26 September, 2015

Llanthony Priory

Llanthony Priory is a ruined twelfth-century priory in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales.

Llanthony Priory tower and nave
Llanthony Priory. The remains of the crossing tower with the north arcade of the nave and two arches of the south arcade. The south transept is to the right of the tower. The small pointed arch on the right of the south transept leads to the slype, a covered passageway between the south transept and the chapter house

Llanthony Priory lies in the Vale of Ewyas, a classical glaciated valley with steep sides and a flat valley floor. At the head of the valley, to the north, Gospel Pass leads over to the town of Hay-on-Wye. 

The valley changes direction at Llanthony, so the impression at the priory site is of being surrounded by hills. This gives the site a sense of being enclosed, separated from the rest of the world. Early Christian monastic foundations seem to have liked spaces that were clearly delineated, such as islands and ex-Roman forts, and the Llanthony Priory site has a distinct feeling of an island valley amongst the hills.

Map link: Llanthony Priory 

Llanthony was an Augustinian priory, founded in the early twelfth century by a Norman knight named William de Lacy. Tradition says that one day when out hunting he took shelter in a ruined chapel dedicated to St David, and then founded a priory on the same site. The ruins of the priory church visible today belong to a grandiose rebuilding project conducted by the de Lacy family in the period 1180-1230.

The priory was in decline by the beginning of the sixteenth century, and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII it was left to decay.  The prior’s house on the west side of the cloister was converted into a private house and is now the Priory Hotel.  The welcoming bar in the undercroft was probably once the prior’s cellar – highly appropriate that it still retains something approximating to its original use – and is a great place to stop for a beer on a long bike ride (sustenance is in order before tackling the climb over Gospel Pass).

The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave
The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave

The north arcade of the nave still has a complete set of standing arches

Looking across the site of the cloisters (which would have occupied the open lawn in the foreground) to the nave, with the ruins of the crossing tower on the right and the Black Mountains in the background

The south and west walls of the crossing tower still stand to some height

The crossing tower from the east end, with the nave beyond

Looking along the nave to the remains of the crossing tower, with the remains of the south transept on the right

The arches of the nave arcade are pointed arches in the Gothic style. But the row of smaller windows above the arch in the tower are round arches in the Norman style.

Close-up of the upper windows in the crossing tower

The south transept also has round arches standing

Round arch in the south transept

Mixed styles are very common in British medieval churches, because architectural fashions could change in the decades that it took to build a large church, and building designs were frequently altered during construction. Presumably the builders of Llanthony Priory church started at the east end with the traditional Norman round arch style, and then decided to adopt the fashionable new pointed Gothic arch as the church building progressed west.

The place name, Llanthony, looks at first sight as though the church should be dedicated to St Anthony, with the Welsh ‘llan’ (church) and the saint’s name.  However, the parish church on the site is dedicated to St David, the patron saint of Wales, and the priory church was dedicated to St John.  So where does St Anthony come into it?

The answer is that he doesn’t. The Welsh name is Llanddewi Nant Honddu, ‘the church of St David in the valley of the [river] Honddu’, a completely accurate descriptive name describing the dedication of the parish church (and the original chapel) and its location.  The ‘Nant Honddu’ seems to have been transformed into ‘Anthony’, perhaps through being misheard by non-Welsh-speakers who made sense of it as best they could.

31 August, 2015

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Book review

Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-61867-0. 477 pages

Life After Life is set in England and Germany between 1910 and 1967, against the background of the First and Second World Wars. All the main characters are fictional.

Ursula Todd, born into a prosperous family in rural England in 1910, lives her life over and over again through the traumatic events of the first half of the twentieth century. The first time she is born, she dies before taking her first breath. On the second occasion, the doctor has arrived in time and baby Ursula survives to experience childhood during the First World War and the influenza epidemic of 1919. On other occasions, she experiences the Second World War as a young woman, both in Germany in the ruins of Berlin in 1945 and in London during the Blitz. Each time, she is disturbed by bewildering flashes of deja vu – glimpses into the past, present and future of alternative lives – but without fully understanding what they are. And in one of her lives she has a chance to change the course of history...

Most people, I imagine, have had occasions when they wonder about ‘the road not travelled’, and speculate on what might have happened if they had done X instead of Y at a particular point. Life After Life explores that concept, by allowing the central character to live her life many times over, each time taking a different path. Each cycle starts with her birth in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910, and each ends with the words ‘Darkness fell’. In one life she experiences a violent marriage; in others she avoids the events that led her to that marriage and develops other relationships. One life takes her to 1930s Germany, where she becomes friendly with Eva Braun and, through Eva, acquainted with a fringe politician called Adolf Hitler. Sometimes the different paths diverge wildly, sometimes many paths all lead to the same or very similar endings (several end at the 1918/1919 influenza epidemic, and several more end during the Blitz).

For me, by far the strongest part of the novel was the central section set in London during the Second World War. Ursula is an adult woman by then and experiences the Blitz in various ways during several of her lives. It is a dramatic and convincing portrayal of life for ordinary people, being bombed out of their homes, working in rescue services, fire-watching, and vividly describes the everyday privations, the many ghastly ways to suffer and die, the numbing effect of witnessing repeated horrors, and the random nature of events, where running after a stray dog can make the difference between living – for another day at least – and dying. These scenes are so convincing that I wonder if they might be based on eyewitness accounts. The novel is well worth reading for this section alone.

