The Bleak Midwinter

Worcester cathedral was built with a mix of stones; something grey, sometimes red sandstone. Although placed in the heart of the city, the Cathedral Close still has a rather self contained feel to it, as one passed through Edgar’s Tower and enters a complex of ruins where halls and other monastic buildings once stood. A watergate remains, something that only serves to emphasise the self contained character of the cathedral. The most interesting aspect of the interior is undoubtedly the Norman crypt begun by Bishop Wulfstan in a style reminiscent of Repton. Similarly, the tombs are especially striking, such as the Beauchamp tomb with its black swans or the ornate gothic tomb for Prince Arthur. The rest of the cathedral shows the evidence of Gilbert Scott’s restoration, such as the painted ceiling. A graveyard is placed in the centre of the cloisters (monks who has tended the garden would once have been buried there) while figures from English history are depicted on stained glass in the arches. The town itself is a mixture of Queen Anne (such as the Guildhall and Hospital with its heraldic white swans), Georgian and Victorian buildings. The majority of the church towers are in red sandstone, excepting one where a grey baroque tower had been built onto an earlier gothic foundation. Another exception is the slender grey spire of St Andrew’s, which rises far above the other buildings and rivals the cathedral. A Victorian structure, the building is nonetheless a ruin; nothing remains except the tower.

The Priory Church in Great Malvern rather resembles a cathedral as well, though there is something more colourful about its external appearance, with its patchwork red, yellow and grey stones. The stained glass is also a patchwork of fragments dating back to the time of Richard the Third. Victorian minton tiling sits alongside the original medieval designs it was based on. There’s also some new windows stained in a more impressionistic style. The round arches on the interior date back to the Saxon period, sitting alongside baroque monuments and a chantry chapel containing medieval stone tombs.

The church of St Mary the Virgin in Ingestre, has the distinction of being the sole Wren church outside London. Although the stone is duller than the city churches, the building that stands next to Ingestre’s Carolean hall is recognisably of the same design (particularly to St Mary Somerset). The interior is decorated with plaster carvings, Gibbons woodwork and Burne-Jones stained glass, showing blood dripping from a pelican onto Adam and Eve, who bear crimson halos and wings. Unusually, the marble monuments have been painted and gilded. Nearby in Hoar Cross, Holy Angels is GF Bodley’s miniature cathedral standing stop a hill and surveying the valley beneath. Yews line the walk to the door, while winged gargoyles look down the roof, statues stare ahead from their niches and lonely stone angels on the graves stare at the sky. The church of St Paul in nearby Burton on Trent where it sits adjacent to the town hall, is also by Bodley and shows a similar style. More unusual is the church of St Modwen in the marketplace there. It’s tower is blackened but is still in a recognisably baroque style. The interior is also quite unusual, with plain stone columns and round arches lining the nave, while the altar and sanctuary are ‘high baroque.’ Filled with dead leaves when I visited, the churchyard looks out over the then flooded river Trent and is filled with elaborate tombs. Finally, the church of St John the Baptist in Croxall presented an especially melancholy prospect. It stands high on a hill, above the river Trent next to the local hall. Like St Modwen, the churchyard was filled with elaborate eighteenth and nineteenth century tombs and framed with fallen leaves and bare tree branches. But the tombs here have fallen into desuetude; a celtic cross tips over as it sinks into the earth while the walls of box tombs crumble. The church is also in a poor condition; the windows are broken and the crudely repaired walls patched with brick seem less than steady.

