Oxford

Oxford is beautiful at the moment; cow parsley and buttercups flower in the parks, accompanied by horse chestnut, rhododendrons and laburnum. I’d gone to see the Radcliffe Observatory at Green College. This is actually rather larger than the observatory at Greenwich and much more elaborate, being modelled on the Athenian Temple of the Winds (another copy of which exists at West Wycombe Park) and accordingly decorated with astrological and mythological sculpture; an excellent combination of the scientific and the artistic. The building gains from being set in the college gardens, which are rather more impressive than most of the college gardens and were originally used as physic gardens. Various herbal and poisonous plants remain but overall it is as much of a botanical garden now, with wisteria, redwood, catalpa (Indian bean tree) and goldenrain trees. The actual University Botanical Gardens are also rather fine at this time of year; the grounds were filled with irises, tree peonies, anemones and euphorbias while some of the Chinese trees (such as dove trees and Kousa dogwood) with bright blue and white blossom were especially striking. The glasshouses seemed to have similar plants to the gardens at Montjuic; many South African and Chilean plants as well as lily house. On the other hand, the didactic bent of many botanic gardens was rather too apparent in the insistence on featuring plants like papyrus, cardamom and ginger, known for their utility rather than botanical or aesthetic interest. Finally, the gardens were host to a rare plants sale, so I am now the proud owner of a cycad, a living fossil I’ve always been fascinated by.

The University Botanical Gardens also own the Harcourt arboretum. At this time of year the collection of Lebanon cedars, giant redwoods, monkey puzzle and Moroccan blue cedars is complemented by hosts of rhododendrons throughout the gardens, with everywhere being lit up with purple and red. Most of the gardens are taken up with bluebell woods filled with oak, ash and beech, but many of the glades and walks are also host to less traditional denizens; Acers and Bamboo. The grounds were patrolled by a number of peacocks (apparently indifferent to humans, if their occupation of some of the benches was anything to go by), whose beautiful plumage was perfectly balanced by their horribly shrill calls as they prowled around the irises bordering one of the ponds . Again, the gardens at Montjuic, a section was dedicated to plants from high places (Magnolias from the Himalayas, berberis from Chile and so on.

One of the Sir John Soane Museum shows many of his unexecuted designs, covering such buildings the Houses of Parliament and Royal Palaces, all apparently designed to recreate the splendour of Imperial Rome; a bridge design crosses the distance between the Thames and the Tiber. As his austere design for the Bank of England shows, Soane was very much an architect in the style of Wren, with his failed Palladian designs for London (unlike Haussmann’s Paris, Schinkel’s Berlin or even Cerda’s Barcelona) reflecting a similar intent to Gilbert Scott’s gothic design for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (or Albert Waterhouse’s design for the Strand law courts), but his own house seems more of monument to baroque fancy, a cabinet of curiosities (perhaps not entirely surprisingly; his interest in Roman ruins is a product of the romantic era as much as the enlightenment, while his taste in painting and architecture both betray an interest in the gothic).

Each room is crowded with curiosities from Rome, Egypt and Greece, but both normal and curious convex, fish-eye mirrors are used to create the illusion of space. As corridors and chambers cluster around a central courtyard, the result is much the same as Palau Guell; a confusing Escherian building where space seems to fold in on itself; Soane was greatly influenced by Piranesi and it is not hard to see the resemblance (there is even a portrait of Soane’s Bank of England reimagined as a Roman ruin). The most impressive rooms are perhaps the breakfast rooms and library; the latter painted red in imitation of Pompeii and decorated with Chinese chairs and vases, where the windows are occluded by arches and a profusion of Apulian vases. The breakfast room in No.13 is covered with a vaulted ceiling arranged in a starfish shape from each corner of the room to a domed ceiling, which is covered in the aforementioned fish-eye mirrors. The breakfast room in No.12 has a ceiling covered in with vine and flowers painted in the style of a pergola; they even spill out onto the walls. The Hogarth paintings certainly live up to their reputation; the best is probably The Election, which is worthy of Gilray, where The Rake’s Progress is perhaps more moralistic than satirical today.

The oddest thing I’ve read recently is William Bligh and Edward Christian’s The Bounty Mutiny, a collection of firsthand accounts. Any expectation that such source would permit a judgement on the events in question is largely thwarted by the text though; if ill-tempered Bligh would hardly seem to have provoked Christian with any adequate motivation for the mutiny, even on the basis of Edward Christian’s own accusations against Bligh. Most interesting was the least known part of the narrative; the anti-Rousseauist fable of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island.

Angela Carter’s Wise Children, is a picaresque novel where the carnivalesque world of music hall gives way to the more constrained world of television. With a number of intertextual references to Shakespeare’s comedies; except that here the anarchic aspects of carnival triumph. Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop is really rather impressive. While writers like Agatha Christie moved detective fiction towards a more realist strain (The Forsyte Saga with more corpses), Chrispin instead took the more playful aspects of Conan Doyle and Chesterton and produced something rather more surreal. My favourite part is a rather postmodern little paragraph where the detective, Gervase Fen, decides to pass the time by ‘making up some titles for Crispin.’

