Bernadette! : A Lourdes Grotto In Rothwell

I was in Rothwell yesterday, to watch the Bones getting beaten 6-3 by Potton United (they now have two points and a goal difference of minus 48).

One thing I like about Rothwell is the feeling that, at some point (perhaps the ‘sixties), it has somehow become cut off from the rest of the world – a feeling accentuated by the fact that everywhere I went yesterday they were playing ‘sixties hits – Sugar Sugar, Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes, Band of Gold.  Perhaps the ironstone buildings and the dozy, fuggy atmosphere  remind me of staying with my grandparents in Kettering during the Summer holidays.

It does, of course, also have remnants of earlier and stranger selves much older than that.  I have written before about the Jesus Hospital.  The Parish Church has its bone crypt, or ossuary, and then there is the Market Hall.  Like the nearby Triangular Lodge, this was built by Thomas ‘the Builder’ Tresham, father of the Gunpowder Plot conspirator, and was intended to embody his recusant Roman Catholic beliefs in a way that is so cryptic that it verges on the Kabbalistic.  There is a building called the Nunnery, which is believed to be connected with a Priory shut down at the Reformation.

And then there is this, which for some reason, I’d never come across before.  It is a Lourdes Grotto, outside St Bernadette’s Roman Catholic Church.

It is meant to be a replica of the grotto where the Virgin Mary (this figure)

appeared in a vision to Bernadette of Lourdes (the smaller kneeling figure)

Like most post-Counter Reformation Catholic iconography, it exhibits – if not quite a defiant ugliness – then a deliberate indifference to secular standards of aesthetics.  It is intended to exemplify a doctrine, and all else would be a distraction.

Coming across it unexpectedly, it also seemed almost shocking in its wilful un-Englishness (not to mention – to Protestant eyes – more than vaguely pagan).  It doesn’t seem to belong here at all, but in Italy, or Ireland, or France. Or perhaps the shock is in the realisation that there is nothing un-English about it.  If the ghost of Thomas Tresham, or a revenant Nun or some of the older bones in the Ossuary were to chance across it one moonlit night, it would surely make them feel more, not less, at home.

More Memorials : El Salvador, Nerja

(A white building that has seen much worse days …)

If we compare the town square of a Spanish town, such as Nerja – where I stayed in October – with its English equivalent we see that they have several features in common : the bars and restaurants, perhaps a market, and, of course, the parish church.  In the case of Nerja this is the church of El Salvador, completed in 1697 on the site of several predecessors.

El Salvador, Nerja

What you won’t see in a Spanish town square is a war memorial.  The Spanish, of course, had no involvement in either World War, so have no folk memory of the mass self-sacrifice and futility of the first, or the collective triumph of the second.  What they do have a collective memory of is the Civil War, which has left no shared and uncontested legacy.

There is a national monument to the dead of the Civil War – the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), north of Madrid. 



This contains the bodies of between 30 and 60 thousand war dead,  an abbey, a basilica and the world’s largest memorial cross.  It also houses the graves of General Franco and Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange, or Fascist party, who were Franco’s  chief supporters during the Civil War. It is claimed (by the political right) that more Republican than Nationalist bodies are buried in the Valley.  The left claim that this is only because there weren’t enough Nationalist dead to fill it, and are campaigning to have the leftist bodies exhumed and removed.  They also claim that the monument was built with the unwilling labour of Republican politcal prisoners.  In 2009 the (mildly) Socialist government closed the basilica to the public, citing Health and Safety concerns.

Few Spanish churches have much in the way of treasures, artworks or decorations that predate the Civil War.  The fashion for burning and looting churches began before the war – there was a significant outbreak in 1931 – but reached its peak in its early days, particularly in regions – such as Catalonia and Andalucia – where the Anarchists were in the ascendant.

The artist Edward Burra, for instance, reminiscing about his experiences in Madrid in 1936, recalled –

“Smoke kept blowing by the window.  I asked where it came from.  “Oh, its nothing” someone answered with a gesture of impatience, “it’s only a church being burnt”. That made me feel sick.  It was terrifying, churches on fire, and pent-up hatred everywhere.  Everybody knew that something appalling was about to happen”.   

