Thursday, 16 November 2017

Monochrome and Lake

Yesterday I gravitated again to the National Gallery, this time to have a look at the Monochrome exhibition, which consists largely of pictures painted in black and white, shades of grey, or shades of another single colour. It's a fascinating study, illuminating just how effective monochrome can be in exploring the subtle play of light on complex forms – as in the striking Ingres odalisque above.
 There's some fine work on show – all the way from Van Eyck and other Flemish and Netherlandish painters to Gerhard Richter's haunting Gelda Matura and Her Fiance and some rather dreary abstract work. A tiny black and white Tempest by Peder Balke and a large fragment of a Giandomenico Tiepolo wall painting also caught my eye, as did a wonderful Durer study of a Woman in Netherlandish Dress Seen from Behind [below]. There was some remarkable trompe l'oeil work too – including a Chardin copy framed behind trompe l'oeil broken glass (it had me fooled) – but it's not the kind of exhibition that delivers deep aesthetic pleasures. At least it didn't for me.

 It ends with a mighty flourish, though – an entirely different form of monochrome, created by Olafur Eliasson: an interior lit entirely by intense monofrequency sodium lighting. The effect of this blaze of flat yellow-orange light after all that subdued black and white is dramatic. The sodium light wipes out whole swathes of colours, replacing them with new unearthly tints, a kind of after-image of colour where none was before. To walk back into the monochrome exhibition after an immersion in this sodium light is to experience, temporarily, a strange new world of colour in what is ostensibly black and white. And to exit from the sodium into the body of the gallery is to wander for a while dazed and blinking and in need of the familiar polychrome world.
 As it happened, I had some time to kill before the gallery closed, so I went up the grand staircase to see what was in Room One. It turned out to be a lovely little exhibition built around one of the National Gallery's most popular paintings – Lake Keitele by the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kalliela. The much-loved painting appears here in four subtly different versions, along with a range of other equally attractive lakescapes, one of them a brilliantly executed large pastel. There's also an interesting stained-glass work (one of Gallen-Kaleila's other lines) with the title 'Rouse Thyself, Finland!' Well, quite.
 Those fresh plein air blues of Lake Keitele were the perfect antidote to sodium and monochrome.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Adventures in Stereo

So, what was the UK's first million-selling stereo LP? The obvious answer is The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album, or perhaps one of their earlier LPs. Obvious but wrong: the first million-selling LP in the UK was (drumroll) The World of Mantovani by Mantovani and His Orchestra, and it achieved that milestone in 1968, the year of Astral Weeks, the White Album, Electric Ladyland, White Light/White Heat, Music from Big Pink, etc, etc.
 Younger readers might not remember Mantovani (who was born on this day in 1905 – what, no Google Doodle?). Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was a Venetian, born into a musical family (his father was concert master at La Scala under Toscanini). He studied at Trinity College of Music and soon became a popular bandleader, but he really hit the big time when he began to concentrate on recording – specifically stereo recording – and developed the highly distinctive 'Mantovani sound'. This sound was created in collaboration with the gloriously named arranger and composer Ronald (Ronnie) Binge. Binge realised that a forty-piece orchestra could produce an echo-delay if each violin's note overlapped the other, and the resulting reverberations would create an almost cathedral-like acoustic. These 'Niagara Falls of fiddles' sounded even more impressive in stereo – hence the huge sales among early adopters more interested in the quality of sound than the musical content. And it is still an amazing sound (qua sound), of which there's plenty to be sampled on You Tube. Try Charmaine for starters (and perhaps finishers)...
 As for Ronnie Binge, he went on to write the much-loved soporific that now precedes the late-night Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 – Sailing By.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

It Punches Holes

Today's Google doodle, I notice, celebrates the 131st anniversary of the invention of the hole punch. Now, I'm  pretty keen on all things stationery-related, but this seems to me to be pushing it  a bit – and I speak as the man who recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Norwegian who very nearly invented the paperclip (a grateful Norway still provides more Nigeness readers than any other nation).
 There were a few other anniversaries Google could have marked today – Moby-Dick, Fanny Mendelssohn, Claude Monet, Astrid Lindgren, Aaron Copland  – but no, the hole punch it had to be. No contest.

