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Southern Circuits

Here's a piece I wrote for Creative Writing. It's in the line of psychogeography. It was published in the school newsletter but I removed all the personal references (to people not called Ernest or my Grey Tante Dot) which I've put back in this version. It's a bit like Suppressed Transmission but with all the weirdness removed. The only thing you need to know is that place where we have our classes is St Francis Xavier School in Clapham South.


Southern Circuits

St Francis Xavier was a well travelled man. Born in the Spanish Kingdom of Navarre and co-founder of the powerful Order of Jesus in Paris, he brought the Gospel and iconoclasm to India and travelled as far the Philippines and Japan. Even in death his body remains distributed with the most part in Goa, the right forearm, in Rome and another arm bone in Macau. The school at Clapham South which is named after him started its life as Clapham College, a boys' college, created in 1897 by the Xaverian Brothers, Belgian Catholics dedicated to evangelical work in England and the United States. One of their schools, attended by the science fiction author and mathematician Rudy Rucker, is in Louisville KY, where I attended a baseball game between the Louisville (pronounced “Lurvel”) Bats and the Durham Bulls and where drinks were served between innings by Jake, The Diamond Dog, a crowd-pleasing golden retriever. Clapham College later sponsored two new schools in Brighton, from which Ralph Richardson ran away, and Bootle.

Later, in 1896, the Brotherhood bought Broadoak, a house on Nightingale Lane. I worked for a man called Nightingale. He was one of those sharply dressed, slightly effete, Oxbridge intellectuals, who perhaps hoped for a posting in the Foreign Office but never made the right connections and ended up in a backwater of benefit fraud policy. It's a breed which has died out in the Civil Service, as targets and core messages have replaced thought and pragmatism. In an effort perhaps to gird his backbone, Nightingale used his second name John rather than his first name Ernest. The only other Ernest I knew was my Mum's Uncle Bill who co-founded the Museum of London. His wife, who signed her letters Grey Tante Dot, impressed my brother and I by hiding in a cardboard box and biting anyone who came near. Perhaps Ernest is too much of a name to live up to.

Broadoak house was built for Sir Titus Salt's wife. A northern textile magnate, Salt founded Saltaire, the new industrial community on the banks of the river Aire, near Bradford. He was in favour of temperance, cleanliness and class integration. He supported adult suffrage but drew the line an unions, banning them from his mills, as well as attempts to outlaw child labour.

Around the corner from Broadoak was Broomfield House where some 100 years earlier William Wilberforce, had lived, prior to immortalisation on a pillar in Hull (where later Larkin would pillory in poem beloved his parents). An Evangelical Christian and member of the Clapham Sect, Wilberforce was instrumental in the abolition of slavery and other turpitudes and founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice, to which the Rev Sydney Smith appended, "for persons not earning more than £500 per annum" and later one of their triumphs was the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 which forbade the distribution of information about human biology and contraception to the working classes. Sydney Smith is perhaps better known, certainly in the United States for his rhyming recipe for potato salad:

"Oh, great and glorious! Oh, herbaceous meat!
'Twould tempt the dying Anchorite to eat,"

Wilberforce also had limits to his vision of freedom: whilst he championed the cause of animals with his support of the SPCA, he also opposed unions and the emancipation of women and Catholics. As with Salt and the Xaviers, there is a whim by which some are in and some are out. Whether slaves, animals or children are worthy of interest and saving, it seems that the interests of women and the working class never are, except by some paternal, divine even, will that sorts acceptable from damnable.

However, in the other direction from Broomfield, Clapham South tube station has a more equitable heritage belonging to a line of buildings which started in 1903 with the Belgrave Hospital For Children (now an apartmentblock five stops up the Northern Line at the Oval) and includes the British Seaman's Hospital in Istanbul, the King Edward VII Sanatorium in Bristol, the Women's Hospital in Soho, in the same red brick as the Belgrave, the tomb of Oscar Wilde in Pere Lachaise, Kings College for Women in Kensington and Senate House in Bloomsbury, part of UCL, a set for Jeeves and Wooster starring Fry and Laurie and inspiration for Orwell's Ministry of Truth in 1984 (having been the home of the Ministry of Information where Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, worked as a censor during the war) as well as many other tube stations and the HQ of London Transport at 55 Broadway near St James' Park, this last building an early example of penis reduction surgery when the proposed figures of Day and Night by Epstein, with whom Holden had earlier collaborated on Wilde's tomb, and which adorn the North and East sides of the building, sparked a newspaper furore and caused reduction in the offending appendages. All were the work of Charles Holden, an Arts and Crafts inspired modernist who epitomised Thirties style in the simple lines and colours of his public buildings and who twice refused a knighthood. Holden's simple tastes carried over to his private life with "bananas and brown bread on the table. no hot water; plain living and high thinking and strenuous activity for the betterment of the World." Holden, the son of a draper and a milliner truly was a man of the people.

Past the parade of shops and before the old cinema, now a wine merchants, is a wall hiding one of the circular entrances to the Deep Level Shelter built either side of the tube tunnels to shelter 8,000 locals from the bombs and missiles of the Nazis, but unfortunately not the first women's world chess champion Vera Menchik who with her family was killed by a V1 rocket. The other entrance squats on the corner of the Common opposite the tube station. In 1979, Squeeze, a band from Deptford, released Up the Junction which has references to the book of the same name written by Nell Dunn whose grandfather broke the bank at Monte Carlo. The song contains the lyrics:

“I never thought it would happen,
With me and the girl from Clapham,
Out on the windy common,
That night I ain’t forgotten.”

Drummer in the band was Gilson Lavis, an experienced musician who had previously worked with Chuck Berry and Dolly Parton. Two years' ago, on a trip round the Southern states of America, we visited the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, TN. It was the off-season and the amusements were shut that day so instead we drove up into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a great green carpet of cool trees out of which pokes Clingman's Dome, giving a view from 2,000' of the smoky fog of the Appalachians across four states. We spent the night at a motel in Sevierville, Dolly's birthplace. Beyond the small town, the strip mall stretched for miles through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinberg, with rooms for 40,000 tourists and houses for only 6,000 locals. In late August, with American children back at school, it was as empty of life as it was of interest. Dollywood was open the next day but instead we went back to the glorious Smokies and tracked a bear near a noisy waterfall full of kids escaping the August heat.

Sevierville was named for John Sevier, a frontiersman who made his name with victories against the Cherokee and the English and became the first governor of the state of Tennessee. John's father was from London but the family were Huguenot refugees from France where the name had been gallicised to Sevier from the Basque Etxaberri, meaning New House. This refers to the Moorish castle in Navarre where, on 7th April 1506, John's distant relative St Francis Xavier was born.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
undyingking
Mar. 29th, 2011 02:11 pm (UTC)
Good stuff! Was that mostly from your existing knowlege, or did you have to do a bunch of research to fit it all together?
gbsteve
Mar. 29th, 2011 06:57 pm (UTC)
Some of it I knew but a lot was from Googling.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )