Here’s an updated list of my public speaking engagements this year:
Dayschool on St Mary Redcliffe, medieval archaeology, architecture and history – University of Bristol Continuing Education, 12 February 2011, 10.30am-4.30pm.
Dayschool on Westbury-upon-Trym, medieval archaeology, architecture and history – University of Bristol Continuing Education, 12 March 2011
Further details and bookings for both of these are at: http://www.bris.ac.uk/archanth/continuing/shortcourses/
Day-conference on Westbury-on-Trym, organised by the Bristol Record Society/University of the West of England, Westbury-on-Trym, Saturday 29 January 2011, 10am-4pm
Contact UWE: Peter Fleming, UWE, St Matthias Campus, Oldbury Court Road, Bristol BS16 2JP; e-mail: email@example.com
‘The many Decorateds: when is a style not a style’, London, 15 February 2011.
The medieval world: cities, towns and villages of eastern England – residential four-day course, Villiers Park, Foxton, Cambs, 23-27 May 2011
Churches of the medieval Fens – residential weekend with visits to churches, from Ely cathedral to Walpole St Peter; Villiers Park, Foxton, Cambs, 10-12 June 2011
Medieval Cambridge – residential weekend with tours of Cambridge, Villiers Park, Foxton, Cambs, 22-24 July 2011
For details, see http://www.villierspark.org.uk/vphome.php?r=O08HC6857651
For more information, see the respective websites or the ‘Talks and tours’ pages of this blog.
An archipelago in a wetland. An archipelago that holds a church. The church owns the wetland, governs it almost as a seperate statelet. Only two places fit the description: Glastonbury and Ely. England’s twin eastern and western holy archipelagic wetland cities have other comparisons, too: many saints, at Ely female, at Glastonbury ancient. A great monastery. Wealth – holding fourth and fifth place respectively as England’s richest religious corporations, which makes them arguably the fourth and richest corporations of any kind. A location near the southern coast of a wetland that reaches empty to the sea, and around which are positioned many further monastic houses: Peterborough, Bath, Crowland, Muchelney. Causeway access: Soham and Alederney, Somerton and Wells: from nearby urban settlements whose history reveals a tense relationship to the Great Beast on the Island. At Ely the defining relationship is with Cambridge, trading town on the fulcrum of central and eastern England; at Glastonbury it is with Wells.
Here the comparisons begin to include interesting contrasts. The power of bishops has had an edgy relationship with both Glastonbury and Ely. Ely sat between sees — Lincoln and East Anglia — and sought independence of each of them, only to be forced into a cathedral status in the very early twelfth century. Nearby Cambridge then gained in several ways from its proximity to this centre of power, but gained most by not having a single dominating religious corporation of its own: not leasy by becoming a centre of independent learning. Glastonbury is surely one of the reasons why the bishops of Wells, having decamped to Bath after the Conquest, camp back again 150 years later; en route they even tried to take of the great monastery itself. They failed. Wells, meanwhile, becomes a cathedral community of defining wealth and complexity; but the town around it is never of more than regional significance.
Where else is ‘like’ Glastonbury’? Walsingham, another E/W pole, another great focus of miraculous Marian cults; another place to be approached arduously across water, though Walsingham is younger and never became more than a focus for pilgrims. What’s interesting is the post-medieval dimension. With their supernatural claims reduced to a pile of rubble and a series of alluring legends, each became a void; in both cases, the void began to fill several centuries later: at Walsingham with the Anglo-Catholic/Catholic/Orthodox self-reinventions; at Glastonbury with their Theosophical, the New Age, the Druidic, the Pagan. Would either place be what they are today with a collossal functioning church at the heart of them? At Walsingham, this would imply no Reformation: modern Walsingham is in many senses in any senses an argument with the Reformation. At Glastonbury, the story is more interesting. Other places possessed cults of alluring age – St Alban, for example – but no cults where as strange or as spooky as those here, implying the direct and miraculous intervention of contemporaries of Christ himself. Nevertheless, there’s nothing in this story — nothing, nothing, nothing — that suggests the pre-Christian mattered to Patrick, or Dunstan, or whoever: this is a radical and modern reinterpretation, and one that would be impossible to imagine if the place were a great church with, like all great churches, a few towers and wayside shrines and wells in the vicinity. We have to take Glastonbury out of Glastonbury, leaving a void both spiritual and architectural, to result in the Glastonbury of today.
