I finally made the effort to park my car in Longham Post Office on the way back to London this morning and photograph Longham United Reformed Church, something I’ve meant to do for years.
It’s not that it’s beautiful or even picturesque – on the contrary, it’s a rather bland and frumpy adornment to a small roundabout in the middle of nowhere in particular, which reminds me only of traffic jams on a Sunday evening.
What shouts out “photograph me!” every time I pass, however, is the foundation plaque just below the tower, with the year 1841 on it. Ever since my job has involved memorizing the first-production dates of ballets, I’ve become a little obsessed with buildings that were constructed in the same year. 1841 was, of course, the year of the first production of Giselle, and down the road there are two cottages built in 1870, the year of Coppélia. My local pub, significantly, served its first pint in the year of the Nutcracker.
My fascination with ballets and buildings comes from a sense of failure with regard to history: I give up on most history books after a dozen pages, and on music or dance history books after the introduction. The kind of sentence which is destined to make me pick up a Ruth Rendell instead goes something like this:
The wave of Romanticism which swept Europe in the early 19th century gave rise to a number of phantasmagorical ballets and operas, including Giselle. Tired of the inexorable pace of the industrial revolution, audiences sought escape in the realms of fantasy, Germanic forest-glades, fairies and love beyond-the-grave.
Whenever I read stuff like this, I imagine Romanticism as a kind of airborne disease which could strike you or your next-door neighbour at any time; one minute you’d be weaving carpets or mending shoes, the next you’d be calling in sick and booking tickets to Robert le Diable. It’s because the idea is so absurd that I have such difficulty with history books – I can no more believe in Romanticism as something which ‘happened’ or ‘swept’ than I can believe that postmodernism is a ‘condition’ that affects anyone outside of the universities which promulgate it as a subject.
Buildings, on the other hand, I can cope with. I look at Longham United Reform Church with its handy 1841 date stamp, and I feel I know something about the year they laid the foundation stone. Does this look like a village which was swept by Romanticism? Did the architects tear up the plans mid-way and say “sod it, let’s build it like a faux-ruined castle in a Germanic landscaped garden – now where’s that Caspar David Friedrich book?” It seems not – for all the Romanticists pining for nature and sylphs, there were also many rather less volatile people around in 1841, building congregational chapels in rural English villages and singing Wesleyan hymns.
I’d much rather have been at the première of Giselle in Paris than at the laying of the foundation stone of Longham congregational chapel – but I reckon it’s worth noting that the two happened in the same year. Any historians who want my readership will need to explain this clearly as they go, for bumbling yokels like me who need buildings to remind them of what the historians gloss over.