Elegy in a country churchyard

The death of his father prompts Nicholas Till to consider the interconnectedness of things

October 24, 2013

Source: Alamy

My father, who died earlier this year at the ripe old age of 90, had a life that was as varied as it was long.

He served in the Italian campaign in the Second World War, then became an Anglican clergyman, a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and subsequently dean of St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong. For 21 years he was principal of Morley College, an institute of adult education, in London, and finally director of a large charitable foundation. In his retirement he returned to his first love, church history, completing a project on Restoration church courts that he had put aside 30 years previously and ending his career with seven entries on Restoration Anglican divines for the Dictionary of National Biography, which was published in his 81st year. (“Not my period” he would always declare stoutly when asked a question about a historical event that fell outside the late 17th century, although in fact he wrote what is still a standard history of the movement for Christian unity.)

At the age of 85 he was awarded the rare degree of doctor of divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a ceremony at Lambeth Palace at which Rowan Williams preached a fire-breathing sermon on the threat of secularism, little knowing that my father had long ceased to be a believer.

In 1957, my father bought a cottage overlooking the marshes in the village of Cley next the Sea on the North Norfolk coast. This sublime stretch of coast was popular with Cambridge academics as an easily reachable holiday retreat; our neighbours in Cley included Edgar Adrian, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1932 and chancellor of Cambridge; his son Richard, who later became Cambridge’s vice-chancellor; another vice-chancellor to be, Owen Chadwick; and more Regius professors than you could shake a stick at. These days a cottage in Cley would be well beyond the means of most academics (our neighbours now are a London property developer, a well-known fashion journalist and a successful music producer), and I and my siblings bless our dear old dad for leaving us such a precious legacy.

I drove down to Norfolk for my father’s funeral in the magnificent church in Cley in late June, a route taken many times with him over the past 50 years. Between the market towns of Swaffham and Fakenham, the road takes one through the village of East Raynham, where some grandiose gates open on to a sweeping avenue of trees that announces a stately home of some import just out of view. But since it has never been open to the public, few people passing by on the main road are aware of the historical significance of the concealed house and its estate. For Raynham Hall was the seat of Charles Townshend, the 2nd Viscount Townshend, one of the great Whig potentates of the early Hanoverian era; the most powerful rival to Robert Walpole, Great Britain’s first prime minister, who built his own stately pile at Houghton, barely 10 miles away. Ten miles further towards the coast is a third great palace, the impeccably Palladian Holkham Hall, seat of a later Whig politician, Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester. These three magnates contributed decisively to the shaping of the economic and political institutions of modern Britain and beyond.

The beauties of the North Norfolk coast are no longer the well-kept secret they used to be. In my childhood, Cley was still a working community that boasted a bank, a post office, a grocery store, a butcher, a fishmonger, a haberdashery, a hairdresser and a fish-and-chip shop; in their place now are a prize-winning delicatessen, a pottery, an art gallery and a bookshop. The iconic windmill by the old quay has become a hospitality empire with its own gift shop. The great barns of Cley Old Hall Farm that we used to play in as children have been converted into homes, and the shortcut that we used to take from our cottage to the village through the farm has been blocked off for private access only. The once hidden pathways through the marshes in front of our cottage are now mapped, signed and boardwalked for the safe and managed access of the thousands of birdwatchers who flock to this area.

British village wall

Yet only a few miles inland, the dense, rolling countryside remains astonishingly remote and empty. This is farmland that has been intensively cultivated for centuries and is the source of the evident wealth of the towns and villages of the area. Indeed, Raynham’s real historical significance is that this is where Townshend introduced some of the most important innovations of the Agricultural Revolution, earning him the popular sobriquet “Turnip” Townshend.

Down the road at Holkham, Coke, known as Coke of Norfolk, was an equally energetic agricultural improver. His monument in the park at Holkham Hall looks from a distance like a replica of Nelson’s Column. But close up one realises that atop the column is a proud wheatsheaf, that the Corinthian capital represents mangel-wurzel rather than acanthus foliage, and that at the four corners of the plinth, where we would expect to find heraldic beasts or allegorical figures, are statues of an ox, a family of sheep, a plough and a seed drill. This memorial speaks truer than it knows of England’s real responsibility for the forms of the modern world.

Turnip Townshend briefly crossed the stage of my research interests in the politics of opera. (My father loved opera, too, but not the politics bit.) For it was at the premiere of Handel’s Radamisto at the King’s Theatre in 1720 that George I publicly reconciled with his son, the Prince of Wales, in front of the assembled Whig nobility, bringing Townshend back into government after a period of divisive exile. But as I drove through Townshend’s still immaculately maintained estate on the day before my father’s funeral, my thoughts were led instead to my current research on the historical origins of opera.

