Ritual and the Mundane

Resilience and Survival in the time of Pandemic

Ritual; a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.”

Mundane 1 : of, relating to, or characteristic of the world. 2 : characterized by the practical, transitory, and ordinary : commonplace the mundane concerns of day-to-day life.”

As we enter a new lockdown at the worst stage of this frightening pandemic and in spite of the light at the end of the tunnel, our resilience is starting to crack and all our good intentions from a year ago are beginning to look worn and frazzled.

I’m certainly no exception to this and, like most other people struggling to make sense of the situation, I have my bad days in between. We feel helpless and have no control over the situation. This has led me to thinking on how we best can survive the bad times and the resources that we might need to reach the other side. Perhaps also a a recipe for our future behaviour.

I then started contemplating the things that we are already doing, perhaps subconsciously, that contribute to our mental wellbeing and survival; the two words that came to mind were Ritual and Mundane. Everyday we carry out tasks to a set pattern, be that drinking a cup of coffee, preparing food, brushing leaves in the yard or even filling the dishwasher.

These actions are also mundane i.e. commonplace, practical, ordinary; there is another definition of mundane in the Oxford Dictionary which is “Lacking interest or excitement; dull”. These are not words that I would use to characterise mundane – just because something is commonplace and ordinary does not make it boring and dull.

One great artist and writer who knew this to be true was D.H.Lawrence. Aldous Huxley said of him that “He could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.”

Everything that Lawrence did, be it writing or any other tasks that he performed, were carried out with a deep sense of reverence and total commitment. His work ethic was phenomenal and was perhaps a result of his working class background, his mother was very house proud, despite the relative poverty of the family.

Lawrence had an almost religious attitude to physical work and was convinced that it was necessary to carry out your own tasks in order to counteract what he regarded as the softness and blandness of modern society. How he would have hated our Netflix generation. Physical work was probably a necessity for him on a more personal level, as a antidote to his life as a writer, which appeared to cause him severe mental distress.

He also wanted total control over every situation which was probably verging on pathological. I am not suggesting that we should all be like Lawrence, but perhaps we could all learn something in today’s society from something of that quality of his, which was both earthy and mystical.

Much of what I have learned about Lawrence’s phenomenal capacity for work was gleaned from a fantastic online site called ‘D.H.Lawrence Memory Theatre’ a digital resource that explores the literary and cultural heritage of Nottingham. For more fascinating information concerning Lawrence please follow the link at D.H.Lawrence Memory Theatre

I should also give a thanks to my daughter Camilla, whose PhD in 2018 on Lawrence, rekindled my interest in his life and work “Between Letters: D.H. Lawrence, the Nonhuman and the “Life of Writing”

It has long been known how rituals within different cultures reduce anxiety by giving people a set of strict rules to live by in order to counteract the uncertainty and confusion of life. This is, after all, the basis of most of the world’s major religious movements, where historically people have performed ritual actions in order to bring certainty to their existence. As well as formal religious services which are widespread amongst the major religions, there are numerous ritual practices throughout every culture in the world, too many to mention, but including such notable examples such as the Japanese tea ceremony, the Sufi whirling dervishes and even the humble family dinner to name but a few.

Below are images showing Whirling Dervishes, Catholic Tridentine Mass and a French Masonic ceremony from 1745:

More recently, a definitive link between the performing of rituals and mental health is being established on a scientific basis and it is the neuroscientists that are providing the answer. There is a fascinating article in Psychology Today from 2017 entitled ‘The Anxiety-Busting Properties of Ritual’ by Nick Hobson PhD a research psychologist and lecturer at the University of Toronto. The subtitle is ‘How ritualized actions act as a natural anxiolytic’. An anxiolytic is a medication or other intervention that is prescribed to reduce anxiety, so it can be seen that if an anxiolytic is natural, it has enormous repercussions for medicine and science.

The crux of the article is that the brain’s main function is to make predictions about the future and then adjust behaviour based on those predictions.

“A brain that can predict (one that is certain) makes a human feel safe and happy. A brain that cannot predict (one that is uncertain) makes a human feel threatened and anxious.”

Unfortunately, despite the brain’s wonderful capabilities, even it cannot process the infinite amount of data involved and therefore the result is confusion and anxiety. From man’s earliest days he has adapted his behaviour to deal with this anxiety, developing complex rituals in order to make sense of the world. In everyday modern life , we have also developed many rituals which we perform every day to lessen anxiety and which have been shown, in experiments, to reduce activity in the parts of the brain that cause anxiety.

