Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

From vision to inheritance…

Poet Alice Goodman was one third of the trinity behind the 1987 opera “Nixon in China”. Music was by John Adams. And the premier at the Houston Grand Opera was directed by Peter Sellars. How do relationships like this work?

The recording I have includes the original cast, especially James Maddalena in the role of Richard Nixon and Sanford Sylvan as Chou En-lai. It’s been a while since my last hearing of the work but the melodies and many of the words are still in my head. This evening I’m recollecting a toast at the banquet which concludes Act I, particularly one line: “…from vision to inheritance…”

That fragment from Goodman’s libretto (based on the actual words of Chou readily available in video recordings from the event itself) resonated with a project I hope to undertake as an Agincourt spin-off component, a collaboration between the architecture and art programs at NDSU’s SoDAA (School of Design, Architecture & Art). It’s the synergy between Goodman’s words and Adams’s music that has lodged in my memory: in true “minimalist” form, Chou repeats the phrase three or four times. Sanford Sylvan voice lingers in memory, perhaps, as much as the words and music.

Quite aside from opera itself, though, it’s the power of those four words — “…from vision to inheritance…” — that strike me. Isn’t it what we’re all supposed to be about? I wonder if they were Chou’s words or whether Ms Good man put them in his mouth.

[#1575]

On Mortality

Milton Stewart Yergens [1949–2022]

It’s time for an end-of-the-year assessment of changes that have occurred during 2022. There have been two especially happy events, both connected with my retirement from full-time teaching. One took place in April, a gathering at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead of a hundred and fifty well-wishers. The second more recently, a more limited group of grads from the late 1970s who think some more prominent recognition was appropriate. I have been humbled by each. The third event is equally humbling and not necessarily at the other end of the emotional spectrum: the passing of yet another friend who should have outlived me by many, many years.

There is rumored to be fine print at the bottom of our birth certificates: that everyone who passes before us is required to be older, significantly older. Twenty-twenty-three will be the 20th anniversary of two close friends leaving us, within weeks of one another: Cecil Elliott, colleague, mentor, friend, and someone who was, in many ways, Cecil’s protege, Dennis Colliton, who was also colleague, advisor, and friend. Cecil was 80 years old; Dennis was 50 and left without warning. So, as I reflect on this anniversary, there is another name to add: Milton Yergens [1949–2022].

Agincourt wasn’t even a fantasy when Cecil and Dennis passed. But the project profited mightily from fourteen years of guidance by our friend Milton. Honorary citizenship is far too little acknowledgment for the quality and the quantity of Milton’s contributions, so many of them that I’ve long ago lost count.

Several people of my acquaintance have been written into the Agincourt narrative, each of them in a very specific way and with the intent to memorialize them in ways that only I will sense and understand. Milton’s case is quite different, however. His hand is everywhere; his contributions manifold and compounded many times over. The proper way to remember him here hasn’t come to me yet. But it will. Because it must.

Psychogeography (again)

Long before I’d encountered the word psychogeography, I had enjoyed several authors who have turned out to be central to it as an emerging discipline. Four earlier entries here have touched on it, albeit lightly, and I suspect it will come up again. Especially as I explore what it means for the Project.

  • Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat was my first exposure to the idea. And it was tough wading through Sinclair’s style.
  • And Machen showed up twice, especially his essay on wandering. [Machen, for me, makes a much easier read.]
  • Then there’s Keri Smith’s The Wander Society, a gift from a student in my 321 class, and the sequence of books by University of Wisconsin faculty member Yi-Fu Tuan, who passed just this past August. R.I.P., Professor Tuan.

In addition to Machen, Sinclair and Smith, another author just appeared on my radar: Colin Ellard’s 2015 book Places of the Heart: the psychogeography of everyday life. There’s a degree of satisfaction in mucking about in this project, only to discover I’d been fumbling with real wisdom but not doing terribly well at it. Maybe Ellard will help.

Honorificabilitudinitatibus

“Kussharo Lake Tree, Study no 9, Kotan, Hokkaido, Japan, 2009” – ©Michael Kenna

The second longest word in English with alternating consonants and vowels, it is an hapax legomenon (άπαξ λεγόμενων), a thing spoken just once. It appears (only once, thank god) in Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost” (act V, scene I) and means “the state of being able to achieve honours” — a condition unfamiliar to many of us. As Superintendent in the Department of Redundancy Department, this is both an unfamiliar and an enticing concept. And well beyond me.

Like myself, there are any number of people in Agincourt, now and in the past, who seem never to have tired of repetition. Perhaps the worst of them was Agincourt’s unlucky thirteen mayor who survived just the first half of his term, the Hon Edmund FitzGerald Flynn. Ed never met a platitude he didn’t like, especially if it promoted his pontification on what was best for all of us. Of course, those purported benefits never quite trickled down to ordinary folk like you and me. Even before Göbbels advised telling “The Big Lie” — “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State” — Ed was onto the idea like stink on poop. Hapax legomenon would have been an unfamiliar and antithetical notion.

Ed might have thought himself eligible for honours, those he hadn’t already assumed for himself, but honorificabilitudinitatibus would never have applied. So, if nothing else, we’ve added a new word to our vocabulary, one that you’ll be lucky to use even once.

Transition

In that slow, deliberate glide into what our friend Cecil Elliott called “the dirt nap”, I find myself with en embarrassment of riches (which is not to say wealth) and no place to put it: It currently includes:

  • a considerable accumulation (please note that I did not dignify this with the word “collection”) of art that makes sense to me and me alone;
  • a substantial personal library, a very large portion of which may be the finest collection of titles in architecture for several miles around, but who reads books any more?
  • fifty-plus years of research material that may never be organized in a state that would make it useful to anyone.

And then there’s The Agincourt Project, which consists of words, thousands of them, posted here in cyberspace and so close to evaporation that I lose sleep; artifacts galore, architectural models, stained glass windows, welded steel sculpture, and the “Community Collection” of art, now numbering well over two hundred pieces of marginal merit but inestimable value to this narrative. I know what will become of me.¹ But what of all this?

¹ The instructions for my own disposal are few: 1) baggy, 2) twist-tie, 3) curbside, 4) Tuesday morning, 5) before 8:30. I don’t qualify for recycling, so don’t use the blue bin.

INTROIT

Peter Ackroyd built his 1985 novel Hawksmoor on the reputation of the English Baroque architect [±1661–1736]. That Hawksmoor had been overcome by the shadows of far larger historical figures like Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh. We don’t have to ask where Wren is spending eternity; his burial in the crypt advises to “look about you” for his monument. The Vanbrugh vault in St. Stephen Walbrook’s churchyard is unmarked. Nicholas Hawksmoor is partly accountable for the reputations of both Wren and Vanbrugh, as their loyal but unsung assistant-collaborator — so unsung that his tomb at Shenleybury, Hertfordshire, is no longer a churchyard but has been deconsecrated as a private home.

Ackroyd’s contribution to Hawksmoor’s rehabilitation is an odd exception to the annals of art history: he fictionalizes the 18th century architect as a 20th century Scotland Yard detective and substitutes Nicholas Dyer as the occult designer of six London churches, the essence of the short-lived English Baroque. A visit to London without pilgrimage to Christ Church Spitalfields or St. Mary Woolnoth is a missed opportunity.

Architect Dyer and detective Hawksmoor across those two hundred and fifty years by seven crimes perpetrated by one and seven more investigated by the other. Gradually, they disappear into the wormhole that binds them together. Each pair of homicides occurs at one of those London churches. But wait, you say, there is one pair of homicides lacking an actual Hawksmoor church. And therein lies the link between story-telling and place-making, between narrative and design. Ackroyd’s skill evoking word pictures conjured in the mind of this designer, me, images of the fictional seventh church, Little St Hugh. On the night I finished the novel, I actually dreamt the church. Is that a credit to me or the author?

The finest fiction, historical and otherwise, rests with the author’s ability to generate powerful word-pictures, in much the same way, I believe, designers create places which encourage the making of moments, incidents in the narratives of our lives.

The Bin

“It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe”. — Arthur Machen, from The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering (1924)

A recent entry here concerns a book, a gift from a student on the last day of class in architectural history. The content of the last two lectures seemed to resonate with this favored book and he wished to share those feelings, for which I am grateful. Now two-thirds complete with the read, I can see what it was that spurred the gift and will 1) take its content to heart, and 2) pass the book along again in due course to another unofficial member of the Wander Society. As is the case more often than not, the Smith book reminded me of one I’d read several years ago and now need to read again: The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering (1924).

Aging hip joints and sciatica that comes and goes at its pleasure have told me I shan’t be wandering very much in these latter days. But both Smith and Machen leave open a useful alternative: to wander in place. Indeed, I’m wandering right now in the 4th floor computer lab, with little wear and tear on the hip and the luxury of engaging in a good ramble when and to wherever I see fit. Today’s adventure is taking me briefly to Agincourt and a consideration of yet another untapped and under-explored aspect of community history: mental health. I’ve alluded to it now and then — Walden Retreat, for example, the private mental clinic on East Thoreau Avenue along the banks of Crispin Creek or the puppet shows held on Saturday afternoons in The Commons by some of Dr Kölb’s “guests” — but the time comes now for a more comprehensive treatment of the general topic of mental health, what community standards have been hereabouts, and how they’ve changed through one hundred and fifty years.

