Reversing Oxymandias

I met a trav­el­ler from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunk­less legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered vis­age lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold com­mand,

Tell that its sculptor well those pas­sions read

Which yet sur­vive, stamped on these life­less things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed,

And on the ped­es­tal these words appear -

My name is Ozy­man­di­as, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and des­pair!’

Noth­ing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, bound­less and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s admon­it­ory son­net ‘Ozy­man­di­as’ was pub­lished in 1818, the same year as Mary Shelley’s pro­to­type sci­ence-fic­tion nov­el Franken­stein. Feel free to abide by the warn­ings of each, that if we over-reach ourselves we’ll be slapped down by the large, podgy hand of retri­bu­tion. But hav­ing just returned from a trip to the Suf­folk sea­side, via the dilap­id­a­tion and decay of London’s mag­ni­fi­cent Gun­ners­bury Park, I feel like cel­eb­rat­ing the beauty of the rus­ted sculp­ture, the decayed build­ing, the half-fin­ished paint­ing and the slightly wonky sand­wich.

Aldeburgh’s Mar­tello Tower, built to fend off coastal attack by Napo­leon, is a vast, dumpy affair, con­struc­ted of more than a mil­lion bricks and a huge dose of defi­ant chutzpah. The chilly waters of the North Sea crash onto the pebbles and stones of the beach below. The sculptor Sir Ant­ony Gorm­ley has just installed a suit­ably defi­ant cast iron man to sit atop the tower’s strident form, with the instruc­tion that it and its four sib­lings should be “cata­lysts for reflec­tion”. I can only think that if Mar­tello man had been around in Ozy­man­di­as’ day he would have told the ‘shattered vis­age’ and ‘trunk­less legs’ to pull them­selves togeth­er and stop being defeat­ist.

Just a mile along the Suf­folk coast­line, I mar­velled at Maggi Hambling’s vast sculp­ture Scal­lop, its frilled met­al edge punc­tured with words from Ben­jamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. As I stood on the beach, my first encounter with the words was like this:

Voices that will be owned”? I don’t like the idea of that at all. But tramp a little fur­ther around the shell and the words are like this:

I hear those voices that will not be drowned” — that’s more like it. I had driv­en to Alde­burgh via London’s Gun­ners­bury, pos­sibly the capital’s least cel­eb­rated but most start­ling orna­ment­al park. Its Pal­la­di­an build­ings are decayed, its orna­ment­al trees marooned and its veget­able garden merely cling­ing to its old form­al­ity. But the park’s Goth­ic grandeur has a mag­ni­fi­cent beauty that lifts the spir­its.

Neither Gun­ners­bury nor Alde­burgh are places for per­fectly con­struc­ted food, dainty sand­wiches or small mouth­fuls. You will, by now, know my love for pic­nics. To Gun­ners­bury and Alde­burgh I would take my wonky avo­cado sand­wich. In Alde­burgh, as the wild wind com­presses face to skull, I would tuck both a wonky sand­wich and a flask of hot mulled wine into my pocket. (If I could, I would also take a box of the most deli­cious gar­lic fries I’ve just been treated to in San Fran­cisco, at a Giants base­ball game — a card­board tray of plump chips scattered with enough shreds of snipped-up wild gar­lic leaves to fight off an attack by Ozy­man­di­as him­self.)


  • Slices of brown spelt bread, toasted — without ques­tion, this needs to be the kind of bread which goes into attri­tion­al battle with your teeth. You shouldn’t be quite sure who’s going to win until the end.
  • I very ripe avo­cado for each 2 slices of bread
  • Grated lem­on zest and a little juice
  • Hand­fuls of chopped lem­on ver­bena, chives, mint and oregano
  • Best olive oil
  • A few slices of chilli, if you feel like it
Trickle a little olive oil over the toast and mash the avo­cado roughly on top. Don’t scat­ter, so much as car­pet, the toast with the herbs, the lem­on zest and a little juice, plus the chilli if you’re using it. Wrap the sand­wich in a par­cel of sil­ver foil, and stick in your pock­et, along with a flask of mulled wine. Sit on the beach and, in the absence of a Gorm­ley iron man to look at, use the wonky sand­wich as a “cata­lyst for reflec­tion”. It should pro­duce thoughts which are benign at worst, soar­ingly jolly at best.





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