Magnetic North

Arriving in Stockholm, I start off by walking around the Vasastan area a bit, starting with the Gustav Vasa Kyrke and then to the Stadsbibliotheket. This is perhaps one of the most striking buildings in the city; a cylindrical drum painted in bright orange, where books ring the interior. Heading down to the waterfront, I walk across a bridge to Gamla Stan, noting that someone seems to have waders on and is fishing the waters of Lake Mälaren below. Stockholm is often compared to Venice for reasons that are obvious enough but it lacks the dense crowded aspect to that city; everything here is spaced out with entire islands in the lake given up to woodland. The crossing point from Norrmalm to Gamla Stan is an odd one, representing a division between a mostly modern city and a medieval old town. The old town looks similar to Germany or the Netherlands, give or take the occasional Runestone embedded in the walls. I start here by looking at the Riddarholmenskyrkan, which effectively serves the same purpose as Roskilde Cathedral in its Royal entombments. The walls are lined with heraldic emblems of the Order of the Seraphim, which is only offered to foreign recipients (hence odd contortions to represent Mexico and Korea in terms of traditional European emblems).

The dominating feature of Gamla Stan is the Royal Palace. An exhibition inside shows models of the previous Three Crowns Palace, which burned down. It’s hard not to regret this, given that its turrets would have fitted in with the rest of the island’s spires rather better than the current dull box resting atop it. The interior is rather more impressive though; I especially like King Gustav’s Antiquities Museum with its collection of Roman statues, with a statue of Endymion standing out. Inside the Palace the most striking things are the Hall of Mirrors with its mimetic replication of Versailles and the silver throne. As I leave the Palace, it’s time for the changing of the guard; which I can now claim to have seen in Sweden but never in Britain. On the rest of the island, I visit the Cathedral, a rather lovely brick gothic affair with a large statue of St George and the Dragon at its centre.

If Gamla Stan rather reminds me of a Swedish Île de la Cité, then neighbouring Sodermalm actually reminds me of Lisbon. It’s the only Island in central Stockholm to rise sharply above the others with large jutting cliffs with viewing platforms sticking out of them. The views from it across the rest of the city rather remind me of Lisbon’s miradors. I visit a church near the summit of this cliff-face. There’s a rather pleasant small park where the fountains rather look like plesiosaurs. The small islands of Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen are former navalyards and still feature watchtowers and wooden cranes for offloading equipment. The main thing there now is the Modern Museet. The main exhibit therein is Rauschenberg’s Monogram, along with works by Pollock, Matisse, Gauguin and Klein. I find myself especially drawn to the photography exhibits, like Nadar’s aerial photos of Paris along with works by Bresson and Arbus. The only Swedish artist I recognise are some works by Hilma Af Klint. Walking back to the mainland, I rather like the Dramatic Theatre, with its statue of Margaretha Krook standing outside.

The island of Kungsholmen contains the striking brick Town Hall, a rather more impressive building with its tower than either the Parliament or the Royal Palace. The exterior has a large open courtyard, which leads out to a colonnaded terrace looking out over the lake to Gamla Stan. I go on a tour of the interior, from where Nobel banquets are held to the debating chamber. The most striking aspect is the Golden Hall, which is rather like walking into a modernist version of a Byzantine church.

With the weather expected to take a turn for the worst later in the week, I decide to visit Drottningholm earlier than I had originally planned. Much of the design of the palace here is deliberately intended to recall a French chateau but the lakeside setting is rather more beautiful than Versailles. Geese wonder around with goslings in tow. The grounds are less extensive but have some interesting follies; a brick gothic tower on a hill, a Chinese folly (whose interior features a set of opium pipes) and a faked guard tent that is actually made out of wood. There’s also a village originally built for silk production. The interior of the palace has some interesting features; a marble grand staircase and a pair of halls frescoed with images of Swedish wars against Poland. The most extraordinary feature is the court theatre, a wooden building that has been preserved with its original set designs intact.

The next day I visit the open air Skansen museum on Djurgarden. Much of this is given up to traditional architecture transplanted to the island from across Sweden; farmer’s houses, windmills, churches and belfries. Some of the architecture comes from the period when Sweden and Norway were one state; the Finnish huts are filled with a great deal of smoke in the absence of a chimney and are filled with examples of household items made out of bark. There are also examples of Saami architecture, which remind me of Tepees as well as a house built on inverted tree trunks that puts me in mind of Baba Yaga’s hut. A lot of these buildings come with traditional breeds of farmyard animals; pigs, chickens, cows, ponies and sheep (albeit these are a British breed). There’s also a zoo with wild Scandinavian animals; wolves, owls, bison, boar, elk, reindeer, otters, seals and bears. A lot of them are asleep in the heat, although the otters seem especially occupied with fighting with each other so that little is visible other than a sea of froth. There are quite a lot of young animals and some wolf cubs are doing much the same thing. I do find myself a little disturbed by one of the bears, which is walking up and down its enclosure and seems to be deliberately trying to keep out of the way of the crowds. Oddly enough, the thing that most astounds me is the number of red squirrels on the island, which seem pretty indifferent to all the visitors. Leaving the museum, I sit down for a bit at the waterfront, where I discover a statue of Jenny Lind.

The day after, I take a train up to Uppsala. On arrival, I start by visiting the cathedral. The redbrick exterior belies a medieval interior, with rose windows and decorated gothic vaults. The Vasa tomb inside is perhaps the most impressive thing, with an alabaster monument surrounded by frescoed walls. The surrounding grounds have various runestones dotted around them. The small Holy Trinity church nearby is in some ways more striking; a brick gothic affair, whose plastered walls are covered in medieval frescoes of angels. From, there I walk to the Linnaeus garden and house. The house is a rather small affair, with the oddity of wallpaper that could be removed. The gardens are divided into different sections according to either habitat (river or marsh, for example) or type (perennial or annual). The main oddities are a set of boxes on posts where Linnaeus apparently kept his chained monkeys. He also had a pet raccoon with a habit of biting the servant’s legs. Lastly, I visit the University, where you can visit the original Augsburg wunderkammer that formed the basis of its collection (I like the taxidermied albino squirrel), the old anatomical theatre, an exhibition of scientists like Celsius and Berzelius that worked there and an Egyptology section with a series of sarcophagi.

Back in Stockholm and I return to Djurgarden. It’s a rainy day and I spend the morning in the Vasa Museum. I rather expect something similar to the Mary Rose and am astonished by what I find; a ship that is essentially intact and rather larger. It was also raised from the seabed much earlier than the Mary Rose and the exhibition covers a lot of details on how this was done. The afternoon is spent in the neighbouring Nordiska Museet. This is a wonderfully impressive building but the exhibitions are perhaps rather more anodyne. The main hall is dominated by a massive painted statue of Gustav Vasa, which rather has the effect of looking like a shrine to a deity. The upper floors contain exhibitions of Swedish folk art, Strindberg’s rather impressionist paintings and the history of the Saami people, but exhibitions on the lower floors of traditional dress and dollshouses are perhaps of less interest. Lastly, I visit Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, the house of a Prince and the art he painted. I rather like a lot of his landscapes although he seems to have been better at photography than painting. An exhibition covers the work of Swedish painters at the Grez-sur-Loing colony, including works by Carl Larsson. The gardens and grounds are also rather pleasant; the reeds by the lake have notices on them warning of nesting swans and there’s an old windmill used for grinding lindseed. Back in central Stockholm later, I’m sat down beside an old church waiting for the time of my restaurant reservation where a hare runs out of the shrubbery, pauses in front of me, runs off and then comes back for a repeat performance ten minutes later.

The day after also has rather poor weather, so I visit the Historiska Museet. The entrance has a rather good collection of runestones but the Viking section is unfortunately shut. I start by visiting the prehistoric section and then the medieval, which has an extensive collection of items like gilded church sculptures and gold reliquaries. Some of the more unexpected exhibits include the crown of Elizabeth of Hungary and both Buddhist and Islamic finds from Viking settlements. Nearby is the huge National Museum, with its huge entrance hall filled with replicas of famous sculptures like the Laocoon and the Discobulus. A lot of the collection isn’t all that famous but it’s still rather enjoyable. Some of the artists that are quite well known are Rembrandt, Cranach, Arcimboldo, Hilliard, El Greco, Bellini, Cezanne, Delacroix, Fuseli, de la Tour, Bronzino and Hals. Some of the paintings by Swedish artists like Zorn, Osslund and Liljefors are also rather striking.

The following day I visit the island of Vaxholm in the archipelago. It’s a rather attractive place, where a local history society keeps a traditional cottage open as a local museum with exhibitions on herring fishing and shoe making on the island. I take a cable ferry from the main island out to its accompanying castle, which once defended Stockholm from Russian invasion after the rest of the archipelago had fallen. One of the more interesting exhibits is a small submarine. The weather is rather grey when I arrive but by the time I’ve left the museum in the castle everything has changed and the sky is blue.

On my final day in Stockholm, I go for a walk to the Rosendal Palace and Botanical Garden on Djurgarden, before visiting the Museum of Mediterranean History. Sweden did a lot of archaeological work on Cyprus and Egtptian consuls helped it build a large collection. The things that most strike me are a the huge stone sarcophagus of Taperet, Fayum paintings, fake doored mausoleum sculptures, an Anubis sculpture and some Greek gold diadems in the shape of a wreath of leaves. The very last thing I do is visit the Strindberg museum. In one of the upper floors in an attractive art nouveau set of apartments, it was where he lived for the last years of his life and from where he appeared on the balcony as crowds protested at him not winning the Nobel prize.

Some final observations on the country – a lot of what I saw conformed to the set of Swedish stereotypes I had in my mind; rather pretty buildings with good transport, for example. But homelessness did seem more of a problem than I had expected, if nowhere near as bad as in the UK. The presence of lots of stalls selling falafel in some places testified to the reception of Syrian refugees some years ago.

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The Blackened Portrait

On Thursday evening I went to a recording of the News Quiz at Broadcasting House. It’s been years since I was last there and years since I went to see the News Quiz: things have changed quite a bit since then. There was quite a long queue to get in, followed by a lot of security theatre, after which you wait in an area overlooking the BBC News room. For some reason I couldn’t quite make out, a presenter seems to be having an animated discussion with Pudsey Bear. Eventually, we go into the Radio Theatre. We’re on the upper floor but at least have a seat.

The last time I went to see the News Quiz, Sandi Toksvig was presenting it (it’s now Miles Jupp), Charlotte Green was reading the cuttings (it’s Susan Ray now) and Jeremy Hardy & Alan Coren were on the panel. This time it was Frankie Boyle and Mark Steel, joined by Helen Lewis and Jen Brister. It’s an awkward time to record it; there are a lot of rumours that Theresa May will resign the following day but that doesn’t become official until the following morning and the broadcast is prefaced with a note explaining that it was recorded before then. Listening to the broadcast the following day, I feel it’s quite amazing how the BBC’s editors have managed to get something broadcastable, given that most of what was actually said consisted of very un-BBCish swearing. As Frankie Boyle suggested, there should really be a parallel expletive filled version of Radio 4. It would certainly liven up the likes of Thought for the Day & You and Yours no end.

Unsurprisingly the mood is a lot bleaker than how I recall it; ‘Democracy has had a great few years,’ Jupp notes at one point. Some of the things that struck me from the show, most of which got cut from the broadcast:

  • Frankie Boyle’s description of Boris Johnson as being like ‘an evolutionary dead-end version of the Honey Monster. ‘
  • Miles Jupp pausing at one point, frowning, muttering darkly about the writer’s room and reading the paragraph from his script again, this time having substituted ‘Farage’ for ‘Nigel.’
  • Frankie Boyle theorised that if only the Poles had realised in 1939 that the easiest way to repel fascists was to tip milkshake all over them then history might have been altogether different.
  • The comment from Frankie Boyle (again) that the only good thing about Brexit was that we were at least supposed to get rid of Farage. ‘Now he’s back and it’s like watching a suicide bomber doing a comeback tour. ‘

On the following day, I’ve booked tickets to go on a tour of Eton College. There’s a small museum about the history of the college, which includes a wall with photos of alumni. These include Cameron, Rees-Mogg and the aforementioned Honey Monster. As May had resigned earlier in the morning, the chances of Eton getting another Prime Minister now seem high. The chances of it being a catastrophic disaster also seem high and I find myself wondering whether Eton will end up blacking out both Cameron and the Honey Monster’s portraits, like the painting of Marino Faliero in the Doge’s Palace. As an aside, the recent alumni all seem very weighted towards politics, the military, sport and acting. Not that much for the arts or sciences, which does seem rather telling.

The actual tour is interesting enough, going through the chapel with its medieval wall paintings, Burne Jones tapestries and Piper stained glass, through to the old school rooms with the wood panelling covered in hundred year old graffiti from the likes of Shelley and Gladstone.

The following weekend finds me in Winchester at a hustings for the Liberal Democrat Hustings, which has the effect of leaving me less certain of how to vote than when I entered. Both candidates broadly hail from the same wing of the party, which rather suggests that the choice boils down to tactics and personality rather than policy or strategy. The venue is a rather lovely Victorian Methodist church, with a wonderful glass ceiling. Afterwards, I go and have a look around Winchester, re-visiting the cathedral. I haven’t been to the City Mill before so I have a quick look in there. The waters from the chalk lined Itchen are astonishingly clear and rush through the mill ferociously fast.

A few weeks later and I find myself back at Broadcasting House, this time for a recording of Dead Ringers. The main commonality with the last time is that the scriptwriters had clearly been furiously rewriting everything up to the last minute, with the Tory party leadership contest having been whittled down to only two candidates of Boris Johnson and… Boris Johnson. Much like the Brexit negotiations, it feels like Dead Ringers has been going on forever and it doesn’t matter if you tune out for a few years because exactly the same thing will be happening when you eventually tune back in again. It’s also a little hard not to feel that some of the sketches represent some of the problem of the last few years; it’s pretty easy to make Johnson or Farage seem a lot more interesting characters than most politicians, which rather forgets that politics is supposed to be boring. Bome of the more funny comments this time:

  • “The Tory Party had identified the most competent man with the passion and vision to address the challenges posed by Brexit…. so naturally they eliminated him and chose Boris Johnson instead, to flail around in Brussels like a toddler having a meltdown by the pick and mix in Poundland.”
  • Jeremy Hunt has the “vacant and dead-eyed look of a haunted ventriloquist’s dummy in a sixties horror film.”
  • “My father arrived in this country with only one pound in his pocket and taught me the value of hard work. And I wanted to stop that sort of thing from ever happening again.”
  • And… (adopts incredulous screechy Scottish voice) DIANE ABBOTT!!!!

A Scream Passing Through Nature

The Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate dwells heavily on the time he spent in England and the influence it had on him. The exhibition focuses on similar traditions in English and Dutch landscape painting (Hobbema and Constable) or social painting and the influence on Van Gogh. Some of these influences are surprising; Van Gogh had briefly met Millais and the exhibition compares one of his autumnal landscapes with similar works by Van Gogh. I also wasn’t aware that Van Gogh’s prison scene was based on a print by Dore. Other comparisons are perhaps less instructive; Whistler’s views of London in the fog compared to Van Gogh’s views of the starry night over Arles. For obvious reasons, less is made of the influence of French painting, although a series of country scenes by Pissarro are set alongside similar nature scenes by Van Gogh; whereas the brushstrokes of the former are fine and delicate, Van Gogh thickly piles the paint on in a series of thick strokes. The results look more like Italian divisionism than French impressionism.

The exhibition also looks at Van Gogh’s influence on English painting and the results here are altogether less happy. There probably is a formal comparison to the Bloomsbury and Camden Town Groups (for instance, in the use of colour) but the comparison is not really to their credit. The artist who fares best is Frank Brangwyn, whose sunflower painting is set alongside the more famous Van Gogh. Ultimately, in spite of all the comparisons, the exhibitions stands on a few works like The Sunflowers, The Starry Night at Arles, The Hospital at Saint Remy and the Pollarded Willows.

Perhaps predictably, the Royal Academy’s exhibition on the Renaissance Nude has two facets. One, shown in the work of Dirk Bouts and Memling focuses on sin. The nude body is shown as sinners fall into hell or as an allegory of lust. The prurience is inseparable from the moral context. The other aspect is that inherited from classical sculpture, as in Cranach, Perugino or Titian’s Venus. The undoubted highlight is Bronzino’s Saint Sebastian. The obligatory arrow is shown but unobtrusively. The saint shows no halo and no signs of suffering. Afterwards, I go to the Royal Albert Hall for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. I realise I’ve never actually been here outside the Proms season and certainly not when the presence of 1,300 members of the choir means that the total number of musicians is probably roughly proportionate to the members of the audience.

A few days later and I visit the Munch exhibition at the British Museum. Unlike the previous exhibition I’d seen at the Tate, this mostly focuses on his prints rather than his paintings. There can be few artists who were able to move between media this easily and where the same work (the Scream, prototypically) exists in different versions. I think I previously noticed the literary bent of Munch’s work, with many of the prints being interpretations of Ibsen plays and others often appearing like a scene in a drama. The sinister figure of women looms large, appearing as Medusa like figure who ensnare helpless men; women are here shown as sirens and vampires. There is only one countervailing print, where the blown-up faces of three men loom large over a helpless naked woman.

