Friday, April 13, 2012
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Yesterday I posted a poem I had written back in 2000, prompted by a proposal to mine for coal under Newstead Abbey. Geologists speculated that the soil under the Abbey might slump an inch or two due to the drilling - and of course there would be a certain amount of vibration. Nothing to worry about if this were a modern building we were talking but Newstead was built in 1170 before re-bar! And what if the soil subsided more than the estimate? What if there were a catastrophic cave-in? There would be no saving Newstead once it was reduced to a pile of rubble. Byronists world-wide rose up to defeat the scheme - and we succeeded. Then.
But the coal seams are still there, snaking under the heart of England. Coal from the Midlands fueled the Industrial Revolution. (The Byrons owned extensive mines in their Barony of Rochdale but the poet sold them off when they became unproductive. The Rochdale mines are once again producing quality coal, used in part for power generation.) The Midlands is still rich in coal that wasn't accessible during Victorian times but with modern methods could be exploited. Presently the Midlands (including Nottinghamshire) is going through a deep recession - something that wasn't the case back in 2000. The economy has done its own caving-in since we Byronists stopped the mining proposal a dozen years ago. Unemployment has sky-rocketed. Needless to say, there would be a huge financial incentive to expand coal mining in the area. Including under Newstead Abbey. Enter, the conspiracy theory.
This isn't my theory. It was suggested to me yesterday when I was talking about my blog post to a friend - but when she voiced it my blood ran cold. She wondered if it were possible that the City of Nottingham might once again be positioning to sell the rights to mine under the Abbey - that behind the scenes they were deliberately running the Abbey into the ground so that when they proposed the scheme this time there would be less opposition, considering the relative value of a building already falling apart and of little commercial value balanced against the greater good of jump-starting the moribund economy of the region. Oh my God, I thought, that may indeed be what they are doing! What utter fools they must take us for if this is the case. I pray it isn't, but we've seen governments all over the world pull some pretty dirty tricks lately and by the time we call them on it, it is often to late to set things right. I'm sick to my stomach thinking that Byron's apocalyptic poem "Darkness" (upon which my poem was based) was prophetic of what is destined to befall Newstead Abbey.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
This poem - inspired by Byron’s poem "Darkness" - was written in 2000 in response to the report that a coal mining company would shortly be excavating beneath Newstead Abbey. The very real danger that subsidence from the mining operation would seriously damage or destroy the Abbey prompted Byronists all over the world to lobby to stop the operation. We succeeded and Newstead was safe - temporarily. But we need to be mindful how shortsighted greed continues to threaten what is beautiful and valuable beyond mere monetary value. We get complaisant to our, and our descendant’s peril.
by Sallie Tierney
From the peaceful slumber of Eternity
I woke into a nightmare world.
A century and more my weary spirit
Had reposed within the healing halls
Of Death’s sweet palace, prisoner
No more to mortal cares and chaos.
When thunder like a million planets grinding
From their ordered orbits rent my sleep,
And I awoke upon a silent, ravaged hill.
The rotten stumps of ancient oaks
Like broken tombstones slumped
Beneath a shroud of brown and withered
Ferns, the sky a raven’s wing, the pallid sun
A corpse light rising from a vast depression
Stretching far beyond the limits of my view.
The only living thing a cloud of iridescent
Insects whirling at the crater’s rim.
The depths were sheathed in shadow, yet
I knew whatever I’d been roused from death
To witness waited there within the maw
Of that abyss. So, as the feeble light increased,
Seeping slowly like a fetid fog into the pit,
I followed it. The earth was rubble underfoot
As if an antique temple had been toppled
By horrific quake or cataclysm, stones
Like skulls upon the weed-grown path.
What noble place was this, brought down
To such profound destruction, as a carcass
Worried by a pack of famished dogs until the bones
Beneath the flashing teeth are cracked to jagged
Fragments, losing all resemblance to that light hart
That lately graced the forest with its bounding life.
With trembling spirit I descended deeper still,
A Dante into Hell without a guide to steer
My course or tell what scene of horror spread
Before my gaze. Alone and wary I descended
Into that black wilderness. Then deep
Beneath my feet I heard the ghosts of vast
Machines, worm gears grinding in the stygian
Streams of ancient coal seams, blind, voracious
As some monster of the Earth’s primordial infancy,
A mindless juggernaut devouring, devouring.
My soul then knew despair. For there
Upon the edge of that great gaping maw
I saw a fractured slab of stone, a poem carved
And but a single name. A stone I’d set a life before
To mark the grave of Boatswain, faithful friend.
When this forsaken piece of land was still my own,
My heart, my Newstead Abbey. So beloved
From when I stepped, a tender boy in rented coach,
To weedy yard to be a lord of dust and devilry.
