Monday, September 24, 2018

On Majesty

One significant milestone in my formation as a stick-in-the-mud, fogey and all-round defender of old things occurred when I discovered, at the age of about nine, that my very ordinary suburb of south London had once boasted its own cinema.  For several decades, with its confident Art Deco façade, the 'Majestic' had presided over the Fair Green in the centre of town, and the flickering world of the pictures had dwelt waiting within.  Of course I straightaway wanted to know what had become of it.  It did not take me long to find out.  Having been converted into a bingo hall in the early 1960s, the building had been pulled down altogether in 1978.  No trace remained, save in the name of the street beside it, Majestic Way.  And what stood in its place?  The blank concrete hulk of the Kwik Save supermarket.
The Majestic Cinema, Mitcham, circa 1970. 
Photographer: E. N. Montague.  © Merton Historical Society; reproduced by their kind permission.

This was, I suppose, a particularly iniquitous piece of mid-twentieth-century urban planning, though practically every town in Britain must have a story to rival it.  It certainly had a formative effect on me, immunising me once and for all against any tendency to presume any superiority in new things over old things.  Certainly I could scarcely comprehend the jettisoning of the cinema, 'Majestic' in name and nature, for the insolent windowlessness of its successor with its gimmicky moniker.  It had been ours, and we had thrown it away.  All long before my time, but melancholic nostalgia still flooded and intoxicated my being, rich and dark as ale, and not without a bitter edge either.
Mitcham's Fair Green in May 2018, seen from about the same position as above.
But it was not a question just of this particular building.  I think I sensed the passage of greater, intangible forces, the tides of culture of which its disappearance was a sign.  I felt cheated, not only of the cinema itself, but of the vanished civilisation that had been capable of building it, sustaining it, and, I think above all, of giving it such a name as 'Majestic'.  For the word itself spoke volumes.  It was plain enough to me that the culture in which I lived would never choose a name like that for a public building, a cinema or anything else — not in a month of Sundays.  Yet there had existed, not that long before, a world that did.  This modest picture-house with its grand epithet was proof that this world had been alive in my own town.  So, too, was the supermarket proof that the cultural revolution had not left it unvisited.  This, as they say, was personal, which is why its loss struck me with such force.  The old world had been alive here, I realised; and here too it had been lost.

Just as I could see no contest between the Art Deco cinema and the Brutalist supermarket, and none between the names 'Majestic' and 'Kwik Save', I had no trouble in deciding which I preferred of the respective civilisations that built and christened them.   Everything about the two institutions was different because everything about their worlds was different.  I knew where my loyalties lay.  In one age, an age of muscular steam power and palatial trans-Atlantic liners, even a cinema chain, in all its undoubted mercenary-mindedness, could calculate, correctly, that Thirties glamour and a single crowning resonant adjective, would draw in paying audiences far out in these workaday fringes of south London.  There had been poetry in that world.  But the other, later era, the era in which one might go up a street named Majestic Way only to find, at its culmination, like a grotesque joke, such a thing as a Kwik-Save — this era was hollow, and ironic, and hard of heart.  Conscious as I am of the many faults and sins of that old civilisation, and of the weaknesses and cruelties of people in all ages, and of the irretrievability of the past, I am simply still in far greater sympathy with the first era than with what came later.  Still I know where my loyalties lie.

Well, that is how I became a curmudgeon before I was out of short trousers, and I have been about eighty years old ever since.  But I tell the story because I think it is worth asking the question to which it leads: why is this quality of majesty so singularly lacking in our present age?  Except in a few places and on very few occasions, we build or do hardly anything that is majestic, or grand, or solemn.  For instance, I think it is remarkable, in an era when the physical scale of most new buildings is greater than ever, that their appearance is not more imposing or magnificent.  In London, with its extraordinary rate of new construction, one question asks itself with the completion of nearly every new building: 'Is that all?'.  So many buildings are gigantic anticlimaxes, catching the eye not by elegance or ornateness, but by their sheer bigness, by brute size.  Surely this is why the nicknames for these new skyscrapers (some Londoners', some the developers' own) stick so instantly.  The most prominent of the buildings that have appeared since the new millenium really are shaped like blown-up versions of small objects: gherkinselectric shavers, walkie-talkies.  Would they be any less impressive were they built on half the scale?  Or, asking another way, how much do their chunky shapes gain by the size they are?  They may be 'bold' and 'dynamic', as is typically claimed, but are they majestic?  No, and I don't think they were ever meant to be.  Of course, aesthetics are not the architects' main consideration: these buildings are big because of the perennial imperative to make economic sense of tiny parcels of astronomically expensive land.  So the central doctrine remains the modernists', that form should follow function.

