Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let the Deed Shaw

          Oxford failed me, but not Cambridge.  We are now with the wonderful Dignam family (Elizabeth being Joan's niece), a more wired group than which it would not be possible to find on two continents.  I am thus able to tell you about our arrival in Britain--now a week out of date, of course, but any port in a storm.           

          We flew to London on September 11, a date thoughtlessly chosen months ago.  I expected to find Newark Airport in a state of lockdown gridlock.  In fact, there were few people there, and no lines at all at the security barriers.  Even the flight seemed relatively uncrowded and pleasant, and with but a minimum of our usual comic misadventures we made our way From Heathrow to Waterloo and thence by suburban train to Sevenoaks in Kent, where Joan’s brother and sister-in-law, John and Margaret Newman, live.  I managed to stay awake, sort of, through the rest of the day, which included a stroll through the extensive grounds of Knoll House, seat of the Sackvilles, one of the great architectural and historical ornaments of this fine old town.

            Our one full day with my inlaws, Tuesday, began with a practically motivated walk through Sevenoaks.  Money magically appeared when I pushed some buttons on an ATM.  That was a relief because I wasn’t sure I remembered the right buttons for my English account.  Among the first necessities of international travel these days is getting your hands on a mobile phone that works.  There are two ways of doing this.  The first is to be already in possession of a very costly hyperphone of the kind that most twelve-year-olds of my acquaintance already have but that I am too stingy to buy and too dumb to use.  The other is to seek out the cheapest Samsung on offer at the electronic junk bazaar.  In today’s Britain that would be the garish Phones 4U shop (I kid you not) that is now one of the less picturesque features of the High Streets of picturesque British market towns.  We found our quarry within three minutes.

            We also discovered the following interesting fact of Nine-Eleven relevance.  The phone we wanted costs £30 if you pay cash and £20 if you use a bank card.  I naively sought an explanation of what seemed to me a  curiously counter-indicative pricing policy.  It s all about helping Big Brother keep track of the phones.  The security authorities are willing to invest ten quid in what they can learn from a swipe of your credit card.

            Even a brief tour of a town in the British counties involves for me some indispensable ritual stops.  One of these is the charity shops, where my usual purchase is an old suitcase in which I can cart about the old books I buy in other shops.  But we are already overloaded, and my book-buying days, if not quite over, are painfully shortened.  Having little time, I stepped into the first rummage shop that presented itself: the Children’s Trust.  I cased the place swiftly, decided I had done it justice, and was making my exit virtuously empty handed, when my spouse drew my attention to an item hanging on the wall among other hideous decorations: to wit, a shield-shaped pseudo-heraldic plaque with the Fleming coat of arms and motto.  Neither the device (the belted head of a billygoat) nor the motto (“Let the deed shaw”) was previously known to this particular Fleming, but when God gives you a sign, sign up.  When again would a measly £3.50 allow me to shaw a spurious nobility documented by wood-burning set?  This treasure will be a Christmas gift for a certain immediate lineal descendant who, as he never reads my blog, is in no danger of having the surprise compromised.

The afternoon’s more worthy occupations included a lovely walk along the River Medway near Tonbridge, where many years ago my brother-in-law had rowed.  We walked about a mile and back without seeing another soul.  Indeed for most of the walk no signs of human habitation were in sight, and the only signs of human industry were the anciently cultivated fields and the numbered riparian fishing posts, maintained by a ferociously exclusive angling club, at the water’s edge.  One might have been in Montana rather than densely populated southern England.

            Before beginning our walk w had made a visit to the lovely old village of Tudeley.  All Saints’ church in Tudeley is a kind of beautiful architectural palimpsest, an anthology of architectural styles and enthusiasms.  From a distance it seems to be a fine exemplar of the chaste and elegant brickwork of the Georgian period.  In fact, the church’s foundations are pre-Norman, and from the inside it is obvious  that the chancel is late medieval.

            This ancient Christian church owes its modern prosperity to the bounty of two Jewish benefactors.  In the nineteenth century the wealthy and civic minded Goldsmid family took possession of the large estate at Tudeley.  “Squire” Goldsmid took an active interest in the physical and cultural health of the parish, including the upkeep of the church fabric.

            The much more famous beautification of the church dates from the second half of the twentieth century, when through a munificent bequest the church wardens were able to install a series of remarkable stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall, some of them actually donated by the artist, who was then over ninety years old.  We can assume the Gothic church will have had a pictorial window, though we cannot know its iconographic subjects.  The old glass had perished even before the eighteenth century, replaced by clear lights.  But now one sees above the altar a huge, hauntingly blue hassidic vision of the Crucifixion of Christ.