John Fowles has left the building: Belmont, Lyme Regis

From 1968 until the turn of the century, John Fowles lived at Belmont, his home in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the latter is a post-modern take on the spirit of Thomas Hardy, an investigation of the Victorian psyche written in the midst of the 1960s’ liberating atmosphere.

Belmont has been restored in the last decade by the Landmark Trust, and is preserved in its original eighteenth century form: all traces of Victorian additions, save for the observatory, have been removed. When I visited, you could see John Fowles’s teapot in the adjoining stable room and a few sentences. Otherwise, his ghost is exorcised.

Yet beneath the idealised re-creation of a 1790s townhouse, now a Wes Anderson-esque confection landed by the car park, I found a deep melancholy.

Fowles’ Victorian imagination, which I think we can safely assume was fired by the house he found in 1968, has no place in this restoration for the 21st century. Yes, we have a beautifully preserved building after years of neglect, but – save for a weekend this year when it is open for the public to view – it only exists because the super-rich can afford to stay here (the Landmark Trust funds its restorations by renting out the properties).

It would be more than churlish to not appreciate the work of The Landmark Trust. We have to be so grateful that they have rescued so many buildings and left them alive with possibility for future generations.

Yet Fowles also wanted Belmont to be a retreat for nurturing new writers. At least this has been given some lip service, though I can find scant current information.

You can’t help thinking: our world could be so different, but we gallop towards extremes of beautifully-curated heritage and plate-glass luxe-life stores at one end, and at the other – well, the opposite, with not much in the middle.

Photos copyright WhistlesintheWind

Nowhere to hide

Nowhere to hide

Fallow deer who live in the green spaces of London, with the hoots and cries of sirens on the wind, while eagle owls brood in the park’s caged spaces, like deposed medieval kings in the Tower of London.

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And the Disney version…

Deer Park E

The legend of Richard III

I heard about the two sides of Richard III at university, when a lot of students were milling around for theatre group auditions. There was a girl wearing a heraldically-coloured baseball jacket. Across the back of it was an elaborate medieval embroidery of a white boar, emblazoned with the word Dickon. I had to ask who Dickon was, at which point her eyes electrified with religious zeal. For two minutes she spake forth, with the fervour of Joan of Arc, on the cruel misrepresentation of Richard III by the Tudor dynasty. Passion spent, she reverted to the same woman who would later attempt election to the Student Union using a photo of herself in a ball gown.

The Ricardian disciple did her work because I later read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (named from Sir Francis Bacon’s words ‘truth is the daughter of time, not authority’), a crime novel in which Detective Inspector Grant uses a spell in hospital to assess the charges against Richard III. One of his visitors (an actress, funnily enough) brings in some prints of historical figures for him to assess. He can’t reconcile the face of the man in Richard III’s portrait with the villain from his ‘schoolboy history’ and constructs a plausible reassessment.

daughter of time original

I did some wider reading and fell for the romance of the maligned king because, as the Richard III Society is fond of pointing out, he appears to have been ‘a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people’ (according to Sir Francis Bacon).

So I wasn’t a stranger to the passion and drama heralded by the discovery of Richard III’s bones. I was even moved a little myself.

The documentary in which Phillipa Langley was brought face-to face with the king’s remains held a strange fascination beyond historical fact, compounded by Langley’s tearful, theatrical exit at the point when her fervour to resurrect his image could have back-fired, not helped by the composure of the investigating scientist.

It was a perfect 21st century scenario – a lone figure attempting to create meaning and reverence using time-honoured trappings of drama and theatre, rituals to bestow meaning. She had earlier urged the scientist to cover the box of bones with Richard’s flag before they were placed on the back seat of an unprepossessing hatchback. Some have found it ridiculous, and it has the makings of a Monty Python sketch.

This summer the BBC brought a photogenic Richard III to the screen by adapting Phillipa Gregory’s The Kingmaker’s Daughter (a title for Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville) as The White Queen. Gregory has a destructive habit of fusing her research – plausible yet entertaining historical perspectives – with the clumsiest of romance novel clichés. It means she’ll never kiss Hilary’s mantle. Despite this, and the Game of Thrones shimmer of medieval Disney, there was something in the way Richard’s story was told which was convincing enough to help alchemise a legend.

The White Queen

The BBC’s resurrection of Richard III, murderer of the princes in the tower no more.

Because we’ve seen how the king was lain hastily in an ill-fitting grave, a strange potion is brewing. There’s the spectre of a gothic monster disturbed, to rise from the dead, giving way to a Pre-Raphaelite glow of saintly Resurrection. Richard will be all these things, always, and – to be wheezily romantic – is perhaps a fitting embodiment of our human race.

Richard’s reburial should be as quiet and honourable as shoring up the remains of a castle keep, but it is becoming a pantomime in tacked-together polyester medieval costume. There’s the on-going argument that Richard should be buried in Yorkshire, not Leicester, which is now the subject of an undignified court case.

It’s quite probable King Richard would have preferred to have been buried in Yorkshire, at home, rather than near the ill-fated foreign field, but it begins to sound like something from a Joe Orton play: ‘It’s what he would have wanted – a stop-off at Harrogate, and Yorkshire pudding at the wake’.

And yet, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. No one can doubt that Philippa Langley has put her heart and soul into Richard III, but this has brought him into the 21st century. Inevitably, this makes the king a valuable commodity, where dignity is something that has to be fought for. This recent statement from members of the Looking for Richard project makes for fascinating reading.

