Friday, 12 October 2018

PASTORAL

Upper Close, Lower Close, Cank Hill, Middle Cans, Park Close, Far Close.

Those were the names of the fields on my parents' small-holding in Warwickshire.  The names were on a plan in the deeds and they were in daily use.

'I'm going to move the cattle onto Cank Hill.'
'Can you help with the potatoes in Lower Close?'

Upper Close had an old marl pit in one corner where the cattle would shelter in bad weather.  A stream ran along one side of three of the fields, weaving in and out of our neighbour's property so that livestock on both sides of the fence could have access to fresh water.  Middle Cans had a side entrance to a badger set (the main part of the set was further up the hill behind our land).  Cank Hill was too steep to mow but it had a gate onto the road, a useful short cut when walking up to the village.  Far Close was always boggy and meadowsweet flourished there in the summer.  Park Close was only separated from its adjoining field by straggly overgrown pear and apple trees.  The humps and hollows in the grass may have been a remnant of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation.

When I moved to Cumbria I noticed that one large agricultural estate had nailed numbers to gateposts - no fancy field names for their contract tractor drivers.

I've been reading Jim Carruth's collection Black Cart (Freight Poetry 2017).  The book is beautifully designed and has footers running along each page.  In the first section the footers are the names of the fields of High Auchensale, Jim's family farm.   In the second they are the names of types of grasses (no mention of the ubiquitous rye grass) and in the third the names of farms which have given up dairying and sold their land.

The book is part record, part celebration, part lament for a farming generation.  Jim Carruth grew up on the family farm near Kilbarchan, not far from Johnstone, Renfrewshire, and Glasgow's outer edges.  There are similarities with the rural backgrounds of Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke and Les Murray.  Jim Carruth (born 1963) writes about mechanised farming but is also aware of post-war changes (Clydesdales superseded by tractors) and more recent events (the foot and mouth outbreak).

The book is truly pastoral [to do with flocks and herds], in a tradition that goes back to classical times (epigraphs from Virgil preface each section).  A quote from Les Murray on the back cover states 'It is the hope of Jim Carruth to restore agricultural writing and the depth of its detail'.  I like that phrase 'agricultural writing'.  It avoids the romantic and idealistic overtones that have accrued to literary concepts of pastoral over the centuries.

 The front cover flap of Black Cart describes the book as 'a love poem to a rural community'.  The collection is not nostalgic but elegiac - 'a moving testament to a lost generation of family, friends, farmers and farms.'

What comes across to me most strongly in Black Cart is the poet's bond to the people of the land and their bond to the land itself (field names included).

Monday, 1 October 2018

TOO MANY MADONNAS

Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

I found it in a basket of eggs.

I struggle with religious art: the repetitive subject matter, so many pictures in which the only women are Madonnas or Magdalenes, so much iconography I don't understand.  I feel like an alien in a strange land.  I need something that can connect me to this world so many centuries before my own.

I think of Dante, contemporary with some of the paintings I am looking at in the gallery.  He wrote from the viewpoint of medieval Christianity but was strongly critical of individual popes and clerics and of the abuses and hoarded wealth of the church.  This doesn't help me relate to the paintings with their lavish use of expensive pigments and gold.

But then I notice a small narrow panel, depicting the Nativity.  it was painted in 1425 by Rossellio di Jacopo Franchi.  The Madonna is standing, looking serious.  Joseph is seated with a puzzled expression on his face.  It is as if both of them are struggling with the shock of parenthood for the first time.  They appear to have had words - hardly surprising given their inadequate accommodation.

The ox and the ass put their heads above the manger, from which the infant Jesus seems to have slipped.  The animals' portraits are as realistic as those of the human figures.  I imagine a farmer fondling the hair on their foreheads as he shuts them in the stable after a day's hard work.

To the right of the scene two shepherds have turned up.  They wear knee-length tunics and tights, a functional fashion so everyday in the 15th century that it has become today an instantly recognisable cliche of amateur pageants and plays.

The brief (? too brief) description beside the panel states that it is a predella, that is, a painting along the horizontal frame at the bottom of an altar-piece.  Originally it would have been dominated by the important, now absent, middle part of the painting.  But, being at a lower level, the predella would catch the eye of the worshipper going to receive the sacrament.

One of the shepherds is carrying a wicker basket, a present for the Christ child.  I look closely and see that it is a basket of eggs.  Perhaps the eggs were destined for the next day's market and the shepherd had grabbed them impulsively, feeling he should bring something and that was the only thing he could think of.

What a wonderfully practical gift.  The holy family - no room at the inn - would have been forced into self-catering, Mary had to keep her strength up and there were all those visitors to feed.  Soon they would have to flee into Egypt - there might be a few boiled eggs left to take on the journey.

No doubt there is some iconographic significance that I have missed - the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection maybe?  But I like to think that a woman kneeling to receive the host on her tongue in 1425 would have been as charmed by that basket of eggs as I am so many centuries later.