Cultural Tourism, Following in the Steps of Our Artistic Heroes  

Cultural Tourism, Following in the Steps of Our Artistic Heroes

By Malcolm Sharps

I’m making this recommendation not to the oldies of my generation but to younger people, particularly to those in their twenties and thirties; that was the age when I did it myself.  Profit from the knowledge of an older, wiser man when I tell you, this is the best tourism I ever did in my life, at least, now I look back it seems that way because I have so many hooks on which to hang my memories. Many things I did have already been partly erased or have totally vanished from my thoughts but those trips which I refer to as Cultural Tourism remain fixed in my memory.

So what do you have to do to become a cultural tourist? First pick your cultural hero: a writer, a musician, a painter that you really love. Then you seek out their town, the houses in which they lived, the streets on which they used to walk, the hang-outs of their set; if they painted, find the sites they painted; if they wrote novels, look for the haunts of their characters, the schools, the churches, the bridges over the rivers they crossed. When you arrive, find the bar or the cafe in which they used to drink, and take a drink there too – and you will indulge in the fantasy of sharing their world. And it’s actually far less of a fantasy than sharing in their works, because these places existed and still exist, they are part of the solid reality of your hero’s life, the sources of their ideas and they can inspire the same in yours.

The first conscious cultural tourist trip I made was to Aldeburgh (aka the Borough or ‘boro), a small town on the coast of Eastern England, only 60 miles from where I was living in Cambridge. Naturally, in Cambridge history and culture are everywhere, whether it’s a plaque to mark the pub where Crick and Watson used to drink after a long day plotting the structure of DNA, or John Harvard’s old university college of Emmanuel, but this was the first time I visited a place with a specific artist in mind. My arrival on the coast connected me immediately to the world of composer Benjamin Britten and the poet George Crabbe, with around 200 years separating them. Britten was actually a Lowestoft man, but the nearby fishing town of Aldeburgh was a much more attractive place, a very welcoming home in 1942 after his return from the American years, and it offered surprising opportunities for him to create a music festival with its fairly cheap abandoned agricultural buildings. For a time, he lived in an old windmill on the outskirts, a stump of the original tower that was made into a comfortable home. On that first trip of mine there were two great links immediately with Britten and Crabbe: I booked a room in the same street as Britten lived when he first came to Aldeburgh. It was some way down from his house on the street known as Crabbe Street. It runs along parallel to the sea with great views of the waves; it was that same expanse of sea Crabbe knew and wrote about, and Britten much later used Crabbe’s poem Peter Grimes and made it his own, turning it into perhaps the greatest of all English operas.

Photo by Malcolm Sharps

In the morning I walked along the pebble beach. The sky was enormous and the Four Sea Interludes from the opera were in my head as I chack-chacked my way over the pebbles passing the boats hauled up onto the shingle and guys selling their fish. It was pretty much the same world as Crabbe wrote about in the 1770s:

He was a fisher from his earliest day,
And placed his nets within the borough’s bay;
Where by his skates, his herrings, and his soles,
He lived nor dream’d of corporation-doles
But, toiling, saved and, saving, never ceased
Till he had boxed up twelve score pounds at least.

They were all still small-time operators at Aldeburgh, still selling their fish on the beach to rake in a few pounds. Those must have been the freshest fish in the world but I had no way of cooking them and I contented myself with the cooked fish from Aldeburgh’s fish and chip shop, a place that denies the proletarian origins of the food with the heavenly quality of its produce. But fishing was no longer the chief business of the town, which was more known for its tourism now. It was a well-preserved mainly 18th and 19th century coastal settlement, in its time built with a puritanical lack of ornamentation and a stoical determination to endure the buffeting of the sea wind, but the walls of the houses in our own time have been made bright and vivid by the use of a variety of coloured washes. I walked the length of the town accompanied by the constant screeching of fish-happy gulls, convinced that Britten had made the perfect choice for his home and I imagined him walking daily along this beach as though he were the town’s guardian, which in a way he became. I knew of his fondness for beautiful, fast cars, and nowadays one was more likely to see him sweeping along the main street driving his Jensen Interceptor. I was a little envious.