A big Cheese-grater, a big Walkie-talkie and a big Shard, seen from the top of a big Gherkin
Yet many of London's older, laboured-over buildings still defy these efforts to dwarf and outgun them, remaining at least as powerful and impressive to the human eye as their newer neighbours, though a fraction of their size.  'Majestic' is surely the first word we reach for on beholding St. Pancras station, Somerset House, the Royal Courts of Justice, the Palace of Westminster or the Prudential building.  How was their effect achieved?  At St. Pancras (which is 150 years old next month), George Gilbert Scott began at a human scale, at the level of doors, windows, tiles and bricks, concentrating on the detail, and he achieved his overall effect by repeating these details a hundredfold, a thousandfold, in all their careful design and craft, along and around and upwards.  The result, in alliance with the verticality of the neo-Gothic, is a soaring range of glorious multiplication, a towering proliferation of decoration, never (in my view) chaotic or disconcerting, but unified by Scott's eye into a symphony of fine design and accomplished craftsmanship.  'So much detail!', I overheard a tourist exclaim the other month, looking up at it.  But one then wonders why the Shard skyscraper, whose architect also seems to have had verticality uppermost in his mind, does not seem to have the same effect, though it is nearly four times taller than the station.  It is St. Pancras which invites the eye upwards, whereas the Shard simply defies comprehension and measurement.  It is certainly a very impressive work of engineering, but its refusal to make any concession to a human scale means that, to my eye at least, it seems to dominate rather than to crown its  surroundings and observers.  St. Pancras offers a feast, and allows the beholder to savour the sight of it, ascending slowly and by degrees from arches, to windows, to turrets, to pinnacles, and to the clock triumphant.  The Shard is so uncompromisingly and instantaneously impressive that it blows the mind and burns it out.
St. Pancras Cathedral station, London, seen from the Euston Road.
Even the design of ordinary flats and houses has followed a similar path.  So much new housing in Britain has an anonymous, mass-produced and plasticky appearance, whereas, well into the twentieth century, even small houses were built with a certain self-contained dignity about them.  Their solidness, their more natural materials, and the simple distinctiveness of generous sashed windows, gables and chimneys reveal something about their architects: that they knew their work would serve an important purpose, to shelter human families.  What do the flat roofs and blank windows of today's 'exciting new developments' say about the frame of mind in which they were designed?

It is not only in architecture that this change has happened.  In music, for instance, sheer volume often serves as the same substitute for majesty as does bigness in architecture.  There is no shortage of music that relies on brute force for its impact: just turn it up and hear the windows rattle!  But what about music that is instead built up meticulously from the smallest details?  For instance, there is William Walton's first symphony, particularly the the first minute and a half of the fourth movement.  The extraordinary thing about this music is that it is not utterly deafening, even though it sounds as if it ought to be.  It derives its magnificence from its ingenious construction.  The composer has written majesty into every detail — just as Gilbert Scott did in his own field of work —  and the overall effect of the music transcends the sum of its parts: it is transcendental.

And from language, too, solemnity and sonority seem to have evaporated, with the fading of poetry from spoken and written English.  Most language in everyday life is firmly earth-bound; if ever we hear it take flight, we do not really know how to respond; we are possibly even embarrassed.  Where now, except on the rarest of occasions, do we meet with language such as in the opening of Elizabeth Jennings' poem 'A Chorus'? 

