Urban Pastorals

 

There were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their 

flock by night.

St Luke's Gospel 

 Le Paradis n'est pas artificiel.

Ezra Pound


*

        Piety

The shepherds abiding in the fields. The manger. The heavenly host. And peace, good will toward men. But Mary, says the Evangelist, kept these things, and pondered them in her heart.

My mother told me about it. She was a person given to apophthegms. Green was unlucky. So was a knife left laid across another. Love your enemies. Forgive even the Germans. Do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Never let the sun go down on your anger.

We were four. My father was in heaven. She'd kneel by our beds each night and we'd pray for him, just as we prayed for her, my sister and me.

She liked it when we were governed by gentlemen. Then you could be proud. I was clever at school. She was proud of that, but prouder when I was a little gentleman. She didn't want me to play with common boys. My friend's family, I heard her say, were Jews. I don't think I was to say that they were Jews. I was to be a gentleman. The window cleaner was common. She liked him. She didn't like Mr Stoneman: he was common too, but not as common as the window cleaner. He was vindictive.

I have tried to be her son. I know nothing, believe nothing, hope nothing. There is Cordelia, hanged, in the arms of her mad father. There's a young man on the cross, racked and forsaken. But while I live and remember, there is no silence of God.


Tooting Bec Common

A boy playing on summer afternoons could forget that he did not live in a rural paradise. There were ponds and a boating lake and stretches of woodland, an Italian ice-cream cart and a swimming-pool. There were squirrels and songbirds, and you'd come home with sticklebacks in a jam-jar or a stag beetle in a matchbox. There were also rough boys in quest of bother, there were flashers in the bushes and, when night fell, streetwalkers trod the verges of the garden - a garden defined by busy roads, as they then seemed. There were scars too.

South London was a patchwork of common land broken by housing - semis and prefabs, a few opulent villas, and bright, new, clean-lined blocks of flats rising among them like medieval towers. It was a pastoral out of William Morris, injured by enemy bombs, and made regenerate by Le Corbusier.

The common was bisected by the railway, which during the war had carried munitions trucks. In the angle it made with the main road, the remains of an anti-aircraft post: as melancholy as a ruined abbey. Over the road a street of villas, most of them wrecked by bombs that had missed their targets.

London in 1950 was Victorian. The Gothic Revival churches. The rag-and-bone men with their horse-drawn carts. The public drinking-fountains and the Public Libraries, with autodidacts searching for hidden treasures. There were Socialist Ministers in pin-striped trousers, whose lexicon was Morris and John Ruskin. They wanted to build a paradise on earth. They laboured. They did their best.


The English Gentleman

My elders disapproved of Mr Attlee. He gave sermons on equality, raided the wealth-creators, then draped himself in ermine. He had a precedent: Robin, Earl of Huntingdon, who had robbed the rich to give to the poor - a most unusual practice.

The wooded parts of the Common were Sherwood Forest. There was a ruined oak where the outlaws met in wellies and green pyjamas. Easy to climb, it was also, when need arose, a castle turret.

I got to love trees: big deciduous trees, clustered together in woodland. They were the very image of freedom in community. Sometimes the greenwood gives on to human habitation. An abbey beyond its precincts: the stone fretted with leaves and fruit, the long arcade that replicates the forest.

Sherwood was also Hollywood. I read Robin Hood and his Merry Men in the Sunshine Series. But Errol Flynn, lugging the King's deer into Nottingham Castle and preaching social justice to Prince John, seized my heart and melted into the forest.

The outlaw was a gentleman. See how he gripped Olivia de Havilland and bent his knee to the King. Let no man predicate that aught the name of gentleness should have, even in a King's estate, except the heart there be a gentle man's. He cared nothing for power or fortune or degree. He gave up everything to the common good.


Miss Inkpen

When Mr White roared in the playground, I wanted to go to the lavatory, please. But I was seven and we were big boys now.

Otherwise, school was Miss Inkpen, who lived up to her name. She always wore blue. She wrote in a lavish copperplate hand. The desks in her room were set with porcelain ink-wells, which looked up at you like ancient Egyptian eyes, their irises blue-black. Miss Inkpen was a monument: her large, stable build, the floor-length skirts, her glory of white hair.

We wrote with dip-pens. It was called the Modern School but had gas lighting. It was private too - there were no common boys. Miss Inkpen, who didn't approve of Mr Attlee, had been the headmistress of a state Primary School. Retired, she persisted in her vocation, nourishing and cherishing the talents of small boys. She was the Modern School's best ornament.

But oh, she fed her flock like a shepherd and her lambs could safely graze! She knew of it if we strayed. Even after I'd left her form, she kept watch over me. One day she found me in a line of boys waiting to be slippered. 'You chump!' she said, patting my pink cheek.

Later I told her I'd seen Julius Caesar - the film with Marlon Brando. I told her that I wanted to be Brutus, and to have it said of me 'This was a man'. The following day, she passed on her legacy, the book of the film. So this was Shakespeare. She had already taught me to count and spell. That day, I held the English language in my hand.


