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Gainsborough Library

The library man

When, in 1901, Andrew Carnegie sold his steel business and pocketed $250 million (approximately $9 billion today), he became the richest man in the world. Even before that most lucrative transaction, he was one of the wealthiest men around. Like many self-made men, Carnegie, despite his own dirt-poor upbringing in Scotland, had little sympathy for the workers who toiled for his enterprises. Labour was just another cost, and that cost had to be kept as low as possible. If that meant cutting wages, breaking strikes, and sacking the men who took part in them, well, that was just business.

That tough attitude didn’t stop Carnegie from becoming the greatest philanthropist of his age. ‘The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced,’ he said, while remaining unapologetic about his treatment of his employees. Like many self-educated men, Carnegie set a high value on public libraries.

After his family emigrated to the United States and settled in Pittsburgh, the thirteen-year-old Carnegie got a job as a bobbin boy in a textile mill. His quest for self-improvement began a few years later. He wanted to join a local library but couldn’t afford the $2 subscription fee. When he wrote to the library administrator explaining his circumstances, he got short shrift. So he wrote a letter to a Pittsburgh newspaper describing his plight. The letter was published and the library administrator caved in. Thereafter, the library was opened to working men.

So when he began his philanthropic activities, libraries were at the top of his list. Between 1883 and 1929, 2,509 were built all over the world with Carnegie money, most of them in the US but 660 of them in the UK. The money was for the building alone. Local authorities had to stump up for staff, maintenance, and the books themselves. This approach accorded with Carnegie’s view that ’in bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves.’

The Carnegie libraries are still standing all over Britain. Indeed, almost every town of a decent size seems to have one. The buildings are very much of their time, grand embodiments of a civic pride that is disappearing from our country. I don’t know how much control Carnegie and his advisors exercised over the design of the libraries, but each one I’ve seen is different.

The picture at the top of this post is the Carnegie library in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Councillor Joseph Barlow, Chairman of the Urban District Council, got the money from Carnegie to build a library to commemorate the accession of Edward VII. It was designed by local architects, Scorer and Gamble, and completed in 1905. The listing on the Historic England website describes it as ‘a handsome and well composed building in the late Tudor style, characterised by a lively skyline and expansive mullioned and transomed windows’. I especially like the copper (now green) lantern with its weather vane. I doubt Carnegie got to see many of the libraries built with his money, but I think he would have approved of this beauty.

Norwich Green Man

Another Green Man

I wrote about a Green Man in Birmingham seven years ago, but this (golden) example in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral fascinates me. The face, unlike many representations of the Green Man, is a realistic human likeness, but it has, to me anyway, something quite sinister about it, something uncanny.

In that 2016 post, I stated that there is no definite connection between the foliate heads in churches and cathedrals and the Green Man in modern folklore. The Wikipedia article on this topic has a quote from a book published last year. In The Green Man in Medieval England: Christian Shoots from Pagan Roots, Stephen Miller writes:

It is a Christian/Judaic-derived motif relating to the legends and medieval hagiographies of the Quest of Seth – the three twigs/seeds/kernels planted below the tongue of post-fall Adam by his son Seth (provided by the angel of mercy responsible for guarding Eden) shoot forth, bringing new life to humankind.

The scholarly debate will run and run. But what a rich and potent symbol the Green Man is in our secular age.

MOD sign

On Orford Ness

Orford Ness, on the Suffolk coast, is the epitome of a dynamic landscape. It’s described as Europe’s largest vegetated shingle spit, but the shingle is only the half of it. The rest of it comprises mudflats, salt marshes, tidal rivers, and lagoons. Without the shingle, there would be nothing but sea. And without the sea, there would be no spit. The action of storm waves, throwing shingle up over the beach crest, formed the ridges and furrows of the spit. The Ness has no determinate size — it waxes and wanes with the tides and the winds..

Until the twentieth century, Orford Ness was an obscure place on the map, a haunt of sheep, cattle, herdsmen, and smugglers. Then in 1913, the War Department purchased the Ness and for the next seventy years it was a centre of top secret military research. The early experiments were concerned with aeroplanes and aerial bombing. In the 1930s and 1940s, the focus switched to radio and radar, and then the Atomic Age arrived in the 1950s.

Orford Ness

The UK’s Atomic Weapons Research Establishment built several facilities on the Ness to test its atom bombs. These tests never involved the fissile material that the triggers the nuclear reaction — those ‘live’ tests were carried in isolated regions of Australia. The AWRE tests on Orford Ness were concerned with the missiles that would carry the atomic payload. Even without the nuclear material, it was dangerous work.

Orford Ness

The military occupation ended in 1993, when the Ministry of Defence sold Orford Ness to the National Trust. It’s now a nature reserve with a material legacy of military research buildings, many of them decaying, and unexploded ordnance. There’s a special kind of eeriness associated with these remnants of twentieth century warfare, especially the atomic ones. They remind us of how close humanity has come to extinction in the recent past. And their vacancy does not signal the end of that destructive research but simply its portage to new remote secret places.

Orford Ness

I chatted to one of the National Trust rangers on my visit. He grew up in the village of Orford, separated from the Ness by a narrow band of water. This was during the latter years of the MOD’s ownership. He recalled watching the comings and goings of the military boats, and being intensely curious about what they were up to. Just the kind of experience to fire a young person’s imagination.

Orford Ness

One of my favourite sights of the day was a hare I saw loping across the shingle. I took it as a hopeful sign amid the eeriness, amid the remnants of experimental destruction.

St Edmund

St Edmund: England’s once (and future?) patron saint

Until I visited Bury St Edmunds, I had no idea that St Edmund, King of East Anglia and Christian martyr, was England’s original patron saint. The first written reference to Edmund comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year [869] the raiding [Danish] army took up winter quarters at Thetford. And that winter King Edmund fought against them, and the Danes had the victory, and killed the king and conquered all the land.

Less than twenty-five years after this battle, in 893, Asser, the Bishop of Sherborne, wrote his biography of Alfred the Great, The Life of King Alfred. His coverage of Edmund was equally brief:

Edmund, king of the East Angles, fought fiercely against the army, but alas! the heathens triumphed beyond measure, and he and a great part of his men were killed.

But a parallel story had sprung up during those two decades between Edmund’s death and Asser’s biography. This other story was first recorded in Passio sancti Eadmundi, a book written in 985–7 by Abbo of Fleury, i.e. at least six years before Asser’s account.

Abbo was a French monk who spent a couple of years in England. During this sojourn, Abbo met Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan told him he had once met a man who claimed to have been King Edmund’s armour-bearer on the fatal day. But according to this old man, there was no battle. Rather than spill the blood of his Christian army, Edmund chose the martyr’s path. He threw down his weapons and refused to fight.

The Danes tied him to a tree, whipped him mercilessly, and taunted him about his faith. After Edmund had refused to renounce the Saviour Christ, they shot him full of arrows, ‘until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog’. Finally, they beheaded him. They left his body tied to the tree and threw his head into a nearby wood.

Edmund and the Wolf
Edmund and the Wolf

Some time later, when the Danes had left the scene, Edmund’s retinue went in to the wood to search for the missing head so it could be buried with the body. One of them called out, ‘Where are you?’, and got the reply, ‘Here, here, here’. A wolf was guarding the head, when they found it. The wolf followed them to the place where they reunited the head with the body and buried the king. A chapel was built over the grave and soon became a shrine to Edmund and a place where miraculous healing occurred.

It’s an open question whether Abbo’s book marks the start of the Edmund cult, or whether he was documenting an existing cult. That he brings cites Dunstan as a corroborator, and that the book was commissioned by the monks of Ramsey Abbey, indicates the latter.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey ruins
Bury St Edmunds Abbey ruins (site of Edmund’s shrine in the centre ground)

In 924, Edmund’s body was translated to what is now Bury St Edmunds, and a new monastic foundation managed the shrine. By the eleventh century, the shrine was the most important pilgrimage site in England.

On 20 November, St Edmund’s Day, in 1214, a group of barons gathered here to discuss the Charter of Liberties, which became known as Magna Carta. They swore an oath on the shrine that they would compel King John to accept this document. That they chose this meeting place demonstrates the shrine’s significance in the culture of the time.

Bury St Edmunds Magna Carta
Magna Carta monument, Bury St Edmunds

St Edmund’s survived for another three centuries, until it was destroyed in 1539, another casualty of the English Reformation. The abbey was dissolved in the same year.

How and when did Edmund cease to be our patron saint? His cult was already on the wane by the time of the Norman Conquest, and there seems to have been a period when he and Edward the Confessor were co-patron saints of England. But it was Edward III who promoted Saint George to the role. George was the embodiment of military valour and knightly chivalry, and so much in keeping with ideals of the times and of Edward himself. St Edmund, who chose martyrdom rather than take up arms against the enemy, was no model for a martial king.

In recent years, there have been several campaigns to reinstate Edmund as England’s patron saint, one of them launched with the support of the local Greene King brewery. But dislodging St George will be tough, so embedded is he within our culture and literature. That said, perhaps Edmund the pacifist is more in tune with the temper of the times than St George the warrior.