The Green and the Red

I suppose if I were to mention the Post Office and the Irish fight for independence, the first thing to come to mind would be the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin. But quite another thing occurred to me as I waited for a bus in Ballsbridge this evening. Right there in front of me was this:

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Do you see it? The “VR”? While it may seem like virtual reality, in fact it stands for Victoria Regina, Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India. Not only is this a very old mailbox –or pillar box, as it’s called– at something like 110 years old, but it’s a very intriguing remnant of British rule.

According to the website of An Post (the Irish postal service),

Introduced well over 150 years ago by the novelist, Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office in Ireland for several years, the letter box is an instantly recognized symbol of the Post Office.

That’s an interesting literary connection, but there’s more:

Before Irish independence post boxes were red but one of the first acts of the new Irish Government was to order that green would be the new colour for Post Office letter boxes.

It’s hard to day how much I admire this. The mailbox is obviously an implement of the government. It’s a fairly apolitical thing (postcards, bill payments, Christmas cards, etc., all need to get through) but once you put the monarch’s name and crown on the mailbox, it has been politicized. What’s a brand new nation-state to do?

Taking them all down would interfere with the new government’s ability to carry out the most basic of necessary functions: how long would it take to remove and replace thousands of boxes, and how much disruption would it cause? Leaving the mailboxes up as is, on the other hand, gives a sort of symbolic legitimation to the old regime.

So it is on the symbolic level that the matter is resolved. By altering the British mailbox from its iconic bright red (there’s a wonderful piece in the Daily Mail on this topic) to an equally iconic bright green, the transfer of power is communicated with splendid visual power. If the British monarch’s initials and emblems are still visible, all the better.  It was not mailboxes he was thinking of when he wrote these lines, but Yeats’ words from “Easter 1916” seem to work just as well, Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly. 

Interestingly enough, according to thejournal.ie, many of the boxes in town were painted red in 2016 in order to catch the attention of those walking by. “The freshly-painted boxes display a word and a text number. Passers-by can send the word to access special video clips of what would have been happening in the area during the Rising,” they write.

Below are two other pillar boxes I came across in my Dublin wanderings today. The one of the left is more modern, with the inscription now found on them–P&T for Posts and Telegraphs. The other is a former British box, from the time of Edward VII, which features the crown. Most of these older ones do, but the VR one I saw at the bus stop was missing it. Further evidence, I suppose, of Fenian enthusiasm, or perhaps someone with a grievance “going postal,” as they say.

Postscript. I hope this title won’t be confused with The Red and the Green by novelist Iris Murdock, or my own “The Red and the Green: James Loeb and his Classical Library,” Sewanee Review 120.4 (Fall 2012) 553-558

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Brief Note from Scotland

Today and tomorrow, I’m at the Celtic Classics Conference, being held at Saint Andrews. It’s a lovely town by the sea ( pics below), with famous golf courses and some grand old university buildings, none of which the conference is being held in. Too bad I have a cold and am feeling under the weather. Talking of which, by the way, it’s the coldest I’ve been since I arrived to London a few weeks ago, a welcome break. President Trump is in London now, and due in Scotland this week, though alas, the Trump Baby Balloon will not be allowed to fly over the golf course he’s coming to. The week has seen some heartbreak in Britain–the loss of England to Croatia in the World Cup semifinal–and upheaval–the resignation of various ministers, including Boris Johnson, from Theresa May’s cabinet. Sitting in a room at his alma mater, I’m thinking of some lines by the Scottish classicist with the North Carolina connection, Douglas C. C. Young (about whom I’ve written before):

The Minister said it wad dee,
the cypress buss I plantit.
But the buss grew til a tree,
naething dauntit.

Hit’s growan stark and heich,
derk and straucht and sinister,
kirkyairdie-like and dreich.
But whaur’s the Minister?

Posted in Cartoons, Classics, Language & Etymology, Poetry, Scotland, Sports & Games, Trees & Flowers | Leave a comment

Flavinus, Easter, and Power

A note to my Sewanee-in-England students in Hexham, where we are all exhausted after climbing around Housesteads fort, as I had with my sons 6 years ago.

