31 August 2021

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

 Cosas de España/Galiza 

Covid: The kids don’t kare. Wave no.6? Amber to Red soon?

Some 70,000 people form a human chain to protest the environmental crisis at Mar Menor. Lenox also writes on this scandal here.

So, poor 15 year old Princess Leonora is off to Wales, of all places, to attend the famous(?) United World College of the Atlantic. Here’s Wiki on the place. The list of Notable Alumni and Students is pretty long but I have to admit I didn’t recognise any of the names on it. Except Princess Leonora’s, of course.

María’s Not So Fast: The Sword of Religion

The UK 

If you don’t like the English, this is the book for you – The Angry Island, by the ‘hugely witty’ A A Gill. For one reason and another – while he admired English achievements  – Gill despised the English themselves. The irony is that, while he claimed to be Scottish because he was born in Edinburgh, his father was English and he lived all but the first year of his life in London. Hard not to see him as English himself. But, anyway, I’ll be citing some of his always-pungent – and usually accurate – accusations but, for the moment, there’s something on Poundbury below that I scanned this morning for an old friend who lives in next-door Dorchester and who took me round the place a couple of years ago. I have to admit I didn’t hate it. BTW: Gill also has a go at Thomas Hardy below.

I mentioned the other day the Galician susceptibility to morriña, or nostalgia. This is something which they share with the English, it seems – A A Gill saw this as the abiding fault of the English. Inter alia.

The USA

There’s a parade of stories about anti-vax activist leaders and right-wing talk show hosts dropping like flies due to Covid. These are the folks who’ve led rallies or, in the case of the talk show hosts, pooh-poohed or even opposed vaccinations and mask wearing. You can’t exactly call them “the best and the brightest.”

Religious Nutters/Crooks Corner

She’s still at it.

Finally  . . .

Odd that roundabouts have figured in my thoughts twice in the last couple of days, though not as regards the dangerously unique way Spaniards negotiate them. Firstly, when recently returning to roads I’ve not been on for years, I found they all now have new roundabouts every so often. Secondly, I read that Letchworth was the first town in the UK to have one and that the concept had been tried previously in both the USA and France but hadn’t caught on. As A A Gill put it: Roundabouts are a brilliant little piece of social engineering that only works with the belief that others will behave well if you give them the option, that they’ll see the point of the common good. The French and the Americans both tried roundabouts first but rejected them. They could get their cars but not their heads around their national temperaments didn’t suit. But they were fine for the English, This might rank as a Gill compliment, though a back-handed one, I guess.

Note: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here

THE ARTICLE  

NOSTALGIA: A A Gill

Poundbury comes at you before you’re ready for it. Like a coward in a bar fight, it smacks you in the eye as you’re taking your coat off. Poundbury is Prince Charles’s perfect English village, his brave effort to put his bricks where his mouth is. His answer to modernism and brutalism and minimalism and all the other hard-edged isms of post-war living. This is the way, he says, that most of us would like to live, if we had a choice.

I’d always imagined it – and have often imagined it – as being a series of self-contained villas, humbly vaunting Utopia, set in that rolling, downy, somnambulistic England, that mind’s-eye shire that is the favourite backdrop of Victorian engravers. I imagined driving over a curly B road with double white lines and cresting a hill to see through a break in the carefully mixed deciduous wood, over a well kept but not too over-pruned hawthorn thorn hedge, a glimpse of a distant Pickwickian huddle of thatch and nicotine stone, hugging a stately and elegant village church, wrapped in night-green yew trees. And I imagined that there would be horses and carriages, swains in smocks, and maids jerking double-fat gold top out of long-lashed Jerseys. I imagined men in red, back from fighting Boney in the Peninsula; I imagined drovers and day labourers and jolly curates and a grim sexton bowling and pall-mailing outside the village pub. And perhaps a country wedding with rose petals, a bit of a local with authentic instruments, the cooing of pigeons, the deafening hum of bees. 

Then as we drew closer, driving down an ancient avenue of beech, chestnut and oak, we would begin to pass on the road a raggle-taggle line of men and women walking towards the Poundbury of my imagination. There’d be a Viking nd a monk arguing, a Saxon house-carl, a stern-looking Norman and a delicate maid with a long plait. Then there’d be Robin Hood and, on his charger, Richard the Lionheart. By the time we got to the sign saying: ‘Poundbury, twinned with all our yesterdays’ there would be men in top hats and side whiskers and a fat little queen, and Baden-Powell back from the African wars and, then, finally, local boys marching off to hang their washing on the Siegfried line. And that’s the end, because that’s the end of interesting history. After that it’s all beastliness. 

