Monday, August 5, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Three weeks ago an old friend of mine died and I attended her memorial service. I hope surviving members of her extended family don’t mind my referring to her as a friend, as she was quite a few decades older than me, many people knew her much better than I did, and I was only an infrequent visitor to her in her last years. Indeed I had not seen her for nearly a year before she died.

            She was 95.

            Her married name was Anne Bradfield, but I will always think of her as Anne Holloway. Anne was the younger sister of the craft printer Ronald Holloway, who was well known to an earlier generation of Auckland literati. Ron died in 2003 at the age of 94. Ron and his family were my next-door neighbours for the first 22 years of my life. After many years as a spinster – now a passé word, but one which she herself would have used – Anne did not marry until she was in early middle age, so she was well established as a Holloway in the minds of my family. Anne never had any biological children. When she did marry (to a nice man who later died of cancer) she acquired an adoptive son, James, from her husband’s first marriage. James and I were about the same age, so when we were younger teenagers we knocked about a bit together. This brought me into Anne’s home more than might otherwise have been the case.

As well as thinking of Anne Bradfield as Anne Holloway, I was aware that she was a quietly imaginative woman who had altered her identity a bit, even before her name was changed by marriage. She was christened Jean, but as a girl she had decided to call herself “Anne” as she so liked the Canadian Anne of Green Gables books. Her choice was never questioned, and Anne she became for the rest of her life.

Anne was imaginative in other ways, too, which is really my reason for writing this memoir.

Ron and Anne were both born in England of English parents and were brought to New Zealand when they were young children. Anne was the most passionate Anglophile I have ever met, even outdoing her royalist and Tory older brother, who at least had a no-nonsense and somewhat left-wing wife to temper his views. There was a story, which Anne herself had told me a number of times before it was repeated at her memorial service, that when Anne was a child newly arrived in New Zealand, she was once found digging an impressively deep hole in the garden. She explained that she knew England was on the other side of the world, and she was trying to dig her way back there. Later, she tried to plant flowers upside-down, in the hope that when they bloomed they would be blooming in England. This remained her mindset for life. The most exciting times of her life, which she could not afford until she was middle-aged, were her return trips to England. New Zealand was for her a poor substitute, essentially the uncouth offspring of true culture.

Anne was not academically clever and had had little formal education. But in her adolescence she was told that every cultured person should know both the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. So she set about reading them both – the Bible, naturally, in the old Anglican Authorised version, the one which Americans first took to calling the “King James Version”. She re-read these tomes, in their entirety, many times in her life. Among other things, it meant that she could always drop an apt Shakespearean quotation into conversation, and that she thought of the Bible as an adjunct to Shakespeare – in other words, as a work of English Literature, a delusion which she shared with a great many Anglophone Protestants.

Anne’s older brother Ronald converted to Catholicism. His medievalism, love of heraldry and fondness for Latin drew him to the Catholic Church when he was a young man. There he remained, even if he did in older age frequently grumble about the modified liturgy and the loss of Latin after the Second Vatican Council. Anne, however, stayed staunchly Anglican and was a dedicated member of that church, serving on her local parish vestry committee and acting as a guide to Auckland’s Anglican cathedral. At her memorial service, one of her church-going friends recalled that during church services Anne would refuse to join in modern forms of prayer (“Why couldn’t they have kept The Book of Common Prayer?” she would mutter under her breath) and she would stare straight in front of her, refusing to sing a word during hymns, as she objected to the introduction of an overhead projector and thought that people should still have hymnbooks. But she attended church regardless.

When I was in her home, however, it was not the religion but the self-conscious and preserved Englishness that was most apparent. There were those framed photos and calendar pictures of English cathedrals and stately homes and thatched cottages. There was the framed embroidery that Anne had done at the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation – headed up “Vivat Regina Elizabetha”, and showing the crests and heraldic shields of various branches of the royal family. And there was the talk of royalty.