Alas, Hexham Abbey opens at 9:30 AM but we must be on the road by 9.
What I had wanted to show you were some stones repurposed from Hadrian’s Wall in the Abbey. Most notable among these is the 9-foot high tombstone of Flavinus, a Roman cavalry man who is riding roughshod over a defeated Briton. (I do so love these particular tombstones). You can see the stone below, and watch a 20-second video at this link.
Why should this stone, and others from the Wall, be here? There are a few possible answers. The first one that occurs is that the builders of the Abbey simply needed worked stone and took it from the Wall. Undoubtedly, many of the stones of the Wall (which was once 15 feet high) ended up in other buildings for that very reason after the Romans left in the fifth century. On the other hand, Flavinus’ tombstone is from Corbridge, about 3.5 miles away. That’s a long way to carry a 9-foot high stone, when lots of other stones are available closer by.
Could it be a symbolic statement of sorts? In ancient Christian churches of Italy, for instance, many elements pillaged from Roman temples are deliberately introduced in order to demonstrate the victory of Christianity over paganism. Perhaps this is what’s going on? The Abbey began to be constructed in the 660s, however, and no Romans would have been around to gloat over. Again, it seems like a long way to bring a large stone for a virtually meaningless gesture.
Now, the person behind the Abbey’s construction was a guy named St. Wilfrid of York, and he lived in interesting times. Celtic Christianity, given its far remove from the continent and the center of the church in Rome, had developed a number of idiosyncrasies. Most prominent among these was the dating of Easter. It is almost impossible to describe how heated the debate over this issue became (and still is–the Eastern Orthodox Church uses a different system than the Western churches) but Christians in the British Isles felt very strongly about their tradition. The Synod of Whitby was called in 664 to resolve the matter. Wilfrid spoke very forcefully against the native tradition in favor of adhering to the pope’s position.
Wilfrid was a very unpopular man in this area afterward–there were several attempts on his life–but he was richly rewarded by the pope for his loyalty. In building Hexham Abbey, it may be that he wanted to demonstrate the need to obey Roman tradition and reject the native one. Most people in the area were illiterate, but the image of Flavinus, removed from Hadrian’s Wall (as they would all know), would take on new meaning in the immediate context of the Synod and its aftermath. This was a symbolic reimagining of victorious Rome.
It’s hard to believe anybody could get that worked up about the dating of Easter. But at the end of the day, it’s not about getting the date right; it’s about who gets to tell who what to do. That is, it’s about power. The issues of papal supremacy will arise again in Britain a millennium later when Henry VIII wants to get a divorce. Eventually, he will overthrow the Catholic church in England and install himself as the head of the Church of England. At that time, he will break up all the abbeys, Hexham included.
And I like to think that the Briton getting trampled by Flavinus smiled when all that happened.
UPDATE. Well, it turns out the Abbey opens earlier than what’s posted online. My student Lydia and I went over and found Flavinus– it is indeed a huge memorial. We also got the Sexton to let us into the crypt to see the Geta stone, also taken from the Wall, with an inscription featuring damnatio memoriae (a topic I do love) of Caracalla’s brother.
Posted in Bible, Cemeteries & Funerals, Classics, England, Italy, Military, Rome, Saints, Statues & Monuments, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In the Shadow of Wembley

I’m co-teaching the Sewanee-in-England trip this summer, and in London we’re staying at the Ibis Hotel just by Wembley Stadium. It’s not the most glamorous view, but there’s something about all the construction (with its attendant clanging and banging) coupled with the overt modernity of the stadium itself that gives a distinct impression of the twenty-first century. In the next few days, I plan to add to this post with thoughts on what it’s like to be in the shadow of the modern Colosseum. For now, however, a picture taken from my window as I sipped my morning coffee will suffice:

On the left, you can see the enormous parabolic arch that can be seen from downtown London. As noted on the stadium’s online press-pack:

The most striking, highly visible feature of the stadium is 133 metre tall arch that sits above the north stand. The steel arch is 315 metres long and will become the longest single roof structure in the world and will be visible right across London.
The arch supports all of the weight of the north roof and 60 per cent of the weight of the southern side. By using an arch to bear some of the weight of the southern roof it is possible to retract the south roof to allow light an air onto the pitch.
The arch also ensures that there are no pillars in the new stadium which could obstruct the views of fans.

