Future Past: Christopher Townsend on a Very British Modernism

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Britain is a foreign land, its foundation stones shrouded in history and myth. We see it behind us, poorly reflected in the dark mirrors of modern media. Small, impoverished silhouettes move about in the mist. They 'do things differently': they carve stone and wood with their own hands, they walk in the landscape and hear rough music, they dream equally of the remote past and a distant future--a horizon that is to come--of perfectible man and international peace, of equitable societies and manageable technologies.

The era of mid-century modernism and modernity is lost to us now, its Utopias are as unattainable as the archaic ages of Knossos and Troy, and presented to us in fragments gathered from the archaeological excavation of what was to come rather than the digging up of what really happened. It is not simply that there is now no one alive who endured the terrors of the Western Front in 1918; there is now no one who walked across London Bridge in the 1920s and saw Stetson and his fellow shades from Mylae, no one who has driven an Austin 7 for more than sentimental purposes, or gazed in amusement or raw awe at the fresh ferrous brickwork of the commuter stations at the further reaches of the District Line. We reach the 1920s and 30s now through a displaced, televised nostalgia: if John Betjeman's self-reifying, self-parodising Metroland of 1973 was the first instalment, we try now to touch the past mostly in wishful thinking and romantic scholarship, typified by Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns--a made-for-BBC4 book if ever there was one.

The simultaneous adventure towards both future and the antique is an impossible experience for us: whether the horizon of possibility sensed in the shock of travel by fast car or plane or trans-European train to be found in Elizabeth Bowen's novels, or the ridiculous notion that abstract art might--in some future contingency between the aesthetic and the political--transform social life. Lost too are the threads that connected mid-century modernism to its own remote, recently reclaimed inheritance, palpably sensed, palpably rediscovered--like Paul Nash finding Neolithic stones standing in tall grass and used by cattle to rub their backs. The cultural fabric of the inter-war world was held together by classical threads, as if a few loose ends of Ariadne's string or Penelope's unfinished shroud for Laertes had been picked up and incorporated into the weft and warp of modernity. The antique past gave the present something to hope for. Indeed, modernity and the antique were dialectical aspects of the same: Nietzsche diagnosed with his nostrum in the Birth of Tragedy that modernity was antiquity moving backwards. There was a reciprocal telos between technology and mind, the one venturing boldly into the future, the other with equal daring into the past.

By sleeper train and slow boat, by Humber, by Morris and by Green Line bus--as much as by the mind--British modernist art and culture undertook that seemingly self-cancelling excursion. In 1936 the novelist Lawrence Durrell would ask: 'Is there no one writing at all in England now?' Appropriately enough, that letter was postmarked Corfu, but even when the artist was at home, the mind was elsewhere, in another space, another time. We witness the journey in Nash's Avebury-influenced work, and his intuitive engagement with the history of Maiden Castle hill-fort at the same time as Mortimer Wheeler conducted his scientific excavations there (short hauls to Dorset and to Wiltshire) and in the poet HD's psychic palimpsests (a mental excursus matched by flights to Freud in Vienna) recently and brilliantly analysed by Cathy Gere in The Prophets of Knossos. Arthur Evans's excavations at Knossos, with Heinrich Schliemann's at Troy, and the more general efflorescence of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th century offered, in their peeling back of the pellicle of history, insights for a newly secular modernity into a radically different past from that found in modernity's assumed--and breached--Christian heritage. …