Archive for the ‘Adventures close to home’ Category

The Sleep Project IX: West Woods bluebells

May 16, 2014 3 comments

Image Three tawny owls chatter to each other with fledgling insistence, the calls bouncing from branch to branch, as if continually checking each other are ok, or saying hello, then forgetting they said hello and saying it again. Above them, but not very far above them, helicopters make practice night flights low over the woodland.

Moonlight, low and full, twists perception: bluebells are rendered invisible; a shrub low across the path becomes a physical barrier; a great pool of brightness is merely a slight gap in the forest cover. Paths are clear: you could go for a long walk in this strange, tingly, silvery lightfall. Wansdyke makes a spotlit linear opening in the trees; the stars that shine through this are close, cold, mineral-hard. I reach out and stick one in my bivvy bag, and spend the night wishing it would warm my toes up. It seems unfair to chuck it out: Betelgeuse eaten by midges and deer tics.

Between two overgrown wheel-ruts I make a perfect bed, dry, soft, supportive. Whether it be the crushed bluebells and nettles, the thin soil, the ceramic quality of the clay-with-flints, or the light, friable depths of chalk beneath, the ground seems curiously light, like a mattress.

In the depths of the night the helicopters return, their chopping blades scything the air and making an answering echo from the forest floor. It’s as if a freight train is slamming towards as a metal beast descends from above. Fugitives scatter between trees in frozen woods; orange poisonous fire vapourizes Asian villages. A six-foot black horse is hunting for us through the trees; it is ridden by a tall blond man with a frightening long-spiked Mohican. The helicopter circled for hours, but it seems I only slept for five minutes. Then I went for a walk, and found a café open among the trees: coffees, biscuits, a friendly café-lady. I realise the whole wood is full of people unicyling, cycling, running: it’s always like this at night, she says; people just don’t have time or space to practise during daylight hours. That was another five minutes of sleep that might have been two hours of fully lived reality: then, finally deep cold oblivion closes in.


5.30am, West Woods, Wiltshire

I’m surprised, as dawn sparks the chirping of the birds, at how quickly, long before the sun is visible, the air begins to warm. Bluebells, Wild Garlic, my Doc Martins and Nikon blur from smudges to hard volumes and swaying stems. The birds are no louder here than at home; no deer come and lick my face; the air is not rich with the scent of the flowers, not could it be until there is some real heat. I realise the wildlife wants to be on the forest cover, not down here in the dark below. There’s just us, the blue-smeared undergrowth, and the bivvy bag, which has left a flattened temporary archaeology of my passing the night among them all.


The archaeology of sleep

In search of St George

April 23, 2014 1 comment

ImageTo mark St George’s day, an unpublished essay on his cult, al-Khidr, and a trip to his shrine at Lod, written in 2006…

Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire spent most of early June 2006 preparing to party like it was 1952. Cream teas for all villagers! Bunting! Warm beer! 

During the celebrations at the village school (3 legged race, sack race, sweeties whether you win or lose) I stared down at my daughter’s face. She beamed back, but looked more like a target than a person, her mixed-race features obscured by a red cross on a backdrop of creamy white face paint.

The Cross of St George: twenty years ago, I’m not sure many people had much of an idea what it was. When did it start reappearing? It seems to me that it was around the time Scotland and Wales got their own parliaments. Did the latest antics in Westminster really have an impact on popular culture?

Whatever the cause, the cross has had something of a resurgence in the last five or ten years, an increase in popularity which came to a head over the period of the World Cup and the Royal Jubilee in June this year. It’s as if the symbol was lying dormant, waiting for the chance to reassert itself, like some relic of the True Cross.

A brief inventory of the bunting visible from my home this June: the retirement bungalows opposite had Union Jack paper plates nailed to the posts of their garden fence. The big thatched cottage next door had a full-size cotton Jack fluttering from a telegraph pole, and bunting everywhere. The thatched cottage opposite it had a flag of similar size stretched between – and nearly covering – its two dormer windows.

In all these flags, George’s Cross crowds out its Celtic co-crosses with imperial self-assertion. On the cottage just down the road it has taken over completely: an 8 foot Cross of St George, red cross on white, dancing in the sun. My journey home is like driving down the deck of the Victory: England expects….

Our babysitter comes: she wears a Cross of St George zip-up top. The bold red line of the cross is split by the zip, running either side of her neck and on to the hood. She looks like the page for some medieval knight. People are walking around with heraldry blazoned on them: the more I think about it the more medieval the whole business seems to be.

So who is this St George, anyway? And where did this simple, powerful graphic – a red cross on a white ground (officially, argent a cross gules; or – as has it – a cross of Pantone 186 on white) come from?

Googling for George turns out to be a highly appropriate way to chase this particular saint and his dragon. George is as amorphous and constantly-changing as the world wide web itself. Here, he is an honourable Palestinian of the third century AD; there, the reinvention of every hero-God of the ancient Middle East. His story and its locations moves from age to age and from location to location, fragmenting and changing shape according to local circumstance.

What is certain is that any search for the ‘real’ George is the least interesting aspect of the saint. The oldest stories of his life date to about 150 years after his death, and are more interesting as a reflection of the mythical needs of the fifth-century church than as a statement of historical truth.

These stories present him as an upstanding Christian from Turkey – Cappadocia to be precise – who lived in Palestine, probably at Diospolis, where his remains lie. The town is today known as Lod and is in Israel. George had some standing –  he was a military governor, or the son of one. Until modern scholarship rendered even this account uncertain, this was who people thought St George was, albeit with a liberal sprinkling of miraculous powers.

Interesting to reflect that our football fans are painting their faces with the badge of an honourable, intelligent and multicultured Middle-Easterner. Perhaps they should just update the story, adopt Edward Said as his modern equivalent, and run around Wembley, Shizouka or the Stadium of Light with the crest of Columbia University picked out on their faces.

While the person these early stories describe is reasonably everyday, the things he does are not. Although the names of places and characters vary from version to version, the outline of the narrative remains the same. An evil ruler – in some versions called the governor ‘Diadanus’, in others the emperor Diocletian – unleashes a furious persecution of Christians, and George objects. What follows is a game of ‘My God is Stronger than Yours’ that does little for the idea that the new faith had an abstract moral programme worth defending. 

