Thursday, July 31, 2008

Green And Pleasant Land

Well, Owen just about settles it: "These people don't think they belong to any class, and aren't remotely interested in what exactly happened to the industries, and the workers who worked in them, which once dominated eastern Berlin.... The smug jetset aesthete at the gallery opening might carry an accidentally liberatory charge - but only if one forgets the very real spatial and economic processes they are implicated in, to mostly malign effect." It's interesting, then, to stumble, on Youtube, upon Jonathan Meades' 'In Search Of Bohemia', an episode of his early '90s series Abroad In Britain. Apart from being a magnificent example of his mixture of casual erudition and blank strangeness, the kind of intriguing form almost unthinkable now on the BBC, it's fascinating by providing a kind of end-point to my own researches into bohemia, my own decided ambivalence. As Meades mentions, the painter Augustus John was the paradigm of fin-de-siecle bohemianism, a state of comfortable, creative independence made possible by the art boom of the era: "People made a lot of money". John came from the kind of petit-bourgeois background that allows relative failure without necessitating attendant hunger, that can easily foster artistic pretension (and, of course, gives the young subject a taste for comfort.) He attended the Slade College of Art, very much then still based on the principles of the first Slade Professor Of Art, John Ruskin - a major figure in Philip Hoare's study of Victorian millenarianism, England's Lost Eden. John's house in the village of Bohemia, in southern Wiltshire, stood on the very edge of the New Forest - just across the county border, in Hampshire, was Romsey, where George Cowper lived in the local manor house, Broadlands. Cowper was a major supporter of the Girlingites, a sect of millenarian and communitarian Christians living in the village of Hordle, on the other side of the forest - who played a shadowy part in the ideological history of communism and anarchism in Britain. Not to go too far into it - I'm saving that for the book that will one day hopefully be written - but this gang of unwashed ecstatics found in, the sheltering lees of the New Forest, a living blueprint for what the radical movements of the twentieth century were seeking after. There's a hell of a lot to be written about the intersection between late-Victorian bourgeois aestheticism and utopian socialism (or, for that matter, the nature of radical chic); the salient point seems to be that both are about the act of imagining, of bringing into practice, another way of life, other than the one of this world. The revolutionary faith is, as Greil Marcus had it, a gnostic one: what the SI had in common with the medieval heretics of Norman Cohn's The Pursuit Of The Millenium was a belief that the illusory world of exchange would be torn away like badly-painted scenery. I find myself studying types like Ruskin, or, say, William Morris, or the wave of bohemians that would follow them in the early decades of the new century, in spite of the stupidity of their convictions - setting the Arts & Crafts aesthetic against the soon-to-emerge modernism, you wouldn't exactly be hard-pressed to pick the reactionary style - as ciphers of something, in the same way that Marcus found the punks, Lettrists and heretics as ciphers of the ahistorical conspiracy of equals that made up the backbone of Lipstick Traces. (If I really wanted to appear credulous - and hell, why not? - I could link the Arts & Crafts mentality to the DIY record boom that followed punk.) The idea that perhaps there's some kind of continuum between the libertarian bourgeois types that populate England's Lost Eden and the innovators who populated the liminal zones of Britain and the US' devastated cities is probably ridiculously naive, but it makes a lot of sense - the New Forest itself is a kind of liminal zone, protected from the urban by the semi-rural buffer zone east of Christchurch on one side, and by Southampton Water on the other; its mixture of environments (stubby heath, rolling hills, old dense forest) seem to suggest a possibility of habitation, something the occasional hamlets and single cottages reinforce, but wandering out one feels an intense solitude, as if one had casually walked into another world. During the Second World War, refugees from Bournemouth and Southampton formed squalorous colonies in the forest; the government, rooting them out, found they were only one group among a population of travellers and solitaries who have lived in the forest for generations. Rumours of witch cults living in the forest persisted for centuries - and were, in a sense, confirmed, when Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, inaugurated his first coven and community in the Forest. "These apparently endless heaths, these scapes of furze and gorse", as Meades says, "are the closest thing there are in this country, to the mackey, to the scrubland of the northern mediterranean basin. That is the country of the gypsy." The Forest, in spite of its association with authority - being designated as "the king's forest" - belonged, in fact, to no-one but its inhabitants, and the fugitive souls who drifted through its space: the second king to own it, after William The Conqueror, Rufus, was killed in a hunting accident whose circumstances remain mysterious. The local working population, almost entirely without the self-organisation the industrial proletariat were taking part in, apparently didn't need it: within the boundaries of the Forest, they were, to a certain extent, possessed of the same freedom that the likes of John could make easily for themselves.
(Note: the title is from the 'Jerusalem' of Mark Stewart, not Elgar.)


Blogger kek-w said...

"I could link the Arts & Crafts mentality to the DIY record boom that followed punk" - No, not then, but now, perhaps.

August 3, 2008 at 11:18 AM  

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