Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Watched From Above... Friend, Foe or Freak on the Façades?

As I am currently plant-sitting, in order to set about my daily watering duties I have to wander along the same city-centre streets each day. On pavement level, these are not necessarily the most interesting to stroll along - no cafés or restaurants, few shop windows, a number of closed shutters.

Pedestrians tend to shuffle along, eyes bolted on their phone, minimal attention paid to the other individuals around, just enough not to run into them. Here is social distancing, but not quite as meant by the health authorities in response to Covid 19...

It is not entirely surprising that no one seems to notice the swallows that nest in the stonework of the buildings all around, shrieking and swooping along the streets, in search of insects in hot summer air. Of course the architecture that acts as the backcloth to all these daily activities - pedestrian or airborne - likewise goes unnoticed.

And yet, above the doorways and on the façades of the older buildings there is invariably a world - or bestiary - of human and animal forms. Sculpted beings gaze down
on us lesser mortals in the same manner as they have for almost a hundred years. For indeed, most of the architecure  - including its sculpture -  was built during the reconstruction of Reims, following the First World War.

These sculpted figures could tell a tale of two but their expressions are often enigmatic - as if they were amused by our behaviour, or in turn bemused by it! I think they are taking things quite well, considering the events that they have witnessed first-hand over the years, or the injustices they have been subjected to. The Belle Epoque beauties still smile sweetly and strike their poses, despite the layer of city grime that now coats them and the general indifference shown them, with or without the dust and soot. Similarly, these braves belles brush off the fact that they now rub their delicate shoulders with a fine example of mid-20th concrete ungainliness. 

Truth be told, my favourites in this façade parade are far less the fawning, female figures than the faces of freaks and weirdos who gurn and gawp at the ignorant passers-by below! I did not include any of the putti carvings here, I am afraid to say. Give me a scrawny, malevolent gargoyle any day over some plump, winsome cherub...

There is often more social exchange between this mischievous bunch than there is between any of the pedestrian screen zombies that trudge along, oblivious to all and everything other than their phone.

Naturally, the combination of screen addict, eyes riveted downwards, and façade aficionado, head lifted up (and camera too, it should be said....) sets all parties on a collision course - quite literally - as nobody is actually navigating the pavement ahead.

I do wonder for whom these marvellous, monstrous creatures were intended - solely for the pleasure of the eyes, but whose? If it was then considered to be of civic importance to commission and carry out art work -  aesthetically and socially-speaking - when did this no longer apply?

Tastes change, that's normal but if it is mostly down to financial issues, it's enough to make you scream.

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Abbey of Vauclair...

At the centre of the ‘mystic triangle’ formed by the cities of Reims, Soissons and Laon, within the ancient provinces of Champagne and Picardy lie the grounds of Vauclair. Surrounded by forest, set in the valley of the river Ailette are the ruins of the 12th century abbey ; L’Abbaye de Vauclair

I had not even been aware of its existence, although it is situated just a short d istance from a Center Parc site. Therefore, having deposited the young ones in my charge for their day of swimming and sun-bathing, I retraced my steps back to the road sign indicating Vauclair, and set off to explore…

The peace and beauty of the region today belies the brutality of its not-so-distant history ; this was the scene of some of the worst losses in the First World War. Not that you could even imagine such a dark, monstrous past now, especially given the present context, as the greenery, sunlight and warmth are in total constrast to our drawn-out weeks and months of Covid confinement.

The wooded landscapes and rolling farmland have long since erased the ghastly images associated with the inhumanity of the ‘war to end all wars’. The deathly, pock-marked lunar landscape of the trenches have long been cloaked over with life and vitality and the enchanting name of Chemin des Dames has recovered its initial, pre-war prettiness. It should have been of no surprise, I suppose, to learn that the fate of Vauclair Abbey was decided by the insanity of war, just as countless other sites which were fatally damaged or even obliterated during the 1914-18 hostilities.

Initially a Neolithic settlement on marshy land that was later inhabited during the Gallo-Roman period, Vauclair was founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134. The name (Vallis Clara) was a direct reference to the mother monastery itself (Clara Vallis) – Vauclair being the 15th daughter house. Both sites benefitted from sunlight all day, due to their positioning, and during my visit this was no exception, with light pouring onto the grounds, heating up the stonework, drying already parched grassy stretches. 

Prior to the foundation of Vauclair, the site was known as Curtmenblein and possessed its own parish church, the rights of which were handed over to Bernard. A group of monks from Clairvaux, took possession of the site and under the direction of its first abbot, an Englishman no less, erected the Cistercian abbey of Vauclair. The abbey rose and ran along the lines set out by the precepts of the  faith – for prayer, work, contemplation and community life. 

Vauclair was soon recognised as one of the high places of Christendom and as it prospered, the construction of a greater abbey was deemed appopriate in the mid-13th century. Ironically, the stone required for the edifice came from the quarry within the Caverne du Dragon (along the Chemin des Dames), the very cave that would offer protection to the soldiers of both sides during the Great War. Wartime hostilities ultimately led to the devastation of this same masonry as Vauclair was in the direct line of artillery bombardment. While Vauclair abbey was inaugurated in April 1257 - some 660 years later - in April 1917, little remained of the site but rubble.

Vauclair had, of course, been beset by other issues during the intervening centuries. Plague had killed off a certain number of monks at the beginning of the 15th century whilst the Hundred Years' War, the 16th-century French Wars of Religion and the pillaging of Spanish all took their toll. Nevertheless, it managed to survive until the French Revolution in 1789, when the monks were dispersed, and the site was finally divided up and sold off as ‘national property’ to become a farming hamlet for commoners. The laybrothers’ building was listed as a Monument Historique in 1911 but to no avail for it was destroyed by the Nivelle offensive in 1917, along with the remaining Cistercian architecture – including the, chapel, sacristy, abbot's chapel, monks' hall, gatehouse and dovecote.