The evil emperor tries to kill George three times before he finally succeeds. Each time, George is brought back to life, and then performs a miracle. Each miracle is more extraordinary than the last, the punishment meted out more violent. Some of these stories have a certain poetry: George visits a poor widow and provides her with free food for life by making a wooden column in her home bud, put down roots, and grow into a huge tree – the highest thing in the city – full with ripe fruit. The size of the tree draws the authorities’ attention, and soon George is on back with the evil emperor, being tortured to death once again.

Any poetic quality the miracles may have is compensated for by the extremity of the ensuing violence: sixty nails are driven into George’s head; his body is crushed ‘like particles of dry summer dust’; his brains pour out of his nostrils like milk. That kind of thing. 

Each time George is killed the emperor tries to ensure his remains are untraceable, to avoid anyone finding them and building a shrine over them. Each time they are found and reconstituted by God, making a spectacularly cinematic appearance accompanied by various saints and angels. Each time, a few thousand more locals decide to abandon Apollo and follow George’s God, only to be slaughtered in their turn. And each time, the revivified saint goes on to perform an even more audacious miracle. He is only finally martyred after destroying all the idols in the Temple of Apollo and converting the evil emperor’s wife to Christianity, by which time 28,680 new martyrs have been created.

The quality of the story, with its one-dimensional characters, its fantastical special effects, and its X-certificate cartoon violence, is to the modern reader most reminiscent of a modern Manga cartoon or some of the more extreme games available for PlayStation 2. But however fantastical the stories, they are not unusual for their period. There is a whole crop of early saints with similar qualities: a Middle Eastern origin of uncertain historicity; dramatic miracle-making powers when pitted against the most dastardly of baddies; mass slaughters and mass conversions; a certain militarism. George originally appeared as part of a subset of these, the so-called Military Martyrs – introduced at who were especially popular in areas throughout the Middle East where Christianity had achieved some strength in a given community but was still under violent assault from the powers that be. In other words, the stories tell us more about the needs of their authors (and their audiences) than they do about any ‘real’ St George.

Googling for him, I am astonished by the range of resources available. Many are published by academic hagiographers, or Catholic organisations whose main interest is in establishing the historical ‘truth’ of a given saint’s story. There are complete translations of the earliest legends and first-rate bibliographies.  At is a good summary of the only definite conclusion all this scholarship has come to: ‘all that can safely be said is that a martyr suffered at or near Lydda [another name for Lod] before Constantine’ – that is, the stories have their roots in a real human being, name unknown, associated with Lod and killed for his Christianity sometime in the period 300-320.

Much of the study of saints seems to be driven by this interest in proving the historical truth – or otherwise – of their stories. It is hard to find anyone – in print or on the web – with much intelligent to say about these legends as literary or cultural artefacts in themselves.

The lack of similarly detailed analysis of the legends is not simply a matter of doctrinal bias. Finding something intelligent to say is not easy: myths appear and grow in ways that are as amorphous and chimeral as culture itself.

It’s astonishing, for example, to realise that the one thing everyone knows about St George- that he killed a dragon and saved a princess – doesn’t appear until nearly a thousand years after the death of the ‘real’ George. The story appears fully formed in The Golden Legend, an extraordinarily influential collection of saint’s stories compiled by Jacobus de Voraigne and published in 1275. 

Here, a terrible dragon threatens a city ‘in Libya’; his breath is venomous. To keep him at bay, the citizens send him a sheep every day. Soon, all the sheep have been eaten, and they have no choice but to select people: first men, then the young, selected by lot. When a lot falls to the king’s daughter: the king protests, sparking a popular uprising. The king relents, sadly sending his daughter to the marsh where the dragon is, dressed ‘like as she should be wedded’.

As the dragon approaches, a stranger on a white horse is passing: St George. The girl warns him to leave, but he stays with her and attacks the dragon. George quickly proves his superior strength. With the dragon cowed, he asks the princess to put her garter round its neck. Tamed by underwear, the beast submits pet-like to the will of the man and the woman. They lead it to the city, where George says he will kill the beast if the people convert to Christianity. They eagerly do so (this time just 15,000 new Christians are made, none of whom are martyred), and the dragon’s remains are scattered on the fields around the city.

Where does this story come from? There are hints of it in the original martyr’s myths: Diadanus the evil emperor, for example, is in one version also referred to as ‘the dragon’: add five hundred years of retelling, a few mistranslations, and a new cultural context and one could perhaps end up with the George and dragon story.

Whatever its origins, the story has the edge on all its predecessors in one crucial way: unlike them, it is a proper story, with dramatic tension, two or three memorable characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. The early George’s ability to call down miracles on demand is replaced by a real heroic struggle: the king refusing to sacrifice his daughter, then bowing to popular pressure; the isolated and terrified princess trying to get St George to leave before he, too, is eaten: and George himself, man against monster, unaided by deus or machina – unless you count the garter.

I have objective proof of the superiority of the ‘new’ George story over the ‘old’ one: the three-year-old-daughter test. I showed her the early images of St George – a hieratic figure with a sword and a lance – but they were of little interest: I then showed her Uccello’s George and the Dragon, which hangs in the National Gallery. It immediately prompted an interested ‘What’s that?’. I have now been asked seven or eight times to ‘tell the story again, Daddy’.

This Very Good Story leads us into some very deep waters. Agendas seem to lurk in it that take us far beyond conventional Christian moralising: why must the princess be dressed for marriage? Why does she tame the beast with her garter? Some doctrinal symbolism may be encoded in these images, but a sexual agenda is surely part of their appeal.

The story is strikingly similar to those of several Middle Eastern pagan gods, from the Egyptian Horus to the Persian Mithras, who battle with beasts and win. One of these is even associated with a spot about 10 miles from George’s shrine at Lod: the battle of Perseus with the sea monster to save the princess Andromeda is said to have taken place at the nearby port of Jaffa.

By playing a game of ‘this story is a bit like that story’, writers from the nineteenth century on have presumed much: George as pre-Christian Levantine hero-cult, grafted onto the martyrdom of some hapless local; George as an archetypal hero, representing all our struggles with the animal within. It’s attractive stuff, but the problems are historical: the George and the dragon story doesn’t occur until centuries after the period when ‘the problem’ was Christianity versus paganism.