What Spanish churches do very often have, in the way of memorials, are these (from Nerja) – memorials to priests who were killed during the war.  Estimates vary of the total number of the Religious who died, but a generally accepted figure is in the region of 7,000.  In the province of Malaga (which includes Nerja) about half the priests died, including these three  –

Fathers Hieronymus Bueno, Franciscus Rios Martin and Placidus Galvez Rosado, who died “for the fatherland and the law” between July and September 1936.

Miserere Domine …

Cardinals’ Virtues : Newman and Manning

In this week’s news, we have seen the beatification of Cardinal Newman by a passing Bishop of Rome.  Sadly, I can find no evidence that Newman took any interest in the game of cricket.  It is true that he spent the latter part of his life in Edgbaston, quite close to the ground, so it is not impossible that he used to drop in for an afternoon’s cricket from time to time, but – as I say – this is pure speculation.

His rival as top convert-Cardinal of the nineteenth century, Cardinal Manning was a different matter though.  He was a good enough player to have represented the Harrow XI against Eton in 1825, and was the author of the following brief poem, in which he shows a proper Christian humility regarding his abilities:


in reply to the present of a bat

That bat that you were kind enough to send,

Seems (for as yet I have not tried it) good:

And if there’s anything on earth can mend

My wretched play, it is that piece of wood.


Wordsworth, the donor of the bat – the son of a nephew of the poet William – was the founder of the Varsity Match and the Boat Race, tutor to both Manning and W.E. Gladstone, author of a standard Greek grammar and latterly the Anglican Bishop of St. Andrews.  A full and varied life.

In this portrait of Manning (by G.F. Watts) he seems to me to resemble a sort of flightless vulture.  I say flightless, but then who knows what was concealed beneath that scarlet mozzetta.  Perhaps a pair of vast leathery wings, that he could spread to swoop from the campanile of his (admittedly uncompleted) Cathedral  or perhaps – a happier thought – the bat Wordsworth had given him so many years before, before the schism?

"I wonder what the score is in the Test Match" by George Frederic Watts


A Song of the Lilac, by Louise Imogen Guiney

Just time for a last poem for May :

A Song of the Lilac

by Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920)

Above the wall that’s broken, 

And from the coppice thinned,

So sacred and so sweet

The lilac in the wind!

And when by night the May wind blows

The lilac-blooms apart,

The memory of his first love

Is shaken on his heart.

In tears it long was buried,

And trances wrapt it round;

O how they wake it now,

The fragrance and the sound!

For when by night the May wind blows

The lilac-blooms apart,

The memory of his first love

Is shaken on his heart. 


 I must confess that, until this morning, I had never heard of Louise Imogen Guiney.  I discover that she was originally from Boston (and lilac does seem a popular theme for New England poets), was forced out of her prestigious post as a Postmistress by anti-Roman Catholic prejudice, and had to resort to working as a Librarian (poor woman!).  Presumably fed up with all this, she migrated to Oxford, where she specialised in editing the work of (chiefly) Roman Catholic poets.

And what made me think of this?  The view from my bedroom window this morning, like so – 


Lilac time

A song for Easter Sunday : Patti Smith

From the album Easter, the song Easter.  The lyrics were inspired by Rimbaud‘s first communion, Easter Sunday 1866 – Frederick was a  brother, Vitalie and Isabelle  his sisters.  When the album was first released (1978) it came with a sleeve insert featuring the following photograph of Rimbaud at his first communion (which I cut out and stuck on my wall, because, I’m afraid, that’s the kind of teenager I was).   

Rimbaud at his first communion

 And the song …

Canticle for Good Friday : Geoffrey Hill


Bouguereau : Pieta

There are surprisingly few poems in English about Good Friday.  The resurrection as an abstraction  is easy enough to assimilate to the way in which we generally think of Easter – the return of life to the earth, as popularly represented by bunnies, eggs and chicks.  The physical event of the human sacrifice required to bring about this resurrection is harder to come to terms with.  I doubt that the crucifixion has ever – since the reformation at any rate – entered the popular consciousness of the English in the way that it has in Catholic countries.  We prefer our crucifixes to be restrained, discreet and bloodless:  they rarely intrude into our homes. 

