Battle of Britain Day, 2019

Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking the date in 1940 when the German Luftwaffe launched an enormous attack on London and South East England, but the Royal Air Force pushed back victorious and turned the tides in the larger “Battle of Britain”- a nearly 4 month long campaign.

I know this, not because I am a WWII fanatic.  I know this because it streamed across my computer this morning.  The universe handed me this nugget not so much as a random byte of information, it seems to me, but as a beautiful gesture of syncronicity, an acknowledgment of battles we face.

My parents grew up during WWII.  They took form, in character and outlook, from the struggles and victories of that era.  If their lives have a soundtrack, it is generously sprinkled with Big Band music,  Ella Fitzgerald, and the tappity-tap-tap of my mother tap dancing her way through a recording of “The Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy from Company B.”  It may not be my generation’s music, but I do find that my heart swells when I hear it because it so pulses through the veins of my parents in their youthful moments.

It will come as no surprise that my dad has always been a student of WWII era aircraft.  He indulged that love of Spitfires and Corsairs, poured over books about them and history magazines that featured WWII battles, and built model airplanes with my brother when we were young.

I observed this and, although I never shared the obsession or built the model airplanes, I loved his love of the history and of the forms of flight and defenders of freedom that these metal birds represented.  Because I love my dad.

There was one way in which my dad and I shared his love of WWII history and aircraft, and I suspect he doesn’t know this.  In fact, I never thought about it until this week– it’s one of those memories of childhood that doesn’t get fully processed until some time later in life. It’s like a shiny pebble you pick up and put in your treasure box as a child, just because it delights you.  Years later, you open the box to have a nostalgic look at those simple prizes of childhood, only to realize that you have pocketed a gold nugget.

This is one of those nuggets:

The church system was older than this, but this gives you an idea of what it looked like.

In the 1970’s, my dad would often man the P.A. (public address) system at our church on Sunday mornings.  The control board was a large metal tower of dials and toggle switches that had to be monitored for volume and switched at the right moment, to turn on and off microphones that were placed around the sanctuary. Was someone reading a lesson from the lecturn? Was the minister stepping up to the pulpit to deliver a long and learned sermon?  Wherever the action was, there the microphone should be turned on.  Wherever the action wasn’t, it should be shut off to avoid buzz and background noise.

The fellow in the pulpit may have the figurative spotlight for a speech, but if the PA system wasn’t properly aligned, the whole morning fizzled.

Manning the PA system was important, but it wasn’t exciting.  You sat in a small room behind the sanctuary, armed with a church bulletin and notes on where each “act” of the service would take place.  You stared at a large metal tower set into a recess of the wall, and you navigated the service while you listened in on the giant aviator-style headphones that were provided. 

Yes indeed, you navigated the service in your aviator headphones.  So it seemed to me.  You see, my dad would occasionally let me join him when he manned the PA system.  From his perspective, it was probably just a chance to spend a little more time with his children.  Or maybe he knew my fascination with aviator headphones.  Either way, on the rare occassion, I was his co-pilot in this cockpit.

When I was lucky enough to join my dad, it was a big deal to me. I liked the headphones, and I marveled at the dials and switches, while sitting on a metal chair with my feet dangling above the ground.  If I fidgeted and squirmed, it was only between moments of staring, enrapt, at the towering cockpit and keeping an eye on my dad’s deft piloting of the apparatus.

I wasn’t old enough to see it then– I loved the experience, but wasn’t self-aware enough to know why.  Today, it is crystal clear to me.  In these moments, I was flying a Spitfire over the skies of London.  I was piloting a Corsair over the English Channel.  I was a green co-pilot to my dad’s flying ace, and I loved every moment.  Sure, we got off easy: when Dr. Joe Mullin stepped to the pulpit for a long sermon, we’d flip on his mic, then leave our post and scramble down to the kitchen for donuts.  But we’d always be back in place before Joe finished, and we’d fly that service back into a safe and smooth landing before shutting down the cockpit and hanging up our headphones for the day.

We were a great aviatorial team, my dad and me.  The best.

So today we honor those brave souls who fought The Battle of Britain, and my dad is still the best pilot any co-pilot could have.  He’s fighting his own battle with cancer now.  It’s very difficult and grueling.  Some days, it’s just a wing and a prayer.  But no matter that– today is a day to lift up the brave, and, although my dad was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.

I love you, Dad!

 

 

Voices in the Graveyard: Zelda and Scott

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What allows some people to escape their demons while others can’t shake them off?  What mad inertia drives some, demonstrably resilient, people straight over cliffs to their destruction?  I guess there are thousands, millions of individual answers to that question.   I had a moment with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald the other week, wondering if they might whisper something, inspire some insight, as I stood by their grave with a meager offering of flowers.  Wondering how things went so terribly wrong this side of paradise (although some of the answers to that question are blatant), but also wondering if things look remarkably different (and if there was any wisdom that they could share) from the other side of paradise.

I was met with little more than a cold March breeze and silence, but for the low hum of the roadside just beyond the graveyard.

Until . . . I turned my back to leave and a swirl of snow flurries began to fall.  Not forecast, not expected, and not entirely welcome in March, but altogether beautiful.  And this was my farewell from the Fitzgeralds.  They were a puzzle to the end– and even beyond– but, by God, they had style.  And it seems they have it still.

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The stone at the foot of the grave, engraved with what is likely Fitzgerald’s most famous passage, from the end of The Great Gatsby. 

A few more notes on the gravesite, the Fitzgeralds, and my visit:

DSC_0917 Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church,  Rockville, MD: a very old church around which a modern sprawl has grown.   The graveyard sits atop a busy intersection– a major artery in the morning commute into DC.  Despite that, it feels quiet and respectful.  The Fitzgerald headstones are set back from the road, close to the old church building, so they enjoy one of the more serene spots in the cemetery.

And “serene” well describes the moment I lingered over this gravesite– if it doesn’t describe the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the least.  Their lives were too often consumed by mania– in Zelda’s emotional state, in Scott’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol– but their final resting place is peaceful.   Its background music may be the rumble of the road and the back-and-forth and here-and-there frantic energy of the ambitious, but this small plot seemed impervious.  I paused a moment on a Friday morning, I placed my flowers and bowed my head briefly, and I raised my head again to find that snow flurries had appeared out of nowhere.  Within minutes, the sky grew heavy and the swirl picked up.

 

I moved on, eager to make use of the free morning I had, wary of what unforeseen storm might be blowing in to disrupt my plans, but also delighted at the beauty of the unexpected swirl and sudden cold.  I jumped in my car and headed out into the Rockville Pike traffic, a boat against the current, but moving nonetheless.

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A Tale of Two Ebenezers

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“His name became an aphorism for meanness, but the base nature of Ebenezer Scrooge was inadvertently fashioned by failing light and an author whose eyesight was equally dim.”  The Scotsman, December 24, 2004

Ebenezer Scrooge– his story is synonymous with Christmas these days, his changed fate is the stuff of redemption stories (“Christ was born for this” to be sure), and his hauntings both thrill our narrative nerves and warn us of our own shortcomings.  Most of us roll our eyes when A Christmas Carol comes on TV for the umpteenth time in the wind up to Christmas, but it’s a tale well told and it probably deserves its stature as a holiday classic.

These days, Dickens is even recognized as a key “inventor” of our modern Christmas traditions.  He and his Victorian age put a certain stamp and feeling on the holiday that we still embrace: carolers, Christmas trees, gifts and goodies, and a St. Nick who was less complex and more “festive elf” than the saint of years past and countries east.  None of the traditions was new, but the packaging and cheer of it was differently polished and easily palatable.  The general rallying cry? “God bless us, every one!”

Charles Dickens had a well tuned sensibility about what made for a good tale.  But how funny would it be if this Christmas tale of his was founded on a misunderstanding? What if Ebenezer Scrooge was birthed by a mistake, a misplaced letter, and an imagination that barreled full speed ahead?

It’s said that Charles Dickens kept a diary.  And that diary kept a secret about A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843.   While in Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a stroll through Canongate Churchyard (or Kirkyard, as the locals would say).  It was evening and the light was dimming.  He paused at the tombstone of an Ebenezer Scroggie (1792-1836) and mused at the inscription “A Mean Man.”  What horrible person had this Ebenezer been, that his epitaph would be so harsh?

Not only did Dickens note this in his diary, but clearly he puzzled it over to the point that Ebenezer Scrooge was born and fully fleshed out in a tale that would delve into that miserly past but offer a redemptive future, if only Scrooge would take it.  Poor, mean old Scroggie could finally be redeemed.

Except that, as the kirkyard tale goes, Scroggie wasn’t a mean man. In fact, by some reports he was quite the bon vivant.   Scroggie, who was a vintner and corn/grain merchant, was actualy a Meal Man.   Dickens needed better glasses.

You can’t verify this story, I’m afraid.  Scroggie’s grave marker was removed in 1932, during kirkyard redevelopment.  However, you can read more about Dickens and Scroggie here.

If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you can enjoy your own stroll through Canongate Kirk and Kirkyard. It’s quite a beautiful church on the Royal Mile, close to the Houses of Parliament and Holyrood Palace.  Back in September, I found myself strolling the Royal Mile and happened into the church.  It was a slow day, and a young docent was eager to bend my ear about the bright and beautiful space.  Interestingly, the space is especially bright and beautiful because of it’s sad past.

The church was built in 1690, with a Dutch gable to the façade.  It’s simple and elegant, and just a little different from everything around it in Edinburgh.

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The front façade of Canongate Kirk

The interior was to be refurbished in the late 1930’s, but WWII intervened and a war time of belt tightening and serious endeavors put that on hold temporarily.  In December of 1945 the work was started, and it was finished in 1952.  This is significant because, according to the docent, it changed the tone of the work done.  The parish, as the United Kingdom, had suffered and lost much during the war.  The number of young soldiers who did not return home was a wound that would be long in healing.  And so the decision was made that the interior space must be light and bright, must be cheerful and uplifting– a reminder that, though sorrow was heavy, the world was a beautiful place and this was a space for rejoicing as much as grieving.

Still today, the interior of the church uplifts.  To me, it has a nautical sensibility, at least in its coloring (though it’s possible that I’m influenced by the sea gull cries that are heard over the skies of Edinburgh– a constant subliminal reminder that you are in a port town nestled by the North Sea).

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If you find yourself in Edinburgh, it’s worth your time to take a peek into Canongate Kirk.  I guarantee that you won’t leave saying “Ba Humbug”!

A very merry Christmas and happy holiday season to you all! (And may God bless us, every one!)

 

To Eyre is Human

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The secret attic room at Norton Conyers.

While we are on the topic of the Bronte sisters (or, at least, we were two weeks ago), there’s one more thing I should mention– an especially juicy tidbit.  Are you listening?  Jane Eyre may be inspired by a true story.

Norton Conyers

This isn’t news in North Yorkshire and the cozy city of Ripon that I once called home.   Just around the corner from Ripon, roughly two or three miles from the roundabout at the edge of town, lies a beautiful old manor house by the name Norton Conyers.   It is a handsome medieval squire’s home, dating back to the 1600’s, which has remained in the possession of one family (the Grahams) for nearly 400 years.  That’s an achievement!

However, the house had fallen into disrepair of colossal proportions: rain poured in, wood-boring beetles swarmed, and very little of the grand house was heated.  Thankfully, Sir James and Lady Graham, when they inherited the home, decided to undertake the many years of work that were required to bring the house back to its intended glory.

There are grander houses in North Yorkshire– Harewood House and Newby Hall are close by– but none with such an “eerie” (Eyre-y?) claim to fame.

Charlotte Bronte visited the home in 1839, possibly while she was a governess to another wealthy family.  According to long-held stories, there was a secret attic at Norton Conyers and a mad woman (“Mad Mary” some called her) was kept there.  Little more is known with certainty–but the tale has long been whispered, and the assumption has been that this local story is what gave rise to Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre.

I only got wind of this rumor in my last year in Yorkshire, but I thought it would be fantastic to have my book club make a visit to Norton Conyers after reading Bronte’s novel.  (This is the book club that my husband dubbed “the book and bottle club,” as he could always tell how well we’d liked and really discussed the book we had been reading by how quickly the book was tossed to the curb and the wine bottles predominated the night.  I’ll neither confirm nor deny the truth to that.)

I placed a call to Norton Conyers, ready to hatch my brilliant plan, only to find that the house was closed to visitors for some time while renovations were being made.  Some long time, as it turned out.

Panel hiding staircase

My sorrow at that news is everyone else’s good luck today, as the extensive restoration work has now been completed and the house does have some (limited) dates when it is open to the public.  AND THERE IS MORE.   Here’s the kicker:  as the renovations began, a secret staircase was discovered, boarded up, dusty, and narrow, with 13 rotting stairs, and hidden behind a hollow panel wall. That staircase led up to a small, windowed room at the outer edge of the attic.  According to Sir James Graham, the stories of such an attic, and its captive, seem to date back to about 60 years before Bronte’s visit.

The staircase that leads to the attic room. . . and that led to a classic novel.

 

Bronte, apparently, took an extraordinary amount of inspiration for Thornfeld Hall (in Jane Eyre) from Norton Conyers.  There is the broad, dramatic staircase that anchors the house, the rookery, the battlements of the roof, and the large hall that was filled with family portraits (though this is common to stately homes).  But, of course, it is the secret staircase that seals the relationship between Thornfeld and Norton Conyers.

Who was the mad woman at Norton Conyers?  Was “Mad Mary” just a catchy moniker or is she an identifiable historical figure?  Sadly, no one seems to know the details, and I doubt that they ever will.  It would be nice to restore that voice to the story, to understand what took place at Norton Conyers . . . but it’s a story clouded by centuries of intervening years and the sticky cobwebs of  secrecy and shame.  Was it a case of illness (mental or physical) that the family was simply trying to deal with in an age when there was no humane medical or social model to help the infirm?  Was it a case of abuse?  No one knows anymore.  But Bronte has left us with a fine story to sort out what might have been.  A story that, true to Bronte’s time, doesn’t deal particularly delicately with the mad woman, but does delve into the struggles of the other people caught up in the drama.

It was a great story– still is– but it left it to later generations to release that mad woman from her attic.  And, though it’s a story for another day, I’ll say that this makes me think of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the early 1900’s.  A modern tale, but still fraught with excess, madness, and tragedy. . . and a mad woman in an attic.  More stories I’ve read, characters (real and fictional) that I’ve loved, and houses I’ve toured.  But, as I say, that’s a story for another day.

  • To read an article in The Telegraph about Norton Conyers and the Bronte connection, follow this link:  Norton Conyers.
  •  A very good short video from the BBC on Norton Conyers and its restoration can be found here:  BBC.
  • To make a visit, contact the property directly: the home is open a limited number of days each year, but the home and gardens are also available for a wedding venue.  (Just don’t choose the “Mad Mary Package”!  Just kidding . . . I’m pretty sure that’s not on offer.)

Bronte Parsonage, Haworth

Haworth, West Yorkshire

Bronte Parsonage and cemetery

Tonight, I’ll be tuning in for To Walk Invisible — the  BBC drama about the Bronte sisters that is featuring on PBS Masterpiece.  If your passing knowledge of the Bronte sisters is simply that they were successful writers, then you’ve missed a huge swath of their story– the entire furtive, formative swath.  The part that was hard, ugly, and, literally, doomed . . . but literarily resilient.  But then, could you have expected anything else from a family that lived on the atmospheric Yorkshire Moors and created such stories as Wuthering Heights and  Jane Eyre?

I think you could not.

It might be smart for me to watch tonight’s show and then write this post about the Brontes– both to refresh my memory about their story and to comment on the show itself.  But I’m at the computer now, and so I write.  Also– before the show has the opportunity to retouch my memory of a trip to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth– I’d like to tell you what I remember about my trip there, because it had quite an impact on me.

Confession:  I was never a big Bronte fan.  My sister was the impetus behind our trip to the Bronte’s home.  I didn’t dislike the Brontes, I just hadn’t spent much time with them.  I probably thought their brand of gothic fiction was more outdated than classic.  I was wrong.

