is given excellent advice, and makes no attempt to follow it. He gets blamed even for things that aren’t his fault – and we are neither surprised, nor particularly perturbed. The reason he has no money is that he burned through a generous grant from his wealthy and influential parents in pursuit of an American woman (Madison) so obviously unworthy that people who have never met her instantly smell the gold-digger.

Huge events unfold around him, which culminate in unexpectedly dramatic style, but he is so busy mooning about his love-interest (and feeling sorry for himself) that he misses all the portents. And yet this over-specialised evolutionary aberration ends up as one of his cohort’s rare survivors. His near-invisibility ensures that he is mercifully overlooked by the most malign influencers, except when he accidentally offends à la mode ‘activists’ of one kind or another. He does encounter real rebels, but (probably luckily for him) never capitalizes on these encounters, through distractedness or pusillanimity.

But if we cannot admire Angel, we can smile at some of his pratfalls and predicaments. The author’s mordant sense of humour is abundantly in evidence, as his protagonist lurches from one petty indignity to the next – building up debts, humiliations and resentments, borrowing money he can’t repay, exasperating his family, failing his few friends, irritating his tutors, losing all his clothes at the launderette (and all his illusions about Madison), and vomiting all over the fragrant front of the only woman in the world who wants anything to do with him. Angel’s phobias are Ruskinian in their rarefaction, as he registers disgust with bad table manners, dirt, drunkenness, earrings, oxter hair (on women), tobacco and tattoos.

This is however not just a novel of amusing incidents, but also of serious ideas. The author is a determined logophile, and even those with above-average vocabularies may encounter words that are new to them, or that they have forgotten. These pleasing encounters contrast with sometimes over-long staccato dialogue sections when Angel is trying to attract the attention of barmen or shopkeepers, or, yet again, failing to explain himself to his supposed intellectual peers.

Sophisticated sociopolitical arguments are seeded through this book – about sex differences, elitism, the nature and purpose of universities, and freedom of conscience – but none of these viewpoints are expressed by Angel, although we infer that he generally agrees with their conservative-reactionary tenor. There are shrewd observations of today’s cry-bully tendencies, with their manic oscillations between psychological extremes, attacks on easy Aunt Sally targets, and protesting-too-much parading – and excellent evocations of cityscapes in all their Bladerunner alienness, or broken-down decrepitude. Strewn names of books, films, and paintings betoken authorial wide interests, and the book’s production values hint at his awareness of the importance of aesthetics in shaping worlds. Kurtagic is certain there is such a thing as ‘good taste’, and that it is at root a moral choice. This is weighty literature, in more than just a physical sense.

We eventually leave Angel all alone, contemplating the ruins of all his hopes and with no obvious avenue of escape, with even his once-powerful parents implicated in his downfall. It is a desolate outcome indeed even to so inglorious an odyssey, and even for someone not obviously deserving of respect – because behind his seriocomic unfolding can be seen substantive insights into 21st century society, and in his deeply-grained disappointment something of ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Miskatonian (Home page – The Miskatonian) and is reproduced with permission

London Lies Bleeding – Prologue

Image: Derek Turner
GOMERY KIMBER introduces Justin Martello, “a new kind of hero”

‘No,’ I said. 

Saul Ruzo opened the cell door. 

‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ said Ruzo.  ‘Strip.’ 

‘No.’ 

At knifepoint, Ruzo’s thugs stripped me naked and bundled me inside. 

‘You like it, Martello?’ Ruzo asked. ‘I call it the torture cell.  It’s based on a design by Alphonse Laurentic.  You heard of him?  He fought for the good guys in the Spanish Civil War. Only we’ve made a couple of improvements, bring it into the twenty-first century.’ 

‘American progress – where would the world be without it?’ 

Smirking, Ruzo slammed the door shut on my remark. 

The torture cell. 

It was impossible to rest. The concrete bed sloped at an angle of twenty degrees. It was impossible to sit comfortably on it either. And exercise was out of the question because the floor of the cell was an obstacle course of house bricks fixed haphazardly into concrete. 

Painted on the cell walls were surrealistic patterns designed to disorientate the prisoner. The clock above the cell door ran either too slow or too fast, and there was no window, making it impossible to know whether it was night or day. 

Air con and cameras were two of Ruzo’s improvements, the lighting effects also. 

Sometimes the cell was tolerably warm, sometimes freezing, and sometimes so hot that the sweat ran down my bare legs. And at any moment, the space might be bathed in lurid green light, or pitch suddenly black, followed by strobe lights, daylight, dusk, dawn, then back again to green, or crimson, or puce. 

And all the time the phantasmagoria was accompanied by repetitive music and noisy sound effects: death metal, advertising jingles, vicious dogs barking, babies screaming, women weeping. Over and over and over again. 

‘It’s designed to send you crazy,’ Saul Ruzo confided when his men returned me to the chamber after the first mock execution. 

And it had. 

With a start, I opened my eyes and looked at my visitor. 