What we’ve driven past is the grand, moving tableau of England’s rich tapestry, probably styled by Arthur Rackham. They’ve walked off the frontispiece of an Edwardian called something like Our Nation’s Glory for the nursery, or Tales from our our Island for girls and boys who haven’t started menstruating or masturbating yet. As each of the characters passes into Poundbury’s miraculous purlieus, their costumes melt away and they morph into the men and women of today. They see us and they smile with conspiratorial winks as if to say, ‘Don’t let on. This is be our secret.’ That’s what I always imagined. 

Poundbury isn’t quite like that. You get to the edge of Dorchester and, bang, there it is. Not so much a village of timeless values and aesthetics, more an extension, a lean-to. There isn’t so much as a thin strip of medieval fields between Dorchester and Poundbury; there is no moment to stop and take a view, straighten your tie and rub your shoe on your calf; you’re right in the middle of it, and the first impression on a gutsy, grizzled March Wednesday is that it is far, far nastier than you ever thought. The smart, urban, open-space minimal people with personality spectacles who close their eyes when they talk, who you imagined must have been over-egging metropolitan snobbery when they said it was quite, quite beyond anything, were understating the case. It is utterly beyond Dorchester in aspirational retro-tat.

The first mote to the eye is how crass, how boxily unsubtle the pastiche of Never Never village life has been. Most of you could have cut up old copies of Country Life and collaged a more winsomely attractive mise en scene than Poundbury. You walk around thinking that you must be missing something – is this all there is? What you’re missing is what Poundbury’s missing, a sense of purpose or identity. Really basic things are wrong – the scale, relationship of the buildings to each other or to open space. Great lumps of vernacular have been blown up to make them contemporary functional, whilst others have been miniaturised. What’s most discordantly strange is that the buildings see, to be outgrowing themselves; windows aren’t the right walls or doors; the scheme and rhythm of the whole place is aphasic. The pavement, for some unfathomable reason, is gravel – you crunch your way round scattering small stones into the tarmac. It’s not that the community has no heart, it has nothing else. We’re walking round the cul-de-sacs and alleys that are ventricles of a heart that beats for nothing; there is muscle, no no limbs, no vital signs, no life. This isn’t a model of how most people wish to live, it’s something much smaller. 

Above his tomb in St Paul’s is Christopher Wren’s epitaph: ‘Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you’. This could be written in double yellow lines around Poundbury’s roundabout. What this is, is a self-portrait of Prince Charles: all his gauche good intentions with their strangulated awkwardness. Romance coupled with crass. Poundbury’s both grandiose and small.minded. Stupendously arrogant and ever so humble. 

You can see see that taking the argument into the third dimension and actually building a hypothesis in a field has a grand gestural sweep to it reminiscent of the other Prince of Wales, the Regent building his shopping street and park and Brighton Pavilion. But it’s also a piece of blunt, stubborn vanity to expect real people to pay to be lab rats in an experiment which is really no more than GCSE coursework debate on aesthetics. Compared with Regent’s Park, Poundbury is a wendy house: Compared with the vision of Albert’s Great Exhibition or Edward I’s Welsh castles, it’s a garden ornament. But all that might have been excusable if it had actually worked, if Poundbury really were the place most of us wanted to live. But on the day I visited there was a simmering row about the second stage of the village that was being constructed in a moribund field next door. The original experimental citizens resented the diluting of their exclusivity and, according to the people I asked up the road in Dorchester, they already looked down on the burghers of their larger and older neighbour. 

Prince Charles has managed to grow a Petri dish of avaricious, purse-lipped, provincial snobs – how very, very House of Windsor. And in turn, he’s turned his royal disappointment on them for thanklessly wanting to cash in on his good name and work by selling their ideal homes for a quick profit.

