A.N. Wilson: The V&A’s Tristram Hunt is a modern Prince Albert

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

21 December 2019

9:00 AM

We don’t have Thanksgiving in Britain, but this does not stop us giving thanks and Christmas is a good time to do it. Last year, when I made a visit of farewell to the great medievalist Jeremy Catto, who was dying, his American partner of 57 years, John Wolfe, said that they always kept Thanksgiving. I asked Jeremy what he gave thanks for. ‘I give thanks that the Pilgrim Fathers left,’ was his characteristic reply. We fell to deploring the growth of modern puritanism in all its nauseating forms.

Thanksgiving should glow in every English heart for the fact that Queen Victoria married Prince Albert and brought to this country that wide-ranging, humane European of genius, who could have excelled as an engineer, a politician, a soldier, a musician. Our Sidney and our perfect man. People sometimes ask me if there is any modern equivalent and the closest I can get is to mention the current director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt. I had lunch with Tristram about a year ago during which he predicted, almost to the number of seats, what would happen in the inevitable general election — a Boris landslide, catastrophe for Labour. Neither of us guessed, however, that his former seat, Stoke-on-Trent Central, would go Tory. I am a Stokey myself, though I grew up in Hugh Fraser’s nearby safe Tory (and ultra Catholic) seat of Stafford and Stone. No judgment on Jeremy Corbyn could be more devastating than that of the people of Stoke who, going back to Chartist times, and right through the glory days of old Colonel Wedgwood, ‘the last of the radicals’, would ever have never dreamed of voting Tory.

Another thing for which I am thankful is having days out from London with my wife Ruth. We often take a train to some coastal place and bumble about for a few hours, eating fish and chips, staring at the sea. She always bathes, I am sometimes brave enough. Walmer and Deal, Broadstairs, with its Dickensian associations, and Folkestone were all good outings this year. Most mind-bogglingly inspirational, however, was Margate, where we visited the exhibition of Katie Paterson’s A Place That Exists Only in Moonlight at the Turner Contemporary art gallery. Some of Turner’s landscapes, bathed in moonlight, were juxtaposed with Paterson’s extraordinary work, which incorporates modern astronomy with installations and collections of writing about the moon and outer space.

Katie Paterson’s subject is nothing less than the universe, with special reference to the moon. She persuaded Osram, the manufacturer of lightbulbs, to make a bulb with the same light frequency as the moon. She has made a necklace out of fossils, a giant lizard’s tooth from the Atlas mountains, a pre-Ice Age starfish. Every room shimmered with mysterious lights. One of her experiments was to translate the notes of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ into letters, transpose them into Morse code and (don’t ask me how) to bounce these off the moon itself. It was playing in one of the rooms on a grand piano and had come back from the moon changed. In that room, with sort-of strobe lights twinkling at the end of the huge space, I actually felt transported, ecstatic. Paterson makes you realise that the categories into which we try to wedge our perceptions — scientific, imaginary, sexual, religious etc — are in fact completely arbitrary, and that the visionary is all that matters. Seeing into the life of things — as one did at the Blake exhibition at the Tate.

I am a Newmaniac, but I found some of the coverage of John Henry’s canonisation, well, to be honest, a bit soppy. He was represented as the saint of ecumenism. Hang on, but, wasn’t this the man who, after years of agonising, left the C of E because he thought there were but two alternatives, the way to Rome and the way to atheism? To read some of the coverage, you’d have guessed the new saint to have been like one of the speakers on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, an advocate of all faiths (or none).

When Newman was made a cardinal, he was invited back to Oxford, which he had not visited in decades. The spindly old man was led into the Common Room at Oriel, where he had spent his brilliant youth in the company of Keble, Pusey, Thomas Arnold and the brothers Froude. Haunted by memories, Newman burst into tears. An awkward moment, saved by one of the fellows (later Provost), Phelps, who, heartily advancing on the saint, grasped his hand and shook it vigorously with the words: ‘Well done, Newman, well done!’

Provost Phelps was in the habit of taking a cold bath each morning. His butler would hear him saying, before he stepped into the icy waters: ‘Be a man, Phelps!’ He was also the first Oxford head of house to entertain a puritanical new head of the nonconformist Mansfield College. When the port came round, this prig remarked: ‘I’d rather commit adultery.’ ‘Wouldn’t we all?’ asked Phelps, before liberally refilling his own glass.

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