Here, though, is a poem for Good Friday, by Geoffrey HillHill is at the same time profoundly English – indeed claggily Mercian – and Latinate in his sensibility.  The poem is, I think (I could be wrong), told from the point of view of the Apostle “Doubting”  Thomas.



The cross staggered him.  At the cliff-top

Thomas, beneath its burden, stood

While the dulled wood

Spat on the stones each drop

Of deliberate blood.


A clamping, cold-figured day

Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,


Smelt vinegar and blood.  He

As yet unsearched, unscratched,


And suffered to remain

At such near distance

(A slight miracle might cleanse

His brain

Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)


In unaccountable darkness moved away,

The strange flesh untouched, carion-sustenance

Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,

Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).

In February, by Alice Meynell

February hasn’t inspired a great many poems, not being, in general, a very inspiring month, but it did inspire this one – In February, by Alice Meynell.  

Alice Meynell grew up chiefly in Italy, born to bohemian parents, and converted to Roman Catholicism at an early age.  This is one of her earlier poems, part of an intense sonnet-sequence thought to have been inspired by an unrequited – or at least unconsummated – attachment to a Roman Catholic priest (who is presumably the “friend” in the last three lines).  The sense of latent fertility is rather wonderful. 

Frustrated in this respect, she found other outlets for her energies, moving to England, marrying the publisher Wilfred Meynell, editing various journals, having eight children, rescuing and publishing Francis Thompson, being pursued by Coventry Patmore and later in life becoming a prominent Suffragist. She clearly had a lot of energy.  Her later poems were more purely devotional than this, and perhaps less interesting as a result.

In February

    Rich meanings of the prophet-Spring adorn,
    Unseen, this colourless sky of folded showers,
    And folded winds; no blossom in the bowers;
    A poet’s face asleep in this grey morn.
    Now in the midst of the old world forlorn
    A mystic child is set in these still hours.
    I keep this time, even before the flowers,
    Sacred to all the young and the unborn.  
    To all the miles and miles of unsprung wheat,
    And to the Spring waiting beyond the portal,
          And to the future of my own young art,
    And, among all these things, to you, my sweet,
    My friend, to your calm face and the immortal
          Child tarrying all your life-time in your heart.

She also found the time to sit for a portrait by John Singer Sargent, like so:

Alice Meynell

Even better than the real thing?

Observed this evening at a (very enjoyable) fireworks display, a young girl watching the fireworks wearing 3-D spex (the kind you need to watch films in 3-D).  Would this actually have some effect on the way the fireworks appeared, or has she, perhaps, spent so much time looking at screens that she thinks she needs special glasses to make the real world appear three dimensional?

 The display, incidentally, was organised by the local Roman Catholic Primary School.  No Guy on top of the bonfire.

All Souls Part 2 – W-A Bouguereau

Day of ther DeadContinuing with this – some might think – slightly morbid theme, here – for your contemplation – is an image relating to All Souls, by the 19th century French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  Bouguereau is a much-abused figure – partly because he greatly disliked the Impressionists and the feeling was mutual.  John Berger, I seem to remember, also had it in for him.  I don’t have the impression that he has ever quite been rehabilitated in that the way that his English equivalents have been – Lord Leighton perhaps? Waterhouse? – but whenever I see one of his paintings in a gallery I find myself drawn to it, for reasons I probably couldn’t adequately explain.  This, for instance, used to be on display in the entrance hall of the Birmingham City Art Gallery, but seemed to have vanished the last time I visited, much to my disappointment –


(This reproduction  doesn’t, unfortunately, quite convey the luminosity of the paint).

Luminosity of the paint?  What are you on about now? Do you mean it glows it the dark?  My littleun’s got one like that in her bedroom. – The Plain People of Leicestershire.

No, I don’t mean that.  I just meant that whatever it is that attracts me to this painting – and it isn’t, incidentally, the sentimentalised depiction of poverty – hasn’t quite survived the transition to the internet.