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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, June 05, 2009
    A La Ronde: the layers, the erosion, the persistence
    Phil Smith tells me that he's spending Father's Day leading a foray around the gardens of A La Ronde, a property which the tourism websites describe as 'eccentric' and is quoted on the National Trust’s handbook and website as ‘curious looking’ and having ‘a magical strangeness’. However, in the three years that he's been creating performances around the sixteen-sided house, Phil has unearthed histories of the place and its previous occupants which add layers of intrigue way beyond the sanctioned, 'official' 'memories'.

    So Phil's first foray majored on the house's first occupants, the cousins Jane and Mary Parminter, who had it built as a home and a museum to contain their mementoes of their Grand Tour. Phil tells me that some say the property was designed after the Cathedral at Ravenna (which we know the Parminters visited), a place associated with the anti-Jewish laws (and forced conversions) pioneered by its founder and celebrated in the cathedral’s décor. There are 'various hints of [the cousins] expectation of the ‘last trump’ and a story that the Parminters set aside the A La Ronde oak trees for the wood to build the boats to send the Jews back to Palestine' (an action which to some Christians would make imminent the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God). 'I began to see the place as an apocalyptic generator,' says Phil. Wow.

    'Last year’s piece,' writes Phil, 'was about the only male inhabitant in the house’s 200 plus years – Reverend Oswald Reichel – who came to the house under a cloud, found to be travelling as man and wife with his housekeeper (although they were not married). The man was a genius, his writings on canon law are absolutely fascinating, and you begin to sense a series of quite ‘other’ resonances within the church, a possibility of a hybrid realm of religion and sensuality, of a kind of negotiation with the psyche and with the vagaries of a world that does not always play by the rules, he declares himself a Christian Socialist in his fabulous pamphlet on the early mass critiquing its later development away from the participation of the people in favour of the priests – and so the second piece was about finding both his religious ideas and his abject disgrace in the property.'

    This year Phil is exploring how the layers of identity and memory which first the Parminters and then Reichel designed into the gardens were in later years eroded, but some things about the place persisted. He's struck by how the house and gardens have their origins 'in an apocalyptic moment, the earthquake at Lisbon in 1755 , where the patriarch of the Parminter family, John Parminter was simultaneously destroyed and saved – his glass factory was smashed, but he rose from the ruins (phoenix like) (and it must have been like living through ‘The Last Days’ if engravings of the aftermath are to be believed) – to help rebuild the city and remake his fortune by manufacturing a quick-drying cement … the materials of this catastrophe/resurrection are still there in the house – the seaweed and shells swept in on the tsunami, the sand for the concrete, the glass that was destroyed, the feathers of the phoenix…'

    On Fathers Day Phil's attempting to bring all these strands together and 'finally… somehow… I will evoke the missing of the site – the Lisbon working class…' It should be quite an event.