Monday, 13 November 2017

A 21st-Century Howards End

The BBC's new dramatisation of E.M. Forster's Howards End began last night. At least, unlike some recent BBC efforts, it wasn't filmed in semi-darkness, and the dialogue was mostly audible (except once or twice when the music got the better of it). However, my heart sank from the moment the opening voice-over began, for the diction was unmistakably 21st-century, glottal stops and all. This was a far cry from the voice of Edwardian England – and diction matters; it reflects the mental processes behind what is uttered. Edwardians spoke in a particular way because they thought and felt in a particular way – and also because they were acutely conscious of diction as an indicator of social class, a matter of far more pressing importance then than it is now.
 Happily, not all the actors were speaking in full 21st-century style, and the dialogue avoided (I think) obvious anachronisms, presumably because the writers had Forster's words to work with. When things settled down (there was an awful lot of dashing about), there were some quite effective scenes, especially one between Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and the bedridden Mrs Wilcox (Julia Ormond). One of the basic problems of TV (or film) dramatisation – the lack of interiority – was starkly apparent in the concert hall scene when Helena Schlegel (Philippa Coulthard), listening to Beethoven's Fifth, is overcome by a disturbing vision of the ultimate futility of life and has to dash away. We can only guess at what is going on in her head, having only her facial expressions to go on. There's some odd playing and casting too: the unfortunate Leonard Bast is so far coming across as merely gormless, and Matthew Macfadyen is too young (and essentially insubstantial) to play Henry Wilcox, despite the impressive beard.
 However, the main problem with this Howards End is one massive and all-pervasive anachronism, which is presumably there to make some kind of political point. However much we might regret or deplore the fact, Edwardian England was simply not the multiracial society that is presented here. The non-white population was negligibly small and, unless they were visiting the docks, the likes of the Schlegels and Wilcoxes would be unlikely to see more than the very occasional black face. And yet, in this dramatisation, they are surrounded by them: the Schlegels have a black housemaid and non-white guests at a tea party, there are black faces in very street scene, and Leonard Bast's problematic wife is also black. All of this passes without comment, exactly as if these Edwardians were living in the kind of multiracial society we're living in today. We of the 21st century have become to a large extent colour-blind – which is an excellent thing – but it is stupid and jarringly anachronistic to pretend that the Edwardian English were like us. They were not. 
 It's a shame that period dramas pay so much attention to ensuring that every little detail of dress and decor is authentic, while giving a free pass to whopping anachronisms born of wishful thinking.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Rather Bad News on Gradable Adverbs

As if there weren't enough evidence that our society is going to hell in a handcart, yet more comes today, in the form of  'a major piece of research' into trends in the way we English use our language. There has been, I was sad to learn, a steep decline in the use of 'gradable adverbs', those eminently useful words that soften the impact of a phrase or, conversely, add a little polite emphasis. Examples of the first, softening kind are 'quite', 'rather' and 'fairly'; of the second, emphasising kind are the likes of 'awfully', 'frightfully' and 'terribly'.
 All of these fine words that modify what might otherwise be excessively blunt statements are at once an enrichment of our language and an expression of something amiable in our national character. It is sad to learn that they are in decline, as people move towards cruder, less nuanced modes of expression. The academic who carried out this research thinks that one reason for the decline of gradable adverbs is that many now associate them with the middle and upper classes – which is also sad, if true.
 For myself, I shall certainly carry on making liberal use of gradable adverbs. They are still alive and well on this blog, and they're not going to fade away. They really are, I think, rather important.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Still Green

Over the years I've quite often found myself arguing against the notion that the country is being concreted over and there'll soon be no green space left. It's a widely held belief, and I can only conclude that the people who hold it spend their whole lives in town, have never taken a proper walk – or got lost – in real deep countryside, and never looked out of the plane window when flying over Britain. Leaving aside the conurbations, I insist, this country is still overwhelmingly green and unbuilt-on.
 I had no figures to support my case, but now the facts are available – and it turns out that Britain, even England, is vastly greener and less built-up than even I thought. Percentage of land covered by
'continuous urban fabric'? It's 0.1 percent, around a hundredth of the area covered by peat bogs. How about 'discontinuous urban fabric'? Well, all the buildings in the UK, however disposed, cover 1.4 percent of the land surface, less that the area of land that appears when the tide goes out. Furthermore, data suggests that only a fifth of the land in our towns and cities is actually built on (much of London itself, especially to the South and West, is remarkably green). Across the UK, farmland still takes up 57 percent of the total area, with 'natural' land (woodland, moors, grassland, lakes, etc) occupying another 35 percent (total 92 percent), and the rest – built-on and 'green urban' (parks, gardens, golf courses etc) – adding up to, at most, eight percent.
 You can read more about it all on this link...

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Schuyler's Elegy

Born on this day in 1923 was the poet James Schuyler. I've posted a couple of his poems before (here and here), and today I'm posting another one that I think shows him at his best (too much of his work, like his friend Frank O'Hara's, doesn't quite rise above the level of clever in-crowd chit-chat).
 Buried at Springs, Schuyler's elegy for O'Hara, demonstrates, among other things, his remarkable sensitivity to nature; it's almost a nature poem – a strange way to elegise the most urban of New Yorkers; but this is a very oblique elegy, its emotion tightly contained. It's probably the best of the poems written for O'Hara after his sudden, incongruous death (run over by a jeep on Fire Island).
 At the funeral, John Ashbery read O'Hara's own To the Harbormaster – or tried to: he was overcome by emotion, as were many on that extraordinary day, when the whole of artistic New York descended on the cemetery at Springs, Long Island (the picture above shows a distraught Allan Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch leaving the funeral). There were outpourings of raw grief galore – the most extreme a grisly tirade by the painter Larry Rivers – but Schuyler's elegy, written after the event, at Fairfield Porter's home on Great Spruce Island (where O'Hara had visited some years before), is a work of art...

There is a hornet in the room   
and one of us will have to go   
out the window into the late   
August midafternoon sun. I
won. There is a certain challenge   
in being humane to hornets   
but not much. A launch draws   
two lines of wake behind it   
on the bay like a delta
with a melted base. Sandy   
billows, or so they look,
of feathery ripe heads of grass,   
an acid-yellow kind of
goldenrod glowing or glowering   
in shade. Rocks with rags   
of shadow, washed dust clouts   
that will never bleach.
It is not like this at all.   
The rapid running of the   
lapping water a hollow knock
of someone shipping oars:   
it’s eleven years since   
Frank sat at this desk and   
saw and heard it all   
the incessant water the   
immutable crickets only   
not the same: new needles   
on the spruce, new seaweed   
on the low-tide rocks   
other grass and other water   
even the great gold lichen   
on a granite boulder   
even the boulder quite   
literally is not the same

A day subtle and suppressed   
in mounds of juniper enfolding   
scratchy pockets of shadow
while bigness—rocks, trees, a stump—
stands shadowless in an overcast   
of ripe grass. There is nothing   
but shade, like the boggy depths   
of a stand of spruce, its resonance   
just the thin scream
of mosquitoes ascending.
Boats are light lumps on the bay   
stretching past erased islands   
to ocean and the terrible tumble   
and London (“rain persisting”)   
and Paris (“changing to rain”).   
Delicate day, setting the bright
of a young spruce against the cold
of an old one hung with unripe cones   
each exuding at its tip
gum, pungent, clear as a tear,   
a day tarnished and fractured   
as the quartz in the rocks
of a dulled and distant point,   
a day like a gull passing
with a slow flapping of wings   
in a kind of lope, without
breeze enough to shake loose   
the last of the fireweed flowers,
a faintly clammy day, like wet silk   
stained by one dead branch   
the harsh russet of dried blood. 

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Loss of Purgatory

In the course of my researches, I'm reading a short book by one Nigel Llewellyn called The Art of Death (an illustrated V&A publication). It's somewhat marred by academic jargon but full of interest and food for thought – including a particular insight that struck me as valid, even obvious, but which had never occurred to me, perhaps because of my Protestant cast of mind.
 Llewellyn points up the dramatic impact that the loss of the idea of Purgatory, in the wake of the Reformation, must have had on people's feelings about death. Without the consoling notion of Purgatory, the dead were abruptly and totally cut off from the living, and with no post-mortem chance for their souls to be saved before the Day of Judgment came. The loss of loved ones must now have seemed total and potentially devastating, in a way it was not before. The ending of Purgatory, writes Llewellyn, 'caused grievous psychological damage: from that point forward the living were, in effect, distanced from the dead'.
 One result, Llewellyn argues, was the development of 'the theory of memoria, which stressed the didactic potential of the lives and deaths of the virtuous'. But also, on a broader view, the loss of Purgatory must surely have played a part in a remarkable historical phenomenon: the development, in the course of the 17th century, of  enhanced 'affective relations' between family members – feelings, especially in relation to children, that seem recognisably close to our own and were not apparent before. For evidence of this shift, you have only to compare the treatment of children on typical funeral monuments of the Tudor period - purely generic figures ranked by age, sex and status (alive or dead) - with the highly expressive, naturalistic rendering of children, mourning or mourned, on the best monuments of the early 17th century. The adult dead too move from being stock figures to something more like individualised portraits, and a sense of genuine personal grief imbues these memorials. Clearly something happened around the turn of the 17th century – a complex something that is hard to disentangle, but it now seems to me obvious that the loss of the consolations of Purgatory must have played a significant part in it.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Mozart's Starling

Here's my (delayed) review of Mozart's Starling and A Sweet Wild Note (Gilbert White's description of the song of the Blackcap), from this month's Literary Review...

On a May day in 1784, Mozart was passing a Viennese bird shop when he heard a melody he recognised – the allegretto theme of his new piano concerto (number 17 in G major). A starling was singing it, note perfect but for two sharpened Gs. We know this because Mozart immediately jotted down the bird’s version. Enchanted, the composer bought the starling, took it home, possibly named it Star and kept it as a pet for three years. So fond was he of the bird that, when Star died, Mozart staged a dignified funeral and wrote an elegy in his memory.

In her engaging new book, American naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt examines this story from every angle, and presents a convincing solution to its central mystery: how could the starling have picked up the theme of a work that had not yet had its premiere? But much of Mozart’s Starling is about another starling, Carmen by name, a bird Haupt rescued as a fledgling, hand-reared and has kept as a household pet.

Experiencing life with this lively, playful and inquisitive bird has given Haupt, who wrote much of this book with Carmen perched on her shoulder or exploring her computer keyboard, a special insight into starling behaviour. To rear a starling was a bold thing for an American birder to do, for in the USA starlings are loathed with a passion, even in the birding community. An ill-advised introduction from England, they have become hugely abundant and hugely unpopular. ‘I wish them eradicated from the country as much as anyone,’ Haupt writes, ‘as long as Carmen stays here with me.’ She is every bit as enchanted with her starling as Mozart evidently was with his.