The article concludes by making suggestions on how we can reduce anxiety in our day to day lives by firstly formalising and committing ourselves more to the rituals that we already are aware of. The other thing is to create further rituals of our own, which if carried out on a daily basis, will over time create resilience. If you like, a compound interest for the soul.

A link to the article in Psychology Today can be found here and is well worth the read The Anxiety-Busting Properties of Ritual

Many of these rituals are what are termed mundane and one of the best descriptions that I have read is in an article by a Zen Buddhist monk on his early days as a novice in a temple in Vietnam, and it is all about that most mundane of activities washing up. He writes eloquently how an activity like washing up carries the same weight and importance as every other activity and if carried out with reverence becomes a sacrament.

“I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to be able to finish so I can sit down sooner and eat dessert or enjoy a cup of tea, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and the fact that I am here washing them are miracles!” ……..

“Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life.”

Memories from the Root Temple: Washing Dishes

In a similar vein, one of my favourite poems, which I discovered a few years ago in an anthology, is by the Californian poet, Al Zolynas. Many of Al’s poems deal with the everyday and the mundane in the best possible meaning of the word. Al is a long time practitioner of Zen Buddhism and in this poem he seems to capture the essence of both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of everyday life, they are of course one and the same thing.

Al Zolynas – The Zen of Housework

"I look over my own shoulder
down my arms
to where they disappear under water
into hands inside pink rubber gloves
moiling among dinner dishes.
My hands lift a wine glass,
holding it by the stem and under the bowl.
It breaks the surface
like a chalice
rising from a medieval lake.
Full of the grey wine
of domesticity, the glass floats
to the level of my eyes.
Behind it, through the window
above the sink, the sun, among
a ceremony of sparrows and bare branches,
is setting in Western America.
I can see thousands of droplets
of steam—each a tiny spectrum—rising
from my goblet of grey wine.
They sway, changing directions
constantly—like a school of playful fish,
or like the sheer curtain
on the window to another world.
Ah, grey sacrament of the mundane!"

Printed with Kind Permission of the Author.

First Published in:- The New Physics
Wesleyan University Press,
Middletown, Connecticut 1979

I think I should make a confession here, in that most of the dishwashing in our house is carried out by a machine, but I do have a number of precious pieces of pottery and glass, which I meticulously clean with great love and attention. Also stacking the dishwasher in a particular and most efficient way has become a daily ritual.

During the first lockdown, back in the Spring of 2020, which now feels like a lifetime ago, my wife and I established a routine of aiming to carry out a few tasks every day, mainly outside jobs in the garden when the weather was good, plus also having a cup of coffee at fixed times, a walk into nature, the planting of vegetables and the preparation of food together.

Later in the year, as the weather deteriorated, indoor activities took over, and, as well as the general maintenance, other activities started to surface. As my good friends know, I am an avid collector of studio pottery and have a largish collection, which moves around the house. In this lockdown I have become prone to rearranging my collection, as well as handling many pots on a daily basis, the feel of a piece of pottery in the hand is very important.

Paintings that had hung on the wall for 20 years or more, assumed a greater importance. I spent more time looking and discovering small details never before noticed. It was as though they were telling me that they had been ignored for far too long.

We also noticed that life slowed down, so that even though we were working, we had more time to take in our surroundings and really take in the nature around us. The birds feeding outside our kitchen window, the antics of the squirrel, the shape of a vegetable, a spider making its web, the larvae of a butterfly.

Of course this will not last, eventually life will slowly get back to normal, and within a couple of years people will forget and move on back to the old way of life. But maybe, just maybe, there will be a small voice within us saying that things can never be quite the same again. Things will need to change both inside ourselves and in the outside world, if we are to save both mankind and the planet.

In writing this article I am not in any way wishing to diminish the terrible devastation this pandemic has wrought worldwide with several million deaths and further untold millions suffering bereavement, sorrow, financial hardship and poverty. For those who survive there is very little comfort, and this article is, in my small way, a dedication to them.

The Town that loves to Party

“There are many ways to the Divine. I have chosen the ways of song, dance and laughter” Rumi, 13th century Persian Sufi Mystic and Poet

One of the first things I discovered on arriving in the area 8 years ago is that they love a good party in Hastings and if you have to dress up for it, even better. There’s a celebration for every time of the year and more. There are pagan festivals, a weird pirates day, bonfire shenanigans, their own unique version of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), numerous seafood and other gastronomic events during the summer months plus countless other more esoteric events to cater for every taste. Most of them seem to have one thing in common, copious quantities of alcohol and the chance of dressing up in a costume, often the more outrageous the better. Although there are numerous events, as I stated above, I will concentrate on the 3 largest events in the calendar, namely Jack in the Green held in May, Pirates Day in July at the height of the summer and the Bonfire Procession normally held in the middle of October. The rest will have to wait for another time.

The year we arrived, our first experience was the pagan festival of Jack in the Green held on the May Bank Holiday and we were not prepared for it. For a start, we were vastly underdressed (i.e. we didn’t have a costume) and initially it brought back traumatic memories of watching the human sacrifice in the cult 1970s film “the Wicker Man”. However, my fears were unfounded and at the end of the day no one was sacrificed to the gods (at least to my knowledge).

Jack in the Green is an ancient ritual with origins in paganism and is held in a number of places throughout Britain, although Hastings would claim theirs is the biggest and best and who am I to disagree. By the 20th century the custom had mainly died out, but in 1983 it was revived in Hastings and since that time has grown into an enormous event.

The main procession starts at 11am on Bank Holiday Monday, where Jack is released from the Fisherman’s Museum in Hastings Old Town, together with his protectors, the Bogies and Black Sal, his consort. The procession is followed by various groups including the Lovely Ladies, the Gay Bogies, the Milkmaids and of course the Chimney Sweeps, who have always been historically associated with Jack-in-the-Green. Mayday was a traditional holiday for chimney sweeps and is often known as Chimney Sweepers Day. The procession continues with Giants depicting various historical and mythical figures together with Morris Dancers from the length and breadth of UK. Finally, last but not least, are the ubiquitous drumming and percussion groups, which are an exciting feature of all the main Hastings Festivals.

The procession winds through the narrow streets of the Old Town and then continues its way up to the top of the West Hill that overlooks the Town. Dancing and Singing continue for several hours until at last, at around 4.30pm, Jack is brought forward and is symbolically slain and the spirit of Summer is released for another year. We all live in hope.

At last the crowds can all disperse home feeling energised and exhilarated as yet another successful celebration draws to a close.

Jack surrounded by his Bogies

Following the debacle of Jack in the Green we were more prepared for the following event, Pirates day, so we found appropriate hats and scarves and added an eye patch and thought we looked the bees knees. We then we walked into town and then the terrible truth dawned on us – this was serious stuff. People go to tremendous lengths to achieve a realistic look, many having their own tailor made costumes and sporting genuine old pistols and cutlasses. There are scores of Jack Sparrow look alikes, each competing to look like Johny Depp. In light of recents events concerning Mr. Depp, they might not be so keen in the future.

There is a rebellious streak in the people of Hastings and Pirates Day gives people a chance to channel their inner Buccaneer. How Hastings became the Pirate Capital of the World is not entirely clear, but what is indisputable is that Hastings holds the Guinness World Record for the most pirates gathered in one place, 14231 to be precise, which took place in 2012 and which hasn’t been beaten since. Towns in the USA and Germany plus Penzance in Cornwall have all tried to take our crown but without success. Penzance feel they deserve the crown as they’ve had a Gilbert and Sullivan opera written about them and I agree “The Pirates of Hastings” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but they need to get over it. Hastings is ‘Pirate Central’ and will continue to be so for some years to come.

The procedure is similar to Jack in the Green, with a mass procession in the Old Town with again loads of percussion and drumming and finishing up this time at the beach, where there is normally plenty of live music. There may be a bit more alcohol consumed than Jack in the Green, but we are talking about pirates after all, who you wouldn’t expect to behave themselves.

Its a great way to spend a summer’s day and wonderful to see the bewildered stares from the holidaymakers who had not been warned of what was taking place.

The ships surgeon exhibiting a particularly messy amputation

Finally we come to the Bonfire Procession, which is not unique to Hastings but is part of a wider network throughout the South Coast. The Sussex Bonfire Societies, of which there are approximately 50, are unique in the UK and have their historical roots in not only the Gunpowder plot but also the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes’s High Street from 1555 to 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor. Because of the large number of societies involved and the collaboration between the various towns, the bonfire season starts at the beginning of September and finishes in November. Lewes is by far the largest procession in early November, but Hastings is probably the second largest and has the advantage that people can still view it at close quarters and feel the excitement and danger as the flaming torches pass by, a few inches from their face.

