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A kind of horror-splendour: the case of the bluebottle

The blue dawn over  bluebottle water

Blue dawn over bluebottle water

It is the beginning of June. The harbingers of summer have already zig-zagged their insouciant way through the bright transparent air. Which harbingers? Why, those large determined big-eyed flies – the bluebottles!

Something reassures me when I hear the buzz of the bluebottle: it’s the sound of dazzling skies and long-grass meadows, of deep green shade, swallows on the wing, picnics and riverbanks – and days that begin dawn-pink in the east and die, slowly, in glows of orange or bronze at sunset.

It’s the memory of my parents disturbed during their afternoon reading – and swishing their rolled-up newspapers – again and again – as they tried to rid themselves of the wilfully wretched beast.

It’s those crackling transistor-radio days on summer lawns back in the 60s … and most certainly the sound of the bluebottle reminds me of 1969: It was in this year that the still avant-garde and alternative band ‘Pink Floyd’ released their album ‘Ummagumma’ which included Roger Waters’ beautiful composition, ‘Grantchester Meadows’. Grantchester Meadows begins with the chirp and tinkle of birds singing – and then, every once in a while, we hear the drone of a fly. Thereafter the song begins in earnest; it is charming: there are dog-foxes and kingfishers and ducks splashing as they take to flight from the surface of water. Overall, a lovely dreamy version of England emerges through the Floyd’s plangent hypnotic sound. (It’s an England that is worth preserving.) BUT after six minutes or so the fly re-appears. Its drone rises and falls in random volumes until we hear footsteps and the swish swish of a fly-swot. Then there is one final strike of the swot … and silence.

In 1969 I also first read Mervyn Peake’s remarkable trilogy of novels, beginning with ‘Titus Groan’, then ‘Gormenghast’ and lastly ‘Titus alone’. The novels describe the life of Titus, the seventy seventh earl of the crumbling kingdom of Gormenghast. In the second novel Peake tells us about Titus’ schooling, an ink-stained wooden-desk kind of schooling that no longer exists: the young Titus, like his classmates is sleepy; while the classroom swims ‘in a honey-coloured milky-way’ of sunbeams, Titus begins, for the first time in his life, to attend, at length, to the effortless flow of his thoughts and the fruits of his imagination. As he does a fly buzzes in the classroom. First Mervyn Peake introduces us to the fly and the context:

The room was hot and full of golden motes. A great clock ticked away monotonously. A bluebottle buzzed slowly over the surface of the hot windowpanes or from time to time zithered its languid way from desk to desk.

Then he attends to the behaviour of the fly and the reactions of the schoolboys:

Every time it passed certain desks, small inky hands would grab at it, or rulers would smack out through the tired air. Sometimes it would perch, for a moment on an inkpot or on the back of a boy’s collar and scythe its front legs together, and then its back legs, rubbing them, scything them, honing them, or as though it were a lady dressing for a ball drawing on a pair of long invisible gloves.

And finally, in a celebration of the bluebottle, he considers its ultimate meaning and deeper significance:

Oh bluebottle, you would fare ill at a ball! There would be none who could dance better than you; but you would be shunned: you would be too original: you would be before your time. They would not know your steps, the other ladies. None would throw out that indigo light from brow or flank – but, bluebottle, they wouldn’t want to. There lies the agony. Their buzz of converse is not yours, bluebottle. You know no scandal, no small talk, no flattery, no jargon: you would be hopeless, for all that you can pull your long gloves on. After all, your splendour is a kind of horror-splendour. Keep to your inkpots and the hot glass panes of schoolrooms and buzz your way through the long summer terms.

And so, through his parable of the bluebottle, Peake identifies the eternal problem confronting that which is truly original: it is derogated or shunned; it is before its time.

There is something else: it’s not too far-fetched to find in Peake an anticipation of the anti-aesthetic – the ‘horror-splendour’ – that has come to characterise so much contemporary English art.

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