‘Lieutenant Mbweha is very pleased with the progress you’ve made, Justin,’ said Piers Wyvern. ‘She says you might be well enough to be discharged in a day or two.’

I was seated in the uncomfortable armchair beside the hospital bed. Piers Wyvern glanced at me to gauge my reaction, but I was so full of sedatives that I barely reacted at all. I wondered where I would go, now that my house had been sold. 

‘Pity about the rain,’ he said. ‘We might have had our picnic in the grounds.’ 

Piers opened the wicker basket that he’d brought to the military hospital where I was being held. He claimed he’d just returned from a week in Venice where he’d lost heavily at the casino but enjoyed some wonderful food. He was certainly plumper than the last time I’d seen him. His sandy hair was sun-bleached and his florid face tanned. He wore a reddish-brown suit, and not for the first time he put me in mind of a well-fed fox. 

‘Still,’ he said, spreading out the picnic blanket on the hospital bed, ‘cosy little room they’ve given you. We can have a nice chat.’ 

I made an effort to stir myself. 

‘Chat?’ I said. ‘About what?’

‘Why, the future, of course. Now, what would you say to a glass of wine?’ 

I didn’t respond. I sat slumped in the chair wearing military issue pyjamas and dressing gown feeling nothing at all, apart from the draught from the window. So far as I could see I had no future. 

Piers removed the bottle of Gambellara from the wine cooler sleeve and poured two drinks. As I put my glass down on the wooden bedside locker, I spilled some wine. Piers produced a paper napkin and fussily mopped up the drops. He needn’t have bothered. The stained old locker was defaced with many a scratch and cigarette burn. 

‘There’s roast beef with watercress and horseradish,’ said Piers, trying to tempt me. ‘And antipasto, kalamata olives – or one of these delicious miniature scotch eggs.’

His voice was thick with anticipation, for Piers was a greedy man, at his happiest when there was the prospect of not just three, but four meals a day. 

‘Pour me some water,’ I said. 

Reluctantly, Piers did so, from the two-litre plastic jug that stood on the locker. The medication made my mouth dry and I drained the plastic tumbler as soon as he handed it to me. Piers looked disappointed.  I was spoiling a treat. 

‘I don’t wish to appear rude,’ I said. 

‘Not at all, Justin. They’ve got you doped, haven’t they? Silly of me. I thought you might be fed up with hospital fare, it’s always ghastly. But perhaps you’d have been happier with a bowl of clear soup and a soft bread roll.’ 

Disappointed, Piers popped one of the miniature scotch eggs into his mouth and devoured it with relish. 

I looked away. Summer rain ran down the dirty windowpane, and outside in the gardens a gusty south wind whipped the rhododendrons. I didn’t care for Piers Wyvern, just as I didn’t care for the Royal Navy psychiatrist, Lieutenant Missy Mbweha. Before diagnosing me, she’d gone and fetched the official manual of psychiatric disorders and consulted it for some minutes before pronouncing her verdict. 

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ she’d asked at one point. The question had made me burst out laughing. 

I looked at Piers. He was a confirmed materialist as well. As far as Wyvern was concerned, pleasure was the only thing of undoubted value, and it was around pleasure that he arranged his life. I watched as he decided what to devour next. 

‘Won’t you have something?’ 

‘Have you been discussing my health with Mbweha, Piers?’ 

‘Of course not. Patient confidentiality, and all that,’ said Wyvern, looking up sharply from the delicacies. He softened his tone. ‘The thing is, everyone’s concerned about dear old Justin, who’s come through a very rough time, who in fact has had a rough old life, all told.’

‘A very rough time,’ I repeated. ‘A rough old life.’

‘Your parents and everything,’ explained Piers with great kindness. ‘That sort of traumatic event in childhood, it’s bound to affect one in later life.’

The comment angered me. I wasn’t ‘traumatised.’ So far as I could see, the psychiatric profession pathologised any deviation from ‘normality.’ The only people considered ‘normal’ were those who posed no threat to the possessors of power. 

‘This has nothing to do with my parents’ murder, Piers.’ 

‘We just want what’s best for you,’ he went on, blithely. ‘I mean, you don’t want to be stuck in one of these places for the rest of your life, do you?’

So that was it.  I suppose I would have realised sooner if I hadn’t been doped. 

‘Where exactly are we, Piers?’ 

‘Thought they’d told you, dear boy. Rendlesham Hall, Suffolk.’ 

‘Yes, that’s what they told me, and I said I’d never heard of a military hospital of that name.’

‘Well, neither had I for that matter.’

‘It’s off the books.’

‘Now now,’ Piers chided me. ‘Don’t get upset. Why not try that wine? It’s Giovanni Menti.’ 

‘So, what is your plan for me?’ I asked. 

‘We thought you might like to do us the occasional service,’ Wyvern said, choosing one of the roast beef sandwiches. ‘Nothing too onerous, and nothing that will trouble your conscience, either.’

