The Valkyries

I hadn’t walked through Hyde Park for a few years and I’d forgotten how pleasant it is (though perhaps a little too much like a provincial country estate when compared to either the formal gardens in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark or the wild areas it shares with Berlin’s Tiergarten). The Serpentine is the most impressive part of the park; at one point the lake was crossed with posts with a solitary seagull perched on each of these. Nearby, a coot was building its nest in shallow waters. I left the park at Apsley House and the Wellington Arch (although the park is filed with war memorials, the arch is rather awkwardly militaristic for London) before walking back to Kensington, passing by the Brompton Oratory (an intriguing building in that the light-filled interior could be one of the Catholic churches in Europe rather than their quasi-anglicanised brethren here).

The Victoria and Albert Museum was holding an exhibition on Arts & Crafts, a counterpart to a previous exhibition on Art Deco. Arts & Crafts had an oddly double character; it emerged as a response to industrialisation, asserting the role of rural crafts, but was primarily purchased by the new industrial haute-bourgeoisie (Wightwick Manor, an arts & crafts mansion was also one of the first to have electric lighting and plumbing). By eschewing mass-production the artefacts of the arts and crafts movement would inevitably be high-value items, affordable only for the elites. The English section comprised furniture by Pugin, paintings by Burne-Jones, clocks and furniture by Voysey, ceramics by De Morgan, Morris tapestries and Baillie-Scott’s stained glass. The inclusion of works by Beardsley made it clear how the romantic interest in nature held by the arts & crafts movement could lead to both aestheticism and art nouveau. By contrast, arts & crafts in America seemed much more to resemble something that had passed directly on to art deco without the intermediate stage of art nouveau; the materials and subjects were still natural but their treatment stylised and geometric (the only comparable works in the English section were by Mackintosh).

Although figures like Greene & Greene and Lloyd Wright were reacting to the rise of skyscrapers, the American houses appear to have been significantly larger than the English cottages dreamt by Morris (presumably the more deracinated character of America made idealisation of peasant life markedly more difficult; such traits are absent even in works like Walden). Although Viennese design was significantly more stylised (as with Klimt and Hoffmann’s designs) and German more comfortable with industrialisation, the majority of European design seems to have been more in sympathy with England. Perhaps unsurprisingly so; Morris’s socialist utopianism fed into Gauguin’s praise of pre-industrial life in Tahiti. Van Gogh’s artist’s community in Arles, the Yellow House, emulated Morris’s Red House, his famous ladder-backed armchair picture showing an arts & crafts design. Scandinavian design drew on rural traditions (as at Skansen) and myth (as with the snakes on Lars Kinsarvik’s furniture), since both Norway and Finland were asserting new national identities. Similarly in Japan, Mingei arose as a response to the Westernisation later decried by Tanizaki, seeking beauty that was born rather than made, part of the traditional Buddhist belief in oneness with nature. I then went to the Poynter (blue Delft tiling), Gamble (white and gold ceramics, rather like the Cafe Imperial in Prague) and Morris rooms (green olive branch wallpaper, lined with gold friezes) for lunch.

The Proms began for me this year with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. This is one of the very few concerts that has made good use of the Albert Hall; at one point flutes could be heard from the upper gallery in imitation of bird song, at another the echo of a trumpet. The following day started at Covent Garden, walking around the market and the pleasant churchyard at St James, before proceeding back to Kensington for a performance of Die Walkure. Last year, Kim Begley dominated Das Rheingold as Loge; this year Bryn Terfel’s Wotan and Lisa Gasteen’s impish Brunnhilde (who bore a disturbing resemblance to Joan Sims) stood out. It’s interesting that where Das Rheingold portrays women as either fickle and frivolous or as helpless, Die Walkure largely performs a volte-face on this, something that is as much emphasised as off-set by the idea that love and marriage as a punishment for Brunnhilde. This is largely because, following Schopenhauer, love and passion are only ever forms of affliction for Wagner; it is difficult for him to retreat to images of the loving wife and he must replace the virgin and the whore dichotomy with the shrew and the warrior. As I left, the London lighting gave the twilight an oddly attenuated quality I’ve not seen elsewhere, the clouds turned orange against the darkening blue of the sky. Watching Gotterdammerung later, it occurred to me how much Wagner sees love as something emasculating. For Brunnhilde, it is the end of her existence as a warrior maiden while for Siegfried it is that which leads him to first feel fear.

I came across Nightmare in Venice later, a compilation by the much-fabled ensemble Red Priest, who can best be described as playing early and baroque music in the manner of Stravinsky and with the attitude of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Dwelling on the strange and fantastic aspects of the baroque style (perhaps rather implausibly so on occasions), they perform Vivaldi, Purcell and Corelli (with an unscripted detour through Danse Macabre at one point).

Heading into London for the next Proms, I had a chance to see the tight security on the transport system at the moment; I have to say it’s both rather reassuring and extremely disturbing to see armed police walking about in the sunlight, not to mention bag searches and scans slowly becoming endemic. Since the number of people queuing for the Proms was noticeably less than usual I went for a look at the science museum and got to stroll past Babbage’s difference engine and Stephenson’s Rocket. Westminster Abbey reminded me of nothing so much as the John Soane Museum; filled with statues and ephemera where much of the tombs and paintings appear to have survived the restoration unscathed. It is certainly the only abbey I have seen to have glass chandeliers (complementing the fan vaulting rather well). Like Dorchester, Winchester and Lichfield it had a pair of Sergei Fedorov icons. By contrast, the interior of St Paul’s was as pure as the spire of his churches, quite unlike the Catholic churches it imitated. As is often the case, the Victorian mosaics on the ceiling have the effect of making it seem more orthodox than Catholic. Towards the beginning of the Prom I was going to a violinist from the American orchestra that was performing leaned over to the front rows of prommers and announced that she wanted to say hello as she rather felt like we were all attending the same dinner party. It’s certainly true that there’s something very pleasantly democratic and egalitarian about the proms; the prommers that are prepared to stand get the best possible views of the performance after all (even if there are plenty of others with expensive seats). These Proms also had a baroque flavour, with Rameau’s Les Paladins and Dardanus and Handel’s Water Music. Rameau proved to be quite effervescent in his choice of instrumentation and harmonies, though Handel’s elegant simplicity seemed more beautiful than Rameau’s more Italianate approach. It was interesting to note that the difficulties for a small orchestra to fill the Albert Hall with sound must have been similar to that of making oneself heard from the Royal barge.

The next Prom began with Berg’s Lulu Suite followed by Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Seemingly an odd combination this worked rather well; Berg alternates between dissonance and lyricism while Mahler’s philosophy that the symphony must contain everything leads him to alternate between the comic and the plaintive. This was followed by a performance of plainchant and organ music, comprising both medieval and modern works by Arvo Part. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir entered from each side of the hall, men on one side, women on the other and gradually walked to the stage, one verse at a time. It was interesting to see how modern minimalism seemed to complement plainsong (and odd given that I had always tended to think of minimalism as an Eastern concept, based on Wabi-Sabi or equivalent concepts), with each syllable being held and repeated over time. The first piece was by an composer I hadn’t heard of before called, Sofia Gubaidulina, called The Light of the End. This seemed to move like the tides of the sea, building up and dissipating over and over again, something stressed by the piece’s heavy reliance on a rather aleatoric percussion style. Overall, the logic of the piece seemed primarily driven by religious symbolism rather than conventional musical structures. By contrast, there’s very little to say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; this piece was the one most admired by my favourite composer, Wagner and the ode to joy does have the same exhilarating quality to it that is shared by Tannhauser’s Overture or Die Walkure’s Fire Music. The final prom surprised me a little; Strauss’s Thus Sprach Zarathustra seemed rather mannered when placed next to The Flying Dutchman overture or Beethoven’s third piano concerto.

The Magic Flute was rather more odd than I’d supposed. Like many enlightenment narratives, it takes the form of a fairy tale, only to oppose the structure of the moral fable with an enlightenment narrative based on ideas of reason. To a large extent, it’s rather noticeable that the narrative tends towards misogyny, privileging reason as a male virtue and slighting emotion as a female weakness. However, it’s refreshing to note that the narrative itself overturns this, noting the inability of Monostratos to control himself, the weakness of Papagueno and Pamina’s success in taking the ordeal of fire and water (particularly radical given Masonic barriers to women joining the order). In this there is at least the germ of an alternative reading that would see the Queen of the Night as a prototype for Brunnhilde and Sarastro as a tyrant, and the beginning of the romantic rehabilitation of the fairy tale.

I went to Clandon Park recently, an rather sparse (if not even rather ugly) house in Sussex, the exterior only enlivened by a Dutch sunken garden parterre garden and a maori house (surrounded by tree ferns, many carved to form statues). The interior was quite striking though; I walked into a gleaming white marble hall, lined with statuary by Rysbrack, Corinthian Columns and spanning two floors. I was especially taken with the lamps attached to the wall by arms, as in Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bette. More odd were some paintings of an Ostrich and Cassowary. Later rooms had wooden furniture mounted on eagles in the style of William Kent and chinoiserie dressing tables by Chippendale (designed to resemble a pagoda). One room had an exhibition dedicated to Maori tribes, including whalebones clubs and jade tiki statues. The paintings were mostly undistinguished (Kneller, Lely and so on, the occasional Reynolds), apart from a caricature of George the Third by Gillray and a painting of the House of Commons speaker by Thornhill and Hogarth. Nearby was the St Peter and St Paul church, a twelfth century building that still had a medieval wooden triptych of three saints. Further away, Hatchlands house was more promising on the exterior (a Dutch design with glass cupola on one wing, a formal garden created by Jekyll and some classical follies in the grounds) but suffered from a cramped and was overly ornate Italianate interior by Robert Adams.

Following an encounter with a Saxon beech maze, shaped in the form of a sea creature, I went to Oxford. Bails lay in fields while poppies and cornflowers grew in hedgerows. I went up the tower of the University church, looking out over at the Radcliffe Camera, the sundial in Brasenose quad and the other spires. The green of the woods could be seen in the distance. The History of Science Museum had a fascinating collection of astrolabes (often Islamic, for use in praying to Mecca) and armillary spheres as well as compasses in ivory cases. Travelling back, I went to Dorchester Abbey. A simple building set in a pleasantly leafy area by the Isis, the interior is more impressive, the white walls being interrupted with 14th century paintings and a 12th century font. The stained glass in the North window is remarkably intricate, with stone patterns in the shape of branches (the tree of Jesse, showing how Chirst was descended from King David’s ancestor Jesse). The requiem chapel has an orthodox icon, presumably St Birinus, of the same type I had seen in Lichfield and Winchester. The walls here also had medieval paintings on them, which seemed to have been repainted, presumably in the Victorian period. Reading The Secret History by Procopius, I was struck by the role played by women in it; Theodora and Antonina do not appear more important to events than Livia or Cleopatra but their role is described in so much more detail.

Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters struck me as being oddly European. Where Some Prefer Nettles attached clear symbolic connotations to Tokyo and Osaka, here they are simply places. The weather and accents differ but there is no fundamental schism. Much like Buddenbrooks, The Makioka Sisters traces the decline of a Japanese House before World War Two. One sister, Yukiko, is traditionally Japanese; too withdrawn and retiring to cope in brash, modern Japan. She is counterpointed to Taelo, the most Westernised sister; independent and often ruthless in pursuit of what she wants. Both are counterpointed to the White Russian, Katherina, whose forwardness if greater than Taeko’s with a correspondingly greater success. Though both Taeko and Yukiko are counterpointed, both are ill-suited for Japan at that time and fail accordingly (rather than turning into a fable of Taeko’s progressive moral degenerations).

