Thursday, June 21, 2007

Portmeirion Revisited – 6th November 2006

This piece records my journey to several favourite places that reflect my feelings for those with whom I visited, and for whom these too were significant.

I was married for the first time on 6th November 1982. Having lost my first wife Brenda, and later remarried, the question of how to celebrate or commemorate days that were special to us become difficult. This year, I decided not to dwell too much on the anniversary, but to award myself an enjoyable day out to one of my favourite places, with my new wife Sara. The day after my first wedding, heading north from the hotel in which we were staying (itself now closed), Brenda suggested that we call in and see if Portmeirion was open. She had visited it previously with her previous husband, and they had found it fascinating. Not that her first husband’s tastes or perspectives provided any recommendation!

Portmeirion proved to be a sensible choice 24 years later. It had not changed greatly, and so limited that particular sense of loss. On the day in 2006 we visited, and indeed on my first time, the place was quiet. On my very first visit in 1982, we had been waved past by a man at the entrance. There was noone stopping there then, and as I recall, almost nobody in the place. It was a Sunday, I suspect that the county was then “dry”, and of course Sunday retail opening was then rare.

On my 1982 visit, I took the conventional route down under the two gateways that framed the original entrance, round into Battery Square, where there was a small shop, firmly shut up, that advertised The Prisoner. This had been run on unconventional lines by a somewhat aged student type, whom I would later meet. He was later ousted because his rather scruffy shop and (or so I was told) his love of cats jarred with the image of Portmeirion as a place to be visited by wealthier holidaymakers (the United States was a significant target market) and day visitors. The shop had been replaced by one selling Prisoner merchandise in a much tidier fashion, with no eccentricity, very much the professionalised (and maybe somewhat soulless) retail operation.

On our later visit this shop was closed for the winter, but we did not visit it first. By now, I had become much more aware of the architecture of the place, and some of the tricks with perspective that Williams-Ellis had introduced. Thus, buildings which appeared from the front to have attic rooms or to be two-storey turned out, from the back, to be small single-storey units with flat roofs. In 1982 I took a few slides, in poor light, but the light was good on the 2006 visit, and by that time digital photography meant that any number of scenes could be recorded with no additional cost. So, we went in round the back of the buildings, in an area that seemed semi-private, and could see what had been more notable on my first visit, that the buildings were flimsy close-up, and not particularly well-constructed.

Many photographs later, we walked up towards Battery Square, and viewed aspects of this area, including accessible areas, that I had never noticed before. The limited number of visitors provided a very different feel to the place, and I have met people who have stopped there and relayed with some awe how different the whole place seems at night when the day visitors have gone. Although the shops were closed for winter, the buildings were in good order, whereas when I visited in 1982 many seemed crumbling. I recall looking through the windows of one unit and being shocked at how scruffy were its condition and fittings. I would discover one reason for this later.

From Battery Square, we walked down towards the Town Hall, one of Williams-Ellis’ rescued buildings, constructed at the outbreak of war from fragments of an older building. When I first visited in 1982 neither shops nor catering facilities were open. The previous year, though, a new restaurant building had been built – the Town Hall Restaurant. On our 2006 visit, we dined there, and found it a disappointment – as usual. The Restaurant has the feel, and the cuisine (and the prices), of one of those rather sad motorway places where a free lunch to the coach driver, and Burger King for the children, provides the main reason why anyone stops at all. On one visit my first wife Brenda complained that the tables needed to be cleaned. One of the waiting staff went up and carefully cleared and cleaned one solitary table, which failed to amuse her, or me. It smacked of contempt, somehow, for visitors who could or would not afford to dine at the posh Hotel further down the hill.

The main Hotel had been converted from a nineteenth-century house in 1926, but had burnt down in 1981. In 1982 I saw the charred ruins of this building, with most of the lawn in front roped off, and the entrance boarded up. It was fascinating then, but sad, because it didn’t seem certain that, with Williams-Ellis dead, a recession under way and the holiday industry in decline, it would necessarily be rebuilt. Happily, it was restored in 1986, but with an underpass to the promenade, ensuring that day visitors can be deterred from wandering in.

My abiding feeling about Portmeirion is that it is one large, kaleidoscopic, beautiful, puzzle, worth returning to again and again, like a friend who sometimes infuriates, often surprises, and yet always fascinates, so that life would be poorer without him or her. It reflects the uncertainty of friendship, in that there are changes which display errors of judgement, and yet changes that reveal new meanings and provide hope that new experiences may yet develop.

My journey to Portmeirion aimed not only to study the place or to photograph it in excellent winter light, but to reconcile happy memories of my first visit there with later visits with Sara. She made her first visit with her late husband Glyn in 1979 when she was heavily pregnant with her first child. They saw the place differently then, and were much closer to William-Ellis’ vision of it as a very large practical joke.

