Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Isn't It Iconic

Isn't It Iconic

Two days ago, amongst the Shakespearian vomitting and prior to the swelling glands, I mentioned the word 'iconic'. And then I left it, hanging in the air, half uttered but never explained. Now that I can comfortably sit without having to poke myself in the eye or wonder if I'm going to have to rush off to the bathroom it's time to return to it.

I came to the conclusion some time ago that I fall hopelessly in love with things that are iconic. And my favourite branch of the iconic tree? Iconic writers. Just think about it. I love Ginny Woolf, the women whose face sells more postcards at the National Portrait gallery than any other, who is such a reference point that Albee could name his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and who, if any more proof were needed, has a glossy, several hundred page book about her entitled 'Virginia Woolf: Icon'. Then there's Shakespeare - the undisputed iconic English writer, Sylvia Plath - whose story is so iconic it has become almost mythical, Oscar Wilde - another whose life often eclipses his work and F Scott Fitzgerald - who with his wife was the celebrity equivalent of Posh and Becks in 1920's America. The fact that I can name recent films - or in the case of Fitzgerald a very badly reviewed musical - about all of the above either points to the fact that I need to extend my reading habits beyond the canon or that there's something about the twist of writerly fame that wraps itself around me.

But when we're talking about iconic writers who float my proverbial boat there's one a needn't look far from. A certain Byron. I'm obsessed with the Romantic poets in general but it's in the most iconic of them all - and in the first recognisable non-Royal media celebrity that Britain ever had - that my obsession peaks. From the moment I heard how this selfish, pleasure seeking, foolish, incredibly intelligent, not-so-little rich boy ended up dying - rather bathtically - in Greece for the most unselfish reasons possible, for a cause that wasn't his but which he vehemently believed in, I wanted to know this man. All great writers are, as cliched as it sounds, a ball of contradiction, it's undoubtedly why so many of my favourites had incredibly difficult lives, most dying tragically young. But I knew from Byron's contradiction so greatly embodied in the facts of his life, that I had to read him. I wanted to know what he had to say.

And whilst Byron's myth is still bigger than his work, what I found in his poems which are as far removed from Wordsworth's iconic daffodils as it is possible to be whilst still existing under the same blanket term fired every hope and thought I'd had about him. Because let's get this straight. Byron is funny. You read Don Juan and you'll laugh. And part of this charm is in how fearless he is. Manfred takes the Faust story but here, as the clock ticks down, it is Manfred who triumphs. He may not survive but he beats the spirits by dying on his own terms. Because Byron's writing is aspirational stuff. Most often aspirational failure - like the figure of Napoleon who so enamoured him - but aspirational nontheless. And there's a greatness about that, something about Byron's belief in the power of the individual which touched me, just as Byron's story touched me. This is not to say Byron is perfect any more than I think Ginny, or Oscar or - even - Will is. If you're new to Byron I'd suggest giving Childe Harold's Pilgrimage a bit of a wide berth for the time being. Sections of it sparkle and flash as all of Byron's writing - even his early stuff - does but my, does some of it drag. It seems to go on forever and beyond. But his failures make me love his writing even more. No one wants something pedestrian, least of all me and my clutch of icons.

So knowing all of this you may begin to see why my trip on Sunday to Newstead Abbey ,Byron's anncestoral home, is worthy of the 'iconic' word. Cat, Val and I had been intending to make, what is at least in my case, the pilgrimage for some time so I was a little over-excited about by the time it came around. Ok, for little read like a five year old on Christmas morning. What my desire to effectively stalk someone who has been dead for 180 odd years says about me I don't want to consider. Maybe that I could do with the therapist sooner rather than later.

Newstead, or Nu-stud as is the non-tourist way to say it, is vast. It's got grounds so big it's hard to comprehend that one person owned them all. As we soon discovered walking around the grounds getting lost is a very real and vivid possibility. Even in its now tourist state we hardly saw another person as we trekked through the undergrowth, round trees, over stepping stones down to lakes that will have you conjuring up Regency swimming faster than you can say 'Mr Darcy'. I would like to say that was the only thing I conjured up but that would be a complete lie. Within minutes of being in the gardens I was plotting where the marquee would go when I get married there. Look, I know that I'm not getting married next week and, more importantly, that Nu-stud don't let you have marquees but when has reality ever impinged upon me? After all we'd found the perfect spot for the marquee, naturally incorporating the memorial to Byron's dog Boatswain, and had to plan where the band would go. Priorities would be the word.

But if I could almost smell Byron in the grounds, it was in the house itself that I lost a bit of my heart to Nu-stud. I know the drill with these places. 'This is a pen that is like the one that so-and-so wrote with', 'this hat may have belonged to bla-bla'. But Nu-stud wasn't like that. To say that Byron had to sell the house a surprising amount of his belongings are still there, not least his bed which takes pride of place on the tour and which is so high that it has steps next to it. I only shuddered slightly at what that poor bed must have seen. When I discovered that they had first editions of all of Byron's publications in the library - devoted to to a follow the life story of Byron type display that was notable for the fact that it was littered with his belongings - I almost needed a paper bag. First editions. Do you know how much I would give for one of those? I wet myself enough when I was given an 1844 collection for my 21st. But a first edition of Don Juan? I'd need a supply of oxygen with it.

If the paintings, and his bed and books were not enough, however, there was something about Nu-stud that raised it even higher in my estimation. That rather than stuffy museum it had taken in something of the spirit of Byron. And I don't know what spirit of Byron means to you but to me it would definitely involve a clause about dressing up. I think even under normal circumstances Cat, Val and myself wouldn't need a second push to start donning dressing up clothing. And this time it was legitimised under the museum/educational tag. We could dress up as Byron (cue plans to steal the now-fashionable puffed white shirt) and then as Victorians. I was only a little - ok, a lot - thrilled to discover that, crappy material aside, I can work that regency, Jane Austen heroine look. Which means, with my rapidly decreasing grasp on sanity, that I could have been a Byron groupie. I bet they had t-shirts. With a tagline of 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', they're crying out for them.

Just when Nu-stud looked like it couldn't get any better it had one final trick. Its giftshop. I knew that I'd spend the gross national product of a small third world country in it, even before I'd entered, and when I finally got there it was clear that I'd be working three days this week. Not least because they had the same view of iconic as me - Ginny, Oscar and Will all got a look in on the gifts and I ended up spending twelve pounds on Byron tat. A bit more and i'm sure that I could have claimed a piece of Nu-stud in their 'adopt a stone' scheme.

Iconic. And a little bit magic.

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