Piranesi’s London

The Proms this year began for me with a medley of Handel pieces. Given my previous exasperation with Handel’s tendency to construct an entire aria around a libretto consisting of only one or two lines, I was impressed that Carolyn Sampson’s acting managed to prevent too much boredom from seeping into the rendition of Semele. Unfortunately, the period organ wasn’t working quite properly for the Organ Symphony. The text by Congreve proved rather too lascivious for Georgian tastes but works rather well now. This was followed by a late night Prom of music by Philip Glass. I rather liked the Violin Concerto but rather less so his Toltec Symphony. The recurring silences and crescendi work well, but there’s something about the Carollesque libretto that rather offends me; I’d rather the choir had stuck to simple breathing sounds. Later weeks see more Handel performances, with an aria from Alcinia comparing favourably with Haydn’s Scena di Berenice; as the soprano notes it’s Handel’s work that seems the more romantic and unrestrained. This is followed with another evening prom, this time with a performance by the Michael Nyman band. I’ve often felt that baroque music and minimalism have much in common, and Nyman’s work stands in testament to that. With a live performance though, I’m astonished as to how raw and overwhelming it feels, as if it were jazz or even rock. The recordings of the performance don’t quite seem to capture it. The following Celan Songs clearly seem to Nyman’s answer to Adams and Harmonielehre.

This is then followed by a somewhat odd Prom, showcasing the work of Iannis Xenakis; Nomos Gamma and Ais. The former sees the arena of the Royal Albert Hall rearranged into segments divided between the orchestra and the audience. The idea is that the music is as spatial as temporal, with the experienced work depending on the position of the listener in the arena (in my case, right next to the percussion; the programme notes record how Xenakis was influenced by the sounds of warfare and student unrest but I may have received a somewhat excessively skewed version of that). It’s an interesting idea, which means that the piece really has to be experienced rather than being listened to through a recording. I think a little of how much modern art is situational in this manner, as with art installations that depend heavily on the context in which they are viewed. Conversely, much modern music really has to be listened to, with certain recordings regarded by their creators as final and definitive. I’m less enamoured with Ais; the singer’s low notes are convincing but his high notes sound like a musical form of drag that introduces a bathetic element into what is otherwise an impressive performance. I’m afraid I’m much more taken with the performance of Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead.

Walking back the following week, I’m a little startled to see a green parrot eating at one of the feeders in Hyde Park and by how close it allows me to get. This time, I was going to see Beethoven’s Fidelio. I hadn’t known this before and can really only judge it by comparison with Wagner; Beethoven tends to prefer choral effects with several characters singing concurrently, as well as tending to repeat lines in the same way Handel does. It also seems to combine singspiel with drama (the former having been tampered with by Edward Said). The plot is also something of a hybrid, featuring a woman disguised as a man (since doing so allows her to accrue masculine virtues, which is presumably why the converse scenario is usually only used for comedy).

I come back later in the week for a tour of Somerset House. I’ve always thought the place was like a Piranesi drawing; all spiral staircases and strange moat-like gaps in the interior courtyard. The Nelson stairs prove to be modelled on a ships’ prow as a sort of hybrid between a spiral staircase and a normal one. The moat proves to be a device to direct light down towards the lower offices while allowing access to the boiler rooms and coal stores. There’s also the ‘deadhouse,’ a series of catholic tombstones (from Catherine of Braganza’s retinue) moved from the Royal chapel when the palace was rebuilt. The tour ends at the location of the old watergate from before the embankment was constructed. The Courtauld institute has an exhibition on the Omega workshops, which proves quickly to be the Arts & Crafts movement shorn of its medievalism and with an interest in Matisse in its place. The works included range from rugs to wallpaper, screens and tables to clothes, including Gaudier-Brezska’s marquetry and designs by Wyndham Lewis.

I then travel southward, finding the site of the Old Marshalsea prison next to St George the Martyr’s churchyard. All that remains is an old wall in the overgrown park with its few remaining tombstones. Nearby is the Imperial War Museum, which I’ve wanted to visit on account of its art collection. The first world war section is dominated by Nevinson’s mostly post-futurist works and works that continued in a Vorticist theme by Wyndham Lewis. Eric Ravilious accounts for some pieces depicting submarines and Epstein some bronze busts, but it’s Nash’s paintings of the Ypres salient and Menin road that are the clear highlight of the collection for me. Another annex houses Singer-Sergeant’s Gassed; it’s a touching work but the style and tinge of sentimentality make it seem quite foreign to the others, the product of a previous century. Something similar applies to Stanley Spencer’s painting of the wounded at a dressing station; its implied christian themes seem obscenely inappropriate in such a context. The second world war section is perhaps less distinct, although many of the same names recur, with the addition of Bomberg’s Bomb Store painting and Piper’s depiction of a Bristol control room.

