Totes Meer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food cooked: Latvian fish and mushroom pie, Veal with grapes and apricot, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Masala Roast Chicken, Wiener Schnitzel, Miso potato salad, Vietnamese lime and coconut curry, Chicken Marbella, Chicken Bastilla, Bouillabaisse, Russian Salmon pie, Chicken cooked in milk, Rakott káposzta, Gammon cooked with cola.

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.

Yurukyara

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.

Fimbulwinter

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.

Galileo

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.

Golden Grove Unleaving

Where this year’s summer was damp and dark, the autumn has mostly been bright and warm, as leaves on the trees slowly turned gold and red. This weekend remained true to this pattern, although the wind has become newly cold and biting. I decide to visit Windsor, having previously been to the town but not the castle. The castle itself is perhaps not atypical of Berkshire architecture, being constructed out of the flint that is so typical of the vernacular architecture of the region. The exception is St George’s Chapel, which rather looks as if it should be attached to an Oxford college, with its warm Bath stone. The ornate interior is considerably more ostentatious than most English cathedrals, especially the Albert chapel. The chapel is one of the many examples of Victorian medievalism in the castle, where the history is less striated into defined periods and more blurred into liminal zones that could come from any period or none. The interior of the State Apartments is a case in point, given that the post-fire reconstruction leaves an ancient building lacking any patina of age and instead still retaining the gleam of newness. Statues of Queen Victoria and plundered treasures from Benin and Mysore sit resplendent within reconstructed chambers.

The following week I visit the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy. I feel rather ambivalent about exhibitions like this; lacking focus on a single individual, movement or period diminishes the interest for me. In this case, the only connection between the objects is their material, with the exhibits arranged according to whether they depict animals, gods, figures or are simply objects. The exhibits are drawn from every culture and period, with pieces from ancient China, Nigeria, Scandinavia, Rome, India and Greece. I recall seeing some of them elsewhere, like the Chimera of Arezzo, Remington’s Off the Range, Rodin’s Age of Bronze, Durham Cathedral’s Door Knocker, and a cast of Cellini’s Perseus but many of them are new to me like the Chariot of the Sun from Sweden, the Chariot of Strettweg, the Crosby Garrett helmet, Leopard Benin Bronzes, the Asante Ewer, the Uffizi Boar, an Islamic lion, a statue of Shiva. I’m particularly struck by an emaciated Buddha from Thailand, which recalls much of medieval European funerary art. Some of the 19th works are particularly elaborate, like a lion killing a crocodile, a Japanese incense burner or a Jewess from Algiers created in marble and bronze. Modern works include a baboon by Picasso, a spider from Bourgeois, a mirror by Kapoor, Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity, Brancusi’s Bird a baseball by Jeff Koons, sculptures from Hepworth and Moore, and beer cans by Jasper Johns.

The Pre-Raphaelite avant garde exhibition at the Tate offers few surprises; presumably as a dependable money spinner in straitened times it is not intended to. As such, it’s less a matter of novelty and more a matter of greeting old friends. The exhibition is organised thematically, beginning by highlighting Nazarene influences on the Pre-Raphaelites. Some of the themes tend to emphasise Pre-Raphaelite weaknesses; the section on religion frames their tendency toward sentimentality (The Blind Girl, The Woodman’s Daughter) and preaching (as in The Awakening Conscience or The Hireling Shepherd). Holman Hunt’s work in particular tends to have a rather crude symbolism; his better works are the more abstracted such as The Scapegoat or The Strayed Sheep, both of which need little metaphysical sublimation to what are essentially landscape scenes. As a theme, nature works considerably better, highlighting the influence of Fox Talbot’s photography in the hyper-realistic detail of paintings like Ophelia, Inchbold’s At Bolton, Brett’s Val d’Aosta, Dyce’s Pegwell Bay and Chill October by Millais. Some of the social paintings also demarcate an area of weakness; the Pre-Raphaelite cult of beauty precludes the sort of social observation seen in French naturalism. The section on portraiture highlights an opposing aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism; it’s love of surface and texture rather than detail, especially in Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata, The Bride, Monna Vanna, Lady Lilith Beata Beatrix and The Blue Bower, Hunt’s Il Dolce far Niente, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, Watt’s Portrait of Edith Villiers and Sophie Gray by Millais. It’s also good to see Solomon’s painting of Bacchus in this section and I’m also struck by a photograph of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of female historical figures such as Hypatia; not a choice that would have occurred to the male painters. In the history section, epic battles are sidelined in favour of domestic scenes realistically rendered – and with women in a passive role, as devoted wives (The Order of Release or abandoned lovers (Mariana). The section on mythology probably highlights their strongest area where they touch most of European art movements. Burne Jones emerges as the strongest figure here in works that largely lack the hyper-realism associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, with paintings like Laus Veneris, The Golden Stairs, A Vision of Fiammetta and Love Among the Ruins. I’m also impressed by Maddox Brown’s Don Juan and Haidee, a work that is new to me. A couple of other things catch my eye in the gallery before leaving; a set of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poems, photography by Dean and Tillmans and paintings by Bowling.

