Friday, August 31, 2018

Arcana in Gloucester

In a chapel of Gloucester Cathedral there is a set of modern stained-glass windows to two of the shire’s gentler sons, poet Ivor Gurney and composer Gerald Finzi. They depict scenes from their work in deep glowing colours. The rainy light coming in through the panes still gleams in crimson and blue, gold and indigo. You hold your breath at the beauty and radiance of it, and almost expect the Grail to appear.

Only a week or two before I had found in a charity shop several Finzi records, with insightful sleeve-notes by Diana McVeagh and endearing photographs of the composer, a rough-tweed, thoughtful-looking pipe-smoker; and I had been thinking about his delicate, melancholy songs. I did not know of this memorial chapel then, and it is heartening to come across it.

At the bookshop near the harbour I had earlier found a book published by The Faith Press, the imprint that published Machen’s Grail novel The Great Return. He once found unsold columns of this, and was given a few by the bookseller, who, learning he was the author, did not have the heart to charge him for them.

Whether this volume, Adventures Among Churches (1928) by Donald Maxwell, fared any better, I don’t know, but it is in some ways akin in spirit. The author (and artist), like Machen a High Church Anglo-Catholic, has wandered by diverse ways to lesser-known churches, made drawings of them, and written about what he found there. Often the parsons at these places share his liturgical sympathies too.

There are alluring chapter titles: ‘The Chapel of the Green Lagoons’; ‘The Black Belfry of Brookland’; ‘A Parish of Riddles’; ‘The Fishpools of Melford’; ‘The Canopy of Honour’. It might be a bit in the tradition of the dreaming, incense-scented verse of Wilfred Rowland Childe; or the sprightly glee of Richard Blake Brown, the satirist in the soutane, though Mr Maxwell’s book is distinctly more decorous than he.

It is a charming enough idea, and it works well: both the prose and the artwork are evocative. It is perhaps the sort of thing Machen himself might have essayed, among the lonely churches of the Welsh hills or the remoter temples of unknown London, had a publisher thought to commission it: but if so I think we might also have heard somewhat of certain inns and alehouses.

“Are there any other bookshops in Gloucester?” I had asked. “You might try the antiques centre. They have a few.” They do, but none I need. However, I seem to emerge with a pair of neo-cubist Nineteen Seventies cuff-links whose unearthly geometry would do credit to any Lovecraft story.

At the public library there is also a book sale, though this too yields nothing. But there is an exhibition by a local artist who has made her own interpretation of the Tarot. Free copies of the cards depicted had been offered to visitors, but have now all gone.

This means that the Major Arcana are now processing through the city in people’s pockets, wallets, purses, shopping bags. Who knows what this might do to the psychogeography? The Fool unleashed in the Mall. The Hierophant haunting the Discount Stores. The High Priestess a-loose in the Pedestrian Precinct. It looks like the last desperate throw of the Powers. They’ve been reading Charles Williams again.

As it happens, we have other plans. We have also been having our Adventures Among Churches, accompanying these bookshop expeditions, and on the way back from the city we call in at a church by a Severn-side wharf, which formerly had a ferry boat and still has an inn. Here there is a rare Edward VI Royal Coat-of-Arms (possibly, though, it might be of Elizabeth I).

Such older Arms are notable because instead of the Scottish Unicorn we are used to companioning the Lion (which anyway should really be a Leopard— see my fascinating monograph on this subject), there is a Dragon.

Mr Howard obligingly swarms up several precarious vantages to take a picture of the ancient painting so that we can send it to Rosemary Pardoe, the doyen of Royal Coats of Arms. She’ll be able to advise just how dangerous this Dragon is.

For the Dragon has understandably been Consumed With Wrath since it was banished from its high place by the heralds, to gratify the Scots King. It is suspected by certain visionaries of stalking the British psyche ever since. Nothing good, they say, will prevail until the Beast of Wings and Scales is restored. We leave surreptitiously, in case we should see its forked tongue flicker.

There is a last quick dash to the splendid Abbey Bookshop, Malvern and then this browsing expedition has come to an end. We have been able, just, to outwit all the obstacles, and find some choice volumes.

Indeed, we have been fortified by breakfasting daily on crumpets, toast, and a Church Marmalade which we found offered for sale at one of the remote and mysterious sanctuaries we visited. The spell of this sacred amber preserve, with its peel coiled like the luminous offspring of numinous Gnostic serpents, might well have been the only thing holding back Those Who Would Thwart Us in our quest for the rarest and strangest books.

Mark Valentine


  1. "poet Ivor Gurney and composer Gerald Finzi"
    It's interesting that Gurney is remembered more as a poet now. For many years he was regarded more as a composer who also wrote poetry. The admiration and friendship of composers like Finzi and Vaughan Williams affected the way he was regarded. The support of P.J. Kavanagh and the admirable Carcanet Press collections made him more famous and changed peoples' perception.

  2. There’s a follow up to the Donald Maxwell book entitled More Adventures Among Churches... he seems to have been quite prolific. It looks like he even illustrated a couple of Rudyard Kipling titles.

  3. Here are the stained glass windows:

  4. The second half of Peter Parker's "Housman Country" looks at composers who set Housman's poems and similiar verse to music--I suspect John and Mark would enjoy it.
    Love that phrase: "like the luminous offspring of numinous Gnostic serpents." Say that three times as fast as you can while clicking your heels together--if you dare.