Writers of the tenth or eleventh century, when the story is presumed to have its origins, had little need to reinvigorate long-dead pagan cults: they were more concerned about the new monotheism in the East. Islam was young, successful and  – unlike early Christianity – very happy to establish itself through political and military struggle. The battle with Islam demanded new myths: it also led to new waves of cultural translation, as the Franks of Western Europe discovered the eastern church – where St George was already a major figure – and the Saracen world beyond.

The embattled Christian cultures went on the offensive. The Crusades they launched required a new breed of morale-boosting sacred hero. A heroic, far-travelling holy soldier fitted the bill perfectly. Indeed, a new cult of religious warfare was being born which would flower into an entire culture – chivalry – and George’s reputation snowballed as it did so.

The first signs of the rebirth of George came in a battle in 11th century Sicily, where he appeared before the Norman army which took the island from its Muslim inhabitants. He pulled off a greater and more influential version of the trick at the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade in 1098, appearing before the Christian armies shortly before the city fell. The ‘appearing before the army God wants to win’ trick has been something of a Georgic staple ever since: he made miraculous appearances in Russian villages throughout Siberia prior to the 1906 Russo-Japanese war, and appeared before the English armies at Mons in 1914.

Around this time his cross appears, too. The Golden Legend describes George cutting a cross of blood on the dragon’s head; the same source tells the story of George making an appearance at the siege of Jerusalem, bearing white arms with a red cross.

It is via the crusades and chivalry that the new cult of George – and his new symbol – reached England. Although the ‘old’ George of the miracles and the evil emperor was known here from at least the eighth century, Saint George did not play a major role before the thirteenth. His reinvention as our national saint – and the adoption of the red cross as his symbol – is another example of the way St George moves from culture to culture, constantly being re-invented.

This time, the audience was the English people: the author, successive Kings and their fourteenth-century spin doctors. The academic Jonathan Bengtson has pointed out that before this time, England had no truly national saint or symbol: saints like Edward the Confessor and St Edmund were more patrons of the Royal family than of the nation; Thomas à Becket was a more populist figure, but his cult posed some thorny political problems for the Crown. The heraldic badge of the Royal family likewise symbolised ruler rather than ruled. Indeed it is doubtful if the nation in the modern sense existed at all.

The gradual creation of a semi-official cult of St George thus played a key role in the process of building an English national identity – a process which, in this instance at least, may have been quite a ‘top down’ one.

Although it was probably Richard I, returning from the Crusades, who brought the ‘new’ Saracen-swotting George to increased attention, it was Edward III – or his advisors – who realised the special potential in the story. The institutions of the feudal system had been shaken from within by the murder of Edward II by his barons; the country was also under attack from without by both Frenchman and Scot. Edward founded a new chivalrous order, the Order of the Garter. The Order bolstered the relationship between Crown and aristocracy by creating a special new group of knights. It would be headed by the King; its myths and rituals would evoke the full richness of chivalric culture. Its patron would be St George.

The Order was founded in 1348; by 1388 St George’s red cross had become a kind of corporate heraldic logo for the English army: known as ‘the George Jacque’, it was compulsory wear for every soldier. By 1416 this spiritual migrant had been fully assimilated into the national culture: the Archbishop of Canterbury officially confirmed his role as ‘special protector and patron of the English nation’.

The Fifteenth century was the overripe peak of popular ritual in pre-Reformation England, and St George appeared as the patron of guilds and the hero of mumming plays across the country. By the next century, George had merged so deeply with popular culture – and our own native stories of dragons and other beasts – that it was possible for popular tradition to have replaced Silene, Libya with Uffington, Oxfordshire as the site of the dragon battle; and for St George to turn up as a native of Coventry in Richard Johnson’s 1608 The Most Famous History of The Seven Champions of Christendom.

England is not the only culture to have adopted this saint – with his good story and simple, graphic symbol – as a special patron. Genoa, Moscow and Georgia are just a few other places who have done so: indeed, his cult travelled east as effectively as it did west. He is claimed, for example, as a special protector by the Christians of Kerala, who see him as a protector in spite of having colonised twice by George-loving nations – first Portugal, then England.

I can understand how George has taken such a deep hold in so many imaginations. Simply while researching the saint, the over-familiar story of his encounter with the princess and the dragon has become something rather compelling. I can see now how myths mutate from ‘story’ to ‘belief’; I start to wonder if woolly words like ‘archetype’ are the only way my rationality can tame this particular beast.

But perhaps it is not the story’s ‘universality’ that gives it power, so much as its openness, its mutability. Once a legend has been reduced to such basic components – a man, a woman, an animal, a struggle – you can graft just about any cultural associations onto it.

I have started to crave some fixity as I watch George shape-shifting between cultures, in libraries and art galleries, and on the internet. A couple of years ago, as part of a visit to Israel, I took the opportunity to visit the only place on earth unquestionably associated with the ‘real’ St George: the town of Lod, which lies on the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

It was not a great time to visit the country. Four weeks into the Al-Aqsa Intifada, many of the key sites of Israel and the Palestinian Authority were closed, and tension was everywhere. One day, we went to the beach: we were the only people there, apart from a lonely-looking Arab man who whose very presence made my liberal Israeli hosts so nervous we departed almost soon as we arrived.

The journey to Lod revealed an Israel far from both headlines and tourist trails; an Israel that was on the surface a beguiling mixture of first- and developing worlds. Markets heaved with Arab Israelis; newly arrived – and highly secularised – Jews from the former Soviet Union; black Jews from the Horn of Africa. Pale Orthodox Ashkenazi herded on and off buses, switching from Yiddish to Bronx English when necessary. Young Sephardim supped coffees in shades and designer jeans, the guns of military service slung over their shoulders. Music that combined Middle Eastern rhythms with the latest dance beats thundered from open car windows.

I watched this world as my bus circled the concrete estates of Lod. The town seemed to consist of endless housing blocks, indistinguishable from the 1950s estates of Brooklyn, Hackney or Vladivostock.

