Sunday, 25 November 2007

Chagall, William Morris & Pugin: stained glass in Kent

Stained glass: the very phrase conjures up deeply coloured windows of biblical figures in dark churches or doors and fanlights in Victorian villas. But anyone who has seen Matisse's stunning stained glass windows in the Chapel de Rosaire just north of Vence in the South of France (see my blog archive for September) will agree that they are neither traditional or dark, the stylized and symbolic design in brightest yellow and blue.

Similarly, Braque's lovely stained glass window in the small chapel at the Foundation Maecht in St Paul de Vence. The simple, strong design shines with light through a prism of blues. Another artist who produced stained glass was Chagall and examples can be seen in the Chagall Museum in Nice although his most famous collection of stained glass are twelve windows in Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jeruslaem, depicting the tribes of Israel.

But a tiny medieval church in north Kent, of all places, also has a full set of Marc Chagall windows. Tudely is a small hamlet which boasts, pub, houses, farms and …..the Parish Church of All Saints. The first Chagall window was commissioned as a memorial to Sarah, the daughter of Sir Henry and Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid. Tragically, she died in a sailing accident in 1963, aged 21, and is depicted in The East window floating on the waves.

To me, something that is long-lasting and enriches the lives of others - whether in planting trees and bulbs or commissioning and donating inspirational art works – are the most moving and wonderful of memorials. These windows certainly qualify: a further eleven windows commissioned by friends and family of the Goldsmid's replaced the original Victorian glass (now installed in the vestry) over the following years until Chagall's death in 1985.

The windows are marvellous works of art – the naivety of the designs suit the simplicity of the church - that not only inspire but fill the interior with light and beauty. Chagall was a good choice of artist for an Anglo/Jewish family because he believed in the unity of humanity. The colour blue predominates in the windows as he thought that this colour symbolized love and "love is as strong as death".

Chagall had become increasingly interested in painting for stained glass and this gives the windows an ethereal quality reminiscent of some of this paintings. Adam and Eve, birds, horses, fish and angels all feature in the scenes and as the sun shines through the windows the colours are reflected onto the window reveals and floor: the effect is beautiful and just a little bit magical. This added spirituality was exactly the effect that was intended in the earliest stained glass church windows. A wonderful memorial: visit to find out more.

The Gothic revivalist architect, A.W.N. Pugin, responsible for the new Houses of Parliament after they were gutted by fire in 1834, also designed stained glass windows in Kent. Next door to his house, The Grange in Ramsgate, he designed and built St Augustine's R.C.Church including the stained glass windows. These are deep and clear in colour but, like so much of Pugin's work, rich in medieval patterns of heraldic crests, stylized leaves, flowers and borders. To see examples visit

The work of yet another great artist and designer, William Morris, can also be found in Kent villages only a few miles from Tudeley. Morris was certainly a Renaissance man: artist, craftsman, designer, decorator, printer, writer, poet – you name it, he did it. He was a follower of The Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood, a Gothic revivalist and a founder member of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Stained glass design and manufacture was one of Morris' early and great achievements in the art of nineteenth century Gothic revival. The windows he and his partners produced were colourful, inventive and well designed, among them those in Kent: a window by partner Edward Burne-Jones in St Mary's Church, Speldhurst is a good example. Visit to see a photograph of it and visit to see a cartoon of the window destined for the church of All Saints, Langton Green.

But, until very recently, I was completely unaware that even closer to Tudeley are two stained glass windows by the firm of Morris & Co in the parish church of St John the Evangelist, Hildenborough. I've visited the church several times but have as yet failed to find it open but I'll keep trying. It's great to find so much art right on my doorstep – the work of such brilliant designers: Chagall, Morris and Pugin.


Saturday, 17 November 2007

An apple a day

Apples come in all sorts, shapes and sizes and that, say the supermarkets, is the problem: they don't stock locally grown apples because we – the customers – want blemish free uniformity. Apples must be either green or red, glossy and symmetrical: forget the flavour. But October apple festivals and farmer's markets show that this is not true: not only do we want the tasty old varieties, scabs and all, but we're prepared to pay for them.

Henry VIII encouraged his gardener to produce better fruit, which he set about doing in his nursery close to Brogdale in North Kent. In 1806, the Horticultural Society in Chiswick, London recorded 1,400 varieties of apple: the society moved in 1875 to Wisley and then to the horticultural research station at Brogdale in the 1950's.

This is now the Brogdale Horticultural Trust ( where the National Fruit Collection is and where research into gene bank, grafting, stocks, plant identification, cultivation and so on is undertaken. A guided tour of the Trust is not only informative but fun too, viewing the orchards from the back of a tractor trailer, and there are unusual varieties of the fruit for sale in the shop there.

But the government puts minimal value on this sort of research: little investment is forthcoming to fund this most well-known fruit. March 2008 is crunch time: the management trust is out for tender and then…...who knows.

