Randoll Coate – Labyrinthologist

LILY: What? What? (SHE GOES TO HIM) Go on. Try again. “Do I…”?
ARCHITECT: … have enough faith to design in yew?
LILY: Design what in who?
GARDENER: Well sir. What I think: Up to you.
ARCHITECT (IGNORING HER): You have to wait so long for yew.
GARDENER: Worth it.
ARCHITECT: In the end. But you’re never there to see it.
GARDENER: Takes a deal of philosophy.
SHOWMAN: Just a dash of imagination! Look.

– Judith Adams, Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden
I read with interest the obituaries of Randall Coate, who died in France, on 2nd December. A very good innings at 96, he seems to have lead one of those polymath lives that the obituary writers love so well. A spell at Oxford, a medalled war, a lengthy service in the foreign office, followed by a prolific career as a maze designer. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a friend of Jorge Luis Borges (whose collection of stories, Labyrinths, I have been extorting Biodun to read).
By far the best of the obituaries on Coate, is the one published in The Independent. This is undoubtedly because it is by Coate’s colleague and fellow Labyrinthologist, Adrian Fisher. The link inconveniently moves in to the premium section after three days, so here are the choice quotes:

He furthered the maze as a valid form of landscape art more than anyone had previously done. His maze designs abound with symbolism, from their outline shape and the internal patterns of paths and barriers, to numbers and proportions, hidden meanings, verbal allusions and puns.

His seventh rule [of Maze Design] stated: “Do not allow the cost of the maze to cloud your enjoyment of a creation which will bring pleasure to young and old for generations to come. You will have given our world of harsh reality and mindless speed a timeless oasis, a leisurely paradise, the substance of a dream.”

Moulded by the war, and allowed the luxury of travel through a world still under the influence of a waning empire. He seems the archetype of the sincere and unselfconscious intellectual, of the kind that does not seem to emerge any more. Even his name, Randoll Coate, seems to be from an age that has come to an end, replaced (as he predicts) by a world of commodified celebrities, and mindless speed.

9 Replies to “Randoll Coate – Labyrinthologist”

  1. There are some missing lines in the quote from SFA above. They take account of “yew” being spoken, not read from a surface (page or screen), and Lily says to the Architect
    “Design what in who?”
    She is, of course, right: the garden is being built over her grave, and she is, of course, ignored.
    As above, the men truncate to make their point.
    The Architect continues his conversation with the Gardener.
    The architecture of gardens has a bio-organic drive, complexity and logic which passes through time as well as space. The time of a garden is not the time of a human mind. The privileging of human time and the life of individualsis a religon-based illusion, not a natural truth.
    Nature cannot fail – but we can. if we do not learn to engage with her with fluidity.
    Since Aristotle and the male farming mind-process and action have spent most of our short human history privileging the cutting of linear furrows through all things, we have lost the skill of the organic structure, and the patience, wit and tolerance to watch it grow and find its own unique momentum for change and – dare one say the word any longer? – hope.

  2. It wasn’t meant as a complaint requiring an apology.
    It was just the gap caused a reflection – which is excellent biological synapse work in digital form, I think.
    However – I do like the wave rhythms of dialogue better than a block of text any day.
    And structurally speaking, this makes you and leo co-wrighters – since you were the architectral engineers of the original script.

  3. I will read it I promise! But don’t you find that the train is the only time there is to read anymore? I must be doing something wrong.
    I spent all weekend catching up, but neglected to do everything else!

  4. I stumbled upon your writing about Randall Coate while doing some background work to the few pages of autobiography that my mother, Joan Wright, left behind.
    She would have been fascinated to know about the mazes, and even more fascinated to have contacted him again in his later life. They were obviously very fond of each other.
    She worked with RC in Norway immediately after the war, as you will read:
    Randall Coate was unique, and he made the whole department cheerful again in spite of Kenney, whom he instantly disliked so much that after one week he was on the point of asking to be transferred. But he and I got on so well that he decided to stay, and we ran things our own way, with not too much regard for the red tape and rigidity of the Kenneys of this world.
    We shared all the same interests and the next couple of years or so were wonderful. We went to concerts, theatres, exhibitions, we went out to restaurants where you could dance, we had wonderful days on the fjord in the summer or in the mountains in winter and we worked on the book he was writing about Africa. He had extraordinary charm and perfect manners, but at the same time was enormous fun. Everyone thought we were a couple and all the women – British and Norwegian alike – hated me and wondered how I could have got him. After all, I was no beauty and not at all the shape to meet with approval in those scraggy circles.
    None of them would have believed it but the most wonderful thing about it was that sex never once reared its ugly head. We were extremely close and he could not have been more attentive had he been my lover – always sending flowers, for instance. I gave a party on my birthday one year and he sent me a bouquet with 100 sprays of freesia, which we both loved. And this in Norway, in December, when flowers became almost unreachable for ordinary folk, thanks to the cost of keeping them in specially-heated containers, heated vans etc., so that they did not get so much as a breath of outside air which would have killed them instantly.
    Like all good things, it came to an end after about 2 1/2 years, when he was whisked away to a consular post in West Africa. The FO liked to transfer people who had become used to the Nordic climates to more or less tropical places, where many of them became ill. Randall nearly died and was very ill for about 3 years. He loved to swim and foolishly went into the river, where he picked up one of those horrible little things that I think are invisible, and which bore into you and travel all over your body creating havoc. He recovered and the last I heard of him was that he had been transferred to Latin America.
    I hope this might add just another tiny facet to an obviously rich character.

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