We don’t seem to have as many words for happiness as we do for, for example, love; yet it’s every bit as varied. There are types of happiness that can be accessed (almost) as simply as pushing a button: one of these, for me, is that to be had with the headphones on loud early in the morning in an anonymous corner of an anonymous chain coffee shop in an anoymous street with the laptop primed for writing action. Or (at another extreme) sitting in a family-nest watching Dr Who, with kids on laps. These are cheap and easy; they pass as quickly as the next deadline or the next fall-out between kids; yet that doesn’t neccesarily make them superficial. When – as it has been twice in the last three days – I am in the middle of several miles of high and wandering earthen pathways, the chalkland dry and fast beneath the wheels of my bicycle, the scarps spreading out before me as I fall through the landscape – only to return to swift shower and to drying off in the sun – this is a real connection with much of what I value most in my experience of being human. The same thing, deeper still – simultaneously intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual – occurs every time I open the door of an as-yet-unvisited church. But there are other happinesse – are they deeper? They are certainly rarer – to be had a few times in a lifetime. The rapturous tearful joy of a new born baby, leaving one’s heart for a few days raw, open, elated, is one extreme. Yet I look back and can only identify two times when something deeper still occured. A feeling that every potential source of conflict, contradiction, anxiety was resolved; of a deep calm wellspring of beneficient being, strong and unyielding. I have glimpsed this for an hour or two in certain spiritual situations; but to feel it as a state of being, to live in day-to-day, to inhabit: well, there were 10 days in Yangshuo, Gaunxi province in January 1985; and a week in Femes, Lanzarote in what must have been the mid 1990s. Both came after difficult times; and these I think of as true happiness. It was certainly both deep and extraordinary; but perhaps there is another happiness, equally significant if less easily identified as remarkable: the busy, confusing bustle of a family/work day, of ‘settled’ life, not without anxiety or conflict, but somehow running forwards on rails from which it should not divert. Perhaps this deserves a different name; perhaps we need more words for this elusive quality.
How did it become something of a given that children’s literature should be deeply rooted in place? Is the specificity of setting somehow aimed at the adult reader/companion: the Cumbrian setting of Postman Pat, the Welsh one of Ivor the Engine, they add something to otherwise fairly inane material. And then there are the invented landscapes: the strange world of Tubbyland, which is also somehow partly the middle England where I understand the set was created. And the Real Literature settings, like that of Watership Down, which my daughter and I retraced, and found it by turns accurate down to the blade of grass and completely reengineered. And what does Oxford do to get Lewis Carroll and Philip Pullman riffing their way out from actual to fantastically imagined? Cambridge has no equivalent I am aware of. Perhaps its something in the subaqueous nature of that landscape, of south/central Oxfordshire’s palbably origins as the setting of a great pre-glacial lake, a lake in turn at once backwards-evoked and forwards-prophesised in Richard Jefferies’ After London. But that’s one for another day…
Living through such moments is also a constant lesson for those of us with one foot in 1979 and the other in 1329 (*is* there anyone else?). For example something similar happened in Egnlish architecture, albeit infinetly better resourced, in the late C12 and again in the earlier C14. One can compare what is to live through one, experiment by experiment, not knowing where things are going, eyes on the competition and one’s own heart at the same time, with what it is to live though another. And one can ask stylistic questions. Will future musical historians contrast the experimental waves of 65-69 and 76-79 as we do? The time lag is very short. And what of future reinventions: to me the multiple reinventions of ‘post-punk’ in the 2000s are arid, empty, devoid of the restless mission that makes the form matter. Yet this restless mission is not a formal quality, it is a text we bring to the music from outside. Could a future historian stumbling on Wire and then Elastica tell that one was essential and the other soporophic? How then do we read and reread the multiple reinventions to be witnessed in a couple of hundred years of architecture?
One thing is certain: sometimes things just line up. For example is obvious that Abba and International Gothic – mannered, crafted, complex, careful, thrilling, empty, global (for their times) are one and the same. No one should teach or learn one without the other. Surely?
Of course, those of us with our ears glued to John Peel, frantically pressing pause and record, finding spare segments of sacrificable C90 for the latest session, resulting in a palimpsest of rearranged magnetic granules on fragile brown plastic ribbon, did not know it would later have a name. But we knew everything that mattered that came from these isles at least was to one extent or another a ripple of creative experiment from the great boulder in the already-electric pond that was 1976-1977. Ripples that could be discerned (just) right up to the mid-1980s. And we knew these omniverous waves – which embraced much that the spirit of 76 pretended to find a mortal sin, from prog (Siouxsie/Magazine) to funk (Pop Group, Go4, Cabs, etc) – mattered all the more for their lack of tutored art.
What might have shocked us is to find ourselves nearly 30 years later still listening, still inspired. Thanks to the unbelievable prices for which these things can now be tracked down in physical form, I have in the last year rediscovered joys as varied as Swoon, Collossal Youth, English Settlement and the Affectionate Punch. Hearing them on headphones for the first time, albeit from files with nowhere near the depth of good vinyl (but whoever talked of audio quality when they were made?), I rediscover a music that is more than art (and at its best I use the term without hesitation, and all the more proudly because the makers were people like me, the pretentious arty twats with badges in one corner of the sixth form block); it is an inspiration, a way of life, a hunting like a brave man with a flashlight, to quote TV Smith at his wisest.