Proposed tomb for Richard III

Architect’s image of Richard III’s tomb – shadowy figures abound. A man appears to be about to launch a stick of dynamite at skipping children while a random woman in a flared trouser-suit strides out obliviously for a Costa coffee.

The latest twist is the announcement of the design for Richard’s tomb. There were fears because the tomb would not be raised, and now it is. Yet donations to the Richard III Society to help fund the tomb have been withdrawn because the donors don’t like the design, and Philippa Langley agrees (though the chairman does not).

It would seem there is much to placate everyone in the design. A giant Yorkshire rose, carved from limestone; a contemporary raised plinth from Swaledale fossil stone (from Yorkshire, presumably); and a centrepiece of a cross so that the cathedral remains a place of worship and tempers the sense of a themed attraction.

Perhaps the problem lies with the hastily-assembled digital images issued by the architects, which look like stills from a dated computer game. It takes quite a leap of imagination to see the materials as they might appear in reality. As the images stand, Leicester Cathedral isn’t the Louvre and the surrounding Victorian approximations of medieval Gothic might look as affronted as an elderly duchess dressed in Emma Peel’s catsuit. But given the materials, it could still work.

It appears Richard’s supporters are finding the road to his burial as complex as anything devised for a Machiavellian prince.

Synchronised dreamscapes

Tim Walker - Devon cream

Postcards from an exhibition of Tim Walker‘s photographs, which was held over the summer at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. All the images were displayed in light boxes, so the darkened room created a night-time setting to make the experience entirely dream-like. I like the above image particularly, because it must have been projecting quietly in my mind when I was transferring my parents’ slides from the 1950s here. It’s also called Devon Cream, which I didn’t know until I drew it out for this post. Synchronicity indeed…

Tim Walker - It rained outside

The above image is called It rained outside so we camped indoors.

Tim Walker - Snow in Summer

Snow in Summer (above).

Tim Walker - Flying saucer with members of hunt

And another hunting image – Flying Saucer with members of the West Percy Hunt. All these photographs are constructed, using props, and are not the product of digital manipulation… to quote the essay, “To reveal the ambition of photography as an integrated, collective undertaking where the pressing of the shutter on the camera is the closing moment in the creative process”.

I’m not sure how many exhibitions work so successfully, when small elements sit quietly in your mind and then crystallise a particular moment in your own history – my parents, Devon, and the 1950s – a time before I was born. I’ve looked at my parents’ slides many times over the years. They’re blueprints in my memory of a time I never knew, acting like gentle magnets, as I drift along.

An Exmoor September

Exmoor 1

Tangled wood: Horner, one of England’s largest oak forests.

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Coming down like the wolf on the fold, cohorts gleaming purple and gold…

Exmoor 2

Church of All Saints, Selworthy. A gleaming monument from across the valley, an iced confection when face-to-face.

Exmoor 4

A little too much confection for some, but it’s too pure not to be enjoyed…

Exmoor 5

Exmoor is even more special because the ugly signage frenzy has yet to reach it. Black and white metal-embossed roadsigns abound, as do National Trust signs of the same vintage – beautiful, timeless lettering and craftmanship.

Exmoor 8

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Or this plaque on a seat at Webbers Post, originally a viewpoint once used by a local huntsman to watch his hounds.

Exmoor 6

Memento Mori in Stoke Pero churchyard, although he didn’t follow his wife so soon, having another 20 years in which to wander free…

Exmoor 9

Now to savour the time-worn signwriter’s art. Make the most of it while it lasts…

Exmoor 10

North Devon, 1950s

In the 1950s my parents moved all the way from Yorkshire to North Devon and bought a new bungalow on the edge of Tiverton. Not long after they went to the railway station to collect a puppy, a cocker spaniel who had travelled by train, in a wicker basket, from a breeder somewhere up country. I can’t imagine if the basket was shut or closed on the journey, but assume the breeders knew what they were doing for the time.

1950s1

The puppy was called Sherry, after the drink which matched her fur, but her kennel club name was the grander Gatehampton Caroline (although no-one would have any interest in dog shows).

These slides were taken on a camera which never worked by the time I was born, but I loved the beautiful brown leather case (which led to me choosing my current camera over ones which were probably much better value…) Taking photographs was much harder in the 1950s, and I’ve found the guide to ‘successful photography’ which must have been bought in an attempt to make sense of it.

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Some of Sherry’s walks in these days look impossibly idyllic, and this picture of Bickleigh looks like a stage set. The blossom at the end of the road looks as artificial as Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson’s cottage in the 1940s film Random Harvest (I know this because it was my grandad’s favourite film so have watched it again). Here’s a hastily found Youtube clip, and the scene is around 8 minutes in…

1950s9

It looks a particularly lovely moment in time, but my father could never settle in one place and Hollywood films are artificial for a reason, though I can’t imagine Yorkshire stock being under any illusions about this.

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North Devon and Exmoor is still, and always has been, organised around hunting and shooting. I’m not sure what Sherry is making of this sign, but on Boxing Day she may have gone into Tiverton to see the spectacle of the hunt meet. I’m sort of ambivalent about hunting, despite a gut reaction of repulsion, because there’s something primeval and ancient about it: a dreadful fascination. These photos from 1958 look so vivid I can imagine every sight and sound in the town square, and the colour of the winter light is beautiful.

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And then perhaps another walk over Tarr Steps, washed away and replaced time and again over the centuries…

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