Webs of intrigue

So much of our life is based and depends on stories all connected to our grand life narrative. Perhaps without realizing it, we often view the writing process and story-telling generally in terms of weaving. We can lose the thread when we veer from the plot, or, like inferior fabric or artisanship, find holes in the story that is being told. We spin a tale or recount a yarn. When an author weaves a complicated web or depicts a web of intrigue, this has nothing to do with spiders but rather the fabric on a loom. Thus, we find it in Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott:

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

It is a rich trope since, as in Waterhouse’s painting below, the fabric can depict visual stories.
 
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The Greeks had many goddesses and figures who weaved, notably the Fates (also found in Slavic and Roman lore). In fact, spiders are created when Athena punishes Arachne’s hubris in thinking she can weave better than her by transforming her into the creature. We need only think of the worldwide web to appreciate how tenacious and universal this metaphor is.
 
These themes are very much my companions at the moment, since I am working on an article about the seventeenth-century priest François-Timoléon de Choisy (1644-1724). He achieved much in his life, participating in a papal conclave, being the abbot of an abbey, historian, diplomat to Siam, and active member of the Académie française, but what he is most remembered for is the incredible tale narrated in the manuscript fragments found by his nephew among his papers following his death. These depict the cleric’s wayward youth living under three different female guises for at least two years when in his twenties, seducing various women along the way, some of whom he dressed as boys and not all of whom realized that he was actually a man.
 
The standard modern edition of these cross-dressed memoirs edited in 1966 by the French academic Georges Mongrédien might have been destined for relative obscurity were it not for the fact that the famous intellectual Jacques Lacan highlighted the case in a seminar a few months later, urging people to read the text and to familiarize themselves with the Abbé de Choisy. For Lacan, the figure was an amazing example of someone completely at ease with their perversion. Except that the memoirs are patently a fantasy. There is no contemporary evidence whatsoever, not one piece or scrap at all, to back up Choisy’s claims of public cross-dressing, compounded by anachronisms, contradictions, repetitions, and blatant implausibility all through the thread of the story. My article will detail this but it is an uncomfortable endeavour since I am implicitly criticizing those who have accepted the authenticity of Choisy’s account at face value. I think that it is only explained by our gullibility in so wanting the adventures to be true, our delight in the quirky and the bizarre. What an elaborate web did this sneaky priest weave for us!
 
 
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Today’s cufflinks were made by the Copenhagen-based silversmith Hermann Siersbøl. They are sterling silver and look like they date from the first half of the 1970s. I have three pairs of Siersbøl cufflinks and they are all very different in appearance; it is to the point that it would be difficult to guess that the same designer had manufactured them. What they do have in common is an organic underpinning and they also leave much room to the imagination of the person looking at them, a form of creative flattery to the audience. I see these as the close-up of a weaved fabric, echoing the fabric of our life narrative. After all, does not the similar pattern of the DNA’s double helix constitute the very essence of our physical being?

Spiralling out of control

The medievalist Jacques Le Goff is fascinated by the obsession of folk in the Middle Ages with the wheel. It turns up everywhere as a motif, from crop rotation to rose windows, from architecture to the ubiquitous iconography of the Wheel of Fortune, rooted in the Fates of Greek mythology. Le Goff is both an acutely brilliant intellectual and a convinced Marxist, and it is likely that his interest in the wheel as a medieval emblem is informed by this. Notwithstanding this, he is clearly on to something. There is a profoundly subversive undercurrent in the wheel of fortune image (“Non timeo rota fortunae!”; I am not afraid of the wheel of fortune!), picturing, as it does, a king at the top of the wheel with his crown balancing precariously on his head – or even toppling off – as the blindfolded Lady Fortune spins the disk.

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Le Goff links the wheel to the craftsmen who produced the rose windows. With technological advances meaning that tall buildings could stand (thanks to flying buttresses, among others) without collapsing, a whole new industry sprang up of artisans to carve statues, make stained glass, and decorate these hitherto impossibly high reaches. Almost for the first time in history, a peasant could move up the social strata and journey from rags to riches because of the possibilities of acquiring a trade. These were the men who created the rose windows, the symbol of revolution, the wheel turning, and established order changing. Le Goff notes that, at the same time, chess rules evolved to allow a pawn to become a powerful piece, “queened”, if it reached the end of the board, reflecting these social changes.

The social hierarchy’s calcification is enshrined in a ghastly stanza of the insipid nineteenth-century hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

The only job from which I was ever fired was lost because of this stanza. I worked during a long, sultry summer at a greetings-card company in Yorkshire, and while dealing with the programme for a wedding with a stationer over the telephone, suggested that this stanza be omitted, as it commonly is. When he asked why, I gently explained that some people were rightly startled by its “know thy place” sentiments. He said nothing to me but phoned my manager later and was absolutely livid, claiming that I had accused him of being politically incorrect. It turned out to be a serendipitous dismissal as I had saved enough money from that job to begin my MA in history a few weeks later.

We use the word revolution a little casually and often in a promiscuous fashion, but we should reflect on what a delicious word it is. The wheel turns and is as inevitable as it is unstoppable. Things come full circle. They spiral out of control. The ultimate lesson seems to be that life and society are often unpredictable. At the same time, we seem destined to make the same mistakes unless we are empowered to remove the blindfold and learn from the past.