It takes place in the middle of October and the best spots to view the procession are in the narrow streets of the Old Town in either All Saints Street or the High Street. This gives the bystander a visceral thrill and edginess, which is not present in the other Hastings festivals. The procession seems to go on for ever, as Bonfire Societies from all over Sussex and Kent descend on the town, distinguished from each other by their uniforms and their particular society and banners, but with nearly everyone of them carrying a flaming torch. And of course there are the drummers, who never miss the opportunity of a good festival.

At the rear of the procession are people carrying flaming carts, picking up the dropped and waylaid torches along the way. The procession wends its way down to beach, where an enormous tower of driftwood and pallets has been prepared and the flaming torches are thrown onto the timber construction, creating a monumental bonfire that can be seen for miles around.

Finally, at the end of the proceedings there is a wonderful firework display, which even in the few years I have attended seems to be getting better and better, the end of another exhilarating evening.

One thing that I have noticed in the few years that I have lived here is that these seasonal events seem to cement a common unity amongst us who live in Hastings and St. Leonards. In spite of all our differences, both political and personal, for a few hours we become one, living in the moment and enjoying life with song, dance and laughter.

But alas, the pandemic in 2020 has put paid to all our communal enjoyment in a particularly cruel way as we studiously avoid each other and steer clear of any sign of a crowd. The rowdy Festivals that took place in 2019, seem like a distant memory before the whole world changed. As things recover slowly, we must hope that 2021 will allow us once more to recapture that unique spirit of Hastings so that we can once again be the Town that loves to Party.

Pandemic Blues

Inevitably I’ve been thinking recently about viruses and disease, along with most of the world’s population. I’ve also been thinking about the blues, that great musical outpouring of pain and suffering from a downtrodden black population in the USA in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Like all young teenagers, I was blown away by the pop explosion of the early sixties from the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones etc., but in a very short time the Blues became my passion. While many of my friends were still only hooked on the latest new number one single, I was exploring the music of Skip James, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and dozens of other familiar and unknown musicians singing songs of suffering and despair.

Together with the occasional optimistic song, the majority of this music dealt with poverty, money troubles, unhappy love, sex, alcohol abuse and inevitably illness.

So I have decided to investigate how the various blues and country singers and songwriters have dealt with infection and disease and how this tragically often led to an early death. I can think of no other genre of music that deals so openly and honestly with the impact of illness on the lives of the performers and their families.

I was familiar with some of the songs that dealt with Tuberculosis, but I was amazed in my research at the sheer range of music and the range of diseases covered. In my search I have uncovered two songs that refer directly to the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918/19, but there may be more. The first one is the 1919 Influenza Blues by a rather obscure singer (at least to me) called Essie Jenkins, recorded well after the event in the 1940s. It is probably a much older song and the opening verse gets straight to the point:

It was nineteen hundred and nineteen;
Men and women were dying,
With the stuff that the doctor called the flu.
People were dying everywhere,
Death was creepin’ all through the air,
And the groans of the rich sure was sad

This song is belted out with gusto by Essie, rather inappropriately, to a jaunty blues beat with a gorgeous boogie woogie piano accompaniment.

At the other end of the spectrum, the famous Gospel and Blues singer Blind Willie Johnson, also recorded a song in the late 1920s about the 1918 flue pandemic, but he disguised this under the title “Jesus is Coming Soon”. Blind Willie sings, or should I say growls, through a gloomy song about man’s wickedness and the resulting punishment by God in the form of a pandemic.

Another virulent disease that became a topic for blues singers in the early part of the twentieth century was meningitis and the great female singer and guitarist Memphis Minnie recorded a great number called ‘Meningitis Blues’

Sickbed songs of a more generalised nature were also common and below you can hear ‘Pneumonia Blues’ by the famous singer and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, who when he toured the UK in the early 1950 had a profound influence on the burgeoning blues and folk scene.

