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.

The Bleak Midwinter

Worcester cathedral was built with a mix of stones; something grey, sometimes red sandstone. Although placed in the heart of the city, the Cathedral Close still has a rather self contained feel to it, as one passed through Edgar’s Tower and enters a complex of ruins where halls and other monastic buildings once stood. A watergate remains, something that only serves to emphasise the self contained character of the cathedral. The most interesting aspect of the interior is undoubtedly the Norman crypt begun by Bishop Wulfstan in a style reminiscent of Repton. Similarly, the tombs are especially striking, such as the Beauchamp tomb with its black swans or the ornate gothic tomb for Prince Arthur. The rest of the cathedral shows the evidence of Gilbert Scott’s restoration, such as the painted ceiling. A graveyard is placed in the centre of the cloisters (monks who has tended the garden would once have been buried there) while figures from English history are depicted on stained glass in the arches. The town itself is a mixture of Queen Anne (such as the Guildhall and Hospital with its heraldic white swans), Georgian and Victorian buildings. The majority of the church towers are in red sandstone, excepting one where a grey baroque tower had been built onto an earlier gothic foundation. Another exception is the slender grey spire of St Andrew’s, which rises far above the other buildings and rivals the cathedral. A Victorian structure, the building is nonetheless a ruin; nothing remains except the tower.

The Priory Church in Great Malvern rather resembles a cathedral as well, though there is something more colourful about its external appearance, with its patchwork red, yellow and grey stones. The stained glass is also a patchwork of fragments dating back to the time of Richard the Third. Victorian minton tiling sits alongside the original medieval designs it was based on. There’s also some new windows stained in a more impressionistic style. The round arches on the interior date back to the Saxon period, sitting alongside baroque monuments and a chantry chapel containing medieval stone tombs.

The church of St Mary the Virgin in Ingestre, has the distinction of being the sole Wren church outside London. Although the stone is duller than the city churches, the building that stands next to Ingestre’s Carolean hall is recognisably of the same design (particularly to St Mary Somerset). The interior is decorated with plaster carvings, Gibbons woodwork and Burne-Jones stained glass, showing blood dripping from a pelican onto Adam and Eve, who bear crimson halos and wings. Unusually, the marble monuments have been painted and gilded. Nearby in Hoar Cross, Holy Angels is GF Bodley’s miniature cathedral standing stop a hill and surveying the valley beneath. Yews line the walk to the door, while winged gargoyles look down the roof, statues stare ahead from their niches and lonely stone angels on the graves stare at the sky. The church of St Paul in nearby Burton on Trent where it sits adjacent to the town hall, is also by Bodley and shows a similar style. More unusual is the church of St Modwen in the marketplace there. It’s tower is blackened but is still in a recognisably baroque style. The interior is also quite unusual, with plain stone columns and round arches lining the nave, while the altar and sanctuary are ‘high baroque.’ Filled with dead leaves when I visited, the churchyard looks out over the then flooded river Trent and is filled with elaborate tombs. Finally, the church of St John the Baptist in Croxall presented an especially melancholy prospect. It stands high on a hill, above the river Trent next to the local hall. Like St Modwen, the churchyard was filled with elaborate eighteenth and nineteenth century tombs and framed with fallen leaves and bare tree branches. But the tombs here have fallen into desuetude; a celtic cross tips over as it sinks into the earth while the walls of box tombs crumble. The church is also in a poor condition; the windows are broken and the crudely repaired walls patched with brick seem less than steady.

Visiting Kensal Green Cemetery last spring, the central avenue was hidden in shade beneath the trees that lined it. In winter, the leaves had fallen and the grandiose tombs felt oddly naked and bereft. The decay of the tombs was also far more evident; since my last visit a section of the outer wall had collapsed and the resulting breach made it feel far more ramshackle than before. Since I wasn’t as distracted by the novelty of the architecture this time, I also noticed far more that most of the modern graves were from other countries; Ethiopia, Yugoslavia or Greece. It seems oddly appropriate given the pagan symbolism of much of the funerary architecture, from Egyptian to Roman and Greek. I wondered if this reflects the increasingly multi-ethnic character of London or whether it was simply that people from these countries were more likely to be drawn to the same traditions that its Victorian creators were. Many of the more modern tombs also seem to display a sentimental and trivial approach to death, with cuddly toys left on the them, that were at odds with the cold stone that surrounds them. I also notice a jay perched on a nearby tomb, a pigeon nestles on a quatrefoil above a tomb door and a squirrel disappears through a tomb wall. Afterwards, I move on to walk around Camden market, somewhere else with Victorian roots that has given way to a more multi-ethnic London. Or at least so that might seem; despite the oriental food stalls and melting pot atmosphere, the predominant aspect is of white counter-culture; gothic clothes, new age and punk. The following weekend was occupied with Mapledurham church with its diamond patterned redbrick and flint by Butterfield (the house’s original chantry chapel with alabaster tombs remains alongside the gothic revival building). Later, I visit St John’s Gate, a hyperreal Victorian interpretation of a medieval Priory, even down to its reinvention of the Knights Hospitalier as a chivalric order in keeping with the Victorian emphasis on medieval tradition. I also returned to Limehouse churchyard, which was covered in a carpet of purple crocuses and daffodils.

Hockney as an artist always seems to me to be oddly hollow, someone who flits through different styles and media while the essential subjects remain the same, both in terms of the people being depicted and how they are depicted. Self-portrait with Blue Guitar shows him drawing naturalistically while all the objects around are shown in abstract terms that reference Picasso. Picasso recurs in his photographic collages, simultaneously showing the same subjects from different angles and at slightly different times. Conversely, his portraits combine modernist techniques (the collages recalling Cubism, his portrait of Divine recalling Matisse) with a surprising traditionalism; the portraits of his mother and lover against deep blue patterned backgrounds is heavily reminiscent of the Holbein paintings I had seen earlier, while a picture of the artist at work deliberately echoes Velasquez and Las Meninas. For all of this, there’s a fundamental similarity to his work. His My Parents shows his mother staring out of the canvas at the viewer while his father sits at right angles to her. They are separated by a table where a vase of flowers stands (a favourite prop). Similarly, his portrait of Fred and Marcia Weisman shows her staring at the viewer while he stands at right angles to her, separated by one of the art objects they collected. The painting of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott shows Geldzahler sat looking at the viewer while Scott, wearing a coat as if about to leave, stands at right angles to him (a glass table with a vase full of flowers rests in the foreground). Although his painting of Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool is the most famous work, a later one finds Schlesinger sat alone, slightly at right angles to the viewer but still staring back, the pose used on Divine. Later, I walk around the National Portrait Gallery – I still think it an institution more marked for its commitment to historical narrative than to artistic excellence but I was struck by Roger Fry’s portrait of Edward Carpenter, showing him in a spartan interior and his reflection only half visible in a mirror, leaving his figure to nonetheless dominates the room.

The BBC adaptation of Dracula was surprisingly original. It bends the novel to fit the conventions of the horror film (as with the deaths of Harker and Holmwood), but foregrounds the theme of occultism (rather reminding me of Huysman’s The Damned) and the more obvious theme of syphilis, as opposed to Coppola’s Faustian interpretation of the role of plague in Herzog’s film. It did occur to me that the renewed ‘threat’ of immigration from Eastern Europe has given the novel a new resonance; this is after all the year Romania joined the European Union. Volver is a welcome return to the the camp humour and magical realism of Almodovar’s earlier films, especially What Have I Done to Deserve this? (whose plot it resembles), combining this with the Hitchcockian plotting of Mala educacion. Children of Men falls uneasily between the apocalyptic and political genres, failing to formulate a consistent political critique on the one hand while failing to abstract those concerns into the the nihilism demanded by the former genre. Every part of the film refers to minor extrapolations of what can be seen in daily news broadcasts; low fertility rates, ethnic violence, immigration, state authoritarianism, terrorism etc.

Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico finds him once more enraptured by male beauty during Indian dances while only noticing the women’s clothing; "the men are naked to the waist.. they are handsome, and absorbed with a deep rhythmic absorption." In describing the Indian culture, he celebrates themes of unity in a manner that is reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ("creation is a great flood, for ever flowing. in lovely and terrible waves. In everything the shimmer of creation and never the finality of the created") but as with Pirsig, the narrator figures as an outsider throughout (something emphasised by the absence of Frieda from the domestic setting), even finding himself uncomfortable with the presence of tourist crowds at the Hopi snakedance. Last Words by William Burroughs, reminded me of TS Eliot’s complaint that Blake had concocted his philosophy from bits and bobs left around the house. Throughout, Burroughs reads an assortment of mystical and conspiracy theory writings designed to gull the credulous. He dotes on his cats and his collection of guns (reminding me of Self’s waspish comment that Burroughs hated women and loved guns).

Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry presents a fable of a rootless man like Rudin ("you’re a thinking man – and yet you lie around… you’re all well-heeled layabouts.. this ecstasy of boredom is the ruin of the Russian people"), which is complicated by a rival fable of rural virtue and urban corruption. The Russian admiration of the peasantry complicates a novel that could easily have become a narrative of individual damnation like Madame Bovary and instead gains a sense of the diminishing effect of the environment that has more in common with The Return of the Native or Ethan Frome. For example, Mikhalevich exhorts Lavretsky to work on the land and to concern himself with the welfare of his peasants, a fate that ultimately only manifests itself as a form of punishment. Russia destroys its own children and those that linger too long, such as Lemm’s death in impecunious exile, feeling like "a fish out of water". Although Lavretsky and Panshin differ on issues of westernisation and slavophilia, neither worldview is material to their respective fates in the narrative which effectively share the same end; "we’re sick because we’ve only become half-European; we must cure ourselves with more of what has made us sick." The realist context of the novel with its complex of patterning of economic, social and political strands is thus at odds with a metaphysical theme that sees life in Schopenhauerian terms; "he had actually ceased to think about personal happiness… he had become tranquil"

Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs is unusual in American fiction for its emphasis on community and place (the very name being reminiscent of Middlemarch (the statement at the end of Marsh Rosemary being akin to that at the end of Middlemarch) or Cranford). Men figure throughout as objects of ridicule or of cruelty (Captain Littlepage and the pompous Minister that visits Joanna on the one hand, or Joanna’s betrayer himself on the other) in contrast to the supportive community of women symbolised by Mrs Todd and her mother; "Mrs Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever society can give or take" (although events like Mrs Todd knocking the Minister down do challenge ideas about gender, Jewett is essentially a traditionalist on this score, blaming William for lack of ambition in a way no female character would be treated). Nonetheless, the location of Dunnet next to the sea introduces themes that recall Melville more than Austen. Both men and women yearn for the sea ("a far-off look that sought the horizon… inherited by girls and boys alike") and the novel foregrounds themes of individual isolation repeatedly, as with Joanna again ("doomed from the first to fall into melancholy… ’twas her poor lot") or the neighbours that never see one another from one year to the next ("for three generations the people had not spoken to each other even in times of sickness or death or birth"). Joanna’s role is given to a male character in The King of Folly Island, where it is his daughter once more that stands for the feminine social virtues. Fishermen are portrayed as being at one with nature ("you felt almost as if a landmark pine should suddenly address you") more than with humanity, while the community is made up of women, but in stories like The White Heron this is reversed and it is women who are seen as being at one with nature (as with Mrs Todd’s herbal medicines being opposed to the Doctor’s remedies).

