Where shall we go this weekend? Where shall we go this summer? Until recently the answer depended on how itchy your feet, how expansive your wallet, how much time you could take away from work, school or family. It has been something of a shock to lose the liberty we once took so much for granted, but it was not always a given for all: in those parts of Europe held in the tight embrace of the Russian Bear, the freedom to roam was severely restricted for decades. During the Cold War era, travel was only available to trusted and privileged elites, or to artists and performers who showed the regime in a favourable light.
During the 1980s I worked with galleries an artists in Hungary and towards the end of that decade, when curators and others were gaining more liberty, I invited Ildiko, a curator colleague to London. Touring the National Gallery we stopped in front of a painting. Perhaps Vermeer’s Woman Standing at a Virginal – I forget now exactly the picture, except that it was small and luminous and that, transfixed by the work, Ildiko began to weep freely and audibly. It transpired that the cause of this great sobbing emotion was that Ildiko had only ever seen such works in reproduction – never in the flesh – and for an art historian, newly liberated, this true-life encounter was almost unbearably sweet. Sadly, life under authoritarian regimes means more than restriction of movement, it can constrain what citizens can say, or even dare to think. In Mao’s China, thousands of intellectuals were sent for ‘re-education’ and the Soviet Union incarcerated writers such as Solzhenitsyn and forced great composers like Shostakovich to change the style of their work to make it more appealing to Stalin.
As I patiently wait for liberty from lockdown and make my evening stroll around the village, I’m reminded of the constraints which were once a permanent feature of life in England; although somewhat longer ago than the Cold War. During the Middle Ages many citizens were villeins, or serfs, meaning they were the legal property of feudal Lords and few could leave the confines of their village or town without permission. Attendance at church was mandatory, whatever you truly believed in your heart. The constant scrutiny of the private life of the individual by the Church authorities was not only oppressive, but open to abuse. The most despised of Chaucer’s pilgrims was a Summoner, a holder of ecclesiastical office, whose task was to spy on local people and bring the guilty to court.
It is stifling to consider the possibility that such constraints, alive and well elsewhere, might become the norm here in the UK once again. But I have faith that, like water, we will always find a way through the gap between a rock and a hard place. In the Middle Ages amongst those who could travel were pilgrims: a trip to Walsingham, Glastonbury or even Rome was a rare opportunity to exchange the confines of the parish for the freedom of the road. Skilled journeymen also had a special licence to travel in order to ply their trades, as is now the case under lockdown for plumbers, sparks, chippies and so on. Mulling this over, I’m wondering whether offering my excellent sewing skills to a Swedish PPE manufacturer, or making another pilgrimage to Uppsala Cathedral would give me a legitimate reason to visit my grand-children in Sweden? Just a thought….
We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves by Victoria Preston is available from all on-line retailers and via e-readers.