Visiting Kensal Green Cemetery last spring, the central avenue was hidden in shade beneath the trees that lined it. In winter, the leaves had fallen and the grandiose tombs felt oddly naked and bereft. The decay of the tombs was also far more evident; since my last visit a section of the outer wall had collapsed and the resulting breach made it feel far more ramshackle than before. Since I wasn’t as distracted by the novelty of the architecture this time, I also noticed far more that most of the modern graves were from other countries; Ethiopia, Yugoslavia or Greece. It seems oddly appropriate given the pagan symbolism of much of the funerary architecture, from Egyptian to Roman and Greek. I wondered if this reflects the increasingly multi-ethnic character of London or whether it was simply that people from these countries were more likely to be drawn to the same traditions that its Victorian creators were. Many of the more modern tombs also seem to display a sentimental and trivial approach to death, with cuddly toys left on the them, that were at odds with the cold stone that surrounds them. I also notice a jay perched on a nearby tomb, a pigeon nestles on a quatrefoil above a tomb door and a squirrel disappears through a tomb wall. Afterwards, I move on to walk around Camden market, somewhere else with Victorian roots that has given way to a more multi-ethnic London. Or at least so that might seem; despite the oriental food stalls and melting pot atmosphere, the predominant aspect is of white counter-culture; gothic clothes, new age and punk. The following weekend was occupied with Mapledurham church with its diamond patterned redbrick and flint by Butterfield (the house’s original chantry chapel with alabaster tombs remains alongside the gothic revival building). Later, I visit St John’s Gate, a hyperreal Victorian interpretation of a medieval Priory, even down to its reinvention of the Knights Hospitalier as a chivalric order in keeping with the Victorian emphasis on medieval tradition. I also returned to Limehouse churchyard, which was covered in a carpet of purple crocuses and daffodils.

Hockney as an artist always seems to me to be oddly hollow, someone who flits through different styles and media while the essential subjects remain the same, both in terms of the people being depicted and how they are depicted. Self-portrait with Blue Guitar shows him drawing naturalistically while all the objects around are shown in abstract terms that reference Picasso. Picasso recurs in his photographic collages, simultaneously showing the same subjects from different angles and at slightly different times. Conversely, his portraits combine modernist techniques (the collages recalling Cubism, his portrait of Divine recalling Matisse) with a surprising traditionalism; the portraits of his mother and lover against deep blue patterned backgrounds is heavily reminiscent of the Holbein paintings I had seen earlier, while a picture of the artist at work deliberately echoes Velasquez and Las Meninas. For all of this, there’s a fundamental similarity to his work. His My Parents shows his mother staring out of the canvas at the viewer while his father sits at right angles to her. They are separated by a table where a vase of flowers stands (a favourite prop). Similarly, his portrait of Fred and Marcia Weisman shows her staring at the viewer while he stands at right angles to her, separated by one of the art objects they collected. The painting of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott shows Geldzahler sat looking at the viewer while Scott, wearing a coat as if about to leave, stands at right angles to him (a glass table with a vase full of flowers rests in the foreground). Although his painting of Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool is the most famous work, a later one finds Schlesinger sat alone, slightly at right angles to the viewer but still staring back, the pose used on Divine. Later, I walk around the National Portrait Gallery – I still think it an institution more marked for its commitment to historical narrative than to artistic excellence but I was struck by Roger Fry’s portrait of Edward Carpenter, showing him in a spartan interior and his reflection only half visible in a mirror, leaving his figure to nonetheless dominates the room.

The BBC adaptation of Dracula was surprisingly original. It bends the novel to fit the conventions of the horror film (as with the deaths of Harker and Holmwood), but foregrounds the theme of occultism (rather reminding me of Huysman’s The Damned) and the more obvious theme of syphilis, as opposed to Coppola’s Faustian interpretation of the role of plague in Herzog’s film. It did occur to me that the renewed ‘threat’ of immigration from Eastern Europe has given the novel a new resonance; this is after all the year Romania joined the European Union. Volver is a welcome return to the the camp humour and magical realism of Almodovar’s earlier films, especially What Have I Done to Deserve this? (whose plot it resembles), combining this with the Hitchcockian plotting of Mala educacion. Children of Men falls uneasily between the apocalyptic and political genres, failing to formulate a consistent political critique on the one hand while failing to abstract those concerns into the the nihilism demanded by the former genre. Every part of the film refers to minor extrapolations of what can be seen in daily news broadcasts; low fertility rates, ethnic violence, immigration, state authoritarianism, terrorism etc.

Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico finds him once more enraptured by male beauty during Indian dances while only noticing the women’s clothing; "the men are naked to the waist.. they are handsome, and absorbed with a deep rhythmic absorption." In describing the Indian culture, he celebrates themes of unity in a manner that is reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ("creation is a great flood, for ever flowing. in lovely and terrible waves. In everything the shimmer of creation and never the finality of the created") but as with Pirsig, the narrator figures as an outsider throughout (something emphasised by the absence of Frieda from the domestic setting), even finding himself uncomfortable with the presence of tourist crowds at the Hopi snakedance. Last Words by William Burroughs, reminded me of TS Eliot’s complaint that Blake had concocted his philosophy from bits and bobs left around the house. Throughout, Burroughs reads an assortment of mystical and conspiracy theory writings designed to gull the credulous. He dotes on his cats and his collection of guns (reminding me of Self’s waspish comment that Burroughs hated women and loved guns).

Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry presents a fable of a rootless man like Rudin ("you’re a thinking man – and yet you lie around… you’re all well-heeled layabouts.. this ecstasy of boredom is the ruin of the Russian people"), which is complicated by a rival fable of rural virtue and urban corruption. The Russian admiration of the peasantry complicates a novel that could easily have become a narrative of individual damnation like Madame Bovary and instead gains a sense of the diminishing effect of the environment that has more in common with The Return of the Native or Ethan Frome. For example, Mikhalevich exhorts Lavretsky to work on the land and to concern himself with the welfare of his peasants, a fate that ultimately only manifests itself as a form of punishment. Russia destroys its own children and those that linger too long, such as Lemm’s death in impecunious exile, feeling like "a fish out of water". Although Lavretsky and Panshin differ on issues of westernisation and slavophilia, neither worldview is material to their respective fates in the narrative which effectively share the same end; "we’re sick because we’ve only become half-European; we must cure ourselves with more of what has made us sick." The realist context of the novel with its complex of patterning of economic, social and political strands is thus at odds with a metaphysical theme that sees life in Schopenhauerian terms; "he had actually ceased to think about personal happiness… he had become tranquil"

Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs is unusual in American fiction for its emphasis on community and place (the very name being reminiscent of Middlemarch (the statement at the end of Marsh Rosemary being akin to that at the end of Middlemarch) or Cranford). Men figure throughout as objects of ridicule or of cruelty (Captain Littlepage and the pompous Minister that visits Joanna on the one hand, or Joanna’s betrayer himself on the other) in contrast to the supportive community of women symbolised by Mrs Todd and her mother; "Mrs Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever society can give or take" (although events like Mrs Todd knocking the Minister down do challenge ideas about gender, Jewett is essentially a traditionalist on this score, blaming William for lack of ambition in a way no female character would be treated). Nonetheless, the location of Dunnet next to the sea introduces themes that recall Melville more than Austen. Both men and women yearn for the sea ("a far-off look that sought the horizon… inherited by girls and boys alike") and the novel foregrounds themes of individual isolation repeatedly, as with Joanna again ("doomed from the first to fall into melancholy… ’twas her poor lot") or the neighbours that never see one another from one year to the next ("for three generations the people had not spoken to each other even in times of sickness or death or birth"). Joanna’s role is given to a male character in The King of Folly Island, where it is his daughter once more that stands for the feminine social virtues. Fishermen are portrayed as being at one with nature ("you felt almost as if a landmark pine should suddenly address you") more than with humanity, while the community is made up of women, but in stories like The White Heron this is reversed and it is women who are seen as being at one with nature (as with Mrs Todd’s herbal medicines being opposed to the Doctor’s remedies).

Whereas the realist novel typically works by assuming an empirical worldview, contrasting the individual consciousness against the social setting, Jacques the Fatalist operates in the conditional tense, continually disrupting linear narrative with a series of what if ‘butterfly effect’ discursions and interruptions. This feeds into the dialogic character of the novel, where the narrator simply notes of the debates between Jacques and his master; "and they were both right… has not everyone his own character, according to which he either exaggerates or attenuates everything?" The repeated interjections from the narrator also emphasise the fictionality of events and their arbitrary character. Diderot accepts Hume’s critique of the reliability of the evidence of the common senses but is less certain when it comes to Hume’s critique of causality. Throughout, Diderot uses ambiguous language ("what is written up above.. is it we who controls Destiny or Destiny which controls us?") to describes Jacques’s fatalism, leaving it unclear whether a mechanistic materialism (adopting Spinoza’s ideas over Hume’s; "good brings bad after it and bad brings good") or a sense of religious destiny is being described (for instance, the idea of providence leading Jacques’s brother into the Lisbon earthquake accords with a religious satire along the same lines as Voltaire’s Candide).

Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is like the works of Defoe and Fielding, episodic in nature rather than operating a linear narrative; events proceed through coincidence and accident rather than by causality. The characters of the novel accordingly vary with the circumstance; Manon being devoted and fickle by turns. Although the narrative is cast in the form of a fable, there is no redemption or repentance anymore than there is damnation ("a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling, that he could not see the humiliation of it… or else a christian… I was neither one thing or the other"), with Des Grieux even arguing that his love for Manon is akin to religious devotion or that it is unexceptional when one considers "that a mistress is nothing to be ashamed of nowadays." Prevost also suggests that Des Grieux’s crimes are not of his own making; "knowing neither the mad lust for money.. nor the fantastic notions of hnour that had turned my father into an enemy." The novel is fundamentally a sentimental one, valuing natural emotion over the unnatural morals of his father, something that further serves to distort the moral fable at the novel’s core.

De Nerval’s writing is deeply embued with German metaphysics but nonetheless represents a point where the death of god leaves sublimity undermined by melancholy (Nerval’s Aurelia, his Beatrice, is imagined as Durer’s Angel of Melancholy). Whereas earlier Romantic aesthetics emphasised the ability to intuit the noumenal through the phenomenal in brief epiphanies, Nerval foregrounds the question of the potentially subjective and misleading character of such spots of time, both through his emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the metaphysical and through the foregrounding of his insanity and experience of the asylum. For example, in The King of Bedlam, Spifame’s imaginings of himself as the king lead to his being placed in the asylum only for him to end up leading a parallel existence to the monarch as he lives in luxury and has most of dictats implemented; "Spifame could recognise himself in a mirror or dream, he could take stock of himself even as he changed roles and personalities." Sanity and reason exist in a strangely liminal relationship rather than as opposites in Nerval; his characters remain aware of themselves even as they lose themselves. Similarly, in The Tale of Caliph Hakim, the sultan emerges first as the double of himself, sane even while mistaken for a lunatic, only to realise that he has a double he had been unaware of. The ruin strewn landscape of Sylvie (set in a landscape associated with Rousseau) similar emerges as a place of mistaken identities where neither the phenomenal nor the noumenal can be taken for certain; "but how could I be sure I was not merely the victim of one more illusion.. such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us." Travelling to the Orient, Nerval found it too quotidian ("the Orient is no longer the land of marvels") and prefers his friends’s opera set designs, travelling to Paris, Nerval found it a land of fantasy in contrast to British realism. His masterpiece, Aurelia, continues this: "the overflow of dream into real life… Spirit from the external world suddenly takes on the bodily shape of an ordinary woman." although at one point after a vision of the afterlife, Nerval proclaims that there is a god, he elsewhere proclaims that there is no god ("the virgin is dead and all prayers are useless… there is no god, god is no more!") and that he is god ("I myself was god, trapped in some sorry incarnation"), with the additional complication of his frequently esoteric view of religion, which has more in common with the druze than with christianity. Nerval is plagued throughout by his own double, as well as the question of whether his beloved exists as spirit or simply as a lost love, whether is insanity is precisely that or simply a form of vision. Throughout, Aurelia, opposites are overturned and nothing is left stable; everything is swallowed by the black sun.

Baudelaire’s poetry reminded me of Arnold’s line about "alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." Where Arnold’s response to the death of god is comparatively straightforward, Baudelaire’s is considerably more complex. Since his work is essentially symbolic, the symbol always seems to lack something stable to represent so that his Hymn to Beauty asks "did you come from the depths of heaven or up from the pit?" (just as Horreur Sympathetique speaks of how "your shafts of light are the reflection of hell") suggesting that clear knowledge of the noumenal is beyond the poet. The result is that his poetry is over-signified, being replete with meaning. At times, his stance seems to be akin to that of Arnold, of a poet caught in a world without the divine (the line about "my soul tossed.. on a monstrous, shoreless sea" in The Seven Old Men having more than a passing resemblance to Dover Beach), at other times his mythology remains essentially christian ("a damned man without a lamp" in Abel and Cain) and at others he resembles Blake, feeling sympathy for the devil (in The Irremediable there is "an angel, unwary traveller tempted by the love of the misshapen… as if it were reproaching god" while in The Rebel there is "a furious angel… but the damned rebel always answers "I won’t!" Finally, Abel and Cain speaks pf throwing god down upon the earth). Baudelaire’s poetry owkrs by overthrowing oppositions between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, company and isolation as he writes in Crowds that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able at will to be himself and someone else."