Whereas the realist novel typically works by assuming an empirical worldview, contrasting the individual consciousness against the social setting, Jacques the Fatalist operates in the conditional tense, continually disrupting linear narrative with a series of what if ‘butterfly effect’ discursions and interruptions. This feeds into the dialogic character of the novel, where the narrator simply notes of the debates between Jacques and his master; "and they were both right… has not everyone his own character, according to which he either exaggerates or attenuates everything?" The repeated interjections from the narrator also emphasise the fictionality of events and their arbitrary character. Diderot accepts Hume’s critique of the reliability of the evidence of the common senses but is less certain when it comes to Hume’s critique of causality. Throughout, Diderot uses ambiguous language ("what is written up above.. is it we who controls Destiny or Destiny which controls us?") to describes Jacques’s fatalism, leaving it unclear whether a mechanistic materialism (adopting Spinoza’s ideas over Hume’s; "good brings bad after it and bad brings good") or a sense of religious destiny is being described (for instance, the idea of providence leading Jacques’s brother into the Lisbon earthquake accords with a religious satire along the same lines as Voltaire’s Candide).

Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is like the works of Defoe and Fielding, episodic in nature rather than operating a linear narrative; events proceed through coincidence and accident rather than by causality. The characters of the novel accordingly vary with the circumstance; Manon being devoted and fickle by turns. Although the narrative is cast in the form of a fable, there is no redemption or repentance anymore than there is damnation ("a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling, that he could not see the humiliation of it… or else a christian… I was neither one thing or the other"), with Des Grieux even arguing that his love for Manon is akin to religious devotion or that it is unexceptional when one considers "that a mistress is nothing to be ashamed of nowadays." Prevost also suggests that Des Grieux’s crimes are not of his own making; "knowing neither the mad lust for money.. nor the fantastic notions of hnour that had turned my father into an enemy." The novel is fundamentally a sentimental one, valuing natural emotion over the unnatural morals of his father, something that further serves to distort the moral fable at the novel’s core.

De Nerval’s writing is deeply embued with German metaphysics but nonetheless represents a point where the death of god leaves sublimity undermined by melancholy (Nerval’s Aurelia, his Beatrice, is imagined as Durer’s Angel of Melancholy). Whereas earlier Romantic aesthetics emphasised the ability to intuit the noumenal through the phenomenal in brief epiphanies, Nerval foregrounds the question of the potentially subjective and misleading character of such spots of time, both through his emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the metaphysical and through the foregrounding of his insanity and experience of the asylum. For example, in The King of Bedlam, Spifame’s imaginings of himself as the king lead to his being placed in the asylum only for him to end up leading a parallel existence to the monarch as he lives in luxury and has most of dictats implemented; "Spifame could recognise himself in a mirror or dream, he could take stock of himself even as he changed roles and personalities." Sanity and reason exist in a strangely liminal relationship rather than as opposites in Nerval; his characters remain aware of themselves even as they lose themselves. Similarly, in The Tale of Caliph Hakim, the sultan emerges first as the double of himself, sane even while mistaken for a lunatic, only to realise that he has a double he had been unaware of. The ruin strewn landscape of Sylvie (set in a landscape associated with Rousseau) similar emerges as a place of mistaken identities where neither the phenomenal nor the noumenal can be taken for certain; "but how could I be sure I was not merely the victim of one more illusion.. such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us." Travelling to the Orient, Nerval found it too quotidian ("the Orient is no longer the land of marvels") and prefers his friends’s opera set designs, travelling to Paris, Nerval found it a land of fantasy in contrast to British realism. His masterpiece, Aurelia, continues this: "the overflow of dream into real life… Spirit from the external world suddenly takes on the bodily shape of an ordinary woman." although at one point after a vision of the afterlife, Nerval proclaims that there is a god, he elsewhere proclaims that there is no god ("the virgin is dead and all prayers are useless… there is no god, god is no more!") and that he is god ("I myself was god, trapped in some sorry incarnation"), with the additional complication of his frequently esoteric view of religion, which has more in common with the druze than with christianity. Nerval is plagued throughout by his own double, as well as the question of whether his beloved exists as spirit or simply as a lost love, whether is insanity is precisely that or simply a form of vision. Throughout, Aurelia, opposites are overturned and nothing is left stable; everything is swallowed by the black sun.

Baudelaire’s poetry reminded me of Arnold’s line about "alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." Where Arnold’s response to the death of god is comparatively straightforward, Baudelaire’s is considerably more complex. Since his work is essentially symbolic, the symbol always seems to lack something stable to represent so that his Hymn to Beauty asks "did you come from the depths of heaven or up from the pit?" (just as Horreur Sympathetique speaks of how "your shafts of light are the reflection of hell") suggesting that clear knowledge of the noumenal is beyond the poet. The result is that his poetry is over-signified, being replete with meaning. At times, his stance seems to be akin to that of Arnold, of a poet caught in a world without the divine (the line about "my soul tossed.. on a monstrous, shoreless sea" in The Seven Old Men having more than a passing resemblance to Dover Beach), at other times his mythology remains essentially christian ("a damned man without a lamp" in Abel and Cain) and at others he resembles Blake, feeling sympathy for the devil (in The Irremediable there is "an angel, unwary traveller tempted by the love of the misshapen… as if it were reproaching god" while in The Rebel there is "a furious angel… but the damned rebel always answers "I won’t!" Finally, Abel and Cain speaks pf throwing god down upon the earth). Baudelaire’s poetry owkrs by overthrowing oppositions between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, company and isolation as he writes in Crowds that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able at will to be himself and someone else."

Zola’s The Earth bears a surprising resemblance to Hardy’s novels (Nenesse is described as being proud of his roots as if he were a tree, centering the issues of place and displacement in exactly the same way Hardy does); both situate their characters within a rural environment that is being displaced by modern industry and commerce, both present their characters in quasi-Darwinian terms of their connection to nature, and both present them in terms of their struggle for existence. Zola’s propensity for biological explanations of human behaviour is dominant here, with characters repeatedly described as animals (Buteau is "like soem great carnivorous beast") while only Lequeu is seen in more environmental terms in so far as his education has left him deracinated ("a country boy who through education had become imbued with a hatred for his class. he used to brutalise his pupils who he called savages" – a hatred it should be said that Zola shares as all of the educated characters despise the peasantry). Although the novel is replete with references to the oppression of the peasantry, there is something distant too it in so far as the peasants are described as being too lazy to take any effective action. The novel accordingly lacks the political engagement in Germinal and events effectively play out their own logic without reference to the overall social context in the way that Zola’s urban novels tend to. Modern innovations are frequently seen as immaterial in the country so that Hourdequin’s agricultural improvements simply breakdown and avail him little in spite of his predictions that the French soil is dying of exhaustion without them. Further intimations of decline, such as talk of declining faith and the villager’s indifference to the absence of a priest equally prove themselves as irrelevances as the customary pattern of things reasserts itself for reasons of nothing more than social convention.

White’s A Fringe of Leaves presents an especially interesting dialectic between civilisation and nature. The protagonist and her dual identities of Ellen Guyas and Mrs Roxburgh represents both of these aspects, rendering the disjunction between individual consciousness and the environment in the novel rather inconsistent. On the one hand, the novel depicts women as vulnerable and dependent on men; the murder of Garnet Roxburgh’s and Chance’s wives, while it is the modern Eve (the title being an implied reference to Genesis), Ellen, who best survives the expulsion from Eden, as her civilised husband is killed. The novel seems to constantly refer to Pygmalion; Ellen is both rescued from her wild early life by her husband but later comes to depend on that part of her nature after the shipwreck.

Niedzviecki’s Hello, I’m Special presents an argument I have much sympathy with; that in a culture where individuality and rebellion are continually lauded as socially desirable, rebellion and individuality cease to be meaningful. Partly, Niedzviecki’s concerns stem from a feeling that modern culture lacks a means to engender consent, but the argument seems confused on this score; the rebels he presents living on isolated islands are surely part of the same culture of rugged individualism in the United States that goes back to Thoreau and which has its trite expression in the films and music Niedzviecki denounces, rather than being a genuine expression of something the mainstream is faking. Equally, Niedzviecki notes that religious traditionalism may be more rebellious than commonly accepted ideas of rebellion, although his arguments invariably proves sufficiently elastic than almost anything can be regarded as a manifestation of ‘individualistic conformity,’ even when he himself notes that modern society is both homogenous and conformist.

Food cooked: Tiramisu, Baron of Hare, Vietnamese chicken with coconut, Singapore Laksa, Chinese chicken glazed with Orange and Apple, Singapore curry, Keralan Crab Curry, Thai hot and sour duck, Javanese curry and Nasi Goreng, Pork with parsnips, pears and maple syrup, Duck Vindaloo, Vietnamese curry, Tapas (Egg stuffed with Manchego and Sardine, Flamenco eggs, crab with flaked almonds), Mustard Spiced Indian chicken, Indonesian pork with soy sauce and nasi kunung, Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives, Pearl Barley rissotto with crab, Pork Stroganoff, Romanian Duck Jubilee, Louisiana Jambalaya, Chicken Mole, Poulet al’estragon, Kefta Mkaouara, Vietnamese chicken with sweet potato curry, Thai green curry, Red Thai Curry, Italian chicken stuffed with pear and chestnut, Spaghetti with Salmon and cream, Morroccan chicken with lemon and honey, Lamb tagine with ras el hanout, Vietname duck with nuts and dates.

The Ways of Heaven

The Three Emperors exhibition at the Royal Academy covers a narrowly defined period in Chinese history, from the ascendancy of the Manchurian Qing dynasty over the Han Ming rulers to their consolidation of power over Tibet and Mongolia through the reigns of Xangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong. In particular, it looks at their use of religion and art as a tool of statecraft, used to confer perceived legitimacy on regimes that were often regarded as having usurped power. It was also used as a means of cultural exchange, with these period seeing several Western attempts to gain a foothold in China, whether by Catholic missionaries or by delegations sent by European governments . At a period when Europe was eager for Chinese designs in porcelain, China was receiving European expertise in painting, architecture and technology.

The exhibition’s scrolls and paintings partly utilise traditional Chinese axonometric perspectives (so that objects that are further away appear nearer and larger than would be the case in Western painting, allowing for the inclusion of extensive panoramic detail) and the use of Western materials and techniques to suggest depth. Long painted scrolls depict imperial processions throughout the Emperor’s dominions; the purpose was largely to confer legitimacy on the Qing dynasty but they include a wealth of detail that is more unusual in Western painting (the Emperor is simply one point in each scroll), so that the effect is more reminiscent of Breughel than Holbein (though one other odd comparison did occur to me; the tigers in hunting scenes looked just like Blake’s Tyger). Of course, there are paintings that do focus on the Emperor seated on the dragon-throne as the sole figure (where the background seems oddly attenuated with the axonometric perspective lending it a peculiarly flattened quality). More interesting is the painting of Qianlong Emperor by the Jesuit missionary Guiseppe Castiglione; the Emperor is shown depicted on horseback and although the pose is rather more sedate, it’s difficult not to think of David’s romanticised portrait of Napoleon on horseback. That said, a more revealing parallel is probably Bellini’s portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent, where religious objections had impeded the use of perspective.

