Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The genius of China

I have a booklet which I acquired 40 years ago this week- 3rd December 1973.  I was 18 and a member of Stoke Archaeological Society. We were visiting the “Genius of China” exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was a ground breaking show as, for the first time; Westerners were able to see artefacts excavated during the Communist rule of China. It demonstrated a thaw in relationships between the People’s Republic and the West. It had only been a few years since the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, but the arrival of order and the need for China to build alliances required, in this case, diplomacy through archaeology. The “Genius of China” exhibition was a manifestation of a better relationship with Britain.

The program illustrates what a magnificent exhibition it was with pottery, bronzes, and silks dating back thousands of years. The centre piece of the exhibition was the Jade Funeral suit of Princess Tou Wan dating from the Han dynasty (about the same age as the Romans). It was built by Taoist craftsmen who believed that Jade had magical qualities which arrested decay.

This began a life long interest in China. At University I studied Chinese History. I got to understand something of the philosophy of the country through terms such as “Mandate of Heaven” the legitimacy conferred on the Emperor, the sophistication of the country compared to Europe, the voyages of Admiral Zheng who may have made it to America years before Columbus. Many of the elements that make up the foundation of the modern world originated in China, including paper, gunpowder, credit banking, the compass and paper money.  Then there was the decline beginning in the 18th century when Europeans over took the Chinese whose leaders were contemptuous of Western “Barbarians”. Later European powers would endeavour to weaken China to satisfy their craving for Empire. Hong Kong was acquired as booty following the British victory in the disgraceful 1840 Opium war.

 China  also exerted an influence on the artistic imagination of the West and examples exist close to hand from the ersatz Chinese sculptures at Biddulph Grange, the silk industry of Leek and the porcelain of Wedgwood.

Since 1973 China has been transformed. The leader of the Chinese Revolution Chairman Mao died in 1976. Demand for political and economic liberalisation led to the Tiananmen Square disturbances in 1989 and since then China has been the work shop of the world with growth, even in a bad year, of over 8%. The country surpassed Japan as the second most powerful economy  in March 2011. It is likely that China will become the leading power of the 21st century.

What does it mean for the Staffordshire Moorlands? Certainly the need for understanding of the history and culture of a country with 1.3 billion people. Will local schools be eventually teaching Mandarin, if only to assist the two Chinese tourists seen in Derby Street recently? 

The last wolf in England

Earlier this year there was a news report that the body of a wolf was found beside a road in Holland.  It was the first time such an animal, outside zoos, had been seen in the Netherlands for approaching 150 years. Commentators suggest the bringing down of the Iron Curtain has led to the wolf leaving its East European habitat and moving westwards. There has also been talk that this magnificent member of the canine family might be re-introduced to the Scottish Highlands to help keep down the Deer population.

Wolves, many years ago, were a creature that had a long presence in the Staffordshire Moorlands. Bones of the animal have been found at a Neolithic rock shelter above Wetton Mill. The Saxon Saint Bertram lost members of his family to a wolf attack near Ilam. Wolfscote Dale on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border indicates that it had a presence in Dovedale. It seems to be the case that wolves represented a serious threat to live stock in the area and during the early medieval period criminals were allowed remittance on their sentence if they killed a number. The Wolf has always had a presence in popular culture for instance in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood”. A number of English proverbs mention it “A wolf in sheep’s clothing” being a good example. It was also used in personal names in Old Norse Ulfr, in Old English Aethelwulf and Cuthwulf and so it frequently turns up in place names of which Wolstanton (Wulfstan’s tun) is a good local example.

But when was the last wolf in the area killed? Edward I who reigned from 1272 to 1307 ordered the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom and personally employed one Peter Corbet, with instructions to destroy wolves in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire where they were more common than in the southern areas of England. In the Peak District wolf keepers were employed to control the vast numbers of wolves which roamed the area. John de Wolfehunt, who died around 1309, was given a dwelling house and land, but everyone was encouraged to trap and kill wolves. Wolf pits were scattered around the moors and woods to trap them. The Wolfehunt family, who resided in Peak Forest, would hunt in March and December and during the dry summers would enter the forest to destroy cubs.

 Their actions over time removed the threat of the wolf and by 1586 William Camden wrote ‘There’s no danger of wolves now in these places, tho’ infested by them heretofore”. There is a tradition that the last wolf in England was killed at Wormhill near Buxton in the 15th century.

Ben Britten and Dovedale

November 23rd  is St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music, it will also mark the 100th anniversary of the British composer Benjamin Britten, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century. Britten is usually associated with Suffolk and the concert hall at  Snape Maltings close to Aldeburgh is a project which he devoted many years of his life, but there is a link with Dovedale at a particularly crucial juncture of his life.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the first performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, a work that holds its place in the classical repertoire. It was written shortly after he returned from the United States where he had spent several years collaborating with the poet WH Auden. (Auden has a Staffordshire Moorlands connection as he wrote poems as a young man following a visit to the area in 1925 on Froghall Wharf and Waterhouses Railway Station). The most notable result of their collaboration was the 1938 short film promoting the GPO “Night Mail” with its opening line “This is the night mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order”

The Serenade opens with “Pastoral” a poem by the 17th century poet Charles Cotton of Beresford Hall near Dovedale. He was very much a lover of the Staffordshire countryside and passionate about the local landscape. Sadly, the old hall was demolished in the 1850s and very little remains apart from gateposts visible from the road. He took his public duties seriously and was a local Magistrate and a Revenue Commissioner from 1665. He was widely recognised as an authority on the county and it seems that Dr Robert Plot who wrote the first history of Staffordshire in the 1680s consulted him.

In 1681 Cotton published the “Wonders of the Peak”, the first travel book of the area, which is a poetic description of several sights including in 1681 the newly built Chatsworth, St Anne’s Well, the Caves near Castleton as well as his beloved Dove.

He died of a fever while on a visit to London in 1687. He is buried far from his beloved Dove in a wall tomb in St James Church in Piccadilly in the middle of the bustle of the West End.

Interest in Cotton began to decline during the Victorian period as polite society found his poetry too ribald for polite society. A revival of sorts began following the use of his poetry in “Serenade”. Britten took considerable care with the text. No doubt he was helped by his close friendship with Auden. “Pastoral” describes a June evening in Dovedale with the lengthening shadows making objects appears far larger than they are:” brambles like tall cedars show” and ending as the light fails.

And now on benches all are sat
In the cool air to sit and chat
Till Phoebus dipping in the west,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.