The cultivation of the apple (Malus domestica) is part of our national heritage; apple orchards part of our historic landscape. The sight of Kentish apple orchards in glorious bloom – snowy white froth or pink tinged petals - is absolutely beautiful and draws coach loads of tourists. Generally apple trees tolerate a wide range of soil types and like the British climate, some varieties doing better in one part of the country than another.

In Scotland 'dooking for apples' was a favourite game at Halloween: children, hands behind their backs knelt down and tried to catch an apple from several floating in a tub of water. If you caught the apple you kept it: more often than not a good soaking was had, everyone falling about laughing at the efforts. We loved it. In England it's called 'bobbing for apples' but this old game played around Bonfire Night is less well known now. The eating of toffee apples, though, remains as popular as ever at this time of year.

As a child my parents grew varieties of desert and cooking apples, the rows of trees set out in rows on a north-south axis: one for every month of the winter. And every day we took one to school for break. Beauty of Bath, Laxton's epicure and fortune were eaten straight off the tree; Worcester pearmain would last till October, as would Ellison's orange and James Grieve. From the last half of September until November we would eat Laxton's fortune, pioneer and Lord Lambourne.

Then Cox's orange pippin - so often eaten too early - was best from late November until February with Laxton's superb ready late in December right round to March. In supermarkets we expect to find our favourite apple all the year round: lost is the concept that the apple changes as it matures which gives it a quite different taste and texture. Some apples best cooked in November have become eaters by the following March.

Apart from cider making (see my blog archive April, 30) the preservation of the fruit was always part of the housewife's work in centuries past: apple chutneys and jellies were made as was apple cheese. Apple sauce accompanied roast pork, apples were casseroled with game birds and a roast goose was stuffed full of them.

In the United States apple pie is considered as American as can be, and why not: the golden delicious apple was discovered in Virginia, 1895, and the variety Jonathan even earlier in the 1820's. But in England, where hundreds of apple varieties have been grown since Roman times, we've lost our appreciation for the many famous varieties of the past and the methods of cooking them.

During my childhood Sunday lunch was always accompanied by a pudding and ten to one it would be made of apples. Early Victoria was used for apple crumble, cobbler or Charlotte because it cooked down to a soft consistency: for apple pie or stewed apple Reverand Wilks was favourite because it kept it's shape. And for baked apples – stuffed with currants and brown sugar and served with custard – it was our Monarch, Warner's king or King Edward VII varieties that we used. Nowadays in supermarkets there is the ubiquitous Bramley, rarely any other.

We can buy attractive, clean, blemish free apples wherever we shop: what we cannot necessarily buy is flavour, distinctiveness and variety. But, nevertheless, they remain packed full with other good things: an apple a day still keeps the doctor away.


Sunday, 11 November 2007

Lest we forget: poetry and prose.

'Lest we forget' is the final line of the poem, For the Fallen (1914), by Laurence Binyan. Today, 11 November, is Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War when the 'Ode of Remembrance' – a favourite recitation at memorial services for the fallen of the 1st and 2nd World Wars throughout the Commonwealth - finishes with these words.

The 'war' poetry of the Great War in particular often expresses deeply felt emotions very poignantly (see my blog archive, Flanders Fields, 29 July) but prose of the period can do the same. There are many memoirs and novels by men who served in this war that recount the politics, battles and tragedies of it all and their memories of fallen comrades, lost brothers, dead sons are so very moving.

But for every young man that died there was a woman – whether mother, sister, daughter or lover - who suffered years of loss. Not that it was only young men that served in the 1914-18 war: women didn't fight but they did do everything but. Many took over the jobs of the men who had left to fight and it's well known that their contribution – not to mention skill, dedication and bravery - during the war finally (in 1928) scotched the arguments against womens' suffrage.

Many women wanted to be in the thick of it, so to speak: some joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) either doing all sorts of 'manly' jobs or nursing - often risking their lives in on the front line. Others became members of the Women's Auxillary Corps (WAR), engaged on military services at home and abroad.

I make mention of two of these women who subsequently became journalists and writers: both gave up their hard won places at Oxford University to serve their country in time of war. They later met whilst studying there and became firm friends. Winifred Holtby served in France in 1918 as a volunteer in the Signal Unit of the WAR and Vera Brittain became a VAD, nursing in London and then in a field hospital at the front line in France.

Vera Brittain fell in love with Roland (a friend of her brother's) who was unfortunately killed in 1915. Sadly, her beloved younger brother, Edward, was then also killed (in 1918): many of their friends also met their death in the Great War. The first part of Brittain's autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933), chronicled those years: the story of 'the lost generation' and the changes it brought about in the lives of so many turned Brittain into a pacifist and an active member of the peace movement.