Soon we doubled back on ourselves. I began to think how foolish it was to expect to stumble on St George’s shrine by peering out of a public bus. Then an unmistakable landmark slipped into view: the familiar red and white flag of St George flapping in the hot air, a church tower next to it, just like home.

I left the bus, and walked across a large and rather neglected square surrounded on all sides by housing blocks. It was if some planner wanted to make a central urban space here, but the money ran out. The square was overgrown with dry yellow grasses. Hulks of ruined and ancient looking structures stood by the cracked tarmac of a playing field.

As the flag drew nearer, I saw it was flying from the roof of a house. Next to the house was a handsome church of white Jerusalem limestone, but the tower next to it was not a bell tower at all: it was a minaret. The church and the mosque shared a wall, as if trying to occupy the same piece of land.

An efficiently friendly woman from the house with the flag – an Orthodox Christian institution  – let me into the church. The interior was well-tended but a little soulless, the icons and candelabra of Orthodoxy dark beneath the crisp Byzantine-styled domes and arches. There have been several churches on this site: this one dates only to 1875. 

A whole group of early legends tell the story not of the saint’s life, but of the importance of this place. They focus brazenly on a very limited series of messages: give to the church of St George at Lod, or found a church of St George yourself, and God will repay you with a miracle or two. Jews, Saracens and pagans will come to Lod to mock the cult, but will leave both punished and converted.

The relics of St George on display here included a stone column, used in his torture. Blood was said to flow from the column for three hours each year, on the anniversary of his death; it had a gap in it which functioned as a kind of supernatural lie detector, only letting people through it if they spoke the truth.

In a small room beneath the church, I came upon supposed tomb of St George: a dark space, occupied only by a small icon, a burning candle, and some empty censers. Some legends say this spot marks the site of his home, that his body was brought here at death and successively greater churches built around it.

Standing in his presumed burial place I was struck by the impact this man, obscure in life, had in death. If only by providing a moral uplift and a dose of faith at key moments, he has had an impact on history: giving courage to an embattled early church; supporting Crusaders in their fight against the Saracen; helping build nations; and spreading images, stories and ideas from culture to culture.

There was one fringe benefit to visiting during a new Intifada: I could experience for myself just how alive many of these issues still were. Diadanus, like the modern Israeli right, wanted to stamp out the enemy in his midst; in doing so he merely created new martyrs. If St George is any example, it is perfectly possible for a martyr to be more effective in death than in life. 

A crowd was emerging from the mosque as I left the church. Mid-afternoon prayers had just finished. I approached the Imam to ask if I could go in: he looked me up and down with the gaze of one who cared little for unbelievers, then assented.

Inside, one of the worshippers was curious about my interest in the building. He was welcoming in a gentlemanly, almost graceful way; I warmed to him. We walked around the mosque together: it was a plain structure, one that had seen better days. Two large and ancient-looking Byzantine pillars frame the qibla niche that marks the direction of Mecca. I noticed that both were painted green. There was a small dome over the prayer hall and a large entrance door with an Arabic inscription on it: these, too were painted green.

I asked him if there was a reason the mosque shared a site with the church. In reply he talked of both buildings under one name. I found hard to enunciate this name correctly, so eventually he wrote it down for me, first in Arabic and then in Roman script: al-Khadir.

He said that the mosque was dedicated to this figure, and that local Arabs – Muslim and Christian alike – refer to St George by the same name too. I was fascinated: are they the same person? Does St George play a role in Islam? I sensed that these questions tested the limits of his English, and perhaps of his knowledge; but it was clear that the connection between the two figures was a deep one, and that this al-Khadir was more than an incidental figure.

Outside, I tried approaching the Imam for more information, but he was surrounded by people. I quickly started to feel like an irritant. Eventually his attention turned to me: ‘I am extremely busy’, he said, ‘Please come back at some future point.’ 

I headed off towards the bus station, feeling like a frustrated, disorientated outsider. I came to Lod hoping to pin St George down: what I found was that that somehow, he extended into another culture. A whole new world of stories and histories to grapple with. Perhaps Google was the best place to hunt for him after all. 

Back in Ogbourne St George, I learn more about Lod, and begin to understand why it looks like more like Crawley than Jericho, and perhaps why its Imams are more interested in the concerns of local Muslims than of an ignorant traveller.

At I find eyewitness accounts of one of the most ignoble episodes of the 1948 Israel/Palestine war: the evacuation of Lod. The Israeli army found themselves with the armed inhabitants of the town to their rear; with the authority of David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, then a Lieutenant Colonel, gave a clear order: ‘the residents of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without attention to age’. Sources say between 250 to 426 people were killed, scores of them while taking refuge in a mosque. The Chicago Sun Times spoke of ‘Blitz tactics’, and of many more deaths among the thousands of refugees. [I have checked this account against several more impartial histories of the period].

The pre-1948 Lod looked utterly different to that of today, with palm trees scattered between a maze of low, traditional houses; its souk and its mosques, and its 18,000 residents, all Arabs. By 1950 the town was in the process of being ‘modernised’: of a population of 10,450, only 1,050 were Arab. My little complex of church, church house and mosque is an island of ‘heritage’ in a town that has been ‘cleansed’ both ethnically and culturally. 

It’s not the first time, either. The Jewish town of Lod was razed by the Romans in AD66; Caliph Abdel Malik had the (then largely Christian) town destroyed in 870. Or the last: some Muslims believe the end of the world will be marked by a battle between Jesus and Satan at the gates of Lod.

 Sobered, I point Google at al-Khadir. As with St George, the resources are considerable: al-Khadir, it turns out, is both mysterious and important. A children’s book tells his story, available from; meanwhile, an Islamic scholar gives his opinion on the subject at From English versions of the Qu’ran and other core texts, to mystical commentaries by Naqshbandi sufis, there is much available. 

Al-Khadir is held by many to be one of the prophets, yet he only crops up in passing in the Qu’ran. Just about everything else about him is the subject of debate: as the Islamic scholar Ibn Katheer puts it, ‘the real name, lineage and status of al-Khadir are controversial.’ I’m reminded of Pope Gelasius who, as early as 495 claimed that the legends of St George where so historically unreliable that his ‘actions are only known to God.’

In Sura 18 of the Qu’ran, The Cave, ‘Musa’ – probably Moses – makes a journey to the ‘land where two seas meet’. Here he encounters a being endowed with special wisdom by God. This figure, unnamed in the Sura itself, is Al-Khadir.

Al-Khadir leads Moses on a further journey, during which he carries out three baffling acts: he scuttles the boat in which they both are travelling; kills a young man without provocation; and rebuilds a fallen wall, in spite of having been made unwelcome by the locals.

Moses cannot understand these actions: al-Khadir explains the reason in each case. This story, presenting Khadir as a mysterious traveller who can discern the inner meaning of events, one who can advise one of the greatest of prophets, has made him particularly important in Islamic mysticism.

Beyond the Qu’ran, the tradition of al-Khadir expands as giddily as George’s did. Many believe he still exists, and from time to time – like St George – manifests himself. He buried Adam when he died; travelled with Alexander the Great on a quest to find the spring of eternal life; and meets Elijah in Mecca every year. He is said to have saved Palestine from floods at the turn of the century; a mosque dedicated to him in Baghdad was mysteriously protected, like St Paul’s in the Blitz, from the ravages of Desert Storm.

Al-Khadir is said to turn land green when he prays, or to appear dressed in green, or to make fruitful any patch of earth he passes. One of the most widely-accepted statements about him is attributed to Mohammed himself: he said that al-Khadir ‘sat on a barren white land and turned it green’.

Images like this give him things in common with St George: some scholars – not all – translate al-Khadir as ‘the green one’; some scholars – not all – claim ‘George’ means ‘tiller of the earth’. It is often said that churches of St George and mosques al-Khadir are located in similar kinds of places: promontories, hilltops, islands. These apparent similarities are both fascinating and tantalising, begging as many questions as they answer. Only one thing is definite: all over the Middle East, the figures of St George, Al-Khadir and the prophet Elijah elide with one another. Shrines to one are often shrines to the others; stories and popular rituals concerning them are shared. These three figures bring Jews, Muslims and Christians together.

In trying to find a clear explanation for all this I come up against the limits of the sources: most comparative study of al-Khadir is driven by a religious imperative to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Qu’ran – ‘the uncreated word of God’ – rather than its cultural interconnectedness. I am reminded how my reading about St George was similarly limited, with much scholarship focused on a Christian interest in establishing which elements of his legend were historically true. Hardly anyone seemed interested in the significance of those parts that were legend.

As I write this, extracts from The Dignity of Difference, by the [British] Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sacks, are being published in the Guardian and the New York Times. A passage jumps out at me: ‘I believe that globalisation is summoning the world’s faiths to a supreme challenge, one that we can no longer avoid. Can we find, in the human other, a trace of the Divine Other?… there are times when God meets us in the face of a stranger’. George/al-Khadir/Elijah, a wise traveller moving between the three Abrahamic religions, doesn’t always make life easy; he veers between inclusiveness and militarism.  But perhaps there’s life in the old martyr yet.

It’s the evening of 2 June, and a Jubilee bonfire is burning on the Down above Ogbourne St George. My daughter runs with the other village children in the dusk; we parents queue for overcooked sausages. Similar beacons jump hotly on the horizon. Suddenly, a group of locals push through the crowd carrying an effigy: the atmosphere shifts subtly from community bunfest to The Wicker Man.

The mask on the effigy is oddly familiar: a big wide grin between big wide ears. Are they really burning Prince Charles? Does the issue of the Royal succession matter so much to the farmers and retired bankers of the M4 corridor? No – they’re burning the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

I know Foot-and-Mouth didn’t go too well around here, but I didn’t expect this. I wait for something to happen.  There’s a bustle in the hedgerow: is Al-Khadir coming? Perhaps he will tell us why, during a once-in-a-generation celebration of national unity, it is proper to burn your elected leader. The flames crackle: is that Elijah, come to lecture us on our Glorious Constitution? Something moves up the Aldbourne road: is that St George, horseshoes striking sparks on tarmac, come to rescue the poor PM?

But no miracle occurs. This home-grown act of symbolic terrorism goes unremarked, and the flames jump around poor Tony. Our children watch, red crosses painted on their faces.

St John’s Clerkenwell

July 20, 2011 2 comments

I’ve been trying to get in here since I was a teenager. Now it’s open: and what a strange thing it is. The English headquarters of the Knights Hospitallers, the Military Order (a strange thing in itself) that became today St John’s Ambulance. Or something. Apparently a C20 office front facing a small square in Clerkenwell, central London; cut off from it, on the other side of the Old Street, the former precinct gate, still intact C15 gatehouse in flat grey London stone (Kentish?).

The C20 office front turns out to be a post-Blitz structure that bizarrely is a church, though it looks utterly unlike one. On the inside, a bare white space hung with oil painting, a big battered hall. One wall looks C18, the other three look medieval, beneath the white paint and around the dull, renewed big Perp windows a veritable feeding frenzy of battered mouldings, conjoined walls and other arcane clues to an ancient and obscure cultural history.

This over-restored shed, battered beneath the brightness, was once the east end of the headquarters of a major order: big and flat — once arcaded, or just a shed? — as for the western half of the church, I fear to guess: perhaps only as long as the square outside, which then is its ghost result, a Reformation Rachel Whiteread opposite doppleganger?

In any case its more curiousity than treat: the treat’s downstairs. The stumps of a circular nave, an image of the Holy Sepulchre/Dome of the Rock like so many C12 (oh, Cambridge, Temple, Northampton…) and like so many (Temple, Bristol the obvious example) later replaced more conventionally. And then a complete-as-you-like crypt, bizarrely in two phases. The first is early-mid C12, just thick romanesque rib vaults and each bay seperate by a broad unmoulded tunnel like arch. This, attached to whatever lay beneath the nave, would have been very close to the crypt at Berkswell, Warws, I’ve blogged about before. But the two east bays are very fancy work of the late rC12, plain as is appropriate to a crypt, but with simple curved capitals as light-footed as waterleaf, attached shafts on bases that stick their feet out wittily at angles, ballet first position. Thinner ribs with something approaching the deep mouldings of the C13: c1180, I wonder?  ‘… consecrated in 1185’ says a guide talking to a group. Smug satisfaction. Though such facts may mean many things to the unitiated.

