Sunday, 24 June 2012

Strasbourg: stained glass and storks

Flying, the other day, over the strange landscape of the Gobi desert, I must have dozed off. I remember waking with a start to see Strasbourg Cathedral being blown up. I thought at first it must have been ‘breaking news’: some terrorist outrage streamed by CNN to the little screen on the back of the aircraft seat in front of me. It took a while to realize I had not been watching the News at all, but the latest Sherlock Holmes film, proudly presented as in-flight entertainment by China Air. Even so it was a shock: Strasbourg’s west front is one of the architectural masterpieces of the western world – and of the Eastern, come to that.

Working in Strasbourg this weekend, I’ve been glad to reassure myself that the Cathedral is still intact; better still, to see that the stained glass of the South aisle has just been conserved and re-leaded. I had forgotten how stunning it is. In particular, I’d forgotten (I first came to Strasbourg in 1986, and this has been my fourth visit in twenty-five years) the marvellous colours and the sheer imagination of the artist. Look at this image of the red-eyed Devil, early 14th century but almost  as though appearing last year in a Dr. Who Christmas Show.

What I had really hoped to see on my flying visit to the capital of Alsace was not stained glass, however, but storks. Thomas Hardy wrote about them when he set a scene from his novel The Laodicean in Strasbourg and I wanted to see them for myself. Every souvenir shop in the city sells toy storks – plastic, inflatable, or plaster-of-Paris -  but I have never seen them. ‘Get up early and see them flying over the Cathedral,’ I was told at my hotel. ‘Get the tram out to the European Court of Human Rights; they nest over there,’ I was assured by a friend.

I tried both, but no luck. At six on a Sunday morning only the swifts were up, practising close formation flying around the extraordinary North Spire of Notre Dame. I love swifts, and can watch them for hours in summer but, in almost every way you can imagine, swifts are the opposite of storks. I took a tram and headed out past the Place de la République in the direction of what my map called the Institutions Européennes, but again no luck.

However, on the tram itself I did encounter a different prize specimen. Sitting opposite me was an American who wasn’t happy, not at all. 'I’m not staying in this town,’ he announced as if into thin air, but actually into his phone, ‘Strasbourg sucks. It’s got no water,’ (we were crossing the river as he spoke), you can’t get a decent burger, and its just a heap of ugly buildings.’  I suppose ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, but Strasbourg is a World Heritage site, and the kind of city where you just want to wander, and enjoy the narrow streets, the encircling river, the squares and the half-timbered jettied houses – colombage, since we’re in France, but fachwerk in Germany, as Strasbourg was when these houses were built.

You confront Strasbourg’s contested past at every turn. The street names are given in both French and in local German. Sometimes the results are surprising: the narrow rue du Tonnelet Rouge, linking the rue des Juifs and the rue des Frères, becomes the Rotfässelgässel. Nearby, a plaque on a wall identifies the site of the ancient Synagogue until the Massacre of the Jews in 1349. In the Place St. Etienne there is another plaque, on the wall of the Cathedral Choir School, which tells its own appalling story:

Every bookshop in the city (and there are many) displays books about the German occupation of Strasbourg and the brutalizing of the population under the Gauleiter Robert Wagner. I find a photograph of a huge Nazi rally in the Place Kléber, the same square where Hardy’s heroine in The Laodicean, Paula Power, was reunited with her architect suitor, Somerset, while staying at the Maison Rouge Hotel. She saw storks. Tired after her long journey to Strassburg (Hardy’s spelling reflects the city’s 19th century German identity), she is gazing out of her hotel window and looking at the birds through a binocular (sic): ‘ "What strange and philosophical creatures storks are," she said. "They give a taciturn, ghostly character to the whole town." The birds were crossing and recrossing the field of the glass in their flight hither and thither between the Strassburg chimneys, their sad, grey forms sharply outlined against the sky, and their skinny legs showing beneath like the limbs of dead martyrs in Crivelli’s emaciated imaginings. The indifference of these birds to all that was going on beneath them impressed her: to harmonize with their solemn and silent movements the houses beneath should have been deserted, and grass growing in streets. '

Smaller, more welcoming than Kleber Platz (as Hardy called it), is Broglie. Not so much a square as a long oblong, it has an avenue of regimented plane trees through the middle, leading to a memorial to General Leclerq, the ‘Liberator’ of Strasbourg in November 1944. Leclerq, who was to die only three years later in Algeria, stands at the foot of an obelisk looking slightly self-conscious – as well he might for he is flanked on either side by angels in flight. It’s a curiously old-fashioned monument, almost medieval in its symbolism – practically the apotheosis of the Maréchal de France.

But French memorials of World War II often have difficult stories to tell, and the language for these stories is not always easy to speak. Strasbourg endured horrors between 1942 and the end of the War – and even for long afterwards, for many of its men were sent either to be forced labour or to fight on the Russian front. Those who survived took a long time to come home.

And I know of no memorial in Britain, from either world war, which has to tell a story anything like that of the Strasbourg City memorial in the gardens of the Place de la République. Much larger than life-size, an Alsacienne mother cradles in her arms not one but two dying sons. It is a kind of double Pietà, and indeed the mother looks part Mary, mother of Jesus, and part Marianne, heroine of France. But even this is to oversimplify, for the son under one arm represents the youth of Alsace killed in the Great War fighting for Germany against France, while the youth under the other represents the young men of Alsace-Lorraine (which Germany ceded to France under the Treaty of Versailles) killed fighting for France against Germany. The bodies of the two men twist away, unable to look each other in the eye, but - almost unnoticed at the bottom of the sculpture - their hands are clasped together.

Adrian Barlow 

[Strasbourg illustrations: (i) the North spire of the Cathedral, (ii) stained glass, early 14th century, (iii) ‘La Main Noire’ memorial, Place St. Etienne; (iv) memorial to General Leclerq, Broglie; (v) War Memorial ‘A Nos Morts’; Place de La République. Photographs by the author.

I shall be giving a lecture on war memorials, ‘Memory, Remembrance and Memorialising’ as part of the programme of War memorials: Remembrance and Community at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education on 27 October.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Mongolia: Chaucer and Chinggis Khaan

On Saturday 2nd June, I attended a concert in Gloucester Cathedral to mark the beginning of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. On Sunday 10th June I enjoyed a concert of music in Sudbury, Suffolk, performed by children from the town. In between I went to Mongolia and back.

The drive from Chinggis Khaan airport into Ulaanbaatar is not encouraging: roads in a dreadful state, traffic uncontrolled, pollution ditto; on either side gers, shanties, gas pipes, industrial wasteland and giant advertising hoardings; people picking their way between puddles and rubbish – a Jake and Dinos Chapman nightmare landscape writ large. But the city itself, sprawling across a plain surrounded by mountains, is mercifully different, full of quirks and contrasts.

I’ve never been anywhere quite like Mongolia. It is a huge country sandwiched between China and Siberia, between the Gobi Desert and the Steppe, but nearly  half its population lives in one place - Ulaanbaatar, known by everyone there as UB. The Mongolian language, to my untutored ear, sounds like Mandarin with a Russian inflection, or vice versa. The script is Cyrillic – a legacy of the Soviet era too complicated to dismantle. And there’s still some nostalgia for that past. In the State Department Store (the name itself redolent of Communist control) I search for and find somewhere to get a new battery for my watch. In a far corner behind a small counter a woman sits mending watches, and on the wall behind her are large photographs of Soviet women heroes be-ribboned with as many medals as Borat in his new film, The Dictator. On a plinth outside the Ulaanbaatar Hotel Lenin himself still stands, larger than life, looking out over the city. Outfacing him on a giant cinema hoarding is a huge poster - advertising The Dictator. Ivan Illych  does not look amused.

Someone else who looks out over the city is Marco Polo. His meeting with Kublai Khan is the starting point for Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel, Invisible Cities.  This is a book about fantasy and realism, and about the permeability of perception. It seems to chime eerily with modern-day UB. Marco Polo himself reflects at one point in the novel, “Perhaps all that is left of the world is a wasteland covered with rubbish heaps, and the hanging gardens of the Great Khan’s palace. It is our eyelids that separate them, but we cannot know which is inside and which outside.’ To this day, the rubbish heaps and the gardens exist side by side. In the late evening, someone has dossed down on the steps beneath the statue of Lenin; by the morning he’s gone, leaving behind his cardboard mattress, the detritus from his evening meal (cans, and then more cans; a pizza carton from the nearby Grab n’ Go fast food kiosk) and – carefully posed on the top step, as if an offering to the deity on the plinth – a teddy bear.

