The Sum of Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


It was a cold day and I went for a walk around the grounds of Calke Abbey. Herds of Roe and Fallow Deer roamed around the parkland while Ducks slipped across the ice on frozen lakes. There are a few hides dotted around the estate and I could quickly see a lot of different Birds; Siskins, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Reed Buntings, a Nuthatch, a Tree Creeper, a Marsh tit, a Woodpecker and a Water Rail. Nature was similarly evident in a visit to Shugborough Hall, where long horned cattle roam the grounds and chickens are in the farmyard; no Tamworth Pigs yet though. A few days later and I visit Middleton Lakes, a wetland nature reserve populated by wild horses. The main thing here is the discovery that Robins will eat out of your hand if it has mealworms on it.

I’ve been reading Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. It come over as Beat literature after the fact; like the Beats, Acker, sees sex as a revolutionary act against a  puritanical society. But she also writes about how capitalist materialism has commodified sex and separated pleasure from feeling. When re-writing a version of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, it leads her into praising the Puritans for being less materialistic if more socially repressive than her time; it’s not quite a view I can imagine Burroughs or Kerouac quite articulating.

I generally tend to be somewhat suspicious of historical novels; the further events recede from living memory, the greater the resemblance becomes to a form of ersatz science fiction, irrespective of how well researched the depiction may be. In the case of novels set in the Victorian period this is compounded by the tendency for the contemporary author to sit in judgement of Victorian sexual repression and the extremes of inequality and poverty endemic to the period, as can be clearly seen in novels like Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is, in truth, no exception to this.

The novel revolves around the relationship between a working class prisoner, Grace Marks and a middle-class proto-psychiatrist, Simon Jordan as he attempts to penetrate her amnesia to determine whether she was complicit in a murder. Jordan’s masculine attempts to dominate and discover the truth are counterpointed by her tendency to narrate unreliably and only tell him what is fitting for him to hear. In both cases, Atwood’s central concept is the dichotomy between the Virgin and the Whore. Jordan discusses the idea of female irrationality at one point with a colleague, dismissing the idea that prostitutes could be regarded as hysterics, given the strength needed to survive under such circumstances; equally the background of the 1837 rebellion creates a tendency to view the lower class as irrational beasts as much as to define it by gender. But events critique much of this, with Grace’s narration depiciting upper-class men sleeping with servant women.  Jordan himself becomes entangled in an affair with his down at heel landlady, proving shocked at her descent from respectability into sado-masochistic frenzy that leads her to suggest a plot to kill her husband.  Like Grace, he becomes an amnesiac after serving in the American civil war, and therefore becoming an unusual Victorian figure; a man exhibiting the same traits of mental illness as a woman. In the case of Marks, she presents herself as a sexless being who is frequently shocked at the coarseness of other people. Her account of events presents herself as a passive victim who neither participated in the murders nor did anything to prevent them.  Under hypnosis, a second personality emerges, that of the coarse and sensual Mary who had previously died after a botched abortion and who fully implicates herself as an active agent in the murders; as often in such novels there is a degree of anachronistic Freudianism in the presentation of such things; the novel is structured with each chapter named after a single panel from a quilt, suggesting that a whole can only be made out of fragments.

Something similar applies to Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys, where the Easter Rising is used as a backdrop to a romance between two working class boys, centering something that would have been historically marginal. I’m not entirely sure it works; paralleling the development of a nationalism to the awareness of sexual orientation seems an awkward juxtaposition.