Frequently in the works of Castiglione (as well as other Jesuits and Chinese artists influenced by them) Chinese themes are depicted in a more typically Western manner. In the portrait of the Emperor, sanskrit text appears on his helmet to reinforce the image of the Emperor as a mean of religion and learning as well as war. Another portrait depicts a number of auspicious symbols, such as fungi, bamboo and pine (representing longevity) alongside a white hawk (symbolic of the sovereign’s right to rule); the subjects and style are Chinese but the use of light and perspective are Western. Castiglione also designed buildings for the Qianlong Emperor; the rococo buildings seeming somewhat odd given the prestige attached to Chinoiserie in the European use of the style (for instance, Frederick of Prussia’s Chinese tea house on the grounds of Sanssouci).

However, in technology, the picture was more one-sided, with clocks and astronomical instruments being prized especially highly in China. The final aspect to this was the role of religion, with the Emperors being depicted as the Buddha as a means of gaining support in their conquered territories while retaining something of the shamanistic practices native to Manchuria. Many of the items here were of interest more for their macabre quality than for historical interest; a skull cup made from the skull of an especially holy lama stood out in particular. More generally, the exhibits that also stood out for me were the weathered taihu garden rock (a testament to the sacred quality of mountains in miniature), red lacquered screens, five-clawed dragons and the blue-white porcelain.

One especially interesting aspect of the exhibition was the counter-narrative offered in one room, which was dedicated to works by the Han elite; representatives and descendents of the Ming dynasty who were in exile, often to Buddhis monasteries. Where court art was highly colourful and influenced by Western art, these figures clung to older and more austere models and typically used minimal black brushstrokes on paper. The works were not only more austere but were often less polished, using what one artist called an ‘aesthetic of deformity’ to imply attacks on the Qing regime (the absence of sky in one scroll being symbolic of the loss of heaven).

Finally, I went for a meandering walk along the Embankment, past Cleopatra’s Needle, the Temple Church and St Brides. The weather was rather odd; very cold but also very dry; not at all like the usual damp English weather.

Reading a collection of Dickens’s short fiction, I was especially impressed with George Silverman’s Explanation. Not unlike the diary of a self-tormentor from Little Dorrit this presents an unreliable narration of the consequences of excessive self-denial. Like Fielding, Dickens sees morality as stemming from empathy and emotion (a view most forcibly expressed in Hard Times), a conception that is at odds with Silverman’s self-defeating fear of worldliness. However, this also seems at odds with the criticisms Dickens often makes of those corrupted in voluptuaries as they move from city to country, as in Great Expectations. I’d read The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth not all that long ago and had thought that the way Roth tended to dwell on external surfaces, of clothes in particular, reminded me of DH Lawrence. The Emperor’s Tomb reinforced this impression. Both this and Women in Love dwell distastefully on the dehumanised aspect of modern life, Lawrence in the character of Loerke, Roth in the character of Frau Jolanth (both defined in connection with primitive art and their sexuality). The difference is that where Lawrence aligns his fiction in relation to a vision of a new relation between men and women, Roth aligns his to a vision of a world that passed with the death of Franz Josef.

Food cooked: Romanian chicken Jubilee, Caribbean Chicken, Jugged hare, French blueberry torte, Greek chicken with figs and mint, Potato and feta salad, Calederete of rice with allioli, Swedish sausage with potato and tomato, Linz Torte, Cassoulet, Flamenco eggs, Pollo con Lagostinos, Circassion chicken with bulgar wheat, Greek duck with walnuts and pomeganates, Alsatian chicken with pork and apples, Kaiser goulash, Swedish herring salad, Irish duck with apples and cider.

The Radetzky March

Vienna is the strangest of cities. During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it began to expand and absorb immigrants from elsewhere in the Hapsburg empire, most obviously the Jews that were to be at the heart of its cultural and economic life. Its cuisine began to resemble that of Bohemia, Hungary and even Italy more than that of the German states. With the demolition of the city walls encircling the medieval city, the construction of the Ringstrasse began and the city’s architecture became progressively more and more heavily influenced by French and Italian baroque and neo-classical designs. As the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, Imperial Rome was a model for the iconography of much of the city. The older gothic buildings in the inner city became the exception, not the rule. In short, Vienna became increasingly deracinated, something that inevitably lead to anti-semitic backlashes. In music, the likes of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern pioneered forms of music utterly disconnected from traditional forms. In art and literature, a preference for the surreal and the fantastic emerged in the likes of Klimt’s paintings. Freud dedicated his work to the interpretation of dreams and in Schnitzler’s Dream Story portrays Vienna as an unreal mirage, behind which the machinations of the unconscious lie. Even more traditional art, like that of Strauss or Roth is all surface.

Arriving, I walked around the boulevards of the Ringstrasse, starting with the Byzantine fortress that is the Museum of Military History. Since the ring was designed to be broad enough for the easy military suppression of dissent and protest, this was designed as the city Arsenal. Nearby is the elegant French gothic of the Votivkirche, through to the Rathausplatz. The ring is where most of Vienna’s artistic life emerged, from its national gallery, museums, music halls, academies and opera houses. It is also where Vienna’s most chaotic and schizophrenic aspects emerge, with differing architectural styles at every turn. Here, the baroque Burgtheater and neo-classical Parlament are confronted by the odd sight of the modern Flemish gothic of the Neues Rathaus, one of the few examples of modern gothic in the city. Like much of the city the platz is occupied by parks and fountains, filled with statues of musicians and kings. From here, the strasse leads to Karlsplatz. Again, much of the trees and fountains are dominated by the bizarre sight of Fischer Von Erlach’s KarlsKirche dome and its two flanking pillars, both in imitation of Trajan’s column. More oddly still, a Henry Moore sculpture rests in the pond in front of the church. The frescos on the interior were being restored and it was possible to ascend to a platform under the dome and see them in detail. Elsewhere in the platz are Otto Wagner’s pavilions for the underground, Jugendstil creations in white marble and gold. Scorning ‘folk art’ Wagner’s designs were every bit as radical as Klimt’s paintings. Wagner rather reminded me of Soane’s plans for a London modelled on Imperial Rome or Wren’s plans to recreate the city along the lines of the great European capitals. Wagner drafted design after design for a Vienna that was gleamed in white and gold art nouveau. As it happened, only his underground station designs, a church some villas and a few other buildings were ever to come into being. Nearby is Joseph Maria Olbrich’s even more outrageous Secession building, white marble surmounted with a gold dome. Finally, one comes to a Russian monument for Soviet soldiers which would seem more at home in Moscow (written into the terms of the state treaty, the Austrians were not permitted to demolish it). Finally, the strasse comes to a conclusion with the Stadtpark, filled with statues of the likes of Strauss and Schubert.

Within the Innere Stadt, the street lines of the medieval city remain but, like London, the majority of the buildings are as modern as those in the Ringstrasse. The exception lies at the epicentre of the city; the Stephansdom. few buildings merit the term ‘gothic’ (in its modern sense, at least) as this. In spite of the tiled green and yellow roof, the exterior is blackened while precious little light filters into the dark interior, while beneath it extend the catacombs, filled with the bones of plague victims. Although baroque paintings have been placed at the bases of many of the columns, medieval wooden sculptures remain above them and very little seems to have changed in the cathedral for hundreds of years. Much the same can be said of the nearby Kaisergruft, which contains the tombs of the Hapsburg Emperors. A Capuchin church, its vaults are filled with pewter coffins decorated with images of skulls, swords and bat wings. Other churches, such as the eighth century Ruprechtskirche with its plain white interior and ivy covered exterior also reflect the city as it was when it retained its walls. But beyond these, the Innere Stadt is as diverse as the Ringstrasse. Wagner’s secession Ankerhaus has a Jesuit plague column in front of it, while the second most striking church is the baroque dome of the Peterskirche. Others baroque churches, such as the Jesuitenkirche were decorated with elaborate trompe l’oeil effects alongside the typical red marble and gilt. Other churches, like Griechische Kirche reflect the increasing multi-cultural character of the city as it grew. Designed in mock Byzantine style for the Greek immigrants, the redbrick exterior hid the most ornate gold interior.

On the edge of the Innere Stadt lies the original Hapsburg Palace, the Hofburg. Entered through a baroque gateway surmounted by a copper dome, the palace is a confusing labyrinth of passages and courtyards, until one passes through to the Volksgarten and the Burggarten. The former of these is dominated by a replica of the Thesion in Athens, while the latter now houses a jugendstil butterfly house, containing White Tree Nymphs and Green-banded Swallowtails from Malaysia and Red Helen butterflies from South East Asia, as well as a number of moths and birds (rather portly and apparently grounded).

In time, the Hapsburgs created a new palace outside the city. Schoenbrunn lacks the idiosyncratic character of Sanssouci at Pottsdam but makes up for it in scale. Its park is enormous, lined through with lime and beech trees and inhabited by brazen red squirrels and ravens. The park is dotted with various follies and fountains, most strikingly a set of fake Roman ruins (once more intended to reinforce the Roman character of the Hapsburg Empire) a maze, Japanese garden and the large Victorian Palmenhaus. The Crown Prince Garden next to the palace is filled with fig, orange and lemon trees; a yew tree lies at its centre to commemorate the prince’s suicide. After this, the building is nondescript; a squat structure painted in a nasty mustard colour. The interior is more promising, with rooms like the Chinese Cabinet (white walls inset with black and gold lacquer), the Porcelain room (decorated with blue and white plaster) and the Millions room (rosewood inset with Indo-Persian miniatures). Leaving the palace, one is confronted with one of the most ornate of Otto Wagner’s U-Bahn pavillions, while the surrounding area is home to many of his villas and tomb in the nearby Friedhof. The pavilion was built for the Emperor, whose disdain for modernity meant that he only travelled through it twice. Though the most clearly successful Hapsburg was Maria-Theresa, the personality of Franz-Josef is stamped throughout Schoenbrunn. Haunted by tragedy (his bother and wife were both assassinated, his son committed suicide) he still seems an oddity, more like George the Third than Queen Victoria.

Further oddities came into being as the city expanded beyond the Ringstrasse. Here two houses lie within a few streets of one another; one designed with austere precision by Wittgenstein, the other the famous HundertwasserHaus and the KunstHaus Wien. Hundertwasser’s reputation was that of a latterday Gaudi, the disdainer of the straight line and creator of strange and colourful buildings. In practice, I was rather more inclined to view his buildings as being essentially grimly functional but with the esoteric grafted onto them in a way that seemed annoyingly comic, like a rather forced joke. Further afield within the former Jewish ghetto of Leopoldstadt lies the Augarten. Once a formal garden where Mozart and Strauss gave concerts is now presents a rather sad spectacle, being dominated by the crumbling ruins of two of Albert Speer’s World War Two flak towers. These massive concrete towers are almost certainly amongst the largest of Speer’s buildings to remain in existence. Around them, the park is largely untended and is being turned into a nature reserve; a sad fate for a park whose beauty Roth had the protagonist of The Emperor’s Tomb lament for in Siberia. Nearby lies the Prater fair and its famous ferris wheel. The entire area here reminds me somewhat of the disreputable Southbank (albeit in the age of Vauxhall Gardens rather than in the age of Tate Modern); a seedy and disreputable area given over to pleasure.