It stood above a reedy lake, its gardens wild
With golden gorse, the stately oaks of Sherwood
Sold for Byron debts. But to the boy I was
It was a fairy castle in the purity of morning
Light, its broken walls enchanted battlements,
A child’s fantasy realm, my kingdom. Flawed,
As every human artistry is flawed, yet
The dearer for a sweet fragility, a beauty
In decay. To the last day of my troubled life,
When exiled far from native soil, Newstead
Was the lodestone of my soul, a well of peace
Within the chaos of existence. In truth,
The only one true home I ever knew. And now,
After near a thousand years, now for the sake
Of man’s base greed, for a few sad lumps of coal
The lake, the house, the gardens --- gone.
Gone into the abyss. Why bring me back,
Thought I, to break my heart upon this stone?
What had I done to bring this horror on?
Or was it after all impersonal, indifference,
Neglect - demons human-spawned. No
God I could believe in brought such beauty down
To punish faults as petty as my own. No,
What I looked upon was man’s damnation
Of his own best nature - a suicide of spirit,
A cancer nurtured on a meal of shame.
It was a dream. I stood within the welcome shade
Cast by morning sun through the transept’s
Filigree. The silver lake was wreathed in mist.
And Newstead Abbey stood tranquil and whole,
As it has ever been within my mind. A dream.
And not a dream - a warning, the mind’s reminder
Of how close we stand to the crumbling rim,
A hell hand-crafted to our own design,
Creation and destruction ever vying
For the upper hand, a fragile balance
In our power to defend or topple. And lacking
Constant vigilance, comes real this my nightmare.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Thy yawning arch betokens slow decay;
The last and youngest of a noble line,
Now holds they mouldering turrets in his sway.
Deserted now, he scans thy grey worn towers;
Thy vaults, where dead of feudal ages sleep;
Thy cloisters, pervious to the wintry showers;
These, these he views, and views them but to weep.
Yet are his tears no emblem of regret:
Cherish'd Affection only bids them flow;
Pride, Hope, and Love, forbid him to forget,
But warm his bosom with impassion'd glow."
(an excerpt from "Elegy on Newstead Abbey", Lord Byron 1807 - he was 19 years old)
I've said before that responses to Newstead Abbey are often intensely visceral - even spiritual - in nature. A staff member once remarked to me that, "There are only two sorts of people; those who love her at first sight and those who hate her at first sight." I point to Byron's choice of words in the excerpt above: "Cherished", "affection", "pride", "hope", "love", "impassioned" - clearly, of the two sorts of people, Byron is in the first camp.
There is no accounting for the human heart. It can latch onto such a cornucopia of strange objects. When I told the professor supervising my English degree that I wanted to concentrate my studies on Lord Byron he visibly shuddered. (Those of you who knew Professor Nelson Bentley are visualizing that shudder about now.) He argued that Byron isn't read anymore precisely because by today's standards he wasn't such a great poet. Ah well, I didn't expect we'd agree on everything. I didn't attempt to explain what the attraction was, since I couldn't site a rational reason. It was a matter of the heart and what's rational about matters of the heart? I fell in love with Byron in junior high school and, though my tastes in poetry broadened and matured, Byron retained a special place in my affections.
I'm going out on a limb here to say I don't believe many people come to Lord Byron because of his poetry. There are Byronists who have never read his work. People are primarily attracted to the man's personality - and he has personality by the bucket-full! After reading a bit of Byron (especially Beppo and Don Juan) I became intrigued with him as a person - that's when my true passion kicked in. Countless books have been written about this fascinating and often infuriating man. I won't go there. I'm always in danger of sailing off on a tangent where he is concerned.
But within the context of this post it's important to understand Byron's own grand and irrational passion - his love for Newstead Abbey, that dear crumbling pile of stone he inherited from his great-uncle when he was only 10 years old. He and his mother traveled from Scotland in a rented carriage to claim his inheritance, which he instantly saw was an utter ruin. The roof leaked and his great-uncle had sold off nearly all of the furnishings, living in the kitchen toward the end of his life with a mistress and a racing stable of cockroaches. Byron's mother was horrified (she was probably in the camp of people who hate the Abbey at first sight). Newstead was dark, spooky and completely uninhabitable. In today's parlance, the kid would have seen it as awesomely cool!
Little Lord Byron had a title - and not a penny to go with it. He and his mother were nearly destitute, Byron's father having quickly run through his wife's fortune before abandoning her and their son for the Continent. They were essentially homeless and flat broke. Byron didn't have the money to bring the Abbey up to habitable condition. He and his mother lived in rented housing - first in Nottingham, then in nearby Southwell - while Byron was forced to lease Newstead to a wealthy young nobleman who repaired the building for his own use. It must have frustrated and humiliated Byron to have a stranger living in his beloved Newstead. After he reached his majority he did live in the Abbey for five years but he didn't have the resources to maintain the property.
Ultimately, he saved it from total destruction by selling it off to someone with the resources to do right by it. For the first time since 1540 the Byrons didn't own the Abbey. Byron left England, never to return. There were many reasons for his exile but I conjecture that without Newstead Abbey there was no incentive to come back - there was no "home" to come home to. Without Newstead nothing rooted him in England.
Still, love causes people to do crazy things. I took a leap of faith, shorted the rent, and sent a deposit off to the B. Soc. for the conference and tour. Almost immediately things began to fall into place. (I truly believe Byron wanted me on that tour.) Soon I received a raise and my boss promised me lots of overtime when I explained I was planning a trip to England - she understood the importance of having a dream. Though I was only entitled to one week paid vacation, she authorized two additional weeks off (unpaid but that was fine with me). I found a really good deal on a round trip ticket to Heathrow on Pan Am Airlines. I read a dozen guides to cheap travel (Rick Steves' was the best). I bought a camera. When the time came for me to leave, my wonderful boss drove me to the airport and gave me $40 in English pounds sterling. Ten hours later I landed in England. A life-long anglophile, I was euphoric - and incredulous that it had all come together.
The three weeks that followed were of the most amazing weeks of my life (I've chronicled the entire trip in a lengthy and goofy parody of Don Juan entitled "We'll Go Once More A'roving. Here's a link to it: We'll Go Once More. I have trouble believing it's been almost 25 years since that Summer - since the big orange motor coach drove into the courtyard before Newstead Abbey and I saw her for the first time. And fell in love, as so many have before and since. At that moment I felt that I had come home. It's a hard thing to explain but I felt that my entire life had led up to that one moment. That's what love can do.
I thought that journey would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing but I've returned many times since the Summer of '88. I've roamed the Abbey halls, sat for hours in Byron's bedroom writing poetry (before they installed the security), ate picnic lunches in the cloister, chatted with her wonderful staff while enjoying tea and jacket potatoes in the Buttery. I've been caught in fierce storms on her grounds and been struck dumb by her beauty as the sunset turns her to a golden filigree. She is a breathtaking treasure. Just as with Byron, it is her unique spirit and personality that draws us to her, that resonates in the human soul.
And now she is once again on the edge of ruin, her owners unwilling or unable to take care of her. Her staff has been sacked and she's locked up tight. There is no caretaker, no charming restaurant, no night watchman, no housekeeper. To tour the house you must have a group of 10 and book ahead. Robbers have pillaged her for the lead drain pipes. There is a big ugly chain link fence surrounding her. Is it any wonder those who love her despair? She has teetered on the edge of oblivion repeatedly since she was first constructed in 1170 yet each time she's been pulled back from the abyss by caring people. Let's hope she can survive into her second millennium. I would hate to have to write my own elegy to her.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
It's a crumbling pile of rock out in nowhere.
Okay, some weird dead poet once lived there,
Nobody reads him anymore so why should I care
If the roof leaks and thieves strip it bare?
I'm off to the pub for a pint of beer.
That's an understandable attitude - especially if the sum of what you know of Newstead Abbey is what you pulled up on the City of Nottingham's web site or read in a pamphlet you picked up at the tourist office. (That's like assuming you know someone well after reading her Facebook page.) Newstead is vastly more than a physical description, a map, a brief history and a photo or two.
Of course you need those things as well to begin to comprehend her importance to those of us who care deeply for her.
Notice the pronoun. Newstead is often referred to by the feminine pronoun, just as a ship is "she" to the sailors who serve on "her". I don't have any idea how long that's been going on but suspect it may harken back to the sea captains in the Byron family. The family crest sports a jaunty mermaid to reflect their history as seafarers. (Notably Admiral John Byron - known to history as "Foul weather Jack") The usage also reflects the extent to which people relate on a personal level to her. She is not a thing, not a "pile of stone". I might venture to say she has a personality. This is what Byron was referring to when he wrote that Newstead leaves "A grand impression on the mind, at least of those whose eyes are in their hearts".
If you don't look with your heart you might be singularly unimpressed by what you see. She isn't and never was what might be termed a "stately home". The Abbey is not classically beautiful. She's no Downton Abbey. Architecturally, Newstead is a sort of wacky mishmash of styles with bits tacked on throughout her long history. All you have to do is glance at the picture above to see that the building has taken a beating over its 800-plus years in existence. The left side is a ruin - the right has all the charm of a shoe box. It's almost impossible to figure out where the front entryway is! "Irregular in parts," as Byron understated it. (He might have been speaking of himself as well.)