The cyclical nature of the narrative can be repetitive or rhythmic. Which it is probably depends on the reader and/or the reader’s mood. Sometimes arriving at the same place yet again borders on the tedious; on one occasion the author writes ‘Darkness, and so on’, instead of the usual ‘Darkness fell’, leading me to wonder if she herself was getting a little weary at that point. Ursula is by far the dominant character, since she is the central figure in every cycle, whereas some of the secondary characters appear in only one of the lives and are never seen again. Those secondary characters who are recurring figures, such as Ursula’s immediate family, are developed into distinct personalities. It would be difficult to confuse Ursula’s brothers Maurice and Teddy, for example.

I have to say that I was not much taken with the central premise of living one’s life over and over again until one ‘gets it right’. What counts as ‘getting it right’? Living as long as possible? As happily as possible? What if the other people involved have a different idea of ‘getting it right’? And so on. On the other hand, ignoring the value judgment implied in ‘getting it right’, it’s interesting to watch events play out in different ways as Ursula encounters different people and situations. In a few cases she consciously influences events by taking a definite action or making a different decision, seemingly based on a hazy recollection of one of her other lives, though for the most part it seems that the changes in her various lives happen without her having to do anything.

Beautifully written tale with an unusual cyclical structure, memorable mainly for the dramatic sequences set in the London Blitz during the Second World War.

30 July, 2015

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris. Book review

Arrow 2014. ISBN 978-0-09-958088-1. 610 pages.

Set mainly in France in 1895-1899, this is a retelling in fiction of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, a notorious miscarriage of justice that saw army officer Alfred Dreyfus wrongfully imprisoned on Devil’s Island for crimes he had never committed. All the characters are historical figures.

In Paris, in January 1895, Major Georges Picquart watches as army officer Alfred Dreyfus, convicted in a military court of selling secrets to Germany, is ritually degraded in front of a howling crowd before being sent to life imprisonment in appalling conditions on Devil’s Island. Picquart’s report on the event for the Minister of War results in his promotion to Colonel and appointment as head of the ‘Statistical Section’ – the army’s counter-espionage unit. Picquart does not want the job, but is determined to do it thoroughly. Soon his work shows that there is still a spy in the French army trying to sell classified material to the German embassy. As Picquart follows the threads and gathers more evidence, he discovers proof that Dreyfus was wrongly convicted and the real spy is still at large. But his superiors in the army and the government are far more concerned with covering up their own failings in the original investigation than in correcting a miscarriage of justice, or even the protection of their country’s secrets. If Picquart continues his investigation, the threat is clear – the establishment will close ranks to destroy him as they destroyed Dreyfus.

An Officer and a Spy is a tense psychological thriller. The narrative is consistently gripping as events twist and turn, and the atmosphere of corruption and menace is as all-pervading as the stink from the Paris sewers. At its heart is the dilemma faced by Picquart, a man of integrity who finds that the institution to which he has devoted his life is corrupt at its highest levels. Does he go along with the corruption and lose his self-respect?  Or does he follow his conscience, try to pursue justice, and lose his career, his position in society, his livelihood and his freedom, and perhaps also destroy the lives of people he loves? Many aspects of the Dreyfus Affair have modern parallels, and this gives the novel a powerful feel of immediacy.

An Officer and a Spy follows the historical events of the Dreyfus Affair faithfully. The Author’s Note at the beginning says ‘None of the characters in the pages that follow, even the most minor, is wholly fictional, and almost all of what occurs, at least in some form, actually happened in real life’. Although I had vaguely heard of the Dreyfus Affair before reading An Officer and a Spy, it was mostly in the context of Emile Zola’s famous ‘J’accuse...!’ letter. I had never heard of Georges Picquart before, even though it seems that Picquart was the key figure – Zola’s letter essentially gave a push to a something that Picquart had already begun, and without Picquart’s testimony the truth would never have come to light. I also had not realised the discrepancy between the original offence – the ‘secrets’ for which Dreyfus was wrongly imprisoned in such inhuman conditions were actually rather minor – and the astonishing scale of the cover-up.

An Officer and a Spy does a masterly job of shaping a complex sequence of events and reversals over several years into a coherent narrative whose pace never flags. It is recounted throughout in first-person present tense by Picquart, whose character is key to the whole novel. Picquart as portrayed here is an admirable character, driven not by any particular sentiment or regard for Dreyfus, nor even (at least initially) by any high-flown ideals of truth and justice, but by a steady professional determination to do his job thoroughly and honestly (and later, also by a desire for revenge on the army for their treatment of a woman he cares for). The other characters are deftly drawn with a few bold strokes, so that even though there is not much demographic diversity in the cast – they are almost all middle-aged Frenchmen and most of them are army officers – they emerge as distinct individuals. I am afraid that most of the army does not come out of the novel with much credit (except General Leclerc, provincial commander in North Africa) but being on the wrong side of the narrative does not prevent them being portrayed with sympathy and understanding, particularly Picquart’s adversary Major Henry.

The writing style is clear and unfussy, and the 600-odd pages pass effortlessly. I normally dislike present-tense narratives, but it is a testament to the quality of the writing that after a few pages I had ceased to notice it.

Taut, gripping thriller retelling the Dreyfus Affair, carried by the admirable central character and with a disturbing number of modern parallels.