A friend, M, recently invited me to his wedding - in East Sussex, on the South coast. It's a long way away and I'd been saving up reasons to go for a while. I've always wanted to go to Charleston farmhouse, home of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and regular retreat of the Bloomsbury Group. Then there's Virginia Woolf's house in Rodmell. Also, an old friend, B, who I'd not seen for many years lives in the area, where he works as a piano technician and story-teller. He's recently made a CD of his songs, too (see below).
Instead of a best man, my friend M had settled on having a team of "best people". One passed him the ring, the others spoke at the reception. I'd quite given up hope of ever being asked to be a best man so I was well chuffed to be asked to speak. Who doesn't want the opportunity to make one of those slightly scurrilous speeches - or, at the very least, want to be asked to? It was great, too, to meet his wife for the first time and members of his family I'd met before, but not for many years.
Charleston was at least as enchanting as I expected it to be. I can't find any images online that do justice to its interior. For anyone who doesn't know, it's cram packed with art and has been extensively decorated by the artists who lived there - the woodwork, the fire-places, the table-tops. Perhaps the highlight for me, though, was Maynard Keynes' bedroom. As usual when I visit such places, I'd not done a lot of research or pored over the guidebook. I just wander, look and soak it in. I'd forgotten about Keynes' association with the Bloomsbury Group and to suddenly find myself in his bedroom brought it home to me what a historically significant person he'd been. One usually thinks of Bloomsbury in terms of writers and painters. Moreover, Virginia Woolf is probably my favourite English writer. Looking at the bigger picture, though, I have to admit that Keynes was probably the most influential and indispensable person to be associated with the group. I felt quite awestruck.
As I did when we moved on to Rodmell. I had been unaware that Woolf's ashes were scattered under a magnolia tree in the garden there. There are advantages to not doing your homework - things you think you "ought" to know take you by surprise.
My old friend B -it was great to see him again- took us on a tour of Hastings, the highlights of which were the Jerwood Gallery and simply sitting on a hill by the castle overlooking the seafront. The work of Christopher Wood was new to me and, as for the hill, I could have sat there all day playing the "is that cloud or is it the French coast?" game.
On the way home, we stopped off at Rudyard Kipling's house, Batemans. It's rather a cold place, I thought. Walking round the rooms, I couldn't get the terrible story of his son John's death in the First World War out of my head. Rejected from the services more than once due to his poor eyesight, John only got to fight because his father pulled strings to get him in. He was soon killed.
In many ways Batemans and Charleston could not have been more different. For me, the former felt dark and oppressive, the latter light and airy. One theme connected them, however. Over Vanessa Bell's bed hangs a portrait of her son Julian who died in the Spanish Civil War, aged 29, while serving as an ambulance driver. He died at the battle of Brunete, at which an estimated 35,000 people were killed. Vanessa had been against him volunteering and, after his death famously said to her sister Virginia "I shall be cheerful, but I shall never be happy again."
5 years ago