Of course, the combination of arch and amphitheatre is an old one, with a rich symbolic history:

colosseum_arch

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The Backstory to the SAS Reredos

27164966_954833823648_8858304130461938993_oEarlier this year, I wondered about the reredos in the St. Andrew’s-Sewanee school chapel, discovering that it was a copy of the Demidoff Altarpiece, now in National Gallery, London, but originally made by Carlo Crivelli for the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno in 1476. “So, now the questions is WHY is this in the St. Andrew’s Chapel?” I asked. “Aside from its very evident beauty, of course, and its very “high church” appeal, was there a particular connection to this piece for the Holy Cross brothers who founded the school?”

Anyway, a few months later, I wrote to former Head of School, Father Bill Wade, about all of this, and he generously responded thus:

Bishop Campbelll OHC writes in his history of St. Andrew’s School:”On entering the Chapel one is struck at once by the beautiful reredos which is bolted to the eastern wall. A present of Miss Mary A.J. Neilson of Philadelphia, it is a copy of Crevelli, the original of which is on exhibit in the National Gallery in TravalgarSquare, London. Miss Neilson painted this most devotional work originally for the Church of the Evangelists, Philadelphia of which the Rev. W.W. Webb was rector (later he became Bishop of Milwaukee). When at St. Michael’s [FYI: the monastery at St. Andrew’s} to conduct a retreat he reported that while Miss Neilson was doing the painting he used to help her;in order not to allow the representations of the saints in various panels to look too fresh and glaring, they would put bacon fat in a hot skillet and wave it in front of the fresh paint in order to dim it a bit.”
He does not provide a date for when the reredos was installed but the impression is that happened at the time the chapel was built. The Prior at that time  , Father Hughson, had spent the winter of 1913 on “special assignment ” at St. Mark’s , Philadelphia. The Easter offering of $9000 was given to him and that led to the design of the chapel by Philadelphia architect, Horace W. Sellers…construction began immediately and the first mass took place on Quinquagesima, February 22, 1914.
I do not know for sure but I think I remember that the Church of the Evangelists was closed about this time and that may explain why the reredos was not put there but given to the school.

 

Beyond the fetching detail of the bacon-fat aging process, Fr. Wade’s note provides a lot of leads to follow up on. According to the 1904 Guidebook to the Church of the Evangelists (now digitized), “The reredos is a copy of the famous altar-piece (now in the National Gallery, London) by Carlo Crivelli, made by Miss M. A. L. Neilson and presented by her to the parish. It is a magnificent work, harmonious and rich in color, and leaves nothing for the architectural critic to desire.” Even better, the guidebook supplies some pictures of the church, in which one can see the St. Andrews’ reredos in its original setting.

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Much of the decoration–very Italianate in its inspiration–came about from the energies of the guidebook’s author, the very high church rector appointed in 1880, Henry Robert Percival, who (according to a source quoted by Wikipedia) possessed “a sensibility which combined Italian and Anglo-Catholic romanticisms.” Of the Church of the Evangelists’ architecture, the same source points to “Italy, Ruskin, the ecclesiological movement, and the pageantry of medieval Christianity” as influences.

imagesAt any rate, Percival became ill in the 1890s, and the Oxford Movement/ Victorian medievalism he espoused fell out of favor in the decades following. The chapel at St. Andrews in Sewanee opened in 1914, as Fr. Wade notes, probably with the reredos now  removed from its failing home in Philadelphia. The Church of the Evangelists has had a colorful afterlife: converted into an art gallery in 1922 associated with the Graphic Sketch Club, it became part of the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial. “The mission of the Fleisher Art Memorial,” as stated on their website, “is to make art accessible to everyone, regardless of economic means, background, or artistic experience.” The space is used for exhibits and occasionally weddings (as can be seen in the photo below).

Fleisher-Memorial-wedding-italian-market-philadelphia-57

 

 

Posted in Bible, Family, Italy, Saints, Sewanee, Statues & Monuments, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

This is the last

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 7.35.12 PM.png“It is very happily and kindly provided,” writes Dr. Johnson, “that in every life there are certain pauses and interruptions, which force consideration upon the careless, and seriousness upon the light; points of time where one course of action ends and another begins; and by vicissitude of fortune, or alteration of employment, by change of place, or loss of friendship, we are forced to say of something, this is the last.”