The next year I signed up for a youth project in Aldeburgh. By now Britten’s quaint parochial festival in the village hall had expanded into a maltings, a place formerly for the fermentation of grain to be made into beer, which had been turned into a magnificent concert hall, The Maltings. The Britten Festival also made use of several local churches. The young people did small jobs at the various Festival sites, sold tickets, showed people to their seats, tended to the parking. In return for our work we got free tickets to the concerts. Even better, we got invited to a garden party at the Red House, Britten’s current home. At that time Britten had attracted a small group of intellectuals to this improbably forgotten and peaceful location he had chosen for his home and festival. Bobby Lowell was one and the author Laurens van de Post another. I got to attend their readings when I was there.

As for Britten himself, unfortunately these were his final days; the young guests in the Red House garden began to think he wouldn’t turn up, but after an hour he entered gripping the arm of his nurse for support. He was as fragile as a leaf that is about to fall if shaken, obviously forcing himself through each moment to at least make an appearance at his own party, but there was no faking the pleasure he showed in seeing us all. By chance, he stood close to where I was, he smiled at me and said ’hello’, only that one word, but aged 23 it created such a happy moment and it was followed after so short a time by such a sad one, when a year later I was standing beside his grave in the parish churchyard on one of my many returns to Aldeburgh. He was 63. As I get older that age gets to seem sadly younger and more tragic.

Fast forward 10 years, to another visit to a musical hero of mine, this time to long departed Frederick Delius. That trip took me out of England to Paris and the Isle-de-France. Delius had strong connections to Paris but later in life he moved to the place which was my real destination, the village of Grez. It is such a contrast to Paris, so simple with its main street silent and almost permanently empty, Grez with its terrace of two-storey houses in pale grey stone, and its arched bridge crossing the River Loing, a magnet for the Impressionist painters. As I dipped my croissant in hot chocolate in the hotel much like any other hotel in any small town in rural France, I felt overjoyed to be there, and convinced myself this wasn’t just any small rural town, after all, this was Delius’s place.

I travelled through Moret to get to Grez. I’d never been there before but I already knew it, as I felt I recognised many places along the way; they are all recorded in the paintings of Sisley and other Impressionists. Delius lived in Grez for many years, more years than he did in England, Germany or America. Why Grez? Why such a remote place for an artist to live? But the remoteness is apparent only; Fontainebleau is close, as is the artists’ town of Moret, and the artists’ colony of Barbizon; there is a railway station not far away with a line to Paris. Delius and also his wife Jelka could with some effort keep in touch with the life of the capital.

My first view of Delius’s actual solid physical world was the front of his house on the main street at Grez. It is a long two-storey house, a building without rails or fencing distancing it from the street. It was initially the house of Jelka, his painter wife, a friend of Rodin. It is impressive but not expressive of his individuality as an artist; it might belong to any prosperous provincial. But the real treasure of the visit was to be seen on the other side of the house, the views of Delius’s garden seen across the River Loing. Delius was obsessed with the natural world, obsessed with one season, Summer, above all others, obsessed with the sunshine he would never see in the blindness of his final years; the sounds of nature, particularly birdsong, are always somewhere hiding in his works, above all in his later music. From the opposite bank of the Loing looking into the gardens, I checked that I was in line with the correct house, the one I’d identified in the street. To think that in this green space, this expanse of flowers surrounded by trees, he wrote the tone poems In a Summer Garden and Summer Night on the River, works written in and about this garden and close beside and about this river. When I saw it I knew that no other garden in the world was ever closer to Delius than this one. It was something difficult to take in. In his final will Delius asked to be buried in this garden – but the municipality, observing the higher orders of French propriety, refused the request.

The static unreality of Grez, its seeming isolation from the whole world, even from the rest of France, was no disappointment to me; it fitted well with the Delius myth. He had worn his Englishness with a strange ambivalence all his life, constantly running away from England, and had finally come to a halt here, as if obeying the arbitrary choice of a casual roll of the dice.

