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A Reflection on English Aesthetics
Once upon a time, as a boy, I found myself crossing a field in mid December. The sun had drawn down to the softest of weak glimmers underneath the dark clouds and the snow was falling, thick, soft and heavy as I trudged through the fresh drift. Silhouetted against the sky were tall and thin poplars in a row; some broader oak spreading over a line of hedgerow. The absolute silence, the dark and the snow, the semi-domesticated farmland I was stood on, the thick clouds. It gathered in me something that never quite left, a feeling that is evoked every time I sit quietly in an old church, or ponder a log fire with a warm drink. A keen pessimism and happiness all bound together.
The author Peter Ackroyd writes in Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination:
“The English landscape itself seems to harbour ruins as if in an embrace, but their cultivation may also be an aspect of English melancholy. In the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer,” there is an invocation of the ruined walls which are “standing beaten by the wind and covered with rime. . . . He then who in a spirit of meditation has pondered over this ruin and who with an understanding heart probes the mystery of our life down to its depths. . . . How that time passed away, grown shadowy under the canopy of night as though it had never been!”
The winter naturally lends the atmosphere and weather towards this disposition. With Britain’s gloomy, rain lashed countenance, more bound to the permanent gentle mania for discussing, analysing and grumbling each day’s forecast, we lack the clean, abrupt Scandinavian minimalism or the fiery passion of the sun. Instead the gloaming provokes a strange love of the twilight and the gloom. It summons the need for heavy curtains, stone floors, old wood polished by time. When the daylight disappears in the mid-afternoon, the Anglo finds himself drawn to the cosy glow of the pub and the tavern. Glass, steel and concrete are too harsh, too flat and visible. Where the English imagination is truly refreshed is seeing the tiny cubbyholes and niches in an old house, the crooked little table in a corner, in the piles of old books and the dusty travel trunks on top of the wardrobe.
I believe it’s correct when the comparison is made with the American imagination and their love for space. The frontier, the road trip, the plains and vistas, huge forests and corn fields. The source of their vitality comes from this horizon, endlessly stretching out before them. By contrast the English have no space. We have no wilderness and no empty frontier. What we have instead is the other dimension - time.
The depth of time is the fuel of the English aesthetic. Aeon laid over aeon. Accretions of Roman, Saxon, Viking, Medieval, all bound together and softly whispering over one another. The lowest walls of the building may have foundations of sandstone, with medieval timbers like old bones resting on Edwardian supports. The energetic vitalism of the Victorians pulses through most English cities in the rebuilt walls, neo-Gothic railings and red brick archways. This, I fear, will always draw the Anglo back into himself. Caught in a sticky web of the past, every narrow corridor housing old ghosts, now with little blue placards, freezing everything in place like a wasting disease.
“There is a word in Old English which belongs wholly to that civilisation— “dustsceawung,” meaning contemplation of dust. It is a true image of the Anglo-Saxon mind, or at least an echo of that consciousness which considered transience and loss to be part of the human estate; it was a world in which life was uncertain and the principal deity was fate or destiny or “wyrd.”
In his 1933 work, In Praise of Shadows, Japanese author Jun'ichirō Tanizaki argues for the aesthetic primacy of deep, black pools of shadow in Japanese architecture and in its cultural imagination. He contrasts this with much of Western modernity’s obsession with scraping every speck of dirt and history away from their smooth and shiny, well-lit spaces. I take issue with this assessment, for it has always seemed to me that shadows also belong to an earlier and more culturally tight form of English aesthetic. The love of dark hardwood furniture, old crumbling manors and firelight casts its physical and metaphorical shadow across the Anglo mind. The love of ‘dustsceawung’, a reminder of the fading and more impressive previous civilisation, is everywhere, even if only in a twee and sentimentalist form today.
I don’t resent that millions of English tourists crowd through our ruined churches and stone circles every year - picnicking among abbey foundations and guiding their children over the stones of former times. What I dislike is that this spiritual urge to dance among the heaps of old bones has been effectively partitioned from our daily lives. Modern Britain seems to crave shiny flat new buildings, smooth driveways, minimalist interior design, open plan office spaces, glass fronted public libraries and screens to direct, inform and guide at every turn of the head. We have abandoned the much older love for the ancient as part of the quieter rhythms of the year, and in its place a rush to the two-dimensional and the surface.
Minimalism has no inner and outer, no doorway to guide one from the outside world of the fearful and cold to the warm and friendly. Anglo-Saxon cosmology, like its wider Germanic variants, prizes the care and maintenance of one’s inner world against the outer. I believe this instinct to run deeply through the Anglo soul. Small windows, revealing the hearth glow; arrow-slits in castle walls; portholes in the creaking ship; a small recess in the stone balancing a family heirloom. Read any guidebook for English interior design and the same motifs appear over and again - a rejection of the minimal and neat aesthetic, a preference for clutter, casually thrown blankets, a mismatch of Oriental rugs and stags heads, a need for multiple levels of height in decoration, with no obvious guides. The feeling evoked is one of timeless occupancy, with each generation merely adding, modifying and jumbling.