Bizarrely, this crypt extension (intriguingly the time gap compares to the later changes amde at Berkswell) curls round the back of the older one, making a two-bay north aisle and a single bay southern extension. The east windows feature C19 or later stepped lancets: on what evidence? If originally, they become one of the very earliest dated examples (…Portsmouth St Thomas?…). As the bay curls around, even more oddly it leaves the former outer wall of the earlier structure intact, so there are slim round-headed near-lancets and slim pointed headed even-more-near-lancets, two phases of outer wall, in a single space.

Amazingly a few bits and bobs have survived. The museum has an average quality but big mid C13 historiated boss: high vaults somewhere. Glass, mainly late. Tiles, mainly C14. Why do you always get these two things? Excellent C15 crocketing from a monument. And stuffed in the crypt are a french/German/low countries effigy, an interesting import, and a first rate cadaver, possibly in solid purbeck, lieing on a carved straw roll. An antiqaurian engraving reveals this a part of a two-tier tomb to a prior: the effigy was behind a very high and open screen; the upper level was flat, but with brasses on the rear wall; above this again was elaborate and very late cresting. Apparently on the N side of the high altar above originally. An easter sepulchre, then, and both the C12 architecture and C15/16 tomb are more fuel to the fire of my current fantasy ‘images of Holy Sepulchres’ research theme. All in all, worth the wait, then.

Pictures are on my phone, but I can’t work out how to  transfer them, being a bear of medieval brain.

Longthorpe tower

June 5, 2011 14 comments
The Wheel of the Senses

The Wheel of the Senses

In many ways, this place is remarkable mainly for being ordinary. A small late C13 tower, attached to a small late C13 hall, not far from a small late C13 church, surrounded by the housing of suburban Peterborough, but of course originally a seperate village in the greater holding of Peterborough abbey. There were two manors here, both occupied by lesser knights holding their lands by grace of the abbey, and this hall-and-tower would have constituted the main family/admin base of one of them: this kind of thing must have once been replicated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times across the country. What’s unique is what survives inside the tower, and was only discovered in the second half of the twentieth century: the complete painting scheme for what must have been this gentry family’s private quarters.  It’s a single room, with a cross vault and lancet windows on three sides: as ever, one is reminded what a stylistic continuum existed between churches and secular buildings, even if the built forms are very different the same overall architectural language populated the landscape.

If this was ever ‘ordinary’, its reminder of the extraordinary — rich, subtle, highly personalised — visual culture in which these people lived. The first wall, that facing south, is comparitively unexceptional, if ‘spending much of one’s time surrounded by customised, colourful, live-size religious images painted on your walls’ can be described as unexceptional. The seven ages of man over the window, and a nativity below, and below that, running in and out of the sides of the windows, several disciples and an Ecclesia. Some nice birds: bitterns, for example: local, fen-edge wildfowl. The Ecclesia breaks the sequence a little; the nativity fits over the window in a rather unusual way; but the basic pattern is standard. The next wall, the east one, gets more interesting. In the window embrasure, a prince meets three deliciously gaunt skeletons, a familiar reminder of the fate that befalls even the most grand of us. Also a standard scene. If you want stark reminders of mortality and the meaninglessness of worldy status painted on your ‘living room’ wall, that is. But set into the window embasure is a little niche with a seat — nothing very grand, just a scoop out of the wall with a ledge in it — and on here is a teaching scene: a young man receiving instruction. We’ll come back to this.

On the main flat wall facing the room, the space’s piece de resistance (and, as far as one can tell, its best-painted scene): a delightful image in which a sober-looking man stands in front of an enormous wheel on the spokes of which are a series of animals. This is a diagram of the kind medieval people often used for teaching, understanding, exposition, thinking. The grand, elegant figure is Reason. The animals are a monkey (Taste), a vulture (Smell), a spider (Touch); a boar (Hearing); and a cock (Sight): not obvious choices to modern eyes, but to anyone who lives with creatures as intimately as these people did — knowing how rapidly a hunted boar will run, or how extraordinary is a spider’s reaction to the slightest intervention in its web — the choices are at once witty and spot-on.Perhaps even monkeys were more common than we realise, as pets or street attractions.  The theme is: our senses are — the Buddhist language is strikingly appropriate — a wheel of suffering, making us no better than the animals. It is our reason that sets us apart. There are other scenes, too, but too battered to be identifiable. The next wall, the north one, is harder to decode, and rather a case apart: there are no sacred scenes, and the dado area contains a fictive tapestry or tile pattern, but the main area contains substantial amounts of heraldry, some of it royal, as well as a couple of Royal figures on thrones; and over the door beneath one of them is what appears to be a BX: the beast the poos on those that attack it. This whole zone addresses the worldly, the secular and the chivalric in a way that the rest of the room does not; it may be no coincidence that it lead to the great hall. It’s also been suggested that it contains implicit political criticisms, either of the benighted Edward II or his youngest son, the ‘turncoat’ Edward of Kent. Which raises the possibility that no one expected this paint scheme to last very long before it was replaced; and adds to our list of things that we might not choose to live with: giant wall-sized permanent political satires, for example; armorial displays; pooing fantastical beasts: none of these have featured much on the ‘makeover your home’ programmes that dominate the daytime TV schedule. Just as a footnote, the theme of pooing over doors may just have had wider legs (or perhaps bottom): there is a pooing king over the door to the slype (another Significant Entrance) at Norwich cathedral. One to watch.

So the ‘heraldic’/’current’ wall faces the most ‘typical’/’religious’ one; and we might expect something both religious and unusual to face the (ritually significant?) east one. The scheme does not disappoint — indeed the west wall is perhaps the most interesting of all. The seasons of the months fly over the top of the arch. In the main scene a cowled, bearded, barefoot figure stands in a wilderness, signified by the presence of rabbits, crows, and a bare tree (the rabbits look as if they might have been painted by a six-year-old). All this is code for ‘hermit’. On the right are two secular figures, one engaged in some well-observed basket making — another local craft.  It’s been acutely pointed out that this must be St Anthony, who encountered a pair of angels in the wilderness; and that this means the angels are depicted having adopted ‘ordinary human’ form, a possibility known to medieval people but rarely demonstrated to have been shown in art. Though given this makes them incognito, one does wonder how many other ‘ordinary humans’ in medieval images might in fact be angels, and moreover how many ‘ordinary humans’ medieval people might have thought were angels, sacred beings undercover.  Anyway, it’s very interesting, this depiction of angels as ordinary people: too unusual to be able to generalise about, but that is part of the point. They might suggest — only suggest, given that we don’t have anything to compare this with — that this scheme, never in the top rank of works or for the top flight of patrons, was nevertheless customised to some extent, rather than bought in ‘as standard’; or perhaps too that certain ideas,  like ‘angels might be among us and look like us’, might appeal to this secular audience.  Underneath this scene are the two largest figures in the room, and (again) one appears to be a teacher and the other a student: the teacher wears a Doctor’s cap. And there is another little ledge in the window here, featuring another teaching scene.