        At London Airport

 

                               Pale moon shining on the fields below

                               Darkies crooning songs soft and low

                               Needn't tell me so because I know

                               It's sleepy time down south

                               Soft winds blowing through the pinewood trees

                               Folks down there like a life of ease

                               When old mammy falls upon her knees

                               It's sleepy time down south

 

The North American terminal at Heathrow was little more than a field of Nissen huts and concrete runways. I have a snapshot of it: some desolate farm on the Great Plains - a landscape like an Alfred Hitchcock set. There's a great man in mufti, smiling, his glasses off, and in the background, very blurred and grinning self-consciously, a boy of about eleven in short trousers.

The boy is me, the photographer Val my sister. We have come to catch a glimpse of Louis Armstrong: Ambassador Satch, returning to home ground after a long tour. The slum kid with the cornet from the Waifs' Home in New Orleans.

Could that have been anxiety on his face - a frown perhaps? But the famous smile returned to meet the camera and, as Val prepared to click, the single word 'Spaghetti-i-i' crackled out, the last vowel rumbling on long after his lips had closed.

Duke Ellington 'loved and respected' Louis Armstrong: 'He was born poor, died rich, and hurt nobody on the way up.' All we had known was the sound of him - of 'a noble artist' whose 'sober and passionate music' gave firm if impalpable shape to the good place, where the leopard lies down with the kid.

The picture taken, he shepherded his entourage from the scene. We lingered, we watched a plane come in to land, and then heard faintly from some distant hut a dozen bars blown on the brazen horn: those darkies in the cotton fields living their life of ease.

A jet plane taking off, piercing the air. The awesome skill. The melancholy joy.


        Patience Escalier

The sky was orange. That was what first surprised me. If anything was the usual colour of sky, it was the old man's smock: soft blue, also the colour of his eyes. Such kindly ones, fading, set in his scorched face.

Head and shoulders filled the picture-frame. He might have been the Maréchal des Champs or the Marquis du Pré. Or a holy image perhaps: a shepherd from a Nativity. The grizzled beard. The strong but stiffening hands. A stick for the hands to rest on, and a straw hat whose yellow took the sun. His attributes. He stood for his own goodness.

Stood for his patience too. His name was Patience. Patience Escalier, a peasant by Van Gogh.

And the name Van Gogh, that's how I first heard it. One day in my first year at Grammar School, a large plain wooden crate labelled LCC turned up. The crate was in fact a stack of Impressionist pictures. Prints of course; but in the Van Gogh, there were shadows ridging the brushstrokes and furrows ploughed in the skin by a palette-knife. For the rest of the term, there was a Degas at the head of the stairs and a Cézanne in the dining hall; Patience Escalier was in the art room, which must have been pride of place.

So this was art. It had something to do with the material paint. Something to do with the sun, its blessings and curses. And work, of whatever kind, art being the expression of man's pleasure in labour. I went up to the Tate for Van Gogh's chair and the sunflowers. I have the old postcards still. But Patience Escalier, as I found, was somewhere else. He lives in the mind's eye.


Epilogue: the Citadel

For Patricia

You led me out of the city by narrow paths. We made our way by steep lanes and ginnels and steps cut in the rock, scrambling at length over a bulging slope of tufted grass, scattered with boulders.

Breathless by now, I saw how the city's hem frayed into countryside. Some common land; a street of dinky bungalows, each with its parked car; a major road, swerving around the hill and leaving, at the top, a massive rim of masonry, ivy and ground elder and bright flowers erupting from its crevices.

It was this that you had been wanting to find for me. When enemies attacked, it was here that the people gathered, bringing their children, their precious goods, their flocks.

And the flocks were still here today inside the walls. They browsed. As if there had never been a road outside, and never a city beneath. As if neither war nor time had dislodged stones from the pile. The goats had taken the broken walls for outcrop. They climbed upon them and looked out over the valley, pointing their horns. The sheep kept to the centre nibbling the grass and, nudged by a sheepdog, huddled quietly around the shepherd's car.

For there he sat, with the hatch raised, on the rear of his station-wagon. He reached out for a straying kid, the plastic mechanism on his crook clutching its fleece, drawing it gently home. His eyes were as pale as thrushes' eggs, one of them misted over, but his sight none the less seemed good. He called out to a distant goat, knowing its name. For he worked among the things he lived among. Not of this world, what did his life consist of but the substance of this world?

Back in the city, we wondered if we hadn't imagined him. And yet we caught ourselves thinking he'd been there since the Golden Age. Watching his lambs and kids. Playing on his pipes, no doubt, in the dry sunshine. Nymphs, no doubt, concealed in the bushes. The powers of his unworldly world presiding over the mystery of things.

*

Notes


The English Gentleman

'Let no man predicate ... the heart there be a gentle man's.' Guido

Guinizell, 13th C), 'Canzone: Of the Gentle Heart', translated

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

At London Airport

'When it's sleepy time down south' was Louis Armstrong's signature

tune. By the time I saw him in the 1950s he had changed the word

'darkies' to 'folks'.


'What there was in him of the old fashioned Southern Negro

entertainer will be forgotten. What will survive of him is his sober and

passionate music. He will be remembered as a great and noble artist

who served the world and his people well.'

Eric Hobsbawm's obituary for Louis (1971)

Armstrong, The Guardian

 

Patience Escalier

'The lesson that Ruskin here teaches us is that art is the expression of

man's pleasure in labour.'

William Morris, Preface to John Ruskin's The Nature of Gothic (1892)