Monday, 30 May 2016

Troy Chimneys

"Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."  
(Shakespeare's Cymbeline)

It is no coincidence that Margaret Kennedy describes the dandelion seed-head  "chimney-sweepers" in her elegiac novel Troy Chimneys, for this is a story of love, of loss, of the wrong road taken, and of the unattainable haven.  Her protagonist  (for he is not a hero) Miles Lufton, M.P. is a Regency gentleman of sensibility,  but without a fortune, who must use his alter ego "Pronto", the climber and ladies' man, to make his way in the world.

" 'I quite dote upon Miles Lufton,' these ladies would cry, 'and it is a great shame that he should be so poor, for he is a delightful creature.  We must get him a seat, we must get him a place, and help him to grow rich'.  They liked me for my interesting poverty, my sensibility, my freshness and my innocence.  They were therefore in great haste to destroy in me every quality which they had praised and found delightful, to corrupt Miles and conjure up Pronto in his stead."

A subtle, complex novel, perceptive about its characters and the class systems by which they lived,  it portrays all Miles' dreams slipping away:

"I saw,  in Paris,  a painting by David which recalled Edmee to me; a young girl drawing by a window, who turns to look at the new-comer just as she turned from her embroidery frame.  By what genius is that evanescent magic caught by the painter!  Long after we are all dead she will glance up from her drawing-board with a look that shall recall, to men unborn, the loved and the lost,  -- the transport of an hour, the regret of a lifetime."

Young girl drawing  Marie-Denise Villers, pupil of J-L David
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Miles purchases a house in Wiltshire for his future retirement, called Troy Chimneys, once Trois Chemins for the three roads which meet before it, and with a river below the house.

"I sat in the window seat of the larger parlour and watched the slow, liquid play of the sunlight upon the ceiling, with its reminder of the constant current passing below.  This particular has always delighted me in Troy Chimneys.  …upon a sunny morning...the passing of time never presents itself in a more agreeable fashion; I like to think that when I am dead, as long as the house stands, the sun and the water will write these chronicles upon the ceiling, -- the same sun, the same river, -- only the current gives the illusion of change.  I already saw myself living there and beholding it daily…and the stream of time, rolling ever past us, might carry away all that I wished to forget."

The author moves her narrative backwards and forwards in time, between the 1780s and 1818, with diaries, memoirs and family correspondence,  and the recollections of a later Victorian generation, gradually revealing Miles Lufton's compelling story.  But, as his Memoir says:

"In any case, time will not run back.  Not even the river at Troy Chimneys does that, where time runs at its gentlest.  Elsewhere he tramps forward.  'And the foot of Time advanced!'  "

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Street of the Peeverie Beds

"Hopscotch is the name English children give to this pleasant pastime.  Nothing to do with Scotland!  'To scotch' means to score, and the beds or boxes used in this game, as you know, are generally scotched or scored with chalk.
Peevers could be as old as Babylon - the great city! And certainly peever beds have been found scratched on the pavement of the Forum which was the centre of life in ancient Rome.

For me the first summer's day is when you can sit on a wall that's warm.  I love that season in my street, especially the sweltering Julys when the pavements get as hot as Nebuchadnezzar's furnace and blue beads of tar begin to bubble through the macadam.  That's ideal peevers weather.

Victorian street children, (BBC Primary history)

But a start is usually made by the lassies on the first sunny morning of spring.  They get right down on their knees then and draw fresh boxes. …all the numbers are figured in a vigorous style and the 'one' is always finished off with a carefree flourish of loops.  Passers-by often stop to watch:

'There on the pavement mystic forms are chalked,
Defaced, renewed, decayed but never balked,
There romping Miss the rounded slate may drop
And kick it out with persevering hop!'

The passerby who wrote that was Sir Alexander Boswell*, in a poem he made called 'The High Street of Edinburgh'. "

James  T. Ritchie, in Miscellany Five, ed. Edward Blishen

*Sir Alexander Boswell, poet and antiquary, was the son of  James Boswell, the diarist and friend of Dr Johnson.
James T.R. Ritchie was a teacher at Norton Park School in Glasgow.  A science teacher for 30 years, he  is best known for his poems and records of children's traditional street games and songs, and he collaborated in a seminal film, The Singing Street, in 1950.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Unheavenly Twins: the Haymarket Gemini

The zodiac sign for May is Gemini, or the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux.  They are also described as 'comazants' (see Brewer's Dictionary) responsible for  St. Elmo's Fire, a natural electric phenomenon often seen at sea, and described in literature from Shakespeare's Tempest to Darwin, to Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.   

So Ariel describes creating the storm: 
"I flamed amazement: sometimes I'd divide
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
And the yards, and bore sprit, would I flame distinctly, 
Then meet, and join: … 

And the Ancient Mariner:
"About, about, in reel and rout*
The death-fires danced at night,
The water like a witch's oils
Burnt, green and blue and white." 

Some less heavenly twins appear in this Punch cartoon, of 1841, written perhaps by a fan of William Macready, the famous Victorian actor manager: It tells of "Illustrious Mac-,  Beth, or ready"  versus "small quack, Of plaudits greedy". 

"O, Gemini-Crimini! Nimini-Pimini...

Punch, August 1841, H. Beard collection ©V&A

Macready in his iconic Scottish role  
© V&A Museum

I could not find any reference to this Haymarket Theatre rival in Macready's Diary online, but his more famous rival was the American actor Edwin Forrest.  Forrest was feted when he came to London in his role as Spartacus in1834, but returning in 1845 as Macbeth, he was booed off.  He suspected Macready's influence and so a feud began.