Offerings to rather different deities can be seen in the temples and Datsans (institutes) of the Gandantegchenling Monastery. Downtown UB this isn’t: the town planners seem to have abandoned a half-finished attempt to landscape the uphill approach to this imposing campus from which, beyond the tiled and tilting rooftops of the temples, one has a plain view of the hills. Campus is the right word for there is a university here too, the Buddhist University of Mongolia. I learn from a leaflet that ‘the University combines modern education with traditional teaching methods. Four year Bachelor’s degree programs are offered and currently there are two departments. The Department of Internal Sciences which includes majors in Buddhist Philosophy and Chanting; the Department of Common Knowledge which includes Tibetan, Sanskrit and English majors as well as a Traditional Medicine and Astrology major.’

I have to reprove myself for smiling at this description of common knowledge. Replace Tibetan and Sanskrit with Latin and Greek; English with, say, Rhetoric; add the elements of Internal Sciences, Theology and Philosophy, and you have something close to the curriculum of Cambridge in the 15th century. Even chanting is akin to the medieval practice of singing the daily offices: in the Vajradhara Temple, a group of young monks - all teenagers, their scarlet robes only more exotic versions of student gowns in England – is being taught to chant part of a service. Their tutor keeps a beady eye on them, but even so one bored monk manages to check the messages on his mobile phone without being spotted. I remember the words of the disillusioned monk in the closing lines of Basil Bunting’s 1932 poem, ‘Chomei at Toyama’:

I do not enjoy being poor
I’ve a passionate nature.
My tongue
Clacked a few prayers.

In six days it is hard to do more than register as many different images as possible: the DESTROY HAIR AND BEAUTY SALON with, unusually, its sign in English; the courage and unconcern with which pedestrians walk out into the surging traffic because if they didn’t no-one would ever get across the road; the steam engine, still emblazoned with the head of Stalin, parked beside a main road; the extraordinary new Blue Skies Building, facing the acres of Parliament Square where children play in pedal cars in the afternoon sun and students pose for graduation photographs before the steps of Parliament House.

At the top of these steps sits the largest statue of all: Chinggis Khaan (do not call him Genghis Khan here), revered not as the bloodthirsty monster of modern western imagination, and not just as the man who forged the vast Mongolian Empire but as the leader who established the Mongolian language, promoted education, cared for his people and insisted on being buried in an unidentified grave. Perhaps his nearest European equivalent would have been Charlemagne.

On the grand staircase of the National Historical Museum there is, in pride of place, the following glowing tribute to Chinggis Khaan, ‘King of Tartary’:

This noble kyng was cleped Cambyuskan,
Which in his tyme was of so greet renoun
That there was nowher in no regioun
So excellent a lorde in alle thing,
Hym lakked noght that longeth to a kyng.

This tribute is Chaucer’s, from The Squire’s Tale.

Adrian Barlow

P.S. I was not on my own in Mongolia. My thanks to all my fellow education consultants who quickly became my friends; in particular to Tanya, Judith and Laurie - travelling companions with whom, improbably, I visited Beijing and Moscow airports in the same week.

[Mongolia images: (i) View of the hills beyond the city of Ulaanbaatar (ii) Statue of Lenin in front of Ulaanbaatar Hotel (iii) Statue of Marco Polo facing the Blue Skies Building (2012) (iv) monks at the Gandantegchenling Monastery (v) Parliament Building.  Photos by the author .

Monday, 11 June 2012

Short measures (ii): Time and Thomas Hardy

In June 1915, the War in France not yet a year old, Thomas Hardy visited Exeter with his second wife, Florence. They went to a concert and then, next morning, visited the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, where a particular exhibit caught Hardy’s attention and spurred him to write ‘In a Museum’. It’s a poem crying out for some context.


Here's the mould of a musical bird long passed from light, 

Which over the earth before man came was winging; 

There's a contralto voice I heard last night, 

That lodges with me still in its sweet singing.


Such a dream is Time that the coo of this ancient bird 

Has perished not, but is blent, or will be blending 

Mid visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard, 

In the full-fledged song of the universe unending.

The exhibit he writes about in this poem is a plaster cast (‘mould’) of a fossil of the earliest known bird, archaeopteryx. The original had been found in Germany only a few years after the publication of The Origin of Species, and was hailed as evidence to support Darwin’s theories because it was a transitional fossil, one that suggests birds may have evolved from dinosaurs.

