Time for my annual update of Extraordinary Places encountered this year… in the order they come to me:
1) the Red Mount Chapel, King’s Lynn.
In baking sunlight, this relict from an age of pilgrimage; designed to choreograph the approaching peasant: downstairs, a brutalist vision of the Tomb of Christ, hidden in an earthen mound; up (winding) stairs, like a stone-filigree eyrie, the tiny cross-shaped chapel, battered and thick with carved stone
Hagia Sophia, two minutes before it closes. Empty apart from the cats, and the hidden crowd of mice, scurrying in the echoing galleries
Little Hagia Sophia, at late-evening prayer. The quiet, ordered supplication of Islamic prayer, a small gathering of bearded men in the ancient church, the sound of the Call to Prayer echoing off carved fifth-century Biblical quoations
The walk from the Theodesian walls to the First Hill, past collapsing churches, mosques as plain as they are grand, territories third-world/chic-and-Bohemian/Heavily Islamic. How many cities can they get into this place?
3) St Mary Redliffe.
Standing on the roof, surrounded by reverse-icicle pinnacles, on a bright morning during the hardest frost of 2010
4) Smeathe’s Ridge/the old Marlborough Road.
On a bicycle through drifting snow, high above the empty Downs
5) West Kennet Long barrow – at night.
A sleeping bag, a good friend, an empty long barrow, another heavy frost. Suprisingly homely, though the stones above us looked unnervingly heavy
6) Martinsell Hill – at night.
Liekwise, but in the summer; if the open air, with the wide Vale of Pewsey gaping beneath like a quiet yawn, could be cosy — well, this was cosy. And for an hour at 2am the moon revealed its cloudy mysteries, and the stars were bright as pins.
7) Roche Rock.
This masterpiece of Cornish Gothic — a ruined medieval hermitage atop a ridiculous, wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-was-CGI outcrop of granite — is all the better for being set in a shattered post-industrial wasteland. Landscape as EMO.
8) Salisbury Plain from the air.
Barrows like bubbles of grass; only a ball of glass between me and them
9) Repton crypt.
Whisper it: ‘Offa!’ ‘Mercia!’ ‘Clefts!’. Is any Anglo-Saxon place more spine-tingling than this, nasty, brutish, small and also, somehow, suprisingly clever. Number one Edgy Crypt of the year
More an intellectual encounter than an emotional one, but a wonderfully satisfying series of lost lives and the extraordinary efforts they made to be remembered was unearthed here: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba114/feat4.shtml
Another crypt, quietly satisfying; and a church above as open and empty as a swimming pool, with jewel-sharp fourteenth-century kings clinging to the golden limbs of Jesse’s tree in the windows: you can almost touch them.
It doesn’t get better than this: Wittenham Clumps; the slow, wide Thames; Dyke Hills, gravel-robbed henges, and in the middle of the sleepy village, the strangest, empty-yet-fullest lost monastery in England
13) Milton Abbas.
Orange, empty, at once wiped clean by its own history and full of quiet poetry.
14) Selby abbey.
A town that feels as if it’s about to sink (indeed its history suggests it shouldn’t be there at all), featuring a silver-grey abbey of real power. And the bliss of a fast, near-empty train back to King’s Cross
15) Abbey Dore.
Cistercian fragment, elegant as a whisper, given a heartbreaking twist by hyperactive additions of the C17: tempus fugit, so fugit I’m standing still.
Unlovely, but the unfolding story of British Sea Power is here made into stone.
The top end of the Kintyre peninsula, with rocky peninsulas and Celtic stones enough to make it a world apart.
18) La Hougue Bie, Jersey.
Enormous Neolithic passage tomb? Check. Evocative/mysterious medieval chapel? Check. Nazi command bunker? Check. Three-in-one, then.
I know, I know… but it was dawn, and clear and cold (always the best days — you may have noticed). And an hour later I was turning over leaves of C8 parchment.
A top 20 of sorts, then. Some already familiar; the big moments where Red Mount, Hagia Sophia, Abbey Dore, cycling in the snow, sleeping in the open.
