“... The hemisphere|
Of magic fiction, verse of mine perchance
May never tread; but scarcely Spenser's self
Could have more tranquil visions in his youth,
Or could more bright appearances create
Of human forms with superhuman powers,
Than I beheld loitering on calm clear nights
Alone. beneath this fairy work of earth”
—Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Bk Six (87-94)
(begun 1798, published 1850)
... the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us …
12:29pm, 4 July, 2010: My sister and I grew up in an expansive Queen Anne country house, with a large tended garden and considerable acreage of farmed fields, a walled market garden, two ponds. We didn't own it, I usually hasten to add at this point, anxious not to declare myself the little lord of so and so, heir to expansive privilege and ease, a pre-paved route to inherited comfort. Mum and dad lived in a cramped little flat -- which I loved and they increasingly chafed at -- and most of the year the building (and sometimes the fields and the ponds) were filled with students. Large it was, but also spartan -- the Queen Anne section is only getting properly plumbing this year (it had been a borstal before it was bought by the FSC).
Two thirds of the year it was overrun with students, sometimes school age, sometimes older -- but never there longer than two weeks at a time: no chance to make friends you wouldnt' straightaway lose. The nearest village perhaps a mile's walk across fields; the village where our school was (and most of our friends) fours miles or more away. Rural Shropshire in the 60s was a stiflingly quiet world.
We went back last month, to honour dad, who died this January. Of course -- this is canonic -- the rooms and gardens seemed smaller than I remembered, some of it (the brass lion doorknocker) piercingly as I remember it, other bits utterly changed. The fields at the back, which my high little attic bedroom gazed out on, are now a jumble of modern 80s buildings and extensions to the Queen Anne and Victorian and 50s parts. This is a sprawling scientific space that caters for as many adults as schoolchildren, and grown-ups expect a certain level of facility when they're paying for it. The nextdoor farm no longer leases the fields, which are full of equipment and project plots and an elaborate little educational part for kids to walk through. The garden proper is scruffier than mum would have let it get, the croquet lawn (!) long ago torn up for staff car-park needs.
The day itself was simple enough -- lunch (outdoors as it was a gorgeous day), then some of the people dad had worked with in the 50s and 60s talking about what they did, and what he achieved. Two memorial trees planted -- more to come, an avenue if the subscription does well -- and then we separated into various little groups for guided walks round the centre as it now is; to see what it does today, and how dad had helped set it up. The current director of the centre was his student, and adored him; so -- it became very evident very quickly -- did everyone; a side of him, as a teacher and professional inspiration, a playful and innovative and highly intelligent anti-academic educator, that I had seen less of (interestingly less unfamiliar to my sister, who he taught photography). As I said before here, I didn't directly share any of his passions -- but I suddenly realised as this day unfolded that like him I too entirely favour fieldwork over theory. Close attention to the shape of the willow leaf, the texture of the bass pulsenote, the energy and provenance and order of the sentence -- this is where you learn; this, for us, is where the heart of knowledge is. What we see and hear and smell and feel that theory doesn't teach us to expect or understand: these small overlooked undeniable facts the root of dissent and transformation. Something like that...
I chose the guidewalk through the old house itself, given by a colleague who had arrived at this place the same evening dad had, in 1957. Between us we told stories about how it had been -- both learning things we never knew; he told staffroom anecdotes (young adults horsing around); I recounted infants-eye-view memories. All those young people long ago, working together to bring something to be: an inadvertent commune, blissfully unanxious in its creativity. How was that achieved? That day, Dad was everywhere around us, in the halls and offices and lecture rooms and labs, in the garden and in the fields. And in the trees; above all in the trees. When I look at trees anywhere now, in parks and city streets, from trains, even on maps, I think of him: his life's work, his deep love.
So yes, of course I had a privileged childhood: I had an *idyllic* childhood. Not by any means a monied childhood; but a spacious, nurtured, loved, free childhood, shaped by learning and imagination and practical and collective idealism. Today -- 4 July -- is mum's birthday: she would have been 75. It's his year, so I'm giving over what would have been her celebration (I can half-hear the protest): with this promise, to them, to anyone reading. That I will write this all up properly -- tell the tale of what the two of them made there; what dad wanted to do and did; what -- because it seems so very far from the current tenor of the times (old man's refrain!) -- can sometimes be done.
The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind (or ahead of) us, is IN us
“a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once”
1:21pm, 25 Mar, 2010: My father died in his sleep in the early morning of 23 January, aged 78, and now lies in the small village churchyard just up the road, by the yew at the western end, with our mother and her parents. For a long time now we'd observed and enjoyed his gift for focused effort, to master his condition for special occasions and be absolutely physically and mentally present, for the time it took. This last year was such an occasion, the last and greatest: when my sister adopted a daughter, dad was determined to be there for a while to get to know his little grand-daughter: a final summer, a final Christmas, and then, at the quiet corner of the year, to slip away.
An outpouring, since of admiration and fond memory from old friends and colleagues. Much to recall and think about -- and perhaps one day to write about; about how my sister and I grew up (where: a tiny flat in a large house deep in the Shropshire countryside, surrounded by idealistic young adults and books, and an all-pervasive very practical project to transform something for the better).
Once I remarked to him that it was odd our passions so far diverged, and he said, in his gentle, telling way: "We're both taxonomists..." Well yes: - the drive to remake the world, to put it right, by encouraging people to teach themselves to see or hear what there is in the world, all of it and how it relates; not to overlook things; not to disdain the variant detail. Botanists have likes and dislikes same as everyone else, but the objurgation of the seemingly uncharismatic is very precisely not how natural history works. Darwin spent a long time studying worms in his own garden; dad developed a methodology for distinguishing kinds of grasses; another for telling apart types of willow.
As long as I can remember, somewhere unobtrusive in the flat and later the house, hung the picture below: Æsculapius, Flora, Ceres and. Cupid honouring the Bust of Linnæus . It's daft enough -- the clash of two worlds, the memes of the 18th-century classical revival with the figureheads of modern science -- and until this Christmas, I'd paid it little mind beyond that slightly dismissive judgment. As I cast around for a gift in a very busy December, HR, trapped in horrid bookshop temping, suggested I get him the facsimile of Robert John Thornton's Temple of Flora. Perfect suggestion; reading it with him turned out to be a complex act of closure, a last lovely encounter with his interests, his mind, his joy; not least because, in the pedantic German essays accompanying the prints, this image was carefully explained; the cheeky presence of Cupid in particular (plant have sex: this was a shocking claim once upon a time). The edition was absurdly sized, far too large for him to hold or handle: so he lay back as I leafed through it for him. Thornton's project had been absurd, too: a massive illustrative celebration of Carl von Linné's naming breakthrough, a folly ruined by a war (Napoleon blockaded Great Britain and Thorton's subscribers dried up). I planned to come back and read it out again in the spring; no need now.