In front of the Hofburg on the Ringstrasse lies the Kunsthistoriches Museum. The first floor of this is taken up with the Hapsburg’s painting collection. I began in the Italian section, which houses a formidable number of works by the likes of Bellini, Raphael, Giorgione, Bordone, Tintoretto and a particularly extensive Titian collection. The undoubted highlights were the few Caravaggio paintings and some Belotto views of eighteenth century Vienna (the views and buildings were still easily identifiable). The collection then passes on, via a few Velasquez paintings to Germany and the Netherlands where gothic styles were being combined with renaissance painting techniques by Durer, Holbein, Cranach, Bosch and, above all, Breughhel. For all of these is fascinating to see how religious themes were beginning to be combined with realism; for example, paintings of the crucifixion turned essentially into landscape portraiture or realistic scenes with allegorical connotations replacing straightforward Biblical scenes. The later sections with the likes of Rembrandt and Van Dyck showed the outcome of this process, excepting oddities like Arcimboldo and his veering away from realism altogether, depicting faces made up of elemental forces like fire and water. A further highlight was a solitary Vermeer towards the end of the collection.

The lower floor was occupied by Egyptian, Greek and Roman exhibits. The Egyptian section was especially noteworthy, with an entire tomb being built into the building and the supporting papyrus stalk pillars being taken from an Egyptian temple. Much of the statuary represented familiar stylised design, but there a number of Roman influenced realistic figures lacking headdress. Conversely, the Greek section was heavily influenced by Eastern designs, with a Cypriot statue showing clear Egyptian and Assyrian influences. A particularly beautiful statue of Isis, where the robes and figure were cut from different stone was particularly striking; if only in that showed such a clear basis for later representations of the Virgin Mary. This section was largely striking for having an especially good collection of Graeco-Roman crafts beyond statuary and stonework though; painting, bronzes, mosaics, metalwork, glass and even textiles. The highlight was clearly the Brygos-Scythos and its beautifully detailed depiction of Priam’s supplication to Achilles. Within the Hofburg was a further museum of ancient history, mostly containing exhibits from Ephesos and Samothrace. This was perhaps more striking, containing octagonal tombs from Ephesus, a statue of Artemis and the Parthian frieze depicting Roman victory and the deification of the Emperor Varus.

The other principal gallery in Vienna is the Belvedere. Formerly a palace for Eugene of Savoy it still contains cabinets gilded with gold and a formal garden dotted with sphinx statues. Its lower gallery is dedicated largely to medieval art, dwelling in particular on the paintings of Michael Pacher, an early example of combining gothic forms with renaissance techniques. Oddly, the pictures of the Virgin Mary proved an interesting example to the principal works in the upper Belvedere, Klimt’s most famous paintings. His painting of Adele Bauer, all covered in gold is very clearly drawing on the same iconographic techniques. Sadly, much of the permanent collection was unavailable (so no Munch or Van Gogh) though an exhibition of Finnish art had some striking paintings by the likes of Magnus Enckell and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, mostly based around the Kalevala. Finally, there was the Leopold Museum, a rough equivalent to the Tate. Although this has some interesting nineteenth century Austrian landscapes by the likes of Emil Jakob Schindler and modern works by the likes of Oskar Kokoschka, its collection is heavily dominated by the works of Klimt’s contemporary, Egon Schiele, and his intense self portraits and paintings of Bohemian towns. Outside, the belvedere lies the Vienna Botanical Gardens, current residence of a Wollemi pine, a living fossil from the Jurassic period that was formerly thought extinct. A combination of eighteenth century formal gardens and more modern design, the gardens include some small tropical houses, a pinetum and an alpine garden.

Having one day to hand, I wanted to see how Vienna compared to the other capital of the Dual Monarchy; Budapest. As it happens, Budapest is rather more like Prague than Vienna; bisected by a river, one side is dominated by a hill surmounted by a castle and churches where the national galleries and museums are housed. The other is where the more modern city has grown. Arriving at Keleti train station, a nineteenth century structure dominated by a massive glass window, I walked downwards to the Danube. Unlike Prague, this area of the city was clearly impoverished, its buildings characterised by dilapidation and decay (as integral to its aesthetic as that of New Orleans) and the Parisi Udvar arcades seeming more like street markets. With that said, this was rather less disturbing than Vienna’s inequality and the sheer number of beggars on its wealthy streets, and the anti-immigrant posters plastered around the city by the far-right Freedom Party (showing social democrat politicians with mosques in the background); though in fairness to Vienna I should note that it has always tended to vote for socialist and social democrat parties. Nonetheless, compared to that Budapest’s poverty seemed less disturbing than it perhaps should have; in theory I feel that poverty without inequality is worse than prosperity with inequality, but in practise this seemed less justifiable.

My walk took me through Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, with its Moorish and Art Nouveau synagogues until I arrived by the river, crossed into Buda and began climbing up the hill of Varhegy to the castle. The centrepiece of the castle is the Holy Trinity Square, home to the Matyas Templom and the Fisherman’s Bastion. Although the red and yellow roof of the former is pretty it gives little idea of how beautiful the inside is, with every inch of the interior being painted so that it seems to blaze with colour. By contrast, the Fisherman’s Bastion’s is pure white but is like the Matyas Church in that it is a hyperreal construction; the church reconstructs the thirteenth century structure through modern eyes, while the bastion is an attempt to give Hungarian myth and history a concrete form, its seven turrets representing the seven Magyar tribes. Oddly though it reminded me most of Gaudi’s Greek theatre at Parc Guell. Crossing back into Pest over the chain bridge and into the Belvaros and Lipotvaros districts, the first building I came across was the art nouveau Gresham Palace before walking along the Danube to the Hungarian Parliament. The other striking building here is St Stephen’s Basilica; like St Paul’s it is possible to climb to the top of the dome from where the entire city can be seen.

As mentioned, Viennese cuisine is esoteric and meals in Vienna included horse goulash (served with fried egg and gherkins), Wiener Schnitzel, Potato salad, and coffee laced with liqueur served with torte in the likes of Cafe Central and Cafe Demel (the imperial confectioners). More interesting was Heurigen in Heiligenstadt, historically a vineyard licenced as a wine tavern for a brief period. The traditional costumes seemed a little arch to someone for whom such things reek of morris dancing but the sturm new wine was rather pleasant; not unlike fermented grapefruit juice. Austrian dark and wheat beers are also particularly recommended.

Snowdrift

The Lady Lever art gallery is a particularly idiosyncratic collection covering pre-raphaelite painting, Roman sculpture, Wedgewood pottery, Chinese porcelain and assorted design pieces. The collection dwells on the fantastic and exotic, reflecting its role in advertising Sunlight soap (after all, it is difficult to think of an equivalent collection that did not emerge from an aristocratic background); on the whole, I found it difficult to think any worse of it for this. Most of the pre-raphaelite painting is quite well known (Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel, Alma-Tadema’s The Tepidarium, Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat, Millais’s Sir Isumbras at the Ford,) but there some good pieces that are less well known (Leighton’s The Daphnepohoria, Madox Brown’s Cromwell on his Farm), as well as some interesting pieces by more obscure Victorian painters (Etty’s Prometheus). Some of the sculpture was also quite exceptional, such as Onslow Ford’s Snowdrift. The Wedgewood collection was surprisingly interesting, containing a number of Wedgewood’s experiments beyond the more familiar jasperware (as with the Portland and Borghese vases), to imitate Egyptian designs and Greek red figure ceramics with encaustic black basalt. The authentic classical collection covers Attic ceramics (including a black figure Psykter showing a Dionysiac revel) and Roman sculpture (including a statue of Antinous and busts of various emperors, especially dwelling on Hadrian for some unknown reason). The Chinese collection ranged from Kangxi period (including blue and white prunus blossom jars to famille noire vases) to Qing dynasty jade vases and Ming dynasty cloisonne enamel.

The surrounding village of Port Sunlight itself is a model village designed to house Lord Lever’s factory workers. Though a benevolent project, its rather hard not to feel a little uncomfortable in the place, which seems too geometrical, too designed and too neat. The homogeneity is unsetting and unreal, emphasised by the obsolescence of its industrial feudalism. Though the buildings were designed by thirty different architects the arts & crafts style is consistent throughout (though it does jar awkwardly with the austere Lutyens-style classicism of the gallery and war memorial) with the doors still being painted the same colour on each street. As a rural idyll it is decidedly hyperreal.

The collection of Futurist art at the Estorick collection is housed in an unprepossessing building, where the spire of the Union Chapel can be seen from behind the metal sculptures and plants in the back garden. The collection is largely concerned with changing ideas of time and space In EM Forster’s Howard’s End Helen Schlegel finds the speed of travelling in a car disorientating, causing a loss of a sense of space (Forster describes how the landscape appears to congeal as the car gets up to speed). The advent of high-speed transportation radically changed perceptions of both of these, with much of futurism seeking to create a more dynamic concept of art that recognise this, as with Carra’s Hand of the Violinist where multiple hands can be seen simultaneously; "Time and Space died yesterday," as Marinetti put it. In the case of flight (the current exhibition dwells on aeropainting), this was combined with an art-deco machine-aesthetic, again as with Marinetti’s elevation of the motor car as art above the Victory of Samothrace.

The current Aeropainting exhibition ranges from Crali’s vertiginous Nose Diving on the City with its jagged edges to the more organic lines of Tato’s paintings. One disturbing suggestion is the linkage of these paintings with Guernica and the Blitzkrieg against East Europe, respectively. Certainly, in some cases propaganda is clearly apparent, with one painting showing the planes as christian crosses. Although futurism was closely linked with fascism (not least in its glorification of war and a military aesthetic) fascism itself diverged into forms of expression better suited to an establishment (becoming more Catholic and neo-classical) and it seems somewhat harsh to read most of these paintings in such terms. The aesthetic behind them might well be disturbingly militaristic, but on the whole, there is little that is directly political about them. With all that said, it does come as a relief to come across Modigliani’s Dr Francois Brabander.

The Royal Academy’s Turks exhibition covers successive imperial states and nomadic Turkic tribes that went to the form the basis of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey; beginning with the Central-Asian Uighur tribes, Iranian Seljuks, Mongolian Timurids through to the creation of the Ottoman dynasty itself. This combination of cultural and religious influences from an area that represented the central axis of the silk road, produced a varied and rich number of decorative arts. In the Uighur period, Chinese silk painting was emulated, the Seljuks produced extraordinarily intricate woodwork (wooden doors and Koran stands arranged in arabesque patterns) and metalwork (especially elaborate lamps and mirrors where the back is decorated in cursive or geometrical Kufic scripts) and textiles (carpets showing stylised birds and dragons; the latter being endemic in Ottoman art, from candleholders and doorknockers to Chinese-style dragon paintings), while in the Timurid period the illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy of Herat and Samarkand far outstripped those of medieval Europe.

This engagement with the East was to continue, as with the adoption of Mamelak Egyptian Koran caskets and the imitation of Ming porcelain to produce Iznik pottery with its serrated leaves and lotus blossoms. Ottoman attempts to ‘improve’ Ming porcelain by adding gold and jewels go a considerably long way to reassuring all concerned that the Ottoman Empire did indeed deserve its reputation for tastelessness. However, by this point Ottoman Turkey began to engage with the West as much as the East. Although all of the other works in the exhibition have been decorative arts, the Ottoman section begins with Bellini’s portrait of Sultan Mehmed the Second. By this point, the European use of oils and shading to achieve perspective had already outclassed Islamic rivals; there is something odd about comparing Bellini’s utterly European portraits with Ottoman attempts to produce the same effect in traditional stylised poses (the holding of flowers while sitting cross-legged). It’s also somewhat incongruous that this cultural engagement went hand in hand with the point where the Ottoman Empire began to engage with Europe in a more direct fashion; through the invasion of Constantinople and much of the East of Europe. However, as with the difference between Venetian and Ottoman painting, the Empire was already being left behind as Western Europe explored trade routes that did not rely on the silk road.

Amongst the exhibition’s curiosities are a medieval computer; a geomantic engine where soil proceeded through a set of what we would call logic gates to produce the desired divination. Similarly, if a dice was rolled a book of divinations could be used to look up precisely what this portended (rather like a Tibetan prayer wheel, I suppose). Any observation that a culture’s most bizarre relics can usually be expected from its religions can probably be taken as read.

Ogier Ghislan of Busbecq was Habsburg ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, a period when the Ottomans controlled most of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. With the Ottomans closely allied to the French and constantly making incursions into Hapsburg territory, Busbecq was sent to negotiate improved terms. However, progress was slow and uncertain, with much of his Turkish Letters consists of his observations on matters antiquarian, numismatic and botanical (Busbecq appears to have introduced Tulip bulbs into Europe; though the Turkish taste in such flowers bore little resemblance to the modern version).

His attitudes towards the Ottomans are rather schizophrenic, fearing its order, discipline and military supremacy while describing it as backward and primitive (with surprisingly little sense of the apparent contradiction). On the one hand, the Turks had a highly disciplined standing army; "on their side, the resources of a mighty empire, strength unimpaired, experience and practice and fighting, a veteran soldiery, habituation to victory, endurance of toil, unity, order, discipline.. on our side is public poverty, private luxury, impaired strength, broken spirit, lack of endurance and training; the soldiers are insubordinate, the officers avaricious, there is contempt for discipline, licence, recklessness, drunkenness and debauchery are rife." It seems a somewhat odd judgement; in practice most of the wars that were to come resulted in stalemate (excepting the seizure of Cyprus), though it would be another hundred years before the Ottoman decline would begin. To take the example, of technology, Busbecq himself cites the Ottoman refusal to adopt clocks (as it would undermine the authority of the muezzin), the printing press and the destruction of Ottoman forces by a smaller European force armed with rifles. Equally, Busbecq portrays Ottoman society as meritocratic rather than hereditary; something of a distortion from someone whose illegitimacy had left him shut out from the upper echelons of the Hapsburg aristocracy.

Some counterbalance can be found in Busbecq’s depiction of the Turks as backward barbarians. Though the ruins of Christian Constantinople do provoke an outburst against the Infidel from him, his outlook is essentially rationalistic rather than religious, characterising the Turks as superstitious and easily swayed by auguries and omens (though he doesn’t seem entirely immune from such matters himself). He ascribes to the Turks a form of fatalism attributable to their religion; "they are persuaded that the time and manner of each man’s death is inscribed by god on his forehead; if therefore he is destined to die, it is useless for him to try to avert his fate," citing a sanguine approach to containing the plague (the number of fatalities a day shocking Busbecq) as an example. On the other hand, when a Turkish official expresses the view that all men of piety are likely to be rewarded with salvation, Busbecq does not hesitate to condemn the view as blasphemous (perhaps somewhat oddly; the idea is present in Dante and can hardly have been an entirely alien concept); though he condemns Turkish oppression of the Greek and Hungarian peoples, the Ottomans still appear to have been more tolerant than christendom would have been.

Shugborough’s gardens and estates are pleasant enough for a variety of reasons, most obviously the follies dotted throughout its grounds; a temple of the winds, a victory gate, a Chinese pagoda and a romantic ruin. But I was more interested in the Shepherd’s Monument, a structure that depicts a Poussin painting with an encoded inscription beneath it; interpretations of its meaning relate to heretical sects that denied christ’s divinity, the Templars and the grail and to Latin love poetry. Elsewhere, Middleton Hall, is an odd building surrounded by a moat and trees on two of its sides and gardens on the other two. The buildings are a hodgepodge ranging from Tudor to Georgian. I saw it covered with snow and with red squirrels playing on its front lawn. More forlorn is Bradgate Hall, the ruin of a Tudor palace now surrounded by open parkland with only a hilltop folly for company. Food cooked: Partridges and grapes, Chicken with black fruit stuffing, Persian duck with pomegranates, Moretum, Chicken and bacon in Tokay, Hungarian chicken in wine, Catalan Paella del Mar, Elizabethan chicken with sack mead, thai chicken legs, chicken Baltic, Hungarian cherry soup, prawn and crayfish laksa, Swedish fish and potato casserole, Moroccan pigeon pie, German pork and sausage casserole, white chocolate cheesecake with blueberries, Catalan chicken with figs, cherry and pomegranate khoresh, milanese risotto, chicken biryani, Singapore noodles, Corsican stew, baklava, Hungarian lamb with pickle sauce, chicken foo yung, chicken satay, Himmel und Erde, chicken tikka masala, Italian vinegar poached chicken with gnocchi.

Down south, I spent the day in Oxford, first climbing both St Michael’s & Carfax Towers and gazing out over Oxford’s rooftops and weather vanes (rather reminded me all of the viewing platforms from Prague’s towers, particularly with the medieval clock on Carfax Tower; not unlike Prague’s Horologe) and then going to the University and Pitt Rivers Museums. I love the iron forest canopy that makes up the University Museum, especially with various whalebone jaws propped against the pillars. The effect of walking into the main hall with its glass ceiling is more like one of Kew’s palm houses than the London Natural History Museum. I was especially struck by the faked dragon embryo; as it suggested such a creature would be quite difficult to categorise (opposable thumbs more typical of mammals, and a combination of wings and limbs more typical of insects). Equally, I love the clutter of the Pitt Rivers and the totem pole that dominates the interior of the hall. Finally, I went walking amidst the emerging snowdrops and crocuses from the parks. The idea of a genetic garden to plant hybridised species alongside their forebears is a rather interesting one; it’ll be worth coming back when more of the plants are in full leaf.

The QI bookshop in Oxford is based upon the excellent idea that the books are arranged by abstract themes rather than the usual classification by genre. As such, the themes included ‘Ice,’ ‘Sea,’ ‘Bohemia’ and ‘Watching.’ Since the usual divisions between specialisms were absent you found that a heading like ‘The Big Picture’ would include Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach and Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I thought these serendipitous connections between works that would otherwise have been on completely different shelves was rather engaging; perhaps the Radcliffe Camera should be re-ordered.

Recently, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, while a sudden snow shower drifted down to the ground. With odd meteorology like this, I wonder why people find the English obsession with the weather to be so unusual. I’m always struck by how snow makes the familiar unfamiliar, making every leaf stand out, making one’s own footprints tangible. The presence of newly opened daffodils and crocuses only accentuated this even more. A watery and pale sun struggled to make its presence felt
in a clouded sky. One morning I found myself face to face with a fox (presumably in search of food amidst the cold). I’d never been this close to one before, and though it wasn’t an especially dramatic encounter (it simply stood still, meeting my stare, until the cold persuaded me to go inside) it was wonderful to see such an impressive creature.

Reading The Motorcycle Diaries I had much the same reaction as I had to the film. Che’s mestizo nationalism has racism at its centre; "Anglo-Saxon immigrants in Chile do not mix, so preserving the purity of the indigenous race… the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas still clean of contact with a conquering civilisation… the African race who have maintained their racial purity." However, Che is not consistent about this – he heaps praise on the Spanish general Validivia for his will to total authority, also striking an unpleasantly fascist tone.

Baudelaire’s On Wine and Hashish makes an excellent reading of DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Where DeQuincey is concerned with a Kantian dialectic between reason and emotion, the ability of the mind to intuit the infinite rather than itself. By contrast, Baudelaire’s concerns are more firmly materialistic and indeed visceral, as Benjamin put it "Baudelaire placed the shock of experience at the very centre of his artistic work" For much of the time, Baudelaire’s language is as mystical or transcendentalist as that of DeQuincey or James; "the proportions of time and being are distorted by the innumerable multitude and intensity of sensations and ideas… you have cast your personality to the four winds of heaven." However, in many respects, his concerns are not with ethics or with mystical experience but with something more utilitarian; the transformation of authentic experience into a commodity; "what indeed is the point of working, ploughing writing, producing anything at all, when you can paradise at a stroke?.. enthusiasm and will-power are sufficient to raise him to supernatural existence… incapable of work, action or energy." As such, DeQuincey was concerned about solipsism, truth is not of concern to Baudelaire. He is instead concerned that if hashish simply opens up inner experiences then it represents a failure of will to be unable to access them without the use of artificial means; "a magic mirror in which man is invited to see himself.. the abyss by which he may admire his face like Narcissus… hashish reveals to the individual nothing but the individual himself." Benjamin suggested that Baudelaire was concerned with the commoditisation of culture and certainly such metaphors as "selling himself wholesale" recur. Marx supplants Kant.

I’ve described Orhan Pamuk as an existentialist mystic before and Black Book would add ‘semiotician’ to that list. Reality in the novel emerges as a form of text, where the link between signifier and signified is the key to a form of transcendental reality; "the world was not a place that yielded its secrets right-off, that it swarmed with secrets, and that in order to comprehend the secrets it was necessary to comprehend the mystery of letters," to see clues in things like in a detective novel. But equally Galip "despised the way he couldn’t live without narratives…there was no room in this world for signs, clues, secrets and mysteries." Interpretation becomes a subjective affair; "he might get lost between these interpretations." Between solipsism and mysticism pamuk seeks a via media "realms unavailable to the ‘objective and subjective styles’ is the third voice: the dark persona, the dark style!" Reality becomes a narrative the characters can rewrite and reinvent, but only through a glass darkly. The novel accordingly teems with the imagery of darkness, literal and figurative in place of the white of Snow; "these dark, black, pitch-black pages." Peering through the darkness is far from easy, as with the Bektasi alchemists unaware their acolytes were Marxist-Leninists; "whichever realm was successful in seeing the world as an equivocal, mysterious place that swarmed with secrets got the better of the other."

In part, intertextuality counts as a means of rewriting reality; "he was being drawn into a world that was unintentionally transformed into a fairytale… the man in the street began to lose his authenticity because of these damn moves that came in canisters from the West." Cultural identity, is driven into the darkness like the ships at the bottom of the Bosphorus or the puppetmaker’s figures in the tunnels. However, as with the narrative of the westernised Sultan, there is no identity without emulation; "we are also affected by those who have a distinctive personality and command our respect because we unconsciously begin emulating them.. I was unable to be myself," just as much as Galip becomes Jelal or the journalist becomes Proust (and the same reason Galip will not spend time in the Anglicised world of Ruya’s detective novels); "No-one can ever be himself in this land!.. I am someone else therefore I am."