No book more influenced my childhood than this one. I used to dream I was on that boat; the combined longing and dissapointment on awakening is still with me. I loved every part of it, apart from the boring slave-trader early chapter; but especially I loved the places. And more than anything else, the moment of falling into that picture; the last three chapters, so intensely mythical and poetic that I reread them into adulthood; and those moments: in the magician’s library Lucy says ‘Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan?’; and Aslan replies, ‘I will tell it to you for years and years’. And again, by the great wave, ‘I shall be telling you all the time’. Heartbreaking, all the more so for beautifully fusing Christian propaganda with the wider agenda of image and myth.
And now it’s been made into a film. So along I take my daughters: what to make of it?
Firstly, this 3D thing is nice eye candy but it doesn’t transform the experience: film is persuasive enough as a substitute for reality to work perfectly well without it. The landscapes and buildings benefit most from the technqique: I only wished they’d linger on some of these more, let one enjoy them: the first shots cuts along the fake-Tudor entrance screen to King’s, giving me an unexpected chance to indulge in a few crockets and pinnacles, while feeling faintly perturbed at finding C.S. Lewis, an Oxford man, having his story relocated to Cambridge. This, for the geographically-attuned Englishman, is almost as worrying as confusing London north of the river with London south of it, or the moors of Yorkshire with those of Devon…
This eye candy thing is a problem. Perhaps I watch too many kids’ films, but the recent ones all share breathtakingly thought-through CGI places with exhausting editing that makes it quite impossible to sit back and enjoy said creations, or even, in the case of a certain Mr H. Potter, to follow the plot.
But what’s more interesting is what they’ve done with said plot. Apart from being moved to Cambridge, Eustance is made geeky and inadequate (and, perceptively, lower class than the Pevensie kids): the anti-liberal stuff in the book is stripped away. The moment of entering the picture is delicious, if a little over-literal. And they play merry hell with the sequence of islands once the kids reach Narnia: the island with the golden pool and the island with the dragon are conflated into one; more to the point Lewis’ carefully constructed Platonic sequence of places is completely arsed-about with, by introducing a supernatural element to the ‘earthly’ Lone Islands, relocating the subsequent storm, and creating an entirely new plot line that involves a (yawn-not-another) quest for seven swords and necessitates placing the dark island last, after the island of the sleepers. The dark island is then ramped up, making the original idea – a great mass of foggy shadows within which both dreams and nightmares come to life – more vivid but less haunting (there’s an interesting account of Lewis’s revision of this passage for the US publication on Wikipaedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Voyage_of_the_Dawn_Treader). Eustace’s dragonising is extended over several islands, neatly tieing them into the plot but again reducing those islands’ roles as places in a symbolic sequence.
But the biggest damage is done at the end, where the loveliest aspects of the island of the sleepers — their role as a feasting place of the stars — is almost entirely done away with, and the beautiful final passages — over the mer-kingdom, through the sea of lilies where the water is warm, shallow and sweet, to the edge of Aslan’s country — cut to the barest minimum concomitant with the film makers idea of Most Childrens’ Patience Levels.
With this goes some subtle twistings of message. The spiritual (oh, ok, *Christian*) subtext of the Magician’s Island is replaced with (suprise suprise) a message about Being Yourself (Fulfilling Your Dreams, etc), even as Lucy wishes to be beautiful rather than to eavesdrop. The G*d stuff at the end is kept, indeed made more wincingly obvious than it is in the book: and both the lovely lines mentioned above are dropped, of fluffed.
All this makes this not (at all) a bad film, but also rather a different one from the book: one wonders what young readers will make of it should they turn there; indeed whether the CS Lewis estate exercises any control over things. At least an early plan to set the whole series in the States was scotched. And one realises how strongly one links image and text: several things, from the reimagining of the Dawn Treader picture as a tiny kitsch watercolour, through the landscapes of several islands (such as that with the gold-turning pool, and the island of the magician) where wrong — but only because Pauline Baynes’s pictures are so strongly linked to C.S Lewis’s words in our imaginations; just as the film will be for a younger generation.