Another tortured soul was Skip James, who after recording a few songs in 1931, disappeared into obscurity until the early 1960s, when he was rediscovered by a younger generation of blues enthusiasts. His minor key tuning and high plaintive singing is totally unique and is both beautiful and chilling at the same time. ‘Sickbed Blues’ was recorded in the 1960s; his ghostly voice and guitar sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it:-

“The doctor came, lookin’ very sad
He diagnosed my case and said it was awful bad
He walked away, mumblin’ very low
He said, “He may get better but he’ll never get well no more
I hollered, “Lord, oh Lord, Lord, Lordy, Lord
Oh Lordy, Lord, Lord, Lord
I been so badly misused and treated just like a dog”

And then there’s TB. In the 19th and 20th centuries, more people died in the USA of tuberculosis, than any other disease. People of all classes and background caught and died of TB, but as in all infectious diseases, including the present pandemic, it was the deprived areas that bore the brunt of the disease.

TB cut a swathe through the downtrodden and poverty stricken communities of America, both black and white. It was inevitable, therefore, that TB was the subject of much blues music.

One of my favourites is the “T.B. blues” by Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Leadbelly, a convicted murderer, whose trademark was the 12 string guitar and a powerful baritone voice.

To demonstrate the amazing variety of blues styles, this is exactly the same song as recorded by Victoria Spivey in 1927. Spivey was a blues and vaudeville singer whose style was closer to Jazz than the folk style of Leadbelly and she often sang with the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Here she sings an impassioned version of the TB blues accompanied by a simple piano and guitar.

I couldn’t write a story of epidemics and blues, without talking about the tragic story of Jimmie Rodgers , the father of American Country music and arguably the greatest white blues singer that ever lived. Rodgers was an itinerant railroad worker, who in his his travels absorbed the folk music around him from black blues singers to the white hillbillies of the Appallachian mountains with their music brought over by their Scots and Irish forefathers.

Rodgers also incorporated a yodel in his music, which he claimed he heard from a group of Swiss singers that he heard in a church. The result was a new and unique sound.

There is a common misconception that there was no musical cross fertilization between the races, but this is totally disproved by the evidence; Jimmie Rodgers became one of the great blues songwriters, Leadbelly picked up ballads and popular songs from the white inmates in gaol and there are many other examples.

Rodgers had caught TB when he was 24 and the rest of his life was a relentless fight against this terrible disease. He wrote and recorded his own TB Blues in 1931 and it is an unflinchingly dark song, accompanied by wonderful guitar and tender singing. The song ends with these verses:-

Gee but the graveyard
Is a lonesome place
Lord that graveyard
Is a lonesome place

They put you on your back
Throw that mud down in your face
I’ve got the T.B. blues

This is a stark and unsentimental acceptance of how this disease will inevitably end. Two years after he recorded this blues, Jimmie Rodgers was dead at the age of 36.

These songs served a profound purpose, expressing deep and powerful emotions on behalf of their oppressed community. We need these honest and uncompromising songs, that speak truth to power, more than ever. In this year of pain, sorrow and discord, who will sing our 2020 blues.

A Jewel in Rural Kent

Not many people are familiar with the small rural village of Tudeley on the edge of the High Weald in Kent. I certainly hadn’t before I moved to the Sussex and Kent area, but as I discovered, the local church of this unpretentious village, houses a treasure by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

So back in January, in happier and more innocent times, I decided to investigate and discover more. As we entered the churchyard of All Saint’s Church, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, just a normal country church no different to hundreds of others scattered throughout the country.

But as we opened the church door, we were confronted by a revelation, a vision in glass. The church was bathed in a glow of blues and yellows emanating from every window, housing some of the most beautiful stained glass windows that I have ever seen. The effect was so surprising and spectacular that for a moment I was stopped in my tracks.

On display, of course, was sublime art from from of the towering giants of 20th century post-impressionism, Marc Chagall. The largest window above the altar is an mainly intense blues, with patches of yellow, red and green. It shows the crucified Jesus at the top with the Virgin Mary in the lower right hand corner and then a number of typical Chagall angels floating around at the edges and, of course, a Chagall donkey.

Close up of the altar window

But how did a small church in a remote corner of Kent end up with twelve priceless windows from the great Russian/French artist. The story begins with a tragedy; in 1963 Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid died aged just 21 in a sailing accident off Rye. Her parents, a Jewish father and an Anglican mother, were a well known and established local family and they wanted to have a permanent memorial for their daughter.

They decided to commission Chagall, whose work had been loved by their daughter and when Chagall arrived in Tudeley 1967 to oversee the commission of the first window, he was apparently so enthralled by the interior of the church that he exclaimed that he would do all of the windows.

