Open House

It’s getting harder to find places to go to during Open House weekend, having largely exhausted Oxford and Bristol in previous years. When I realised that the Beckford Tower in Bath would be open this year, that decided it for me. The city centre in Bath seemed to having a Jane Austen parade; having negotiated my way around that, I caught a bus out to the Lansdown cemetery where the tower is situated. The cemetery is filled with Victorian monuments, including Beckford’s own red marble tomb. The tower itself is perhaps most noticeable for the spiral staircase on its interior; the view from the room at the top extends for miles in each direction but isn’t perhaps that exceptional. A museum downstairs includes a lot of Beckford’s original furniture and models of Fonthill Abbey. Afterwards, I visit a few open churches in Bath; the Elim church and St Swithun’s.

The following day, I decide to stick with places closer to home. I hadn’t realised there was a synagogue in Reading, a redbrick building with rather wonderful stained glass. It’s always a bit depressing to be asked why you’re visiting such a place by armed guards. After that, I visit All Saints church in Maidenhead, a beautiful piece of Venetian Gothic by GE Street. The striped spire sits atop a hill and is one of the most noticeable things in the town; the interior is equally extravagant, with stained glass by Hardman and Comper.

Advertisements

Laughter in the dark

I won tickets for another recording of The News Quiz at Broadcasting House last night. Now in its hundredth season, it was presented by Patrick Kielty, with Susan Calman and Francis Wheen on each panel. It was a rather more genteel Radio 4ish affair than the last one, with considerably less heavy work for the editors to cut all the swearing out. With that said, Kielty seemed somewhat bemused to discover that the jokes that went down best with a Radio 4 audience were the filthiest ones. Given that this has been a week where my attention has been slightly distracted by the Court of Session declaring that the Prime Minister had lied to the Queen when proroguing Parliament, it did come as a bit of a surprise to discover that there have actually been other news stories, some of them involving crime fighting seals in Australia. Some of my favourite jokes:

  • Calman said that, unlike the Prime Minister, she’d learned never to lie to a Queen at her first London Pride.
  • Wheen observing that after surgery he’d been out of it on Morphine since July and it had come as a shock to discover that Theresa May wasn’t still trying to get her deal through.
  • Kielty pointing out that Johnson’s visit to Ireland meant he’d finally gone somewhere he was sure to unite.
  • One question about the DUP being unexpectedly being answered by an audience member shouting ‘NOOO!!’ in a thick Irish accent.

Things fall apart

And so it begins. It was not unexpected but the sheer awfulness of an unelected Prime Minister seeking to stifle an elected Parliament still appals, no matter how much such things have been normalised over the last three years. When the news of the prorogation came through, I decided I would go to join a hastily convened protest at College Green, opposite a symbolically scaffolded Houses of Parliament. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the protests were rather disorganised but large numbers of people had nonetheless turned up at short notice, blocking all the traffic in the area. Weirdly, a xylophone player is playing the Monty Python theme tune. A series of mostly Labour politicians and activists spoke, although I was too far back to hear a great deal; I briefly caught Diane Abbott noting how we would describe such events if they had taken place in a Latin American country. The protest began to splinter with some regrouping outside Downing Street. I could not really describe the protests as good natured; the anger was palpable as a chant of ‘let them vote’ began. I learned later on that there had been clashes with pro-Brexit activists after I had left. This, I fear, is how the unravelling of countries begins.

A few days later and the backlash has proved greater than I had expected. Where the People’s Vote marches were all concentrated on London, protests have now spread spontaneously across the country. I’m not sure England has witnessed dissent on this scale since the Poll Tax riots. And so, I found myself in Newbury a few days after Johnson’s announcement. I suppose there’s more than a certain resonance protesting in an area associated with Speenhamland and Greenham Common. Well over two hundred people turned out, with speeches from Labour, Green & Liberal councillors and one Conservative. Most of the people present seemed to be Remainers but there were also Leavers concerned at the institutions of Parliamentary democracy being suppressed.

It’s all rather unnerving in comparison to a central London march, where you’re surrounded by hundreds of thousands of supportive fellow marchers. Here, you’re mostly surrounded by ordinary shoppers going about their normal business but the reaction was nonetheless very positive with a lot of bystanders applauding. There were only a couple of negative comments, including a ‘We love Boris’ shouted from a passing car. Well, I suppose someone has to.

By the following weekend, Parliament has succeeded in passing legislation in blocking both no-deal and an early election before the prorogation comes into effect. The Prime Minister will either be forced to extend Article 50, or more likely to resign. The institutions of Parliamentary democracy have successfully resisted the attack on them. But an election is still coming and the path to any resolution remains highly fraught. This time, I found myself at a protest in Reading, where several hundred people have assembled. Like in Newbury, I still feel like a zoo animal while walking down a shopping centre, but no-one heckles this time (although there is a pensioner who follows us with a piece of A4 paper reading ‘Brexit Now’). It ends outside the Town Hall, where we hear speeches from speeches from the Green Party, the Women’s Equality Party, the Labour MP for Reading East and the new Liberal Democrat MP for Bracknell, who had defected from the Tories earlier that week. Police gather outside a nearby Weatherspoons. Just in case.

The Last Days

Visiting an exhibition dedicated to the last days of Pompeii seems fitting enough given the political circumstances. To be honest, a lot of the content at the Ashmolean’s exhibition isn’t that interesting; there’s a lot of examples of Roman kitchenware along with assorted carbonised fruits. They do get maximum points for the Dormouse jar though. I recognise some of the exhibits like wall frescoes and the disturbing resin cast of the Lady of Oplontis from a previous exhibition at the British Museum. I’ve also seen some of the British exhibits at either the Museum of London or Reading Museum for the exhibits from Silchester. But there are quite a lot of things I haven’t seen before; painted Etruscan funerary sculpture, a statue of Bacchus, a mosaic showing a skeleton as a memento mori, frescoes showing birds and trees.

During the rest of the bank holiday, I visit Warwick Castle. The place is heaving with falconry and jousting displays, which can make it a little unpleasant at times. I walk round the remains of the Norman Motte and Bailey castle as well as the medieval walls. Some of the views are exactly as they were when Canaletto painted them. Inside a lot of the wallpaper seems frayed and faded; the sort of the thing the National Trust would have had restored a long time ago. But the windows do have some wonderful stained glass panels and there are some marvellous wooden carvings and suits of armour.

Hall of Mirrors

The Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Tate leaves me feeling ambivalent about it in a lot of ways. Eliasson is particularly interested in geometry and light, with the end results resembling a sort of three dimensional version of a Bridget Riley painting. But there’s also a certain vaudevillian element to a lot of it that isn’t that distinct to looking at a funfair hall of mirrors. Equally, there’s a strong conceptual element to a lot of the works but as is often the case, there’s only so much information visual media can actually manage to physically encode: I’m not sure I come away with my perceptions of climate change radically altered, for example.

The first room in the exhibition is given up to a series of geometrical models, like a series of Escher designs made out of string and rubber balls. Optical illusions then take up an awful lot of the rest of the exhibition; convex mirrors set into the wall, a sculpture attempting to render negative space, the form of a window projected into a wall, a candle flame on a mirror, a series of coloured lights dispersing a series of differently coloured silhouettes, a series of refracting mirrors set into the wall like a window, a circular and rotating corridor of mirrors and an arc that seems to represent a circle curving ever upwards but which is actually only leading to a mirrored ceiling. There are also other forms of illusion; a corridor filled with mist and illuminated in bright colours that blocks your vision for all but what is immediately in front of you; this is essentially identical to something I’d seen at the Wellcome Collection a few years before.

The most impressive piece is an entirely dark room where a light periodically blinks on to show a gushing fountain of water below. As it doesn’t stay on for long enough to show movement, the water appears as a frozen and solid object, the image of which remains in the eye briefly after the light is switched off and is then displaced when it is switched back on again in an entirely new shape.

The conceptual work is less striking; a wall covered in Reindeer Lichen, a set of wave machines or Pollockesque patterns made by ice melt. There’s also a series of immersive experiences; white lego blocks to create architecture or a shapes to make geometrical objects out of. Elsewhere in the Tate, I have a look at some Ed Ruscha works at the border of art and advertising and a series of photographs of traditional Romanian hay bails by Ana Lupas.

A few weeks later, I visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition about the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. Effectively, it shows how Futurist and Vorticist ideas in the work of Nevinson, Bomberg and Wadsworth bled through into the design of the period. To be honest, there’s something a little odd about this sort of abstract focus on movement when applied to pastoral scenes or sporting events. The best examples in it are the ones applied to the same sort of subjects that the Futurists would have chosen; planes or the many depictions of the London Underground. Afterwards, I visit the Horniman Museum. I think they’ve changed this quite a bit since I was last there; I particularly like the section on masks. The gardens are rather striking too, with flowers divided into solid blocks of colour depending on how they were used in dyeing or printing techniques.

That evening, I go to my first Proms performance of the year; Haydn’s Creation, followed a few week’s later by Handel’s Jeptha. The final performance I go to see is Berlioz’s Cellini. Earlier in the day, I’d visited Kew Gardens. There are a few things I hadn’t seen before; the Bonsai House and the now restored pagoda interior. The gardens have a set of Dale Chihuly stained glass pieces dotted around them; I feel rather ambivalent about them. The ones that mimic the shapes of leaves and flowers work well but the more artificial shapes in fluorescent colours work less well.

The centre will not hold

Another month, another anti-brexit protest march. This time it’s for the March for Change, which is a rather smaller than some of the previous People’s Vote marches;  I read it as mostly a way of firing a few warning shots in the direction of the incoming Prime Minister.  Certainly, I cannot recall another occasion in my life time when protests on such a scale have been held against a Prime Minister before they even have entered office.

On the way in, I’m stuck by the sheer amount of stalls selling anti-Brexit merchandise; anyone complaining about commercialisation of Pride would have a field day here. Somewhat to my surprise – and more by accident than by design – I find myself towards the front of the Liberal Democrat group, consisting of four MPs (Ed Davey, Chuka Umunna, Tom Brake and Wera Hobhouse) and a slew of MEPs (Catherine Bearder, Luisa Porritt, Irina Von Weise, Barbara Gibson and Lucy Nethsingha plus the Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld). As ever, it’s a good natured affair, with posters in Latin and featuring slogans like ‘Eight out of ten Kittens want to Remain’ and ‘Elect a clown, expect a circus.’ On which note, Ed Davey did spend some time negotiating with a Boris Johnson impersonator. I did eventually manage to reach and get into Parliament Square, although it was very busy and the combination of not being able to see anything and Billy Bragg singing meant I left shortly afterwards,

The poster that most resonates with me is a simple one; ‘Our patience is wearing thin.’ Because the background to all of this is darker than ever. In so far as Brexit had any coherent project behind it, it has now completely collapsed: there will be no negotiated exit with a good deal. There will be a hard border in Northern Ireland. There are no trade deals ready and waiting and most of those the UK has will cease as we lurch towards a no-deal exit. Instead of global Britain, we face an experiment with capitalism in one country. Instead of Parliamentary sovereignty, we face attempts to silence Parliament. Brexit has gone from being simply a fraud to a full scale nationalist movement, which is hostile to the independence of all the institutions that underpin the British constitutional settlement. The new Prime Minister is known for little more than a combination of ruthless ambition and stupidity & laziness over discussions of substance.

There is the marked sense of something festering and rotting in the air. On the one hand, the Conservative and Unionist party is clearly neither Conservative nor Unionist and may well not be a party before long. It appears to stand for little more than a combination of English nationalism and a form of insouciant nihilism as to the chaos it seeks to engineer. The new cabinet seems certain to consist solely of the disgraced and the fanatical. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has betrayed all of its founding principles by having retreated into racism and a failure to oppose the rise of nationalism. The far left insistence that centrism had betrayed the working class looks hollow and empty at best; having assumed that the fundamental split in the country was one of traditional class warfare it proposed to simply sit back and allow the Conservatives to destroy themselves before they could assume power. Instead, it turns out that the split in the country was entirely different and the main insurgency was on the right. Both Tory and Labour parties resemble little more than nostalgic revivalisms of politics that predate the day of my birth. The old is dying. We do not yet know what the new may be.

Flatland

Arriving in Cambridge, I head along along the rather long walk from the Train Station to the centre, stopping to visit the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs and some of the smaller colleges that I hadn’t visited before like Emmanuel and Magdalene. The first thing I want to visit is Kettle’s Yard. I start by visiting the redundant church of St Peter next to it, which stands atop a small (this is the Fens, after all) hill. The house itself is something of an oddity, with items in each room being strictly specified by its former owners (e.g. down to having a lemon in a bowl in the front room to offset a painting behind it and to match a nearby Miro), giving it an aspect not unlike the Dennis Severs House in London. Themes recur throughout the house; Hepworth and Gaudier-Bzreska sculptures, Nicholson paintings, glass vases and spheres, stones arranged in patterns. Found objects mirror the artworks throughout. I visit the nearby church at the castle, with its collection of Victorian stained glass, before heading back south to visit Queen’s college and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Museum’s ground floor mostly accounts for the Archaeology section, dwelling on a set of deer skulls found in Yorkshire that were used as masks. The upper floors are dominated by the Anthropological collections, including a Thai demon, Samurai armour, a Haida totem pole, a Buddha, Mexican carnival masks and casts of Mayan sculptures.

The following weekend I visit the Tate for its exhibition on Natalia Goncharova. I’ve seen a lot of her work before in exhibitions on Russian modernism but this a lot more extensive, covering her influences in iconography and folk art as well as the influence of European modernism. The exhibition describes her approach as ‘everythingism’ and covers clothing, costumes, set designs, iconography and Lubok panels as well as her painting. The subjects can range from nudes done in a cubist style to peasant women dancing and Jewish shop owners. The oddest thing in the exhibition is a set of mystical images of the 1914 war, featuring angels with biplanes. The items that most stand out for me are some of her landscapes, which seem to start in an idiom that different to Cezanne before giving way to her fusion of cubism and futurism. The Tate also has an exhibition of work by Takis (Panayiotis Vassilakis). Some of the concepts are striking if repetitive; objects suspended in mid-air by magnetic force, forced to revolve perpetually or to make a series of generative sounds as they do so. Like a lot of conceptual art it suffers from the limitations of expressions concepts visually and suffers in comparison to the range of Goncharova’s work. The most interesting piece is an early work of sculpture that looks like a Giacometti combined with a Cycladic sculpture. There are a couple of other things on as well; some of Nan Goldin’s photos and Yinka Shonibare’s British Library installation.

The following weekend I go to the Royal Academy’s Felix Vallotton exhibition, which rather surprises me; I’d mostly seen his landscapes before (mostly sunsets over water, only one of which is shown here) but the work here almost feels like the painterly equivalent of a Zola or a Balzac, following Lautrec rather than Vuillard. Associated with the Nabis, Vallotton nonetheless preferred a style that was equally indebted to Ingres and Japanese woodblock prints. His own woodblock range from scenes of riots, street scenes and the world’s fair through to the first world war. Some of the painting follows a similar vein, depicting places like department stores but a lot tend to dwell on domestic interiors. The colour palettes often echo the Nabis but the style is certainly much more realist; a series of paintings with mirrors leaves me reminded more of Velasquez than Bonnard. The framing is often highly theatrical; a scene at a theatre foregrounds one woman and her hand resting on the circle barrier. Something similar applies to his still lives, which are filled with the joy of surface details and reflections on glass or metal.

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.

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.