So what was it all for? The family would have spent most of their daily life inthe Great Hall, repairing here for quieter or more enclosed moments. There’s a clear teaching theme in the paintings, as well: one wonders if education was expected to be at least part of the function of this room (and not an unimportant one), and we know informal schools were not at all rare. More likely, we can perhaps imagine the family spending time in here away from the fray, but with an inner circle: a couple of servants and/or clerks very much part of their daily innermost lives. Perhaps the kids are sitting with men like this in the window embrasures, working at some basic grammar, while the grown ups get on with whatever lower gentry types got on with when it was time to relax.

Which suggests again that there’s a customised, one-off element to this: either because of the room’s function, or because of this particular family or lord’s interests at this particular moment in time (which is most likely to have been the 1320s: my Favourite Decade for Art in the World).  In some ways this shouldn’t suprise us: in a world in which all images were handpainted, the cost difference between a one-off and something ‘off the shelf’ may not have been very great. And here, we do have a context: the approximately contemporary, and regionally relevant, Luttrell psalter, also by a small-to-middling lordly patron, also artistically distinctive, also highly personalised. It’s even possible we can draw parallels as to how such a scheme might have been created, cooked up in the case of the Luttrell psalter between the lord (or lady??) and his in-house mendicant monks. We know from the (much later) Paston letters how intimate the relationship between a family and its ‘personal religious’ might be, and how conducive mendicant culture was to thinking in ways that focused on an individual’s personal ‘story’, if the result had the right moral ending. So the patron and his advisor/s become to a large extent the artists, and the painters merely illustrators of themes that they might have cooked up over many satisfying and contemplative winters’ evenings in just such a room as this. Indeed the kinds of conversation in which such artworks were developed is a lost dimension of these people’s lives, creative, intellectual, self-analytical, and of course spiritual. Literate, too: there are words everywhere here, long inscriptions that would have informed and instructed, though few are legible.  And maybe, just maybe, the spritual advisor/intimate in this case is not a mendicant but a university-educated priest, perhaps from Cambridge or even (the date makes this work, but only for a few years) Stamford, hence the presence of a large teaching doctor in one of the west wall scenes. What is the theme? South wall: the Church, the pre-ordained cyle of time, circling around the nativity. North wall: a curious combination of appropriate fuedal respect and rejection of such worldly glories, en route to the hall. East and West walls: rejection of other worldly pleasures, or rather rising above them, like the hermit, like Reason, with the suggestion that if we do we might daily commune by angels (or, if we don’t, it will be noted by angel-spies). Everywhere: education, education, education. Which presumably helps us do this. The theme is repeated three times, knocking Tony Blair into a cocked hat. And everywhere, too the religious is wrapped up in the real, the worldly, the every day: these angels-in-mufti are a world away from the gloried beings who would have been imaged in the nearby church.

One more thing. We don’t have anything on this scale from any other time in the medieval period to compare this with. So such things may have been commonplace at all times, or this may be a lucky chance survival — though I suppose statistically the former is more likely. But once again, the Luttrell psalter forms a context-of-sorts, and together they may arm us to make a specific suggestion about the first half of the C14. This Decorated era is well known for its spirit of restless experiment and customised effect in church architecture: these two works suggest that that spirit might have been much more widespread, and even more interesting and varied, seeking deeply personal and complexly imagistic inspiration from the ordinary lordly home as much as from the hallowed confines of the Great Church.

Education, bitterns, saints

Education, bitterns, saints

The Sleep Project VI: South Elmham – slight return

May 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I had expected somewhere deep, dripping, lost; the kind of woolpit children could wander into and never come back, green. The reality was more prosaic: a wedding venue, well-tended countryside, barbed wire and new fences. Yet it lives in my memory: the hulks of flint rising in the deep copse, a mile from the nearest road; bedding down and finding the tree that had seemed such a haven in daylight mysteriously threatening, its roots among the ancient dead; the cracked and battered once-were-walls unexpectedly welcoming, a kind of second-best to home. Something deep, lived-in, in the softness of the night, the clouds barely visible as they shift and wink the starlight above the turning earth, the benign, tamed, townless country, the subtle working of roots, leaves and knapped flints beneath a soft wind. This is why Wild Sleeping is so powerful: like a dream, it lives on in the memory, returns to repeat itself.

What I wasn’t expecting was the 2am synthbleep of the reception, resounding over the Suffolk fields:  //let’s get this party started/I lost my phone and my keys on the dancefloor/forget you, forget you too//. I couldn’t work out where the sound was coming from, and stumbled through a pheasant covert and across a rutted field, half awake, never to return….

East and Angular

May 13, 2011 1 comment

To England’s bellow-shaped northern lump,a great Anglia hip of North and South Folk almost falling into Netherland and sea.

Norwich, proud capital of the region, dripping with arty doings and fine buildings. St Peter Mancroft, proud success story of the Norman makeover, jammed with proud civic mercantile goodies.

St Gregory’s church a heartbreaker, with its swaggering St George wall painting and quiet fading woodwork, converted into an arts centre by someone with a real feel for the random, fragile poetry of these places — more medieval churches should loosen up and go this way.

The St Andrew’s Street/Elm Hill/Suckling Hall area an almost-too-good-to-be -true medieval heartland such that London has lost/Tombland has been a desert since de Losinga cut it in two in the 1090s/at St Julian’s shrine supporters of the Canarys made yellow and green genuflections, twin tribes of Anglia and Anglo-Catholic intertwining.