It’s an odd thing, it has to be said. I mean, I applaud any manifestation of spirituality, without quite being able to articulate why I know something so hard to define and easy to abuse to be such a good thing. And a spirituality which takes place and nature as it’s starting point? It should be a no-brainer. I reacted against Walsingham: something dark there, something turned inside out by history and faintly desperate and oppressive in its reinventions, that Holy House made out of chunks of Dissolved nests of monks; the Feudal feeling of entering-by-permission the abbey site itself, the recreations in the wrong places of a structure commanded in dreams which must be in the original location or not be at all; the reversed chronology, time turned backwards, of country house where abbeyt should be, and then of churches, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox each a step further from the starting point even as the faith represented is more ancient. But at least they are genuined inheritors of the traditions that made the place. The darkness, the strangeness, the uncompletion of the real Glastonbury, of medieval holy places as they were lived, is far more complex and interesting than the vapid, brainless join-the-dots spirituality of this place today: like replacing T.S.Eliot with a Hallmark card.
And yet, and yet… for Glastonbury is unique, and they are responding, reinterpeting, reinventing, rehallowing, making myths anew and untelling stories in new ways. Such is how such places are made. New holy places: temples and wells where non were before. Unique-to-medieval, too: the wealth comparisons with Ely come only by aggregating the income of the bishop with that of the convent: as a convent alone, Glastonbury is matched only by Westminster. This focus of wealth and power and holiness puts it as a case apart. Only the cathedrals of Winchester, Canterbury and Durham outstrip it: the latter two matching it in power and sanctity, the latter one matching it too for its remarkable site.
But underling them all is Place, raw in tooth and clue. and truly, Glastonbury’s combination of site, power and sanctity put it in a close alone. Durham’s site, cliff edge above a curling river, is defensive, the power over its haliwerfolk political. Ely makes a lot architecturally out of a little geomorphically: a lowish largish island, made dramatic by its collossal church. At Walsingham there is a real magic, a subtle and unexpected change to a lush Norfolk-hilly country, but it is a quite impact. At Glastonbury, the preceding Mendip is a true bleak highland; the islands steep-sided with quiet drama, Wearyall and Tor hill great arms above the flood. And the church sits there, in the palm-lap of the dryland above the eel-clogged waters, hidden from many directions, the journey there a preparation of expectations choreographed by landscape itself.
Anyone who knows, knows that Portishead is the best band name in the world. The way it jokes with hip-hop’s gangsta namings of territories and places. The way it plunges Somerset’s most forgetable periurban resort into noteriety. The way it embodies something obscure, English, ordinary — and litoral, sea-edge, escapist. They are also, it should go without saying, the best band in the world. If that were not a pointless term for a loose conglomerate of jazz-musos, hiphop boffins and folkstresses. One of each, in fact.
But now, crossing the Levels, the music is more English than I’d previously noticed, too. More English? More Somerset. The Bristol links are well known: from the Pop Group on, Bristol — with its 300-year-old black community and long history of romantic/contrarian independent culture, Bristol has coined a pop music that fuses genres, techniques, approaches, a music at once urban and laid back.
But Somerset? Here it is. Deceptively pleasant, accessibly bucolic; an easy-listening skin that masks profound strangeness, a twisted other that bears endless melancholic exploration. That’s Portishead.
The road to Glastonbury. January rain. The high Mendip a cloud-smudge, hard and hollowed-out by rain, falling away behind me. The miraculous, choppy world of tiny conical hills, deep green with grass and old growth, that fringes the Levels. And then the flatlands themselves, a wetland of oceanic flatness, always ready to return to its liquid root, thick with eels.
Somerset should be two places: highland and flatland, but it’s three: this foothill world, steep and brief, that seperates the two is barely a mile wide, yet in its way it is the county’s most memorable place of all. Here Wells sits, with the waters spring from the very toehold of the Mendip; from here strips of tarmac run on ancient causeways, linking highlands to the archipelago of which Glastonbury is the largest island.
Somerset, ofcourse, is not two places or three, but one: a vast watershed whose boundary is the county itself, draining like a planet to an inland sea. It is defined by this combination of wetland and hill; and these island-uplands – Brent Knoll, Burrow Mump, Glastonbury Tor – are thus somehow its innermost definition.
So what happens if we paste the abbey church back in to the Glastonbury landscape?
Firstly, one is still left with one of the more memorable places in which to create a great church. No hilltop location a la Ely; more than made up for by squeezing an entire extra small church onto the dramatic nipple-hill of Glastonbury Tor. As with so much here, this is at once part of a wider pattern – great monastic landscapes have no shortage of ‘extra’ churches and chapels, from St Catherine’s chapel at Milton Abbas to the Carnary college at Norwich – and distinctive, for its mythology, its well, and above all its arresting visual presence. The well, among all such sites in Glastonbury, is a true modern sacred site; I don’t have the information to hand to unpick what real significance it had in earlier centuries. Except to note again that its the Dissolution that creates the space for this voice to emerge: the comparably remarkable sites at Wells, and Bath, and Lichfield and York and… have not had likewise treatment.
