Totes Meer

Much like the Rauschenberg exhibiton I visited last year,  the Tate’s Paul Nash exhibition illustrates the various facets of a particularly complex artist whose work varied from landscape painting, collage, surrealism, found objects, sculpture and war painting. The initial sections show the influence of Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites; the work divides between mythical paintings (from an angel fighting a birdlike demon to pyramids in the ocean) and landscapes that dwell on a mystical but inherent genius loci (as with Wittenham Clumps or Whiteleaf Cross).  Paintings of Dymchurch Steps with its pill box on the beach begin to show a Chiricoesque sense of the strangeness of everyday objects. A very English building shows an infinite regress inside it while a blue house on the shore emerges as a series of Eschersque angles. You also see how in spite of the notional realism, his work shares some cubist pre-occupations with geometry; clouds show as icebergs in the sky rather than as whisps of vapour while the sea emerges as a series of lines.  The war paintings show a similar style, although the strangeness here often comes from the quotidian rather than the exceptional, as with a sun blazing out over the new world of a barren battlefield.

Pre-occuptions also begin to emerge with framing, with landscapes seen from an open window so as to bisect the scene.  A view from Nash’s St Pancras flat out through scaffolding achieves the same thing in a unusual urban setting; later this feeds into works like his Mansions of the Dead painting. The landscapes become more obviously surrealist, with an infinite regress with Convolvulus at the centre. Others dwell on objects, as with scenes showing a petrified tree in a landscape. Objects begin to loom particularly large from this point onwards, with an emphasis on incorporating found objects as sculpture; glove stretchers assembled into a forest, photographs mixed with rocks in display cases, a skull painted gold and coated with shells in remembrance of The Tempest and Ernst style frottage drawings. His paintings begin to dwell on objects like dead trees and Avebury monoliths; the parallels between the tree paintings and his Totes Meer paintings of wrecked German bombers seems clear. Paintings of flowers in the sky recall the Spanish describing parachutes as flowers of the air. The last paintings return to landscapes and re-capture some of his original sense of mysticism, as with a painting of the sun as a flower.

The following week I go to the Estorick Collection’s exhibition of WW1 British artists in Italy.  Much of the first room is taken up by Sidney Carline’s paintings; showing Sopwith Camel dogfights above the Veneto, Austrian prisoners being driven towards the Italian lines and British artillery in Vicenza. The other half is taken up with photos taken by William Joseph Brunell; I especially like his photos of ruined castles damaged in the war.

The following week, I go to the new Design Museum in Holland Park. The old Commonwealth Institute building is rather impressive with its sweeping lines; the vast empty interior seems somewhat anti-climactic by comparison. The permanent exhibition is on the second floor on a wending path up past an auditorium; once inside it is a rather cramped and rambling stretch through Harry Beck and Memphis to Zaha Hadid and Jonny Ives. After this, I visit the Sussex Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place. The ground floor here is mostly occupied by Eric Bell’s commune at Ditchling and the Bloomsbury Group at Charleston. Covering Gill sculptures, Bell paintings and a coffer by Gauder Brzeska, I especially like Grant’s decorated Leda and the Swan chest and his homoerotic version of a Seurat painting, Bathers by the Pond. The upper floors are rather less coherent; the Mae West lips sofa by Edward James and Dali, Piper paintings of Chichester cathedral and Dover cliffs, Lee Miller photographs and Edward Burra paintings.

Reading LP Hartley’s The Harness Room leaves me wondering why its currently out of print, in contrast to Forster’s Maurice, another late gay novel from a writer who had only written previously of heterosexual themes. I assume that whereas Maurice had an ending in the greenwood that tallied with gay liberation themes, The Harness Room reflects a rather darker tone that is rather more in keeping with Hartley’s other work (or even with Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask). The boxing training offered by the bisexual Carrington to the soft youth Fergus does begin to toughen and ‘masculinise’ Fergus in the way his father intended, but as the two begin to sleep together, it also leaves Fergus unsympathetic to the feminine world denoted by his stepmother’s unwelcome attentions. Homosexuality becomes a rejection of the feminine rather than an expression of effeminacy. The parallels between boxing and fucking in the novel begin to take on a sado-masochistic tone; when Carrington accidentally kills Fergus in a boxing match,  the ending is redolent of Freudian explanations, from internalised homophobia, through to Carrington  unconsciously attempting to spare Fergus from a conventional heterosexual life, and whether the action was simply that of a jealous lover.

I’ve also read John Rechy’s City of Night. Most of the text is essentially a picaresque series of depictions of the narrator’s life as a hustler across different American cities, reflecting little on his own motivations until his rejection of an offer of love towards the end of the book. The book repeatedly uses two contrasting metaphors throughout; the mask and the mirror, reflecting the extent to which gay identity is either something constructed or something imposed.  Gay identity is something that is a parody of both masculinity and femininity but also something inescapable. The life of the hustler is at turns either a tragic and nihilistic existence that is fated to fail as the hustler ages and as a form of incipient counter-culture in revolt from society. Comparing City of Night to Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn though and the shift from first (gay) person to third (straight) person does make a marked difference; Selby’s tale of the transvestite hopelessly in love with an indifferent straight man casts her as a victim in a way that Rechy’s narrator doesn’t accept.

Aciman’s Call be Your Name has a Proustian obsession with time; the novel draws an anaology between the church of San Clemente’s Mithraic past, its Christian present and between the gay affair of its narrators and the later marriage and parenthood of at least one of them. Prelapsarian metaphors abound, albeit with apricots (as much in apricating as in the actual fruit) and clementines (as in Clemente as much as in the actual fruit) replacing apples. Gayness seems oddly transient in a novel where both of the main characters are bisexual, and the novel often dwells on the idea of existence as a series of parallel lives (which gayness largely figuring as the road not taken) and the idea of gay love as a blurring of the boundaries between two selves; Elio and Oliver do indeed call each other by their own names as well as wearing each other’s clothing (although the only explicitly gay couple in the novel are mocked for wearing matching clothes). A poet in Rome tells of a visit to Thailand and his confusion over the gender of someone he drank with, but the novel does seem to imply that such confusion is as temporary as a holiday, whether to Rome or to Bangkok.

Edmund White’s two specifically autobiographical works, City Boy and My Lives, both remind me a lot of Isherwood (albeit White’s tone is considerably more gossipy); both writers re-use material from their own lives but depict it in shards and fragments and never as an entire narrative. City Boy depicts White’s time in New York while My Lives eschews the linear narrative in favour of a series of themes; hustlers, parents, friends and lovers but also places like Paris and concepts like his Genet biography. As White admits it omits as much as it includes; the process of writing his novels, his teaching career or two lovers he frequently references but never devotes chapters to.  One aspect that comes over is the influence of Genet and Foucault; White describes how Genet was an effeminate youth who transformed himself into something more masculine in his thirties, just as White writes that his gym visits predated this becoming a common aspect of gay culture. White seems ambivalent about Foucault’s concepts about the construction of the self, but does share them to some extent; he writes about how gay men in the fifties had no narrative available to them other than those of sin, illness and criminality. The convergence of Stonewall, feminism and black civil rights created an entirely new narrative that transformed self perceptions even as gay men themselves were unsure how much they believed. One consequence was the transformation of the gay male from the sort of gender transgression White had depicted in Hotel de Dream to the hyper masculine clone. Conversely, White spent so much time in therapy, Freudian in particular, to entirely give up on such ideas about the development of the self, with the sections on his parents especially abounding in them.

Food cooked: Latvian fish and mushroom pie, Beef Stroganoff, Veal with grapes and apricot, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Masala Roast Chicken, Wiener Schnitzel, Miso potato salad, Vietnamese lime and coconut curry, Toad in the hole, Chicken Marbella, Pork with clams, Sangria, Chicken Bastilla, Bouillabaisse, Arroz al Horno, Portuguese pork and chestnuts, Marmite and pancetta spaghetti, Russian Salmon pie, Lamb shanks with lemon rice, Paella of the Land, Chicken cooked in milk, Rakott káposzta, Gammon cooked with cola, Chicken cooked with lemon and cola, Azeri Lamb Plov, Seafood and feta lasagne,  Lithuanian lamb with apples, Chicken cooked with Saffron and Sherry, Romanian Mutton Stew, Chicken with Almonds and Pine Nuts, Varna chicken, Braised steak with gravy and chips, Latvian veal steak with beetroot salad.

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The Time of the Skeleton Lords

Towards the end of the year, I visit two exhibitions in London; one at the Royal Geographical Society about Shackleton’s Antarctic Exhibition and Frank Hurley’s photographs in particular, the other at the Wellcome Collection, ostensibly about the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa but more generally about Tibetan Buddhism.  I walk across Hyde Park to the first of these and come across a flock of parrots nesting in a tree. One of them comes down to eat out of my hand while a nearby group of Tufted Ducks looks rather unimpressed.  The Lukhang temple is most notable for a series of Tantri murals on its walls, part of the dedication of the temple to placate a set of angry spirits (in the more animistic parts of Tibetan Buddhism, such spirits are both objects of veneration and fear). Tantric buddhism sought to overcome a divide between the physical and spiritual, with many of the exhibits being essentially anatomical diagrams. On the other hand, many exhibits are also intended to illustrate the transience of things, a form of Tibetan memento mori, like the Chitipati masks or tapestries of the underworld showing flayed bodies.

In the Midlands for Christmas, I visit some churches, starting with Kinwarton in Warwickshire, which has a pair of impressive Gibbs stained glass windows and a celtic cross outside. I revisit nearby Wootton Wawen with its medieval monuments and Norman font. Further up North I visit Youlgrave in Derbyshire, with its medieval sculptures, Burne Jones glass and rather odd pews with carved dogs. I also visit nearby Bakewell  with its collection of grave slabs, Saxon pillar,  Henry Holiday stained glass, medieval font  & monuments and Comper altars. One of the medieval monuments has had a rose left on it. On Christmas Eve, I go for a walk at the National Memorial Arboretum; some Wolemi Pines have been planted along with some new memorials. The following day we visit the church at Armitage (a Victorian building designed to mimic the Romanesque) and Wightwick Manor. Finally, travelling back down South, I visit Preston on Stour, with its wonderful Georgian stained glass depicting Jonah and the whale and the apocalypse.

I’ve recently Boredom  and The Conformist by Alberto Moravia. The latter establishes a premise early on that its protagonist is a nascent sociopath who simply enjoys inflicting pain. His flight from this into conformity takes him towards fascism, combining bourgeois respectability with a career as an assassin. Any suggestion of the heterodox drives him further towards conformism, often in a manner that makes it difficult to equate his childhood love of inflicting pain with the clinical death of his former professor.  Boredom also establishes a premise it later aborts; the protagonist here exists in a state of ennui, as bored by bourgeois respectability as he is by his bohemian career as a painter. Nonetheless, most of the narrative from the point he re-enacts a relationship a deceased painter had had with a model, the narrative morphs from one being concerned with boredom towards one concerned with jealousy and obsession.

I also finally got round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It seems to me to be composed of two overlapping but not entirely conjoined aspects. Firstly, the author seeks to unite Freud and Einstein, attempting to create a novelistic form that encapsulates the relativity hypothesis; the four books are respectively narrated by different characters offering different perspectives on the same events, and with some of the narratives emerging as a commentary on the others. If characters appear in a different light in each of these it is as much due to Durrell’s depiction of character as mutable as the difference in perspective. As Durell put it; “You see, Justine is written by Darley. It’s his autobiography. The second volume, Balthazar, is Darley’s autobiography corrected or revised by Balthazar. In Mountolive, written by me, Darley is an object in the outside world. Clea would be the new autobiography of Darley some years later, in Alexandria once again.”  The narrative is to a large extent a palimpsest that works by the accretion of detail rather than a conventional narrative, creating a stance of irony towards the realistic depiction of events; “It seemed to me then to be somehow symbolic of the very reality we had shared – a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or individual traces, layer by layer… Not unlike Pursewarden’s idea of a series of novels with “sliding panels” as he called them.  Or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other,” Pursewarden refers to Jesus as a great ironist and sees civilisations dying in the extent to which they become aware of themselves.  Events like the death of the transvestite Scobie see him ironically transfigured to sainthood, while the feverish devotion of Narouz leads only to his death. But equally, the second aspect of the novel, with its interest in Gnosticism and Kabbalism fits awkwardly here; the overall narrative arch is a form of metempsychosis towards a spiritual rebirth, typified by Clea’s underwater death and resurrection. The demise of subjectivity effectively becomes a replacement metaphysic rather than a mechanism for treating it with irony.

Food cooked: Azeri chicken with prunes and walnut, Lahmacun, Ossetian lamb with coriander, Romanian duck with apricots, Chicken Yiouvetsi, Beer Can Chicken, Merluza en salsa verde, Sardines and spaghetti, Garlicky Poussin with Beetroot and Gherkin salad, Crab with Almonds and Hazelnuts, Chicken Puttanesca, Chicken buried in vermicelli, Picadilo, Cuban Chicken Stew, Fiduea, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Beef with Lemon and Pappardelle, Azeri lamb with fruit and rice, Macau Chicken, Chicken Ramen, Umbrian style Chicken alla Cacciatora, Lamb shanks with lemon, Chicken with chestnut, pancetta and pear, Czech beef in cream sauce with dumplings, Ramen with fish.

Orfeo

I went to the Roundhouse in Camden this week for a performance of Orfeo. I hadn’t been to that venue before and it does seem ideal for that sort of performance; a circular stage in the centre of the theatre with a Globe style gallery erected at one side (in this case, the gods can speak from the upper level and the Baroque orchestra can play beneath) and a long gangway to a door on the upper level opposite; when the theatre is dimly lit this serves perfectly in this context as the door to and from the underworld. In addition, much of the performance uses climbing ropes hung from the ceiling to allow the actors to move up and down (e.g. when the soul ascends at the end of the performance), making for a performance that freely utilises space. The music was beautifully performed throughout but aspects of the performance did seem questionable; dressing everyone is grey clothing in the first act did make me wonder if we were already in the underworld while the presence of child dancers rolling around on the ground added little.

A few weeks later and I visit the disused Aldwych station on the Strand. We pass from the oxblood tiled exterior to an entrance hall lined with green emerald tiles before heading downwards into a labyrinth of empty corridors. The first station platform we visit has various 1940s posters advertising foodstuffs or evacuating children to the country; replicas as it turns out, for a 2008 film; a second platform has genuine posters from the seventies; I note one advertising the benefits of the common market. Other parts of the station equally relate to its status as a film set, such as a Bakerloo line sign from Mr Selfridge. Finally, I get to stand on the tracks in an darkened tunnel before re-emerging back out on the Embankment.