“The sound of horse hooves on the road in the early morning; the smell of autumnal fires and the haze that hangs just now like a halo round faded sunflowers and dahlias and thatched barns; a tea-table of gleaming silver and the curtains drawn against the damp night; an open brown folio beside an open fire, with the soft flicker of lamp or candle-light on ancient furniture; the slow, measured march of time noted in the peaceful serenity of a grandfather clock”
Arthur Bryant, The Lion & The Unicorn
I would hardly be the first to identify this attraction and instinct to place and time with the English taste for the ghost story. As Aris Roussinos notes:
“ghosts, should they exist, seem to be curiously institutionalised figures, adhering to schools, hospitals and museums, the London Underground and military installations. The Army, in particular, has a surprisingly rich and detailed ghost lore about its various historic barracks across Britain and, formerly, Germany. In this, we can say there’s something particularly British about ghosts: like our establishment, they seem doomed to wander forlornly across one Gothic quadrangle or another for eternity.”
The image of the English institution lingers firmly in the heart of the Anglo, despite them being scrubbed away over the past few decades. The haunted house trope is particularly effective in Britain precisely because so many our dwellings are ancient. Boarding schools, manor houses, palaces, cathedrals, small country churches, graveyards, farmhouses, rural estates, asylums, hotels and pubs. Each connected to the soil by some small and bounded fact of history. As a child I spent several years at a boarding school, one with as rich a folklore of ghosts as any other. A ‘Red Lady’ haunted the upper floors of the school, where no-one went and nothing seemed to happen. Likewise the cellar of the dormitories had a ‘Grey Lady’. These architectural features seemed to create an oppressive atmosphere of so much thick time, all sitting heavily in corners and high ceilings, like I was just a visitor.
In that densely layered way, the portraits, black and white photographs and medals and trophies of former students fed into an existential feeling that ‘events have happened here’, and echo down the empty corridors. Younger students were sent in pairs on errands across the school, in part to prevent the sheer terror of a six year old boy looking down a dark passageway and refusing to go any further.
A true Englishman will tell you how they went into the rain and wind, maybe crossing a patch of moorland or heath, and then exclaim how it cheered them up. Their cheeks red and cold, stripping off wet wax jackets, they might go for a pint, or read a book. In an earlier time they may have smoked a pipe and skimmed a newspaper. This is archetypal. Although transformed into a ‘flat cap and jacket’ brand and consumer style, it’s possible to be sincere and to tap into a sense of comfort and homeliness, security and familiarity. Some critics have extended this attitude of the English into their vision of a safe island and a hostile world. Perhaps this is true, I certainly don’t reject it.
“Out of this land of visions emerges a poetry of the dream-world. Beowulf is in part a dream-poem; the strange elegies of the Anglo-Saxon spirit are enacted in unreal landscapes compounded of dream and vision. Beowulf himself follows Grendel’s mother through “frecne fen-gelad,” a terrifying fen path, towards a tarn or mere where flickers “fyr on flode” hiding an ancient terror. Perhaps only the Anglo-Saxons were capable of such horror, although the persistent taste for Gothic in English literature suggests that their influence has lingered.”
John Leland (1503 – 1552), a poet and historian has the honour of being the first ‘antiquarian’. Commissioned by Henry VIII to search the kingdom’s monastery libraries and archives, he went “to peruse and diligently to serche at the libraries of monasteries and collegies of this yowre noble reaulme, to the intente that the monuments of auncient writers as welle of other nations, as of this your owne province mighte be brought owte of deadely darkenes to lyvely lighte.” In the most true of English intentions, he sought these treasures as they “lay secretely yn corners”.
Be of no doubt that this new pastime, of poring over local documents and looking for secret, small histories in the nooks of the island, has blossomed in the Anglo soul. No town is without a historian, no household or child free from the influences of museums, endless archaeology programmes and metal detection announcements. No Remembrance Day goes past without millions of people bringing out medals, certificates, photographs of ancient family members, all buried in Flanders. We are a ghost island, permanently enthralled with portions of our history.
This is not without its dangers, as the tendency for reverence and nostalgic commemoration sinks into a sweet sentimental morass, and worse - the total fairy story of post-war Britain. Without any driving energy for expansion in some realm or other, it seems we collapse in ourselves and project out into the world only the most small-minded and timid versions of power. British ‘soft power’, as it has become known, can be summed up in that cloying speech given by Hugh Grant in Love Actually. Alluding to the roll-call of pop figures from Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Harry Potter and David Beckham’s feet, these lines were referenced by Blair himself in a discussion about foreign policy. As painful as it is to watch a nation descend into something so small as young adult fiction and footballers, it makes sense when considering this tendency to immortalise our heritage, but now in a misty eyed and sterile way.
Some days when I see black and white timber buildings being used as wine bars, and churches stripped for dance floors, I want to burn everything to the ground. Everything that is older than 1945. I get the impulse to grind it all away into dust and obliterate the very memory of the stones. Perhaps only then will we see how much we have lost. In an ironically Anglo-Saxon way, I wish we did mourn the passing of a greater time. As Peter Hitchens once wrote:
“I had a feeling we were now a smaller people than we had been, scuttling about in the ruins of a lost civilisation.”
The overbearing pretence that we still live in the same society, surrounded by all the detritus and crazed cobblestones of former years, holds us back and prevents us from generating something new with what we have. Ours is a civilisation which has been largely untouched by external powers for a millennium, renewing itself from the inside by borrowing, altering, jumbling, compromising and reforming. None of that spirit seems to have been retained, and we are driven entirely by outside modern forces. Even our industrial heritage is mostly a tourist industry now, with steam trains for children and cotton mills as foreign luxury apartments.
Of course the same impulse to burn everything away is met by an equal desire to protect everything that made England what is was, and can still be. This is probably why I’m an archaeologist, in love with the past and all the reserves of energy that it can offer. May we soon return to that source and create something new.