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.

The following weekend leads to the London Open House weekend. The Saturday is a beautifully sunny and hot day; I start off by visiting Admiralty House on Whitehall. The main thing here is a beautiful staircase, on whose landing is a list of previous Lords of the Admiralty (Churchill is the only name I recognise). The rest of the rooms are filled with busts of Nelson and paintings of naval warfare, such as the capture of Gibraltar. Next, I revisit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I’m fairly sure that the last time I came here the Labour party were still in government; times have not improved since. After that, I head onto the former Middlesex Guildhall, now the Supreme Court; another reminder of happier times and now a fulcrum for many of the political failures we are beset by. I read a chalk inscription near the door from protests earlier in the week; ‘When politicians lie, democracy dies.’ The interior is rather lovely; the courtrooms are filled with carvings from British history and heraldry, showing Tudor Kings and beasts.

I then visit Barnard’s Inn on Chancery Lane before visiting the Maugham Library. This is a rather striking gothic revival building, which one enters through a set of gardens presided over by a statue of Confucius. Inside the main feature is a reading room which sits in a well straddling several floors and is illuminated by a glass ceiling. There’s also a chapel from the original medieval building, filled with monuments. Lastly, I visit Three Mills island, an artificial island on the river Lea, built in the same fashion as islands on the Venetian archipelago. Atop it rests a set of Georgian Mills; those that survived the Blitz, in any case. The tour takes you round the workings, including original machinery and Victorian improvements.

By the following day, the beautiful weather has evaporated and the sky is clouded with rain spitting throughout the day. I visit Norman Foster’s City Hall building, which unsurprisingly leaves me reminded of his design for the Bundestag dome. There’s a gallery with a view out across the city, but most of the interior is occupied by a spiral walkway, which eventually leads down to the assembly chamber. Afterwards, I walk across Tower Bridge to Bevis Marks synagogue before heading to Spencer House. This is quite staggering; the exterior is relatively plain and not especially unusual for London (perhaps slightly distinct for stone neo-classicism in contrast to the surrounding Georgian architecture) but the interior is palatial in a way that you rarely see in England.


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.

A few weeks later and I visit the Tate’s William Blake exhibition. It’s rather packed, which makes for a somewhat unpleasant experience. The main thing that always occurs to me about Blake is that his work essentially resembles the medieval illuminated manuscript tradition, brought forwards into an era of etchings and engravings. The exhibition is good at highlighting the different media Blake used; mostly obviously his ‘relief etching’ which allow for the use of different colours on a print, but also how his use of watercolours removed him from academic norms at the time (there are some tempera works but few oil paintings). It is actually odd seeing Blake as a pure artist though, depicting works like Dante, Shakespeare and Gray rather than his own.


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.

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!!!!


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

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

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

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

The Power of Seeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food cooked: Chicken with Chorizo and Cider, Miso Cod, Chicken and Ham Pie, Mole Blanco, Prawn Laksa, Chicken with Apple and Chestnuts, Duck with Lychee and Mango, Tapenade and Harissa Chicken, Peach chicken with croquettes, Enchiladas with Tomatillos, Creamed Corn Chicken, Squid Bolonnaise, Beef Rendang, Egg Foo Yung, Cholent, Pizza, Chicken with Apricot and Freekeh, Filipino Paella, Satay chicken, Apricot and Alomd Pilaf, Bobotie, Nachos and Enchilladas, Duck with Pineapple, Shakshuka, Chicken with garlic and lime, Squid with Harissa, Lamb with Grapes and Apricots, Chicken with porcini and chillies, Jerk Chicken with Rice and Peas.