Haupt’s biographical passages about Mozart lay on the ‘colour’ with an overgenerous hand, but she avoids the familiar Mozartian myths. Searching for traces of Mozart’s starling in his music, she finds them in the man-bird Papageno in The Magic Flute and in the curious piece called A Musical Joke. She describes (at rather too much length) her visit to the Mozarthaus museum in Vienna and gives an amusing account of her pilgrimage to the remote graveyard where the composer was buried. Standing at the nearby site of the house, now part of an industrial estate, where Star died, she hopes starlings will appear, providing a neat ending to her book. None does. Meanwhile, back at home, Carmen lives on happily, but Haupt’s efforts to teach her bird that Mozart melody come to nothing. Not all starlings are Stars.

Mozart’s bird makes a brief appearance in Richard Smyth’s A Sweet, Wild Note, which also features English literature’s most memorable starling, the caged bird in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, with its cry of ‘I can’t get out – I can’t get out.’ Smyth’s breezy and enjoyable book is an exploration of the place of birdsong in our culture, written by a birdwatcher who for years could barely tell the song of one bird from that of another.

Now he is fascinated by the subject, by our complicated relationship with birdsong and how it permeates our literature and music, an essential element in our experience of landscape and townscape, of time and place. ‘The sounds of birds’, he writes, ‘tell us back our own tales.’ We find in birdsong what we are looking for, following the example of the poets of the Romantic era, who in effect took birdsong away from real living birds: ‘Bird thou never wert,’ writes Shelley of the skylark (observed at Livorno, not over an English field). Real skylarks, says Smyth, ‘live in a fast muddle of fear and rage and lust’, but also, perhaps, pleasure, at least while they are singing.

Although this is a short book, it seems odd that Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’, the perfect example of birdsong fixing a moment and a place, is not mentioned. The brisk survey of birdsong in music ranges beyond the familiar classics and there are interesting passages on the 18th-century craze for singing bird automata, on attempts to train birds in human music and on the cruel business of competitive birdsong – known as ‘finching’ – popular among the Victorian working classes. Smyth ends with a look at the threat posed to birdsong by the sheer noise of modern life and urges us strongly to pay attention, to listen. Birdsong may be ‘more babble than beauty’, he concludes, but it is still wonderful.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Those Young Elizabethans

I wonder if anyone reading this remembers The Elizabethan (originally The Young Elizabethan), a 'magazine for teenagers' that flourished from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties and finally expired in 1972? I was only aware of it because I knew that some of Nigel Molesworth's musings on life at St Custard's and beyond appeared in its august pages (mediated by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle). My parents would never have shelled out two shillings a month for a magazine, and neither was I inclined to when there were so many other calls on my pocket money (mostly sweets and Airfix kits I couldn't build). The future Mrs Nige, however, being of a more serious turn of mind, was a regular subscriber to The Elizabethan.
 So, when I saw a pile of Elizabethans, mostly from the late Fifties, in a local charity shop the other day, I was curious enough to buy a few. And what a long-lost world this high-toned 'magazine for teenagers' opens up – a world of intelligent and highly literate youngsters (it was aimed at grammar school pupils) with interests that ranged from books (above all books) to world affairs, astronomy, model-making, nature, history, cycling, photography and ponies: one of the issues I bought advertised a Heinz 'Cowboy's Breakfast' colouring competition with three ponies on offer as prizes. If you didn't want the pony, you could opt for 200 guineas (yes, guineas) in Premium Bonds.
  There is not a whiff of celebrity (in the modern sense) or fashion or gossip in these pages, and the only concession to pop music is a monthly record round-up by Sandy (The Boy Friend) Wilson. The excellent book page is written by Noel Streatfeild, famous as the author of Ballet Shoes – and talking of ballet, one of my issues has a photo spread of up-and-coming ballerinas, all very elegant and ladylike, a far cry from today's stringier, more gymnastic dancers. The same issue contains an interview with the eminent Nigel Calder on the future of space travel (which 'may unite the world as nothing has done before'); a piece on art auctions by the Daily Mail's Art Critic – they had one then; Nigel Molesworth on a shopping trip with his imperious grandmother; part three of Mist over Athelney by Geoffrey Trease, a historical novel set in the time of King Alfred; a piece by Tom Pocock on the life of a foreign correspondent; and an account of the sinking of the Birkenhead.
 Another of my issues has a fine piece on Venice by James (now Jan) Morris. This, like everything in The Elizabethan, is writing at a high level, with no condescension to the young audience, who clearly needed no talking down to. The writing competitions are pitched at a level not far below the New Statesman or Spectator, but with less humour, and there are picture and (decidedly challenging) crossword competitions every month. The letters page is pitched as 'Your Questions Answered' – often questions about pursuing interests and career possibilities, finding pen friends, getting book recommendations and information. One letter asks for Dame Margot Fonteyn's address, another – from Elizabeth de Vere Stacpoole of Harrow-on-the-Hill (presumably a relative of the author of The Blue Lagoon) – asks how to get information about fencing classes. Yes, this is decidedly a middle-class, educated, self-improving and polite world.
 The adverts – always the best guide to a magazine's readership – tell their own story: book announcements galore, ads for artists' materials, model aircraft, bicycles, ski wear and riding kit, adverts for other magazines such as Pony, The Tail Wagger Magazine and Opera (!,), Kangol berets, classical LPs, Bovril, a home weaving loom (weave your own stole!). Yes, another world, and one long gone. What would a 21st-century equivalent of The Elizabethan look like? Just to ask the question is to realise how impossible it would be. Those days – when teenagers were still, to a large extent, a combination of miniature adults and oversize children – are gone for good. I'm glad to have caught the tail end of it – even if I never subscribed to The Elizabethan.