The following week leads me to visit Kensal Green Cemetery’s open day, mostly so I can visit the chapel catacombs. The chapel itself is visibly crumbling away on the inside, with damp consuming the walls from within and the cornices having been eaten to nothing. The restored hydraulic catafalque (with swivel top for rotating coffins so that they are interred feet first) strikes a somewhat incongruous note as a result. The florescent lighting below seems both jarringly modern and quite appropriate, with it’s harsh light casting sharp shadows. Light filters down through ceiling grilles as well, accounting for the odd presence of autumnal leaves below one’s feet. There’s enough light to dimly discern the rough shapes of the coffin behind rusted iron grilles but enough darkness to leave a certain sense of unease, particularly in cases where the outer wooden and velvet shells have corroded to nothing, leaving only lead boxes. Spelter (poor man’s pewter) wreathes or mouldered velvet remain atop some coffins. I’d walked to the cemetery from Little Venice along the Grand Union canal. It occurs to me that Little Venice itself is misnamed; Little Amsterdam might have been a rather better soubriquet for its combination of Georgian houses and Victorian redbrick chapels. It’s all too neat and mannered to compare to Venice’s decayed Moorish gothic, which is not too say it’s not rather beautiful. Venice also lacks the inevitable Ducks, Coots and Canada Geese. It also seems a counterfactual version of London as it might have been had the likes of the Walbrook and the Fleet not been entombed in concrete. The canal itself offers a form of social history, from the Georgian villas to the redbrick church of St Mary Magdalene through to pebble dash and modern wooden decking and metal balconies. Foremost amongst this historical panorama is Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. Approaching it beneath the concrete Westway, I see the tower reflected in the canal waters; a picturesque scene embodied in graffiti spattered concrete. A Moroccan garden has planted at the base of the tower; very beautiful if an example of a design aesthetic I can’t see Goldfinger appreciating. Kensington Palace is an odd time capsule that combines tastes from William and Mary to Victoria. The Victorian rooms remain filled with domestic clutter, while Hannoverian inhabitants found the rather modest structure a little confining, with Kent adding elaborate trompe l’oeil effects to Wren’s staircase and to the cupola room. Kent and Thornhill’s painting sit alongside one another as do Kneller’s portrait of Peter the Great with Van Dyck’s painting of Charles the First.

Summer dwindles into autumn and Open House weekend comes once again. I start at St Mary Magdalene in Paddington. Like many of Street’s churches it’s rather dark on the interior, although I’m amused to see Saint Chad and Fridewide representing two of the cities I’ve lived in. I’m in time for a tour of the undercroft, a rather empty and dark space that was constructed using the same techniques as underground stations and looks like one; since burials had moved to the cemeteries by then there was no need for the church to have a crypt. The undercroft is solely for structural reasons relating to the steep ground the church was built on. Comper’s chapel of Saint Sepulchre within the undercroft is quite spectacular though, with a blue and gold ceiling studded with stars and angels (albeit with much of the paint and plaster having flaked off) and a shrine to Saint Mary that features a tabernacle (a way of hiding the sacrament due to fear of riots against Anglo-Catholic churches such as this). Much of the carving is Flemish in source, apart from an oddly Botticelliesque representation of Saint Mary ascending to heaven. The chapel also possesses a rather bizarre ‘doom’ stained glass window showing the dead rising from their graves and demons with butterfly wings making off with sinners. After this, Hawksmoor’s Christ Church seems preternatural in its ghostly whiteness and cavernous arches.

I walk onwards to Bishopsgate, where I finally succeeding in entering the old Turkish baths. Somewhat inevitably modelled on the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem, I’m rather surprised as to how much space extends underground beneath this rather small and gaudy kiosk. I walk onwards again to St Helen’s, a somewhat dowdy church in its structure but which retains scores of medieval monuments that predate the great fire. It’s rather ramshackle design make it resemble any number of normal English country churches, making you recall how odd London’s architecture is and how unlike the rest of the country. I rather like the monument to the Merchant Adventurer Martin Bond, showing him on campaign, seated in front of a tent and flanked by armed guards. I also rather like the church of Katherine Cree for similar reasons; a Jacobean church that survived the great fire, with a ceiling studded with heraldic crests and an odd gallimaufry of baroque memento mori and medieval alabaster monuments. My next church is St Mary Woolnoth; it’s odd to see a church designed without any reference to ecclesiastical convention. The restrictions on the size of the land presumably forced Hawksmoor to build vertically rather than horizontally, with the rather small cubed interior dominated by the light pouring down from above. I briefly visit St Lawrence Jewry and St Mary-Le-Bow before finishing with Bodley’s Holy Trinity in Kensington and Scott’s chapel at King’s College (a slightly Byzantine affair with wooden marquetry on the walls and painted red and gold pillars). The last thing I saw was the Apothecaries Hall, with its collection of Blue & white ceramic medicine jars (I like the one marked for absinthe), paintings of the armada and the glorious revolution. I also quite liked the society taking its emblem with Durer’s mistaken depiction of a rhino as having a second horn on its back. The stained glass crests in the window include one of the Doctor who went on the 1953 Everest expedition.