I hope I do not have to stress that these things not my own fetishes. The English royal family is a matter of indifference to me and is not held by me in any particular esteem. If pressed, I would call myself a republican, though I am no zealot and the matter does not keep me awake at night. I am reasonably well acquainted with English literature, I think, and on the whole have enjoyed my own visits to England. But I do not hold the view that English “culture” (however that may be defined) is the criterion against which the rest of the world has to be judged. I am very wary of people who start using the word “heritage” in relation to England. I know that this term tends to point to a narrow sort of English nationalism, in which a superiority to foreigners is linked with an idyllic, sylvan and somewhat unrealistic view of the English past, and a cherry-picked version of English literature, which stops somewhere in the Victorian age.

While emphasising that I enjoyed Anne’s company and enjoyed chatting with her whenever I visited, I would probably use such terms as retrograde, quaint, eccentric, perhaps even dotty to describe Anne Holloway’s rampant Anglophilia. Remember, I am speaking of a woman who had lived almost all of her long life in New Zealand. I believe she shared that fantasy to which I have found that many elderly New Zealand Anglicans are prone – the idea that the English are somehow the rightful settlers of New Zealand, all others being interlopers, and that the Anglican church (despite now including only a small minority of all New Zealanders, and a minority of practising New Zealand Christians) is somehow the rightful church of New Zealand. This may be a carry-over from the “Established” position of Anglicanism in England and is part of the mentality which confuses the status of English royalty with Christian religion itself.

In the end I ask myself, what was the England to which Anne Holloway was dedicated? Partly it was the product of happy and very early childhood memories of England – and we would have to be very dishonest if we did not admit how formative early childhood memories are for us all. But it was essentially the England of This England magazine, the fantasy England of castles, small towns nestled around cathedrals, hedgerows, stately homes, thatched cottages and cricket on the village green, meadows and leas and woods. The England which both the BBC and ITV often cunningly sell to a mass audience (especially an America one) in the form of nostalgic “heritage” series and period soap-operas like Downton Abbey. The tourists’ England. Given that meadows, hedgerows, stately homes and so forth do actually exist, readers of This England magazine might ask how I dare to call it a fantasy. After all, don’t they regularly look at real and un-retouched glossy magazine photographs of all these real things? Don’t hundreds of thousands of tourists every year go and take snaps of these real things? And the camera doesn’t lie, does it?

In answer I would refer to the selectivity of such images and their totally unrepresentative nature when it comes to depicting an England which is now overwhelmingly industrialised and urban and very multi-cultural. (Item – in England now, more Muslims regularly attend religious worship than Anglicans; and English Anglicans are a minority of regular Christian worshippers). The This England England is the England that has been preserved specifically for the tourists’ cameras. It is a maintained theme park.

I am not writing this with any special animus towards unrealistic Anglophilia. It has often been noted that the first-generation children of immigrants tend to freeze the nation from which their parents came into an antiquated image. In New Zealand there are doubtless people who harbour frozen and unrealistic images of their parents’ Ireland or Scotland or Croatia or Greece or the Netherlands or Italy or Samoa or Tonga. We all have formative myths of some sort, and most of us have unexamined or idealised conceptions of places where we do not actually live. Anne Holloway was simply an anachronistic, late-flowering example of those earlier New Zealanders who still referred to their parents’ Britain as “Home”, even if they had never been there.

Yet Anne Holloway had been to England a number of times, and more than once regaled me with stories of the quaint village customs she had seen and the delightful old inns where she had refreshed herself and so forth. Truly mythology is a powerful thing, and so are the images produced by the tourism industry. Anne had been to the real, modern, urbanised, multi-cultural England; but she had seen what she wanted to see, had accepted the tourists’ England as the “real” England and stored her memories to reinforce the idealization she already had.

So some corner of her Auckland suburban home would be forever England. Even if it was an England that very few residents of England would recognise as part of their daily lives.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your comment about "Downton Abbey" being made for US television. This is even more so with "Mr Selfridge" a dramatisation about a real-life American who changed British retailing, and had several mistresses on the side, to spice it up, and over-infatuated with the women gave away his personal fortune to them, though his more astute children kept control of the stores. Ditto,the "Midsommer Murders" series with village greens and cricket.
    I suspect the same has happened with the TV version of Ford Maddox Ford's "Parades End" novels which have to make Valentina a suffragette to explain her spirited nature.