My own mental health is always in question. It took a sudden turn this week which I hope the content of this entry or its sequels will serve to improve.

What’s so funny?

As multi-sensory creatures, I’ve asked students to map their neighborhood, the place where they grew up, but map it in terms other than visual. What sounds do you recall? What did it smell like and how did those smells vary throughout the year? Writing about a design by Liverpool artist Margaret Lloyd (which was crafted into a stained glass window by artist-craftsman David Fode), a fell down a rabbit hole that suggested there may, in fact, be more than five senses. What about the sense of humor or, since we’re speaking of the British, of humour.

What’s so funny?

Sight, smell and sound may enable us to place ourselves in physical space. But the sense of humor performs the same valuable though unrecognized function to understand our position in time. As with any element of the social construct, change occurs with greater and greater speed; what seems funny today may not have been a month ago. Perhaps even yesterday. The question of Margaret Lloyd’s design in 1905 has already challenged our notion of what’s so funny.

One of her designs, the one which served as inspiration for a stained glass window, was based on a staple of late 19th and early 20th century popular culture: the Punch & Judy Show. However politically incorrect it may be today, the very idea of exposing children to physical domestic violence and then to find amusement in Judy being thwacked by her partner Punch was perfectly acceptable entertainment at the pier or country fair on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Some sleuthing produced two ore examples of Margaret Lloyd’s design ability, part of a series called “The Village Fair”. One of her circular designs was titled “Cakes and Ale” but the other — the one which took me farther down that rabbit hole and resulted in this blog entry — was titled “Richardson’s Show” (left in the pair shown here). I held out little hope for identifying her source but, typically, the internet satisfied my insatiable curiosity: John Richardson was an early 19th century comedian, though that’s probably not the right word for his time and place. Sources suggest “showman” as far more apt.

John Richardson [1766-1836] is fairly well documented, which helps to explain why someone active in the early 20th century would know a British public figure who died the year before Victoria ascended to the throne. According to one on-line source, “Charles Dickens described a performance of Richardson’s show at Greenwich Fair as a melodrama with three murders and a ghost, a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes.”¹ Thanks to his first novel The Pickwick Papers — which was serialized between March 1836 and November 1837 — any British schoolchild during the reigns of Victoria and Edward VII would have know the eccentric showman Richardson (shown above during his own lifetime). It was the content of his “Show” that brings up today’s topic: how has humor changed through time?

¹ For Richardson in a larger context, visit: http://www.classic.circushistory.org/History/Clown2.htm#BIB.

Lake Life (1.something or other)

Archers (that’s what people from Agincourt call themselves) have been summering at Sturm & Drang since the 1880s. A spur line of the NITC served the community between about 1911 and WWII, with a single stop at the Station-Store where passengers transferred to the motor launch that served an arc of resorts going halfway clockwise around Lake Drang. Depicting “lake life” has been aided by postcard offerings of examples from cabins to hotels, most of them dating before 1929 and, therefore, of a more rustic character. With good fortune, I found two postcard views that qualify for inclusion. I’m certain each of them has a story to tell.

 

Enriqueta Tennant Rylands [1843–1908]

In the land of Six Degrees of Separation (with or without Kevin Bacon), I’ve experienced more than a fair share of connections that seem too close for coïcidence. Witness the (synthetic) family of Anson Curtiss Tennant, entirely concocted and major players in the Agincourt narrative.

photo copyright John Rylands University Library

The young architect required a family, so I provided one, three generations back and two ahead. To simplify the “work”, I made the founder of the family a bastard, there being at least three “Tennant” families in Burke’s Landed Gentry as sperm donors. Flash forward several years: Mr J. Johnson and I were walking down Deansgate, the main thoroughfare in Manchester, UK. I stopped short, making Jeremiah wonder what could be wrong, and I pointed to the John Rylands Library two blocks ahead. I was a little foggy on its date but knew precisely that the architect had been Basil Champneys, a name that doesn’t roll lightly off the tongue or the memory. We invested a couple hours wandering it wondrous interior where the main reading room is presided over by larger-than-life white marble sculptures of the library’s founders John and Enriquetta Rylands. Then flash forward to a simple search for additional information on the library and its founders at the end of the 19th century.

Much to my surprise, shock and amazement, Mrs Rylands was the former Enriqueta Augustina Tennant [1843-1908], born in Havana, Cuba, to an English father and Cuban mother. You can find quite a bit of biography about her but two things are important for me: #1) her maiden name was Tennant, for krysakes, and #2) “Enriqueta Rylands is one of the most influencer [sic] philanthropists in the history of the United Kingdom,” according to a documentary I found. [They must have used google.translate.]

It’s going to take a while to weave this good woman into the tale but I’m compelled to do it.