Normally in a narrative, an action leads to consequences, with this process being repeated over and over again in any variety of combinations until it reaches a conclusion. Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-La-Morte is an odd attempt to counterfeit this in a form that is more poetic than novelistic. Instead of motivation and action as being paramount, the narrative is driven by a set of competing metaphors such as the crying swan or the martyrs depicted in the Cathedral and the city itself; hence the Sebald-like use of photographs of Bruges throughout the text; "every town is a state of mind, a mood which, after only a short stay, communicates itself." Like all metaphors, both reveal and conceal their object; "by trying to fuse the two women into one he had only lessened the resemblance…day by day the dissimilarities were increasing." The novel is infected with a Schopenhauerian sense of mysticism, with the convent the only truly still point in the city, in contrast to Hugues’s willing. As such, the stillness of the city is both a sign of nirvana and of decay. Accordingly, the two layers of narrative and metaphor are not quite contingent, with Jane’s ignorance of these contiguities is what kills her "not having comprehended the mystery."

Casanova’s The Story of my Life is a fascinating counterpart to more mannered documents like Rousseau’s Confessions. Casanova repeatedly avows a faith in christianity, but in practice only rejects converting to Islam in Constantinople on practical grounds. He is surprisingly tolerant of homosexuality (perhaps since he was a sexual dissident himself, comparing the disguised nun he is romancing to Antinous, as well as the episode with Bellino). Equally, he professes to be a great admirer of Voltaire but tells him that there is no substitute for religion as a basis for social order. The tension appears attributable to his attachment to the Hobbesian idea of the passions as the basis for human character; "the fate of every man inclined to games of chance, unless he is able to master his passions," leaving him permanently attempting to balance duty and desire and failing.

The Travels of Ibn Batuttah differ from christian travel narratives in a number of respects. The Islamic world at this point was extensive, stretching from Spain to Mughal India; for the same reason it acted as a form of iron curtain for European merchants who were forced to explore alternative routes. Where Europeans were forced to confront other cultures, Batuttah’s travels largely remain within the Islamic world. Of course, this still allows him to come into contact with the Jewish and Christ ain peoples within it, but his attitudes towards it seem somewhat ambivalent. he records the various restrictions placed on non-Muslim populaces (restrictions on trade, specific forms of taxation) and notes how unwillingly such humiliations were suffered. Equally, he notes that Muslim travellers to a Christian Monastery were generously received treating Muslims honourably and exacting no tolls, but approvingly records the destruction of a Greek Church; "I shall be the first to be stricken with madness in the service of god… and god gave the lie to the assertion of the Greeks." This in spite of his admiration of the Church of Sophia in Constantinople. For Battutah other cultures are always infidels; a Jew is denounced for sitting closely to Koranic readers, Hindus and Chinese (and indeed Rafidis) are treated in the same way. He is fascinated by Hindu Sadhus but makes no comparison between their creed and Islam in the way Polo does with Christianity. He is amazed by Chinese civilisation, its pottery and paper money but responds to it by saying "China, for all its magnificence, did not please me. I was depressed by prevalence of infidelity and whenever I left my lodging I saw many offensive things." As with any travel narrative of that period, it is not without its diverting idiosyncrasies; dog-faced men, flying leeches and monkeys with kings. Although the same applies to The Travels of Sir John Mandeville it shows a different worldview. Although much of it is taken up with exhortations for christendom to regain its piety in order to reconquer the holy land, it nonetheless treats other faiths (though showing little lack of awareness that the relative tolerance extended by the Islamic world to Jews and christians would not have been found within Europe) as being worthy of reflection; "it seemed to me a great cause for shame that the Saracens, who have neither a correct faith nor a perfect law, should in this way reprove us for our failings, keeping their false law better than we that of Jesus Christ." The same applies when Mandeville witnesses sutee; "they suffer so much pain and mortification of their bodies for love of that idol that hardly would any christian man suffer the half." Equally, Mandeville’s reaction to the lands he describes is torn between wonderment and disgust at their decadence.

Reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I found myself a little taken aback by a few things. Firstly, that although a number of the tales were a simply moral fable of virtue rewarded and malice punished (typically rather horribly) many of them are simply odes to raw will, rewarding poor protagonists with wealth irrespective of their crimes. Perhaps, this loss of clear patterning was what Gabriel Josipovici meant when he said that the tales "were transformed from tales told by speakers who were deeply convinced that they were true (whatever meaning one assigns to the term) into tales told by writers (Wilhelm Grimm, in effect)." Certainly, the attempt to forge a German nation out of independent states and to reject French conceptions of civilisation after Napoleon in favour of folk art and a Volksgeist. Germany was after all then a cluster of many rural kingdoms and tiny city-states. They possessed forty universities, no modern factories or far-flung colonies, but were united by a language and growing literature. Germany existed as an idea that hoped to become a nation so her poets and philosophers thought societies were shaped and driven by ideas – Christian, feudal, imperial and democratic ideas. Secondly, I hadn’t expected to find a story like The Blue Lamp, featuring contrivances like jinis. Listening outside just now, I realised that the familiar sound of pigeons cooing was mingled with the stranger cries of seagulls. The other thing that struck me was how the tale of the princess kissing a frog does invert the normal gender roles of the prince rescuing the princess; more striking was The Nixie in the Pond where the wife must rescue her husband from a water-nymph.

Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, like The Village, is one of those films that is very difficult to assess in neutral and objective terms, leaving only the messy uncertainty of value judgements. It draws upon films like Sleepy Hollow in showing the reason of the enlightenment giving way to magic (albeit with slightly firmer historical ground; set in the time of the Napoleonic occupation of Germany, Kultur was indeed being advanced against le mission civilatrice).

The problem tends to be that Gilliam’s imagination is fundamentally baroque rather than gothic (unlike Jordan’s The Company of Wolves), and the number of comic grotesques as characters (even the two brothers come out like characters from Dickens) combined with flourishes like one of the children being turned into a ginger breadman sit rather uneasily with the imagery of the wolf filled forest coming to life or the ruined tower surrounded by tombs. One of the most striking scenes in the film shows a French general addressing a room full of dinner guests, only for the angle to shift and reveal that there are only a handful of guests with the rest being reflections in mirrors. Just as the evil queen is defeated by smashing the mirror containing her reflection the entire film has the sense that these things are but a playful conceit and will vanish like the illusions they are. Partly this is also due to the way the film insists upon the fictive status of what is happening; Briar Rose, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Rapunzel and Little Redcape are all clear sources as are a range of other works like Poe’s Masque of the Red Death and Anderson’s The Snow Queen.

I also went to see the latest film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, based on the Dahl book I always used to love as a child. Roald Dahl’s story can be best described as a sadistic fable; a story whose moral content is rather offset by the vicious glee with which cruel punishments are meted out to malefactors. Certainly, the moral content is rather restricted if we think of stories like his Tales of the Unexpected, where a wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then disposes of the evidence by cooking it for the investigating police officers. Mostly, his stories are revenge fantasies, where suffering children are set free as the adults that oppressed them suffer especially vicious ends. Children always need the dark materials of fairy tales as a means of displacing feelings of anger, resentment, and powerlessness. Willy Wonka is more unusual in that it is the children that are mostly made to suffer for their crimes. I rather liked the introduction of a staple for Tim Burton films, the idea of a troubled hero haunted by memories of his father (see also Batman and Sleepy Hollow); the notion of a young Willy Wonka defying his father and naughtily eating sweets goes a long way to subduing the somewhat puritanical moralism on display elsewhere (the other children visiting the factory do rather resemble a list of the seven deadly sins). Returning home this evening, the clouds were particularly dark shades of grey and blue but the sun was still shying brightly and the stone of the nearby Polish church was glowing in the light against the blackening sky.