Peter Ackroyd’s biography of London reminded me of an argument I had heard that histories dedicated to cross-period thematic approaches were eroding more scholarly works limited by their period. Certainly, Ackroyd approaches London as if it were a text to be interpreted, using literary criticism as much as non-fictional historical sources. He discusses London as a city dominated by symbols and theatricality, where the division between such things and the real is not clear (I was especially struck by his citing an example of Conan Doyle’s The Man with the Twisted Lip being used as the basis for a begging career by one middle-class professional). In particular, much of the biography recalls Ackroyd’s discussion of Blake and in particular Blake’s dictum that without contraries there can be no progression. Accordingly, a chapter on noise is followed by a chapter on silence and Ackroyd alternately condemns London (for its imprisonment and cruelty towards its inhabitants, its ugliness and rapacity) and celebrates it (for its self-renewal, energy and enterprise).

Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, like Winterson’s Lighhousekeeping dwells on the same ideas of permanency within mutability, but perhaps weights the balance in favour of the former. On the one hand, there is the architect Dyer’s mystical demonism and on the other, Hawksmoor, a detective that forms Dyer’s modern counterpart. People, places and events recur between the two time periods. The two characters gain a perverse communion, both alienated from their selves through various means (gazing into convex mirrors, insanity, drunkenness and sex). Hawksmoor notes that the Thames was “perpetually turning and spinning: it was going in no certain direction.” He imagines tracing a murder “backwards, running the time slowly in the opposite direction (but did it have a direction?).” He might then “have to invent a past from the evidence available,” which would make the future an invention too. Toward the end: “the future became so clear that it was if he were remembering it, remembering it in place of the past which he could no longer describe. But there was in any case no future and no past, only the unspeakable misery of his own self.’ As such, the novel’s two narratives proceed in parallel lines like trains on opposite tracks, mirroring each other but never converging. Ackroyd’s conception of time is one founded on eternity and permanence; it does not admit of resolution or conclusion (a perhaps somewhat awkward conception, given the pulp fiction nature of the plot. For example, at one point a lunatic in Bedlam tells Dyer that Hawksmoor will be his undoing, a promise that remains unfulfilled).

DH Lawrence’s Sketches of Etruscan Places is a later text in his ‘savage pilgrimage’ series of travel narratives, it is built on a series of dichotomies between Ancient and Modern, Roman and Etruscan. Accordingly, it is a good example of the progress paradox where one of the more marked features of civilisation and its discontents is an avowed preference for more primitive modes of society. To Lawrence, the Etruscans represented a more natural existence that was extinguished by Rome, something he sees continuing throughout history and exemplified by the distaste with which he responds to Italian fascism (given that he is often accused of fascist tendencies in his own thought, it is interesting to see how he reacts to it its manifestation). Lawrence’s response to the Etruscans is essentially one of pagan mysticism; "In my tissue I am weary of personality.. all the pearly accretion of personality in mankind – what a disease it has become. Stubborn pagan indifference and sufficiency in the self; where can one find it?" Though Lawrence dwells on the balance of male and female sexual symbolism in Etruscan art he suggests a modern inequity; "if a navvy working in the street takes off his shirt to work with a free, naked torso, a policeman rushes to him."

Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia presents a less clearcut case and rather reminded me of an especially acerbic observation Angela Carter made of Women in Love; that all the men were depicted in close physical detail ("hard cheek, and hard dangerous thighs… to see these limbs in close knee breeches, so definite, so manly") while all the women were depicted as little more than walking piles of clothing (with detailed descriptions of the pleating and colouring of female peasant dress). Later, Lawrence approvingly describes how the young men all masquerade as women during the carnival and describes their two male drivers as being like man and wife, Jane Eyre and Rochester; "so terribly physical all over one another. They pour themselves one over the other like butter on parsnips. They catch each other under the chin, with a tender caress of the hand."

In Orlando Figes’s Natasha’s Dance he speaks of Russian literature as being a fusion of Europeanised upper-class culture and the folk traditions of the peasantry. Though Turgenev is always cited as a zapadnik rather than a slavophile Sketches From a Hunter’s Album shows this quite clearly, in spite of the political mythology concerning the emancipation of the serfs that surrounds it. The sketches certainly do depict the oppression of the peasantry ("They work for him like they were in bondage to him.. bled them white he has"), with the aristocracy either being seen as rapacious, indifferent or ineffectual, with the results being similar in each case (with the rather totalitarian ‘Peter the Great of his own village’ in The Reformer and the Russian German being a case in point). How ever, the peasantry are instead often transmuted into mystical figures ("a strange and wonderful man he is, truly a holy man" or with the suffering and death of Lukeria in Living Relic). The suffering of the serfs is simply part of this transmutation; "What an astonishing thing is the death of a Russian peasant!… he dies as if he is performing a ritual act." The oppression of the serfs is not necessarily much attributed to the social order as to the moral corruption of the aristocracy (most starkly in Meeting where the jaded valet can only speak of the wonders of St Petersburg to the peasant girl he is abandoning or the Dasha mentioned in Death). For example, in Tatyana Borisovna and Her Nephew, the eponymous nephew is corrupted by his time in the city, but the narrative equally shows contempt for Russian parochialism against European internationalism.

Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte records some of the more interesting ambiguities in the Bronte attitudes towards religion. Anne had inclined towards a heterodox notion of universalism, wherein suffering for one’s sins would lead all towards salvation (an idea with an obvious resonance within both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre; though not Villette which ended in tragedy in spite of Charlotte’s proscriptions against such melancholia). Charlotte’s attitudes do indeed appear ambivalent (though she does repeatedly denounce "ghastly Calvinistic doctrines" of predestination; if christian perfection is necessary for salvation she admits she will never be saved; however, her attitude to existence if one of submission to what is predetermined). Gaskell records that "She had a larger religious toleration than a person would have who had never questioned, and the manner of recommending religion was always that of offering comfort, not fiercely enforcing a duty." Elsewhere, she speaks of how "it is more in accordance with the Gospel to preach unity among the christians than to inculcate mutual intolerance and hatred." She is struck by one of Mr Heger’s exercises in portraying a subject from differing perspectives, using Cromwell as an example. However, she is revolted by Catholicism, describing her reaction as to that of the false Duessa.

Hardwick

I‘ve been to Moseley Old Hall recently, a rather strange building in Staffordshire. From the outside it appears essentially Victorian, save for the twisted chimneys, knot garden, hornbeam and honeysuckle arbour and an orchard filled with cherry and quince. On the inside, it is lined with dark wooden panelling over wattle and daub construction. Similar peculiarities were in evidence at Hardwick Hall, not least the row of ash trees outside with their strange swellings amidst the branches. This building has been largely left as it was in Elizabethan times, with the occasional room that is incongruously filled with eighteenth century furniture. It is always pleasant to have a prejudice confirmed, so I was quite pleased to note that the elaborate design of the original furniture seemed much more spectacular than that of the later pieces (unfortunately most of the other original items such as wall paintings and tapestries are now all badly faded; in many respects the interior is an exercise in the poetics of decay as much as the largely glass exterior seems bold and ahead of its time). One particular item of note was the long gallery, which included an unusual painting of Elizabeth the First, her dress showing a depiction of the sea monsters Hilliard had imagined whales to resemble.

I went to Birmingham at Easter to listen to a performance of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion at the Symphony Hall. While I like much of Bach’s works, this did rather tend towards being the kind of religious work it is difficult for an atheist to appreciate, like much of the works of Thomas Tallis or George Herbert. Looking around earlier, I discovered that the city has an interesting Church designed by Chatwin with a wooden roof and a stained glass window by Morris and Burne Jones. I’d forgotten how much impressive architecture Birmingham has, such as the town hall and cathedral in addition to the rather oppressive disused factory buildings and warehouses. More recently, many of the grimy concrete buildings for which the city is infamous have been demolished and a new centre built. This includes a strange new shopping area, consisting of a sinuous organic shape whose surface pullulates with silver hemispheres; an impressively futuristic building but one which looks incongruous at best in a rather traditional setting. During this time, I often found myself thinking of the idea of the manufacturing of tradition; though the idea of continuity of tradition embodied in the above stately homes is probably a myth, it is nonetheless a powerful one and the lack of any historical sense of time or place in Birmingham is disquieting at best.

Later, I visited the De Morgan Centre; a single room in Putney library that blazes with colour as one walks in. It includes a good selection of William De Morgan’s work including a number of tiles featuring Islamic designs and a distinctive dark blue moonlight suite. Much of the centre is taken up with Evelyn De Morgan’s work, equally characterised by vivid (possibly too vivid) colours. She has been described as a symbolist rather than a pre-raphaelite (her work is much later than that of the original Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood). Unfortunately, much of the symbolism is rather crude and seems regrettably influenced by spiritualism (I suppose it could have been worse; spiritualism left E F Benson with a morbid interest in demonic slugs). Her better work tends is devoted to classical themes, such as a portrait of Phosphorus and Hesperus; more the sort of subject matter one would expect from Simeon Solomon.

The same afternoon was devoted to the Wallace Collection. This house is decorated in typically Rococco style; red crimson and gilded walls, Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry furniture. I tend to have ambivalent attitudes to Rococco, since it very much seems a style designed to demonstrate wealth rather than taste. It has a certain kitsch quality to it. Beyond this, the ground floor is filled with a strange diversity of exhibits; Iznik ceramics, Venetian glass and German pewter, for example. It also has an extensive armoury of which the centrepiece is clearly the Islamic section. The Mughal and Persian shamshirs are much more ornate than any European weaponry, save perhaps those of Venice. The upper floor is more dedicated to painting, including the entirely expected horrors from the likes of Fragonard. However, it also has an excellent selection of Canaletto paintings and a good mixture of Dutch genre and maritime painting. Amongst the less well known artists, Horace Vernet’s paintings of Napoleon and the Middle East stand out. The highlight is the Great Gallery, with Velasquez’s The Lady with a Fan, Rembrandt’s Titus and, above all, Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier. This really does stand out; the facial expression is immediately individual unlike the posed expressions of most portrait painting while the elaborate symbolism of the motifs of the clothing recalls Hilliard as much as naturalistic painting.

Elsewhere in London, I spent a pleasant day in Greenwich. This seems a place quite apart from the rest of London; a leafy setting filled with Hanoverian period architecture that looks directly opposite to the Manhattanite setting of Docklands and Canary Wharf. I recall HG Wells once predicted a future where height restrictions would be abolished and it is interesting watching that come to pass. Initially, I had a look at Wren’s Royal Naval College. The banqueting hall is perhaps less impressive than it should be; the use of painting as a substitute for plasterwork (a’la trompe l’oeil) is rather transparent while the choice of colours is rather subdued (mostly browns). More promising is the opposite chapel where the later interior neo-classical design recalls Wedgewood (presumably Wren’s original design might have looked more like the gold and white rococco design of St James’s Church, rather similar to the gusto italiano interior to the nearby Royal Academy). Following this, I went on to the Queen’s house. Designed by Inigo Jones, this is an odd Jacobean version of classical architecture. Much of the painting is more of historical than aesthetic interest. That said, it does have a Canaletto painting of the Naval college, some works by Hogarth and some maritime paintings by Dutch artists such as Backhuysen and the Van De Veldes. I went on then to the Royal Observatory, with its display of camera obscura, telescopes that more closely resembled cannons and John Harrison’s timepieces (I’d been reading Eco’s The Island of the Day Before illustrated many of the themes in evidence here). Finally the Maritime Museum was of least interest, save perhaps for Prince Frederick’s barge and its gold Chinoiserie decorations. Instead of returning by rail, I took the boat back, passing under Tower bridge and past most of London’s main landmarks. Given London’s maritime history I must say that this does seem the most natural way to travel, though perhaps without the tedious commentary on luxury flat property prices I had to endure. I note that the new Norman Foster skyscraper is visible from most points of this tour; perhaps it needs to have a restaurant built on the upper floors so that we can follow the approach Maupassant took to dealing with the Eiffel tower.