Then south, to a deep land I’ve long been allured by on the map, miles from anywhere of any size, scattered villages a litany of saints. Elmham minster just teeth of jutting flint in a copse a mile from the nearest lane, amid a landscape tilled and husbanded and looked after with quiet attention since at least the C9: I kip there in a bivvy bag, trees with their roots in the Saxon dead, the silent walls and comfort, until it gets cold and damp and I repair to the car.

By 7am I’m at Thornham Parva, a second shut-eye among the subterrenean winding sheets of Suffolk farmers, dawn sun hitting my face as I slumber by a church of quiet poetry and awaken to the spectacular Retable, meideval work of art ripped from a Dominican friary and found in a stable-block.

Then west to Lavenham, in a country almost tastelessly perfect, like an overwrought late medieval/C17 designer cake, the town a dripping film-set of mercantile pride, the Guildhall more for warehousing and feasting than faith, in the church, perfectly placed and surely of the Wastell ilk upwardly mobile Springs and their extravagant parclose chantry setting the tone for half a millenium of smug ostentation; then Long Melford, the Clopton and Walsingham-aping Lady chapels places to weep among the dry brown wood, fading tempera and poetic articulations of incarnate ideas. These places have been pleased with themselves in slightly blingtastic way since at least 1400, and at shows; yet the Long Melford chantries strike moments of real poetry.

The Sleep Project IV: South Elmham Minster

May 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Among the ancestors in their winding sheets

Me in my bivvy-bag

The threatening comfort of the dark

south-east Mercia

May 11, 2011 Leave a comment

At its furthest east, England can seem a clean slate, each wave of the past brutally washing away its predecessor in a great flatland flood. Further north and west, England darkens and thickens as Danelaw and Celtia, upland and Commonwealth are added to its mighty pastbroth. In between there is this, a little-toured no-man’s land of blank-but-beguiling towns and forgotten country, bucolic, posessed of a subtle allure. For what these overlooked counties of south-eastern Mercia — Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and thereabouts — lack in drama they make up for in depth-in-time, as if history has left each layer hanging and mingling, suspended in a bucolic medium of past-ness.

Here is Brixworth, mighty mouldering eighth-century barn, built by people skilled at recycling Roman tile but totally useless at putting together arches (or is the ineptness deliberate, an act?), holding within it the godly silence of the dawn. Something still here, something present, in this large high village on the rolling plain, a presence which becomes a quiet, patient insistence in the Lady chapel, with its late C13 double tomb, as the elderly scholarly vicar and his one-or-two-flock depart from Morning Prayer.

Here is Earl’s Barton, suave ungainly witness to a later, more sophisticated Anglo-Saxon, its grey timberpatterns of stone and rough balusters a crossbreed of carpenter’s lathe and Lalibela.

Here is Longthorpe, dense, inspiring painted testimony to a world in which even the local squire lived surrounded by profound, witty, spirited secco walls of bright colour.

Here is Fotheringhay, half-cathedral built and lost, at once Royal and testimony to a deeply human devotion to the spirits of our own pasts, a lost passion for the health of our ancestors’ souls, cracked and mad and bare with its remade tombs and rough photocopied displays, sad and white and great upon the riverside green hill.

Here is Barnack, jammed and busy with mason’s knock-offs: in one corner a pervy triune God penetrates the Virgin with a spiky shaft of light; book, tree and city on the hill witness the incarnative assault among the desert dust-motes; in another the Saxon Christ gazes at us, folded and imperious; in another arcades wittily change centuries, leaving the Saxon tower alone, another rumbunctious brutalist curving and moulding.

It seems godless this place, too busy with itself, too concerned with 1000 years of mason’s knock-offs, until I grip a corbel in the silence, and the world seems to quietly turn around us, and I sense the stone enclosing the air within, and hear the air turning the world without, and for a moment everything is falling in ancient holy stasis.

To the Hills and Holes, an orchid-filled limestone grassland dense enough to get lost in, a wilderness made by the ripping of cathedrals from the ground: everywhere is built from here, and what’s left is made landscape, a grassland-in-miniature.

To Stamford, where the C8, C9 and C10 are still detectable in a suprisingly urban world, a place whose scale and ambition was fixed in the C13 and which has been rebuilt but not replaced in the intervening centuries, a magical gathering of layered and eloquent stone, always rich enough to build and rebuild, never so rich as to demolish and start again.

To Geddington, where Eleanor’s funerary cross is, two days after the Event, draped with emblems of Kate and Wills; this most achingly (tri)angular and elegant of monuments seeming to whisper of princesses, loves and deaths past and present, of impossible romances and royal myths.

To Hardingstone, where the wood by the roundabout next to the ribbon development and the ‘A’ road is graced by another such cross, this one  square and Perp prophetic, with its early ogees and panels and lowered arches, a plucked tarmac cobweb from the face of time.

Looking at the sun

April 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Its flat white disc, and not much bigger down the lens. Filtered to a deep and molten red, its astonishing size is made apparent by the curvature: even at this enormous distance, one has to refocus between the centre and the edge. A palpable sense, then of ball-ness, of a mighty sphere locked in a continuous maelstrom of explosion, its surface pitted and rippled by the current of unimaginable energy, its fingers sending skywards slow plumes that would fry a planet, where it to rashly pass in its wake.

China final – England from China

April 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Each visit is somehow a deeper plunge-in-at-the-deep-end, and even after a few weeks a brief but ever more intense glimpse of how my own world might look from the outside before it just becomes ‘natural’.

England is odd. Where has everybody gone? Everyone seems seperate, muted, as if the volume has been turned down on the world. But the physical environment is glorious: velvet, green, alive with shocking quantities of birdsong.

Yet there is something awfully wrong here, too: the pasty-faced, overweight people who populate Tesco are a shock, a weirdly modern kind of poverty in which bad food rather than lack of it is the issue.

And with this China too is reversed, seen from the inside. The distressing, exhausting, joyous tumult and fuss of family life: like living in a stir-fry. The bucolic countryside which to so many there just looks like toil, the mountain fastnesses, poverty. It is a luxury to see them as anything other. Yet losing myself among them, being a deep observer-not-participant, is one of life’s great joys.