Like Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman describes the love of an effeminate gay man for a straight Marxist revolutionary. Of the two, Puig’s is the rather more interesting. As a text, it eschews conventional narration in favour of dialogue (it reads like a film script) and a series of intertextual references to a series of other texts. The novel is structured like One Thousand and One Nights, with Molina taking the part of Scheherazade as he recounts various films he has seen, such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (clearly Puig and I shared taste in horror films). Just as Scheherazade sought to defer her execution, Molina seeks to defer the completion of her mission to extract intelligence from Valentin. Each film has dialogic relationship with the main text; from the suppressed sexuality of Cat People to the implicit sexual jealousy directed at Valentin’s lover Marta through the re-telling of I Walked with a Zombie. Many of the films depict a hero or heroine dying nobly for a cause, but the cause varies from Marxist guerrillas through to Nazi propaganda; Molina claims throughout to be disengaged with politics, and the ending is ambiguous as to whether her death is attributable to a sense of drama, as Valentin suspects or any genuine commitment. This ambiguity also extends to the sexual politics of the novel; Valentin critiques the way in which Molina’s sexuality manifests as a sense of submissiveness as much as a sense of effeminacy, but he arguably exploits this when asking for messages to be passed outside the prison. Conversely, as the title implies, Molina powerfully manipulates many of the novel’s events throughout, arguably up to and including her own death. One of the other dialogic aspects of the novel that relates to this lies with the citation of a mock academic treatise on homosexuality at the end of many of the chapters, arguing that homosexuality is initially normal but also vital in playing a socially disruptive role that is implicitly revolutionary (something suggested by Valentin and Molina’s sexual encounters, unlike the forlorn longing in Lemebel).

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is an autobiographical text that moves constantly between the concrete instance of her and her family’s experience and a theoretical strata layered around it. As a means of offering its own commentary on its events, I found difficult to avoid a sense of dissatisfaction with this approach. Although Nelson does have a certain hagiographical way of referring to theory (I defy anyone not to roll their eyes at her horror at Sedgwick’s admission that she had undergone therapy to become happier, as if referring to some sort of disgraced prophet) she is certainly willing to critique it; for example, she correctly lambasts Zizek’s transphobia, notes that she finds Freud and Lacan unhelpful to her own experience of maternity and notes that the Foucauldean tendency to seek to avoid labels or to simply create a form of self from the trap one finds oneself in is a form of political disengagement. More tellingly, she criticises an academic who had attacked a colleague on the grounds that her “maternity had rotted her mind,” with much of Nelson’s thesis being to deconstruct the binary division between the maternal and domestic on the one hand and life as someone who does not conform to hetero-normative expectation.

Reading Nelson, I found myself thinking a lot about Hal Niedzviecki’s thesis that modern society has made rebellion and individuality into a new form of conformity, only for their expression of rebellion to typically manifest in highly stereotyped ways. For example, a discussion on, of all things, an X-men film leads to a dialogue about her partner’s sympathy for revolutionary versus assimilationist politics, one that is substantially undercut by their own rush to marry when proposition 8 was set to restrict same sex access to that right. It’s equally noticeable that any discussion of the lgbt rights beyond this is absent, figuring only as a form of assimilationist guilt rather than out of any sense of engaged struggle. Similarly, there isn’t any discussion of the alignment between revolutionary politics in this sense and the conservative establishment. For all of the book’s fetishisation of the transgressive or the radical there is no real political programme there, unless one really does want to embrace Francis Bacon’s regret that the death penalty was not available for the homosexual acts he himself participated in. By contrast, Nelson’s guilt at Army Service men saluting her as a pregnant mother seems somewhat piffling while her snobbish dismissal of Pride Parades becomes more than mildly irritating.

Reading Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a particular paragraph did give me pause. Much of her thesis rests on the ways in which imputing metaphorical dimensions to illnesses that should have none acts as obstacle to sensible treatment. In the case of AIDS, that meant that the view of it as a gay plague (even though in most countries it was not) led to the advocacy of false solutions like abstinence. But at one point, Sontag does describe the sexual culture of gay men in the seventies as the most efficient machine for sexual consumption ever devised, linking it to the prevalence of consumerism as the central aspect of social life. It seems a rather jarring note that undermines much of the book’s central arguments.