I’ve been reading Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans recently; it’s interesting to contemplate the aspects of her argument that still hold true. Much of it is born of snobbishness and the horror at recalcitrant Americans being reluctant to enter service or to curtsy is as unpalatable to read today as Burke’s rapturous descriptions of the wonders of chivalry. However, many of her arguments seem remarkably prescient; for example how the love of liberty and self reliance would curtail the development of any welfare state (“quot;there is less alms-giving in America than in any other country") or any kind of national infrastructure as she argues that if congress were to tax money for road building it would be seen as an act of tyranny. Another area where seems most pertinent is her observation that religious tyranny could most easily take hold in the absence of a state church. The distaste she feels at American religious enthusiasm as something degrading still seems accurate. She is especially acute of the subjects of slavery and the treatment of the Indians, especially the hypocrisy of this sitting alongside a self-professed love of liberty ("there is a glaring falsehood on the very surface of such a man’s principles that is revolting"). Her observation that much of the populace fared worse than slaves, such as Irish emigrants who died at their labour (being more despised than negro slaves), is also one that seems to unexpectedly (and unintentionally) anticipate later socialist arguments.

I’ve recently read Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. The setting of a christian Rome surmounted on top of a pagan foundation forms a backdrop to a similar transition in how Donatello changes form pagan hedonism to the development of a soul through suffering in atonement for his sins. As an allegory though this is complicated by the lure of the old Rome that draws the characters there in contrast to American puritanism ("he had foregone to be a Christian reality and had perverted himself into a pagan idealist,") and in preference to masochistic implications of such belief ("the growth of a soul, which the sculptor half imagined he had witnessed in his friend, seemed hardly worth the heavy price it had cost"). It is also complicated by Hawthorne’s perception of Catholicism as a corrupt religion, which dismisses sins through confession rather than repentance through suffering, although it is to the confession that Hilda turns; "there appeared to be a contagious element rising foglike from the ancient depravity of Rome.. the guilt and corruption which paganism had left there." As such, the Capuchin who forms a representative of original sin in the novel is cast in decidedly gothic terms rather than those of spurned repentance.

I’ve recently been to two films that relate to the same subject (an adulterous affair set in a historical period) but with extremely different treatments. A Royal Affair recreates eighteenth century Copenhagen in detail, cast in a mode that sees film as an extension of the realist novel. Even the subject matter echoes the nineteenth century novel, albeit with a very different ethical perspective. Anna Karenina is explicitly founded on a realist novel whose application of dramatic principles renders it ideal for film adaptation. However, the film repeatedly subverts realist conventions; it instead sets the narrative in a theatre with sets and props carried about by stagehands and much of the action set in the wings. Characters walk off the stage and into meadows or get onto toy trains. Much of the film seems more like ballet than ordinary cinema. It is only as Anna falls through the veneer of social conventions that the narrative hardens into a more realist treatment. It set me wondering why more films don’t discard some of the realist conventions, why there are so few equivalents of Peter Hall’s dramatising Shakespeare in empty white spaces.