Friday, 3 November 2017


Food for thought from Henry Hobhouse's Seeds of Wealth...
 If rubber had never been developed from a product harvested in the wild in South America to an industrialised plantation staple in the Far East, the whole history of the 20th century would have been completely different. There would have been 'very little motorisation, a few (probably only military) aircraft, and no electrified appliances in the home. The horse would still be king of the road, holidays would be taken at home, land travel would be by steam train, and most women would still be tied to a non-electric house and to daily shopping in an unrefrigerated, non-air-conditioned store, supplied in turn by horse-drawn transport.' Hobhouse continues, 'Historians are rightly contemptuous of  the might-have-been syndrome, but it is a reasonable device to use to point up the essential nature of a commodity.'
 Indeed. And the fact that rubber made it from South American jungle to Far Eastern plantation we owe to the vision of a civil servant called Clement Markham – the same man who had already succeeded in bringing the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, from the Andes to India as a plantation crop. But Markham's plan would likely not have succeeded but for the sheer luck of a Brazil-based chancer called Henry Wickham, who collected a large number of rubber-plant seeds that happened to be of a pest-free, disease-resistant strain, and managed to ship them out of the country under the noses of the authorities. By yet more luck, they stayed dry (water would have ruined them) and survived the journey to Kew (where the development work, so far unsuccessful, was being done) – and the rest is history.
 And here's a mind-boggling fact from Hobhouse's chapter on wine. A count of the yeasts and moulds present in a kilogram of grapes in a Californian vineyard discovered about 100,000 moulds, more than 100,000 'wine yeasts', and over 10,000,000 'other' yeasts. And each yeast would contain some 5,000 enzymes... There's nothing simple about wine – or history. 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

And a Poem for All Souls Day

Richard Wilbur, in the opening poem of his final collection, Anterooms, remembers his late, much loved wife...

The House
Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow’s walk above the bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

For All Souls

All Souls Day – and what better way to mark it than with Schubert's Litanei, surely one of his most beautiful songs? Fischer-Dieskau's classic rendering can hardly be beaten – and I love Bryn Terfel's low-pitched version with its suggestion of pent-up power – but here is the great Schubert specialist Ian Bostridge, singing it sweet, high and slow, with wonderful effect...

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Proust, Vermeer and that 'little patch of yellow wall'

Apart from shared membership of the human race, my father had but one thing in common with Marcel Proust – a fascination with that endlessly absorbing painting, A View of Delft by Jan Vermeer (born on this day in 1632). He – my father, that is – saw it in the Hague some time in the early Sixties and was so impressed that he bought a reproduction of it, which hung in our breakfast room, and in my parents' subsequent homes, for years. It certainly played a major part in my awakening to the power of art.
  Proust saw the View of Delft at the Jeu de Paume in May 1921, in a loan exhibition of Dutch paintings. This shaky excursion from his apartment proved to be his last. It began with a severe attack of dizziness before Proust had even made it down the stairs, but, supported by his friend Vaudoyer, he soldiered on and made it to the Jeu de Paume, where he tottered up to the View of Delft and, after spending a while in contemplation, found himself sufficiently revived to move on to a concurrent Ingres exhibition and lunch at the Ritz before making his way home, still, according to Vaudoyer, 'shaken and alarmed'.
 In The Captive, the last volume of A La Recherche, Proust transfers his Vermeer experience to the writer Bergotte, who, sleepless and ill, ventures out from his home to see the View of Delft on display. Like Proust, he is initially overcome by dizziness, but presses on determinedly. He has read a review of the exhibition that mentions a 'little patch of yellow wall' in the painting that is like 'a priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself'. Bergotte, who thought he knew every inch of the painting, cannot call to mind that little patch – until, in the gallery, he sees it, and with his discovery of it comes the realisation that 'That's how I ought to have written. My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall.' Overcome with dizziness again, Bergotte slumps onto a circular settee, from which he shortly rolls unconscious onto the floor, while attendants and visitors rush from all corners to attend to him. He is dead.
 Ever since Proust, there has been much argument over the whereabouts of that 'little patch of yellow wall' on Vermeer's painting. There are three contenders (see above), all in the sunlit area to the right of the picture – but none of this matters; there is more than enough to gaze – and wonder – at in the View of Delft.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Hobhouse's History

