Our 2021-2 programme got off to a flying start on Friday with a most interesting talk by Christine Vasey. As the event took place in the main hall at All Saints, the audience (numbering the mid-twenties) was comfortably spaced out.
The last edition of FORUM set up arrangements for members to resubscribe and for others to join. We have had an encouraging response. We now have 47 paid-up members and a comfortable number of registrations on the three multi-session courses. If any of you have not got round to completing your application and wish to do so, we suggest you do this straightaway, in order that you remain on our mailing list. The course programme and subscription and registration form will be once again sent as additional documents along with this FORUM. It is, of course, possible for someone to join at any time, but we will not be sending further copies of FORUM or other notices to those who are not members (or potential new members). As advised in our reminder message there will be a delay in the clearance of cheques, but we hope to have this sorted out very soon. In the meantime, be assured that this will not affect your membership. Please note that you need to make sure that I have your subscription and registration form even if you pay by BACS. Otherwise I do not have a record of your membership! It is also helpful to check addresses etc.
In the past we have admitted non-members to meetings on payment of a small fee. We have decided to change this practice. Non-members will be admitted to one meeting free of charge as a ‘taster’, but for subsequent sessions they will have to be paid-up members.
In the course programme, as so far published, alternative dates were given for one session in the course ‘The Country House in the Twentieth Century’. This matter has now been resolved and an amendment appears in the current version of the course programme. There will be a session on 14th February but not 21st.
It has been customary to provide tea, coffee and biscuits at meetings. We intend to continue this facility, but in future will not make a charge. However, the practice has developed in course sessions by which certain members take responsibility for the organisation of refreshments; this will need to be maintained. The course lecturer will explain further.
In addition to a report on the recent meeting, this FORUM contains two main articles. The first by Roger Mitchell invites a response, and we hope that some of you will be moved to let us have your ideas on the question he poses. The second item is a book review. Again, we hope that this may inspire members to submit their own book reviews.
The first course of the 2021-2 programme starts on Monday 27th September at 10.30 am. The topic is ‘England under the Norman Kings and Queens’ and the lecturer is Peter Firth. There is just time for someone to register for this course who has not already done so, but you should contact John Sharp straight away. Peter will be sending out a message in advance of the first meeting to welcome course members and finalise arrangements.
A. E. Housman – Poet and Scholar
We are grateful to Christine Vasey for getting our 2021-2 programme off to such a good start. Her presentation on A. E. Housman was delivered with verve and humour, and it was well-illustrated by readings of his poems and relevant music. Housman is best-known for his collection of poems, ‘A Shropshire Lad’, though he did not spend much of his time in that county. However, Shropshire represented a sort of rural paradise, where the simple pleasures of ‘lads’ were set in traditional countryside. The work was popular, particularly at times when it matched the patriotic mood of the nation. Less well-published has been the extent to which Housman’s inspiration came from unrequited love, and a homoerotic love at that. At Oxford he developed a passion for fellow student, which was never reciprocated. This inner turmoil is expressed indirectly in his earlier poems and more explicitly in ones published much later. There was also another Housman: the classical scholar, the greatest Latinist of his day. In scholarship and the academic warfare that often goes with it he was both famous and notorious. It is quite hard to reconcile the tormented romantic with the crusty academic, but how they existed in one body was convincingly explained in Christine’s talk.
When Did England Look Its Best?
Forget the smell, the diseases, the discomforts and the dangers and just concentrate on the look of the place, both the landscape and the buildings. When was England at its most beautiful? I have suggested seven possible dates and to help you make a decision, I have put down some information about the situation at each date. I do hope that you will tell the rest of us about your choice and perhaps say something about the factors behind your decision. I hope that this will be the basis of a follow up article in next month’s FORUM.
If you like the idea of rewilding, this is probably the one for you. In Roman times the population of Britain probably exceeded 3 million and towns like London and York might have had as many as 50,000 inhabitants. The collapse of Roman rule and the instability that accompanied Anglo Saxon settlement caused a massive decline in population and by 700 AD, there were probably as few as one million people in the area that was to become England. The amount of land used for agriculture was reduced, and forests and waste spread. The most impressive structures would be Roman ruins, while Saxon settlements were villages rather than towns and wooden structures rather than brick and stone.
The population grew throughout the Anglo Saxon period, and then more quickly after the Norman conquest, to reach around three million in 1200 AD. Towns were larger and many were enclosed by stone walls. Stone was also used in religious buildings – cathedrals, churches and monasteries – and for military strongholds, but most domestic buildings still used wood. More people meant more agricultural land and if, like me, you still remember drawing out your mediaeval village with three open fields and lots of strips and with a rich man in his castle and a poor man at his gate, then this may be your nostalgic choice.
The Tudors had now seized the throne, but this was still pre-reformation England. The population had still not recovered fully from the Black Death and was significantly lower than it had been three hundred years earlier, but it was rather better housed, fed and clothed, and so there was no reduction in agricultural land, although enclosure was under way and there were concerns that ‘sheep do eat up men’. Profits from wool and cloth brought greater prosperity, and gothic architecture, especially in its latest ‘perpendicular’ style, produced some of England’s most beautiful buildings with all their stained glass, wall paintings and carvings still intact. Many Victorians like Pugin and William Morris saw this as a golden age compared with their own polluted and despoiled environment.
With Charles II, ’the merry monarch’, newly restored to the English throne after the traumas of civil war, this was a time to celebrate the progress that the country had made over the last century and a half. The population had now increased to 5.5m and the proportion living in towns had increased. There was concern about a shortage of land and particularly of timber that was required for housing, ship building and, as charcoal, for iron production, but this was still a well wooded country with successful agriculture and better quality housing. Depending on the availability of stone, brick and timber, different parts of the country had different vernacular styles of building. There was plenty of variety and lots of ambition in country houses, manor houses and farm-houses, and except for the very top level of society traditional English styles and ideas dominated with classical architecture from the European Renaissance still relatively rare.
The pace of change was increasing, and England in 1800 was very different from what it had been in 1660. There were more people and the first census in 1801 counted them carefully and reported the population of England as 8.5 million with the proportion of town dwellers continuing to increase. There was greater prosperity and a thriving middle class, although a majority of the population remained close to the breadline. Some timber framed buildings survived, but new buildings would be of brick or stone and probably classical in style. Canals and turnpike roads improved communications but did not damage the environment. There was increased industrialisation with iron, pottery and textiles leading the way, but places like Coalbrookdale, Etruria and Cromford were seen, not as a blot on the landscape, but as new and exciting attractions. The rural landscape was changed by agricultural improvements, often involving the enclosure of the old open fields and by the expansion of parks and landscape gardens.
The changes that occurred in the 19th century were truly revolutionary. Between 1800 and 1910 the population quadrupled and so another 28m people had to be housed, fed and employed. The balance shifted decisively from rural to urban and coal provided the power for factories and railways. Conurbations developed and, if we are searching for beauty, we would be well advised to steer clear of the big cities and industrial districts. However, there was another England of market towns and villages, which had probably never looked better. Railways had improved communications, but the internal combustion engine was in its infancy and transport beyond the station depended on horses and bicycles. This was a tranquil landscape of quiet lanes, hedgerows and ponds creating the biodiversity that we seek to revive. It was also a relatively quiet townscape, unencumbered by cars and car parks. There can be no denying that housing conditions, particularly in industrial towns and cities, in mid-century were often appalling, but the later Victorians deserve great credit for the progress made particularly after 1860. In towns, terraced houses became increasingly attractive both for residents and passers-by. In the countryside and its villages, it was the Victorians rather than the Tudors who created the English Country Cottage that has been copied and admired around the world. In the suburbs and new towns these vernacular models could be successfully applied.
Between 1910 and 2020 the population of England grew by a relatively modest 60%, but that, of course, meant an extra twenty million people and the entire population of fifty-six million made increasing demands, not just for houses but for cars and car parks, shopping centres, airports etc. Despite more high-rise buildings, the percentage of land described as ‘built on’ grew rapidly, especially in the inter-war period when agricultural land was cheap. Even so (and to many people’s surprise) the percentage of built on land in England remains well below 10%, leaving, in theory at least, plenty of room for beauty. Not everybody was convinced, and in their different ways, Ian Nairn with his polemics of ‘Outrage’ and ‘Subtopia’ (1955) and Philip Larkin with his poem ‘Going, Going’ (1972) expressed their pessimism. Where are we today? With planners, architects, landscape architects, conservation officers, nature wardens etc, the problem is recognised but not yet sorted. As we once again start to broaden our horizons after the pandemic, it is for us to decide if our glass is half empty or half full. Are we more aware of National Parks rather than Retail Parks and are there more historic estates than industrial ones? Is there more recycling or fly tipping? Why do people still drop litter?
We have to accept that a lot of the country is damaged and some of it virtually destroyed. It is the price we pay for material comfort and convenience. The impact of over 30 million cars, vans and trucks is ever present in towns, suburbs and villages. However, much of England probably looks better and is certainly more accessible than it has ever been. Cotswold villages have never been so well cared for; suburbia continues to mature and grow greener; pedestrian areas remind us that towns are for walking around not driving through; country parks and nature reserves combine protection and access; a greater proportion of the country is wooded than has been the case since mediaeval times and, thanks particularly to the National Trust, much of our coastline remains relatively undeveloped and accessible.
Do you prefer to stick with what we have got, or would you like to resurrect one of those earlier Englands? Would our modern landscape and townscape attract or repel our predecessors and what would they admire?
So many questions. Next month I will provide a few of my answers, but I hope that some of you will respond to my thoughts so that we can publish them in FORUM. You can send them to me or to John Sharp (our email addresses on the final page). My final picture shows that Perfect England that almost certainly never existed.