Over the next 15 years, Chagall worked on the remaining windows, with the last window being installed in 1985, the year of Chagall’s death at the grand old age of 98. It is now the only Church in the world with a full set of Chagall windows; what a claim to fame.

The eleven further Chagall windows are both figurative and abstract, but all of them beautiful. A selection of some of these windows can be seen below.

On the day we visited there were just a scattering of people in the church, a young Japanese couple and then a couple of other families arrived in the space of an hour. I was struck by how few people there were and how it was obviously a pilgrimage for the few that were there. I was also struck by how accessible the windows are; the only other Chagall window that I have seen is in Chichester Cathedral which is so high up that it is difficult to appreciate. Here the windows are at eye level and you can take in every detail and even see Chagall’s own markings on the glass.

The main window over the altar

As an aside, on the way out, I noticed a prayer stuck to one of the front pews. It was written by Archbishop Sentanu, then Archbishop of York and was written as the Government was still negotiating the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

It seems to me now that in the middle of the present crisis, in these unprecedented times, these words have even more resonance. Whether the prayer will work, or whether the powers that be are listening, remains to be seen.

The church, of course is currently closed, but when things are back to something like normality, I hope that this church continues to be a spiritual and artistic beacon of light for many years to come.

More details of All Saints Church and the windows can be seen on their web site All Saints Church, Tudeley

Edith’s Story

When I first moved to St. Leonards-on-sea nearly 8 years ago, I used to pass a dirty statue in a park close to the beach, feeling very sorry for itself and which had obviously suffered the ravages of time and the weather. It was very difficult to see what was going on, but at first sight it looked like a woman astride a man, trying to strangle him. As it seemed unlikely that this was celebrating some form of perverse sexual activity (although anything is possible in St.Leonards), I investigated further.

We are living, of course, in 1066 country (which is impossible to forget, as it is signposted on every road leading into the area) and my strange statue turned out to be that of a distraught woman lifting the head of Harold on the battlefield. The woman in question was Edith Swan-neck and this story is about her, rather than her more famous husband.

Living in the area, you find it impossible to ignore the one date in English history that every schoolboy knows, 1066. However, since my arrival, many of my preconceptions have been upended – I had always been told that Harold had been killed by an arrow in his eye, but this turns out to be unlikely, the story perpetuated by that early purveyor of fake news, the Bayeux Tapestry.

Anyway, back to Edith Swan-neck otherwise known as Eadgifu Swanneshals and Edith the Fair. She was, I have it on good authority, a great beauty with that quality of pale white skin that was so popular in the Middle Ages, hence the swan-neck. She was a wealthy and powerful landowner of Anglo-Danish heritage and was the great love of Harold’s life, having been together for 20 years. They had been been married ‘More Danico’ (in the Danish manner), a pre Christian form of marriage and had six children.

Unfortunately for Edith, in 1065 just prior to the famous battle of Hastings, Harold went through a Christian marriage of convenience to the daughter of a Welsh King, which was obviously bad news for Edith. However, this was all very short lived, for as we all know by October 1066, Harold lay dead on the battlefield and as Harold dies so begins Edith’s fame.

The main source of Edith’s story was from the 12th century Waltham Chronicles, which narrates how the monks at Waltham Abbey in Essex had searched for Harold’s body on the battlefield without success and how they had then enlisted Edith in the search. Together with the monks she trekked barefoot down to the battlefield and amongst the bloodied corpses, she eventually recognised Harold by the teeth mark scars on his shoulder, as a result of a particularly passionate bout of lovemaking. Harold was then transported back to Waltham Abbey by the monks for a Christian burial.

This is the stuff of legend, but it was not until the 19th Century that the legend took flight, under the guiding hands of the Romantics. The themes of battle, gruesome death and undying love were just the sort thing that stirred the romantic soul and the German poet Heinrich Heine was no exception. Heine was famous in his home country, for his lyric poems, which were frequently set to music by those arch romantic composers Schubert and Schumann.