Extinct birds aren’t unusual museum exhibits: there is a fine specimen of a stuffed dodo – fine at least if you don’t have (as I have) an aversion to taxidermy – at the Horniman Museum in South London. But this bird puts the dodo in the shade: it was flying ‘over the earth’ long before the late appearance of homo sapiens. ‘Winging’ may sound slightly precious. However, Hardy needs it to prepare for the feminine rhyme ‘singing’ at the end of the stanza; and the word also echoes the name of the bird itself: the Greek etymology of archaeopteryx is ‘ancient wing’.

The fossil, though millions of years old, is present to the poet ‘Here’ and now. Similarly, the beautiful voice he heard last night is simultaneously in the past – ‘There’ – and present because it ‘lodges with me still’. The poet is moved by song, whether it be the ‘sweet’ contralto voice of the singer or the ‘coo’ of the musical bird. He himself enjoys the music of poetry: he lays on alliteration enough in the first line (‘mould / musical … long / light) and the rhythms of the long, leisurely lines are carefully modulated, no one line quite mirroring another.

But if Hardy in the first stanza focuses sharply on the here and now, in the second he adopts a longer perspective: ‘Such a dream is Time’ that past and present are arbitrary and elastic. The ‘coo’ of the archaeopteryx has either been already ‘blent’ (a word Philip Larkin later borrowed for ‘Church Going’) -  into the song of last night’s singer, or it will ‘be blending in the future. Time is as limitless as the prehistoric landscape over which the bird flies is ‘visionless’. It is as unimaginable and as incommunicable as the strange arctic birds who visit Tess of the d’Urbvervilles:

 gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes – eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being had ever conceived  …. But of all they had seen which humanity would never see, they brought no account, The traveller’s ambition to tell was not theirs. (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Ch. XLIII)

This is one of Hardy’s bleakest images of man’s cosmic insignificance. ‘In a Museum’, by contrast, is more ambiguous. ‘The full-fledged song of the universe unending’ recalls Keats’s nightingale whose singing with ‘full-throated ease’ draws the speaker towards ‘easeful death’. But is this indeed a poem about human insignificance in a universe as indifferent to man as the strange birds were indifferent to Tess? Or is ‘full-fledged’ in fact an affirmative epithet, pointing us towards the idea of celestial harmony and the music of the spheres – a harmony and a music of which man is a part?

Besides, what exactly is unending? The song or the universe? Whichever it is, does the word invite us to contemplate bleak endlessness or hopeful continuity? In ‘The Voice’ – a poem written only a year or two before ‘In a Museum’, Hardy had wondered whether the voice that was calling to him really was the voice of his dead first wife, Emma, or just a trick of the wind,

You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness
Heard no more again, far or near?’

In the end, though, despite his doubts he stubbornly insists the voice is that of ‘the woman calling’. My own reading of ‘In a Museum’ is that while Hardy leaves the question open, the positioning of ‘unending’ as the last word of the poem, and the stress on the prefix ‘un-’ allows at least the possibility of hope. ‘Un-’ can indicate joy, after all: unconfined, unalloyed. ‘Unending’ is a more positive word than ‘endless’, carrying none of the desolation of ‘wistlessness’ or (Hardy’s original choice of word in ‘The Voice’) ‘existlessness’.

Not everyone agrees. Some critics see this poem as a clear statement of his pessimism. But the second line of the second stanza – ‘perished not … blent … will be blending’ seems to me affirmative, a case at least of Hardy’s ‘hoping it might be so’. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this. Seamus Heaney’s sonnet sequence, The Tollund Man in Springtime, has a remarkable poem about resurrection and recreation which ends in a homage to Hardy:

Then, when I felt the air,
I was like turned turf in the breath of God,
Bog-bodied, on the sixth day, brown and bare,
And, at the last, all told, unatrophied.

Hardy famously liked inventing adjectives prefaced by ‘un-’. (The key  scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys , where Hector dissects Hardy’s poem ‘Drummer Hodge’, hinges on this). ‘In a Museum’ is ultimately about how ‘the coo of the ancient bird’ hasn’t atrophied either.

 Adrian Barlow

 [photograph: cast of archaeopteryx fossil, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter