Interlude

After several years of midwinters filled with snow and ice, it comes as something of a relief to find that this one is composed of more stereotypically British ingredients, namely rain and high winds. Christmas is accordingly something of a low-key affair, but I do find some time to visit some places. St Mary’s church in Blymhill was renovated by GE Street and accordingly features an elaborate rood screen, a gargoyle in the shape of a lion and a stained glass window depicting the tree of Jesse. The nearby church of St Andrew at Weston Park is rather more nondescript with several monuments, some medieval Flemish stained glass and some rather unpleasant Victorian stained glass. St Lawrence at Gnosall proves rather unusual, with a a large Norman arch and various Romanesque dragon carvings on the capitals. St Matthew at Hopwas is also rather unusual, with part of the building being half timbered in an Arts and Crafts style. I recognise some stained glass by Harry Stammers in the interior. Finally, Holy Trinity at Eccleshall proves a disappointment. It’s getting rather dark by this point and there’s little light to illuminate the interior, so only the Kempe stained glass stands out.

The following day, I visit St Mary at Checkley. A building characterised by medieval stained glass, a pair of monuments, stained glass and decoration by Comper, Saxon cross shafts, a Norman font and some fantastical carving on the stall ends (ranging from dragons to Red Indians). The church guide book has a somewhat amusing spat with Pevsner’s not overly flattering description of the church. More impressive is St Oswald at Ashbourne, its interior filled with tomb monuments, green man carvings, another Tree of Jesse stained glass (this time by Kempe) and a bizarre set of church gates with pyramids supported on skulls.

Back down south, I visit St Mary at Hamstead Marshall, with its ruined gates from the burned down manor house and angel statue in the churchyard and St Mary at Welford, a mixture of Norman and Victorian gothic with a range of carved heads, a Norman font and ornate baroque monuments. Finally, I visit St Thomas at East Shefford, a small medieval church surrounded by wetlands where Canada Geese flock. The interior retains medieval frescos, tiling and tomb monuments.

A few weeks later, I go to Modern Art Oxford, which as an exhibition of Graham Sutherland paintings. These range from paintings of Blitz damage to paintings of the Welsh hills, although the recurrence of twisted girders versus blasted tree branches acquires a certain similarity. There’s also something rather industrial about his vision of black hills with gold paths like molten metal and in some of them mines form an integral part of the landscape. Although Piper and Nash painted the landscape as much as Sutherland, the exhibition of Hockney’s landscapes at the Royal Academy, which I visit the following week, must surely count as the largest exhibition of landscape in England for decades. A lot of it reminds me of French painting; Seurat’s pointillism replaced with the narrow lines in Hockney’s iPad drawings or Monet’s impressionism substituted with thicker daubings of paint. Unlike the French though, Hockney is at pains to depict the same landscape in different seasons; his winter scenes are accordingly ablaze with blues, pinks, oranges and purples. If colour is accentuated, so too is perspective, as vistas of far off hills are collapsed into the foreground. The exhibition also showcases Hockney’s various experiments with technology; polaroid collages, split perspectives in video and iPad drawings. These come out halfway between painting and drawing, looking identical to paint until proximity reveals the absence of perspective. One oddity around this is the absence of modernity in the paintings themselves; a telegraph pole, a red telephone box or a view of the Saltaire mills is as modern as it gets in scenes that could otherwise come out of Rousseau.

I’ve recently read Bogdanov’s Red Star and Engineer Menni, a pair of communist utopias that opposes the likes of Zamyatin’s We. Both novels are concerned with the transition of consciousness from feudalism to capitalism and thence to communism. Nonetheless, although Bogdanov refers to this evolution as a matter of historical necessity many of the details of the novel point in the opposite direction. For example, his depiction of the school system shows a teacher wondering "our communism seems to be complete… where could a sense of private ownership possibly come from?" The answer that each individual must evolve in consciousness through the same stages as society at large conflicts with Netti’s later view that consciousness is forged by the class that one originates from; the novel accordingly repeatedly shows individuals unable to transcend the consciousness of their class. Bogdanov’s account of the evolution of communism is also problematic in several other respects; Sterni’s argument in favour of eradicating humanity hinges in part on the assumption that even if socialism were to evolve on Earth, it would nonetheless be corrupted by nationalistic tendencies; at the same time, his arguments about eradicating humanity as a means of solving issues of resource scarcity seem an unpalatable foretaste of what was to come with Stalin.

Like many historical novels of the nineteenth century Manzoni’s The Betrothed is concerned to a large extent with tyranny with the Spanish occupation of Milan serving as a proxy for Austria. The novel is also extensively concerned with religion, presumably due to a sense of the middle ages as a perfect christian community (a common enough assumption for the nineteenth century) but is also contains a rather more relativistic account of religion that is more recognisably congruent with that of, say, George Eliot. The novel often depicts religion as something that is divorced from everyday life; "while his observation would have been sound, excellent and weighty if he had uttered it from the pulpit, it is with all due respect, quite valueless as a contribution to a discussion on points of chivalry." The novel often sees its characters undertaking bad deeds in the interests of good causes, such as Agnese’s suggestion to fool Don Abbondio into marrying them although she knows Father Christoforo would not approve ("Renzo… had all the look of a persecutor, yet he was really the persecuted party"). In other cases, it depicts goodness and truth as uncertain quantities in contrast to the certainty of many of its more saintly characters; "a great inclination towards doing good… an occupation in which it is possible to take a wrong turning like any other." The veracity of statements like these is contested through the various characters that are present in a novel that is structured in a much more picaresque fashion than would have been the case for a British or French novel of the period. On the one hand, as with Dinah in Adam Bede the novel contains several examples of religious self-sacrifice such as Fathers Christoforo and Borromeo. The repentence of the Unnamed equally serves to illustrate the ideals of contrition ("even the most brutal and furious of his enemies was restrained and controlled by the public veneration for that repentant and kindly figure"). On the other, it contains examples of individuals like the Signora for whom religion has deformed her life. The release of Lucia from her vow to the Virgin serves markedly to weaken the novel’s stress on sacrifice in this respect. Some events, such as the plague illustrate both sides evenly, with Father Christoforo’s sacrifice being counterbalanced by the superstition that religion gives rise to in the suspicious of poisoned oils being smeared within the cathedral ("the absurd beliefs which had previously dominated men’s hearts to a greater or lesser degree now acquired extraordinary power.").

I’d also read Balzac’s The Wild Ass’s Skin. The novel is essentially a secularised version of the Faust myth and as is often the case with Balzac it substitutes religious morality for his own theory of how dissipation drains the vital energies of life away. As such, Balzac’s version of the myth differs markedly from the original; Raphael’s use of the skin for even charitable purposes drains his life as much as its use for debauchery. Repentance brings no reward here. The novel equally draws into question the value of morality, as with the antique dealer’s statement that "I am now as happy as a young man. My values were all topsy-turvy. A while lifetime can be contained in an hour of love," repenting his earlier advocacy of stoic austerity.

Food cooked: Bigos, Irish pork belly with chutney, Devilled chicken, Chicken Paprika, Basque seafood stew, Greek roast chicken with lemon and honey, Norwegian fish pie, Seafood chowder, Egg crusted rice, Chicken and Parwn Stew with Chocolate and Almonds, Chicken Chasseur, Beer cheese and spiced tomato soup, Biksemad, Chicken and chorizo stew, Chicken with Bois Boudran, Harissa Roast Chicken, Chicken with rice and peppers, Burning love, Lemonade, Steak with anchovy sauce, Spare ribs with chestnuts and raisins, Chicken cooked with vinegar, Danish roast poek with poached apples, Aji de Gallina, Waterzooi de Volaille, Turkish chicken and walnuts, Jambalaya, Gochujang stew, Duck with prunes and apple, Mulled wine, Piperade, Truffade, Boston beans, Calderette of Rice with Allioli, Semolina pudding, Poached salmon with warm potato salad, Harvard Beets, Spanish pork stew, Georgian guinea fowl with cranberries and walnuts.

Animals seen: Redwing, Fox, Deer, Green woodpecker, Red Kite, Egyptian geese, Swallows, Goldeneye ducks, Tufted ducks, Jay, Great spotted woodpecker, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Cormorants, Tree Sparrows, Moorhens, Wagtails, Stonechat, Guillemots, Arctic terns, Plovers.

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