It’s a bit cheap-holidays-in-other-people’s misery to go on about overpasses and towerblocks. Which didn’t stop the very people who coined this phrase indulging in a little urban sublime of their own, flowers in the dustbin and all. It just struck me a few days ago, 8am in a London backstreet where a council block reared above a Georgian terrace, that there was something in my reaction that was simply response to the natural world onto that to the man made one: that it was the same mixture of faint thrill and faint fear that accompanies the glimpse of granite boulders erupting clifflike on a far off hill. How much of our reaction to architecture is a transferral, a translation from the natural world? And how much of our reaction to both is born of naivety, ignorance, or too many years of tamed safety? I remember at the age of 12 finding it impossible to enter a storm-tossed Devon lane, so sure was I that malignant natural forces lay within; a terror beyond appeals to reason. A similar feeling a year or three later, heading east in London on a pushbike and suddenly encountering what I now know was the Truman brewery in Brick Lane, but which read as a strange and faceless barrier in an already unfamiliar wild East. This is how my medievals felt faced by unsettled fen or open torland or atlantic beach; how those equally in the know today approach the wrong liftshaft in the wrong stairwell in the wrong part of town.
Every human being in the developed world should be issued a folding bicycle at birth. There is no better way to get around. Unlike a real bike, it goes on busses (where one meets the 13 and 73 year olds of a given place, a cross-section of the disposessed) and trains (no traffic jams, big views, and – just occasionally, indeed increasingly rarely – plugs, space, silence) with ease. Its small wheels mean a bag of books-to-sell can swing ungainly from the handlebars as one careers down the Edgware Road, dipping into shops en route between mainline stations. Unlike a car, it don’t need parking, and slips through cities regardless. And like walking, it enables contact with the world, with the shape of a town and of the land that preceded it. And one can still make one’s connection with 30 seconds to spare, having recharged the laptop in a deserted fenland church.
There are two fens, and the peat fen is the deepest and the strangest. This great black landlocked mire was crossed by countless waterways, gathering in vast brackish lakes, climbing to make a vast flat flood, leaving a maze of wet rush covered ways, with nowhere that the feet don’t get wet. Where it nears the surrounding uplands – to the south, west and east – there are islets and splits of dryness; and in the south east corner, nearest to Cambridge, is an archipelago, an archipelago dominated by a single settlement – not so much a town as a collosal church – Ely.
Ely is impressive enough today. In a landscape of brackish wetness, with no other verticals in the landscape, and this largest of the islands a low clear rise over Soham Mere, it must have been extraordinary. Terrifying.
Here is the great church, with its bare unvaulted nave, and its choir, Octagaon, Lady chapel: mounting hymns to Virgins of Palestine and Northumbria intertwined; the first great myth of this landscape. It didn’t only dominate this landscape: it owned it. And the only other landlords where monasteries, too, at once finding hermitages among the frightening waste and fixing it, exploiting it.
This is the Peat Fen, the Isle of Ely: an archipelago and its surrounding waters. Everywhere there was no island, there was no thing: Domesday makes this clear. Miles of empty peat fen. But it was not poor. Fish, fowl, fuel; good farming land on the islands; tithes measured in tens of thousands of eels suggesting a wetscape boiling with life.
The drive to Crowland takes us right across this; right through the heart of what was once submerged. Even today one wonders what lives are led here. But only Guthlac’s extraodinary story reveals the horrors it held for those who first came to it. Eve today this is a shattered town, its shops closing, its triangular bridge left high and dry, monument to intersecting watereways that for two thousand years set neighbour against neighbour. Drain a bit of peat fen and you deprive your neighbour of water; as soon as it drains it shrinks and soon floods again. And here it this strange and compelling church, its stumpy pyramid-tower and skewiff west front peopled with stumpy memorants of those honoured here: Guthlac climbs elegantly onto a sow-filled island, is borne aloft to view the terrible wastes. The nave marches with forgotten beauty east; the pulpitum overlooks a silent graveyard. The parish had nothing but an aisle, and that is all that remains, a low vessel by a shattered ruin.
Further north, and the salt fen is quite different (are the landlords different, too? Castle Acre at West Walton, bishop of Norwich at Lynn, of Ely at Walpole… that’s all I have thus far). Build a sea wall and in a few years you have the most fertile land imaginable, prone to years of stability followed by sudden and disastrious floods. The Romans knew it, and at the mighty churches of Wal-pole St P and W Wal-ton the C13 and C15 swaggered with — what? At Walpole, a parish full of purgatory-fed piety; at Walton, something more interesting: a model parish church, with the unexpected extra of a top-notch effigy to a presumed prior of Castle Acre to explain it. Lateran IV eat your heart out; in fact the heart has been eaten out of this church, in its no hope village with its slanting patches of brick and dried out wood; the broken beauty of the fens, even here.
The fen edge made towns; the rivers abandoned Wisbech for Lynn – a celtic name, an extraordinary relict town; through the higher rivers, dry places like Castle Acre and Bury were once ports, are also part of the fenland landscape.
Returning south, Willingham stands at the gate to the Aldreth causeway, hermit-gaurded way to Ely. And here, vivid on the walls, is St Christopher dressed up as a fenland peasant, complete with forked fishing-stick, mighty feet striding through waters stuffed with the very fish the Liber Eliensis tells us where the products of the peat fen. Men like him owed carrying-service to the bishops; they would have helped load barges and shoulders for the last timbers of the Octagon, the fuel for an acre of lost and glittering glass. Full circle, Fen-edge, sinking into deep waters.