'A modern blight sees history through a prism (or fog) that distorts much of the past, not because of often obvious absurdities, but because of anachronisms. Contemporary political correctness can only exist after certain conditions have been fulfilled. These conditions did not exist before current technology made them possible. So, to consider the past when these factors could not have been present under the assumption that they were, is naive of students. For teachers it is at best ignorant and, at its worst, close to intellectual fraud.'
 Wise words from Henry Hobhouse in a prefatory note to his Seeds of Wealth (published in 2003, and things have got worse since then). This is a follow-up to Hobhouse's Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind, a book full of unexpected connections and startling insights that, once pointed out, seem obvious – and yet change everything. The footnotes alone contain more interest than a shelf full of more pedestrian histories.
 The five plants whose roles in history are examined in Seeds of Change are sugar, tea, cotton, the potato and the cinchoa (the source of quinine). The chapter on sugar alone upturns all the conventional wisdom about the triangular slave trade (though of course that false wisdom still thrives, partly for reasons hinted at in the quotation above).  Hobhouse's chapter on the potato does a similar mythbusting job for the Irish potato famine. The second edition of Seeds of Change added the coca plant to the original five, with similarly eye-opening results.
 Seeds of Wealth takes a similar approach to the earlier work, but focuses on plant products that have made men – and nations – rich, and in doing so have changed the course of history: timber, wine, rubber and tobacco. So far I have read only the chapter on timber, and it's packed with fascinating facts and figures that convincingly demonstrate how British shortage of timber and American superabundance of it dictated the course of both countries' histories over four centuries, bringing about Britain's very early industrial revolution and fuelling the westward march of the States, among many other things...
  Henry Hobhouse was not only a historian but a broadcaster, journalist, farmer and politician. When he died last year, the eulogy at his funeral was spoken by his godson – Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Hardy Tree and 'human jam'

The other day I visited, for the first time, Old St Pancras' Church and its graveyard, hard by the great Victorian railway terminus named for the same Roman saint. The church is a Victorian rebuild in that ugliest of revivalist styles, Neo-Norman (the original's bad enough, Neo is ten times worse). However, its wide, uncluttered interior is very pleasing, with a few interesting monuments (including one to the great miniature painter Samuel Cooper) and a faint smell of Anglo-Catholic incense in the air. A numinous space, and wonderfully quiet amid the busyness of North London.
  That quiet is due in large part to the insulating effect of the graveyard that lies all around the church, dotted with grand old plane trees. Among those buried here are Johann Christian Bach, the sculptor John Flaxman and John Polidori, author of The Vampyre. Sir John Soane and his wife lie beneath a gloriously Soanean mausoluem, whose handkerchief-domed roof inspired the design of the red telephone box. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft share a memorial (though their remains were removed to Bournemouth in 1851). When this was the grave of her mother alone, the young Mary was brought to it daily by her father to pay her respects, and it was there, later, that she and Percy Shelley planned their elopement.
 But one of the most striking features of Old St Pancras' churchyard is not a grave but the tree pictured above – the Hardy Tree. In the mid-1860s, young Thomas Hardy, who was training to be an architect under the eminent Arthur Blomfield, had to supervise the excavation and clearing of a large part of the churchyard to make room for the expansion of the railway and its terminus. This grisly job involved dealing with a jumbled mass of coffins and human remains and removing hundreds of headstones. Hardy, it is said, had the bright idea of arranging many of these redundant stones in circles resting against the bole of a young ash tree. Now, in an effect Hardy would surely have relished, the tree's gnarled roots, growing out year after year, have begun to engulf and absorb the stones – an image of life and death inextricably intertwined.
 Some years later, when he was back in Dorset and an established writer, Hardy noticed that the graveyard of Wimborne Minster had been levelled and its headstones rearranged. Around the same time, he met Arthur Blomfield again, who reminded him how the two of them had worked on clearing Old St Pancras' churchyard, on one occasion finding a coffin that contained a skeleton with an extra skull. This train of associations inspired Hardy's first poem in several years, one full of macabre humour – The Levelled Churchyard
"O passenger, pray list and catch 
   Our sighs and piteous groans, 
Half stifled in this jumbled patch 
   Of wrenched memorial stones! 

"We late-lamented, resting here, 
   Are mixed to human jam, 
And each to each exclaims in fear, 
   'I know not which I am!' 

"The wicked people have annexed 
   The verses on the good; 
A roaring drunkard sports the text 
   Teetotal Tommy should! 

"Where we are huddled none can trace, 
   And if our names remain, 
They pave some path or p-ing place 
   Where we have never lain! 

"There's not a modest maiden elf 
   But dreads the final Trumpet, 
Lest half of her should rise herself, 
   And half some local strumpet! 

"From restorations of Thy fane, 
   From smoothings of Thy sward, 
From zealous Churchmen's pick and plane 
   Deliver us O Lord! Amen!"

The railway runs just the other side of the high wall in the background of the photograph.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Thought for the Day

'If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving a tapestry, he had better shut up, he'll never do any good at all.'