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This brings me to today’s pair of cufflinks. They are a sterling-silver pair designed by the Danish silvermith L. Cordt-Andersen and have his maker’s mark of L.C.A. Little is known about him as he did not make a huge range of jewellery; he worked in Charlottenlund from 1962 to 1973. This town is located in one of the richest areas of Denmark. The links are undated (only Finnish and some Swedish silver has coded date-stamps). While there is no indication of the date, I would like to guess that they were made in 1968 or 1969. The spiral, repeated almost for emphasis, and the circular sense consolidated by the central balls, possibly reflects the cultural revolution occurring in the West during that time, from the student riots in Paris to civil unrest in the USA. The difference between a disk and a spiral is that there is more anarchy with a spiral, more of a sense of uncertainty as to the final destination. While we know little about Cordt-Andersen, I would like to infer that his work echoes his personal interest in societal changes viewed from his vantage point of a provincial, wealthy Danish town, as well as his deep-seated anxiety as to where these would lead.

Rites of passage . . .

I remember that I first wore a necktie to school at around the age of 4 years old. It was part of a uniform of grey shorts and shirt and the tie was red. In contrast to this vague date, I know the exact day on which I first donned a pair of cufflinks: 2 February, 1989. It was the day on which, in a small medieval village in Burgundy, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain (later to be made famous as the location of the Johnny Depp-Juliette Binoche movie Chocolat), I received the tonsure from a bishop, becoming a cleric of the Catholic Church and received the dress proper to my order, an ankle-length black cassock. I might add that it was bespoke, made for me by Houssard of Paris. I had four others for normal wear, this one being reserved for Sundays and feasts.

I remember this day well. I had dreamed of becoming a priest since I was 14, and this was a major symbolic and concrete step towards that. Hereinafter I would wear clerical dress -either a cassock in Europe or a black suit and Roman collar in the UK- for the rest of my life. It turned out to be two years, in the event. The tonsure ceremony was mixed in with the celebration of Candlemas and so it ended up being a hefty three-hour pontifical Mass. My mother had come from the UK to be there, and the eccentric priest Father Quintin Montgomery-Wright, who had a parish in Normandy and had been the subject of a BBC documentary and Sunday Times feature, also drove down, motoring my mother and her friends back to Paris. His driving terrified them. He later died in a car crash.  My mother took the photograph below with a disposable camera of my walking through the village.

I decided to obtain cufflinks and wear them for this ceremony for the first time in my life. It was, quite literally, a rite of passage. They were simply not in fashion, particularly not for a teenager. I obtained them from a gentlemen’s outfitters in Carlisle and was most likely their youngest customer not only of the day but probably the year. Now, things have changed. Thanks to retro chic and series like Mad Men, cufflinks have made a comeback. As a sign of this, Express now offers a range of French-cuff shirts once more after discontinuing them several years ago. I wanted to start wearing cufflinks since it would be the only way in which I would be able to express my individuality given that the details of my dress were carefully laid down.  So, cufflinks hold a particularly powerful resonance for me. What I did not realize at the time and should have done was that the forceful desire to retain this part of my identity and to express it publicly was a robust sign that I was not cut out to be a priest. It took me another two years to work that one out. When I did leave France, my dreams of being a good, effective priest were left there with me. What I took with me was the French language and cufflinks!

Back to cufflinks. Today’s offering are two concave disks made of hammered sterling silver. They  were crafted by the Scottish designer Emma Chalmers and I bought them three years ago on the isle of Iona. In June of this year, my mother bought me a pair of cufflinks at the same shop, and these would be my last present from her since she passed away during the following month. Cufflinks, then, might be a small and apparently insignificant item but they have played a not insignificant role in my life.

The inevitable slide into bloggery

After having resisted creating a blog, because of fears connected with my time, vanity, and privacy, I have decided to start one, primarily because I am testing my Facebook friends’ sartorial threshold with the number of cufflink pictures I post there. This blog will be principally to post pictures of and discuss pictures of cufflinks, neckties (I have around eighty cufflinks and one hundred and twenty silk ties), and general musings of my life in Kansas, Paris, and the UK. I was inspired particularly by my recent exchanges with Samantha Howard, a collector and dealer based in Toronto who loves what she does and inspires contagious enthusiasm and introspection (http://www.samanthahowardvintage.ca/). What we enjoy wearing does and should reveal things about ourselves and being more conscious of this is a positive trait.

My penchant for beautiful things is, I suspect, tied in with my Catholicism. I don’t claim to be the greatest Catholic, and I am always working on that, but I do accept it as true. I have not found any more rational or aesthetically cogent explanation of the divine. On that note, no comment I make on this blog represents the beliefs and teaching of the Holy Catholic Church of Rome, nor, for that matter, my employer: namely the University of Kansas. I have no intention of biting the hands that nourish my body and soul! Just me, a man from a small rural town in Cumbria in the north of England, in a place where my family has lived for at least three centuries (family lore also confirmed by tombstones and Ancestry.co.uk) and yet ended up living in Paris for three months a year and teaching in the USA.

I am currently in Calgary, Canada, where I am spending the semester on a fellowship. I am enjoying a year’s sabbatical to work on a book that includes chapters on cantankerous, eccentric priests and fairy tales & science fiction. I have loved collecting cufflinks for several years and I absolutely adore the brutal beauty of Scandinavian brutalism, as well as other styles such as art nouveau, in addition to Quebec modernist designers like Gilles “Guy” Vidal and Robert Larin. With my neckties, the majority of which have been acquired in France, I opt for silk and fetching patterns.

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I will kick off this blog with one of my favourite pairs of cufflinks. These are a sterling-silver pair by the Swedish silversmith Bengt Hallberg and bear his maker’s mark: BeH. The firm was set in up in 1947 and is still going strong. These links were made in 1969 but are unsold stock, so they were never purchased and were consequently broken in by myself. They feature the crumple-casting technique using a rough-cast mould that is best known as a Finnish method -some of the designers working for the iconic firm Lapponia spring to mind- but this pair brazenly demonstrates that other manufacturers also achieved beautiful effects with it.