Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Long Game

One of the themes around which I'm slowly building a future book, as well as a significant thread in an upcoming exhibition, has the working title "Avalon".  Nothing to do with Bryan Ferry, but a lot to do with the foundation myths of the British Isles.

In a roundabout way, that is.  I've actually never read much of the Arthurian legends, which is something I should probably put right.  I know bits and pieces, obviously.  For example, it has long been a deep joy to me that, as well as his fame-hogging sword Excalibur, Arthur also carried a more modest spear named Ron.

In the 1990s I saw a brilliant TV programme by a Welsh historian*, tracing the growth of the "Arthur" stories, from a possible origin in a putative Romano-British warlord in the Dark Ages, through versions by Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chretien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Malory.  Each iteration added new elements, and re-shaded the story to suit the political angle of its audience, whether embattled Welsh, usurping Normans, or nation-building English.  The programme brought a sobering comparative and historical perspective to what is otherwise just a dressing-up box full of swords'n'sorcery.  You do have to wonder what that latest Arthurian rendition, the Saturday prime-time TV series The Adventures of Merlin, will say about us to future generations.

However, I'm not really that interested in the doings of Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere, or any of that aristocratic crew.  What interests me more is the idea of the forgetting, rediscovering, re-awakening and renewing of national identities -- territory which, like the Union Flag and the flag of St. George,  those on the liberal left have allowed the extreme right to commandeer unchallenged.  I'm also strangely drawn to the fantasy of a subterranean Otherworld inhabited by the Fair Folk, occasionally unwillingly visited by various hapless Tims, Tams, and Toms in folklore and Border Ballads, in a prototype alien abduction scenario.  It is there, of course, beneath the Isle of Avalon, where Arthur sleeps out the centuries, awaiting our ultimate 999 call.

I'm not yet sure where I'm going with any of this, but in the process I have rediscovered a taste for the long, narrow frame.   I like that shape, and I like the way it composes: the 16:9 aspect ratio was one of my favourite features of the Panasonic LX-3 camera.  It's something I used to do a lot with medium-format film.  A 6cm x 4.5cm negative scanned on a flatbed has a lot of resolution, but not a lot of quality, so slicing out a long central "sweet spot" was a practical strategy.  It also reduced the amount of tedious dust-spotting, and eliminated the unfixable, over-contrasty skies.

I'm finding that images of Avalon are everywhere, not just where you'd expect to find them; say, in the hills of Radnorshire or on the watchful slopes above Alfred's ancient capital of Winchester.  Which is why, in a recent exchange in the comments, I was pleased to be reminded of these lines from Little Gidding, one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
"England and Nowhere" has a ring to it, I think.

 * If anyone remembers the name, I'd be grateful.  He looked like ex-rugby player, with a strong south Wales accent, with an oddly nasal, clipped intonation.  No, not Neil Kinnock!

No comments: