Thursday, 21 July 2016

Hidden glory

There are times when small moments of wonder surpass more demonstrative spectacle. An example of just such a moment is to be found in the tiny church of All Saints' in Tudely in Kent. From outside, it is not particularly different from many other churches in Britain, with its squat brick tower and porch. Inside, however, it is hard not to be moved by the thing that makes it stand out from the rest, indeed from any other church in the world, and that is its stained glass windows, all of which were created by Marc Chagall.

The Chagall windows began in 1967 with the east window, pictured above, which was commissioned by Sir Henry and Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid as a memorial to their daughter, Sarah, who had died in a sailing accident in 1963, at the age of 21. This background is reflected in both the colour and the imagery of the window, above which is a horse, which some have identified as symbolic of freedom or love. Although the reason for the window's creation is tragic, the colour of the window and the way in which the eye is drawn upwards, creates a strongly uplifting feeling, in keeping with many of Chagall's other works.

It is said that Chagall was reluctant to accept the task of creating the memorial window, but that when he visited for its installation, he said of the little church, 'It's magnificent. I will do them all.'  The rest of the church's windows were installed in 1985, the year of Chagall's death, and now the church is open to everybody to marvel at them. Apart from the rarity of an entire church with windows by such a prominent artist, and their undeniable beauty, the fact that they remain in the space for which they were designed, with all of the meaning that goes with that, renders them truly magical.

At Tudely, because the church is so small, the majority of the windows are at eye level and one can stand close to them. This means that it is possible to become completely immersed in them, to be bathed in their colours, and to see the hand of the artist. When transplanted into the sometimes antiseptic environment of an art gallery, some otherwise great art can lose its spark, and it is easy to forget the context for which they were created. Here, the work still feels powerful and relevant, and it is a joy to behold.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Life Aquatic

As the lazy afternoon drifted by, we came at last to the almost deserted beach, and I could feel my heart lift. The pebble shore curved away round the little bay, lapped by gentle waves, and the jade green sea rippled seductively in front of us. It had been many years, several decades indeed, since I had been to Corfu, and I had been concerned that it would not be possible to find a beach that was not bordered and disfigured by the garish and noisy trappings of tourism. And yet, here was one that felt as it if might have come straight out of Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, a book that has long been one of my favourites.

This beach was bounded by a little-used road, with only a couple of quiet tavernas set along it at a discrete distance from each other, both of which seemed to exist in a drowsy parallel universe, from a time long gone by. As I walked slowly into the crystal clear water, gently acclimatising myself to what felt like the cold, but which probably only felt that way in contrast with the warmth of the day, I glanced down into it. Already I could see the darting flashes of small fish, and I sighed through my snorkel in contentment, as I let myself slip into the sea.

Finally submerged, I floated for a while, entranced by the underwater soap operas being performed before me. I thrilled at the neon vividness of the ornate wrasse, as it shot between the larger pebbles, and I floated after small schools of annular sea bream, their almost translucent iridescent bodies flexing beneath where I hung in the sea above them. After a while, my submerged ears became accustomed to the clicking of the little sea bream, and I watched as they snapped at each other and other passing fish (including me). On one occasion, two little fish performed a strange ballet, swooping away from each other, before turning, dashing back, and locking mouths, with an audible snap, a performance they repeated again and again. I could not tell if they were flirting or fighting but, after watching them for a while, I thought that I should give them some privacy, and I drifted on.

A small red ragworm floated free of its tiny pebble cave, where I had seen it crawl a little earlier, and I held myself back as it was attacked by the little fish around me. It twisted and turned, as if suspended in mid-air, its centipede-like feet flailing, before it finally made its way back to the sea bed. There, presumably feeling immensely relieved after its ordeal, it wriggled itself between stones for safety and did not reemerge. A tiger-striped comber, not much bigger than my index finger, saw me, turned and swam back to the shade of an overhanging pebble, and its disguise blended it perfectly into its sanctuary. Another little fish, with brown frills like a flamenco dancer, looked up at me, and we stared at each other for a while. Slowly, it opened its tiny mouth, either in amazement, or as if it thought that it was a much larger creature, and might attack me. To spare it the embarrassment, should it attempt the feat and fail, I turned politely and swam away.

As the sun arced around the bay, and disappeared behind towering grey thunder clouds, it felt like the time had come to move on for the day. I emerged from the sea, feeling that familiar sea-salt tingle on my skin, which brought back memories of my childhood, learning to swim in the sea off the coast of Devon. Driving back along the coastal road, we spotted a sign pointing to the Durrell White House, and I turned off to see it. The house is more overlooked by other houses than it was when Lawrence and Nancy Durrell made it their home in the 1930s, but sitting on the rocks beside the terrace, it was not hard to imagine how it might have felt when they were there. Across the little bay of Kalami, and away beyond the headland dotted with olive and cypress trees, a fork of lightning split the sky, followed some time later by a far off rumble of thunder. It was time to go.