A later visit saw a climb to the summit of Wren’s monument to the great fire; a tower that must have originally dominated the skyline in the same way as Nelson’s Column. Now it is hemmed with other buildings and once one has climbed to the top it becomes apparent that the same applies to other buildings such as the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, St Paul’s and the Tower of London, all of which have been bested by taller modern buildings such as Canary Wharf; only Tower Bridge stands out as much as it would have done originally.

Conversely, where London is a cacophony of architectural styles Oxford manages to assimilate each new development, even the ziggurat of the Said Business School. While in Oxford, I went to the Ashmolean museum. I’ve often thought the Ashmolean has to be counted as one of the most impressive museums outside of London, if only due to the size of its collection of oriental exhibits., which has a large range of objects like painted silk screens, red lacquerware (as well as one lacquer casket formerly owned by Beckford), arita porcelain and a large wooden bodhisattva statue. Similarly, there is also an impressive Islamic section, featuring the customary display of Iznik ceramics and wooden arabesque patterns. The more customary historical sections, such as those of Rome and Egypt are more modest, including a well preserved statue of Athena, colourful mummy cases and an entire Nubian shrine. More impressive though, were the examples of Romano-Egyptian funeral art, the paintings made on coffin lids; the quality of painting is such that wasn’t seen again for hundreds of years. One of the diverting section was that devoted to the Tradescant collection, an original bequest to the museum that reflects the cabinet of curiosities approach to such things. I must admit to finding this ad hoc collection of Malay kris, Danish wooden tankards and Tomahawks rather more engaging from an aesthetic standpoint than the usual collection of like for like. The galleries similarly reflect a high standard; especially the selection of Dutch paintings including one Hals painting. Beyond that, the modern section has some good Pisarro paintings in a pointillist style (Les Jardin Des Tuileries) and a new gallery includes an excellent selection of Sickert paintings, an intriguingly impressionist Picasso painting (Blue Roofs) and a vivid Kandinsky painting. The pre-raphaelite section was dominated by Holman Hunt ranging from religious allegory (a painting of a priest being sheltered from the druids) to painting of London bridge and continuations of his middle-eastern paintings. As in the earlier pre-raphaelite exhibition, some of Seddon’s similar paintings were included, especially a panoramic painting of Jerusalem. In terms of the other pre-raphaelites excellent paintings by Alma-Tadema, Burne Jones (as well as an arts and crafts wardrobe decorated by him) and Millais (The Return of the Dove to the Ark) are included.

Following the interest in De Morgan, I went to Kelmscott Manor, the former home of William Morris. This is an Elizabethan house built next to river, where willows dip their branches into the water and rooks caw in the horse chestnuts. It still looks exactly like its engraving in News From Nowhere The gardens are a riot of colour, even at this time of year, with bluebells, irises, primroses and tulips in a variety of colours (scarlet, black, lilac, white and some striped red and white). The centrepiece is an ancient mulberry tree at the centre of the garden. The interior retains much of its original character, including Flemish tapestries and a considerable amount of seventeeth century furniture (considerably more ornate then the over idealised rustic simplicity of Philip Webb’s chairs). The arts and crafts tapestries, wallpaper and decoration all accordingly fit in well with their surroundings (a prelapsarian vision of history counterpointed to the reality), though it is perhaps a little surprising to discover the amount of Chinese and Burmese furniture and ceramics (including a star shape tile decorated with the first sura of the koran set in a wooden frame) in the house. Dutch imitations of Iznik pottery and an Icelandic casket were rather less surprising. Beyond that the house has several Durer engravings and Rossetti paintings; more particular portrait of Jane Morris with a gold frame against the dark blue wallpaper (the same colour as the blue silk dress Morris wears in the painting) was especially striking.

I’ve been reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. A review of this seems a little otiose, given the futility of deconstructing a book that deconstructs itself, but nonetheless. Although ostensibly written with one authorial persona or heteronym, the book deconstructs that notion to a large extent, with each of the subject it treats of being rewritten throughout the text. On religion, the text veers from mourning the death of god; "Never reaching union with god… always with a longing for it." and castigating atheism "to deny the existence of this intelligence, namely god, strikes me as one of those idiocies… every sound mind believes in god," whereas elsewhere it is stated that belief in god is impossible and the very concept is castigated as dangerous. Similarly, an aesthetic view of art is propounded; "Art is a substitute for acting or living…Why is art beautiful? Because it is useless" But elsewhere, advances a view of art that sees it in didactic terms, as advancing human civilisation. In some places, dreaming is described as "superior to reality," while later it states "I lack the money to be a dreamer," recasting it as a luxury, rather than a retreat from the quotidian. The text even asserts its own plurality, "I have the most conflicting opinions, the most divergent beliefs," only to deny this later, "I reread some of the pages that will form my book of random impressions..even while saying that I’m always different, I feel that I’ve always said the same thing." The result is that reading The Book of Disquiet becomes a matter of finding the figure in the carpet.

Pessoa reminded me of Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg a revisionist novel fictionalising elements of Dostoevsky’s life (an unusual concept to begin with; A Dead Man in Deptford being the only other example to come to mind). As much as The Life and Times of Michael K pastiches Kafka (it’s difficult not to use that term in a pejorative sense, and to some extent I can thinking of Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia) The Master of Petersburg pastiches Dostoevsky. This is in spite of the novel having a similar structure to The Life and Times of Michael K, representing a dialogic conflict between a social ingenue (Doestoevsky, with his view of anarchism as a form of nihilism at best, possession at worst) and elements of social extremism (Nechaev with his denunciation of Dostoevsky’s greed in his gambling and ignorance of the economic forces that determine existence). In his own way though, Coetzee deconstructs the idea of an authorial identity every bit as much as Pessoa. Waiting For The Barbarians presents a more idiosyncratic work, wherein the narrator wavers between dissolving the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism (by presenting the two as part of a cycle; "civilisation entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues.. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.") and doubting this dissolution (something epitomise by his archaeology, the preservation of the filiations of memory; "Do I really look forward to the triumph of the barbarian way; intellectual torpor.. if we were to disappear would the barbarians spend their afternoons excavating the ruins? ")

I’ve also been reading Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Science fiction often tends towards the extremes of the utopian (in this case, an extropian or transhumanist view) or the dystopian (in this case, environmentalist or religious conservative; whose language Atwood seems peculiarly close to here), with little time for the no-man’s land between that the present is invariably composed of. This book is no exception to that, following the likes of Brave New World or (perhaps more accurately) Day of the Triffids. With that in mind, it would be perfectly possible to read Oryx and Crake as a dystopian text where Crake, a Faust-figure like Nemo, Moreau or Frankenstein, pursues dangerous technologies without thought for the consequences, unintended (such as the Craker’s development of symbolic thought and religion) or otherwise (the success of the engineered virus). On the other hand, most dystopian novels, including Brave New World, 1984 and We deal with the suppression of biological imperatives rather than their alteration. But comparisons with other Atwood novels suggest otherwise. Surfacing is full of similar dystopian theories concerning an American invasion of Canada for its oil reserves, and sees its protagonist retreat from civilisation into nature (feeling a guilt at being human and expressing a desire for humanity to disappear); similarly, throughout Oryx and Crake mankind is viewed as an aggressive species that consumes resources indiscriminately (essentially, as Easter Island writ large); the Crakers represent a similar retreat to nature, allowing Crake to take on the mantle of an almost heroic figure instead. To be specific, Oryx and Crake shares the same concerns over capitalism as Surfacing but its depiction of gated communities having evolved into a corporate caste system is essentially tangential to the plot, and the overall depiction is more ambiguous since the damage is largely done by environmentalist characters rather than corporate strategy.

Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, on the other hand, was something of a disappointment, seeming more a vehicle than a novel. More promising was VS Naipaul’s Beyond Belief, an examination of Islam considered as a colonial force in formerly non-Islamic countries. Naipaul characterises islam as a totalising ideology that isolates it adherents from both regional traditions and foreign influences, leaving those societies in an ideological vacuum with islam as the only philosophy available to them (though many of the outcomes of that seem typical of monosyllabic post-colonial societies to some extent). Although he compares the Islamic displacement of other faiths to the spread of christianity in the Roman Empire, Naipaul suggests that christianity tends more to assimilate other traditions and to allow some form of congruence. Certainly, it is possible to think of examples that might confirm this, such as the use of pagan symbolism at Christmas, but equally the history of Protestantism after the reformation hardly seems all that different from islam. Equally, Naipaul notes the Islamic assimilation of Hindu myth and suggests that islam in these societies had become less tolerant in recent times (again inviting parallels with the change from Catholicism to Protestantism). The overall impression is that a predetermined thesis has been proved, with the result that much of the picture painted is both uniform and monolithic. By way of contrast, compare Naipaul’s account to that of Orhan Pamuk; "it seemed to me that their little bursts of lawless individualism were strangely at odds with the state-imposed religious laws that dictated every other aspect of life in the city."

Junichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles represents an interesting continuation of the themes I discussed from In Praise of Shadows. Interestingly, where a European novel would have rendered these themes against a wider social panorama with a large cast, Tanizaki uses a narrow number of characters and suggests such wider concerns through metonym and symbol. The book suggests that Kaname’s westernisation lies at the root of his personal problems; "the tradition of woman worship in the West is a long one, and the Occidental sees in the woman he loves the figure of a Greek Goddess, the image of the Virgin Mother… to some extent every woman tries to make herself look like an American movie star." Conversely, Kaname’s emulation of his father-in-law, with his doll-like concubine, upholds a more reactionary set of Oriental norms, and Tanizaki implies that Kaname has allowed his wife too much autonomy (though conversely, the father-in-law’s concubine appears unhappy).

In terms of film, I’ve been watching Before Night Falls, Beau Travail (a film that reminds me of Apocalypse Now in that cinematography fails to act as a proxy for the interior narrative of the novel used as a source in either case) and Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain, a film that avoids sentimentality through its suggestion that happiness is something that must people must be cajoled or deceived into. Similarly, Delicatessen is an excellent film. Where the Americans always envisaged the post-apocalyptic future as being one of urban warfare and anarchy, the French see it more as people going quietly insane behind masks of middle-class respectability. Interesting food cooked recently: Polish sauerkraut stew, Hungarian ghoulash, Turkish bobotie, Turkish Lahmacun, Chicken Fricassee, Chicken Marengo, Lebanese spiced chicken and Coq au Vin.