Over the surging tides and the mountain kingdoms,
Over the pastoral valleys and the meadows,
 Over the cities with their factory darkness,
 Over the lands where peace is still a power,
 Over all these and all this planet carries
 A power broods, invisible monarch, a stranger
 To some, but by many trusted. Man's a believer
 Until corrupted. This huge trusted power
 Is spirit. He moves in the muscle of the world,
In continual creation. He burns the tides, he shines
 From the matchless skies. He is the day's surrender.

Why has majesty vanished so nearly completely from our lives: from speech, from infrastructure, from civic ceremony?  Perhaps Jennings' poem strikes straight at the answer.  Could it be because we think it is superfluous to and even incompatible with life as we live it now?  For where majestic things, though not directionless, are generally sedate, and measured, and invite and reward contemplation, being the result of careful attention to many details, the modern world is now too quick; it outpaces and leaves unexercised our capacity for concentrated attention.  Magnificent things once thrilled us with their restrained and dignified power, but these days great many other things are valued above dignity and restraint.  Time seems too short for them.  

It is true that a great deal of modern infrastructure, being invisible, silent or glossily efficient in operation, does not lend itself as well to visible majesty, as older technology did.  Immense and elaborate works of software do their work invisibly, imperceptibly and effortlessly, without plumes of smoke or the thrust of pistons.  Although the Internet is a system of extraordinary magnitude, we never call its operation majestic.  A postal system's mighty empire of apparatus could inspire poetry such as Auden's Night Mail, and even radio and television have great confident transmitters as their visible symbols, but we never see the Internet at work.  It appears to accomplish everything with instantaneous ease, and without apparent might or power.

But there is more to it than simple circumstance, I am sure.  I wonder if our boredom and urbane cynicism mask a certain fear of the essence of majesty; we are afraid of where it might lead.  For above all, majesty heightens what it touches.  It draws our eyes upwards, lifting us out of everyday life, so that we apprehend something greater than ourselves.  It is held in common by those who behold it: it draws us upwards together.  Majesty is close to mystery; it is a cousin of solemnity, that paradoxically serious business of rejoicing.  Majesty leads us into the foothills of the sacred, and sometimes higher.  But this is where those of us who settle for mediocrity in our individual lives enter dangerous territory: we must avoid, even fear anything that might disturb us.  The dull, flat flood-plain of secularism is so congested with distractions — 'exciting new developments!' — that we never notice the higher ground, nor want to notice it.  If we were conscious of our appetite for majesty, we would surely try to fill it, however imperfectly.

Majesty has survived in some places, though.  Most notably it remains in film, television and fantasy video games.  We do sometimes consent to be lifted out of ourselves; we savour the splendour of imaginary worlds and landscapes; we relish orchestral soundtracks.  Isn't that half the appeal and sheer fun of the television series Thunderbirds, for instance?  precisely the games of timing and scale they played in order to make the models look as realistic and impressive as possible, and the way the machines and craft all took on pathos and tragic dignity when they inevitably crashed, or collapsed, or exploded so gratuitously?  Don't all small boys dream yearn to be in charge of huge things, bringing a city to a standstill as a Martian Space Probe — doomed anyway, of course — is manoeuvred gingerly towards its its site of launch, ably assisted by a full symphony orchestra?

And majesty abides still in the Church, of course, which certainly does lift us out of ourselves, and is willing to make a nuisance of itself in doing so.  It was the Church that gave us the most visibly uplifting buildings in most towns and cities, and the beautiful craftsmanship within.  What lives in churches is not confined to the past.  We have heart-felt home-made music and meticulous liturgies.  And the words that are uttered in churches leap out at us, either because they are unfamiliar, or because some new significance in them surprises those who thought they knew them well.  Here is an example: all my life I have heard the second half of the Mass beginning with the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, something like this third preface of Sundays in Ordinary Time.  Familiarity has masked its poetry, but without my noticing it has become one of my favourite parts of the Mass.  Apart from anything else, this is wonderful, ancient poetry which, having first invited its hearers to lift up their hearts, then actually helps them to do so, bearing them heavenwards, towards the angels' Sanctus:

V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with your spirit.

