Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Shadows, Echoes and Reflections - A Series of Brief Encounters With Mysterious Wisdom - The Life and Work of Samuel Palmer by Rachel Campbell-Johnston

Book reviews. I have written so many in my time and do you know what? I am bored bored bored of book reviews. There's a great restaurant near us, overlooking the sea, named JoJo's. The food is superb but I also love the whole atmosphere of the place. Forget about starter, main course, dessert with a gap in between each course for conversation. At JoJo's you choose what you'd like to eat and they bring it when it's ready. You are never quite sure what's coming next or in what order. You still have a great meal but that stultifying structure of a restaurant meal is broken making the experience far more like a slightly chaotic picnic among friends. Well I'm going to try and review Rachel Campbell-Johnston's new biography of Samuel Palmer in a similar fashion. Rather than a standard review I'm going to respond to the book, in a clearly personal way, in the hope that you might want to go away and read it for yourself. Here goes...

Before moving to Whitstable, Kent, I lived in Camberwell, South East London. Samuel Palmer was born in Surrey Square, Camberwell in 1805, 201 years before my own son was born in Kings College Hospital, perhaps a mile away on Denmark Hill.

As a Londoner I loved to drift through the city streets in a kind of semi-conscious derive, letting my feet take me into parts of the city I had never encountered before. In this way I discovered places I came to love and revisit many times.

I knew Blake had seen a vision of angels on Peckham Rye but not that Samuel Palmer had loved to stroll along the ridge of Herne Hill to Dulwich, Dilwihs or Dylways - “The damp meadow where Dill grows”. As the quick-brick buildings exploded South across the market gardens, a speculative contagion that transformed the landscape within a couple of decades, such rural idylls were built over and around. Small rivers, such as the Effra, were corrupted into sewers. But every urban street addict knows such things can be buried but their essence lingers - echoes of the past remained to guide my dreaming feet. On one occasion I picked up a paperback book, a 1971 Penguin Poets William Blake, from a box left outside someone’s house and then later sat reading it alongside Kathleen Raine’s Blake and Antiquity (Routledge) in Dulwich Park - often the lunchtime destination of my circular perambulations and a great place to read whilst propped against a shady tree. Raine argued persuasively that Blake was not a madman but that his visions were firmly rooted in an esoteric artistic and spiritual tradition - Palmer recognised this and I felt it too.

Reading further I was thrilled to discover Samuel Palmer was - along with Henry Purcell, Thomas Gainsborough and doubtless many thousands of others - a lover of the view Turner painted in his 1819 masterpiece Richmond Hill on the Prince Regent’s Birthday.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston describes this “impressive view, its vistas stretching away down lush green slopes across the ancient Petersham meadows and beyond to the broad curve of the Thames” and I know the spot well. My first encounter with this enchanted scene struck with great force. How was it possible for a place of such beauty to exist in the shadow of Heathrow airport? I returned again and again over the years and still think of this location as representing the true Edge of the city.

When I used to live in Acton I would walk down, through Chiswick Park to the river and then on to Richmond. My journey often ended with a trip to the Roebuck on Richmond Hill and in contemplation of the very same landscape view. From this spot we watched the final flight of Concorde and invented “the mobile phone game”. (Chuck your phone into the long grass then get someone else to ring it. First one to find the ringing mobile in the grass wins. This game flowered briefly on a summers evening only to die once more when the battery fell out, leading to a lengthy and increasingly fractious search!) The visionary qualities of this place were perhaps enhanced by the fungal bounty of the nearby park and the haunting sound of rutting stags. On one memorable occasion Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing In America led to me missing my stop and ending up in Roehampton when I had agreed to meet friends for dinner in Richmond. I crossed the park at night whilst the stags were rutting and will never forget the unearthly moaning they made as I stumbled across the moonlit tussocks, Brautigan’s free spirit flowing through my trembling veins...

(To Be Continued)

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