Gormenghast

I‘ve just been to the latest pre-raphaelite exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, this being the third such exhibition I’ve been to and, if not having the most impressive exhibits (as with the Ruskin and Turner exhibition at the Tate) then certainly being one of the most impressively varied. My own liking for pre-raphaelite art stems from its rediscovery of the colours of medieval and early renaissance but tending to substitute sensuality for the religiosity of that period (excepting the rather crude symbolism of Holman Hunt, though the exhibition made clear that Hunt is a reasonable landscape painter). The first rooms consisted of paintings from Millais, Rossetti and Burne Jones. I’ve never truly appreciated Burne Jones; this paintings seem too listless and enervated to me. On the other hand, Millais and Rossetti are quite a different matter. In the latter case, such paintings as A Vision of Fiammetta, in the former case such paintings as A Huguenot and The Proscribed Royalist, as well as an early version of his painting of Ophelia. Millais also proves to have been a rather good landscape painter as well, not something I had been aware of (there was also a painting showing a map wearing a deerstalker proposing to his beloved. I couldn’t help but mentally caption it ‘Holmes Proposes to Mrs Adler’).

However, the highlights for me were the paintings of Atkinson Grimshaw and John Waterhouse. In the case of the latter there were a series of excellent works; two of Ophelia, Pandora and St Cecilia. It’s particularly interesting to observe how more striking the impressionist influences on Waterhouse are when his work is set alongside his earlier contemporaries. In the case of Grimshaw, it was interesting to see pre-raphaelite influenced compositions such as The Lady of Shalott and landscape paintings alongside his more familiar urban paintings such as that of Cornhill or Liverpool.

The collection also encompassed a number of other painters such as Arthur Hughes (not especially talented though his paintings of Ophelia and April Love are fine enough), Lord Leighton (not in truth the best selection), Poynter (the same cave of the storm nymphs painting I saw at the Tate’s Victorian nude exhibition) and Alma Tadema (a variety of Roman scenes; not his best work either but interesting all the same). A very pleasant surprise was the presence of a large amount of De Morgan pottery (one especially fine Iznik design with snakes as handles and dragons on the side of the vase), Pugin tables, Morris carpets, Kelmscott press books and an interesting cabinet by William Burges (I’d never seen a wardrobe with crenellations before).

I also went to the Enlightenment Exhibition at the British Museum‘s renovated King’s Library, a meta-collection dedicated to collections from the enlightenment. While I suspect the Pitt Rivers Museum to be a more accurate representation of the transition from the cabinet of curiosities to modern museums, it was nonetheless interesting to see an exhibition covering the development of modern classifications and disciplines such as Linnaean taxonomy. Like much of the British Museum the interest is largely in the beauty of the objects (art rather than history), whether large ammonites, nautilus shell, Wedgewood jasperware pottery, Islamic tiles, Chinese pottery, Japanese porcelain or Egyptian sarcophagi (or indeed John Dee’s crystal ball, orreries or astrolabes). If I had a criticism it would be that the exhibition seemed to be at pains to deny any idea of development in art, which seems an odd notion give the theme of the exhibition. Much the same applied to the rest of the Museum; the basalt Egyptian statues, the head of Ramses, an Erechthean Caryatid, Easter Island Moai, black and red Athenian pottery, or the Assyrian winged bulls guarding the gates of Nimrud. The Great Court is, it has to be said, very impressive; mostly in terms of its sheer scale (since to be blunt, the Museum’s original neo-classical architecture, like that of the National Gallery, is rather too austere for my tastes).

One source of irritation with the exhibition was the somewhat condescending account of how artworks were originally arranged according to a nation of progress, where works were measured against a Greco-Roman ideal. While such ethnocentricism can certainly be mistaken, it seems our loss to discard the notion of development entirely; the number of artefacts within the exhibition demonstrate clear variations of artistic sophistication between cultures. That said, the choice between presenting the interesting aesthetic possibilities of conjoining such different objects and demonstrating the development of different scientific disciplines is not an easy one.

Returning, I had become tired of the notion of a traditional Christmas (in so far as the traditional British Christmas is better described as a traditional American thanksgiving) and it was decided to try a goose instead (this being the traditional German Christmas, though it proved that the recipe in the end was than of a traditional Christmas in the Veneto). The recipe was cooked with quince; more so than the goose it seemed difficult to account for changing culinary tastes; the flesh was sweeter than apple and with a better texture than pear. Cooking Moroccan roast chicken this weekend was quite odd; I’m far from being used to using apricots and raisins for what would be a savoury dish in European cooking (though perhaps it’s not so unusual; mince meat pies did originally contain meat after all).

Over Christmas, I went on a number of long walks, typically in the grounds of places like Chatsworth (always a little too manicured a landscape for my tastes and the rather squat and dark house does little to improve matters and the grounds of Calke Abbey (its rather more romantic grounds being strewn with aged oak trees, the ground covered in bracken and roamed by stags). The only house that was open was Little Moreton Hall, a Tudor house where the National Trust had set out some period celebrations (the idea of Christmas dinner involving Boar’s head seems quite sensible to me) such as a musician with a hurdy gurdy (which I hadn’t heard before, at least in person). Elsewhere, Hereford Cathedral seems very odd to me; most of the structure is Norman, with the characteristic architecture of the period; next to the later French gothic that had been built onto it, it looked rather strange, as alien as Moorish architecture in Spain must look.

I’ve recently been reading the Gormenghast Trilogy. On the one hand, to the Machiavellian Steerpike "Equality is the thing… Absolute equality of status. Equality of wealth. Equality of power." On the other, the defence of ritual by the likes of Flay and Barquentine is not reciprocated by Titus or Fuchsia themselves, where aristocracy is envisaged as a stultifying force. It is difficult to determine the extent to which Peake was of Steerpike’s party or not. On a similar note, I’ve finished reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Generally speaking,it seems to me that our culture has become progressively more infantilism on a number of fronts, and I was loathe to add to the fashion for adults to read children’s books. However, the trilogy does remind me of the kind of work William Blake might have produced had he been favourably disposed to Newton’s ideas (though a reworking of the Chronicles of Narnia is probably more apt as a comparison than Paradise Lost; the work of Michael Moorcock might be an even closer comparison). One interesting point though is that the Alethiometer and the subtle knife are both based in heuristic reasoning, while the weakest sections of the trilogy, those with Mary Malone, are where rationality is most important. The fantasy form seems to oppose certain themes. Incidentally, reading Lyra’s Oxford I was left wishing that Oxford had a Zeppelin station. Incidentally, a friend wondered what Jesus’ daemon would have been; I thought a snake might be an interesting choice.

Niall Ferguson’s Empire is a revisionist account of the British Empire, which while acknowledging the frequently illiberal and draconian character of the Empire, suggests that in terms of disseminating and enforcing such Anglosphere notions as free markets and trade, democratic governance and individual liberty (Ferguson adds Anglicanism to this list, which seems somewhat odd given that one of Britain’s clearest Imperial legacies was secular administration in countries like India), the Empire can be regarded as having fulfilled a civilising role. Ferguson’s book is essentially polemical in tone and more scholarly detail would have been appreciated on several points. In particular, one of the problems with this hypothesis is that it lends itself as well to the strictures of the counter-factual genre as well as it does to that of conventional history. At one point Ferguson suggests that less developed countries, such as Britain’s African territories, benefited from the Empire in terms of investment and infrastructure while the progress of more sophisticated nations, such as India, was more likely to have been retarded. Elsewhere, he observes that repatriation of finance from India to Britain in the nineteenth century amounted to no more than one percent of GDP and was most likely outweighed by the intensive investment in infrastructure.

To a large extent this depends on a judgement of how India would have developed without colonial rule, with Ferguson observing that Chinese independence during the nineteenth century had done little to ensure its prosperity. However, although weak government due to dynastic decline (by the same token declining Mughal rule may have been unlikely to produce Indian economic growth in the nineteenth century) played a part in this, foreign intervention and the ensuing Boxer Rebellion were surely not incidental to it either (though it may be more relevant to compare the failure of democracy in China with its entrenchment in India), particularly if Angus Maddison’s view that India was the world’s largest economy at the start of the eighteenth century and was overtaken by China over the course of the following hundred years (certainly Indian GDP declined as British GDP grew, while China remained the largest economy until either 1830 when it was overtaken by Britain or 1890 when it was overtaken by the United States).

I’ve also been reading G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, which has rather reminded me of Umberto Eco’s essay on Casablanca; "one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it, so that one can only remember parts of it, irrespective of the relationship with the whole." As Tzvetan Todorov observed, detective fiction has two components; the narrative of the crime and the narrative of the detection. One of the features of the detection narrative (or at least the English variety) is its conservatism; unrest in the social order is typically resolved by civil society itself (i.e. a private detective or citizen rather than the state, whose representatives can be reassured of a dismissive portrayal), a conditions exemplified by Agatha Christie. On the other hand, such a conception can be subverted, as with Wilkie Collins or even Conan Doyle. In the case of Chesterton, the notion of Valentin’s scientific nature and atheism are well suited for murder. For much of Chesterton, the narrative is a moral one; Father Brown solves crimes through moments of epiphany rather than a process of ratiocination, and the criminal is often engaged in confession rather than punishment (as with Flambeau). But equally, in the case of the solution narrative (Doyle and Poe favoured this, casting the genre as a form of literary puzzle) Chesterton, like Christie (in The 4.50 From Paddington, for example.) is liable to introduce dissolute characters specifically as red herrings, for instance in stories where there is no crime, bringing the two narratives into conflict.

On a rather more elevated note, I’ve read Therese by Francois Mauriac, a book condemned by Simone Weill as giving sin the monotony of duty. On the whole, that seems somewhat unfair, as the book oscillates between a similar pattern to that of Madame Bovary (i.e. a sin committed in a stifling social context with later contrition through suffering; "they were right to imagine her as a monster, but in her eyes they too were monstrous") and that of L’Etranger (where the sin is that of refusing to acknowledge social norms and the sinner becomes a rebel. As Mauriac puts it "that power, granted to all human beings, no matter how much they may seem to be the slaves of a hostile fate – of saying not to the law that beats them down"). To some extent, this is attributable to the absence of a notion of identity in the novel; "never, for a single moment, to be sure of one’s own identity… I am aware, all the time, of this mental disintegration." Accordingly, the absence of volition that characterises stifles any repentance.

John Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is an odd novel. On the one hand, the historical setting and theme are rather reminiscent of Hardy, but the content is more reminiscent of Marx than Schopenhauer; "they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of unfairness were in their blood," being a accretion of episodes that determine the characters (though there is little sense of history within the novel). More interesting was Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, a novel that reprises the theme of the idiot from Dostoevsky and Cervantes. The obvious influence though, as indicated by the title, is Kafka, reminding me of some of Zadie Smith’s recent comments; "His influence seems to cause a mutation in the recipient, metamorphosing the novel into something closer to a meditation, a fantastical historiography, an essay, a parable… Novelists simply do not resist life in this fashion. Life, in its shared social form, is, for lack of a less vulgar term, their material. They cannot say, as Kafka did, “Never again psychology!" Or, as Walter Benjamin put it Kafka used the traditional forms of representation without the associated truth value. Like Kafka, Coetzee inverts the normal function of the novel, serving to obfuscate rather than elucidate social relations (hence the lack of a definite setting); "barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself". The novel is therefore polyphonic, offering a narrative of resistance to social norms (even to civilisation, since Michael is described "as if he had once been an animal") or of emotional dependency to matriarchal domination. Experience cannot be reduced to the neat patterns of literary convention.