Something Lurking In The Hollyhocks…
The hollyhocks are a giveaway – it could only be an English country garden. The one at Charleston, Sussex, summer home of members of the Bloomsbury Group. It seems an unlikely place for a battle, but that’s what’s going on here. Because in order to get here we had to pass through many pretty villages and past the kind of roses-around-the-door country cottages that send visitors into paroxysms of delight. And almost every one of them has a ‘Leave’ poster.
But this isn’t a countryside filled with retired colonels and maiden aunts anymore. Miss Marple has long gone. She’s been replaced by dot.com millionaires, rock musicians and oligarchs. And it seems they all want out.
Quite why this should be so is a mystery. Here near the downs that overlook the South Coast, peaceful lives are untouched by ‘the immigrant crisis’ (for this is what the argument has now boiled down to). Could this be the ‘return to making Britain Great again’ we keep hearing about? If so, why isn’t there a campaign to keep rich Russians out of the country?
This is the home of ‘Angry of Tunbridge Wells’, letters of protest sent to the Times from the archetypical sclerotic Southern Englishman, and perhaps that archetype is still here, just in a different form.
Charleston is quintessentially English. The wettest June ever has created a richness of greenery in England that is quite astonishing this year (so now is a good time to visit). Over half a century the little farmhouse in front of this garden became the country meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group of artists, writers and intellectuals. Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and EM Forster were frequent visitors to a place of (if one was being a tad cynical) rather dilettante-ish Bloomsbury types who didn’t need to work, painted lots of lovely pastels and got up to an awful lot of shagging. They were conscientious objectors and existed in a bubble of calm, buffeted by wealth, but they created works of great and lasting beauty. I’ve been here before and had dinner at the house, after winning a debate at the charming arts festival conducted here each May.
But there’s a statue (one of many, including the faintly creepy ‘levitating lady’) in the undergrowth that feels sinister to me. The figure across the lake reminds me of the moment in Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ when Miss Gittens sees the spirit of Miss Jessel in the reeds. Perhaps this is now the spirit of dissent lurking in the lush greenery of England.
Here’s the scene recreated in the superb film by Jack Clayton, retitled ‘The Innocents’. (If you haven’t done so before, I urge you to see it.) It was Edmund Wilson who first proposed the idea that the governess was suffering from hysteria, and that the menace holding Miles and Flora in its power was all in her fevered imagination.
The question of what is imagined and what is real is one that will grip the minds of most British people this week as they make a monumental and irreversible decision about their lives.