Mar '04 [Home]


Vision on a Broad Land

by Patrick Henry

. . .

Unlike Oxford, Cambridge, and others, some very old cities in England have universities not in their quaint old jumble of streets, but out at modern suburban sites, like learning factories, nurseries nurturing brain-power under vast expanse of glass: places only given universities in the 1960s, such as York, Colchester and Norwich, where I arrived at its East Anglia campus, in the School of American Studies.

I gained college-owned accommodation in the city, so that only by day the glass faculty domes enclosed me; nights and week-ends I roamed the cobbled streets where many old churches had become arts centres or social refuge points, hundreds of pubs remained hardly changed, and the market square's old canvas-decked stalls still sold farm produce and bric-a-brac emanating from the rich depths of the old city. Characters here would become a source of learning and history to me, contrasting to the outside University where I belonged in the daylight.

Three professors and a doctor of literature figured highly in my career there. Malcolm Bradbury, head of American Studies, had become famous for his novels about U.S. academia from a British viewpoint. In The History Man, ambitious intellectuals inhabit a kind of science-fiction underworld that tends to take over, through a linguistic-cult monitor, all so-called ordinary life into an Orwellian future. Realising that I might have signed-up to be heading myself for this fate alarmed my earthy, drifting, dissenting side, but my other half—proud of ability and insight into language and culture­­rose to the challenge and entered the fray of these arguments.

Bradbury led the questioning with his Sherlock Holmes pipe poised like a symbol of detecting textual truths. These inquiries covered small stretches of ground slowly, venturing few claims or theories unless backed up by dense evidence. The cautious nature of academia frustrated my eagerness for a whole picture of social justice rhetorically-framed as quickly as possible.

Professor Howard Temperley ran the Slave Studies Course and praised the historiographic essays I wrote for him, but otherwise we clashed in discussions. My radical critiques were all hot, idealistic theories to him, a Fabianist, slow-burning, quasi-liberal figure. Actually the president of the British Anti-Slavery Society, he often sounded like an apologist for the practise of that phenomenon, notably when he appeared on a television discussion alongside Black British politicians. His fence-sitting posture and Bradbury's deconstructivist abstractions all did nothing to open the avenues of illumination I sought. Unlike many, I had not entered university to qualify for a smart career beyond, but needed to search for an understanding of life through literature and social history.

This quest led me to attend an English Faculty lecture not intended for my ears or disciplines. Professor John Broadbent took an astonishingly broad-swathed theme, departing from Plato's concepts of images becoming a sense of reality in our thinking world wherein we view only shadows reflected on cave-walls. Mankind's literate conventions provide daily means of grasping the factors of creation. Milton's advancement in verbal insight and political consciousness brought a modern, independent view of both the metaphysical and the palpable nature of good and evil, which influenced Blake into developing an elemental, manichean tone of language and image, which by further mythologising dreads and beliefs, lifts it to a plane where it can be examined and admired in a spirit which has been considerably freed from restrictions of state and church culture.

Burn'd path became a solid fire, as bright
As the clear Sun and Milton silent came down.
As the Seven (Forms) spake a mighty column of Fire ..saying
Awake Albion Awake! Reclaim thy Reasoning Spectre!
Subdue Him to the Divine Mercy. Cast Him down.

(William Blake, "Milton")

Broadbent related an experience on sunlit Norfolk coast where sky and sea seemed to meet to rule across everything through time since when tribes and tides and trades had incursed on this shore. His senses felt heightened in ways Aldous Huxley mentions in works about perception, and are also implicit in the images of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mysticism could be the next word hanging in the air of the lecture-hall, tantamount to heresy in the context of a university fed on the meagreness of empirical proof. Junior lecturers present in the audience wrote notes feverishly, as if the KGB preparing to denounce treachery. But maybe they too were touched by the fresh air of this Blakean poetic moment on the word of a dry old professor inspired as a prophet emerging from the desert.

Soon after came a summons to the office of Doctor Fear, my advisory tutor. My blood ran cold at the name of this figure so far absent in my spell here, now returned with the deadly sound of nemesis. Was that person here I asked of a petite, attractive young lady on the premises. Indeed, she was Doctor Fear. My relief proved short-lived when she tore into me for making political arguments in classes, and also enrolling in too many poetry courses instead of vital history subjects. Poetry had been the centre of all study in the era of Blake and Coleridge, I said, and could be again in the example of John Broadbent right here. Long ago when perspectives were different, she said dismissively, and why was I at English classes instead of American Studies? Why was I at University at all? A hard question to answer without going into the depths of culture and the facile learning-factory arguments. So I just promised to get back on the normal track and her beautiful face beamed into a perfect smile on the rosebud lips that signalled, "There's a good boy."

My student income needed supplementing through odd menial jobs, fruit-picking, selling donuts or dishwashing at the agricultural fair near the city, cleaning-up the market-square. The old canvas-covered stalls still sold traditional wares and produce. Nearby, the City Art Gallery had works by John Sell Cotman, his Market-Day painting evoking the atmosphere of the place now nearly two centuries later. Bones, my art-teacher friend enthused on this finest painter of the county, founding a silhouette style that verged on photographic effect decades before that invention arrived, encapsulating the sense of Norwich and the country beyond where we would make a weekend trip.

Davy made a third figure in the car and we first drove to an isolated pub, traditional of the area in having no bar-counter for drink dispensers and lounging against. It was believed more sociable to sit at tables or upon long high-backed benches and be brought drinks on trays from deep cellars holding old barrels.

A dice-game commenced, a farmer and Davy teamed against myself and the landlord, Bones looking on amusedly. Although not one for games and never understanding this one, I got drawn into it and my team never lost a throw, which perplexed Davy, pleased the landlord, intrigued Bones, and infuriated the farmer overdue home for his lunch, and eventually stalking off in anger.

"That cost me a few drinks, and that fellow, and his lunch and his marital bliss maybe," Davy said. "How did you always win when you know nothing about it?" I shrugged. The landlord said, "Character. Belief. No skill there. Luck comes to those who stay clear-minded." Bones nodded wisely. Some force had taken place in the psychology of the moment, from wherever or whomsoever, and I just held onto it.

Davy said that if I thought life happens just by doing nothing, then I was wrong. How did he know the minds of patients he counselled, when their neurosis became psychotic? I wondered. It was not his job; as a lay therapist, his observations would be assessed by medics. I thought that the tone of these might decide whether a patient went into deeper complications. Davy disallowed this question: confidentiality existed. I could apply to become a counsellor but would probably be rejected, he thought. Hostility lingered between us.

"That farmer playing dice, would his obsessiveness be neurotic verging on high-risk?" I asked. Davy said, "No worse than you going through games you don't want to understand or win, doing nothing while others function. More of a patient than a counsellor you would make, though I pity our unit if you ever land upon it." I felt that strange psychologies abound that need enacting as in the odd dice-game, rather than being analysed and repressed.

As we drove on, the fields of flat bare land stretched away almost devoid of trees or animals. Here was a sight to give relief to mental pressures as the Romantic Poets had believed about the power of being in Nature's presence. In the freedom of our day, it was up to ourselves to will to make something happen.

At evening we arrived at Burnham Thorpe village and its Lord Nelson pub, the ubiquitous title most significant here in the birthplace of that heroic admiral. We set up on the grass adjoining, after Bones checked on the permission for this. Inside the bar worked in similar fashion to the previous place, no counter and drinks brought up from the cellar. But here the oak and leather seats were grander and the décor splendidly boasted of pictures and memorabilia devoted to the illustrious naval figure.