The Sum of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning the Clocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Right Side of History

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

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


The Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean begins with a rather familiar object: the witch bottle from the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum (‘They do say there be awitch in it, and if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble’). A lot of the other objects follow in the same vein;  a desiccated human heart inside a lead case, a Victorian poppet with a needle through its head (along with a toad and sundry animal hearts skewered in the same way), a Mandrake root, a barn door marked with magical symbols to protect livestock, a witches ladder from Somerset, fragments of Unicorn horn (Narwhal tusk), John Dee’s Obsidian mirror and crystal ball, a copy of The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins, an Italian magic mirror designed to invoke the demon Floron, a ‘Ghirlanda’ curse necklace made of feathers and silk ‘ectoplasm’ from the fake medium Helen Duncan. Some of the context provided by the exhibition is to draw modern parallels, with love locks cut from a bridge in Leeds or a modern medicine bottle thrown into the Thames mostly containing human teeth.

Downstairs, there’s a pair of LGBT exhibitions. The first includes a series of casts and sculptures of Antinous, ranging from his depiction as Osiris to Dionysus, alongside sculptures of Hadrian and Germanicus, the subject of a comparable cult. There’s also a small exhibition covering the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, featuring posters of Maurice, Cavafy drawings by Hockney, a portrait of the Ladies of Llangollen and eighties campaign badges.

The National Gallery’s Mantegna and Bellini exhibition dwells on the relationship between two brothers in law who influenced each other but painted in different milieu, in Venice and Mantua.  In the first room, both artists have painted the presentation of Christ in the Temple. The detailing is finer in the Mantegna but what sticks in the mind is Bellini’s addition of two onlookers at either side of the original, one of whom looks directly out at the observer. It was Mantegna who developed the style of painting figures against dark backgrounds, but the examples from Bellini are rather more striking, with paintings of (apocryphally, at least) Mategna himself or The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. His portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan is also here, which also reminds me of Holbein with its soft blue background. When it comes to landscapes, I find myself much preferring Mantegna. When Bellini paints landscapes, the focus is dramatic with the focus on the foreground. By contrast, Mantegna’s work overflows with detail from Escheresque cities on the horizon through to flowers and rabbits in the foreground. A painting of Saint Sebastian has a background filled with  classical ruins reflecting Mantegna’s interest in the pagan world through to clouds in the shape of gods. The riotous surrealism of Minerva expelling the Vices with its Centaurs and Putti is a particularly striking example of this, compared to Bellini’s understated symbolised of woodcutters in the forest forming a background to the murder of two priests in the foreground.

Reading Zola’s His Excellency Eugene Rougon, I find myself thinking of the distinction Zola drew between heredity and the influence of the environment. The Macquart branch descend into vice and criminality while the Rougon branch ascend into the upper classes, in these case into the Council of State. In the novel, Rougon alternately falls from grace with the Emperor only to be restored to a different position and with an entirely new political ideology to suit. What’s noticeable is in the sections where Eugene is ousted from power his behaviour is not vastly different from his Macquart relatives; he falls into idleness and dissipation, just as much as in a novel like L’Assommoir.

Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus reflects the author’s interest in “a situation well described by Heidegger’s term Geworfenheit: being thrown without explanation into an existence governed by obscure rules”. It serves as an allegory, but like Kafka’s work, one that lacks any clear objective correlative. A man and a child arrive as refugees at Novilla. Spainish is widely spoken but details often seem incorrect; German is referred to as English while Cervantes is not credited as the author of Don Quixote.  Life in Novilla seems oddly absent of the normal conditions of being, with its inhabitants feeling little sexual desire or longing. They have no memory of their previous lives. Although Simon explains the need to earn a living most of the housing and services seem free. Meat is rarely eaten. Simon’s work at the docks solely revolves around grain, which mostly ends up being consumed by rats in a warehouse. The Stevedores at the docks spend a lot time in discussion of Platonic forms. The suspicion is that Coetzee is depicting an afterlife, possibly a form of atheist’s heaven, but enough detail of the physical aspects of life remains. By contrast the child David wishes to raise the dead and treats spelling and arithmetic as a form of private language. He speaks of cracks in the world or holes between the pages of a book (Derrida opposed to the prevailing Platonic norms), a non-comformity that leads Novilla to expelling him from the school system, transforming the Novillan utopia into a dystopia that must in turn be fled from.