No matter how long I stay away, it’s always the last few days that are hardest. The temptation to phone up Qantas and come home early is always very strong. Paul has done it twice, and just turned up at the front door a few days early: usually it’s just in time, as we have found that things tend to go wrong around the house when he’s away. It’s as if the house loves him as much as he loves it… I seem to have less impact on the house when I’m away, but I know my little Mima will be ready, after her initial disdain, to forgive me and settle down for a good long conversation.
These last few days of my trip I’ve been staying with my sister and family, though, so it’s been easier: I’ve not been tempted to call Qantas, though I am badly missing my own family. I’m writing the first part of this entry on the train down to Windsor Castle, where I have an appointment with Eleanor Cracknell (Miss) in the archives. I’m supposed to arrive before 10.30 to miss the changing of the guards, and have to check with the police on duty when I arrive.
The train is heading southwest past back gardens and allotments and row after row of houses. It’s spring, and there is blossom everywhere; it’s making me homesick for the garden and the pleasure of watching things grow. I wonder how far the stephanotis plants have climbed up the columns of our garden folly.
We had a lovely day on Sunday morning. My nephew James is a chorister at Temple Church; the church of the Middle and Lower Temple Law Courts, between Fleet Street and the River. He’s been singing there for about 6 months, I think, and on Sunday he graduated to full chorister status. This meant he was invested with his white surplice, to wear over his long red gown. The church is the one that features towards the end of the Da Vinci Code. It’s been there since the twelfth century, I think, but was partially destroyed in the great fire of 1666, and then again during the blitz in 1941. So much of it is reconstructed, but much of the old “round” is still intact. It has about eight medieval effigies of templar knights. Some are badly damaged, but William Marshall is there…
The music was wonderful: lots of Purcell and Buxtehude. James and the four other boys knelt in their red tunics before being robed in their surplices and blessed as they rejoined the choir, which sang beautifully. I took a photo of James afterwards for my parents, but he has his eyes closed a little:
But then another boy helped make a better photo:
We then had a little picnic in the Elm-Tree Garden, with champagne, smoked salmon and goats cheese sandwiches, tarte tatin and chocolate. I’d invited a few select medievalists …
and we pondered the nature of religion, ritual and medieval studies. Nothing like watching a ceremony of installation in a medieval setting while pondering the rituals of the Order of the Garter.
Ok, it’s eight hours later, and I’m sitting with a glass of chilled white wine at Windsor station, waiting for a train, having just missed one.
A pretty good day in the archives, all things considered. It was easy to pick up my pre-arranged day pass, stamped by the Royal Protection department of the police. They took my photo and the policeman said, “One for The Firm; and one for me!”, so they really do use that phrase for the Royal Family. (I hung around at the end of the day long enough to get a glimpse of Prince Charles going into St Georges chapel for a service…) The documents I wanted to see were all ready and waiting for me, but there was no dusty archive here. The catalogue says the archives are held “in the Garter Chest” in the Aerary, but in fact I was working in a lovely modern (though originally sixteenth-century) room, with space and light for the laptop; convenient catalogues, and a really helpful archivist. I’ll ponder the nature of what I read and saw later; at the moment, on the eve of my departure for home, I’m pondering the nature and the limits of my project in more general terms.
A true and comprehensive history of the Order would not be possible from Australia, since there are so very many records in the UK. Luckily for me, there exist several pretty detailed histories, so it’s a case, really, of just identifying the documents and ideas that intrigue me the most. They’re not that hard to find, either, since I’m interested not in who was in and out of the Order at any time, but rather how its monarchs and officers negotiated change; how they saw themselves honoring the medieval origins of the Order every time they made changes to its costumes, rituals and statutes (or its silver underpants: honestly, I’m not making this up: you’ll have to buy the book!).
Even so, and even while I feel I’m just about ready to sit down and finish drafting my book manuscript, I still feel a bit overwhelmed, sometimes, by the dizzying potential of the archive. It’s partly because my Latin and my palaeography could be a lot stronger, so I am slow, though I’m ok with most English texts (even ghastly sixteenth-century hands), and with formal medieval French ones (it depends very much on the script). It’s partly also that the depth of the archive is so profound. Again (am I sounding defensive yet?) it’s not as if most of the material hasn’t been looked at yet, and there’s no point combing through wardrobe accounts that have been edited and translated and commented on already. But I know enough to know there are scholars who could plumb every depth, who wouldn’t be content with the sixteenth-century printed edition, and who, given a couple of days in the British Library, would make mincemeat of the fifteenth-century Latin manuscript. Even then I have to transcribe the bits I’m most interested in and will have to translate them properly later. I console myself by saying all kinds of things, that I am interested in different kinds of issues of cultural history; that I know a whole lot more than I used to. And in the end, I’m confident that I can write the book, pretty much as I want to. And that is a Good Thing.
But I am heartily sick of carrying around my computer, and will look forward to putting in back on my desk where it belongs. I’ve bought a ridiculously heavy snowdome for Joel (big as you can get; Tower of London; a police call box; old bus; houses of Parliament; glitter; plays a tune — I wonder what?) and will look forward to checking that in at Heathrow tomorrow, too.
I’m sure it’s carrying the computer around that is making my breast sore. I was warned that there might be post-surgical pain for several months, and a heavy back-pack is surely to blame for soft tissue damage and intermittent pain. Still, it’s horrible to feel this uncertainty. It’s definitely time to come home.