A few weeks later again and I’m at the Tate for its exhibitions of Victorian sculpture and photography. The sculpture exhibition dwells on items like Chantrey’s busts of Queen Victoria, Gilbert Scott’s replicas of Westminster Abbey tombs, replicas of the tombs of Queen Elizabeth and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Minton ceramics of peacocks and a white elephant, replica friezes from the Parthenon, extraordinary linden wood carvings from Wilkinson Wallis, Raffael Monti’s Veiled Vestal Virginthe silver gothic Eglington Trophy by Edmund Cotterill, the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers, a sculpture of Earl of Winchester in chain mail from the Houses of Parliament, a chess match between Queen Elizabeth (again) and Philip of Spain to Leighton’s Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The antiquarian and classical focus of much of the subjects contracts with the use of mass production to create them, from electro-plating through to the use of parian ware. The other half of the exhibition is early salt print photography, much of which used this technology to take photographs of medieval and classical buildings. Fox Talbot obviously features prominently, with photos ranging from the famous elm at Lacock to still lives of glass vases. The other artist who stands out was Roger Fenton, with his photos of the Crimean war. Later on, I walk through the parks and have a look at the Swans, Red Breasted Geese and Pochards before passing by an SWP demonstration at Trafalgar Square, where the skeletal Gift Horse has been added to the fourth plinth.

Food cooked: Spare ribs with chestnuts and raisins, Chicken with garlic and lemon, Swedish sausage hash, Corsican beef, Balinese spiced duck, Chicken fricassee with gherkins and paprika, Fish stew with orange and peppers,  Cannelloni stuffed with chicken livers, Feijoada, Sauerbraten, Lamb with hasselback potatoes, Piri piri chicken with patatas bravas, Pastitsio, Fish sauce chicken, Satay chicken Chili con carne, Buffalo burger with Boston baked beans, Singapore Laksa, Pork cooked in milk.

Birds seen: Nuthatch, Woodpecker, Goldfinch.

Metaphysical

I managed to brave the cold and wet today to head out to go to the Estorick Collection’s De Chirico exhibition. Although the collection does hold some of the paintings he’s known for, like The Revolt of the Sage, most of it is given up to his post-war sculpture. The classical influences in the sculptures are evident, with titles like Hector and Andromache or Castor; the presence of broken classical columns rather reminds me of Mitoraj. Equally though, much of the sculptures remind me of Dali, with their faceless egg-like faces and mannequin like figures.

A few weeks later I go the cinema to watch the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera with a live soundtrack performed by Minima. I tend to feel that their combination of ambient electronics with guitars works rather less well here (where much of the film revolves around opera or organ music) than it did with the last film I saw them perform at, Aelita Queen of Mars. Later that week, I go to Two Temple Place in London for their Discoveries exhibition; essentially a form of wunderkammer it features Ammonites, Dodo skeletons, Moore sculptures, Gaudier-Brzeska drawings, Japanese prints, Icthyosaur skeletons, Greek sculptures of Hermes, Apollo and Aphrodite, Muggletonian critiques of Newtonian discoveries opposed by allegorical representations of his achievements, an egg taken from the Galapagos by Darwin, telescopes, Indian snakes and ladders boards, Yemeni lion sculptures and an Orrery. I also visit the Romanticism exhibition at Somerset House, with paintings by David-Friedrich, Palmer and Turner. There’s also a small exhibition of Iraqi arts, featuring ironwork from Mosul at the time of Mongol occupation.

The British Museum’s Vikings exhibition inevitably tends to dwell on the surviving metalwork left by the Vikings in the absence of many other surviving artefacts; swords, a weathervane, metal animals, brooches, coins in Viking hoards from Anglo-Saxon England to Baghdad, charms in the shape of Odin or Thor’s hammer, bear teeth emblems, stolen christian reliquaries, snake pendants, jewellery, cups, axes, torcs, spears and helmets. Most impressive is a Danish crucifix, showing christ triumphant. But there are some other objects; the remains of a longboat from Roskilde, the Lewis Chessmen, a painted replica of the Jelling stone, crosses with decorated knotwork, wooden shields, picture stones as well as raw materials like amber and walrus tusk.

The V&A’s exhibition on William Kent is perhaps most notable with its inclusion of a lot of his un-built designs, like the plans for a new Parliament modelled on the Pantheon or a model of a palace at Richmond intended to replace Whitehall. Otherwise, it includes a range of his history paintings, Italianate furniture, silverware and chandeliers, models for the Royal barge, plans for his monuments at Westminster Abbey and houses like Holkham, Chiswick and Houghton. Considering the relative austerity of the Palladian architectural style I find myself taken aback by the rather kitsch opulence of his interior designs, something satirised by Hogarth, for whom Kent seems to have been a particular object of dislike.

A few weeks later, the Tate has an exhibition on ruins, showing how the interpretation of ruins has altered over time. Initially, the exhibition focuses on ruin paintings by Turner, Piranesi, Gandy, Dore and Martin, with the subjects ranging from classical to Biblical and Gothic. Themes such as the fall of empire transmute in World War Two paintings by Piper, Nash and Sutherland to a focus on the fall of England itself, while later works focuses on the ruins of World War Two fortifications in the photographs of Jane Wilson and Tacita Dean. More contemporary work by Jon Savage focuses on ruined brutalist estates, an elegy for the decay of post-war socialism. Perhaps more interesting are works like Gerard Byrne’s 1984 and Beyond, with its focus on ‘ruins in reverse’ in a sixties discourse between science fiction writers like Asimov on their vision of the future, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s re-interpretations of Claude and Inigo Jones or Paul Nash’s photographs of natural objects. The weekend after, I visit the Ashmolean and an exhibition of the private collection of Henry Pearlman, which includes a number of Cezanne landscapes, a Pissarro still life, a Sisley landscape, portraits by Manet and Degas, a street scene by Van Gogh, sculptures by Modigliani as well as several portraits by him, including one of Cocteau.

Reading Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, I’m struck by how her chosen mode of science fiction seems to conflict with the Sufi ideas she chooses to express in it. The novel is cast in the form of an apocalyptic narrative, with society progressively descending into barbarism, with children reverting to savagery. However, the cause of the collapse is never specified and the novel also sees the narrator transcending through states of being beyond the social collapse around her; the more one sheds the norms of civilisation the easier it is for one to surrender to a higher will than their own. Something similar applies to Lessing’s MaddAdam, where the extinction of the human species is brought about by an ecological terrorist but the final part of the trilogy presents a mixed picture of the outcomes of this; the species he has bred to replace mankind has begun to acquire traits like reading that he had sought to eradicate but the destruction wrought by a small group of renegade survivors goes a long way towards validating Crake’s decision. The likely outcome that humanity and the new species interbreed, thereby replacing both and suggesting an ambivalence about both humanity and the eco-terrorist viewpoint.

Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angel’s presents a view of the Angels that is at least partly a romanticised one of them as counter-cultural outlaws and rebels. Thompson spends much of the earlier sections of the book seeking to exculpate a great deal of the public view of them as middle-class hysteria but it’ rather difficult not to feel rather repulsed by the way he diminishes allegations of rape by questioning whether there can be such a thing, suggesting that it is typically likely to have been consensual. There’s a marked sexism that undermines his case but Thompson is at least partly aware of such contradictions when he describes the Angels as inherently conservative and fascistic when describing planned attacks on anti-Vietnam protesters.

Food cooked: Fish chowder, Roman lamb, Chicken with chestnuts and sharp salad, Valencian fish with peppers, Pad Thai, Chicken mole, Chicken with plums, Pork with prunes and Hasselback potatoes, Persian seafood stew, ribs with egg-crusted rice, Szegedin Goulash with dumplings, Alsace meatballs and pasta, Duck with pate and caraway seeds, Gochujang Stew, Rabbit with red wine and currants, Rabbit with mushrooms, Lobster Thermidor, Spanish seafood with vermicelli, Steak with anchovy sauce, Arroz con Pollo.

Land of Darkness

It has been a characteristically English winter; gloomy, dark and drenched with rain. Many of the roads in the Midlands proved to have flooded and the only time I had to go out was a visit to Hanbury Hall and Little Malvern Priory. Back down south, I visit some of the churches at Highclere (Victorian, firmly locked), Padworth and Ashmansworth, the latter having a window designed and etched by Lawrence Whistler.

Snowdrops were starting to come out in Oxford, when I went on a tour of Stirling’s Florey Building. Like many buildings of this period, it’s easy to have mixed views of it. On the one hand, it does still look marvelously futuristic, like a cross between a spacecraft with its landing gear extended or as an inverted gothic cathedral supported by flying buttresses (even down to having a set of cloisters beneath the building). The red tiling stands out in contrast to the honey-coloured Bath stone used around it, while its panoramic internal courtyard looks out across the rivers to the meadows beyond in a particularly picturesque setting. On the other hand, the building has aged badly, with the tiling having fractured and concrete stalactites hanging down from it. The interior felt fairly cramped and claustrophobic. The glass used so extensively means that the building is extremely energy inefficient, with it being difficult to heat in winter and prone to overheating in summer.

Reading Film Theatre have had a very good season to open the year. I first went to see Berberian Sound Studio, Land and Freedom and Aelita, Queen of Mars. Berberian Sound Studio is a critique cum homage to Italian giallo films and their soundtracks in particular; it’s unusual for a film to concentrate so much on sound. Land and Freedom is Ken Loach’s account of the ideological conflicts within the Spanish left at the time of the civil war; particularly how Stalin’s hope that a moderate form of Republicanism would gain more support from the Spanish middle-class and make the Soviet Union more acceptable as an ally for Britain and France, thereby leading him to the suppression of the Revolutionary and Anarchist factions. For all the romanticisation of the Spanish civil war it brings out the aspects of communist that were to become familiar in Eastern Europe; the burning of paintings, summary executions and arrests, the forced expropriation of land and so on. It equally dwells on the revolutionary tendency to value ideological purity over pragmatism; but tin so far as it depicts the revolutionary brigades are characterised by idealism it would have been interesting if the film had included a counter-balancing depiction of fascism, which is essentially absent. Without a counterpoint, the film assumes that communism, for all its failures, was ideologically superior to its missing mirror image. Lastly, there’s Aelita, Queen of Mars. The Tolstoy novel this is based on is rather more straightforward than the film, depicting a communist uprising on Mars, part of the Soviet fascination with science fiction as they sought to reinvent society. The film is more complex; the Martian events are a fantasy on the part of the main character whose suspicion of his pure wife is contrasted to Aelita’s treachery. The gender politics with their virgin/whore dichotomies are accordingly rather crude and the film’s suggestion that dwelling on other modes of life (whether on other worlds or of a lost Imperial Russia) is counter-revolutionary is no better. What is positive about the film are its recordings of street scenes in Moscow from parades in Red Square contrasted to the constructivist set designs. The other thing I especially liked about the film was the electronics and guitar soundtrack performed in the theatre by Minima; I never attended a soundtrack performed as it would have been in the age of silent cinema.

The British Library are running an exhibition of Mughal art, predictably focusing on illuminated manuscripts. There are some objects though; the crown of the last emperor and a jade turtle, for example. The paintings and manuscripts often tend to dwell on landscapes populated with people and animals; in that sense they frequently remind me of Brueghel. The subjects often tend to be domestic; portraiture, court or hunting scenes rather than the mythic or epic; it also succeeds at noting a court that typically tended towards a pluralist viewpoint necessitated by the size of its empire, encompassing artistic influences from Persia and Europe as well as Christian, Sufi, Muslim and Hindu sources. Conversely, the Northern Renaissance exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery includes much that is familiar, such as Cranach’s paintings of Lucretia, Apollo & Diana and The Judgement of Paris or Holbein’s paintings of Erasmus and Henry the Eighth. It also has much that I’m less familiar with, such as Durer’s prints of the Book of Revelations and of a Rhinoceros, Memling’s portraiture, Clouet’s paintings of the French nobility. Rather oddly, it also has some Cellini sculptures. Finally, I went to the Tate to visit its Schwitters in Britain exhibition, encompassing his collages, sculptures and paintings from that period.

Food cooked: Lamb stroganoff, Chorizo and black pudding stew, Waterzooi de Volaille, Turkish menemen with sumac yoghurt, Chicken with chorizo and cider, Colombian pork with lime, Duck and prawn paella, Lamb Navarin, Steak with vegetables and almonds, Creme Brulee, Elizabethan pot-roast chicken with spiced plums, Chicken with dates and olives, Chicken with prawns, Chicken Paprikash, Chicken Marengo, Ghoulash, Alsatian meatballs and pasta, Lamb and prune tagine, Lemon and lavender chicken, Scotch egg with black pudding & chorizo, Swedish sausage hash, Partridge with sweetcorn mash, Tartiflette, Duck a’l Orangina, Paella with barley, Pork with prunes and hasselback potatoes, Columbian lamb and blueberries, Greek style chicken, Pheasant in cider, Bouillabaise, Jansson’s temptation, Cassoulet, Sumac roasted chicken.

Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallimaufry

I‘ve been to a few churches since the start of the year, so this would seem a suitable point to make some notes about the more interesting examples, particularly as I’m trying to visit all the nearby churches in Simon Jenkins list of England’s thousand best churches. First came a set of churches with John Piper stained glass in Farnborough, Nettlebed, Turville, Pishill and Bledlow Ridge. For the first three in that list, his designs seem oddly pagan; butterflies, fish, flowers and trees. Near to Bledlow Ridge is the church at Radnage, with medieval frescos still on its wall. Next on the list where North Moreton and East Hagbourne, the former most notable for medieval stained glass and tracery, the latter most notable for various macabre and surreal medieval corbels and grotesques. I also make a return visit to the churches at Bramley and Silchester, with their medieval frescos and neo-classical monuments; the redbrick baroque church at Wolverton, with its bizarre spectacle of a Wren style church rising above the fields proves to be firmly locked. That also proves to be the case at Childrey and Compton Beauchamp, although the Church of the Holy Rood at Sparsholt is open and proves to contain several medieval and Jacobean monuments (not unlike Aldworth). Last on my list are Uffington, whose extraordinary octagonal spire isn’t matched by an equally extraordinary interior, save for one medieval monument, and Fawley, one of GE Street’s rather austere designs, save for some Kempe windows and some boards painted with biblical verses (presumably survivors from the previous church). In this case, the church is perhaps most notable on the exterior, being set as it is high on a windswept hill.

I also pay a more sustained visit to one of Streets churches in Oxford, St Philip and St James, which now serves as the library for Oxford’s Centre for Mission Studies. This is easily the most impressive Street church I’ve seen, something that’s perhaps helped by the bright lighting inside dispelling Street’s usually rather dark interiors. A painted wooden barrel roof is accompanied by Kempe stained glass, and a decorated rood screen. I also visit Pusey House, where the chapel architecture is also rather wonderful if perhaps a little stark; the most interesting things tend to arise from Comper’s decorations, like his flotating christ wood carving or painted baldachin. The last thing I look at in Oxford is Harris Manchester chapel; the light was fading ar this point so the interior was dark and the only thing I could see was the Burne Jones stained glass lit in the gloom.