After two days walking the same cobble streets and making a further crossing of the picturesque, many-arched bridge, I was beginning to feel the restricting smallness of the place. What’s more, I sensed something different from what I’d felt about Britten in Aldeburgh. In spite of its still beauty, its tranquillity which must have been an invaluable aid to creativity, Delius was a foreigner in this place. He was doubly so; as a member of a super-rich German manufacturing family in this region of peasant farmers, he was different; and seen as an Englishman in France with a German wife beside him, this enigmatically aloof expatriate with the sightless eyes and meticulous French must always have been viewed as an outsider. The village must never quite have absorbed him into its bosom. How could it?

I partly confirmed this impression in a rather odd discovery I made when I came to send some post-cards home. I bought my ‘Delius in Grez’ postcard at the post office. But the name on the back of the card had been spelled wrongly, Frederick Deslius (1862-1934). They didn’t seem to know who he was, this formidable genius who had lived in the isolation of his garden in his final years. Grez didn’t know who Delius was now and probably it had never known him.

So try out Cultural Tourism. And remember, artists always choose the best places to live. That’s one step in the right direction they’ve already made on your behalf; they choose the best view of the sea, the most tranquil spots on the river, the hill town with the most dramatic panoramas, the house in the perfectly harmonic settlement. So follow in their steps. Share the physical side to their world, let it inspire your thoughts as it did theirs. But be warned, once you have been there, the songs, the poems, the paintings, the novels will never seem the same again. I recommend you do it now, do it while you’re young, do it while the world of artists seems like one of Gods living amongst men, do it while you still have heroes.

Afterword for American Readers

Americans can make a cultural tourism trip which is so much more difficult for me to make. You can go in pursuit of Delius in his Florida years! The year was 1884, Delius was not settling well into the family business of wool manufacture. He agreed with his father to try managing an orange plantation at Solano Grove near the St Johns River in Florida. Perhaps his father thought it would finally get his son interested in management. Delius wasn’t too committed to growing oranges but he adored American music and he wrote many American pieces based on the songs he heard the plantation workers and the river boat workers singing: Appalachia, Koanga, the Florida Suite. The plantation was wound down long ago and the land sold. But here is the wonder – something of Delius still remains! Due to an idea absolutely American in its daring. They lifted Delius’s chalet in Solano Grove on the Florida coast and carried it in one piece 35 miles up north to Jacksonville for re-erection, and there it is in the grounds of Jacksonville University at this very moment! Next time you’re in Florida…

3 Responses to Cultural Tourism, Following in the Steps of Our Artistic Heroes  

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    Reading or listening to Malcolm is always an educational experience, and one that leaves us wanting more. I’m sure that there are numerous sequels, especially the cultural tourism that sent him to Hungary some forty years ago searching for the Bela Bartok, and kept him there until the present day.

  2. David Daniel says:

    “…as I chack-chacked my way over the pebbles …” what a fresh image! Thank you for this cultural Baedeker and the shared pleasure your travels (just a small bit from the many, I’m guessing). The Crick-Watson detail is fortunate, because you’re making the case for tracking the cultural DNA of our artistic (or historic, scientific, athletic, etc.) heroes & heroines. I like the urging, too, for folks to do it while young. We see some of this in the continuing trickle of people who come to Lowell from the back of the beyond to root in the dust of Kerouac’s town.

    In my own case, I remember the pleasure at 17 of setting out from my hometown of Weymouth and bicycling the 20-odd miles to Forest Hills Cemetery to seek out the grave of Eugene O’Neill–a simple stone with his last name on it. Or some years later, deciding to go from New England to Oregon to attend the university on the simple recommendation of its having been where Ken Kesey attended. One of my first acts upon arriving in Eugene was to find a phone booth with a local directory, find the author’s number & address and tearing out the page. For months I carried it in my wallet. Never did call him.

  3. Peter Bendall says:

    As with all of Malcolm Sharps’s writings about culture, this piece is full of insight, fascinating detail and humour. He observes his subjects and their surroundings with great sympathy, supported by his deep knowledge of their lives and works. There could not be a better guide to cultural tourism than this, and not just for the young: older folk, such as myself, with our rail and bus passes (or even driving licences), can easily visit the sites of our literary, musical and artistic heroes with just a little willpower. So thank you Malcolm for sowing the seed and lighting the flame.