When Macready himself was ending his tour as Macbeth at the Aston Park Opera House, New York, in May 1849, a large mob stoned the theatre and many were killed and injured in the ensuing riot.  Forrest was blamed and Macready fled back to England.  This Aston Park Riot is well documented, but  perhaps some theatre historian can tell me more about the Haymarket actor?

*  Was Coleridge unconsciously echoing Shakespeare?

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

May chimney-sweepers

Dr Johnson in his Dictionary cited Shakespeare for his provenance for Chimney-sweeper: "One whose trade it is to clean foul chimneys of soot".

"Chimney sweep, chimney sweep, hear Maid!
To sweep sooty chimneys is Tom's trade."

Chimneys appeared from the 13th century onwards when the wealthy began building private heated rooms,  separate from the open-hearthed great hall.  The building of the Elizabethan prodigy houses with their displays of fancy chimneys developed the need for a chimney-sweeping trade, with more than a bunch of holly to brush away the soot.  The first printed mention of the chimney-sweepers' trade occurs in Cocke Lorell's Bote, c. 1510.

Tudor chimneys at Hampton Court Palace
©  Photo Christine Matthews

 This was made even more necessary as sea coal with its tarry deposits replaced smoky wood fires, and after the Great Fire of London in 1666, new regulations made chimneys narrower, so sweeps needed their small climbing boys.

"Boys is wery obstinate, and wery lazy, gen'lmen, and there's nothing like a good hot blaze to make 'em come down vith a run.  It's humane too, gen'lmen, acause, even if they've stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes 'em struggle to extricate theirselves."   Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist 1837, saves Oliver from this fate, but the climbing boys' dreadful conditions were only halted at last by Lord Shaftesbury's Act in 1875.  (my thanks to Benita Cullingford's British Chimney Sweeps).

On a happier note, May Day was traditionally the time when sweeps, like the milkmaids,  dressed up and paraded the  London streets as the old Jack-in-the-Green, with their blackened faces, and covered in leafy branches.

Fowler's Troop in Deptford, 1900s

This urban greenery image brings me circuitously to Shakespeare's Cymbeline, (in my April 12th blog), for oral history suggests that in the Warwickshire countryside, "golden lads" were dandelions, and "chimney-sweepers" was the name given to the dandelion's puffball seed heads, blown away "to dust".    

And, "My passion blows away like the chimney-sweepers", writes Margaret  Kennedy in her novel Troy Chimneys*  
[*of which more anon].

Friday, 6 May 2016

May: "The merry cuckoo, messenger of spring"

"The merry cuckoo, messenger of spring,
His trumpet shrill hath thrice already sounded."  Edmund Spenser

"What strikes me as strange, as I walk, cycle, or drive along the village lanes, and hear reed warblers singing from virtually every corner, is that I am not hearing another summer visitor; one intimately connected with this species.  In the time I have lived here, I have never once heard a cuckoo: a sound so closely associated with the coming of spring it is marked by annual letters to The Times newspaper.

"Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu!"

Anon, Reading Abbey, early 13th C.  Harley Ms,  British Museum

Just after May Day, when the cuckoo's call should have been echoing across every village green in England, I  bump into a neighbour of ours, Mick.   He has spent his whole life in the parish, and his keen interest in birds makes him an oracle on changes in our local birdlife.  I ask him if there used to be cuckoos here. 'Cuckoos?' he replies incredulously. 'Cuckoos! They used to drive us mad with their calling!'

Yet Mick hasn't heard one in the village for a decade or more…..

The fate of the cuckoo in Somerset has been mirrored across much of lowland England, although the species does appear to be holding its own in Scotland, where cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of meadow pipits, rather than reed warblers.  Why cuckoos have declined, and so precipitously, we are not entirely sure…..

What is certain though, is that if this decline continues, the cuckoo will eventually lose its place as the quintessential sign of the coming of spring.  I doubt very much if the children at our village school have ever seen or heard a cuckoo.  If they are aware of it at all, they probably place it in the same category as the dragon, the phoenix, and other mythical creatures.  In another decade or so, when cuckoos may well have disappeared from the whole of southern Britain, what will they mean to us then, beyond a set of old rural stories and sayings, growing less and less relevant as each year passes?"

Wild Hares and Humming Birds  Simon Moss

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Celebrating May 1st

"In the Middle Ages the first day of May was an occasion for joyful festivities.  We can enjoy a peep into this fantasy town, which appears to be loosely based on the city  of Bruges.

May,  miniature by Simon Bening 1510-1560  © Victoria & Albert Museum

A stone bridge with an impressive gateway spans most of the centre of the miniature; riders on horseback clatter across the bridge.  They have been in the forest collecting branches of may.
In the foreground a boat carries nobles making music.  The boat is also decorated with branches of may. They are cooling their drink by trailing it in the water.  A crowd of people are gathered in an elevated position on the far side of the river watching events; one man is eagerly leaning over the wall.  Seemingly oblivious to all that is going on, a woman kneels at the foot of the steps busily engaged in washing her laundry in the river.

In the background we see couples walking in the square in front of fine houses, some of them are watching the people dancing and the smaller circle of children.
So many wonderful details in an area just 14 by 9.5 centimetres, in the V&A Miniatures Gallery.

Simon Bening, or Benninck (1483-1561), one of the most famous of all miniature painters, was born in Ghent, moving to Bruges in 1508 where he spent most of his life.  This scene of people making merry is one of eight from a calendar cycle, and is such a delightful landscape of activities in 16th century life."

© Valerie Gardiner,  former V&A guide