There aren’t many examples of modernist historical novels; with the exception of Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush the nearest comparisons I can think of is Woolf’s Orlando, which is an allegory where Lawrence’s work sits rather more tradition in Hardy. In practice though Lawrence still uses the historical form in much the same way as Woolf; to explore ideas (such as polygamy) more explicitly than would have been possible with the removal of a contemporary social context. The use of a pioneer setting also caters well for the homosocial (there are times when it reads like a homoerotic update of Fenimore Cooper) aspects of his work, not entirely unlike Forster’s green wood; "this was what Australia was for; a careless freedom. An easy, unrestricted freedom.". As such, although it is concerned with the dark unconscious as any other Lawrence novel, the tension between that facet of the self and its social aspect is rather less marked here. As an example, where Kangaroo directly examines Lawrence’s political ideas, they seep through The Boy in the Bush in a rather less palatable form; "the Jewish gentleman was effusively greeting another Jewish gentleman. In fact, they were kissing, which made Jack curl with disgust… his blood recoiled with old haughtiness and pride of race… I’m an Englishman and I could crush everything in my hand… he belonged to the blood of the masters, not the servants." Much of the novel essentially forms a parable around the masculinisation of its protagonist, Jack in opposition to a civilised society depicted as feminine in character; "Jack found himself in a really female setting. Instinctively, he had avoided women but particularly he avoided girls." Love is accordingly characterised as ‘sentimental weakness, as in the description of how marriage has emasculated Esau; "he was one of those men whom marriage seems to humiliate, and to make ugly. As if he despised himself for being married… Esau was a tame dog." The death of Esau acts as a form of allegorical amputation of these similar tendencies within Jack; "a mean with all of boyishness cut away from him… he had lost his softness…he was not a tame dog like all the rest." By contrast, all the details about Jack not being able to bear physical intimacy seem to apply rather less to male characters like Tom than to any of the women in the novel.

Food cooked: Bobotie, Hen in a pot with parsley sauce, Swedish sausage and potato bake, Ham hock with spiced figs, Macaroni cheese, Doro Wat, Damson vodka, Arroz de Pato, Portuguese tomato soup with chorizo and egg, Ardennes venison stew, Lapin a’la Kriek, Squid with meatballs and peas, Chicken with plums, Chorizo ghoulash, Catalan crab and nut stew, Plaice and pepper paella, Duck with hazelnuts and apple, Pork with chocolate and orange, Caribbean chicken, Feijoada, Fish stew and herby mash, Chicken with almonds and pine nuts, Damson and chery cobbler.

Animal Farm

My first chance to go anywhere this year was a rather dark and cold trip to West Wycombe church. The mock-Palmyran interior seems rather forlorn in the dim light of an English winter. I’d forgotten about the snake curling its way around the stand on the wooden font towards the doves at the top or the Flemish glass in one window. Outside, red kites turn somersaults in the air. The English winter seems to befit Waverley Abbey rather better; the ruins stand by a river accompanied by a range of pillboxes and dragon’s teeth from the second world war.

A few weeks ago I’d visited Oxford. Walking around North Oxford past rows of gothic castles contorted into modest little buildings, I realised how much the Victorians must have changed the face of the city. This seems particularly so when I walk into Worcester College’s chapel. Not one of Oxford’s more famed buildings, as presumably the exuberant interior design by Burges is rather too florid for many tastes; for example, the pews all have carved animals ranging from the customary lions and unicorns to rhinos, dodos and sperm whales. I decide to look at some more of the buildings Burges designed and Cardiff Castle seems the obvious place to start. Accordingly, the following weekend I find myself stepping through the doors of Cardiff’s art deco central train station. The city seems unusual for the sheer number of arcades that form warrens between its streets, some curving sinuously around other buildings. I look at the animal wall before entering the castle; lions, seals, pelicans, lynxes, bears and vultures are all depicting scaling the walls. Similarly, the interior shows monkeys reading, pigs playing the bagpipes and a strange stork whose tail ends in a serpent’s head playing the trumpet. It would be easy to read much of this as a satirical catholic comment on Darwinism but the effect equally seems to veer somewhere between Carollean surrealism and paganism. The castle itself rather reminds me of Neuschwanstein or the Leighton House, all hyperreal fantasies designed to facilitate escape from the modern age. Just as arts & crafts houses were built with the comforts of gas lighting, so the reconstructed Roman walls had corridors built into them to allow walking in poor weather. I walk onwards through Bute Park towards LLandaff and the cathedral. Daffodils, Cherries, Tulips and Hyacinths are all in flower. Looking out from what looks like a pleasant village green, complete with war memorial, the cathedral is below beneath the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace. Unlike Winchester, Salisbury or Lichfield it sits within a hollow, which gives it the air of a parish church. In practice, the building is rather large and has a rich variety of styles; romanesque arches above the doorways, gothic arches, Pre-Raphaelite reredos and stained glass, more stained glass by Piper and a modernist sculpture by Epstein that hangs on a concrete arch above the nave.

Backtracking towards Cathays Park, I have a look at the art gallery. The atrium has some rather odd sculptures; a crusading knight flanked by Tommies from the first world war as well as an odd triptych derived from Bachelard. Not the best collection but not without interest; a Salvator Rosa landscape, Panini landscapes and a pair of Hogarths. Some attention is given to a pair of Welsh painters I wasn’t familiar; Thomas Jones (I particularly like his romantic The Last Bard) and Richard Wilson’s landscapes of Wales and Italy. Scenes of travellers beset by bandits undermine the picturesque aspect of the landscape. The Victorian section proves to be quite good, with painting by Madox-Brown, Millais, Tissot and quite a few John Brett landscapes. A Welsh landscapes gallery has a few especially impressive paintings by Piper, Kyffin Williams, Lowry and Lionel Walden’s Steel Works, Cardiff at Night. Finally, there’s a small impressionist exhibition; the usual Monet lilies as well as some of his Venice paintings, Cezanne and Manet still lives and some Rodin sculptures. Leaving, I walk back towards the Bay. The street I walk along is lined with boarded-up houses, betraying a rather familiar story. By contrast, the Bay itself is a glittering illustration of the Bilbao effect, with the steel fountain tower and the Millennium Centre. I find myself rather liking the centre; the revival of the Roman tradition of inscriptions on public buildings in combination with the use of traditional Welsh materials like Slate make it a rather ‘readerly’ building. Regrettably, there isn’t time for a ride on the merry-go-round by the Pierhead building and I have to turn back to the train station.

I’ve finished reading Gaskell’s Ruth. As a novel this begins in a similar vein to Eliot; "the traditions of these bygone times, enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances whcih contributed to the formation of character." Nonetheless, Ruth like Silas Marner or The Scarlet Letter is a particularly good example of the tension between the novel and the romance. As a novel, it operates within the constraints of a specific place and time, as well as of causality; Ruth and Benson’s deceptions are inevitably found out and duly castigated. As a romance, it plays out a fantasy of moral redemption that is dependent on those deceptions ("our telling a lie has been the saving of her"). By the same token, much of that redemption is attributable to empathy and natural feeling ("I do believe Leonard’s father is a bad man and yet I live him… it was one of the faults of her nature to be ready to… value affection almost above its price"); but it is surely the simple absence of a sense of duty in Bellingham that leads to Ruth’s downfall as much as an absence of empathy. The result is that the novel does have a rather polyphonic conception of morality; "she has turned wrong into right and right into wrong… the sophistry by which I persuaded myself that wrong could be right."

By contrast, Moore’s Esther Waters depicts the same subject in a naturalistic manner without reference to the romance or to fables; while Esther struggles in life there is no tragic demise or moral redemption ahead for her. Nonetheless, some of his ambivalence towards his subject isn’t dissimilar from Gaskell’s; both Esther and Ruth’s innocence is responsible for their respective downfalls. Moore’s attitude towards religion initially seems much more critical than Gaskell’s "it’s a strange thing that religion should make some people so unfeeling… religion is easy enough at times , but there is other times when it don’t seem to fit in witha body’s duty… I haven’t forgotten God but must do my duty to my husband" an attitude later re-iterated towards Fred and the Salvation Army’s prosecution of the betting at the pub, with William viewing them as puritans. Nonetheless, if Esther is given no deathbed conversion, William does undergo one, coming to accept that the betting that had supported his family had been wrong, even as Esther’s disapproval becomes rather blunted in its severity; "she had always disapproved of the betting… there was a great deal in life which one couldn’t approve of.. there were worse places than the King’s Head."

Food cooked: Black miso chicken, Fabada, Jerk chicken with spicy potato salad, Bakewell tart, Tanzanian Fish Curry, Goulash with Czech Dumplings, Romanian lemon cake, Roe and bacon spaghetti, Greek fish with orange and pine nuts, Pork with Prague-style stuffing, Catalan Duck with Pears, Salmon and Feta Spaghetti, Pan fried Roman lamb, Chicken Donburi, Tarragona seafood stew, Lone Star Steak, Burgers with blue cheese and gherkins, Cholent, Damson Gin, Glögg, Swedish potato salad, Duck with Ponzu dressing, Czech rabbit with cream sauce, Ostend fish gratin, Fish stew and sour cream mash, Lamb shanks with beans, Han hock with honey and mustard, Waterzooi de volaille a’la gantoise.

Vergangenheitsbewaltigung

Unlike Bernd Eichinger’s earlier Downfall, which depicted events around one central figure over a relatively short period of time and an extremely confined space, The Baader-Meinhof Complex takes place over the course of the ‘red decade’ from the 1967 killing of Benno Ohnesorg by the West Berlin police (recently re-evaluated as inflammatory act by the Stasi) to the RAF’s plane hijacking and kidnapping spree that later became known as the ‘German autumn’ of 1977. The events proceed across the entirety of West Germany, with excursions to Jordan and Iraq, and include a large cast of the gang’s central figures. Like Downfall, The Baader-Meinhof Complex works by presenting events as reportage, intercutting the narrative with scenes with contemporary television footage (rather oddly showing the crushing of the Prague spring alongside student riots in Paris). One of its particular strengths is its observation that this particular revolution was remorselessly televised, with the protagonists repeatedly captured on film throughout and spending much of their time watching the reporting of their actions on television.

Inevitably, this opens the question of whether the film glamourises the terrorists, making them heroes in an action movie filled with glamorous locations. If one compares the film posters to the wanted posters that could be found on nearly every street in West Germany, then it is difficult not to notice that the modern actors are rather better looking compared to many of the bespectacled faces on the original. Nonetheless, if the characters are shown driving fast (stolen) cars, wearing leather jackets and raybans, much of this is simply because the characterisation of the originals as rebels without a cause is not entirely unreasonable; Baader did model himself in figures like Marlon Brando. Baader always wanted to be a leader, but as a young man he had little success inspiring others to follow him. When he was a teenager, he was sent to a new boarding school near Munich. In a attempt to draw interest Baader began periodically coughing into a handkerchief, while dropping hints that he had some incurable lung ailment. The other students noticed that his handkerchief never showed blood. Most students saw his sad attempts to generate interest exactly for what they were, and they ignored him. Later Baader would adopt a swaggering style. In new situations he often talked aggressively, trying to establish early that he was the toughest in the room. His act never really worked with some of the crowds he mixed with, like the Rockers — who saw through Baader immediately. But within the burgeoning student movement he found that his tough-man routine was accepted unquestioningly. Baader’s life as a terrorist was as much the story of a dedicated violent poseur as the story of a Marxist Revolutionary.

The film is thus rather acute when it comes to depicting the gang as intellectually vacuous, their actions borne out of sociopathic delinquency rather than conviction. Confronted by an Italian third making of with their stolen car, Baader is outraged, just after he has incited Mahler to steal a woman’s wallet. Ensslin’s hysterical rants about the immorality of standing by in inaction is counterpointed by the wailing of her ignored children. The policy to only attack representatives of the state and not workers does not last long, from the security guard in the department store they burn down, a librarian they shoot or the typesetters at Springer publishing.

Conversely, the film is not as good at pinpointing the group’s ideological underpinnings. If Baader was simply a thug, Ensslin and, to a lesser extent Meinhof, were ideologues. One would not be aware from the film that the gang were used as an instrument by the Stasi, from whom they received funding. German universities were awash in what would now seem to be radical Marxist thought, filtered through Fanon, and parsed by Marcuse, Horkheimer, and the other titans of the Frankfurt school. Students learned that German society, like all western society, was in the throws of late Capitalism, eventually to be replaced by true Democratic Socialism. While it does acknowledge the RAF’s connections with Palestinian terror organizations in both Jordan and Iraq, it does not have Ulrike Meinhof’s character recite the diatribe she wrote justifying what she called the Munich “aktion” – the 1972 murder of Israel’s Olympic wrestling team. It also does not feature the earlier new-left bombing of a Jewish Community Centre in West Berlin on November 9th 1969, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. This left-wing anti-semitism culminated in the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, in which two German members of the Revolutionary Cells — another terrorist group to emerge out of the West German student movement — and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet, flew it to Entebbe and separated the Jewish passengers and the non-Jewish passengers before Israeli commandos stormed the aircraft. The cells had also planned to assassinate Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. This from a student movement that began as a rebellion against the ‘Auschwitz generation.’ Horst Mahler, the actual founder of the gang is now a neo-Nazi.

In some respects, the converse also applies. The film is strong when it comes to depicting police brutality during the visit of the Iranian Shah to West Berlin or the police state tactics used by the authorities to locate the gang. Less is made of the continued presence of Nazi party members in the administration at the time. The Wanted poster itself had originally acted to glamourise the gang, showing that half of the gang as female. German society was still characterised by the tripartite ideal of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (Children, Kitchen, Church), where it was still technically illegal to co-habit with a man who was not your husband, where all abortion was outlawed, and where men were legally recognized as the head of the household. To men and women alike, the posters made the gang appear both liberating and chic. Even the police seemed to be tacitly accepting the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s premise of gender equality by equally spacing the women and men throughout the poster; few would have noticed had the poster lined all the of the men along the top rows and the women along the bottom, indicating men’s traditional dominant role and women’s traditional auxiliary role. If anything, police chief Horst Herold is used as a means of authorial commentary, (inbetween plying his colleagues with lobster soup), regularly stating that the group are protesting against political problems which objectively exist and which must be addressed in order to resolve the conflict – in practice, it took the fall of the Berlin wall to dissipate the violence. The result may simply be that film is not as well equipped to deal with subjects of this kind as the novel is.

Not entirely unrelated themes emerged in the rather more traditional setting of the Old Vic, with a performance of Joe Sutton’s Complicit. The interior of the building had been extensively remodelled to replace the conventional stage with a circular dais at the centre of the theatre. The result is rather like the Globe, allowing for a rather more intimate performance where the actors are not quarantined from the audience. With only a few props and three actors (David Suchet’s performance being particularly good), the play is a rather intense piece although a little unsatisfying: it feels like a vehicle to explore political ideas around torture rather than a character piece.