This is a setting with remarkable inherent properties: the levels, the sudden island-hills, the well; and it combines the early-Christian ‘wilderness’ (Iona, Whithorn, Lindisfarne) with the high medieval ‘mighty institution’ — the British with the English — to unnerring effect.
This absent presence is, at Glastonbury, remarkable. There are few towns where the great empty space that was the settlement’s raison d’etre is more ever present, once one becomes aware of it, sitting on its lap of land on the widest part of the island.
So what of the church? The first thing to say is, it’s not enormous. That might seem an odd statement for what was by any means an impressive, cathedral-scaled building. But place it with its economic peers, the top ten religious institutions in medieval England with a total annual wealth of about £3000, and it is a strippling; Canterbury, Durham, Winchester, York, Lincoln, Ely: these all have a claim to have been among the largest roofed structures on the planet when they reached their optimum size, mostly in the late C11-C13. The reason for this is regional: Exeter and Wells join Glastonbury in the list of Very Wealthy Institutions that built churches of large, but not monstrous, size. And we can love them the more for it, for what they sacrificed in scale they made up for in intimacy, elaboration, inventivenness.
Still, if Wells and Exeter are its architectural peers, this marks Glastonbury apart even more. These are both cathedrals, staffed by worldly priests, saint-free throughout the middle ages. Glastonbury is a monastery on the nation-beating scale matched only by Royal Westminster, as stuffed to the gills with relics as Canterbury, almost (not quite) as powerful within its lands as Ely and Durham, and with unique claims — founded by friends of Christ, with miraculous help from Mary, every saint – from Patrick to Dunstan – a history-maker; and tomb of Arthur to boot that nowhere could quite match. One might think this was a reason to make a Monster Church, and its interesting that they didn’t, though their truly ancient site certainly had the space.
There are various traces here – the west country tradition, as I’ve said, chief among them, in particular meaning that at all times Glastonbury’s main concern is going to be to match or outdo Bath and Wells, and neither of them went down the gigantism route either. But there is one other factor, very important and very specific, that explains it.
The vesusta ecclesia, the wattle church beleived to have been constructed by friends of Christ, is the tap roof of evertyhing here. A complex series of great churches grew up to the west of it. This focus at the west end, by the C12, would itself have marked it out as special. Then the vestusa burnt down, and was replaced by a structure, to paraphrase a contemporary source ‘that could not have been more ornate’.
They’re not joking. Remarkably, it is this building of the 1180s that is the best-preserved thing at Glastonbury, and it is absolutelty dripping with the most cutting-edge ornament of its era. This sacred raison d etre to the west, from that point on, can never be upstaged; indeed the church does unusual things in response to it, such as building a little galilee corridor to its east that much have transformed the normal appearance of its west front, and made for intriguing visual and liturgical connections between the two.
What of the great church itself? Well, it’s no strippling. Also rebuilt from the late C12, but apparently finished rather slowly, and much academic blood has been spilt in particular comparing it to the contemporary rebuild at nearby Wells – the two churches no friends at this time – and comparing both of them to other developments in the febrile creative atmosphere that was forging the architecture we now call Gothic.
It’s higher than Wells, a good third higher, I think. And richer, or rather differently richer: more shafting (more shafting than Wells, less than in the vestusta: a hard balancing act to strike); more chevron (none at Wells). And an elevation that’s just as audaciously clever-clever as the Wells one, with its Great Order layout, and a false gallery that’s also not quite a triforium. Given Wells’s radical abandonment of even the pretence of a gallery, one would love to know what the preceding church, the one Wells is responding to, did with its middle storey. And to what extent Well’s liturgical-artistic western extravaganza is a response to the cultic-artistic one at Glastonbury. Or whether Glastonbury’s tiny but ambitiously double-aisled transepts are a response to those at Wells or vice versa: surely the decision to add a second eastern aisle of transepts here is one in the eye for the collossal transepts emerging at the foot of the Mendips; indeed, it’s in the middle of the Wells transept buildings that Glastonbury’s rebuild starts, and the monks monopolise their quarry at Doulting, leading to a change of stone at Wells circa 1186.