But I didn’t see that until I visited their home and learned more about their lives. The conventions of gothic had nothing on the actual lives of the Bronte sisters.  Dark, atmospheric tales weren’t just a hook for catching a reader, they were faithful incarnations of the harsh realities of life in Haworth (and at the Bronte home).

Their mother and two sisters died young.  Their brother died in young adulthood– of illness and addiction.   Emily died four months after her brother; Anne died the next year; Charlotte died six years later (but still only 38 years old).  Their father outlived them all, by many decades.

He was quite the exception for the village of Haworth.  In the 1800’s, the village was a gloomy place and the average life expectancy was less than 30 years old.  There was no real sewage system in Haworth.  Sewage often ran in the streets and tainted the water supply.  What water there was to start with– which wasn’t much and was of bad quality.  Finally– just to add some grim to the grime– the overcrowded city cemetery, which grew more overcrowded each year and had very bad drainage, sat (still sits) at the top of the city hill, further poisoning the town.  That is a recipe for death by death.

One more thing–possibly important if you are a Bronte– the village cemetery sits in front of the parsonage.  Death on your doorstep: a fine thing to wake up to each morning.

So, if you were a Bronte sister, you grew up in a village where infant mortality was sky high and people of every age had a tough go of it.  You lived at the edge of the wild and harsh Moors, quite a distance from any large, urban centers.  Your prospects in Haworth were not so very good, your childhood playground was a cemetery, the wind howled, your preacher father married and buried a revolving door of friends and neighbors, and nothing in life was easy, not even a kettle of water for your tea.

No wonder your brother became an addict; no wonder your relatives passed young.  No wonder your imagination turned to a rich inner world to pass your days . . . but a world of disquieting stories.

I’m sure tonight’s program will teach me a good many things about the Bronte family that I did not know.   I am eager to learn.  My first visit to Haworth was around 2006– so my memory is a little fuzzy on details, but not on the overall impression.  I’d already been living in Yorkshire for a year, and loved the environs, so it’s not surprising that what struck me most about the Bronte home was the town, the general environs in which this family lived.  It was the perfect setting for a gothic tale.

It was a grey, atmospheric day the first time I visited Haworth.  The town was picturesque and compact.  I remember winding up the cobbled street, passing a sweet shop, a tea room, a pub.  Passing tourists. Seeing the tidy parsonage, and its dreary graveyard, at the top of the hill.  All perfectly picturesque– especially as you stand at the crest of the hill and look down at the winding street of town, the stone shops and home fronts, and the rolling hills around it.

If you want to see a bit of what my eyes saw, here’s a short YouTube video that will give you a quick glance at Haworth and a view from the top of the town.  ( Be warned–the narrator does drone on at the end of the video, “blah blah, polar bears, blah blah”– just ignore that bit. He also says “Withering” Heights, repeatedly– hard to ignore, but try.)

BUT– for all of the beauty, as the grey clouds swarmed the day of my first visit and the air ran chill, I gathered up all I had learned about life in Haworth in the 1800’s, and what I remembered of some of the haunting elements of the Bronte sisters’ tales, and I saw the town differently.  I saw the graveyard at the pinnacle of the town, I saw the run off and sewage coursing through the streets below, I saw Branwell (the addled addict of a brother) watching death wash over the streets from the dark pub window.  The town itself seemed a little Jekyll and Hyde to me.

Haworth seems like a tale well told, but hard-lived.  An amazing place to visit, for certain.

I’ll leave you with two things, below.  The first, a portrait that I saw in the parsonage– rather famous– which Branwell painted of the three sisters who survived him.  I love (and loathe) it for the fact that Branwell had originally painted himself into the portrait, but (for what reason?) decided to erase himself out of it.  It is no subtle erasure.  What he leaves is worse than a gapping hole in the middle of the painting: it’s a spectral ghost of himself that (for me, at least) becomes almost more of a focal point than the remaining likenesses of his sisters!  I suspect that this will in some ways ring true with the Bronte family story I watch tonight.  The ghost of Branwell, the presence of death and despair in Haworth, is largely the energy that created the Bronte stories.

The second nugget I leave for you is a YouTube video that acts as a teaser for the production To Walk Invisible.  Enjoy!