July 27th, 2010


As soon as we're beyond Birmingham and the road signs start to announce Gloucester and the South West I feel as if I'm coming home. This is a little odd as I've never lived in the area- and don't even know it very well. The area I think of as "home" is fairly precisely circumscribed. It's made up of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset- and stops dead at the borders of Devon. I can feel when I'm inside the magic circle and when I'm outside it. Stratford on Avon- much as I love it- is outside. Tewkesbury- only a few miles to the west of Stratford is inside. Don't ask me to explain.

On our way down to my mother's we took a bit of a detour to the west and visited Cirencester. This was only the second time we'd been there and the first was a flying visit. Cirencester is achingly beautiful. In Roman times- when its name was Corinium- it was the second largest city in Britain.

Here are a couple of pictures of the market place, featuring the church of St. John the Baptist with its magnificent late medieval porch.

Corinium Museum- Roman Objects 1

The Corinium Museum underwent a multi-million pound refit six years ago- and is now the model of what a small, regional museum can be. It has some fascinating things.

And, o joy, they permit photography.

Here are some objects from the Roman collections.

1. Corinium had its own school of mosaic workers. This is an example of their work.

2. A sculpture- in high relief of the three Matres- or mother goddesses

3. The Matres again

4. A goddess has been joined by the three genii cuculatti- pixie like figures in hooded cloaks. No-one knows quite who they are or what they stand for- but they were widely popular- and one can't help thinking that they influenced medieval faery lore.

5. The genii cuculatti again- reduced to hoodies on legs...

Memoirs Of A Midget

It's a bildungsroman, but with the significant difference that the protagonist who lives and learns and is corrupted and breaks free is not your usual sensitive male youth, but a female person of restricted growth (or whatever the current polite euphemism is). Miss M.'s dwarfism compounds her outsider status and guarantees that her angle on the common life of commonly sized people is odd to the point of alien. It's a weird book. If I were trying to sell de la Mare to the reading public (and I suppose in a small way i am) I would characterise him as an English surrealist. That isn't really accurate, but it has the merit of cutting through the imputation of Georgian whimsy in which his reputation remains fogbound. He is not whimsical at all- but a writer of precise, minutely detailed- and felt- observation- hard, ecstatic, cruel.  No-one has ever called him a modernist, but there's much in this book- no least its unforgiving difficulty- that sets him alongside such near contemporaries as Woolf and Joyce. He writes a poet's prose- and takes us to some strange places and mental states. There is lesbianism, amour fou, suicide, social criticism, shiny, shiny wit- and a travelling circus. There are no ghosts- and yet there are- because at every point the world of the spirit presses against the skin of materiality and almost but never quite breaks through. Death is never far away. Do you gather that I love this book? You'd be right.

The odd thing- given that I adore de la Mare- and this is probably his masterpiece-  is that I never read it before. In fact I tried- once- a good while back- and bounced off its immaculately wrought surface. This time it let me in.  There are certain books- and this is one- that will only admit you after life has messed you about to the point where you are ready to accomodate the strangeness of their vision. 

Chedworth Roman Villa

Chedworth Roman Villa (near Cirencester) was discovered in 1864- and one of the charms of the site- with its mock-Tudor custodian's house and  museum-  is that it has been preserved very much as its finders left it.  It is as much a monument to Victorian archaeology- on the cusp between gentlemanly antiquarianism and modern science-  as it is to the Roman past.  

It was raining heavily when we were there. Ailz chose to stay in the car, but I borrowed an umbrella from visitors' centre and sloshed my way round.

The Museum

The Nymphaeum

One of several mosaics (from the school of Corinium)

A huntsman god.