What’s wrong with Poundbury is not the breeze block and stone cladding, the carefully regulated specimens in the garden, or the tasteful absence of satellite dishes, it’s in its aspect: it faces the wrong way, it has its head turned over its shoulder and it looks lovingly at the past in a Canute-like attempt to stave off the beastly future. The Olde England pastiches of Disney Florida re actually more successful and estate-agent honest than Poundbury because they don’t have pretensions to be anything other than sentimental historiography. Poundbury is supposed to be both the way we lived and the way way we should live. It refuses to contemplate any improvement or growth outside its own limited dead terms of reference. It’s disappointed in and disapproving of the world it sits in, it implies a human spirit of quiet, repetitive craftsmanship as opposed to messy experiment because nothing good, it says, can come of change. Unless it is the imperceptible inch-by-inch predestined certainty of an acorn turning into an oak tree. 

Standing in the middle of this neurotic, irritably sighing, obsessively curated, wilfully blinkered suburb, you are irresistibly reminded of Prince Charles. He hasn’t built a modern village for the overspill of Dorchester, he’s constructed a monument to himself, to all the neuroses, night sweats and little articles of faith that bind Charles to his truncated role, the things that make Poundbury so nostalgically petulant. The overwhelming atmosphere of the place is his uncomfortable self-righteousness and self-pity. It cries out for a great clarion of arrogance, but what it comes up with is a little burp of conceit. Poundbury is an unconscious exercise in self-revelation. But unlike all the other royal builders, from William and his Tower of London to George and his Brighton Pavilion, Charles wouldn’t dream of actually living in his creation. And that’s ironically what makes it such a telling self-portrait. This is not a man at home in his own skin. He is our little Ozymandias. Poundbury is two trunkless feet dumped in Dorchester’s back yard, ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ 

It is a neatly novel coincidence that Poundbury is a suburb of Dorchester, because Dorchester itself suffers from a severe case of looking back. This was once a sheep town, a hard, wild and woolly place on the southern English chalk down. It made a fortune from wool that was both big money and subsistence wages. There was life-sapping hard work and simmering rural resentment. Down here there were always recruits for a better tomorrow, for the overturning of society and the grand settling of moral debts. It was in this deceptively tranquil countryside that the first trade union, the Tolpuddle martyrs, met. Dorchester is where Hanging Judge Jeffreys held his Bloody Assizes. 

Here were the desperate converts for new Edens, new orders, better tomorrows. Nonconformist religion was loud and judgemental down here. The Dorset and Hampshire chalk downs were crowded with tight rural communities that were blown back and forth from feast to famine by the agricultural economy. But today the landscape is eerily peaceful. The sheep have gone, the agricultural workers’ delicately balanced lives expired. The countryside that supported Dorchester has been agri-cleansed, wiped clean into a dormitory retirement hush – a loss quite as devastating as the mine closures and heavy-industry amputations of the north. But down here in the south-west, there wasn’t even the small solace of the flexi-time, self-employed assembly jobs that were used to bribe the old industrial landscape. There isn’t even a motorway to Dorchester yet. Agriculture just stole away in the night. The great wealth and power of the land departed, and it was as if no one even noticed. Apart Thomas Hardy, that is. In a series of novels, magazine and lyric-mulchy poetry, he did for Dorchester. He nailed the lid on on its rough, rude coffin. 

In a university somewhere someone is writing a thesis blight of writers in your landscape. No infestation of literature has been more devastating than Hardy’s set work grasp on Dorchester. His Tess and Jude and all the Madding Crowd are a reoccupying force that will last a thousand years. Hardy wrote about the ending of traditional rural life in Dorset. He minded. His stories extolled its virtues, and its sad characters became tragic symbols of a continuous, organically-mystical life that was already archaic and anachronistic when he set it to paper. 

Hardy’s love for Dorset stops the place from dying but it also hooks it for ever in a moment. Dorchester is for ever Castlebridge. Here is the Far from the Madding cafe, the Return of the Native drop-in centre and assorted edible Wessexry, all invented and sugared by Hardy. There is nothing else for Hardy Country to do except sell his fudge and tea towels and bright little models of Julie Christie being shown the sabre cuts by Terence Stamp. Dorchester is pinned to a wall of nostalgia by Hardy’s mawkish depressing love of a vanishing life. But the irony is that the way of life caught in the aspic of his pen was anything but nostalgic. It was always looking for ways to improve itself, to get on and to get out. The West Country was a crucible of new ideas and belief. Hardy’s characters are constantly being caught by their pasts and tripped up by fate.

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