Some of the material that Brittain drew on when writing her autobiography was eventually published in 1998: Letters from a Lost Generation was a collection of the letters of Brittain, her brother and their friends, Richardson and Thurlow. These are a moving personal record of the terrible effects and results of a war that destroyed so many lives.

Winifred Holtby was also a committed pacifist and feminist; unfortunately she too died tragically young in 1935, just managing to complete her best known novel, South Riding, before she did so. It won her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (posthumously) in 1936. This is a novel that encapsulates life in rural Yorkshire in the years between the two world wars: it gives telescopic view – looking through the wrong end of the lens to what life was like before 1914 and through the other end to the 1920's when women were making a mark as never before.

Both Holtby and Brittain were women of their time: university graduates, journalists and writers in what was then very much a man's world. They were increasingly confident that their views should count and that there was a need to change politics for the better. After Holtby died Brittain wrote Testament of Friendship (1940), a tribute to her friend and a chronicle of their relationship.

I came across both these writers again whilst researching my novel, A Little Blue Jacket. Holtby lived in South Africa in 1926 for a while and championed, among other things, the unionization of black workers: Brittain describes this South African experience as a watershed in Holtby's life. Her own interest in politics and womens' rights was influenced by reading Women and Labour, by the South African novelist and feminist, Olive Schreiner.

The writing of both Holtby and Brittain are still in print and are even enjoying a renewed interest: it's not just the many thousands of men who died that we remember today but also the thousands of women who served their country. And some who wrote about it, lest we forget.


Book Note: I find the poems of AE Houseman particularly moving and here is a simple, understated one that sums up what so many bereaved women must have felt, and sadly, are still experiencing in our war torn world today when no body is repatriated.

The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Blood & Sand

Blood & Sand, our book group choice for last month, October, is Frank Gardner's account of his time as a correspondent in the Middle East and his subsequent injuries after being gunned down by terrorists.

Gardner read Arabic and Islamic Studies at university and fell in love with the landscape and peoples of the Middle East during visits there. After a less than enjoyable spell as a banker he finally plucked up the courage to become a lowly paid journalist in order to live in and visit the lands he loved.

There are primarily two interesting facets to the book: firstly, Garner gives a fascinating and knowledgeable insight into the Islamic world, including that of such terrorist groups as al-Qaeda. His story is a personal one but politics are very much part of it: the differences and complexities of the tribes and cultures are very apparent.

Secondly, Gardner's strength of character (active, determined, intrepid and courageous) shines through: it was this that fuelled his second career and also what brought him through the disability he suffered. Other more negative characteristics were what possibly got him into the fix: stubborn, arrogant, single-minded and competitive.

He appears marvellously and commendably lacking in bitterness although there is still disbelief that he, an Arab lover and admirer, should suffer such terrible injuries in their country and at their hands. It seems that the attack finally made him realise that the Arab in his own land is not always an honourable being: he certainly observes that the fundamentalist terrorist is not a true follower of Islam.

Gardner is clearly a talented journalist with a wealth of knowledge of the Arab world but what he is not is a writer: on the whole the text is plodding, stuffed with too many details and the jokes are forced. It was almost impossible to keep track of characters, countries and creed and every one of the group was thankful that a map was included for reference.

However, when Gardner stays for weeks in the tents of a Bedu tribe – and he desists from bombarding us with his achievements and contacts – his writing suddenly soars. His description of the landscape and the people becomes more lyrical and the reader really gets a feel for the place and understands what it is that he loves about it all.

I admire the manner in which Gardner never tried to instil his own culture or ideas on the people he met with but wholeheartedly embraced their way of life whether it was to sleep in a rug on the floor, to eat at their communal meal or respect their religious belief.

Everyone in the book group found Blood & Sand interesting: we all learnt a great deal (when we concentrated) about the Middle East and recent events there. Much of it was fascinating but not everyone finished the book – due to the plethora of facts or the plodding.

But it did cause as all to think because discussion of the book turned into political discussion generally: the Iraq war, the fate of the Palestinians, the role of the US, Israel, al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, the Taliban and the role – or lack of power – of women in the Islamic world. Of course, left to us – a roomful of women – we could have that whole lot sorted in a matter of months.

We agreed that Blood & Sand (originally Life, Blood & Sand in the hardback version) had probably started as a form of therapy for Gardner and every one of us was full of admiration for a man that has so spectacularly and successfully come to terms with his changed circumstances. Would we read it again? No, but we might give it to a husband, brother or son – they seem to like facts and Blood & Sand is a very macho title.


Book Note: for those in love with the Middle East the definitive book must surely be TE Lawrence's, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922). Now there was another singular man and one who's commitment and love of the Middle East shines through all his writing. It was my grandfather's favourite book but I have to admit I've never finished it. Better to start with Robert Graves biography of Lawrence, Lawrence and the Arabs (1934), on which the film ´Lawrence of Arabia´was based, one of my Best Beloved´s favourites.