Hell Fire

Kew Gardens is wonderful at this time of year. The bluebells and Rhode were in flower, as was the Wisteria that formed a shady pergola, and, indeed, the vivid red and purple bromeliads within the Conservatories. One particular highlight were the enormous flowering strelitzia reginae, though sadly the lily pads in the main conservatory were rather smaller than on my last visit. On the other hand, peacocks stalked the grounds and greylag geese swam in the lake before the Palm house, its shore dominated by flowering rhubarb.

Although much of the interest in Kew is ethnographic (for instance, the traditional Japanese house and Indonesian musical instruments made out of Bamboo) or based on curiosity (the Dali sculpture behind the Palm House) my interest was more historical (for instance, Burton’s Palm houses with its heraldic statues and the classical temples scattered throughout the grounds); the contrast between the genteel eighteenth century design and the more naturalistic reinvention of the gardens by Capability Brown being particularly striking. The most fascinating buildings are William Chambers’ Pagoda (though its brickwork is a little dour, and much of the building is in need of restoration; the Chinese teahouse and Dragon House at Sanssouci are superior examples of the eighteenth century fascination for Chinoisserie), and the Chokushi Mon with its wonderful kare-sansui gravel garden and burgundy Acers. The last time I visited the place had small plots dedicated to Japanese gardens, but I recall thinking at the time that the original was best.

One of my favourite places was the elegantly patterned parterre box garden behind Kew Palace with its wrought iron pillars and gazebos (again not unlike Sanssouci) painted in blue and gold. The one part I was not especially taken with is the most modern conservatory; although its contents are fascinating, ranging from cloud forest to desert, the building itself is rather unpleasant and contains far more concrete than one would ideally wish to see.

Nearby are the Hell Fire Caves excavated by Sir Francis Dashwood; somewhat spoiled by gimmicks but the underground stream and large banqueting hall are quite impressive nonetheless. Much the same applies to Dashwood’s renovated church, build using flint in a traditional style but with an eighteenth century design. Particularly odd is the golden sphere at the top of the summit, apparently built in imitation of Venice and St Petersburg. Regarding West Wycombe Estate itself, the grounds remain dotted with classical temples and follies (albeit with tiling on the roof) while the otherwise Palladian landscape, like that of Kew, has been redesigned into a more romantic style from its rococco original. The effect is rather impressive, with the grounds being composed of quite densely grown woodland and lakes with Islands linked by bridges. It does rather create the sensation of walking in a <a href="
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/WebMedia/Images/10/NG1018/eNG1018.jpg&#8221; target=”_blank”>Claude painting Similarly, the Manor dates back to Queen Anne but had been redesigned itself in mock-grecian and rococco styles. Accordingly, the Manor shows the personality of its creator; quite literally in the case of the numerous painting of Sir Francis in various rooms., but also in the case of the flamboyant decoration. Pictures of Bacchanalian scenes vie for space with pictures of the eminently eccentric Sir Francis Dashwood in various costumes (the dining room has him dressed as the Pope while toasting Hermaphrodite, as an Ottoman Emperor and as himself). There is also a picture of Milton looking very uncomfortable at the company he keeps (i.e. the pictures of Bacchanalian orgies to either side of him).

I’ve also visited Hughendon Manor in Buckinghamshire; in truth not an especially interesting place, largely interesting because it was once owned by Disraeli. The house is essentially Georgian with some Gothic alterations; for example, intricate wooden panelling in the Gothic style; I was rather struck by a set of prints of Pottsdam, dating from the Berlin Congress. Similarly, the garden is most interesting for the collection of firs and pines started by Disraeli.

Hughendon Manor

Elsewhere, I’ve been for a rather pleasant walk alongside the Kennet and Avon canal and underneath a bridge constructed by Brunel for the Great Western Railway. I hadn’t actually noticed the plaque marking the bridge as a listed building before (the amount of graffiti, sadly, made it rather difficult to discern) but it is quite striking; two small arches on either side flank a fifth central arch which spans the canal. Although the area is rather dilapidated, the willow trees and buddleia made for reasonably pleasant scenery, while coots, swans and ducks nest nearby while vivid blue dragonflies flit around.