Today is the last soccer game for my son Joseph, or at least at the last one at St. Andrew’s. The last game of his high school career, and the last one he’ll play in Sewanee. If he plays again, it will be in college, or on a club somewhere later in his life. And it’s too bad this one had to be the last, really. The first game of the division championship, St. Andrew’s should have beat Grace Baptist handily. They went up by 2 in the first half, and then somehow got tied on PKs. SAS roared back with a third goal that the Baptists improbably matched. Into overtime it went–two ten minute halves that the Mountain Lions dominated–and then into sudden death. Then, a lucky chip over the defense to a Baptist player, who dribbled it in to win. Their fans went wild, and we stood slack-jawed. It was over: the game, the season, the whole thing.

Our boys ran across the field one last time, and through my own, I could see the tears in their eyes. I have always said that I watched Joseph play soccer through two sets of eyes–my own, and my father’s. Dad was a natural athlete who did it all: baseball, hockey, football, basketball, boxing. You name it. Joe inherited his athleticism from him. My own gift seems to be skipping–as in, skipping a generation. My father died some years ago, but I knew that, if he could have, he would have loved watching Joe play. I went to as many games as I could, because I could. But now there will be no more. In a few weeks he will graduate, and in a few months after that, head off to New England for college. His whole life is ahead of him, and I am overjoyed about it. But for now, all I see is that graceful young man trotting over the green toward me. He stops, and turns, and is gone.

Posted in Family, Sewanee, Sports & Games, Time, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Weeping for RFK

I just finished watching Netflix’ 4-part documentary “Bobby Kennedy for President,” and it is intense. I guess, insofar as I knew about RFK, it was in relation to his brothers– Jack was a staple of every Irish Catholic household in Boston in the 60s and 70s when I was growing up, and Ted was our senator. There’s a story I recall the political analyst Mike Barnicle telling about Ted Kennedy–a Republican hopeful came to see him for advice, and Barnicle told him, “Well, Teddy’s always been a 60/40 proposition around here, so you start out with 40% of the vote.” That cheered the guy, who asked, What do I do next? “Well, you spend $20 million and you get it up to 45%” OK, what then? “Another $20 million in the last week and you’re at 48%.” And how do I nail it down? “Nail it down?” Yeah, how do I beat him? “You can’t beat Teddy Kennedy! His two brothers were assassinated! Do we look like a bunch of fucking ingrates?”

In general, what I knew of Bobby Kennedy was an amalgam of different archetypes: his brother’s ruthless campaign manager and Roy Cohn’s right-hand man in the McCarthy hearings, but also this leftwing savior who broke bread with Cesar Chavez and calmed a potential  riot in Indianapolis by citing Aeschylus. He seemed to reside in the same celestial sphere as Germanicus or Bonnie Prince Charlie, figures not of the counterculture but of the contrafactual. There’s a lot of film I’d not seen before in the documentary, where he is not seen through either a demonizing or hagiographical lens, but speaks for himself. When he is introduced to a roaring crowd at the 1964 Democratic convention, he looks down and then up at them in genuine wonder and gratitude. There is sweetness, and also wit. At one rally on the presidential trail, Kennedy quipped that he had received only four votes in a poll of his ten children. “Two votes went to my brother Teddy,” he goes on. “Two went to my sister Pat. The others were re-assessing their position.” The family man is evident throughout, and I was struck by an image of RFK in a gray flannel suit skating with Ethel and his children holding hands– it may be the dearest picture I’ve ever seen of a politician.

 

The documentary goes off the rails in the fourth part with conspiracy theories, unfortunately–I’m afraid my takeaway is that Sirhan Sirhan is a pitiful nobody, a motiveless malignity not worth the energy expended by the truthers on him. But the extended sequence in the third part from the Ambassador Hotel is almost unbearable, including the interview with the Mexican busboy who put his rosary into the RFK’s dying hand. To see John Lewis, who was there, break down as he says, “I cried all the way from LA to Atlanta” is overwhelming–fifty years later, this great man’s tears still come when he thinks of Kennedy’s death. And I’m not ashamed to say that, watching Lewis weep, I felt permission to weep too. Cut down at his prime, there was so much unrealized promise there–that, had he become President, he would have made mistakes and committed atrocities is likely. But at the podium of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he is all potential without blemish. Many an article about Bobby is called “What If?” It is fifty years on from then, but it does not feel fifty years better. In this age of deep cultural division, with a president almost universally reviled by everyone I know, I wept for RFK, for everything that he had been and everything he might have been.

 

 

 

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