There was important C13 ands C14 work at Glastonbury, not least in the shape of what must have been a collossal late C13 tower-porch: one of the reasons I’ve come, as both this and the vestusta are in more ways than I could possibly have realised triangulated with my extraordinary Outer North Porch at St Mary Redcliffe. A new retrochoir, too, though I’m hard put to recognise it in the standing remains. But (unlike Wells, but like many great monastic houses) Glasto’s next day in the sun is the C15/C16. The choir recased, in what looks sadly like the most bloodlessly swaggering mid-Perp. More interestingly, the Edgar Chapel at the east, with an apse later added – a Westbury connection here? – the Loretto chapel off the transept, one of the last and most intriguing of the various images of the House of Virgin added to medieval English churches. More interestingly still, a whole suite of remarkable (and archaeology-destroying) things done to the vetusta: a crypt hollowed out beneath it, with self-consciously simple-clever vaults; a kind of circulation route built into it involving a C12 well, and a subterreanean chantry (revealed in excavations): all very redolent of my Tomb of Christ quarry.
Paste all of this back in, and our narrative of west country, indeed national, great churches is transformed. And the side of that narrative that is interested in places, and saints, and cuts and places and meanings and myths, immesurably so.
The College of Arms sits on an island between Dickensian and post-Blitz inner London, stuffed between St Paul’s and the stiff thick Thames. They keep heraldic beasts chained in threes in the capacious undercellars, and an army of wardens, former Thames Boatmen and equerries to the Chief Freemason to a man, feed them on mythical cuts of raw meat. From there Roman catacombs run in all directions to everyplace a Chief Somerset Pursuivant might be required: Buck House, St Stephen’s College in the Palace of Westminster, Traitor’s Gate, Wong Kai’s Soho Noodle House. The wardens occupy private apartments within the handsome, brick-built seventeenth-century house; but upstairs are the offices of the heralds themselves, behind doors marked ‘Private’ sit tight, fusty men, sharp and procedural. The speak only Blazon, an ancient dialect formed solely of heraldic terminology: have you a beast azure in a bend or tinged with argent and three ermines means, can I borrow some sugar for the tea, if it’s not too much trouble. At night comes the Taming of the Coats, when new arms, the gold leaf drying on the parchment, emerge from the Design Rooms in the garret and meat the beasts themselves, to parade a lobster garotte in the courtyard without. Some of this is true.
The first thing to say about Simon Reynolds is that he is a very, very good writer. Well-researched, dealing deftly with everything from critical theory to in-band gossip.
Also that this is the nearest thing we have to a definitive account of these remarkable years. Why didn’t I read it earlier??
And finally that I’ve never come across anyone more able to capture the way music sounds in a few well-chosen metaphors. That’s a very, very hard thing to do, even more so when the music concerned is all broadly from within one genre. If you can call this exploratory period a genre.
The way he’s managed the deluge of material from this explosively, anxiously, zeitgeisty creative period is also impressive, working through a series of themes grouping bands and developments together in more-or-less chronological order. If anything would work when so much is interconnected and simultaneous, this does.
But it does risk throwing some babies out with the bathwater: for example, unless you’ve a good head for dates (or lived through the era yourself) you could be forgiven for thinking, after reading him, that post-punk was invented by PiL. I mean, John Lydon can be forgiven a lifetime of dodgy ads and in-it-for-the-money reformations of either of his bands, having entirely reinvented music not once but twice within four years of his twentieth birthday, and in radically opposing directions, and written some extraordinary lyrics (Poptones, Careering (on Metal Box, 1978), God Save the Queen (various labels… 1977) to name but three) to boot.
But the thing we now (not least thanks to Mr Reynolds) call post-punk was around well before Public Image (Virgin, 1978) brought dub-deep bass to denizen of the record section of Woolies (in my case the branch in Tavistock, Devon, where I bought it soon after it came out. Or my friend did, didn’t like it, and gave it me shorn of its newspaper-styled sleeve). It got me wondering, how we perceived it all at the time: for me, at least, the outpouring of music that took the restlessness of punk but moved beyond its puritanical aesthetic realm *was* punk, so obviously a response to the highest/lowest possibilities of a call to permanent artistic revolution that there was no distinction between one and the other. Or if it had a name, it was New Wave, not yet a sub-genre of faintly punk-influenced pop with crap ties, just a word for a deluge of things that seemed somehow related to punk but weren’t it; some of them, even had already been around for a long time, but no one had previously noticed: from Cabaret Voltaire to Ian Dury. And we knew something special was happening, chiefly because the one and only way of hearing this stuff without buying it was via John Peel — an obsessively taped and curated and shared and late-night devoted and anticipated listen — and John Peel told us, night after night, that something remarkable was going on, as well as demonstrating this by playing it — all of it, not just the London DIY-ers. Which leads me to the next oddity in this book: that (in spite of himself apparently discovering this music via 10-12am sessions by the radio) Reynolds hugely downplays the influence of this man, the role he played in making this musical wave genuinely nationwide and cross-pollinating. And of the culturall significance of those things we now call mixtapes, with their homemade covers.