V. Lift up your hearts.
R. We lift them up to the Lord.

V. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
R. It is right and just.

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.

For we know it belongs to your boundless glory,
that you came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity
and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself,
that the cause of our downfall
might become the means of our salvation,
through Christ our Lord.

Through him the host of Angels adores your majesty
and rejoices in your presence for ever.
May our voices, we pray, join with theirs
in one chorus of exultant praise, as we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

And this atmosphere of majesty is capable of spilling over from liturgical settings into the secular world.  Simply the heightened form of everyday life that the Church proposes can find fitting expression in uplifting art and music and architecture even outside the liturgy.  There is much to savour, for instance, in a promotional film that was made in advance of World Youth Day in Kraków in 2016: the combination of the poetry of the words (which are delivered in sonorous Polish and given subtitles in English), the richness of the music and the grandeur of the cinematographic art all promise a great and noble occasion, which promise was duly fulfilled.

A civilisation will not build what it does not think it needs.  Our culture, in which we converse with ourselves about ourselves, often forgetting that later ages will overhear us, presents strong evidence that we believe ourselves content with the superficial.  So much about our buildings, art and speech tells of a suspicion of majesty and solemnity.  But we cannot distract ourselves forever from it, and our nature cannot long withstand this truncation.  This is because we have forgotten the majesty that we ourselves possess.  We cannot forever be infants, amused by curiously large and funky shapes on our cities' skylines.  Mitcham's Majestic cinema was not all that grand, as majestic buildings go, but it answered a hunger: to paraphrase Philip Larkin, it had been a 'serious house on serious earth' (at least before its bingo-hall days, I suppose).  I think we do wish, however secretly, that our lives could be enriched by majesty in our public buildings.  We do want to be uplifted by our music; we would not resent being awed by heightened language.  But for our pride, we should not mind feeling small in the presence of greatness, if the greatness were also benevolent.  We long for the majesty of beauty, for the majesty of things timeless, and, even if we struggle to assent to faith, even if we admit it only on our death-bed, or not at all, we long for the majesty of God to lift us out of ourselves.  We think we know already that we long to be taken seriously, but we do not realise quite how deeply, how earnestly, how utterly we long for the solemnisation of our lives — or, at least we are unable to give expression to that longing.  And that feeling is so strong because we sense the majesty and dignity in which we ourselves are clothed, however hard we try to quell or mar it for the sake of our appetites.  We ourselves are majestic, individual symphonies of fine details, beyond our own power to understand, transcending, in spite of our sins, the sum of our parts.

It is hard and sometimes unconvincing to speak in generalities, and this is why seemingly small details can be so telling.  The great unseen spiritual and cultural forces of the last century only sublimated into visibility at moments like the demolition of Mitcham's small suburban picture-house for the sake of a brazenly superficial, shamelessly inhuman supermarket.  It was not simply a question of planning or expediency, or the neutral result of the inevitable march of Progress.  Like the construction of any building or the utterance of any word, it was a moral act with a moral effect, which in this case has been to alienate the majestic beings, the people of Mitcham, who lived around it.  Those who built the cinema, for all that they had a business to run, did not forget to make their cinema worthy of their audience.  They raised a house dignified enough to host communal experiences that were secular and yet not entirely profane.  One sign of their achievement is the way in which the cinema is still remembered, forty years after its disappearance.  A local lady I was chatting to at our local Heritage Day the other week spoke fondly of dancing lessons in a room above the front entrance.  The creator of the excellent Mitcham History Notes website has carefully compiled information about the cinema, and transcribed news reports from its lifetime.  And how about Kingsway Models' range of card kits, where you can actually buy a model of Mitcham's cinema, along with the Sidcup Regal and the Southall Dominion?  But there is no similar model of the Kwik-Save supermarket.  Which side, then, are we on?  Where do our loyalties lie?  Shall we buy-one-get-one-free?  Or shall we lift up our hearts?