The Tate’s Rodchenko and Popova exhibition leaves me feeling a little depressed; ane arlier exhibition last year had captured Rodchenko’s decline into a propagandist on a par with Leni Reifenstahl. This exhibition covers an earlier period and demonstrates how great the fall was. The early work of both artists is easily comparable to that of artists in Western Europe. The texture on many of Popova’s works recalls Kandinsky, while her use of wood as a canvas and wood dust to add texture to the paint anticipates Duchamp’s readymades. Rodchenko’s focus on the geometrical recalls Mondrian, Braque and Malevich, while a painting of two layers of black anticipates Rothko’s version of abstract expressionism. Nonetheless, their social context created difficulties their Western counterparts lacked. Like the Futurists, the Russian constructivists embraced the machine age, dwelling on the dynamic and geometric. The discarding of representational models seemed to chime with the Bolshevik policy to discard the traditional elements of society. In practice though, the attempt to reconcile avant garde art with politics was an uncomfortable one. Assigning a utilitarian purpose to artforms lacking representational content proved difficult at best, with attempts to replace subjective artistic creation with objective construction of forms doing little other than to obfuscate the problem with terminology. A point of crisis comes as Rodchenko paints three solid blocks of red, yellow and blue and declares it the end for painting. Hereafter, art must be aligned to industry, and a turn to architecture, textiles, set design and advertising (under Lenin’s new economic policy) follows. This isn’t entirely unusual in art; the Arts & Crafts movement was closely related to the Pre-Raphaelites. Figures like Lautrec, Millais and Mucha produced adverts. The difference between high and low art is certainly an arbitrary one, as examples like Chinese ceramics show. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to be relieved that Millais didn’t base a career on his Pears soap work and it’s equally hard not to be dismayed at seeing Rodchenko and Popova throw themselves into often rather bad posters for Red October biscuits and rubber boots. This seem particularly so when one considers that their design work was not greatly more purposeful than their artwork; Popova might have thought seeing a peasant woman wearing one of her designs the highpoint of her career but in practice the peasant’s need for clothes was not overly dependent on Popova’s designs. While the suppression of constructivism in favour of socialist realism was certainly done by Stalin’s fiat, it also seems surprising that it was not done earlier; as an artistic project it was simply rendered superfluous by the the same October Revolution it had embraced. Before leaving I revisit the Soviet School room – a collection of Soviet propaganda posters. None are overly constructivist in style but they do represent a better view of what popular style in the Soviet Union was than the work of Rodchenko and Popova.

Zola’s Germinal and The Belly of Paris both betray a visceral hatred of the Second French Empire, to the point of siding with the assorted communists who wished to see it annihilated. By contrast, the novel that depicts that annihilation, The Debacle takes a surprisingly moderate. The novel is balanced between the views of two characters, Jean and Maurice. The latter is depicted as intelligent and unstable, accordingly sides with the commune. The former is portrayed as stolid but dependable, and accordingly sides with the government. The relationship between the two is oddly homoerotic, with them kissing; “no woman’s arm had held him as close and warm as this.” Dead soliders are frequently depicted locking in dying embraces of hatred or love. When Jean kills his friend the act is described as being akin to the removal of an infected organ. At the same time, the novel dwells on the possibility of the creation of a ‘new France’ by Jean, even after he has said that “it was destruction for destruction’s sake so as to bury the ancient, rotten, society beneath the ashes of the earth in the hope that a new society might spring up.” The novel endless debates these points, beginning and ending with the observation that “Is not life a state of war every second? Is not the very condition of nature a continuous struggle?… war if life and it cannot exist without death.” The evolution analogy is explicit with the soldiers compared to wild beasts or to black ants on the march. While here, as in Germinal, Zola advances the idea of a new dawn (typified in Jean and Maurice’s love; ” in the midst of the savage egotism around him… this total self abnegation”), the novel stresses the “self centered rage of the individual” and a relapse into savagery. Unlike in Stendhal, there is no sense of glory in the fighting and no sense of a guiding hand, with Napoleon being depicted as weak and powerless.

I often have reservations about reading much postwar American literature, much of which seems imbued with a sense of machismo and a fear of emasculation by women. Where nineteenth century American literature foregrounded pioneer mythologies of the lone hero, its later counterparts centre on the irrelevance of such figures cast into the enfolding social structures of a commercial, bourgeois, society. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is perhaps less bad than examples like Hemingway and Bellow, but it still seems present. The plot rather reminds me of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying: but whereas Orwell is sceptical of romantics seeking to shun mundane existences of work and family, Yates leaves little doubt that he subscribes to them. As such, when Frank seems to avoid a bohemian life in Paris in favour of public relations, his animosity to April’s sponsorship of these ideas manifests itself as misogyny, citing Freud’s ideas of penis-envy or characterising abortion as a ‘denial of womanhood,’ later admitting that his masculinity had felt threatened. Shep Campbell imagines April after years of being the breadwinner as having become like a man. Frank denounces a woman who criticises his affairs with a secretary as a ‘latent lesbian.’ When it comes to the final tragedy, the voice of the chorus represented by John Givings denounces Frank as a coward but rather than praising April he also denounces her as a tough shrew who gave Frank a hard time. Frank is allowed to step outside prescribed social structures, April is not, meaning that she must be punished.

The authorship of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates is often disputed, with the text attributed to Defoe rather than the eponymous Charles Johnson. Like Defoe, the text presents moral fables that undermine that basic premise with an emphasis on the contingent nature of vice (“in the beginning he was very averse to this sort of life.. yet afterwards he changed his principles”). AS in Defoe ‘sudden changes of conduct’ are far from uncommon. In many cases, crews of attacked vessels are forced into service on the pirate ships, making difficult to determine whether their service was voluntary or not. The author notes at one point that the only difference between a sailor on a pirate ship and a government man of war is circumstance; &quo; who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause”. As in Defoe, poverty is often cited as a key motivation for vice. However, in a vein that is less characteristic of Defoe, the author often cites little cause for a life of piracy other than piracy: “it is surprising that men of a good understanding should engage ina course of life that so debases human nature and sets them on a level with the wild beasts of the forest.” If Defoe is often Lockean, this is rather more Hobbesian; “nature seems to have designed him for a pirate from childhood”. In some of the tales, the pirates simply end up dispersing back into society, in others they revert to their old ways even when offered repentance.

It’s been a while since I looked round the permanent collections at the V&A and there were more things that I recognised than on my previous visit: the statue of Perseus from Munich in the Cast Court or the three silver lions from Rosenborg Castle in the silver galleries, for example. But there were many other exhibits I didn’t recall; three ivory dragons fighting over a crystal globe in the Chinese section, an articulated metal snake in the same area, Celadon pottery from Korea, Chinese funerary art such as ancestor painting or ceramic horses and camels. In the Islamic section there’s the large Iznik tile frieze, the Ardabil Carpet, Rock crystal ewers and marble window screens. In the European section, I’m quite struck by Leighton’s frescos and a ceiling in the vein of the Great Exhbition that is only visible through a small window, as it has only since been blocked up with the construction of a smaller roof beneath to block out the light. The section on the Great Exhibition itself is quite striking, noting that similar buildings were planned for New York and Munich. The contents of the exhibition included a German style tankard with a byzantine mosaic and gothic planters by Pugin. The Victorian section also includes furniture from Webb, Voysey, Burges (especially ornate cabinets and glassware) and Wyburd through to Mackintosh and art nouveau. The origins of the Gothic revival are traced in Beckford’s Holbein furniture and in the Walpole collection. An entire fake Monk’s cell is included from a house designed in imitation of Strawberry Hill. Imperial influences also abound – Japanese influences on Godwin’s furniture or porcelain clocks, Islamic influences on Owen Jones and Morgan’s ceramics. The section of stained glass proceeds directly from the medieval period to Rossetti, Burne Jones and Piper. The sculpture section contrasts Canova with Thorvaldsen, the paintings section comprising Blake, Martin, Roberts, Rossetti, Alma Tadema and Turner. Last but not least is a small picture of a church reflected in a pond taken by the Victorian photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner.

Food cooked: Sicilian spaghetti, Peking duck, Balti pasanda, Chicken and papaya soup, Salmagundi, Turkish chicken with walnuts, Calderette of rice with allioli, Flamenco eggs, Steak with anchovy sauce, Duck liver pilaf, Scallop and potato soup, Steak with anchovy sauce, Chocolate cake, Morroccan chicken with pears and honey, Lychee curry, Paprika Hendl, Spaghetti Carbonara, Prok Stroganoff, Portuguese Jugged Duck and Orange, Chicken with Tamarind and Turmeric, Vietnamese seafood with lime and coconut, Apple and Coconut cake, Poacher’s pie, Georgian chicken, Louisiana paella, Crab bisque, Greek prawns with feta and peppers, Pecan pie, Fish with Harissa and Tahini, Bobotie, Spanish pork and chocolate stew, Sri Lankan cashew and chicken curry, Kidneys with Mustard, Guinea Fowl with Pomegranate and Cherry, Chicken with Sumac and Lemon, Poussins with dirty rice, Mediterranean Baked Fish, Polish pork with juniper, Carbonnade Flamande.

The Necropolis Railway

Brookwood cemetery is not, it has to be said, quite as interesting as its earlier counterparts at Highgate and Kensal Green. It lacks the elaborate monuments found in its counterparts and since it is much larger and wilder it is often a surprise to come across a solitary monument that it larger than a normal tombstone. Its feels like an inferior imitation of its predecessors, a form of down at heel grandeur. The tombs often seem to be in a worse state than those in London itself, while the very conceit behind its existence, that of cadavers being brought to it out of London by train, also confers a rather shabby feel with mass production being applied to undertaking. It is wilder, with robins resting on gravestones while squirrels and rabbits scamper nearby. The grounds are planted with giant redwood and rhododendron, giving it the air of a park rather than of English countryside. Nor did it help that at the time of my visit it had been raining heavily, with everything cold and damp. Moss had displaced grass in many parts.

Many of the monuments are also rather out of kilter for an English cemetery. Near to the main entrance is the Zoroastrian cemetery, where depictions of flame replace crosses. The tombs here are some of the finest in the cemetery, with Victorian grandiosity being welded to Parsee sensibility; ceramic depictions of Persian figures adorn tombs whose arches are filled with elaborate tracery. The fravahar emblazons many tombs and hands hold tinder. Nearby are islamic tombs (including some for members of the Ottoman nobility) with headstones apparently designed as a miniature Taj Mahal or covered with golden domes. There’s a funeral in the ismaili cemetery; I can hear chanting and see smoke rising. I’m also struck by a solitary Japanese grave; a square patch of gravel with a grass tumulus at the centre surmounted by a single post. Some of the European tombs are quite different as well; much of the area is occupied by a World War Two cemetery, with headstones and monuments in gleaming white stone. A circular monument to soldiers killed in Norway rather reminds me of the National Memorial Arboretum. Several nations are represented in this section; Czechs, Poles, Americans and Turks.

The cemetery is bisected by a road, and this half of the cemetery is home to more traditional English tombs. Many of these such as the domed columbarium or the near collapsed Bent Memorial are in an extremely poor state of repair, though the finest monument I saw there, the Drake Monument, has recently had its roof restored. The building is in Italian gothic, with red marble contrasting with the brick. A mosaic frieze around it has formerly spelt out a homiletic; I find a few blue and gold tiles neatly placed on the balustrade beside it. Other monument in this section include several celtic crosses designed as quite faithful replicas of Irish counterparts, the pink granite Hughes Mausoleum with its Egyptianate lotus columns, a wooden lychgate to a small churchyard within the cemetery and a tomb that consists of a gothic arch design. More oddly, this section of the cemetery is also home to a series of arts &amp’ crafts buildings that form an Eastern Orthodox Brotherhood dedicated to guarding the bones of St Edward the Martyr. The cemetery also houses the remains of Rebecca West, John Singer Sergeant and Charles Bradlaugh, who must make odd company for a saint.

Surrealism is often described as a Freudian movement, following Breton’s use of Freudian techniques in a neurological hospital during world war one. Yet reading Aragon’s Paris Peasant I find myself concluding that his brand of surrealism is better described as Jungian, an attempt to weld mythic archetypes of the collective unconscious ("not a retreat into solitude but rather a retreat into a world of similarly adventurous spirits.. the town’s collective unconscious") onto an empirical reality. This is why Aragon is concerned with psychogeography, seeing it as the basis for this collective unconscious. At the same time, for all his insistence on the concrete Aragon also dismisses logic in favour of the imagination, reintroducing the idea of solipsism instead of a collective dream. One of the things that had struck me about Thomas Bernhard’s Correction was the opposition of nature and artifice in it, as with the stuffed animals created by one of the characters and by Roithammer’s plan to build a conical building in the middle of forest. In his autobiography, Gathering Evidence, Bernhard does emerge as something of a romantic in his attitude to nature, going for long walks in the woods and only beginning to recover from his illness when exposed to the mountain views at the sanatorium. He decries his school on the grounds that it turns "his whole nature into something that is the antithesis of all that is natural," before saying that his work in a shop allows him to lead "and intense, natural and useful existence." Nonetheless, Bernhard seems ambivalent about this romanticism, feeling that his grandfather’s withdrawal into solitude had marked him as an eccentric, while his time working in business is surely the antithesis of all that romanticism had stood for; the importance of being useful to him is simply utilitarian. But even here, his is far from consistent, writing that he never had any intent of wasting his time in the shop and seeking instead to resume his musical career.

Reading Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos it occurred to me that one of the feature of modern society is the way it has produced few social novels in spite of its social upheavals and growing inequality. Exceptions like Wolfe seem few and far between when compared to the body of literature the late nineteenth and early twentieth century produced under similar social conditions. Modern society appears solely concerned with the individual rather than with society at large and our literatuyre would appear to reflect this. While American literature previously produced socially committed authors like Dos Passos, Dreiser, Lewis, Crane and Anderson, history has tended to remember the likes of Hemingway and to produce writers like Mailer to walk in his footsteps. Perhaps this is why the writer most noted for being influenced by Dos Passos is Sartre.

Food cooked: Valencian paella, Chorizo and chestnut stew, Bouillabaisse, Hungarian lamb with pickel sauce, Sri Lankan banana curry, Swedish sausage and potato, Chicken fricassee, French chocolate cake, Swedish salmon casserole, Harissa spiced chicken, Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons, Irish mustard chicken, Keralan sea bass and coconut curry, Roast Pork with Prunes, Lemon Tart, Czech Salmon with lemon and caraway, Chinese tea smoked duck, Italian chicken with chestnut and pistachio, Kleftico, Kabuli chicken, French cherry batter pudding, Lamb with pickle sauce, Tarragonan fish stew, Indian chicken with almond sauce, Hradschin fish, Balti chicken, Yassa chicken, Borscht, Himmel und erde, Italian pork cooked in milk, Drunken chicken with tequila, coconut soup, Balti chicken with tamarind, Catalan chicken with prawns, Mughal chicken, Pheasant with sauerkraut and wine, Chicken with almonds and grapes, Pork with chestnuts and wine, Meatballs with apple and cider, Roast Duck, Lepeshki.