The Great Wave

The combination of security theatre and a crowded exhibition with glacially moving crowds does make the British Museum’s Hokusai exhibition something of an ordeal, but it’s worth it for a chance to see some of the most famous non-Western artworks in history. The exhibition covers a range of Hokusai’s work, from hanging scrolls and paintings to wooden temple ceiling panels and woodblock prints. The series of prints showing views of Mount Fuji dominates along with views of waterfalls, ghosts and scenes from literature, showing how Hokusai had gradually introduced European style perspective and increased the range of colours in his prints; it was also interesting to note that the predominant colour used was the European Prussian blue. The paintings strike me as rather odd; the combination of bright colours with shading rather than flat blocks of colours lends it rather more of a cartoonish air than the woodblock prints. Some of the more unexpected items include bird’s eye style map views of Japan and China or a pair of scrolls showing two androgynous youths, who were probably sex workers.

The museum also has a smaller exhibition of British watercolours from artists like Whistler,  Nash, Minton, Moore and Sutherland, a small exhibition featuring masks and totems from the Northwest Coast Peoples of Canada, and a set of paintings depicting military figures from the Maoist era in the style of the terracotta warriors. Lastly, the Chinese admonitions scroll is on a rather brief display.

The area around the Albert Hall has now also been barricaded off with a set of concrete blockades and the entrance is subject to security checks. It is a little depressingly like living in wartime. I’ve gone to see Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina and Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, with the former being easily the more impressive of the two. Around this, I visit the Natural History Museum. The whale that is now centre stage in the Hintze Hall is more impressive than the former occupant, Dippy the Diplodocus, in many ways; it floats above the visitors, its spine curved like it is diving. On the other hand, since it is facing downwards I find it a lot harder to photograph than Dippy.  While I’m there I visit the Anning fossils, the bird taxidermy, some Blaschka models and the geological hall with its Ostro stone centre piece. The following day I visit the Museum of London in Docklands, with its exhibition covering the slave trade through to the second world war and the regeneration of the area afterwards. There’s also an exhibition of the Roman remains unearthed by the Crossrail works.

Later, I go to a Czech Prom (which suffers from presenting dismembered excerpts from Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek; the best piece is easily Martinu’s Field Mass) and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Metastasio’s plot does feel rather like a tragedy aborted in deference to contemporary political concerns. I also visit Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition of John Singer Sergeant watercolours; pictures of watery locations like Venice and Istanbul work rather well but less so for more pastoral scenes where the detail of drawing might have worked better.

Reading JR Ackerley’s My Father and Myself is an odd experience. The essential intent of the book is to highlight the secret sexual lives of Ackerley and his father; in Ackerley’s own case, amounting to encounters with other a hundred other men, in the case of his father, a secret family and children kept hidden from his wife. Ackerley also speculates about whether his father had offered sexual favours to wealthy men during his time as an aristocrat. By the standards of the time, it would have been Ackerley’s own experiences that would have been deemed the more transgressive; the book makes perfectly clear that the puritanism of English culture at the time was perfectly compatible with heterosexual privilege. Certainly, Ackerley’s narrative is remarkably frank by the standards of the time, but by contemporary standards he seems a sexual cripple; a series of fixations and dysfunctions make clear that his encounters amounted to very little indeed. Where his father seems effortlessly able to marry his romantic and sexual lives across a series of three women, Ackerley’s quest amongst working class men for a Platonic ideal is doomed to failure.

Something similar applies to Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant. Crisp’s obvious effeminacy meant that he unavoidably had to ‘put his case’ to the world around him (to the dismay of other gay man at the the time, who did not wish to see attention drawn to what Crisp refers to as their abnormality) often at the cost of his safety after repeated queerbashings, but he is dismissing of legislation improving the position of homosexuals in any way. At times, he ridicules the idea that homosexuality is a sin but at others he’s frank that he considers his homosexuality as nothing more than an illness. Crisp’s wit is often (lazily) compared to Wilde, but if Wilde was a libertine, Crisp was an ascetic, leading a spartan existence and scorning camp as little more than drawing attention to a deficiency. For someone who once worked as a prostitute, Crisp mostly  seemed to regard sex as an unwelcome form of effort.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island presents a narrative based around the efforts of a ‘corporate anthropologist’ to find a unifying key to modern culture. The narrator often cites Levi Strauss and his failed efforts to locate an authentic form of culture that hasn’t been contaminated by exposure to the modern world. For all of the narrator’s references to theorists like Deleuze, one assumes that McCarthy is thinking of Derrida’s critique of Levi Strauss when he compares such corporate anthropology to icthyomancy or a cargo cult. The result in the novel is that the grand theory becomes a broken heap of images; of parachutes that fail to open or protests at a G7 summit in Italy. If there is a unifying idea it is waste, whether an oil slick or an island composed of the refuse of modern culture (the novel assumes its title is a malapropism for Staten Island refuse tip, a scenario that reminds of of De Lillo’s Underworld).

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America offers a similar cocktails of references, unified by the theme of the dismantling of the individual ego and its discover of community; Kushner references Brecht’s learning plays, Biblical stories of wrestling with the angel through to Bloom’s Oedipal ideas of the anxiety of influence. You can see such themes emerge in Joe’s realisation that his embrace of Mormonism, Heteronormativity and Conservatism (embodied in his relationship with Roy Cohn) are fraudulent. But equally, the play is at its best celebrating the outsider and the eccentric and perhaps at its worst at missing the role religion has played in homophobia.

Totes Meer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Time of the Skeleton Lords

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

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

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

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

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


Open House weekend in London begins with a visit to the Reform Club. This is a wonderfully theatrical interior, with an enclosed central courtyard leading off into apparently long galleries where an illusion of space is created by mirrors. Mirrors above fireplaces prove to simply be windows into other rooms. The effect of the interior is one of deception; copies of Parthenon friezes are made of papier mache while wooden pillars are painted to resemble marble. The building design is intended to imitate the Farnesi palace, but the grey stone looks utterly unlike anything in Rome. Rooms are often given names that don’t match their function; the guide delights in pointing out that coffee is not available in the coffer room. I rather like the ban placed on usage of mobiles, tablets and laptops. After that, I visit the nearby Queen’s chapel before going on a tour of St Pancras Chambers; this is actually rather disappointing compared to the tour I went on years ago before the restoration. I can see the base of the grand staircase but no further-up. I do get to see the clock tower though. After that, I go to Chartered Accountant’s Hall in Moorgate. This was obiously built with a lot of money originally; a main hall is surmounted by a dome cupola with a chandelier hanging from it, while frescos cover the walls and the windows are filled with stained glass. I’m rather perturbed by a copy of the Rialto bridge in the library. Other sections are perhaps more what you’d expect; a drab extension only enlivened by Paolozzi tapestries and Piper paintings. I then have a look at some Wren churches and notice that on a grey dull day the top of the Shard has disappeared in the fog. I’d seen this sort of thing in New York but never before in London. I also have a look at the moat of the Tower of London, filled with ceramic red poppies as a WW1 memorial. Lastly on that day, I go on a tour of 55 Broadway, up the roof garden where there’s a view over a rather grey London.

The following day, I go on a tour of 2 Temple Place, looking at the Shakespearian friezes and sculptures from the Four Musketeers. After that, I head out to East London for a tour of Abbey Mills. East London is rather depressing, a souless place with lots of modern skyscrapers next to a dual carriageway. Abbey Mills itself is wonderful though; the building exterior is studded with Minton tiling and friezes showing roses and ferns. The interior is much more up to date than Crossness but the wonderful lantern at the centre is far more ornate. After this, we walk round the exterior with the remains of the old chimneys. I then head back to where I started and go round Middle Temple Hall and the Temple church.

The following weekend I go back into London. There’s a Japanese festival on in Trafalgar Square and a bizarre Yurukyara show is underway on a large stage, featuring Tagatan (mascot of Tagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture) and Sanomaru (mascot of Sano-city). Very odd. I go for a brief look in the National Gallery, including the new Bellows painting. That evening I go to a performance of Verdi’s Otello at the Coliseum. The staging of this is very well done; the lights are set low and the actors cast tall shadows on the walls. Much of the stage is in muted light throughout with a fire at the centre lighting it. There’s a particularly effective moment where Desdemona is lying in the dark and a door on the other side of the stage opens and a beam of light is cast towards her. Otello’s shadow becomes visible in the light before he can be seen himself. Since the play requires very little action as such, the director does rather over-compensate by having the actors occasionally throw themselves on the floor. A few weeks later and I’m back at the Coliseum for a performance of La Boheme; muscially, I find Puccini a lot less interesting than Verdi but the staging and overall performance seem much more satisfying. As often with ENO I’m impressed by the staging; a Montmartre garret can be divided in two and swiveled round to form a street scene so that it switches between interior and exterior. Ranging between twilight cafe scenes lit by candlelight and harsh winter scenes, it feels cinematic in its realism.

I’ve been reading Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, a postmodern recasting of Great Expectations. Much of the retelling dwells on a more modern interpretation of the Victorian period (abortion, prostitution and the suicide of a gay character loom throughout). A character obviously based on Dickens begins by attempting to use Maggs as source material for his writing, manipulating him through mesmerism, but his control slips and the character begins to write his own story.

London Preserv’d

As summer sunshine gives way to thunderstorms and vice versa, I travel to the Tate Modern to see the Matisse exhibition. I arrive a little early and walk along the Thames shore for a while; I notice that much of the materials that make up the beach are items like old bricks that have been rounded and worn but also that the amount of animal bone is extraordinary, with as many bones littering the shore as there are shells. Once inside, the Matisse exhibition straddles arts and crafts with works designed as wall ornaments (often using leaves as a pattern; William Morris would have approved), stained glass windows as well as book covers and illustrations. In fact, the decorative element works well as the cut-out technique used lacks sufficient precision for the representational; the works become an exercise in the serendipitous like Pollock’s dripped paint; Matisse is recorded as saying that he disliked the cut-outs being turned into prints due to the loss of the physical character when the layers of paper are flattened.

Afterwards, I go for a walk along the Thames before arriving at The Globe for a performance of Antony and Cleopatra. I have to admit to not being overwhelmed; the performance makes too much of the comic aspects of the play (the best performance is easily that of Phil Daniels as Enobarbus, who acts the leads offstage) and understates the tragic and fails to make full use of The Globe’s intimate space to create anything distinctive. The most memorable parts are attributable to the staging; Cleopatra’s golden chair dominating the stage or the sacrifice of a goat. It’s a different matter entirely the following week, with the performance of Otway’s Venice Preserv’d by The Spectator’s Guild. I arrive a little early in Greenwich again and spend a while looking at the Baltic Exchange stained glass in the National Maritime Museum. Then I wait at the Cutty Sark for the carnival to start and we are led by a group of harlequins through south London’s council estates to the Paynes and Borthwick building; an unfinished development that will serve in lieu of renaissance Venice. The play has has a modern prologue added that parallels its events with those of a maritime city divided between the ‘chavs and chav nots’ – this with a glance at the towers of Canary Wharf that can be seen gleaming on the other side of the river. As the play progresses we move from room to room, from inside to outsideas planes from the city airport fly overhead. The interior sets are often intriguing; with gauze separating them from the audience so that they can be projected on and gain a film-like quality (no need for suspension of disbelief over the appearance of ghosts; film of the dead characters are projected onto the walls. As the actors were filmed underwater it takes on an especially ethereal aspect. Elsewhere, the actors roam amongst the audience who are asked to don red capes so as to take the part of the Venetian Senate. The play itself seems unjustly forgotten, with the narrative of a bloody revolt against the tyrannical government of Venice resonating against the execution King Charles, Gunpowder Plot and events like the Popish Plot. One thing it does have in common with Antony and Cleopatra is the focus on female characters and their lack of power, with Aquillina and Belvidera’s actions proving the fulcrum on which narrative shifts. The acting is far better than that at the Globe with brilliant performances from all of the cast.

I’ve been reading Sontag’s Volcano Lover, which is in one sense a historical novel relating to the relationships of Nelson, William Hamilton and Emma Hamilton and is in another a more disinterested narrative in which none of those characters are ever referred to by name and in which an assemblage of more minor characters are allowed to narrate events from their own very different perspectives. Much of the novel is also given up to describing collecting or literature as a form of escape against events like either the action of the volcano or the wars devastating Europe at the time. I’ve also read the Orkneyinga where it’s interesting that christian and pagan worldviews overlap; the martyrdom of Saint Magnus sits alongside a warrior’s code of honour that mixes uneasily with christianity. Lastly, I’ve also read Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction; like many of Bernhard’s novels it creates a dialectic between a conservative and reactionary society in one instance and an isolated and nihilistic outsider in another. This manifests itself in the narrator’s contemptuously aristocratic attitude to his sister’s marriage to a bourgeois manufacturer or the way in which his friend Maria rejects his hatred for his family home or his friend Spadolini’s homily for his derided father.


The rains of last year have given way to a protracted winter that has seen snowdrops and crocuses buried in snow. By Easter, the worst of the snows had receded but it was still bitingly cold and the air still saw flurries of snow suspended and thrown by the wind between fitful bursts of sunlight. On the way up to the Midlands, I call in at St Mary’s church in Iffley to see the new stained glass window by Roger Wagner. I’d seen Wagner’s painting of Didcot power station recast as a Menorah during Oxford artweeks a few years ago and the new window is in keeping with that style, with the crucifixion cross recast as a flowering tree of life. The cobalt blue glass forms a logical companion to Piper’s nativity window opposite.

Arriving back in the Midlands, I have a look at Tutbury church, another Romanesque building characterised by its beakhead carvings. The church and nearby castle are set high up on a hillside and the snow is still thick on the ground, although the donkeys at the castle don’t seem too concerned. The church interior is rather stark, with thick Norman columns remaining although a Victorian apse with a pointed arch has been introduced. I also look at the nearby church at Hanbury, which combines extensive Victorian stained glass and Minton tiling with a set of Puritan monuments, and the church at Barton Under Needwood with its octagonal apse and Flemish stained glass. The following day, I travel down to Croome Park. Here Capability Brown had turned marshland into a recreation of a river with a parkland dotted with follies, beginning with a gothic revival church. Mistletoe hangs on the still bare tree bows. Rather oddly, the interior of the church was designed by Adam, creating an effect reminiscent of some of Wren’s gothic churches. Although the Bath stone exterior rather resembles an Oxford chapel, on the inside everything is in white and grey,including the collection of family tomb monuments. I walk down through some of the park’s follies, including a rotunda and an orangery to the house. The parkland is being replanted with an arboretum to recall a collection that was once as large as Kew; sunlight plays on the Bath stone of the follies while the Malvern hills in the distance remain covered with snow. As with the chapel, the house’s Bath stone exterior gives way to an Adam interior, including a Georgian long gallery with surviving ceiling, wall frescos and marble fireplace caryatids. On the way back, I stop at Pershore and visit the Abbey. The surviving building seems oddly mutilated with the scar of the destruction of its transepts during the restoration still evident in the patchwork brickwork and the buttresses added later to support the tower. The interior reminds me of Tewkesbury, gothic rather than romanesque but still dark and with little light filtering through to the interior. Save for a crusader tomb and some painted Tudor monuments the interior is rather stark, although the Victorian crossing design is rather striking.