Opera came into being as an art form around 1600, the moment historians such as Foucault mark as the turning point from the Renaissance to early modernity. Indeed, the first operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), makes veiled reference to two of the defining drivers of early modernity: colonial discovery and the Scientific Revolution. My belief is that opera came into being as a cultural response to the specific social and intellectual conditions that constitute the early modern era; that opera was crucial to what Spanish historian José Maravall described as “the lyrical engineering of the modern world”. Musicologists have long recognised the birth of opera as the key to the development of modern Western music, but the aim of my study is to show that the form may be important to our understanding of modernity itself; as important as the modern novel, whose origins are exactly contemporaneous with those of opera.

The earliest operas were almost all derived from Ovid and drew upon the classical genre of the pastoral. One reason for this was the Aristotelian principle of verisimilitude, for it was believed that Arcadian shepherds embellished their speech with music. Pastoral settings justified a dramatic form in which people sing their feelings.

But opera was only part of a wider revival of pastoral poetry, fiction, drama and art in the later 16th and early 17th centuries: in Italy, the pastoral dramas of Tasso and Guarini clearly influenced plays by Shakespeare and Fletcher in England, where Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender and Sidney’s Arcadia were also responses to the new fashion; the pastoral landscapes of Poussin and Claude appealed to the aristocracy of Italy, as much as did opera.

British field and village

Why should pastoral, which is apparently a backward-looking form concerned with nostalgic representations of an idyllic past, have enjoyed such popularity at this crucial moment of transition? The conventional answer is that in a period subject to social and intellectual uncertainty, it offered to its courtly and urban audiences a reassuring vision of simpler times.

But pastoral is itself a troubled form, as is evident from its two great classical models, Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics. For Virgil’s bucolic worlds are set against the Roman civil wars after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the dispossession of farmers from their land in favour of soldiers returning from war. Lament for loss is the prevailing mode of these and all subsequent pastoral forms. Lament is also the predominant expressive mode of early opera – Orpheus does almost nothing else. We need to see early modern pastoral as more than an escapist reaction to modernity, for its often troubled representations of rural life clearly reflect some of the era’s more particular understanding of the changes taking place in its immediate world; changes that were happening most forcefully not in the palaces and courts of rulers, nor in cities, but in the countryside itself.

Social and economic historians have identified a widespread tendency in France and Italy in the later 16th and early 17th centuries towards what has been called “refeudalisation”: a movement, backed by the forces of the emergent modern state, to reimpose customary ties and obligations upon the rural peasantry. During the course of the 16th century, Italy lost much of its economic advantage in trade and banking, and the new aristocracy was reinvesting its wealth in land (in particular pastoral rather than arable land) and in the traditional appurtenances of feudal lordship. Pastoral art was an idealised representation of this new ideology, evident also in the design of Palladio’s rural villas for the aristocracy of the Venetian terra firma that so appealed to 18th-century Whig landowners in Britain.

Here, however, another response to the decline of the feudal system was taking place – what Marx identified as “agrarian capitalism”. Indeed, against those economists who argue that the origins of capitalism must lie within urban commerce, the always rising bourgeoisie, colonialism or industrialisation, Marx insisted, in the closing historical section of the first part of Capital, that the earliest forms of the capitalist market system emerged in rural Britain.

Marx charts with devastating clarity the impact of the first enclosures of common land in the Tudor period (an early example of privatisation), the shift from arable to less labour-intensive (and more picturesquely “natural”) pastoral farming, the creation of a dispossessed rural proletariat that was “freed” from feudal obligations to sell its labour on the open market, and the introduction of improved technologies to yield greater productivity that we now call the Agricultural Revolution. All these innovations were introduced by the great landowning aristocracy of England and Scotland, who established the particular method for extracting surplus value from their estates that continues its relentless march throughout the world to this day, and whose most representative exemplars lived within a few miles of each other in East Anglia.

Everything is connected. As I drove through the familiar rural idyll that is North Norfolk that day, I pondered on the astonishing fact that here, in this remote and tranquil corner of the world, so apparently removed from the thunderous roar of modernity, was forged the capitalist imperium that now rules that same world. And I begin to understand better how I might rethink the pastoral forms of those earliest operas in relation to modernity, and in relation to my own lament for the imaginary pastoral idyll of my childhood, and for the loss of the father who presided over that childhood and who shaped the values that still inform my life and work: Barry Till DD, scholar and educator, as he asked to be remembered on his memorial stone in the churchyard at Cley.

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