Zola’s The Earth bears a surprising resemblance to Hardy’s novels (Nenesse is described as being proud of his roots as if he were a tree, centering the issues of place and displacement in exactly the same way Hardy does); both situate their characters within a rural environment that is being displaced by modern industry and commerce, both present their characters in quasi-Darwinian terms of their connection to nature, and both present them in terms of their struggle for existence. Zola’s propensity for biological explanations of human behaviour is dominant here, with characters repeatedly described as animals (Buteau is "like soem great carnivorous beast") while only Lequeu is seen in more environmental terms in so far as his education has left him deracinated ("a country boy who through education had become imbued with a hatred for his class. he used to brutalise his pupils who he called savages" – a hatred it should be said that Zola shares as all of the educated characters despise the peasantry). Although the novel is replete with references to the oppression of the peasantry, there is something distant too it in so far as the peasants are described as being too lazy to take any effective action. The novel accordingly lacks the political engagement in Germinal and events effectively play out their own logic without reference to the overall social context in the way that Zola’s urban novels tend to. Modern innovations are frequently seen as immaterial in the country so that Hourdequin’s agricultural improvements simply breakdown and avail him little in spite of his predictions that the French soil is dying of exhaustion without them. Further intimations of decline, such as talk of declining faith and the villager’s indifference to the absence of a priest equally prove themselves as irrelevances as the customary pattern of things reasserts itself for reasons of nothing more than social convention.

White’s A Fringe of Leaves presents an especially interesting dialectic between civilisation and nature. The protagonist and her dual identities of Ellen Guyas and Mrs Roxburgh represents both of these aspects, rendering the disjunction between individual consciousness and the environment in the novel rather inconsistent. On the one hand, the novel depicts women as vulnerable and dependent on men; the murder of Garnet Roxburgh’s and Chance’s wives, while it is the modern Eve (the title being an implied reference to Genesis), Ellen, who best survives the expulsion from Eden, as her civilised husband is killed. The novel seems to constantly refer to Pygmalion; Ellen is both rescued from her wild early life by her husband but later comes to depend on that part of her nature after the shipwreck.

Niedzviecki’s Hello, I’m Special presents an argument I have much sympathy with; that in a culture where individuality and rebellion are continually lauded as socially desirable, rebellion and individuality cease to be meaningful. Partly, Niedzviecki’s concerns stem from a feeling that modern culture lacks a means to engender consent, but the argument seems confused on this score; the rebels he presents living on isolated islands are surely part of the same culture of rugged individualism in the United States that goes back to Thoreau and which has its trite expression in the films and music Niedzviecki denounces, rather than being a genuine expression of something the mainstream is faking. Equally, Niedzviecki notes that religious traditionalism may be more rebellious than commonly accepted ideas of rebellion, although his arguments invariably proves sufficiently elastic than almost anything can be regarded as a manifestation of ‘individualistic conformity,’ even when he himself notes that modern society is both homogenous and conformist.

Food cooked: Tiramisu, Baron of Hare, Vietnamese chicken with coconut, Singapore Laksa, Chinese chicken glazed with Orange and Apple, Singapore curry, Keralan Crab Curry, Thai hot and sour duck, Javanese curry and Nasi Goreng, Pork with parsnips, pears and maple syrup, Duck Vindaloo, Vietnamese curry, Tapas (Egg stuffed with Manchego and Sardine, Flamenco eggs, crab with flaked almonds), Mustard Spiced Indian chicken, Indonesian pork with soy sauce and nasi kunung, Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives, Pearl Barley rissotto with crab, Pork Stroganoff, Romanian Duck Jubilee, Louisiana Jambalaya, Chicken Mole, Poulet al’estragon, Kefta Mkaouara, Vietnamese chicken with sweet potato curry, Thai green curry, Red Thai Curry, Italian chicken stuffed with pear and chestnut, Spaghetti with Salmon and cream, Morroccan chicken with lemon and honey, Lamb tagine with ras el hanout, Vietname duck with nuts and dates.

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