I’ve just finished reading Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. Like Stoker’s Dracula it is atrociously written (in a curiously staid manner which is ill at ease with the sensationalist plot). The interest of the story largely comes from the set pieces (unlike, say, The Woman in White); the same labyrinthine caverns as in The Castle of Otranto and the same oriental decorations as in Vathek. I’m reminded of something Umberto Eco wrote in an essay on Casablanca as a form of intertextual collage; "in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so one can only remember parts of it." I’ve also been reading Kipling’s Kim. What was surprisingly interesting about this is the extent to which identity is such an uncertain concept, as Kim howls his name over and over again; "letting the mind go free upon speculation as to what is called personal identity." Kim’s identity exists within a liminal space between the idea of a noble savage and the civilising European, between his Buddhist master and the great game.

Dorian by Will Self is essentially a cover version of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (not quite as Wide Sargasso Sea relates to Jane Eyre). I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Wilde; where How the Dead Live and My Idea of Fun left me indifferent and feeling that Self was best confined to short stories, Great Apes was quite striking, a Ballardian revision of Swift and Boulle; "the idea of depicting, allegorically, the anti-naturalism of the condition of modern urban chimpunity… the distorted relation between chimp’s minds and chimp’s bodies." Similarly, in Dorian, Dorian’s chameleon like character performs a similar allegorical function (similarly Simon’s art and Henry’s novel perform a similarly postmodern role; Henry’s distortion of reality in writing is akin to his warping of Dorian; "Dorian was one of those unusual beings who make a reality out of the fictions they cannot write") "the product remains the same… the packaging remains the same…artists always create themselves to begin with." As such, Dorian is "a social chameleon, adapting himself perfectly to whatever background he finds himself standing against." or "the chameleon is the most significant of modern social types."

The ending resembles that of My Idea of Fun in calling into question the reliability of what has preceded it, Accordingly, the novel is close to magic realism, suggesting the social reality in a superficial age is largely symbolic and arbitrary, thereby explaining one odd feature of the book; the lack of social change. The book is filled with vitriolic social commentary, but there is no sense of change throughout. Conversely, the original The Picture of Dorian Gray was a fable, where sir Henry Wotton’s aestheticism is the dialogic heart of the novel, with Wotton commenting that murder contravened his aesthetic code as much as conventional moral codes. Wotton is less interesting in Dorian, resembling the cynical and self hating Lilly in How the Dead Live. The problem with this is that the novel does rather tend to become the moral fable Wilde saw too much of in The Picture of Dorian Gray, particularly with the introduction of AIDS as a theme; "the nasty moral majority saying it was all your minority fault;" Self is a (left-wing) moralist, where Wilde was an aesthete.

As a parallel to this, Derek Jarman’s film, Sebastiane (or Beau Travail for that matter) sees Sebastiane condemned because of his own repression; the problem is that be retaining the christian narrative, Jarman turns Sebastiane into a martyr.

I suspect a more interesting portrayal of what a modern Sir Henry Wotton might resemble lies in Ravelstein by Saul Bellow, a novel that could be described as depicting the process by which the establishment strengthens itself by absorbing foreign bodies. Ravelstein, a homosexual Jew (although "he despised campy homosexuality and took a very low view of gay pride." Incidentally, Dorian says exactly the same thing of Wotton) with conservative philosophical predilections, oscillates between subversion and conservatism, buying expensive suits and spilling food on them. That is not to mention vacillating between the philosophical poles of Athens and Jerusalem, and spending time in Paris inspite of disliking the ‘Anti-American’ views and relativist philosophies of its inhabitants; "a bourgeois solution in bohemian dress.. I mentioned bohemianism because we need to feel we are liberated."