Flawed. As are we all. Perhaps that's what resonates most when we see Newstead. We connect with her human quality. She's not perfect but she's ours. The Japanese (and many other cultures) believe that over time, objects can develop a living spirit from their association with people - they believe that objects lovingly crafted by careful hands take on something of the humanity of their makers. We can call this a soul if we want to.
Since her construction during Europe's explosive twelfth century building boom, countless individuals have lived or visited her, leaving something of themselves behind. Royal guests have included Kings Edward I, II, and III, Edward VII, King George V and Queen Mary. American writers Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne visited (I read an article a number of years ago speculating that Edgar Allen Poe was inspired to write "The Fall of the House of Usher" after reading Irving's account of his stay at Newstead. Don't know if it's true but I like the idea!). Dr David Livingstone visited between 1864 and 1865, writing "The Zambesi and Its Tribuaries" while he was in residence. Those are the famous people but we shouldn't forget the others: the monks who lived here before Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monesteries, when Newstead was simply the Priory of St. Mary (many of whom are undoubtedly still buried on the grounds and under the stone floors) - the Byron family from the time Newstead came into their possession in 1540 - the hundreds of servants and staff who have served here over the years right up to modern times - individuals like you and me who were born, lived, laughed, cried and, died within the Abbey's walls.
And yes, Newstead has her ghosts (or so I'm told). The White Lady, the Black Monk (Byron claimed to have seen him), and Lord Byron's dog Boatswain who has been frequently seen on the roof, of all places!
So, "Why should I care?" You should care because each life that touched this place contributed something unique, eternal, and precious that we as fellow human beings must honor by keeping this place sacred to their memory - caring for it to the utmost of our ability and resources so that it stands well into its second millennium. There is and will ever be only one Newstead Abbey - it is irreplaceable and should we lose it we will as a people be diminished.
In my next installment of this tirade I'll share with you my own personal experiences of Newstead Abbey. As you might have guessed it's a love story.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Where is Robin Hood when you need him? If ever we could use a champion of the underdog to go toe-to-toe and head-to-head with the Sheriff of Nottingham it is now. Oh wait, make that the City of Nottingham - because the City of Nottingham is the villain of this piece. For the city has betrayed its sacred duty of stewardship where it comes to Newstead Abbey, all but abandoning it to the ravages of weather and the plunder of unscrupulous thieves. Though this priceless treasure has survived nearly a millennium it may not survive its present owner's indifference and neglect.
The powers-that-be in Nottingham will plead the dismal economy - not enough copper in the coffers to do a proper job of managing the property. Okay sure,(they may say) Newstead was given to the city with the understanding that it be preserved and cared for in keeping with its value to all humanity as an irreplaceable historic site - but hey, that was that was then, this is now. This is business - it's not personal. Ah yes, those fighting words: "It's not personal". But to those of us who love Newstead (and I don't use that word lightly) there is nothing more personal than what is happening at Newstead. It is an arrow to the heart.
"That's a bit over the top, Sallie," you may say. Could be - but this is my tirade and my blog and I reserve the right to let my passion speak. A friend once commented, "Don't get Sallie going on the topic of Newstead Abbey, we'll be here all night!" I concede that on this subject I am a fanatic in the best sense of the word. And right now I'm livid with outrage.
Let me share with you a recent email from Ken Purslow of the Newstead Abbey Byron Society in England (with his permission):
"The City Council unashamedly said their priority is indeed Wollaton Hall and Nottingham Castle. Newstead Abbey is not within the City boundaries and that is exactly why they neglect Newstead in favour of the other two. When money is ‘tight’ they prioritize the budget - Newstead and Leisure being the big time losers.
The City has never been proactive in marketing the Abbey. As I said to them on one occasion “If you take all your goods out of the shop window, you will have no customers and nothing to sell” In my Society (NABS) I have four Ladies all of whom worked at Newstead as guides, one of them for nineteen years. They were all made redundant at the start of the summer last year. They are also part of a group calling themselves M.O.N.K.S. Members of Newstead Kindred Spirits.(All former guides to the Abbey) Like us they meet regularly, we are fortunate to have them; they keep me in touch with the latest developments.
In my archive file I have found some photographs taken last year after the lead down pipes had been stolen from outside the Abbey, you will see the plastic pipes they have put in their place to catch the water. Others have just been left. I will send them separately to this email – try not to fall in your coffee when you see them!"
I viewed the photos Ken sent me and they broke my heart. Certainly there are so many things that legitimately inspire outrage in the world today - war, terrorism, poverty, the destruction of the environment yet (if we are to retain a shred of humanity) somewhere near the top of the list had better be outrage when something of priceless beauty is trampled in the dust as not worth our time or money.
(More to come after I've taken a few deep breaths . . .)