Two events on successive days. First, one of our neighbourhood walls acquired a Banksy overnight. Next, the author Beryl Bainbridge died.
The Banksy is sharp and whimsical. Picture and caption (“Make Tea, Not War”) indicate that the “beautiful” generation of flower-empowered potheads who minted the phrase “Make Love, Not War,” is now settling towards a last life-chapter in which their pot is the teapot which chinks on the cup beside the herbaceous border, which is where all the flowers may turn out to have gone.
We are being satirised, ladies and gentlemen.
Beryl Bainbridge was 75, or 77, depending which paper you read.
Is that old, either way? I used to see her drinking whisky in one of the pubs on Camden Parkway. When it was still permitted, she alternated swigs of scotch with drags on a cigarette.
According to The Times, she wrote in her diary on Tuesday, April 18, 2000: “The foundations of our view of the world are laid down in childhood. Save for a few exceptions, like Einstein or Charlie Chaplin, most of us have little room for manoeuvre. It would therefore be an excellent idea if early rather than late we got rid of the notion that life has a great deal to offer.”
All of us who were born in, say, the first fifteen years after 1945 believed we had a great deal to offer life.
We grew up under the shadow and within the reverberations of a huge and perfect story archetype.
This had a villain out of myth: an evil-incarnated, blood-sucking monster whose army more resembled – to borrow Alan Clark’s phrase – a “mobile slaughterhouse” than an assemblage of human beings.
It had a hero – the U.K. – which, as heroes must in that archetype, began by denying and flinching from the challenge (or “call”), and then turned and faced the enemy, even though that choice of road seemed to lead to certain annihilation.
It had a cavalry racing in across the Atlantic at the eleventh hour.
From Dunkirk to Bletchley Park, Pearl Harbour to Iwo Jima, El Alamein to Stalingrad, Douglas Bader to Vera Atkins, every classic story variation played out exactly as it should (and subsequently emerged again and again, on film and TV, from A Bridge Too Far to the River Kwai to Colditz to Tenko to Walmington-on-Sea).
And the consequence was: this generation of children grew up believing in the power of the story not just to move minds, but, in its most moral form, to burst through the surface of things and events and determine the scores in the real world.
We drew story-sustenance from a blending of recent history with tales and poetry out of Grimm and Tolkien, and then Homer and Ovid, Blake, Shelley and Yeats, and swam in numinous depths through Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, Ezra Pound’s Spirit of Romance, Robert Graves’ White Goddess and Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.
But had we looked over our shoulders, we might have noticed that our parents were marching in the other direction.
They, the survivors of the great narrative, were on a quasi-Maoist crusade: “All Out For The Elimination Of Romantic Ambiguity!”
It’s a common misconception that the children of the 1960’s were its architects.
Our parents were the new barbarians who, almost as soon as they’d drawn breath and put on the demob suits, set about the destruction of great tracts of Britain’s ancient cities and towns, demolishing in some places more streets and buildings than the German blitz had managed to knock over.
Three times in its history the people of Great Britain went on the rampage with hammer, fire and a wrecking ball: once in the protestant revolution of Henry VIII and his son; once in the puritan revolution of Oliver Cromwell, and once in the socialist revolution of Clement Atlee (who will blink, in Elysium, to find himself bracketed with Oliver C, Henry VIII and Edward VI).
Have you ever rambled over the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (Joseph of Arimathea; King Arthur; the Grail) or Corfe Castle (a sacred treasure lost; King Edward martyred, A.D. 978 – “he was in life an earthly king – he is now after death a heavenly saint”: Anglo Saxon Chronicle)?
When you do, you get the impression that the protestant and puritan demolition gangs weren’t just out to dismantle and despoil; they were ransacking the places, smashing everything, in a frantic search for an elusive mysterium that they wanted to snatch away and obliterate.
Now there’s an oblique resonance between the protestant and puritan rampages and the great post-WW II barbarity.
From the Neolithic era to the end of World War II – which is quite a long time – no pubic building, whether of mud, wood or stone, was erected without being painted, incised, engraved, sculpted or otherwise decorated with some figurative or abstract design which celebrated (or propitiated) the essential (or spiritual) phenomena which offer prophesy and protection, and which outlive all physical edifices, no matter how solidly built.
After World War II, all decoration of any kind stops, as if ornament by its very nature were something abhorrent.
As if the destroyers and rebuilders wanted to seal up, or seal off, or block up the passage to an interior zone through which any mysteria might return.
As if they wanted their new world to become a world entirely of surfaces. A panoptikon, in which nothing was hidden, and, therefore, nothing could hide.
So there’s the dialectic set-up. A rising generation mesmerised by the interior domain, symbol and story, and willing it to erupt across the material landscape of phenomena and events. And a preceding, parental generation methodically and brutally trying to stamp interiority out of existence.
Those two moods, maybe, have been in contention ever since. And I would have said the iconoclasts had probably won.
But then I remember the books Beryl Bainbridge peopled with her fantasies, and the blank, white wall in Highgate on which Banksy portrayed overnight an old lady who clutches her whistling teapot and who appears to be standing on a threshold.
That wall, therefore, has become a door, through which we can pass into a world built of memories and imaginings.
All of which of course is just me, yet again, trying to order a chain of probably dubious observations into the form of a story.
Heraclitus said, around 2,500 years ago, “The fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings.”
On the other hand, around the same time, but on the opposite side of the planet, Confucius said, “Things have roots and branches; affairs have scopes and beginnings. To know what precedes and what follows is nearly as good as having a head and feet.”
Postscript - February 25, 2011: the Banksy was painted out a few days after this was published. Thus was the door shut. But I like to think, as the artist contemplates winning an Oscar, that at least one of his doors remains open for you here.
A second postscript (very late – January 17, 2013): another Banksy turned up for a while in Camden, and after being briefly protected behind some sort of transparent plastic, was then obliterated. This is my picture of it: