Sunday, 27 January 2008

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

Over the past few years there have been a spate of books recounting deeply unhappy childhoods with parents who are abusive beyond belief. They are so popular that when I was in a booksellers recently I saw that they had an entire section devoted to them. I can't remember what the section was called, but it was something along the lines of 'Damaged Childhoods', somewhat short on subtlety I remember thinking.

But what really disappointed me was to see that they had included Lorna Sage's wonderful memoir of her upbringing among them. Because Lorna's book is affectionate and very very funny, despite that the marriage of the grandparents who brought her up was dysfunctional in the extreme. But she is able to offer an exceptionally sharp analysis of the way that the bitter conflict between her grandparents impacted on the subsequent generations, as well as acute observation of the individual traits that distinguished each family member who she brings entirely to life.

I'm of a similar age to Lorna, and remember all too well the sombre grey postwar austerity that consumed Britain, so I may be prejudiced in giving it my wholehearted recommendation. And I lived just round the corner from Lorna for several years, as well as sitting in on her lectures at our local university, so I can see her in my mind whenever I read her.

The book is well illustrated with family photos inserted at the appropriate points in the narrative. You find yourself surprised to see how normal everyone looks after you've been guided in such detail through their idiosyncrasies. In an odd way this book reminded me of Gerald Durrell's 'My Family and Other Animals', although it is far darker in the lives it explores.

The book was originally published (by 4th Estate) in 2000. And sadly within a year Lorna had died of emphysema, aged just 57.

The Guardian published an article by Lorna which will give the curious a small flavour of her writing. Seek it out.

Friday, 25 January 2008

The Oratory of All Souls, Burghclere

I visited the Sandham Memorial Chapel (as it's now known) twice last year, each time in the company of people who haven't been there before. And, as always, enjoyed the sheer sense of amazement on entering, struck by the sheer scale of Stanley Spencer's work.

It is all the more surprising for it's location in the small Hampshire village of Burghclere, on the edge of what was once the railway line, and looking out towards Watership Down (and yes, there are lots of rabbits!)

Stanley Spencer was a young man, still on active service, when he first conceived the project intended to bring him to terms with his experiences in what was then known as 'The Great War'. He wanted a chapel modelled on Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua, and eventually Jack and Mary Behrend agreed to commission the work. Lionel Pearson was the architect, although he didn't find the project satisfying; Spencer had very clear instructions for the chapel itself, and Pearson found himself left only to ensure that it was built in the local vernacular.

Inside, the three main walls are covered with Spencer's paintings; around half the scenes are set at Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol where Spencer was a medical orderly; and then pictures covering his time with the medical corps, and finally as an infantryman, in Macedonia. The pictures do not emphasise the horror of war, neither do they celebrate it. But they do speak of shared humanity, and many of the pictures actually seem quite homely. But Spencer was a profoundly religious man, and the end wall has one single work - 'The Resurrection of the Soldiers', wich has the dead soldiers climbing out of their graves and carrying the white crosses that had marked them to Christ. And many soldiers in the paintings on either side are also looking towards Christ with the hope of the resurrection. It is astonishingly moving, regardless of whether you share Spencer's religious convictions.

The chapels has had extensive restoration over the past couple of years, and the paintings have all been cleaned with spectacular results. What I had taken to be an artistic choice to paint in a muddy brown proved not to be the case at all, instead there are wonderful vibrant colours.

For me, only one other work matches it as an artistic achievement in the 20th century: Anthony Caro's 'The Last Judgement', but that's for another day.

The chapel has been in the care of the National Trust for the last forty years and they have proved good custodians. I should say thank you to Amanda Forsyth, the chapel administrator, who kindly arranged for us to visit when the chapel was otherwise closed; if only the weather had been as kind.