The following day, I visit Burford in Shropshire. The church interior was renovated by Aston Webb and comes with stained glass on knights of the round table and elaborate wooden ceiling angels. More striking is a medieval monument made of painted wood, a heart monument, a painted stone and a diptych that contains Tudor paintings of the local family. The exterior of the church is lined with small gargoyles that were added in Webb’s design. Following this, I visit Shobdon in Herefrodshire. It’s rather difficult to characterise the interior design here; it’s not Baroque in the way Great Witley is and it isn’t gothic revival in the way Strawberry Hill is; it’s perhaps best described as a form of ‘Rococo Gothick.’ Up the nearby hill are the surviving elements of the original Romanesque church, arranged into an incongruously gothic revival folly.

I then spend a day in Coventry. I hadn’t been inside the guildhall on my last visit, so I was interested in a great hall filled with medieval tapestries, Arts and Crafts tapestries from Morris & Company and a mixture of Victorian and medieval stained glass. In nearby Holy Trinity church, I’m amused at a plaque for George Eliot; an odd tribute to an atheist writer. I also have a look in the new cathedral; the gloomy and dark cathedral recalls that of Romanesque churches but the amount of stained glass and latticed ceiling imply an exercise in modernist gothic. The jagged geometricism of the architecture combined with the amount of cavernous space that would normally be filled with pillars and screens do rather little to endear the place. Lastly, I have a look around the Herbert Art Gallery; the twentieth century collection is the best thing here, with two works by Lowry (one of Ebbw Vale the other of a dark church), a Mondrianesque painting by Nicholson and an op-art piece by Philip Wetton. The nineteenth century is only notable for an early Rembrandtesque work by Holman Hunt.

Lastly, I call in at Compon Verney on the way back down south. Glasgow art gallery has lent it a collection of Italian paintings, which amount to a somewhat shallow survey of Italian art from Botticelli and Bellini to Titian and Bordone and thence to Rosa and Dolci before finishing with Anesi and Guardi. It also includes some historical paintings by Camuccini that rather remind me of David’s work from the same period. The Guardi and Anesi paintings form an interesting counterpoint to Neapolitan section of the permanent collection with Canalettoesque scenes of Naples from the likes of Wittel as well as paintings of Vesuvius by Volaire. I think I’d missed the fol art section on my last visit, with its odd mixture of William and Mary teapots, Punch and Judy jugs, Ship’s figureheads Swan shaped pub signs and naive paintings of boxing matches and provincial towns. The papier mache ‘Mexican creature’ from the Marx Lambert collection is particularly striking.

<Back down south, I visit The Vyne to see the Roman ring unearthed at Silchester and linked to a curse tablet. The stream nearby is full; I can’t see the carp that used to lurk at the bottom of the lake. The summerhouse is open for the first time, with a latticed wood ceiling.

Reading James Fenton’s translation of The Orphan of Zhao, I was struck by the extent to which it resembled Elizabethan plays; a tyrant deposed as in Macbeth, a son avenges his father as in Hamlet. But Hamlet is only concerned with revenge as a device and is preeminently concerned with the malaise in its protagonist’s psyche; in The Orphan of Zhao the claims of filial and societal obligation are paramount, leading Cheng Bo to kill his adopted father as soon as he learns of his real identity. The Greek idea of tragedy as being attributable to hubris is remote here. The point it most resembles Hamlet is in the narrative concerning Cheng Ying who allows the death of his own son so that his social obligations can be fulfilled (saving the orphan’s life) but later having to pay for that crime against his own blood.