But the real oddities relate to the chronology I mentioned earlier, to how he deals with the beginnings and the endings. I don’t blame him in a way, as trying to define the edges of any ‘period’ is a thankless task.
Firstly, the beginning: he knows, because he says so, that arty, various, clever ‘punk’ existed alongside the shouty-three-chorders from the off: Subway Sect, Wire, Siouxsie are all there at the start, or so close to it that it doesn’t matter. Over the pond, this is even more true of Patti Smith and Television, art-extraordinary ‘punk’ avant la lettre: they are ‘out’ yet, Talking Heads are ‘in’ the book: why?.
What all this music has in common is that it combines the artistic ambition of prog with a new discipline – a refusal to noodle (even side 2 of Horses (Arista, 1975) has a certain focus) – and a certain harsh dash of (usually urban) charged realism: indeed that statment is about all one can do to pin down those qualities the musics of the era share; and it’s odd that this doesn’t come over, given that one of Reynold’s most salient contributions is to show us how much — shock horror — ‘prog’ and ‘post-punk’ are in fact a continuum. Nonconformist electrified pop music with artistic ambition: a continuous wave of invention from the mid-60s to the mid-80s.
Allied to this is an odd inability to join some of the dots: in addition to the above early-arty parks, much ‘pure punk’ is excluded, even when profoundly relevant. I can’t work out if this is an editorial judgement, managing the material, or (surely not) ignorance — the only reason I have for wondering about the latter is that he doesn’t seem to know that Siouxsie’s Lord’s Prayer (Join Hands, Polydor 1978) is a rehash of their first live performance, one of the most seminal if least listenable moments of 1976 and ‘real punk’. But it means that the echoes of, for example, Can in the Pistols (Submission, Problems: on Never Mind the Bollocks, Virgin 1978) are not noticed, and even more importantly the Clash are lumped in with all the other rockists. Not without reason, but one can’t overstate the signifgicance for post-punk of their early reggae experiments – Police and Thieves (on The Clash, 1977), White Man (in Hammersmith Palais) (CBS, 1978). As I blogged last week, these tracks reinvented the intensity of roots reggae for a white, non-religious audience, and really understood the significance of the groove, the bass, to boot: given the openness to such things that is a defining feature of post-punk, surely this is a major gap in his story? Meanwhile, while London Calling (CBS, 1979) is barely post-punk, it was certainly influential, and certainly has its left-field moments, not least the title track itself; while by Sandinista! (CBS, 1980) and Combat Rock (CBS, 1982) they were certainly in the van of the more left-field experiments of recent years, albeit with a certain posey rock-starrey sheen.
Here, at the later end of his story — the end, 1982-4– things get even odder. Lots of space is devoted to an excellent account of how New Pop emerged out of post-punk, as everyone from Green to the Human League to the Associates turned scratchy DIY experimentalism into liquid pop gold, while retaining (well, perhaps not, in the case of the Human League) a certain avant-garde intelligence, creating briefly one of the few eras when pure pop has also been genuinely clever, suprising in emotion and content, innovative. All this is fair and square, but if one is including this, which in his account even embraces the likes of Spandau Ballet or Depeche Mode under the post punk heading, but doesn’t include the Smiths (or at least explain their absence), then something very, very strange is going on. Morrissey was there with Devoto, Shelley, E. Smith, Albrecht and the rest, watching the Sex Pistols in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, after all; indeed lyrically at least, the Smiths might have been the last 4/4 guitar band to find a genuinely new niche within the inherently conservative, and increasingly marginal, musical form we still (*ouch*) call ‘rock’. And then there’s a whole, at its most interesting emphaticaly non-urban, aspect of the period, an extraordinarily important – indeed underestimated – story which deserves a chapter to itself: what, no Pogues? No (gawdblessem, the little wonders) Dancing Did?): postpunk electric roots. At least, staying briefly in the imagined countryside in spirit if not in fact, he understands the Blue Orchids, who did more than anyone to move the boundaries of the period into zones of explicit spirituality, new hip priests indeed.
Anyway, an excellent read, and excellently written, and full of new information and new insights into this touchstone era.