William Morris

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Drawn in Colour

Today I dropped in on the National Gallery to have a look at Drawn in Colour, a lovely exhibition of the twenty-odd Degas pastel drawings and paintings that were collected by the Glasgow ship owner Sir William Burrell and are normally on display in the Burrell Collection in that fair city. This is the first time they have left Scotland together, and happily they will be at the National until next May. You'd be mad to miss them.
 The pastels are of course sensationally good, especially the later ones that show Degas's technique becoming increasingly bold (as in Dancers on a Bench, above). The brilliant Jockeys in the Rain (below), with its slashing diagonals, is one of the stars of the show, and there are several of those extraordinary nude studies of women washing themselves that some people find disturbingly voyeuristic. To me, they seem no more than a life-drawing extension of Degas's predilection for painting people utterly absorbed in their own worlds, as if the painter is an unnoticed presence who has just happened upon them, and has no interest but to draw them as best he can – which is quite preternaturally well.
 More than anything, I loved the pictures of the life – mostly the backstage life – of ballet dancers and would-be ballet dancers. The painting at the top of this post, The Rehearsal, one Degas's earliest ballet pictures, is in oils, and it's quite ravishing, a tour de force of composition, lighting and colour, with a crop that's bold even for Degas. Looking at these pictures, which manage to convey at once the beauty of ballet and the painful, exhausting physical slog of it, put me in mind – inevitably, in the month of his death – of Richard Wilbur's great ekphrastic poem, L'Etoile. The picture that inspired it is not in this exhibition (it's in the Musée d'Orsay), but here it is...
A rushing music, seizing on her dance,
Now lifts it from her, blind into the light;
And blind the dancer, tiptoe on the boards
Reaches a moment toward her dance's flight.

Even as she aspires in loudening shine
The music pales and sweetens, sinks away;
And past her arabesque in shadow show
The fixt feet of the maitre de ballet.

So she will turn and walk through metal halls
To where some ancient woman will unmesh
Her small strict shape, and yawns will turn her face
Into a little wilderness of flesh.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Islington and the Universe

So, it's official – the worst place in the UK to be a woman is, er, Islington. That was one of the findings of a big survey commissioned by Radio 4's Woman's Hour, which applied various criteria – housing affordability, personal wellbeing, safety, crime, education, etc – to every part of the UK and ran the figures. The two best places to be a woman were both rather nice parts of lowland Scotland – East Dumbartonshire and East Renfrewshire – with prosperous West Oxfordshire coming in third. And there, right down at the bottom, was that jewel of North London – Islington (379th of 380 in personal wellbeing and 369th in crime). As a confirmed South Londoner who could never understand why anyone in their right mind would wish to live North of the river (unless it was in the pleasanter parts of Kensington or Hampstead),  I am unsurprised and, I must admit, rather gratified by this result. Heaven knows what those fine people at Woman's Hour (a continuation of the Guardian woman's page by other means) must make of it. Trendy, vibrant, diverse Islington, home to so many right-thinking PC feminists, turns out to be the worst place in the UK to be a woman. Can such things be?

To change the subject, I can't resist linking to this story, which Bryan A tweeted earlier. Yes, the universe shouldn't exist! I feel this is almost as startling – and oddly pleasing – as the Islington finding.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Bridges v Hopkins

Born on this day in 1844 was the poet Robert Bridges, whose greatest contribution to English literature was his collecting and eventual publication of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The two men met at Oxford and were lifelong friends thereafter. However, they were a very odd couple, in most respects as different from each other as chalk and cheese – Bridges firmly anti-Catholic and conservative in all things, including poetry, and Hopkins devoutly Catholic and open to currents of thought and ways of writing verse that were quite repugnant to Bridges. The relationship between the two friends, who undoubtedly had a deep affection for each other, would be better understood if Bridges hadn't, after Hopkins' death, had all his (Bridges') letters to him returned and destroyed (though one survived).
 Bridges clearly did not understand or appreciate his friend's poetry, and was reluctant to publish it (a reluctance endorsed by his fellow poet Coventry Patmore). He might have been right to hesitate, as Hopkins' verse, if published in quantity in the 1880s or 1890s, could well have been dismissed as the most outlandish experimentation. When eight of his poems were published in an anthology in 1893 (five years after Hopkins' death), Bridges included a note on the poet, which ended uninvitingly:

'Poems as far removed as his come to be from the ordinary simplicity of grammar and meter, had they no other drawback, could never be popular, for they have this plain fault, that, aiming at an unattainable perfection of language, they not only sacrifice simplicity, but very often, among verses of the rarest beauty, show a neglect of those canons of taste which seem common to all poetry.'

 Even when Bridges finally brought out a proper edition of Hopkins's poems in 1918, he attached a minatory preface that could scarcely have been more negative:

'Apart from faults of taste, which, few as they numerically are, yet affect my liking and more repel my sympathy than do all the rude shocks of his purely artistic wantonness – apart from these, there are definite faults of style which a reader must have courage to face, and must in some measure condone before he can discover the great beauties.'

