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Barbarians among the ruins

  • THEODORE DALRYMPLE

On the sad state of the West English town.


Cheltenham2 An old chapel in Cheltenham is now home
to the chain of bars called Revolution. via

The first entry in Simon Leys's idiosyncratic and highly personal book of quotations, Les idées des autres (Other People's Ideas), is from Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian Antarctic explorer who, thanks to his meticulous organization, was the first man to reach the South Pole, not only beating Captain Scott to it but — unlike Scott — living to tell the tale.  "Incompetence," he said, "is the origin of adventure."  (This was hubris, and he paid for it.  He died in a Polar expedition.)

But we in Britain love, or perhaps I should say once loved, noble failure.  Success somehow seemed to us almost vulgar by comparison, and certainly much less romantic.  We believed that failure offered a man a better opportunity to demonstrate his true character, his moral fiber, than success ever could.  I think this a mistake: success is merely a moral examination of another type.

One of Captain Scott's last companions was Edward Wilson, the doctor, naturalist, and watercolorist.  He, Wilson, is also the most famous son of Cheltenham, the spa town in the West of England otherwise famed for its Ladies' College, its annual racing week that attracts a quarter of a million Irishmen, and its elegant Regency terraces.

Its municipal museum and art gallery is named after Wilson, but is now coyly called "The Wilson" rather than, say, "The Wilson Museum and Art Gallery."  It is as if the words "Museum and Art Gallery" would bring that blush to the cheek of a young person that Mr. Podsnap so assiduously tried to avoid, and whom the museum is trying to attract.  Nevertheless, it is a museum and art gallery, and a good one of its type, too, which I happen to like.  A Victorian officer's uniform, a splendid Venetian townscape by Guardi (a better painter than Canaletto), Chinese porcelain, Arts and Crafts furniture, an early nineteenth-century landscape of a ploughing competition by an amateur artist best known for his portraiture of prize pigs, Edward Wilson's snow boots, a stuffed albatross and penguin: you'd have to be disenchanted with life itself to be interested in nothing that the museum contained.

There also happened to be an excellent exhibition when I visited recently called "Still Small Voice: British Biblical Art in a Secular age (1850–2014)."  Funded by the Ahmanson Foundation of Los Angeles, it was precisely the kind of exhibition that I like: uneven in quality, small in size, and attended by no more than three people at a time Unevenness of quality is a great aid to appreciation.  For example, there was a garish and sickly painting by William Charles Thomas Dobson (1817-1898) called The Childhood of Christ, a powerful reminder of why modernism was so imperatively necessary.  A critic in a Victorian evangelical magazine wrote of one of Dobson's efforts:

Not a face in the picture exhibits any speciality of character, and that which is intended for the countenance of the child Jesus is mildly meaningless and innocently insipid. . . . Even in respect of workmanship Mr. Dobson's picture is defective, the painting being neither powerful, nor delicate, nor true.

Spot on, even if one does not normally expect acute art criticism in Victorian evangelical magazines!  Looking at Dobson's picture, one is inclined to exclaim, "Thank God for secularism!"

"Even in respect of workmanship Mr. Dobson's picture is defective, the painting being neither powerful, nor delicate, nor true."

But there were also works of great quality in the exhibition.  Archangels of the Apocalypse by Stanley Spencer (1891–1959), painted in the year of my birth, depicts avenging angels flying over the rolling English countryside, not so much heavenly creatures as members of the Women's Institutes of the time, dressed in tweed and with the gluteal equivalent of embonpoint.  They are all too human and not the least celestial: and that is the point, the transcendent that exists in the most workaday reality, if we only would but pause to see it.

A sketch of the Madonna and child by Barbara Hepworth (1903–1975), drawn in 1953 in the wake of her son's death while flying for the Royal Air Force, was of surpassing, and to me surprising, beauty, serene in the face of what must have been terrible personal suffering and sorrow.  But the painting that most moved me was by Craigie Aitchison (1928–2009), painted in the year before his death.  It was a crucifixion on a ground of scarlet, the figure of Christ being small, alone, and half-insinuated rather than fully depicted.  It achieved an emotional and pictorial intensity that I do not associate with the current age, with its horror of both religious sentiment and genuine self-revelation that so easily invites the mockery of the sophistical.  The likes of Dobson (of whom there were many) not only painted bad pictures but also did lasting damage to our artistic tradition, making the avoidance of their kitschy sentiment and sickly "beauty" almost the first duty of any artist, especially the second-rate; there is no trace of this neurosis in Aitchison.