Portrait of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) 1831 (oil on paper on canvas) by Oppenheim, Moritz Daniel (1800-82); 43×34 cm; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany; German, out of copyright

The story of Harold and Edith stirred Heine’s fevered imagination and, as a result, he wrote his epic poem ‘The Battlefield at Hastings’. The poem is quite long and to my mind, a bit overwrought, but that maybe a result of this particular translation. Here are some of the closing lines below, giving a taste of the style:-

“The woman stopped not for the blood;
She waded barefoot through,
And from her fixed and staring eyes
The arrowy glances flew.
Long, with the panting monks behind,
And pausing but to scare
The greedy ravens from their food,
She searched with eager care.
She searched and toiled the livelong day,
Until the night was nigh;
Then sudden from her breast there burst
A shrill and awful cry.
For on the battle-field at last
His body she had found.
She kissed, without a tear or word,
The wan face on the ground.
She kissed his brow, she kissed his mouth,
She clasped him close, and pressed
Her poor lips to the bloody wounds
That gaped upon his breast.
His shoulder stark she kisses too,
When, searching, she discovers
Three little scars her teeth had made
When they were happy lovers.”

Edith finding Harold on the battlefield – painted by Horace Vernet in 1828

So this is the story with all its melodrama and passion, but what of the statue. This was commissioned by famous Hastings resident, Lord Brassey, Liberal MP, Explorer, Philanthropist and much more in the 1870s and completed by the renowned sculptor Charles Wilke in 1875 in white Carrara marble. It has had various homes over the years, but finally came to rest in West Marina Gardens over 60 years ago, since when it has deteriorated due to the weather and pollution. Carrara marble is not made to withstand the elements.

And so this was how I found the statue, when I first set eyes on it. Luckily there were many people in Hastings and St. Leonards who had treasured the statue long before I knew of its existence. In particular, a local Historian Ian Jarman launched a one man campaign to rescue Edith and has, with the aid of volunteers and fundraising, within the last month restored Edith and Harold to almost its original glory .Link to article in Hastings in Focus

These are some recent photographs following the restoration and cleaning plus the addition of a plaque; more work will still be required to protect the statue in years to come, but this is already a great improvement.

Other than this statue, there is no other memorial in Hastings, to one of the defining events in British history. Edith, once a forgotten footnote in the history of England can once more take her rightful place next to the side of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.

Simple Pleasures – Rye Pottery

Many years ago in the early 90s before my collecting addiction got out of hand, I dabbled in a number of collecting areas, Whitefriars Glass, Art Deco pottery and various sundry knick knacks. However, my first abiding obsession was Rye Pottery and although interests have come and gone over the years, presently being Scandinavian ceramics and 20th century British studio pottery, my love of Rye has never wavered. I don’t buy much of it these days, but if I see a rare and unusual piece for the right price I normally have to have it.

When I lived in London, I never dreamed that I would one day live within a few miles of the pottery. Since moving to St. Leonards on Sea nearly 8 years ago, I have of course visited Rye countless times and never tire of its old world charm, despite the artist Edward Burra’s derogatory description of it being ‘Tinkerbelle Towne‘. Interestingly enough he never hated it badly enough to move out and was born and died there.

The pottery still exists, but these days it survives mainly on its production of tiles and animal and pastoral ceramic figurines, all excellently made and hand painted, but not I’m afraid to my taste. It is to the 1950s that I turn to, the heyday of the pottery that produced large amounts of affordable brightly painted tin glazed earthenware for the kitchen and home.

A Group of typical Rye jugs in Cottage pattern

Rye pottery was founded in 1947 by two brothers John and Wally Cole, both art school graduates in sculpture and studio pottery, who took over a disused pottery in Ferry Road, Rye. Pottery had been made in and about Rye for hundreds of years, using the dark red clay which was obtained locally. However, from the word go, other than incorporating a few traditional shapes such as the Sussex Pig and Loving cup, the brothers wanted to create something different to cheer the country up during the austere post-war years.

To do this, they stepped back in time to the idea of 17th century Majolica or Delftware, which had been made using a white tin glaze on earthenware body, but updated for a new age. However, in the beginning due to Government restrictions, it was only possible to produce tin glazed ‘utility’ wares with simple decorations, as can be seen below.

Group of Early Rye ‘Utility Wares’ with simple decoration on white tin glaze

However, once restrictions were lifted, Rye started producing a variety of shapes and patterns that tuned into the optimism of the times, epitomised by the Festival of Britain in 1951, with people wanting to put the horrors of the Second World War behind them. The Cole brothers employed a number of people to produce the pottery and took on a number of apprentices many of whom such as David Sharp, Denis Townsend and Raymond Everett went on to start their own potteries in Rye. Examples of the many types of wares and patterns produced by Rye Pottery in the nineteen fifties can be seen below.

