Friday, July 24, 2009

England's Lost Eden

The original, archaeological site of the Garden of Eden is believed by the members of the Panacea Society to be at 18 Albany Street in Bedford. This is so obviously a delightful idea I hardly need to expand on it; God and Adam arguing on a suburban lawn, sprinklers twitching over the grass. Then the Fall and the Exile, or more specifically the beginning of life at no's 16 and 20. As cults go, the Panacea Society seem like quite nice people, they take their creed from an 18th Century 'prophet', Joanna Southcott, who, like some other very interesting ranters, shakers and jumpers who formed a religious subculture in the 18th and 19th centuries, believed she was receiving messages directly from God, and that the end of the world was close. Jesus would re-enter triumphantly through the streets of Bedford. I can very vividly imagine this, perhaps cos there is an early Peter Blake painting of a similar scene, called Christ Entering Venice:






















He painted it while studying at the Royal Academy. Much later, after Sgt Pepper and the swinging 60s, Peter Blake becomes part of the Ruralist Brotherhood, and his paintings take on a beautiful folkloric feel. He reaches back to the art of Samuel Palmer and William Blake, tapping into a sense that the land itself is sentient in some mysterious way. I love Samuel Palmer's eerie paintings of fields at night with the harvest moon hanging over them, ghost-figures walking through the furrows. Seeing an exhibition of his work at the British Museum a few years ago, I was struck how hugely ahead of his time he was. Sadly, the death of his son, Thomas, chastened him, and he abandoned or lost his original ecstatic vision and ended up as a Victorian academic painter, forgotten for many years after he died.






















18 Albany Street, The Site of The Original Garden of Eden, was eventually bought by the Panacea Society, and is now rented to non-religious tenants, apparently kept on two months notice should anything of a millenarial nature happen. A Channel 4 documentary crew recently filmed the inside of the house. Alas, God's signs and wonders kept themselves under wraps. But I love the idea of people still re-imagining the English suburbs and countryside as a kind of sacred, prophetic landscape. It's part of the Blakean tradition still alive in 2009, however eccentric it seems, however ironically distanced from it we've become. This magical sense of symbols being hidden in the everyday: symbols of the ancient, of the sacred agrarian, old as history itself. You can find them in the corners of suburban cul-de-sacs as much as in the fields themselves. Our forgotten Gods waiting for us in the long grass, just behind the forecourt of the empty shopping centre, as a long evening begins to fall.

More on this in England's Lost Eden, Adventures in a Victorian Utopia by Phillip Hoare.

10 comments:

Ian Woolcott said...

Wonderful strange stuff.

Capitán Zissou said...

Hi,sorry for the off topic (and for my sometimes weak english),but having read that you like Atahualpa Yupanqui,it seems right to ask you if you guys ever consider come to Argentina to play with The clientele (and maybe with Hacia dos veranos as your support band?).That will be really nice.Maxi from Buenos aires,Argentina.

Emma said...

I'm intrigued and will find out more about Samuel Palmer - did you read Darkmans?

Alasdair said...

I have not read Darkmans, it looked a bit cruel and bleak and I haven't been in that mood for a while. I usually like the books people recommend here though so maybe I'll pick it up.

Capitan Zissou, I hope one day we will play in Argentina, especially if it can be with Hacio dos veranos, but there ar eno current plans.

Steve said...

Alasdair, you MUST read Darkmans! I read it last summer and was constantly reminded of various Clientele songs... Come to think of it, finishing it marked the beginning of about a month long binge on The Violet Hour.

Have you read The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq? (English translation of Le Rivage Des Syrtes). It's the other novel that I found reminiscent of both your writing and Clientele songs, more so even than Darkmans.

Alasdair said...

ok Steve, thanks, I'll check both of those out. ps a month with the Violet Hour?!? yikes

Steve said...

The Opposing Shore is a dense read and is also hard to find in English. His first book "The Castle of Argol," considered to be the first Surrealist novel, is shorter and easier to get a hold of...

Here's an especially wonderful paragraph from the first chapter of The Opposing Shore. The entire book reads much like this.

"We glided along the dusty road as though within the current of a river of cold air flecked with vague patches of whiteness; on either side, the darkness loomed up, entirely opaque; everywhere on these lonely arteries, where any encounter already seemed so unlikely, nothing equalled the impenetrable ambiguity of the shapes suddenly silhouetted against the night, only to vanish forthwith. In the absence of any visible landmark, I felt rising within me the gradual atony of all sense of direction and of distance which paralyze us before any real symptom - like the onset of a fever - in the middle of a road where one has lost one's way. Above this earth benumbed in a dreamless sleep, the huge and stupefying glitter of stars broke upon us like a belittling tide, sharpening the sense of hearing to a morbid refinement of its dry blue sparks, as one cocks one's ears despite oneself to hear the sea divined somewhere in the distance. Swept on by this enthralling rush into pure darkness, I reveled for the first time in these southern nights unknown in Orsenna, as in some initiatory ablution. Something had been promised to me - something had been revealed; I was entering without enlightenment into an almost agonizing intimacy, eager for the morning already pressing upon my unseeing eyes, even as one advances blindfolded toward the site of revelation."

PS a month with The Violet Hour might have been an exaggeration, it was probably more like two weeks where it was every other record I listened to... which put me in a strange head space to say the least.

Katy said...

I had 'Cornfield by Moonlight' saved in my hard drive from a few years ago and hated I didn't know who the artist was. Attracted to the painting on your blog, I looked up Samuel Palmer and BAM! there it was, the object of my adoration. Reminiscent of one of my favorites, George Inness.

I never put 2 and 2 together, but The Clientele albums very much fit the Tonalism style with which these artists paint.

Can't wait for the new album!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you are right, Darkmans seems to begin with almost nothing but cruelty and bleakness; but I thought there was real joy, humour and hope at the end of the story as well as a tremendous love for language and heritage - a very British book.

Alasdair said...

So I read Darkmans, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for recommending it to me.