In 1974, when I was in my last year at primary school, our class went on a week’s visit to the Isle of Wight. Among the places we visited were the amusement park at Blackgang Chine and the parish church at Godshill. “Blackgang Chine is a money-making place”, our teacher warned us, implying that she supposed we would enjoy it and that it had been included in our itinerary for that reason, but that it was a mere interlude which would play no part in the real purpose of our young lives, of improving our minds. Godshill church, on the other hand, is a fine, largely fourteenth century building with a wall painting of Christ crucified, not on a cross but on what the then incumbent of the church, Rev. Peter Hewitt, in a guide book I bought and still have, describes as “a triple-branched flowering lily, the Lily Cross, symbolic of his purity and sinlessness”. This painting is unique: there may have been other Lily Crosses elsewhere but as Peter Hewitt says, “Mediaeval wall-paintings have perished in their hundreds”. This one too was painted over, and only rediscovered in the middle of the nineteenth century. Ours was an Anglican school: we were encouraged to reverence as well as to historical curiosity.
Not long ago I picked up a copy of the Rough Guide to Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and found its judgements on these places to be the reverse of those implied to us then. Blackgang Chine they call “a delightfully old-fashioned theme park” which consists of “a series of fairly low-key attractions on themes such as the Wild West, dinosaurs, nursery rhymes and goblins, along with a series of museum rooms tracing the history of local crafts.” I suppose, four decades on, that what then seemed mildly tawdry does now seem old-fashioned – who knows, perhaps even delightfully so – when today’s theme parks are aimed at those who like their thrills unconstrained. As for Godshill it
bills itself as the prettiest village on the Isle of Wight. With its medley of thatched cottages, gardens and medieval church [they do not mention the Lily Cross] it is undeniably lovely, but sadly it is now all but swamped by teahouses and souvenir stalls – indeed its historic Old Smithy is little more than a row of tacky shops set in historic buildings.
A theme park for connoisseurs of a gentler age and a beautiful village tarted up for mass consumption? Time does indeed take startling turns.
Another example of this phenomenon is the use of the word “desultory”. Nowadays when we call something desultory we usually mean that its doing is not only fitful but half-hearted, and that consequently little has been achieved by it. But I came across a book on English teaching published ninety-odd years ago which said that some of children’s most valuable literary experiences would come from their “desultory” reading. By this the author meant no more than their spare time reading: unsystematic, not part of a syllabus, but enthusiastic and delighted, and making a deeper impression for that, both artistically and morally. This argument still needs making today, but we could not now expect to impress anybody with it if we called such reading desultory.