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I left The Wilson exhilarated: I had not expected to be so uplifted when I entered.  But uplift in Britain cannot last long — perhaps it never can, anywhere in the world.  As I walked down a deserted stuccoed street nearby I passed a splendid chapel, I should guess of the early-middle nineteenth century, of honey-colored Cotswold stone.  It was early Gothic revival, but managed to combine the elaboration of Gothic detail with the simplicity of the Regency.  It was a small architectural masterpiece.

It no longer served as a chapel, however, but was given to other purposes, namely to drinking, taking drugs, and deafening with loud music.  It now belonged to a large chain of bars called Revolution, the website for the Cheltenham branch stating that "This stunning building has once again become a place of worship in the centre of Cheltenham!" The object of worship appeared to be the row of bottles of different vodkas that would help the customers forget who and where they were; the photographs on the website scarcely show the building at all.  The photographs on the website also showed averagely vulgar (which means very vulgar) young British adults supposedly enjoying themselves, screaming, shouting, laughing loud enough to wake the dead, and pulling crude faces like talentless mime-artists.

I went inside.  There was nothing to indicate to whom the chapel had once belonged, but there was a prominent notice as you entered:

It is a condition of entry that you agree to be searched.  If you fail to consent you may be denied entry.

But in case search by the bouncers, renamed doormen and then re-renamed greeters, missed something, then "for your safety and security CCTV operates in this venue." 

This little warning, however, implicitly illustrated an important principle of political philosophy: that where people have no virtue, suspicion of them must increase and the rule of law be abrogated.

All customers of Revolution, then, were assumed to have neither self-respect nor self-control.  Cheltenham — traditionally one of the most elegant and genteel towns in Britain — is revealed as being in a worse way, almost, than civil war.  At least civil wars are usually about something, whereas in Cheltenham violence is a manifestation of utter vacuity of soul.

But CCTV was not the end of it.  "Revolution" said the notice, "has a zero tolerance to weapons."  Some revolution, then! The customers were supposed to be revolutionaries in the same sense as the Parisians claimed recently all to be Charlie, that is to say they desire kudos without risk; Revolution — the bar, not the historical phenomenon — was also against drugs.  "If you are suspected of possessing or using either [weapons or drugs] you may be detained while the authorities are notified or asked to leave."  The grammar does not make it quite clear whether it is those suspected of using drugs or the authorities who will be asked to leave, but, as modern educationists would no doubt say, who cares so long as what is meant is obvious?

This little warning, however, implicitly illustrated an important principle of political philosophy: that where people have no virtue, suspicion of them must increase and the rule of law be abrogated.  Search, surveillance, and suspicion: these are the conditions under which vulgar young British libertines must accept to live.  And, alas, they accept the bargain with alacrity.

The bar, this magnificent former chapel, was emptier than The Wilson: there are nightclubs in Britain that open at six in the morning for those for whom twelve hours' drinking and drugging is not enough, but four in the afternoon is a time of universal repose, to recover for the night and morning's debauchery.  I spoke to Revolution's barman, a young man who, to my surprise, was well-spoken and well-mannered.  (It helped that he was also very big: in this world to be small and polite is to invite aggression).

I remarked on the grandeur of the building — ruined, of course, by its bar decor — and he particularly regretted that, to make heating easier and more economical, the splendid gothic ceiling had been covered by a flat purple platform.  I thought of the lines of Pope's Fourth Epistle, in which the poet satirizes the tastes of the upper classes of his time and their desire for a borrowed or imitated magnificence:

Proud to catch cold at a Venetian door:
Conscious they act a true Palladian part,
And if they starve, they starve by rules of Art.

But now we live in a culture that will sacrifice everything to its momentary comfort and convenience, with all-too-evident aesthetic and psychological results.

I asked the young barman about violence in the bar — which was big enough, incidentally, to hold a congregation of a thousand worshippers — and he said that the security staff was very well-trained and effective, disposing of trouble-makers with the minimum of fuss.  Drugs were the worst problem; those who took them did not go quietly.  A notice asked people leaving the bar to behave quietly and with respect for the local residents: did they obey it, I asked the barman?

"Oh no," he said, "their behavior's worse outside."

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I resumed my walk through Cheltenham.  In the street called the Promenade stood the statue to commemorate Edward Wilson.  On its plinth were carved the words about Wilson that Captain Scott wrote to his widow in a letter that was later found on Scott's frozen body (Wilson froze to death shortly before him):

He died as he had lived, a brave true man, the best of comrades and the staunchest of friends.

There is no art to find the mind's construction in the words, and yet this encomium seems to me to be instinct with sincerity and true admiration.

But now we live in a culture that will sacrifice everything to its momentary comfort and convenience, with all-too-evident aesthetic and psychological results.

Around the plinth were scattered a number of blue cards.  They were for a nightclub called Subtone whose premises were in one of the beautiful Regency houses opposite and which, according to the card, was "open til 6 am."  The card — called "a vip dance card" — offered free entry "b4 1am with this card."  You became a vip by picking it up from the ground, apparently.  And once inside, you could listen to any kind of music you liked, anything from urban to soul to electro house to breakbeat, with DJs Cool Cut C, GI Joe, Dirty Trucker, and Conte Crux.  I thought of Wordsworth, but adapted it slightly in my mind: Allan Bloom! thou shouldst be living at this hour:

England hath need of thee . . .
We are selfish men:
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us virtue, manners, freedom . . .

A few yards further on was the Neptune Fountain, a rather grandiloquent late Victorian concoction in stone, now with the water turned off, no doubt to save the planet.  In front of it was a notice explaining its history, with a photograph from the 1920s when it and the surroundings looked immaculately cared for.  The notice enjoined visitors to "enjoy its splendour and beauty," and that is exactly what they had done, in their own fashion, by throwing pages of magazines, hamburger wrappers, and empty plastic bottles into the basin of the fountain where water should have been.

Why are the British now barbarians living in the ruins of a former civilization of which they are either wilfully ignorant or which they actively detest?  Perhaps it is, at least in part, an effect of the architecture that for the last sixty years has been imposed upon them.  There is no better vantage point to see the destruction of a civilization by barbarian architects than Imperial Square in Cheltenham.  This was, until the 1960s or early 1970s, a most elegant urban space, completely harmonious, a call to refinement, but then an insurance company, no doubt having successfully bribed the local council for permission to do so, erected a gray concrete tower designed by an architect who, if there had been any justice in the world, would have had his eyes put out so that he never built anything as ugly again.  Devoid of talent, ideas, or taste, but too arrogant to learn from past ages or to accommodate what he built to what was already there, the architect had only prepotency as the means by which to distinguish himself, as the bully has fear, and of that he made the maximum use.  It was enough: once this single building had been erected, nothing mattered any more, for nothing anyone could do as an individual would be more destructive or aesthetically offensive.

Civilizations are not destroyed from without; they collapse from within.  That collapse may be in slow motion, it may take decades, but it is collapse nonetheless.  Cheltenham is as good a place as any to witness, if you really want to do so, barbarians inhabiting graceful ruins.

dividertop

Acknowledgement

newcritTheodore Dalrymple.  "Barbarians among the ruins."  The New Criterion (March, 2015).

Reprinted with permission of The New Criterion.

The New Criterion, founded in 1982, is a monthly review of the arts and intellectual life.  Written with great verve, clarity, and wit, The New Criterion has emerged as America's foremost voice of critical dissent in the culture wars now raging throughout the Western world.  A staunch defender of the values of high culture, The New Criterion is also an articulate scourge of artistic mediocrity and intellectual mendacity wherever they are found: in the universities, the art galleries, the media, the concert halls, the theater, and elsewhere.

The Author

Dalrymple5Dalrymple3Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He writes a column for the London Spectator, contributes frequently to the Daily Telegraph, and is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. He lives in France and is the author of The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, Out Into The Beautiful World, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Farewell Fear, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2015 The New Criterion
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