Well, cheers, Bob – thanks for that ringing endorsement...
 Since then, of course, the whirligig of time has brought in its revenges: Robert Bridges, one-time Poet Laureate, survives only in a few anthology pieces (like this one), while Hopkins is regarded as one of the great (or, at the very least, 'major minor') English poets.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Blindingly Obvious

A cliché, by definition – my definition anyway – is a phrase that has been so overused it has lost its meaning. A classic example is the oft-used 'blindingly obvious'. This means, or rather meant, so obvious that it was no longer apparent, could no longer be seen. Nowadays it is used to mean merely very obvious. This is a shame, as some things are indeed blindingly obvious – so obvious that no one, apparently, sees them.
  I think there's a case in point in the current brouhaha over alleged 'social apartheid' being practised by Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is of course risible nonsense: the only admissions policy in operation is what it has always been – to select the best applicants. Not necessarily those with the best grades (these two universities wisely rely more on their own entrance exams), but those who will be best suited to the peculiar conditions of an Oxbridge education. That is still what is happening; what has changed is that the state schools are, for various reasons, not providing enough such applicants. So there is, inevitably, an apparent bias towards 'privileged' applicants from private schools.
 When I was at Cambridge, the proportion of entrants from state schools was nearing fifty per cent (I think in my college it was already over that mark). That rising trend would have continued but for one thing – and this is where the 'blindingly obvious' comes in – the abolition of the grammar schools. Whatever the faults of the old grammar / secondary modern system, the grammar school was an astonishingly effective engine of social mobility, propelling unprecedentedly large numbers of bright but 'deprived' children into good universities and top jobs (five consecutive state-educated Prime Ministers in the grammar school era). It was a social ladder like no other, and the imposition of 'comprehensive' education kicked it away, with the result that a far lower proportion of state-school pupils are now equipped for studying at the elite universities (and even those that are often receive no encouragement or preparation from their schools). Instead of bleating about 'social apartheid', the politicians should seriously consider the state of public education and do something serious about it. They might, for example, ponder the fact that this is the only developed country where school leavers are less literate and numerate than their grandparents. How did that happen?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Frits Thaulow

Today is the 170th birthday of the Norwegian painter Frits Thaulow, who settled in France in the 1890s and was for several years an ornament of Dieppe society. He and his Amazonian wife Alexandra presided over a hospitable household to which all were welcome – including Oscar Wilde, at a time when he was being ostentatiously cut by le tout Dieppe (with a few noble exceptions).
  The Thaulows also befriended Aubrey Beardsley and the young Australian painter Charles Conder, an alcoholic with a severe case of nostalgie de la boue. The Thaulows, seeking to keep him safe and occupied, insisted that he move in with them and paint murals on the walls of their villa. Alexandra also commissioned him to decorate some plain white evening gowns for her, as he was particularly skilled at painting on silk. John Rothenstein, who of course was there, remembered how ''visitors were enchanted at the sight of this Brynhilde, dressed in white silk, standing majestic in her drawing room, while Conder fluttered round her, brush in hand, until the white silk was no more, but coloured like a field of flowers'.
 Alexandra was also one of the daring Dieppe ladies who took up the fashionable pastime of bicycling. 'With her enormous thighs encase in knee-breeches,' writes Simona Pakenham (in Sixty Miles from England), 'she mounted her "iron steed" and went for trips to Arques on a tandem, sometimes carrying the diminutive figure of John Rothenstein, who came on holiday visits to Conder, behind her.' If only Max Beerbohm (another ornament of Dieppe society) had been there to draw that...
 The painting above is Jacques-Emile Blanche's bravura portrait of Frits Thaulow somehow managing to paint en famille and en plein air, while smoking a cigarette. Thaulow's own paintings were quieter affairs, documenting his love of the Norman countryside, its pastures and old farm buildings, trees, rivers and millponds. The play of light – especially declining light – on water particularly fascinated him, and he became known as a specialist in watery scenes, like the one below. Not a great painter perhaps, but a very good one – and, by all accounts, a rather fine human being.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Red House

Here's something I wrote for those nice people at Pooky, purveyors of fine lighting to the quality. It's about that remarkable survival, Red House in Bexleyheath...

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

'One of the great works of art of England'

I spent most of yesterday making a long day trip – much longer than it should have been, thanks to various train and taxi problems – into Suffolk. My destination was St Andrew's church in the village of Bramfield. It's a pretty and interesting church – detached Norman round tower, thatched roof, a splendid late medieval screen (detail below) – but I was there to see Nicholas Stone's great monument to Arthur Coke and his wife, Elizabeth, who died in childbirth, 'Christianly and peaceably', in 1627.
 It's an almost stark monument, in black and white marble, with virtually no ornamentation, and the kneeling figure of Arthur Coke, against the wall, is stern and stiff. All the interest lies in the alabaster effigy of mother and child, she reclining at peace with the babe in her arms. It's a piece of work so exquisitely carved that Sacheverell Sitwell describes the rendering of the mother's full sleeve, the pillows under her head and the coverlet over her body as 'worthy of Bernini'. He is right – and he barely exaggerates in declaring that 'This is one of the great works of art of England'. The same could be said, in my view, of a good many of the best church monuments of the early 17th-century golden age. It's a shame we have to travel so far and so long to see them. But it's worth it.