The landlord delivered our order as ceremoniously as if serving the commander himself on the flagship Victory at the eve of battle at Trafalgar. In fact a veteran navy petty-officer himself, Len Dimple had developed this place as both hostelry and museum worthy of the great man's memory. But when not occupied bringing drink from below, the landlord sat with customers at bench and table to dominate conversation and the disadvantage of this kind of pub-room now emerged. No escape would be possible in the cramped holds of a man-of-war when two years before the mast between the wild seas and the heat of battle, then cheek-by-jowl in the mess of Petty-Officer Dimple, or his likeness, condemned to swallow his proud tales frequently as the doubtful vittles and water his stores dispensed to keep mariners miserably alive.

Stern looks from the old sailor did not promise approval for our bohemian demeanour compared with the conformist type of pub-goer more usual here. On the way in I had mentioned that most fatalities in Nelson's old great navy came from disease, neglect and malnutrition rather than battle gallantry, but Bones forbade met to repeat that here. But it was Davy who threw a windlass in the works by challenging me to drink ten pints of strong beer each with a chaser of Navy rum. I never made it and staggered out of the place needing fresh air and other kinds of relief from many quarters. In my exit passage I heard crashing sounds as memorabilia exhibits perished and the ex-matelot owner shouted to get that man out of here and send him home. Bones replied they could not do that as he was camping on the pub lawn. "What!" The voice roared back strong enough to cleave a gale.

The camp appeared sunny in the morning, but not for me, due to face the old petty officer. "His bite is even worse than the orders he barks," Davy said vindictively. When I told the fellow that I did not usually behave that way, he replied, "I should hope not." A slight glint of irony in his dry tone and hooded eye gave a sliver of hope. I offered to pay for the damaged picture, asking what it had been. "H.M.S. Victory leaving Portsmouth harbour," he said, with a wince that matched my own guilty expression. But he accepted and even let me buy one drink for the road that I now would be taking. The Royal Navy are too noble to decree they give no quarter.

"Crawled your way slyly out of that hole," Davy said—one that he put me into, sore from that dice game and wanting to test my self-control, which stands up to little. Maybe his provocational style was good in a counsellor, whereas my wary introversion got through to nobody.

We reached the coast at Cromer, and Bones said how well the paintings of Cotman captured the unchanging sense of this shore. I mentioned Broadbent's account of heightened experience near here. Davy said the place had no need of artists and philosophers when its unique view could be inspiring for any ordinary person, such as his counselling cases, whom he had brought here once, when the likes of Bones and myself were not here talking of art and mysticism and confusing and spoiling the honest, healing pleasure of the visit.

In a pub of the old port a man in a lifeboat-man's cap stood near us. Davy murmured that it was no good approaching him with way-out, arty ideas. So he talked to the fellow while we discussed paintings. When Davy went to the toilets, the lifeboat-man said of him "Rum fellow, that Thinks seamen like us can solve the problems of the world. We only do our job, we're no miraculous figures. Is he with you? Not dangerous, is he? You are all strangers?" Bones said we were from Norwich.

"The city!" the lifeboat-man cried. "Dark place. Lots of odd folk there." "Davy looks after them," Bones quipped, "But fine people too. John Cotman came from there to paint this coast."

The lifeboat-man had heard of that, the place deserved such genius to do it justice, had Bones known him.

"He died a hundred and fifty years ago, but I taught about him," Bones said. "Then I take my hat off to you," the lifeboat-man declared, and did exactly that: a headgear more respected than any other.

Davy reappeared and as we drove off, he said, "See that man doff his cap to one and all. Such respect. But if you had talked to him, it would have ruined all that." I replied that the fellow had been praising the knowledge of Norfolk art that Bones displayed. Bones added, "We told him you belong to a mental institution, but we were giving you a day out."

Davy, for once speechless, stared back at the pub's closed door, too late now to go back and change any impression. Soon we would be back in Norwich, city of dreadful night, a menace to clear-minded rurals having their own sense of mysteries; but maybe seen as a dreamy old market-town between two leafy rivers by anyone from the harder, wilder world.

Patrick Henry is contributing editor (UK).