Our experiences clearly varied greatly, but had, I felt, begun to coalesce on this, our latest visit. Where should we go next, then? I decided on this only shortly before we left Portmeirion. I have taken my widowed mother out on many trips over the last 20 years, to places that we would associate with my father, and then, later, to places that he did not know. I followed this lead, driving north to Beddgelert and up the Gwynant Valley, places I do not associate with Brenda. Between Sygun and Nant Gwynant Sara and I stopped to photograph the roadside lake in fading light, a place that perhaps we will associate with each other in future. We went further north past Pen-y-Pass and down through Llanberis, to stop at Llandudno, where we walked the dog along the promenade and towards the pier, in the darkness of early evening.

I had not contrived this, but Llandudno is a place that was a favourite for Sara, Glyn, and their children (now my stepchildren), but also for myself, Brenda, and my father. It was important but felt delicate, as I contemplated how best to mark a joyful event that took place 24 years before but might now feel shrouded in sadness. Yet, if there has been an emotional journey towards my love and hope for Sara, much has been completed, as the day felt like one of reconciliation. It was not the sad day that I had imagined, but one that felt inviting, the past and present reconciled.

And perhaps this marked the end of a very personal journey, in that favourite places associated with Brenda no longer seem to threaten a reopening of grief, but present an opportunity to celebrate parts of her life, the legacy of her influence, and our present and future prospects for renewal. It is undoubtedly, what she wanted, what I want for myself, what I want for Sara, and what Glyn wanted for Sara and what she wants for herself and for me. The past not as barrier to the present and future, but as a gateway to the future. A little like the entrance at Portmeirion, it is not always obvious where this is, or what lies beyond. But maybe that is inevitable.

"What is literature for?" - musings August 2006

The Purposes of Literature

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut poses an odd but pertinent question in his novel God Bless You, Mr Rosewater: “what are people for”? One of his characters, about to die, says he is looking forward to asking God this question. This struck me as one of those na├»ve and yet fundamental questions – what is the purpose of our existence? It is a question with no obvious final answer. Vonnegut, who is President of the American Humanist Association, is not suggesting that there is no purpose, just that it cannot be discerned.

There is a similar naivety in asking the question “what is literature for”? What, fundamentally, is the purpose of literature? Tome after tome declaiming postmodern literary theory seems incapable of addressing this most basic question. Casting round in less conventional places – the private space of weblogs - I have found some suggestions which seem to make some sense. Short and pithy ones are “to enrich our lives” and “to provide experience to humans”. Another, more ambitious states that the highest purpose of literature is “spiritual enlightenment, spiritual growth; in other words, the highest purpose of literature is to save the reader’s life.” The latter comes from James Hammond, a philosopher, albeit one without the validation of a university position.

What is true enough is that literature has many purposes, sometimes conflicting ones, so that, say, an erudite paper in mathematics or the natural sciences can completely fail to entertain, and can be poorly expressed in leaden language, but it could expand our knowledge and incite the development of further thinking. It is legitimate to criticize such an example of literature if it does not achieve the purpose of its author, and thus fails to develop or explain significant areas of new knowledge and thought. More cynically, it might be that it achieved a further purpose of the author, to ensure that the correct quota of suitable publications, significant or not, has been attained. It would be appropriate to evaluate and (perhaps) condemn this purpose, even if it has been fully achieved, as unworthy. But if a purpose of adding significantly to knowledge has been fulfilled, even if that was not the author’s prime intention, this can be evaluated as both valid and achieved.

What this suggests is that it is possible to evaluate an example of literature quite apart from the intention and purpose of the author. The author may well not have sought to “save the reader’s life” through the encouragement of “spiritual growth”, but it is legitimate to consider whether their work might fulfil this purpose in any way. If it does not, then it can be evaluated against some other purpose.

My reason for engaging in such musings is not to engage in semantics, but because I plan to examine three non-fictional accounts by three very different literary figures. One was a prominent novelist and Christian apologist, whose essay was published under a non-de-plume. One is a retired Professor of English, writing an autobiographical account, one of a trilogy, about the loss of his wife. The third is a minor novelist, who has written an account of his travels in what seems to have been a journey through grief as well as a journey through southern France. My concern is not over the first author, who seems to have realized that his book would be read as a study of grief. My concern is over the way in which the other two authors will be read.

Three kinds of reader can be envisaged here. There is the general reader who finds these accounts entertaining, as indeed they are in many ways. In a way, the critic of literature has some sort of image of a general reader in mind, and to guide, legitimize or devalue that reader’s experience seems to be an unspoken intention. I am more concerned about the reader who consults these books because they appear to address his position (and it is his, because both writers are, or were, widowers). Will such a reader find consolation or guidance in these accounts? My clear and unequivocal answer will be no. The third audience will be those professionals and helpers who seek to understand the experience of widowed men and to attempt to offer comfort and enlightenment. Again, I feel that these books mislead, and perhaps dangerously so. I will be developing this critique in relation to another kind of literature, the literature of grief. This literature comprises the writings, reflecting factual research, of those who have attempted to develop knowledge and comprehension of grief, so as to offer comfort and attempt effective (sometimes cost-effective) remedies.