Fourteen Byzantine Rulers by Psellus seems to inevitably invoke a comparison with Suetonius. It’s certainly not a precise one; the events described in Suetonius occur over a longer timescale and with fewer rulers. Suetonius omits contemporary events (i.e. Hadrian’s rule) while Psellus includes that of Michael Parapinaces. Suetonius was somewhat tabloid in style but wrote at a distance from the figures he depicts; Psellus repeatedly claims objectivity but was a pivotal figure in much of the narrative (indeed he was blamed by other historians for distracting Michael from the practical matter of government). Suetonius ends at the point the Roman Empire had reached its greatest extent, Psellus begins at that point. While the Byzantine court certainly appears riven with factions and plotting it should also be observed that few military coup d’etat’s occur in the narrative, against the Suetonian depiction of what we would now refer to as a banana republic, with routine military takeovers, civil wars, as well as the reigns of Caligula and Nero that set a gold standard in debauchery that the Byzantines of this period appear to have been utterly unable to imitate.Some interesting distinctions from The Romans also appear; Psellus lauds the Greek practice of sharply dividing nobles and commoners, blaming the Roman habit for allowing barbarians to sit in the Senate. Psellus also utilises the Hellenic notion of fate, as a form of causality, even while noting such concepts to be denied in Christianity. Equally, he describes some forms of political violence as necessary in terms we might recognise from Machiavelli, while noting their abhorrence in christianity. More generally, Psellus does come over as a rather likeable figure in a way that is not the case for most Roman historians (Tacitus? Livy?), noting combinations of good and evil in his subjects in a way I hadn’t expected from an early Christian writer.

As with most other ancient historians, Psellus tends to assume history to be the outcomes of individual decisions, typically those of Kings. By contrast, Gibbons approached many of the same subjects with a view of the wider ideological forces, if not a fully modern view of the interplay of economic and social factors. In particular, his description of Christianity’s emphasis on individual virtue rather public valour, it’s tendency towards generating sectarian conflict or the presence of Catharesque sects bent on acts of self-destruction also suggests Christianity as a contributing factor to the decline and fall of the Empire.

Saramago’s Blindness is obviously reminiscent of Kafka; a series of events occur for which no explanation is provided but which nonetheless seem to represent some form of parable. As in Kafka, meaning is suggested but withheld; "it sounds like an allgeory, the eye that refuses to acknowledge its own absence." The description of a painting that seemed to fit the descriptions of all modes of art and which could not be identified due to the onset of the viewer’s blindness is a case in point. Similarly, the leaving of a lock of hair on a doorhandle inverts a conventional symbol of death into one of life. Where many novels are narrated from a subjective first-person perspective, Blindness removes that perspective, relying instead on a clamour of voices lacking identity; "I am blind with your blindness." At points, it seems to represent an allegory of moral failure, as with the sighted Doctor’s wife’s declaration that "I shall never be free from this blindness… perhaps I’m the blindest of all" after sha killed a man. The blinding of the car thief seems to correlate with this, but the blinding of the Doctor and others is entirely devoid of pattern. The example of the prostitute;s concern for her parents points in an entirely different direction; " the existence of deep feelings… in the abundant cases of irregular conduct, especially in matters of public morality." Similarly, the church with the blinded statues of the saints is essentially suggest of universe lacking clear meanings and patterns, even as speeches proclaim all manner of divine causes for the blindness.

Nathaniel West’s work has the same sort of focus on the material and the fantastic as Melville’s; in The Dream Life of Balso Snell characters wonder around the interior of a body, telling stories that dwell on the grotesque; sexual arousal at hunchbacksor an accentuated senses of smell. One character notes that "I kill my body.. soon my body will be swollen and clumsy.. in my belly there is a tangled forest of arms and legs" when speaking of pregnancy. Sexual attraction is seen as a form of violence, with sex described as a sacrificial rite that leads to the penetration of Balso’s body; "his body broke free… only to death can this release be likened." In Day of the Locust there’s a similar emphasis, as with the cock fight or Homer watching lizards eat flies, but the depiction of Faye is equally congruent with the noir tradition of the femme fatale, with the novel emerging as a form of heterosexual Death in Venice. Glamour and disgust sit side by side. The introduction of the political creates what is especially odd about the novel, with one aspect of it being a critique of the American Dream, depicting wishes unfulfilled and the decline of the American Empire. It’s like the idea of Meville writing a Steinbeckian novel, with it becoming difficult to be sure if the personal has been sublimated into the political or vice versa.