Midlandia

This Easter I visit a few National Trust properties (Packwood and Wightwick). There’s a walk round the lake at Packwood I hadn’t seen before through Bluebell covered woodland. I also visit some churches in the Midlands; Tredington, Honington (which has a noteworthy Baroque monument), Breedon on the Hill, Staunton Harold (with its mural on the wooden ceiling depicting the creation of the world) and the crypt at Repton.

The main thing I wanted to do was visit one of the exhibitions of Leonardo’s drawings at Derby Museum. The drawings cover human anatomy (with some strangely aberrant depictions of the brain that clearly weren’t based o observation), animal anatomy, botany and portraits. I also have a look at the Joseph Wright of Derby paintings and the new world galleries, which mostly consists of weaponry from around the world, along with Yoruba and Chinese sculptures. There’s also a set of natural history galleries and an archaeology gallery, where the main exhibit is Saint Alkmund’s sarcophagus. Lastly, I have a look in the cathedral; with all but the tower built by Gibbs, it’s a lot brighter on the interior than most other cathedrals in England. I also visit the rock houses at Kinver Edge in Staffordshire. Each of them is relatively simple, with a whitewashed interior cut into the sandstone, with enough space for one or two rooms. I then go for a walk on the heathland above them, around the perimeter of the old Iron age hill fort.

I’ve been reading Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. It’s an odd book, at once remarkably clear sighted and extremely muddled. To start with where Serge was prescient, he clearly sees how the increasingly totalitarian character of the Soviet Union would act to undermine the revolution with the failure of revolutions in Germany being attributed to the Russian example and the loss of the Spanish civil war being attributed to the hindrance of techniques forced on the Spanish by their Soviet backers. Serge quickly concludes that communism had created a system at least comparable to that of the Tsarist Russia; Orwell would have appreciated one anecdote about someone who had simply gone from working for the Okhrana to working for the Cheka. Although close to Trotsky, he is clear that Trotsky and Lenin were both culpable for the Terror of the early revolution as much as Stalin was for its later phases.

The conclusions Serge draws from all this are somewhat less straightforward. Essentially, he would have liked to see the Soviet economic programme carried forward with a more democratic and human face. You could almost say he advocates a kindler, gentler, communism. But the book clearly documents the appalling consequences of the initial communist economic policies and how life only improved when the new economic policy reversed much of them out. Serge later demands the return to socialist economics, only to acknowledge that the outcome of this in farm collectivisation was at least as bad as the initial experiment. Arriving in exile in Belgium, he tells his son of the shopowners greed but it is the one and only place where he acknowledges social democrats had made nay progress in improving people’s lives. The poverty of Russia is repeatedly compared poorly to conditions in neighbouring countries like Poland and Estonia. From thence comes his unwavering decisions to back the Bolsheviks for fear of a worse form of reaction taking its place, in spite of essentially agreeing with the Mensheviks that were being destroyed by the revolution he supported.

The Transit of Venus

The King’s Observatory in Richmond is something of an oddity. Surrounded by the likes of Kew Gardens and Ham House, it remains in private ownership and sits in the middle of a golf club. To reach it, I have to walk down a long path with signs on either side advising that the club accepts no liability if I am killed by a stray golf ball. The fact that this golfing landscape was originally designed by Capability Brown speaks to everything that is wrong with his work.

Thankfully, I arrive without injury and realise that the observatory itself is equally strange. Built by William Chambers to allow King George to observe the transit of Venus, its astronomical function was quickly usurped by Greenwich and much of its subsequent existence was as a meteorological office. It is now in use as a private home, with tours taking place when the owner is absent. The opulence of the interior, with Chinese figurines, silk wall hangings and Reynolds paintings is rather striking, and sits oddly with a cupola where a replica telescope is in place. The final part of the tour takes us up to the roof, from where the Gillette tower and the Kew pagoda (also built by Chambers) can be seen.

The following weekend I visit the Sorolla exhibition at the National Gallery. I’d visited his house in Madrid so I recall some of the paintings but it also features a lot of his paintings of rural Spain that he did for the Hispanic Society of New York. There’s a lot of his portraits as well, using a similarly restricted palette to Goya and some of the same illusions with mirrors as Velasquez. His wife Clotilde seems to have been his favourite model, as in his version of the Rokeby Venus. Other paintings with muted palettes remind me of Whistler and Alma-Tadema. Other paintings show more of a social dimension and use a much more naturalistic style, featuring a woman who had murdered her child or villagers stitching a boat’s sails. The ones I like most are his views of architectural scenes, especially Granada, and his seaside views where the play of light on water seems to have been a source of endless fascination for him. There’s also a small exhibition of Boilly’s Parisian street scenes; he emerges as a sort of French Gilray or Hogarth. Lastly, I have a look at the Bridget Riley mural in the Anenberg court.

Make politics boring again

“So I say to all of you, walk tall. Go back to your villages, your towns, your cities and you tell them, ‘I was there.'” – Michael Heseltine.

When I went on the People’s Vote March last year, I thought that would be it. By now, we would most likely be past the point of no return and my eyebrow arched somewhat when I heard that another march was planned for shortly before Brexit day. It is all too probable that it is indeed too late but with the Prime Minister continuing to behave like a demagogue in blaming Parliament for not passing her deal, one final desperate roll of the dice to try to turn us back from the brink beckoned.

When I went on the People’s Vote March last year, I thought that would be it. By now, we would most likely be past the point of no return and my eyebrow arched somewhat when I heard that another march was planned for shortly before Brexit day. It is all too probable that it is indeed too late but with the Prime Minister continuing to behave like a demagogue in blaming Parliament for not passing her deal, one final desperate roll of the dice to try to turn us back from the brink beckoned.

I’m not without reservations about a second referendum. The brinkmanship it would take to get to Parliament to vote for it exacerbates the risk of no-deal, particularly if it entails dismissing softer brexit options to get there. I am particularly underwhelmed by the corresponding failure of the campaign to back a Parliamentary amendment given that this essentially enabled the Labour party’s attempts to avoid supporting a second vote. But at the end of the day, I am yet to see a better way to address the issue and that’s why I found myself marching again.

I met with friends from Cambridge at Park Lane. Shrewsbury was immediately ahead of us and Hackney and Manchester immediately behind us as we set off; later I managed to inadvertently regroup with the Liberal Democrat group. It became clear very quickly that this was going to be larger than any of the marches I had been on before and that we would indeed hit the target of equalling the Stop the War march as the largest political demonstration in British history. Down on the ground this has the immediate effect that much of your time is reduced to a very slow shuffle down a very long queue, which meant that by the time I got to Trafalgar Square the speeches were over and I had missed the somewhat unexpected opportunity to see a Jess Phillips – Dominic Grieve double act.

The march was as warm, nice and pleasant as the preceding marches but it was impossible to erase awareness of the oncoming storm. A lot of the placards this time were demanding that Article 50 be revoked outright rather than the ostensible purpose of demanding a People’s Vote. I have found myself thinking a lot about the concept of loser’s consent; faced with a marginal vote in 2016, the government should clearly have tried to explore the softest possible brexit to build consensus. They instead chose the most extreme version possible and then came unstuck when it became clear it was undeliverable. It can hardly come as a surprise that the consent of those who lose in 2016 has been eroded to the point where even support for a second referendum has been eroded in favour of outight revocation.

Some of my favourite placards included:

  • Make politics boring again.
  • The peasants are revoking.
  • What would Aristotle say? Democracy is not exhausted.
  • This is the back of my placard. Like Brexit itself, it is better when reversed.
  • When, O Theresa, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? (In Latin, with thanks to Cicero)
  • Let’s Ref n’ Roll.

A few other things I learned today included:

  • On previous marches there has been heckling and counter demonstrations. No sign of that today at all. Brexit has clearly become something you blame other people for rather than anything you might actually advocate.
  • No-one loves Corbyn and hates Brexit anymore. They still hate Brexit and love socialism; but the Commissar’s name has vanished from all of the Labour posters.
  • The Independent Group already have an activist network but the Liberal Democrats still have the best chants.
  • Ode to Joy should never be played on the bagpipes.

The Power of Seeing

I missed the annual exhibition at Two Temple Place last year but this year’s exhibition on John Ruskin looked interesting, so I found myself there today. Ruskin is a subject I know reasonably well but there was still some new things to learn here; his interest in geology evidenced in his drawing of geological maps, his collection of botanical and nature illustrations from figures like Audubon and his collection of crystal and rock samples or his use of daguerreotype photography to help with his drawing. The exhibition draws from the museum Ruskin established in Sheffield and includes his own paintings and drawings as well as works by followers like John Wharlton Bunney. It’s not quite as extensive as previous exhibitions and space ends up being given to unrelated works from Sheffield, including paintings of the city and portraits of the inhabitants by William Rothenstein.

The following week, I go to the Harald Sohlberg exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. There are two aspects of his work. One is very familiar from other Scandinavian painters; a focus on natural scenes such as mountains and lakes. Like Munch, a lot of these show twilight or night scenes with the moon reflecting in the water and like Alstrup, there’s a mythological element with his depiction of mermaids. Like Alstrup he has a particular fondness for showing curled tree branches devoid of leaves as a way of framing his works. Paintings like his painting of the mountains at Rondane take on an pantheistic aspect with the presence of a cross on the mountain, as does his night view of the church at Røros. The other aspect, as in his paintings of Røros, is a more surprising focus on realism, with detailed paintings of the town’s architecture and buildings. One other thing on display is a contemporary work by Mariele Neudecker, showing a forest inside a tank lit by the filtered yellow light of the mausoleum. It’s really rather effective, like some sort of surrealist dolls house.

The following week, I go to a couple of exhibitions starting with the home of the future at the Design Museum. Essentially this a comparison of fifties and sixties visions of the home of the future compared with what happened. Featuring the work of Archigram and the Smithsons, predicting advances like the Roomba was probably not that hard but it rather omits to mention the main point; namely that homes haven’t really changed very much at all. They may have shrunk in size and have a lot more stuff in them than they used to but they’re still basically identical to how the Victorians constructed them. The most interesting part is about usage rather than design, with a video of how someone renting out his home saw that people used it to enter into an experience of someone else’s life. To accommodate this, he created a series of entirely fictional families living in rented homes that totally erased himself from the picture.

The next exhibition was Pierre Bonnard at the Tate. In a lot of ways, I should have liked this a great deal more than I did. A lot of the natural landscapes evaporate in a mist of oranges, greens and blues. The interiors often have intricate constructions; nudes post in front of a mirror in an image divided by a series of vertical planes. Tables with still lives are arranged at striking neo-cubist angles. But there still seems something I find hard to respond to. The brushwork can be rather fidgety, the figures rather cartoonish and for all of his associations with the Nabis, the colour is actually often rather muted and puts me more in mind of the Camden group than the Impressionists. I find myself rather more engaged by the other exhibition being held at the Tate, on Dorothea Tanning. Much of her earlier ranks amongst the more striking examples of surrealism, combining tropes such as mirrors, an infinite regress of doors with tropes from gothic fiction. Her painting of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik remains one of the high points of surrealism for me. There’s also an interesting experimental element to her obsession with doors, embedding one into a painting where two children on both sides. Some of her later work I’m perhaps less impressed by. A lot of it focused on prismatic paintings that border on abstraction but where details, usually body parts, recognisably emerge as if out of mist. The problem is that a lot of these eventually seem interchangeable. Some of this bleeds into a focus on the body becoming permeable and amorphous, with some paintings essentially showing a mass of undifferentiated flesh. This in turn bled into a series of soft installations made out of fabric; the effect is unfortunately a bit like HR Geiger and Dali being asked to work on the Muppets. With that said, one installation, Chambre 202, Hôtel du Pavot, is rather striking; an entire room where body parts emerge from the walls and the furniture melts.

The Russia exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery can be rather ponderous at points; lots of exchanges of letters between monarchs, paintings of royal weddings and gatherings (including several special guest appearances from the Danish Royal family) and so on. But it does have quite a lot that is of interest; Faberge eggs, Malachite vases, Kneller’s painting of Peter the Great, travel books from Carolean embassies to Moscow, cloisonné kovsh vessels, Circassian qamas, a giant imperial porcelain vase and 17th century icons. I particularly like Faberge’s Blaschkaesque recreations of flowers in enamel and a small elephant automata. Photography is one of the exhibition strengths. There are James Mack’s photos of nineteenth century Moscow, William Carrick’s photos of Finnish serfs with bears and photos of the Peterhof illuminated at night. The largest set here consists of Roger Fenton’s Crimea photos. I’d already seen a lot of his more famous photos (the Valley of death or the portrait of Lord Balgonie) but this is more extensive ranging from Queen Victorian watching the fleet depart, to the British cemetery in the Crimea, Sutlers with the British army, photos of Sevastopol as it lay under siege and Balaklava under occupation. He also photographed a lot of the generals involved, finding himself especially struck by Omar Pasha, the Ottoman general.

I’m briefly up in Birmingham for work. The train to New Street shows a city being substantially rebuilt with scores of new high-rise buildings visible. New street station itself has been rebuilt, with a cavernous interior and a gleaming exterior. Finally, much of the city centre is a construction site. By all accounts, this is the largest reconstruction since the nineteen sixties. There does seem something a bit hollow to it; a lot of the building is rather bland and not obviously much of an improvement on what preceded it. Much of the rest, looks too demonstrative, as if it were trying too hard to replicate a Bilbao effect. I find myself drawn to the canals and winding redbrick architecture around the gas street basin area.

Food cooked: Chicken with Chorizo and Cider, Miso Cod, Chicken and Ham Pie, Mole Blanco, Prawn Laksa, Chicken with Apple and Chestnuts, Duck with Lychee and Mango, Tapenade and Harissa Chicken, Squid Bolonnaise, Beef Rendang, Filipino Paella, Satay chicken, Nachos and Enchilladas, Shakshuka, Chicken with garlic and lime.

The Sum of Things

This Christmas in the Midlands, I visit Sunnycroft in Shropshire, one of the few National Trust properties in the area I haven’t been to.A redbrick Victorian villa lead up by an avenue of Redwoods, the interior combines occasional Art Nouveau touches with traditional Victorian decoration. The most impressive aspect is a red painted hallway with a staircase leading up to an upper floor light through a stained glass ceiling. A Christmas tree completes the scene. The Christmas trees at nearby Attingham Park are also something very special. In the hallway, a model train runs round and round the base of one such tree, while in the gallery a flight of origami birds flies around another. Lastly, in the dining room, a teapot sat atop another tree pours out a cascade of fairy lights. Squirrels are everywhere in the grounds, frenziedly digging up and devouring nuts. The following day I go for a walk at Calke Abbey, watching the red deer in the park and a nuthatch on one of its feeders. Lastly, I visit Shugborough where a group of friendly Tamworth pigs are paying a suspicious amount of attention to the workings of the locks on their pens…

Back down south, I visit the V&A’s new photography centre. Covering works by Atkins, Talbot, Atget, Brassai, Muybridge, Many Ray, Langdon-Coburn and Cameron it depicts the history of photography alongside contemporary work. The main thing I love are the stereoscopes, from which you can see fights between 19th century Samuari, Lady Clementina Hawarden’s portrait subjects and the interior of the Crystal Palace.

I’ve read several books this year describing war from the perspective of the women who could not fight in it – West’s Return of the Solider, Brittain’s Testament of Youth and both Fortunes of War (comprising The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy) by Olivia Manning. For both Brittain and Manning, much of this is bound up with how women become aware of their independence. In Manning’s novels, the war itself is elsewhere and it instead depicts its impact on lives and societies at its periphery; Jews living in Romania as it falls to fascism, Egyptians filled with resentment at British colonial rule or just ordinary lives destroyed by it, like Yakimov in the Balkan Trilogy and Aidan and Pinkrose in The Levant Trilogy. It is not until the Levant Trilogy that any of the characters, in this case Simon, have any contact with battle at all. Most of the novels are, if anything, as domestic as an Austen novel, dealing with Harriet’s sense of purposelessness next to her husband’s ceaseless work that excludes her. Harriet and Guy are the only constants in the series, with a huge cast revolving and changing around them.

The Philosopher’s Pupil by Iris Murdoch is an oddity. The novel is narrated by a character called N who only expressly appears in one scene but otherwise serves the same purpose as an omniscient narrator in a 19th century novel. Referring to describing events he did not see, he simply refers cryptically to the help of a lady, in a rather postmodern fashion. Much of the book rather resembles a 19th century novel in its detailed depiction of an imaginary town but there is also an animistic aspect to the realist narration. Foxes appear throughout and are referred to as evil spirits. Characters see portents in nature throughout. Water, whether in the scene where Zed drowns or in the scenes where Rozanov commits suicide in the baths, is an important metaphor. So, too is the underground as with Tom’s descent beneath the baths, with his re-emergence to save Harriet either being like Orpheus or Dante visiting Beatrice, the Dantean injunction to ‘beware all who enter here’ being emblazoned above the entrance at one point. This animism is reflected in Bernard’s final turn to the mystical where “nothing exists except god… and when one has understood that, one knows that there is no god.” The realness and nowness of the sea waves is where the spiritual and material meet. Bernard opposes this to “the impossibility of metaphysics by the intrusion of mortality into the moment by moment conduct of ordinary life.”

The novel demonstrates this in Rozanov’s failure to complete his work, and the undermining of his attempts to orchestrate the lives of those around him. Both Rozanov and his pupil George toy with the Nietzchean idea that after some acts morality becomes unreal and all is permitted; a man then becomes the demon that is god. Throughout, Murdoch portrays philosophy in Buddhist terms as a form of curse; George’s violence is only lifted when he is stripped of such longings for knowledge.

The last book I read in 2018 was Zola’s Doctor Pascal. It’s an odd book in a lot of ways, resembling gothic ficton as much as the naturalist idiom. Pascal develops a rejuvenating injection made from nerve tissue,which rather recalls Shelley and Conan Doyle, while the demise of one character is attributed to spontaneous combustion. It’s also somewhat postmodern in acting as a commentary on the rest of the Rougon-Macquart series; no other character in any of the books is as aware as Pascal of the effects of heredity and the environment on their existence. Pascal embodies many of the central dilemmas in Zola’s fiction. He believes in progress but much of his research is intended to establish that heredity passes the diseased traits of his own family down through the generations; “..races degenerate. There is here a veritable exhaustion, rapid deterioration, as if our family, in their fury of enjoyment, in the gluttonous satisfaction of their appetites, had consumed themselves too quickly.” Pascal constantly struggles to match theory to reality, seeing instead a Darwinian process in which the weak infallibly perish. With Clotilde, Pascal creates a successful experiment to see of the effects of heredity can be overruled by a change in the environment, but his assumption that he is immune from the traits of his own family is disabused by events.

The ending of the novel is equally ambiguous. The destruction of Pascal’s research notes by Felicite is a huge setback for progress (albeit one perversely set off by her establishment of an asylum) and the question of whether Pascal and Clotilde’s child will inherit their worse traits; ” Then, with secret uneasiness, she sought a resemblance to the others, the terrible ancestors, all those whose names were there inscribed on the tree, unfolding its growth of hereditary leaves. Was it this one, or this, or yet this other, whom he would resemble? “

Burning the Clocks

It’s been a few years since I visited Brighton. It’s still a place I find confusing; Georgian exuberance and Victorian elegance combine in a city that looks more like a rougher version of Shoreditch or Camden than a normal English seaside town. I recall that last time I entirely forgot to visit the Victorian church of Saint Bartholomew. So, I start there this time; it’s a cavernous dark warehouse of a building with only a brightly decorated set of altars to light up the gloom of the largest nave in the country.

I then walk into the centre and visit the Museum. The main hall here is dedicated to design, featuring chairs by Dali, lamps by Edward James,  tables and vases by Lalique and ceramics by Ravilious. There’s also a wing with traditional British ceramics. Nearby is a small Egyptian gallery, featuring the inevitable Sarcophagus, Fayum portraits and Canopic jars. I especially like a lot of the world galleries, featuring Iranian ceramics, Malagan sculptures and Tatanua masks from New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.  The Performance gallery is also rather striking, with Punch and Judy puppets, Vietnamese water puppets, Indonesian shadow puppets, Japanese Noh masks and ballet masks by Andre Derain. The museum also has a Transology section, making it in the first museum I’ve visited with a parental guidance notice on the door, which covers aspects of trans life from Pride t-shirts to prosthetics and some rather grisly bottled body parts removed in surgery. The fashion section also features outfits and costumes from LGBT residents in Brighton. Lastly, the fine art gallery is rather small but does include a loaned copy of Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel.  The sun is beginning to fade by the time I leave, so I go for a walk along the Pier and watch the sunset near the ruins of the West Pier.

Back home, I visit the Tate’s Burne Jones exhibition. There are inevitably a lot of paintings I’ve seen many times before here but several that I haven’t like his depiction of Circe or the complete cycle of his Perseus works, with some normal oil paintings, others rather iconographic style  works designed as friezes and others done against wood with silver and gold. Represented together, the series of wan, etiolated figures in his works take on a coherent set of themes, with women seen as sinister and threatening and men as passive and helpless. There are several paintings of men being grasped and held by women; in some male nudity proved controversial at the time. One of a mermaid dragging a drowning sailor downwards is unusual for the malevolent smirk on her face. The overall themes remind me of Swinburne and Simeon Solomon, as well as the influence on decadent artists like Fernand Khnopff.

The question of the relationship between arts and crafts has always been a vexed one; why does a Burne Jones painting count as fine art but not a Burne Jones stained glass window? Or a Picasso ceramic or Sonia Delaunay’s fabrics? This is perhaps exacerbated in the case of modernist abstraction where the sort of geometrical patterns often used in decorative art were replicated in the likes of  Mondrian’s work. The Tate’s exhibition on Anni Albers has this at its centre, being dedicated not only to a female artist but entirely to her work in textiles and weaving. The work is heavily influenced by Bauhaus modernism in the first instance and then after her move to Black Mountain by Mexican textiles. Klee is an obvious influence as is her husband, Josef, with their squares of overlapping colour being mirrored in her work. She typically has a constrained palette of often only around four colours, but uses different materials to highlight differences (the use of metallic thread, for example) or brocading them to elevate one material over another to highlight tactile differences.

The following weekend, I visit the Royal Academy. For some unexplained reason there’s a copy of the Bates Motel in its front courtyard. I initially visit its Oceania exhibition. Covering a huge range of Islands and cultures, it does rather lack any great amount  of detail, covering boats, deities, weapons and housing. I find I recognise quite a lot of the exhibits from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and the Pitt Rivers. There’s also an exhibition of drawings from Klimt and Schiele, showing the extensive influence of the former on the latter in the early phase of his career. I especially find myself drawn to one of Klimt drawings of a Lady with a Cape and Hat, along with Schiele’s nudes.

After that, I visit the British’s Museum’s Ashurbanipal exhibition, covering the civil wars provoked by dynastic successions and wars with neighbouring empires like Egypt & the Elamites, Relief after relief shows scenes of warfare, whether the siege of Babylon or the decapitated head of an Elamite king resting on a tree branch while Ashurbanipal reclines on a  lounger nearby. The scenes of peace are no less bellicose, with most of the reliefs here showing lion hunts, including one relief showing a dying lion gushing blood.

Finally for 2018, I take a Friday off before Christmas to visit the Wallace Collection’s exhibition on the life of its founder, Richard Wallace. The contents include the horn of St Hubert, Chinese cups used by the Qianlong Emperor and looted from the Summer Palace,an Irish bell relic, Sevres porcelain boxes, a silver Ostrich from Augsburg, Majolica plates and an Ashanti gold mask looted by British troops. Afterwards, I take the chance to visit some of the London churches that are never open at a weekend; St James Spanish Place (a vast Victorian gothic affair), St Peter Vere Street (a Gibbs church, somewhat confusingly featuring Burnes Jones stained glass) and the Grosvenor Chapel.

Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of all Political Parties shares some parts of its analysis with Arendt’s On Totalitarianism; Arendt viewed the broad church Anglo-American parties as less disposed to extremism than their much more cohesive European counterparts. Weil also sees European parties as being worse than their Anglo-American counterparts, although she takes the view that ultimately all such parties enforce conformism and inflame collective irrationality. Recent events would suggest Weil was closer to the heart of the matter than Arendt. As nationalism and increasingly polarised political extremes has risen throughout the world, European parties used to compromising with each other initially acted to preserve the political centre and lock out extremes. By contrast, Anglo-American parties already had significant bodies of opinion in favour of more extremist outlooks. The use of relative open nomination systems such as primaries equally facilitated extremist take-overs of the main parties; while the use of closed first past the post electoral systems acted to prevent any competition from the former centre once that was undertaken (therefore preventing the rise of any Anglo-American equivalent to the French En Marche). As a thesis this has its limits; in Austria and Italy the centre has now been either subverted or displaced as thoroughly its has been in the US or the UK. Equally, it’s entirely unclear how any form of meaningful  Nonetheless, any idea that the Anglo-American party model was better able to withstand the rise of extremist politics seems fundamentally misplaced.

Edmund White’s Our Young Man uses the device of the Dorian Gray mythos to explore gay history. Its ever young central character Guy is a model, and therefore effectively a blank canvas upon which different meanings can be projected over time. Throughout, Guy can be interpreted at will to be either a cipher in the face of events or a ruthless and manipulative intriguer. Partly, this can be attributed to White’s interest in Foucault’s ideas of the self; for example, time in prison transforms Andres from an academic to a thug while despite being twins Kevin and Chris pursue entirely different paths. But equally, as age catches up with Guy, there’s the sense that such matters aren’t infinitely malleable and that he has to decide who is.

Jean Genet’s aesthetic is well known to be that essentially valorises evil; theft, murder and homosexuality are described throughout his work in frequently adulatory terms. However, in Funeral Rites this becomes problematic at the point it intersects with a concept of politics, specifically in the narrator’s love for both a resistance fighter and a Nazi soldier. In some ways, this should not be too surprising; Sontag’s Fascinating Fascism made clear long ago the tendency to fetishise the oppressive, even when those doing so were frequently marginalised group who formed its principal victims. There’s little sense of the gays who ended their lives in concentration camps in Genet, as he depicts the Nazi soldiers fucking male French collaborators. But there is some form of normative concept of morals that is often absent in Genet, a sense of guilt and shame as well as a clear demonstration of the consequences of the occupation.

The Right Side of History

There was undoubtedly a degree of fatigue at the prospect of going on another People’s Vote March yesterday. The path to such a vote is highly problematic and the prospect that the debate would create any more clarity than the previous vote remains highly uncertain. But with the Brexit negotiations continuing to career wildly off the rails, I did feel obligated to do what little I could and attend. Arriving at Park Lane, it became obvious that there were multiple streams of people heading towards the March; such were the volume of crowds that they soon, much like the Brexit negotiations themselves, ground to a standstill. By early-afternoon, I had only managed to reach the point I had started the first March at. As it later turned out, yesterday’s March was easily the largest of the three I’ve been on; about seven times larger than the last, which was in turn larger than the one before it. It turns out to have been the second largest protest in London this century. As I said last time, the sense of anger at being sent on a road to nowhere clearly continues to grow rather than dissipate.  This is great in political terms but possibly somewhat anti-climactic in personal terms, as after several hours of rather crowded shuffling, we could only get as far as Trafalgar Square with Whitehall absolutely logjammed, let alone Parliament Square.

As I eventually leave at Charing Cross tube, there’s some heckling about people trying to undo a democratic vote. It’s not an unreasonable argument, but the fact remains that the most likely outcome at this point, No-Deal, was airily dismissed during the referendum as Project Fear scaremongering. Pretending that a mandate still exists when what is being negotiated no longer bears any resemblance to the original campaign, strikes me as little more than denialism of how a false prospectus has ended as a failed prospectus. The comment that sticks out for me the following day is simple; protests this large tend to be on the right side of history. It may well prove a poor consolation but at least I will know that what I did was right.