By now I have read so much Kundera that each novel begins to seem the work of someone trying to imitate a Kundera novel) represents another dialogic novel featuring Bakhtinian themes of laughter as a subversive force and folk art (whose status is more ambivalent). To a large extent the novel resembles Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, in that a set of differing narrations converges at the end, but Jaroslav’s opposed reaction to Ludvik retains a dialogic quality that staves off any simple convergence or resolution in the ending. As always with Kundera the most dialogic aspect of the novel is the comedy of errors that ensues from the character’s misperception of each other. On the one hand Ludvik states that "the virulence of his (communist) faith was alien to me." But Jaroslav sees him differently; "He had the look all communists had at the time. He looked as if he’d made a secret pact with the future and thereby acquired the right to act in its name;" the same principle applies to Ludvik’s misjudgment of Lucie and Helena’s misjudgment of Ludvik. Similarly, the character of Kostka even deconstructs much of the basis for the novel; "No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled. Mockery is a rust that corrodes all it touches." The most interesting aspect of this is the role of folk art in the novel, as it revolves around a folk ritual depicting the ride of a king. On the one hand, this is a source of collective tradition against the corrosive effects of capitalism ("We needed to purge our musical culture of the lifeless hit tune cliches that the bourgeoise had used to force-feed the people. We needed to replace them with an original and genuine art of the people."), but later as a symbol of the communist dereliction of tradition ("nothing but good old romanticism with a thin veneer of folk melody."); it is only as Ludvik ceases to see it as a symbol, as much as he sees other as symbols that it can be revived.

Much of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is as much polemic as documentary, two genres that never seem entirely reconciled. This respective sections on Paris and London each conclude with polemical sections that cleave to socialist conventions, asserting that "there is no difference between rich and poor" anymore than there is a difference between white and black, while demonising the rich by snidely commenting of American hotel guests "perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not," essentially the inversion of the fear of the mob he had denounced previously. More strikingly, themes of false consciousness appear in the descriptions of waiters; "waiters are seldom socialists, have no effective trade union.. they are snobs and find the servile nature of their work rather congenial." However, the book has many differing views on poverty. Most obviously, Orwell contradicts his own argument on equality by observing that "and educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the great evils of enforced poverty… the man who really merits pity… faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind." Equally, Orwell may well be sanguine as to swindling American hotel guests, but seems to dislike the same attitude when demonstrated by others, such as a communist waiter; "He had a curious, malignant spirit. He told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup.. just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie." Elsewhere, when reviewing the inhabitants of a hotel, Orwell writes that "poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees them from work," a view that seems more to romanticise poverty, casting it as a form of freedom rather than of oppression.

Given this, it hardly seems surprising that Orwell excites such divergent attitudes (For instance, the recent account of him as someone who dressed his conservatism in progressive rhetoric persistently attacking the legitimate socialist movements of his time. He blamed the poverty in Wigan on the failure of socialists and the rise of tyranny on the success of socialists. Presented with any given problem, he was more enraged by the failure of the left than by anything else), but it’s difficult to avoid wondering if it isn’t more a case of ‘all things to all men,’ since the account of poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London is such that it can easily accommodated into any number of political creeds. Orwell’s political philosophy seems as occluded as the trouble with Hamlet, to borrow TS Eliot’s description.

Another peculiarly inconsistent figure was Derek Jarman, whose Smiling in Slow Motion I have just completed. On the one hand, his vision is one of inclusion and social equality; "queer people should demand equality in all aspects of life" while decrying the fact that "lesbians and gay men have no way of sanctioning of their relationship" i.e. marriage. On the other hand, he can proclaim that "it is the assimilationists are the enemy," and celebrates the polymorphous perversity of queer, denouncing social conformity; "why does he wants us to fit into a pattern of life that is so obviously outmoded.. if this is what gay has to offer, I’m glad I’m queer." Although the term ‘gay’ is frequently used as with invective it is also often used as a mark of identity, reflecting the ambivalence of wanting equality and denouncing that with which equality is sought and wearing the red badge of the outcast with pride. For example, Jarman can relish the prospect of cathedrals being burned down; "It is a delightful outcome that the church should tear itself apart. I hope it as destructive as possible to that prison of dreams and desire. let the trumpets blast the walls of the churches till they fall into a picturesque ruin." But when he visits Durham Cathedral he finds himself holding back any invective to the clerics he meets and follows a life redolent of tradition. To some extent, it’s impossible not to be reminded of his own complaint against Wilde; "an infuriating icon for queers – the complicity with snobbery and writing less interesting than the life."

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