Tuesday, 19 May 2015

King's Lynn and the Emblematic City

Yesterday I re-read the poet Kathleen Raine's paper 'William Blake's Fourfold London' which she gave at The Temenos Academy way back in 1993.  In it Raine (1908 - 2003) discusses the last of Blake's Prophetic Books 'Jerusalem' and its relationship to the London of Blake's day and our own.  To help her she uses two significant ideas of the French philosopher and theologian Henri Corbin (1903 - 1978): 'emblematic city' and 'imaginal'.  The first terms describes how certain cities are 'a great mediating symbol, at once an embodiment of imaginative vision, and empowered to to awaken that vision, that perception of invisible values and meanings, in the minds of its inhabitants'.  (I think we ignore this attribute of the city at our peril.)  The latter - 'imaginal' - describes the realities of the imagination.  For me King's Lynn, in its small mundane way, is freighted with the possibilities of being an 'emblematic city'.  It is the town where Vaughan Williams came looking for folk songs, an ancient port with a half-Celtic name and a member of the Hanseatic League, where pilgrims from Northern Europe arrived on their way to Walsingham.  The birthplace of Vancouver and Fanny Berney, as well as the late Medieval mystic Margery Kempe.  And I suppose that's why I'm always disappointed with it.  I have, probably, too high expectations. Don't get me wrong there is some really good architecture there: medieval churches, guildhalls and warehouses and any amount of Georgian houses, but too much has been lost, destroyed to be replaced with the utilitarian and the common place for the town to be truly satisfying or to bear the weight of my imaginings.
In addition, in gathering my thoughts together to write this post I was reminded of C. P. Snow's 'Two Cultures'.  He was talking about science and art, but there is the same sort of binary conflict happening in King's Lynn; on the one hand is the commercial heart of the town which is a busy and hard and ugly and generic.  There is nothing local and peculiar to modern King's Lynn. It's back is turned to the river - the Ouse, which here so close to the sea is wide and muddy-coloured and tidal.  It feels disconnected too from the great agricultural area around it.  And on the other, the old heart of the town which is beautiful but too enclosed, like it was under siege, indeed too self-regarding to allow the visitor to enter into any profound dialogue with it. I found that particularly true of the Arts Centre, which seemed to be an altogether aloof organisation.  (I feel the same about Snape Maltings which, I've decided, is not meant for the casual visitor.  Both are like entering into a temple of a faith to which you don't belong.  Both are really only meant for those initiated into the mysteries.)  It could be argued that the streets of the old town have ceased to be the centre of civic life and become a rather posh dormitory suburb.  It has lost the power to evoke in us 'that perception of invisible values and meanings'.  What perhaps exists is merely the shell. Sometimes - at, say, the steps down to the ferry over the Ouse to West Lynn, or at the Pilot's Office on Common Staithe Quay, with a Georgian pub, 'The Crown and Mitre' across Ferry Lane for company - does one gets some sort of sense of the past, echoing Yeats 'I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually, and not in pictures and poems only, but in tiles around the chimney-piece, and in the hangings that kept out the draught.'  Museums are not enough.  And in any case they are ways in which objects can be denuded of their emblematic and imaginal powers.  Perhaps it is too late in any case, for the warp and the thrum have been severed.

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