Musings

Rotary Nortons, lunch and fifteenth century painting

It’s all Hugh Jaeger’s fault. As are so many things. It’s been mayhem at the office since January. The shells keep coming over. Every day we’ve climbed the fire-step, scrambled over the parapet and – bayonets fixed – charged the enemy. And now, this week, for the first time, there’s space to breathe a little. So I gave myself the day off and rode back behind friendly lines into Oxford in search of inspiration. Instead, I spotted a familiar, Rasputin-like figure astride a rotary Norton.

A text later, Hugh and I were sat enjoying a cracking good lunch in Oxford’s Covered Market.

Conversations over lunch with Hugh tend to be broad-ranging. We covered transport policy, Anglo-Saxon history, Oxford’s Divine Right cyclists, ecclesiastical law, carrot cake recipes, the appointment of Archbishops and beer. We also hit upon medieval church paintings. And that’s where it all started.

Hugh explained that in a tiny hamlet called Shorthampton, just west of Charlbury, there is a church – All Saints church. Apart from a fascinating mix of Norman architecture, eighteenth century box-pews and cracking views across to Chadlington, there are wall paintings.

There aren’t many church wall paintings left. The more pointy-headed of the Reformation’s reformers went around defacing, whitewashing and destroying them. Now, they’d be town planners. But a few, out-of-the-way churches still have some of their paintings intact.

So, after waving Hugh goodbye, I fired up the Ural and headed for Shorthampton.

It’s a long climb out of Burford to the top of the downs. The Ural was not happy. She was sulking and protesting the recent lack of care. But we eventually made it along the wonderfully sinuous B4437 (don’t tell the Reformers at OCC – they’ll deface, whitewash and destroy it with 30, 40 and 50 signs) to the Shorthampton turn.

It seemed prudent to pay the old girl a bit of attention, so I pulled the tool-roll from the boot and set to. Carb bolts tightened. Left inside bolt’s a bit loose – that won’t help. Drain the float-bowls. Bit of crap in both. Tighten the front brake torque arm. Plugs out and wire-brushed clean. Then, work done, sat in the chair enjoying the view and felt the bother and stress of the last couple of months drift off and away.

Key in, start up and down the hill. MUCH better. See? It just takes a bit of attention and she’s happy again. Park outside the church, open the latch on the gate, push the door and – wow.

That’s St. Mary, the infant Christ and St James. It’s a depiction of a story from the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus where Jesus makes clay birds fly. More’s the point, it’s fifteenth century. So, Mary would have seen Agincourt, Joan of Arc and the Wars of the Roses in just her first few years of life.

Then, turning round, wow again:

A fragment of dragon’s wing – almost certainly a St George picture. It must have been quite a scene.

I opened the little door to one of the box-pews (free now – you’d have had to pay pew-rent once) and sat for a while, looking out of the east window at the valley.

I’d like to pretend I thought great thoughts, perhaps about the triumph of creativity and artistic endeavour. But, instead, I thought back to our last pitch, where we got slated for offering too many creative options. And I laughed. Looking at St Mary and her two lads and their clay birds, I suspected the painter and I would have shared the laughter. “Can’t you make it, well, a bit more… divine?”

And looking at the work of my rather earlier and much more talented colleague, somehow the shot and shell of the last three months didn’t matter quite so much. The painter and I agreed on that. And, bidding him a nod of fellow-feeling as one creative to another, I dropped some coins into the box by the door, pulled on my jacket and went in search of an end of week G&T.

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