Dear friends and readers,
This evening as Yvette and I were preparing supper, I came across Clark’s poem in the London Review of Books. I laughed and cried inwardly:
Buildings of England
— T. J. Clark
Time and again, however well we know the landscape of love,
and the little churchyard with lamenting names …
time and again we go out two together,
under the old trees …
Rainer Maria Rilke
Not time and again, but – this being Ruby, my daughter aged six – just once.
One typical Norfolk afternoon, as I recall it,
In early summer, so that the oaks creaking in the hedgerows
Were still mostly black against the sky, and the wheat and barley grey-green.
It was mid-afternoon, after a long morning tacking from church to church.
I was on a Norfolk high,
Always convinced that inside the next protesting church door
Would be a piece of shattered fretwork to put even Trunch in the shade,
Or a Dance of Death more desperate than Sparham’s.
The three kids had put up with me as the hours went by.
Many a major prize had been offered, for the first to spot the wild man
Or the window with the star of Bethlehem or the pig
Doing something unmentionable on the misericord.
Ruby’s patience was wearing thin. Crisps and blackcurrant in The Victory
Were no longer enough to keep the demon boredom at bay.
And Ruby’s boredom was a force, a power of blackness, that all of us feared.
Where were we, exactly? I’m no longer sure.
Maybe we’d stopped to see the flint hulks of the old cathedral at North Elmham
Sullen in their field, Ministry signs rotting among the nettles,
And then headed west and south, into what even Pevsner calls
‘This strangely obscure and inaccessible area’ with St Mary’s Beeston at its heart.
How was I supposed to resist the great man saying ‘Interior … impressive,
Wide and high, with its tiled floor and untreated oak very moving’?
Ruby, in her tea-lady blue pinafore, stamped half-heartedly on the tiles
And showed no sign of softening at the sight of untreated oak.
We filed out of the porch into the sun. The air was heavy in the churchyard, smelling of yew.
Across the road was a roll oflow hills, picture postcard inviting, fields with half-ripe barley,
And just over the ridge another church tower – a high square tower
With battlements and coats of arms like Erpingham’s or Wighton’s, maybe the west tower
Of Weasenham St Peter’s, ‘unbuttressed’, says Pevsner, ‘Early English …
Note the remarkably ornate north side (Perp), with flushwork decoration.’
It was just over the hill, goddamn it!
Major prize for the first …
Ruby stood in the road, hands on hips. She turned towards us. She knew what was brewing
And delivered her ultimatum, booming from the bottom of her six-year-old lungs:
‘If! see another bloody church today, I shall throw up!’
It was not unlike the time three years earlier, when, trying as usual
To cram too much of a (botched) dream of fatherhood into
The available space, I had read the kids the opening of David Copperfield – the terrible
Murdstone chapters –
And Ruby had exited after a page or so, going along the landing to say to her stepmother,
White-faced but calm, frightened, considerate, as if taking pity on my mistake,
‘I think I am too young to hear this.’
I remembered reading aloud to Caroline Jane Eyre, the opening. Where she sits in that enclosure behind the curtain reading Bewick’s Birds and is dragged out, hit, humiliated, scolded for standing up for herself, emotionally traumatized by the red room. I had tried Heidi but it seemed too naive for Caroline even at age 10. She looked at me and asked me why I liked these stories of people made so miserable. For the first time I wondered why.
Then there was the time Jim and I had taken Caroline and Yvette to Italy, our very first long trip. We made so many goofs. We ended up staying in a hotel at one point that was probably part brothel. The girls got a great kick out of the ancient elevator with its gate. Well when we finally got to the apartment we rented in Rome for a month, we began our touring. One day Jim had discovered where precisely the fortress at Marino (connected to Vittoria Colonna) had been located. We all four took a train to see it. We’d had a long wait at the train station; a hot walk up a hill and there we saw two oddly shaped hunks of cement. They were labelled as where a Marino fortress had once stood. Caroline was 15. She looked at us, and looked at the slab. “That’s it?” “Yes,” one of us replied. She was silent — at 15 her face seemed to say everything we should have thought about. I wish I could remember Yvette’s response but do not.
We had before this taken them to an opera at a place in Rome where we sat amid huge stones (rather like Stonehenge which she had heard of but not yet been taken to — that was some 10 years later). It had been a long opera. Italian people were not keen to return after the intermission. It went on past midnight. A beautiful evening.
We had also already gone to Pompeii where there was nothing to see in the caves and it was intensely hot. At Ischia we hoped to see a fortress close up, even enter it, in the event we realized we needed letters of introduction — so we spent the three days at a beach swimming and evenings walking and on terraces. There Yvette (9) had made friends. She learned to say (from me) pointing to herself, “Me chiamo Isabella,” which seemed to go over very well. And soon was building castles in the sand with the same other children each day. This time I do not remember Caroline’s response, but the point is sometimes it was a cement slab, sometimes a strange setting for some opera that went on endlessly, and sometimes a beach.
Ten years later in England when we had spent two weeks in London with a friend and then headed out for Somerset. We had discussed where to go. Jim had been tempted by some medieval place where we would have a barrow to carry our stuff to a cottage of some sort. Caroline (now age 24) had been consulted but looked most unimpressed. Indeed incredulous. “You are not serious?” So we decided to stay at a fifteenth century hall with renovated kitchen, and the Landmark Trust people provided walks for us to go on. There were churches for us to see. You are to remember at least three of us confirmed atheists. I am no longer so sure of Yvette.
We had driven to places excavated as Camelot, to Stonehenge, Avebury, Stanhope, spent a day at Longleate, seen the elephants, the cruise boat, had a picnic. Yvette was 18 by then. So each time they waited patiently for the pub we’d eventually get to — the chips (or french fries), plates of hearty food. They even liked the neolithic stones and were willing to listen to the stories about them. We did have a Pevsner with us.