A Southport Childhood
I wonder if any of you have come across ‘Simple Annals’, a memoir by Roy Watkins of his boyhood in Southport in the 1940s and 1950s. I was encouraged to obtain it after reading an article in ‘Literary Review’, a prestigious journal – and one in which Southport is not often mentioned. The reviewer described the book as ‘an absorbing masterpiece’.
It is a short work (122 pages) and rather a list of individual memories than a coherent autobiography, but Watkins’s simple unadorned narrative can be deceptive. Its insights into the mind of a child are authentic and thought-provoking. In the episodes he describes there is often a real sense of time and place and a child’s eye on the world. He tells you exactly how things seemed to a young child, only lightly touching on their significance. It has the conviction of genuine experience recalled.
Roy Watkins was born in Southport in 1939 but spent the first year or so of the Second World War with his grandparents in Liverpool, before returning to Southport because of the blitz. ‘Simple Annals’ covers only the period up to 1950. He was later a writer, a teacher and a publisher, both in this country and the USA, living for a while in Wales, but is resident now in France. The memoir is divided into two parts dictated by his addresses: 213, Lytham Road, Marshside, and 36 New Crescent, Crossens.
For local people there is much interest in the environment he describes, for example the practice of shrimping.
‘Later on shankers come back off the marshes. In every cart a mound of shrimps writhe and hiss. ‘Throw us a shrimp,’ Grandma shouts. He leans back and sticks his hand into the pink hill of living shrimps and flings it up in the air, and shrimps come pattering around our feet. Grandma gathers them. ‘O Grandma their whiskers twitch!’ ‘Quick,’ she says, ‘Ne’er mind about that! Get t’ kettle on!’
The Second World War is always a background element in the early chapters. German planes are seen flying over Marshside.
‘Flashes of tracer in the sky: a Messerschmidt 109 fleeing towards the sea, a Spitfire wheels to chase, wing nearly touching our rooftops… No a Hurricane, says Uncle Dick, and he knows best. ‘Be off,’ Grandma shouts, shaking her fist at the sky. ‘Be off wi’ you. Let honest folk alone!’
Eventually Roy’s father returns from service and the boy has to get to know him. He brings with him a banana in his kitbag, a mysterious rarity, but it has gone brown. The following day the boy finds a train set in the kitchen and wonders who it is for.
Watkins has not only this knack of presenting the stories as the child sees them, but of developing the vision and making it more sophisticated as the boy gets older. There is an extraordinarily touching moment where the boy believes he has seen the face of a little brother who dies at birth, but as with so many of these early experiences we know no more than the child does how far they are real. What is very real is the anguish of the mother.
This event is mentioned in a passage which in a more amusing way represents the child’s perspective.
‘I want something special – that special coat with velvet collars that used to belong to Uncle Dick. ‘Oh dear,’ Mam says, ‘well it wouldn’t fit you now. ‘But WHY if I want it? WHY if it’s the only thing I want?
There was something I wanted more – my baby brother – but Jesus wanted him in Heaven. That Jesus! He gets everything.’
Roy’s grandmother is a powerful presence in his early life and provides much of the humour. When they move to Crossens, he finds her outside the new house in the midst of the furniture which is being moved. There sits his grandmother with a scowl on her face and a cup of tea on her lap.
‘I’ll think that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ll just laugh, I will. I’ll laugh forever.’
This is a woman who doesn’t believe in washing machines. A dolly tub is the only way to clean clothes. Another comic situation is the family religiously sending lettuces to Glasgow by post on the grounds that their relative can’t get them there.
Later on, Roy becomes interested in the possibilities of an ancient history in the area, inspired by the presence of a dug-out canoe in the Botanic Garden museum and the empty lowlands where Martin Mere once was and which can be seen from Crossens, and which he later explores with a friend. One day he obtains the unprecedented gift of pocket money and uses it not only for sweets, but also to obtain a book on the Stone Age. He becomes fascinated by the idea of a time that is distant and remote, and he discovers a kindred spirit at school, a boy who is obsessed with material about Africa. ‘I was dizzy, breathless. There was someone else like me!’ Together they realise that the local library is a source of information and wonders, despite the restrictions which the librarian wants to impose. He realises that Crossens has a past. Then he starts to learn Welsh, the language of his grandparents, and his friend Swahili until they realise that languages are fairly tough propositions for young boys to teach themselves.
Roy meets his friend’s mother and at the age of ten falls in love with her. This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. The author makes the point that a child can fall in love – or a sort of love – with an improbable subject, even while he stills has feelings for the girls of his own age. In the end this family move away – they simply disappear – and there is a suspicion on Roy’s part that there is something wrong with the mother and that she may be in an asylum. He tries to find out more, but fails. He has lost a best friend, but as is often the way of these things he finds another.
‘They say it is against the rules.’
He nodded, put his arm around my shoulder, and we walked slowly away.
‘Rules,’ he said, raising his other arm in a grand gesture. ‘What care we for rules?’
Childhood is ending and the book finishes at this point. Adolescence would be another story and Roy Watkins is not interested in telling it. What we have is a truthful evocation of childhood that can stand comparison with some of the great literature of the past.
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