The legend of Richard III

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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.

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Holiday haul

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Summer holiday: all those unnecessary possessions spilling from boxes and cupboards and wardrobes and drawers reduced to camping stuff and a couple of bags of clothes. And nothing is missed, we’re just here in the present. There’s a lesson there I’ve patently failed to notice, because back home I’m shuffling a new hoard around and wishing I could just ingest everything like something from the movie eXistenZ

Mortimer

Beginning with a superb Penguin from 1964: the cover is a still of Anne Bancroft from the film version which I saw a few months ago. A fascinating film, beautifully acted and shot, 50 years old and still relevant. (The write-up on the DVD has the slightly fatuous line ‘Jo Armitage has a breakdown in Harrods and her life begins to crumble’.)

McCullers

Just brilliant typography – and another film from the 1960s I saw recently. Carson McCullers has such evocative titles for her novels (like Tennessee Williams, and some might find it a little melodramatic) but a phrase like this always draws me to a book, which is partly something to do with how they look in print and how designers can work such magic with them. I haven’t read Carson McCullers before but I know I’ll love this. I had to wrestle and choose between this and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe in the same edition. I wish I’d just got both but was physically removed from the bookshop once it was clear I was about to spend the rest of the holiday budget and probably throw the camping gear out of the car to make room for these essentials.

Huxley and Bowen

More 1960s paperbacks. To think there was a time when most books looked like this.

Bowen and Lehmann

Another evocative title that I’ve been looking for: The Weather in the Streets. I’ll just add this poster from the Transport Museum here, because it comes to mind every time I pick up the book…

0924-49

Notable to see Howard Spring recommending this, a bestselling and respected author that never made it to the 21st century. I’m looking forward to the ghostly short stories from Elizabeth Bowen, particularly after The Demon Lover.

Garfield

And lastly, some Leon Garfield. The cover of The Drummer Boy is by Antony Maitland. I was partly drawn to this by a walk to Easby Abbey in Yorkshire, passing a memorial to a drummer lost in the secret passage from Richmond to the abbey in the eighteenth century.

Drummer's stone

Decline and Rise

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Witley Court 1

A stop at Witley Court near Worcester on the way to North Wales. Partly destroyed by fire, gutted for salvage in the 1950s, and perfect for the recent meander at WhistlesintheWind about what we keep and throw away… pondering the popular view of Britain before the 1960s, what modernised us, and the things salvaged from the 20th century’s garbage skip.

Witley Court 9

Witley Court is well-managed by English Heritage, a grand shell with a centrepiece fountain that fires on the hour.

Witley Court 2

There’s a very particular atmosphere, and the link here is actress Deborah Kerr, who appeared in two films that came to mind while wandering around. One was Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Somehow that film made the bright sun of a summer’s day coldly haunting, with images across the water of the house in cadaverous silence. In complete opposition, I also remember Deborah Kerr in a technicolor comedy with Cary Grant, about the inhabitants of a stately home ‘forced’ to take in guided tours to maintain their lifestyle. Witley Court is both – families, dressed in shades of Italian ice cream, sit happily on the manicured lawns, while the brooding, slightly resentful shell of the mansion stands over them.

Witley Court 6

Solid, stoic – it will not be moved.

Witley Court 7

Above: the last echoes of the rustle of a dress up the staircase, sweeping away with the speed of a darting peacock’s tail feathers…

Witley Court 8

Perhaps this is all we need? Nothing could be more honest than Witley Court. The architecture seems to speak more powerfully as a shell – part of the story of the 20th century told with unsentimental beauty.

I remembered last year’s visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I had wanted to go there for years, but what waited there was fairly hideous… a house, like Witley Court, once partly destroyed by fire (in the 1940s), yet risen again. In the 21st century some aspects can only recall garish images of stately grandeur: garden centre statues or statement wallpaper in out-of-town superstores up and down the land.

Castle Howard

2012 in Ambrosia: The whine of WhistlesintheWind leads to the fall of the British aristocracy; Castle Howard is closed and becomes a home for retired spaniels.

Elsewhere, it seemed the very essence of the British heritage industry at its worst: the empty, shored-up and once fire-damaged rooms are barely filled with bored displays flogging the dead horse of the 2009 remake of Brideshead Revisited. 

Castle Howard is itself unconnected with any of Waugh’s inspiration but remains in the Arcadian imagination as the stage set for the iconic 1981 TV drama.

And yes, something from an earlier age remains – in the occasionally fawning and obseqiuous manner of attendants drooling over the family portraits. Brideshead ended the war as the ghost of its former self. If heritage supermarkets with their cafés complete with suspiciously-stained sofas are what we need to feed a dream, then perhaps we should have let Charles Ryder ride away down the drive in his jeep, never to return.

South Riding and Winifred Holtby

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South Riding

An edition of Winifred Holtby’s Yorkshire novel from 1938.

Testament of Friendship

And the memoir by Vera Brittain from 1940. The Observer said at the time: “The tale of a life which combined a candle’s briefness with a beacon’s challenging flame has its own strong fire, and is itself a challenge to posterity, lest it forget”.

There was a fairly recent BBC version of South Riding, but the 1974 version, albeit epic and long-winded, is more authentic. Dorothy Tutin is headmistress Sarah Burton, and there is one particularly effective episode with Joan Hickson as a ‘difficult’ member of staff.

South Riding, Dorothy Tutin, Joan Hickson

“Have you never thought of getting a post in the south of England?”: Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite (left) with Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton

There used to be lots of such ‘character’ actors – and some of these TV dramas feature top-notch acting in the briefest roles. I think back then TV was an extension of the stage, because most actors had a long history there. In a theatre you aren’t expecting slick editing to hold the attention, simply the skill of the cast.

I’m fascinated by these DVDs of things being screened when I was just old enough for Tom and Jerry. Perhaps it’s because they once belonged to what seemed a privileged and unknown world of adults, who once children had gone to bed, could safely indulge in secreted stashes of chocolate in peace and quiet, have a drink and talk freely. A friend told me that when he was small, every Sunday night two Walnut Whips would appear on his parents’ sideboard in readiness. Perfect.