Vauclair was classified as part of the Zone Rouge of North- eastern France in the post-war years – deemed too hazardous for any human activity and thus leaving nature free to take the upper hand. When excavation work was carried out at Vauclair almost fifty years later by a local association – Les Sources – led by a young Belgian Jesuit, Père Courtois, the site had been long overtaken by plants, trees and greenery.

Simply clearling the site of this unwanted vegetation must have been a mammoth task, of which we have little appreciation when we stroll over the grassy expanses today. The Sources’ archaelogical mission followed the work of predecessors who had likewise wished to make Vauclair reveal its history. 

However, this project went far beyond previous attempts, going up to Courtois’ death in 2005 and continuing in the present. For over thirty years, Courtois devoted himself to this endeavour, living in the woods on site, in the shadow of the Cistercian monks and soldiers of the Great War before him. 

The site was classified Monument Historique in 1970. The mid-70s saw the re-establishment of an arboretum, conservatory orchard and medicinal herb garden in the abbey grounds. This was in keeping with the custom of Medieval monasteries to care and cure pilgrims and peasants alike of their ailments and injuries, with the careful cultivation of herbs, medicinal plants and roots to enable them to do so.

The garden today is laid out according to the design of the first monastic physic plots – largely based on the chessboard lay-out from the Saint-Gall abbey in Switzerland.

Each square is separated from the others by a stone slab, enabling ease of movement to those tending to the plants – or simply admiring them !  The grounds of the garden here are divided into four sections – for medical plants ; shrubs and bushes, plants of the shade and undergrowth and aquatic plants and pondlife. 

Unfortunately the museum was shut when I visited so I will return, preferably in the autumn or winter, as shrouds of mist, frost or snow would create the most haunting atmosphere! 

In the meantime, the sunlit garden and grounds alone are magical, with the busy insects’ hum uninterrupted by the intrusive noise of traffic.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Taking a Plunge....

Levalet - Le Plongeur - First 'message'...
I keep coming across images, captions and quotations with the same basic message; Set your sights and then take the plunge! This has not fallen on deaf ears or averted eyes, but it invariably appears easier to be pushed than to jump, even if that means giving up all sense of control and security, precisely what led to hesitation in the very first place! Crippling are the doubts and fears, based on potential risk in situations where stakes are high. Invariably, it seems wiser to just play safe rather than to take a gamble, especially given the current climate. But is it?

Second... Taking risks.
However, surely the Covid crisis has underlined, if nothing else, the brevity and value of Life? Why toll away at an increasingly thankless professional activity that is becoming progressively less palatable as the months go by? Why shackle yourself with a grinding routine, or follow a lifestyle bound up by restrictions and non-choices? On the other hand, there is an obvious need to be grateful for every little thing in our lives, and for Life itself, above all now. We are living through times when instead of judging the situation through either a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty perspective, we should be glad to simply have a glass at all. But if we have a life, surely it is our duty to live it as fully and positively as possible? To do so, it is necessary to leave the safety of a comfort zone - or at least one of familarity - that is surely stultifying and stifling us, wholly or partially. After all, familiarity is said to breed contempt. But how do you navigate a path through huge stretches of the unknown? Where do you start, and how?

Third...How do you find your way?
My professional survival was solely down to the scrambled adoption and shaky use of the devices, platforms and apps that became so commonplace during lockdown that their very names now function as verbs and adjectives in everyday speech. I have been aware and grateful for that but I relish the widespread rolling-out of these into every crevice of life far less. Most of us have been too busy tackling the challenges of the first half of 2020 to take measure of this new 'connected' state of affairs, this other 'New Normal' that is here to stay. We were literally plunged into this new screened/screen existence as we dutifully shut ourselves away over those long months and have now emerged to a world where life and work will be traced, reflected and run along lines compatible with our internet connection.

Fourth...What happens if you don't try.
I do not follow the 5G conspiracy theories, but my heart sank earlier this week on learning of the further grip that this fifth generation of mobile communication services will have on young people... Physical school manuals are no longer required in the teaching profession in this part of the country, following 'greatly encouraging' results of a pilot test carried out here on the exclusive use of computers in class and home for schooling. Certainly, there will be numerous advantages to be had, for pupils and teaching staff alike, but I personally do not feel the glow of enthusiasm at the prospect of the academic years to come. Having a gadget that has largely become a portable, artificial brain means less need to cram and learn facts in an actual biological one. What effect does that have on our mental and intellectual capacities, imagination and curiosity? I too would dismiss such questioning as mere Neo-Luddite ramblings and fear-mongering, but having seen enough first-hand, I do worry about this along with the odd situation wherein all words, ideas and beliefs must be weighed for fear of offending. If uncensored, 'unsafe' discussion and debate are effectively discouraged or disciplined, what is left? Real-time, face-to-face socialising has already taken second-place to incessant screen chatterings on social media, so what chance has the average teacher got to engage a classroom (present or digital) of youngsters, each equipped with a screen provided by the local education authority?

Time to jump?
So, all in all, Covid 19 might give me the shove that I need to move on to something else. I'll see how the land lies over the next academic year and then maybe take the plunge in a different direction...
However, knowing me I will probably get distracted by some detail, meander off in some other aimless direction/directionless aim and end up treading water. Still, that is preferably to drowning, I suppose.

Lost in detail...