This may seem to be grossly unfair. Two authors, subject to major bereavements, recently wrote books that did not intend to inform or console, and yet I am accusing them of failing to fulfil what Hammond deems the highest purpose of literature – “spiritual enlightenment”. I am more spurred by his dramatic injunction that the literary purpose is “to save the reader’s life”. It is, therefore, appropriate to evaluate these works against their ability to console and, if it is possible, to spur improvements in the quality of life. The rest can be left for the postmodernists to discuss.

Poem - Religion and Ambivalence

Religion and Ambivalence

Religion inspires respect and awe
Respect for the beliefs of others
Awe at the mysteries of the universe
Awe at simple certainties

Religion provides consolation and comfort
Consolation when life’s disasters strike
Comfort from others and a beneficial God
The comfort of certainty

Religion evokes power and control
Power to influence ideas, resources and lives
Control over others, their thoughts and feelings
The certainty of control


"Life Goes on Regardless"

“Life Goes on Regardless”

I spent most of last weekend marking student courseworks, and more beckon this weekend. For some outside, the life of a lecturer may seem glamorous, as, in some ways, it appeared to me 30 years ago when I was a student. Not that most of my tutors then inspired me, but on occasions when they did, I felt that I had glimpsed my vocation. I could be the person who would enthuse part of a generation, a generation that might go forward, with others, to build and be part of a better world.

Instead, most of the vision of that world has crumbled away. I inspire and enthuse only on rare and unexpected occasions, and I spend a lot of my time trudging through paperwork produced reluctantly, at the last gasp, by students who would much rather be somewhere else than listening to me. I cannot blame them, although I could blame the world which made them devoid of intellectual curiosity, so that they look up to the Bransons and so-called “celebrities” of this world rather than the Einsteins or the Turings, or even, indeed, the collective aspirations and achievements of those for whom bettering the human condition is the best reward. It seems that scholarship would be good if it made you rich and famous, but only if, while anything that made you rich and famous would do.

To me, intellectuals or scholars who serve only themselves, or the already powerful, are not worth the effort expended in comprehension; only a scholar or intellectual who uses their intellectual endeavours for the good of humanity really has validity. Small wonder, given the sheer naivety of this view in the present political, economic and institutional climate, that it feels to me like the only good scholar is one who has retired from employment. Last Monday I agreed the terms of my partial retirement, but this does not open up a world as an independent scholar. The world is not waiting, sadly.

I thought I was alone in feeling a sense of quiet despair, but then I read a passage in a coursework on environmental management. This involves a series of case studies, designed less to instruct than to inspire thought – or, at least, some thinking. It would be unprofessional to identify the part-time student concerned, but in an essay about the decline of energy resources and the possible role of his professional body in dealing with this, he suddenly launched into this paragraph:

“It could be argued that at the end of the day, looking at the bigger picture, our existence on this planet is already condemned with scientific certainty. Statistically we are all doomed, by way of catastrophic global events, such as a meteorite strike or super volcano…On a universal scale not only does our planet have a limited life span, our Sun is a burning ball of fuel which will also one day burn out. How significant is our impact on the Universe? What difference can we make to a planet which is already living on borrowed time?”

I smiled at first when I read this, at its unexpected lyricism. I sometimes comment, when students stress the merits of energy-saving light bulbs, or the encouragement of better public transport, that there are very much wider forces at work, that could undermine all our efforts to protect the environment that forms the basis of all our lives. I suspect that this student had pondered such comments. Or even my expression of appallingly weak humour, when they look exceptionally bored, “Oh well, its not the end of the world…………well, actually, it could be!”. I should stress that I teach environmental management to students who do not come from literary backgrounds, but rather in science, engineering, planning and surveying. Much of their work will involve professional factual reports. So this outburst, by one of the more able and hard-working students, made me wonder.

The sad truth is that I hardly know anything about my students, and indeed hardly see them as people with lives, dreams, emotions, fears – unless these relate to assessment. What I know about this mature student is simply that he travels 200 miles to Liverpool on one day a week, leaving his family at 5 in the morning, and getting home before 9 at night, if the roads are clear. I am impressed by his commitment and achievement, but what he, or any other students, are really like as people, is unknown, as I am to them. I wonder if “How significant is our impact on the Universe” is something that he muses on when driving the long drag to and from Liverpool. And, indeed, whether that represents some sort of fear, a private fear made public.

Some clue to this is given by the closing paragraph of his essay: “in the meantime, while we are waiting for the end, life goes on regardless”. Maybe that is what he thinks about his own life, in morbid moments, wondering what he will leave behind. And it’s true. For me, the end of my work career beckons, and while the duties and responsibilities are reduced, there is a feeling of redundancy. It’s a moment of significance to me alone, uneasily blending disappointment at the end of aspiration together with hope for new possibilities outside employment. But “life goes on regardless”, and my future is like the future of the environment, unknown and riddled with uncertainty. I am slowly coming to accept that a lifetime of stress may soon lie behind me, and a new happiness is being allowed to develop. But this is a slow process.

Drafted 2 February 2007