The remake of Kenneth Clark’s brilliantly inspiring 1969 documentary series Civilisation stirred youthful memories. I was once taken to Covent Garden by Lord and Lady Clark, due to my friendship with their enchanting daughter Colette, whose seductive blink while making extremely caustic, staccato remarks still hasn’t declined. I forget which opera we heard that night; what sticks in my mind is Jane Clark turning to me during an aria and saying, apropos of nothing: “The last time I was reading the Bible was to the King of Sweden.” Surprising, but in that time of rare travel and faraway countries it seemed the epitome of civilisation.
Or do I really mean, “civilised-ness”? The Italians have a more exact word for it, civiltà, and it is what Lord Clark so manifestly put across in those programmes. That the world, in the aftermath of war and austerity, should take on board an enlightened view of civilising, to forget blasting away at perceived enemies, stamping on countries and cultures with alien, age-old beliefs, and concentrate on civilised-ness.
It’s a different thing, and paramount among its long journey was the signing of Magna Carta. There is a most romantic ruin no distance from my house in Hampshire. Its chalky outline looms above the water meadows like a kind of substantiated Casper the Ghost. Surprisingly little-known, this site of Odiham Castle was chosen by King John in 1204 and is one of only three castles he built. It is believed that from here, one June morning 800 years ago, he rode off to Runnymede and – reluctantly – signed the document that gave civiltà to our barbarous nation: an action streets ahead of all others – then and now – still ruled by murderous despots.
That Magna Carta’s tenets have still not exported civilised-ness to the world is alarming, indeed shaming. (It seems that Downing Street recently sent out a pamphlet spelling it Magna Carter!) While it is a relief to know there will be none of our “boots on the ground” (don’t you hate that expression?) in current war zones, it doesn’t seem to help. Young men, weaned on a Hollywood diet of glamorised, and indeed virtual, warfare, in which images of the dead spring paranormally to life, willingly peel off to slog it out for those alien tyrants. Once, battle was more like a ritualistic, though no less deadly, ballet fought by often unwilling conscripts; now it seems that youth actually enjoys the machismo of fighting in raggedy armies.
Maybe they want to get away from the erosion of liberty, or rather liberties, around them. The incessant pressure to be ordinary, to conform. With no prospects, possibly homeless, they can’t do this or that. Drugs taboo: khat today, probably drink tomorrow, cigarets years ago. (Has anyone worked out the correlation between the smoking ban and the explosion in obesity?) Though nervous troops in their tanks puffed away like, well, troopers, to “civilise” distant regimes, the minute they get home they are banned from doing it. Is there any wonder we have this post-conflict stress syndrome.
Furthermore, cigarets did have some advantages. The recently restored Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle will never achieve the former golden patina that curls of smoke gave to its ceiling. Instead, it will forever remain an almost Disneyesque blinding whiteness. And the romance, let alone flirtability, of leaning over to light a lady’s du Maurier is a chivalric bygone. Once people said, “It’s too awful, she smokes in the street”. Now it’s about the only place she can. Far be it for me to advocate smoking, but anything that reduces the angst and – dreaded word – stress would seem to be a step in a civilised direction.
When Simon de Montfort and his wife, Eleanor – King John’s daughter – inherited Odiham Castle they set about civilising the simple military stronghold. Eleanor installed tapestried rooms, laid out gardens and riverside walks. The image of her picking gillyflowers in the parterres, gazing from newly pierced windows, jives with Lord Clark at his own castle in Kent – uninvited visitors were rejected with “Lord Clark is weeding the battlements” – and shows that peace and peacefulness should be our main objective. Civiltà could be called civilisation-lite, but it’s a diet that at least might not breed belligerence.
Nicky Haslam is an interior designer and writer. His latest book on design is titled ‘Folly de Grandeur’.
David Tang is on leave