As well as producing the standard ware, all the employees were encouraged to experiment and each week time was set aside for them to be creative, albeit within the parameters of the typical Rye pottery style. A few examples of more unusual individual pieces can be seen below.

Vase on left by David Sharp and on right by Denis Townsend
An updated version of the traditional Sussex Pig
Enormous version of a standard shape and pattern compared with normal pot. Maybe an exhibition or marketing one off pot

By the early 1960s many of the original apprentices had moved on and branched out on their own and started their own potteries in Rye. Consumer tastes were also changing as the swinging sixties took over. It was during this period that I believe Rye Pottery lost its momentum and popularity , which it never really regained.

However, tastes have once again moved on, retro design is all the rage amongst the ‘Elle Decoration’ set and vintage Rye pottery can once again take it’s rightful place as one of the great design successes of the post war period.

Butter dishes in variety of patterns and colours

Rye Pottery played a small part in the great awakening that occurred following the trauma of the World war. Now as once again the World faces a different crisis, we could all do with some of that optimism and hopefuI spirit. So, once again, as we enter another lockdown, I’ll be digging out my collection from the boxes and arranging them on the shelves to cheer myself up and look forward to better times.

An Iconic Church in St Leonards

Walk a short distance Westwards along the seafront from the Victoria Hotel in St Leonards past the early Victorian buildings built by James Burton and his son Decimus Burton, the founders of St. Leonards as a seaside resort. Then look landward between two more recent blocks of flats and you are confronted by an imposing monolithic stone structure, built into the cliff face behind, that is totally unlike any other building in St. Leonards.

Most tourists and probably many residents alike walk past this church without a second glance, but I would suggest that they are doing it a disservice. This church was designed by the celebrated post war Architects, Giles and Adrian Gilbert Scott and is one of many famous iconic buildings designed by them in the style of what is now called “Modernistic Gothic Revivalism”. We will come to that later.

Firstly, a bit of history. Before this church made its appearance in 1961, a church had stood on this same ground for over 100 years designed and built by none other than the said James Burton, founder of St. Leonards in 1834. In order to build the church a large section of the cliff behind was dug out.

The Original St. Leonards Church 1834

By 1944, this church had survived, despite numerous cliff falls, but its fate was sealed when it was struck and destroyed with a direct hit from a German doodlebug sent from over the English Channel.

A commission for a new church was given to the Gilbert Scott firm who were already well known for their churches. Giles Gilbert Scott is a bit of a forgotten figure these days in the age of superstars such as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, but even those who do not know the name, are very familiar with many of his famous landmark buildings including Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and most famously the iconic red telephone boxes.

The new church was commenced in 1953, but it was not until 1961 that the iconic south tower was added, the finished building that stands to this day. Interestingly, it is the only coastal church on the South Coast that has a direct and uninterrupted sea view from its entrance. In 1998 it was given Grade II listed status by English Heritage which defines it as a “nationally important” building of “special interest”.

St. Leonards Church in happier times

However, all is not well. After many cliff falls over the years and deterioration internally, the insurers finally pulled the plug on its use and it was officially closed for worship in 2018 and since then it has stood empty. I have wondered many times why the Architects decided to build directly back into the cliff, knowing the long history of cliff instability even in the 19th century. God works in mysterious ways, but it might have made more sense if man had made an effort to stabilise the cliff before embarking on a major project like this.

View with surrounding cliff
View showing the church built into the cliff
Another Westward view of the church

But what of the future, which despite its Grade II listing looks decidedly bleak. However, there is one ray of hope; in August 2020 the Hastings Urban Design Group came forward with an ambitious plan called ‘Science-on-Sea’ which proposed to make the church, together with an abandoned project next door, a maritime themed cultural hub and visitor attraction, which could also be a seaside outpost of the Science Museum. It is vastly ambitious and would require the buy-in of many agencies, so there are massive obstacles to overcome. Link re science-on-sea

In these uncertain and challenging times, it is difficult to look to the future, but in my mind this is just the type of regeneration project that could give hope and purpose to the community, as well as bringing much needed income to our town in the future. In my opinion this towering monument has a quiet and serene understated beauty. This marvellous and unique structure deserves its continued place amongst the varied Architecture of Hastings and St. Leonards.