One of my reservations about a lot of Beat literature is that it tends, in common with a lot of Romantic literature, towards a monologic emphasis on its own mythology. Go by John Clelon Holmes is in many respects a rather conventional realist novel, dwelling on subjects like work and marriage that did not typically feature in the Beat canon. The protagonist is distanced from the “quot;emotional outcasts" that represent the key figures of the Beat movement by being more entrenched in a middle class lifestyle; "that;s essentially the whole genteel pathos of liberalism.. ideas being more important than men… someone who hates the charity of the heart" The novel critiques Hobbes for this but also the Beats themselves (&amoral giggling nihilists") and their attitudes towards women in particular, where girlfriends are shown as being more capable as when Kathryn sneers that Dinah has held down a job while Hart couldn’t – she herself supports Hobbes while he writes in an inversion of the usual gender roles; "she’s really stronger than any of them." It also suggests that the Beat mythology had already become self-perpetuating; "what is all Prometheans are condemned to end in chains… his act is getting tedious and not drawing in the crowds like it used to…he creates biographers wholesale."

BS Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry uses postmodernism as a device to deconstruct the novel. The text is in many ways a very English comedy, not unlike an Alan Ayckbourn play but uses postmodernist techniques to prise this apart, with characters repeatedly alluding to being aware that they are characters in a novel. The narrator decodes reality into a simplistic moral schema, in much the same way as novels do. Where another novel would seek to explicate these events psychologically, Johnson refuses to allow that to happen, saying that plenty of other people had similar backgrounds to Malry; "all is chaos and unexplainable. These things happened. He is as he is and you are as you are… it is just so much wasted effort to explain anything truly." The novel ends rather than concludes, refusing to grant any hermeneutic gratification by suggesting any meaning to the events it has depicted. It’s rather difficult not to see this as a counsel of despair; if the novel cannot be used for the same sort of purposes that Lawrence or Hardy used it for then it has no greater claim, as it admits, than cinema.


I went to Stratford-Upon-Avon this weekend to see a performance of Brecht’s Life of Galileo. I start by looking at the Guild Chapel with its doom frescos before by the banks of the Avon to Holy Trinity church, with its elaborate monuments, misericords and Kempe stained glass. Back into Stratford and I have a look at Bancroft Gardens and its Shakespeare statues and the American fountain. I then visit the Shakespeare Birthplace and the New Place. The play itself is perhaps the least Brechtian of Brecht’s plays; a fact that may account for its popularity. To a large extent, it depicts an narrative of scientific progress as a determinant of social change by undermining reactionary forces (with the Catholic church paralleled to the Nazis) but Brecht’s rewrites after Hiroshima equally dwell on technology as a means of supporting conservative ends, as with the idea of telescopes as a support for the Venetian navy. Galileo accordingly emerges as an ambivalent figure; in one instance a hero of the enlightenment and in the other someone who advances his career, disregards his daughter’s future and recants out of self interest rather than as a means of covertly advancing scientific truth.

Back in London the following weekend and I visit the Royal Academy’s Manet exhibition. As an exhibition, it seems rather padded with bare walls and assorted historical notes to draw attention from the absence of most of Manet’s most famous. The exhibition is in many respects less about the paintings and more a biographical study of the painter, drawing attention to the backgrounds and biographies of his subjects. Perhaps as a consequence of that, Manet’s art comes through as rather protean, skipping between subjects and styles freely. A painting of Monet and his family shows the influence of impressionism but most of the paintings here tend towards portraiture of bourgeois subjects, excepting the small Courtauld copy of Déjeuner sur l’herbe; more realist works like The Absinthe Drinker or A Bar at the Folies-Bergère are not here. Many of the portraits are accordingly quite traditional; the painting of Zola with the emblems of the painter and his subject placed around the study could have been by Holbein. Many of the works include still lifes that recall Dutch paintings while the painting of Zastruc with a cutaway section behind him showing a kitchen recalls Velasquez. Like Velasequz, Manet is notable for his use of perspective, as wit his painting of The Luncheon where an indistinct figure in the background stares straight out of the canvas as the boy in the centre looks away from the viewer. Later works likeThe Railroad go rather further in challenging what should be central to a painting, with the child in the centre standing with their back to the viewer while a female figure at the edge stares outwards.