He bit into the finger sandwich. 

‘No.’

Hurriedly, Piers chewed so that he might respond. ‘There’s no need to decide right away. Have a think about it over the next few days.’

‘The answer is no, Piers.’ 

‘It will do you the power of good. The nine-to-five, there’s something to be said for it. Reason not to get hammered in the evening for one thing, or at lunchtime.’ With a smile, he raised his glass to me.  It was a thin smile and not entirely pleasant. ‘Ordinary life, more or less, keeps one grounded.’

Mounting anger was rousing me from my sedation. 

‘I flew too close to the sun, you mean.’

Piers regarded me sceptically. 

‘I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities,’ he quoted.   

Piers had no time for metaphysics, which was surprising given his ancestry (the Wyvern family had produced many an occultist and alchemist). I’d known him twenty years. As a green lieutenant, I’d been assigned to act as his bodyguard while on secret service in Iraq, and Piers had been delighted to learn I’d attended what he allowed was a fairly decent school and knew Latin and Greek. 

I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities

It was from Ovid, the opening line of The Metamorphoses. The poet’s unifying theme of transformation, I recalled, involved the hunter and the hunted, and more often than not, violence inflicted on the victim, as well. 

‘Come home, Justin,’ Piers said. ‘All is forgiven.’ 

I was feeling emotional.     

‘That’s right, drink your wine, there’s a good chap. Remember Thorne, your old Staff Sergeant? We thought he might act as liaison.’ 

I almost choked. 

‘What do you mean? I run my own ship.’ 

Piers frowned. ‘Not any longer, I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Theresa thought it better you step down. After all, it was only on an interim basis, wasn’t it? And you’re not really a businessman, are you?’

I took the comment personally. True, I wasn’t a businessman, but I was a leader, and it was on that basis that I’d agreed to run the Seton-Glennie operation.   

‘Theresa spoke to you?’ I said. 

‘Mrs Seton-Glennie did indeed speak to me, icily admittedly, but she told me she wanted you to step down. I’m sure you’ll speak to her, in due course.’ 

‘Get out.’ 

‘Steady, Justin, steady.’ 

‘Leave me alone, you bastard.’

‘Now that’s quite enough! Need I remind you I was the one who rode to the bloody rescue after you were shanghaied by Ruzo?’ 

‘Shanghaied?’ I repeated. ‘Abducted, you mean, from the most secure police station in London, Paddington Green. Do you really think I believe you people didn’t have a hand in it?’ 

We did not, asserted Piers, red in the face.  Handing one of our own to the Yanks so that they could torment you? Absolute rubbish!’ 

I bit my lip and looked away. I was absolutely certain that the powers that be had indeed handed me over to Ruzo and his loathsome ‘gators, but saying so, even to my ears, sounded like paranoia. 

Piers regarded me as though with great concern.   

‘Justin,’ he said softly, ‘you’re my friend and I have your best interests at heart. What has to be has to be. You’ll come back to work for us, and that’s that.’

‘Never.’

Wyvern was about to remonstrate but when he saw the murderous look on my face he decided that discretion was the better part of valour. I watched the smooth-talking cynic struggle to stand. 

‘I shall leave the picnic,’ he said, breathing hard, ‘for you to enjoy. Goodbye, Justin.’

After Wyvern left, it took me some time to calm down, and by then I was hungry. I stood up unsteadily and examined the picnic hamper. Amongst the food I discovered presents – Italian coffee and biscuits, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes (the brand we’d smoked in Iraq), a lighter, and a little box of Baci chocolates. On the back of a picture postcard Piers had written in his florid hand: ‘Dear Justin, trusting you’ll be on parade again very soon, much love from your DQ.’

DQ, Delta Quebec. That had been Wyvern’s call-sign in Baghdad, until the Americans learnt what DQ referred to, that is. 

I turned the postcard over and looked at the picture, not surprised to see the Botticelli self-portrait. When Piers first saw me in shorts he told me I had ‘Botticelli legs.’ 

Rejecting the nostalgia and the feeling I’d behaved discourteously to an old friend, I flicked the postcard aside, and helped myself to a sandwich. 

That was when I discovered the phone, in amongst the food.  It was of a special design, the kind issued to MI6 officers in the field overseas.  It contained only one contact number: Thorne’s. 

There was something else – my passport. But when I opened it I discovered it had been stamped ‘WITHDRAWN’ in red ink and the top corners of the pages clipped off. I supposed it meant I’d be working for 6 in the UK, MI5 territory, and therefore supposedly forbidden. I swallowed the food in my mouth, but without appetite. 

I remembered the time when I had dominated life, but for some time now life had been dominating me. 

Cutting the grass

That was the phrase Saul Ruzo had used. 

‘You got above your station, Martello, you need to be reminded who’s boss. You loused up my operation, Operation Eagle’s Nest! Well, now you’re gonna pay.’ 

Hands trembling, I cleared the picnic away, got into bed and tried to go back to sleep.