Oxoniensis

The week back after Paris is Oxford Open Doors weekend which accordingly offers little opportunity for relaxation. I start off at Hertford College, with its Blois inspired staircase, before visiting the Union for the first time in over a decade, with its Burne Jones decorated library. I also visit Lady Margaret Hall, with its Byzantine chapel designed by Gilvert Scott and St John the Evangelist, a Bodley designed church just down the road from where I used to live. The rich decoration of the interior with its Kempe stained glass rather contrasts with how empty it is. The following day I go on a tour of the former prison (now a hotel) before visiting Rhodes House. The exterior is decorated with images of Elephants, Sphinxes, Zimbabwee birds and pyramids but the interior is spartan, filled with memorials to Rhodes scholars who died in world wars. I then visit the library at St John’s St Edmund Hall; again, rather odd to return to a place I had once spent so much time. I recalled much of the detail correctly; the layout, the desks but not elements like the monuments, ceiling or stained glass, which would now be the first things I’d look at.

A few weeks later and it’s the Open House in London. I start off with Freemason’s Hall; a work of Stalinist brutalism on the exterior proves to contain an opulent art deco interior; stained glass windows, mosaic floors and frescoed ceilings. I then head southwards for a tour of Lambeth Palace, including the library with its hammer beamed roof the guardroom with its paintings of past Archbishops (Laud’s painting being accompanied by the remains of his pet tortoise) and the chapel. I then spend a bit of time in Brompton Cemetery. The bracken and dried grass is high and the sound of crickets can be heard in the background. Conkers fall from the trees. Squirrels scamper about in the autumnal sun carrying nuts in their mouths. Holly berries are ripening while the ivy has turned a deep crimson. I’m pleased to see the Courtoy mausoleum, which had suffered bad frost damage when I had last visited, has been repaired. I also visit Greenwich and the restored Cutty Sark. It looks rather odd now sat on a glass and steel cushion and while the view of the ship’s golden prow from beneath is impressive, I rather conclude that the Great Britain in Bristol has been rather better conserved. I do rather like the collection of ship’s figureheads though.

Towards the middle of October, the sun continues to shine as the leaves brown and fall. One weekend, I decide to visit Old Basing. I walk beneath a Victorian railway viaduct and alongside the rover Itchen, which is full and clear but with no fish. Arriving, the Tudor tithe barn is the only complete part of the original estate and is a wonderful, vast, cathedral like building. The house itself is but a ruin; at the time of my visit, there were a number of civil war re-enacters there. Rosehips are flowering in the hedgerows and I see a jay in the trees. Finally, I visit the nearby church, whose interior is rather stark, with only one monument.

Reading Ibsen’s plays, I’m struck by the contrast between a writer similar to Shaw in exposing the hypocrisies and inequities of the bourgeoisie and a more modernist writer who instead documents perverse and destructive impulses (the sort of Freudian mythology that predated Freud). The Pillars of the Community is a perfect illustration of the former tendency, in depicting a community built on repression and hypocrisy. The play insists that truth is the only acceptable response to such a foundation but in Ibsen’s other plays this particular recommendation proves entirely destructive. A play like A Public Enemy is more pessimistic, suggesting that society will typically prefer falsehood to truth and do all it can to suppress it; but it also opens the door on the suggestion that those who wish to discard society’s lies are often driven by selfish and perverse impulses. A play like the Wild Duck adheres even more closely to Freud’s suggestion in Civilisation and its Discontents that repression is an essential building block of society, given that Gregers pursuit of truth only results in pain and destruction. Similar patterns emerge in his other plays; The Lady from the Sea and When We Dead Wake contrasts nature and civilisation. Nature is represented in the former by the sea with its sense of fascination for Ellida. Her eventual choice of domestic life is predicated on greater openness and Wangel’s equal treatment of her. By contrast, in When We Dead Wake nature as represented by the mountains symbolises the lure of the animal life for Maia in contrast to the deathly life of art offered by Rubek. A Doll’s House suggests that the subordination of women carves out a path that leads only to hypocrisy, with the solution being greater equality. In Hedda Gabler, Hedda too yearns for a sphere of greater freedom but her instincts tend towards the destructive, leaving it unclear whether society has deformed her or whether her destructive nature is hers alone.

In some sense, similar patterns recur in Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. The custom in question is that of American marriages; "the average American looks down on his wife…How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgement… why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t have enough interest in them. " In this hypothesis, American women lead a gilded existence in which they demand to be kept in a luxury whose means of production they are entirely abstracted from. Having nothing else to occupy them, those demands are all that their existence amounts to. Certainly, throughout the novel Undine’s ignorance of such matters leads her into a series of errors, in which she mistakes aristocratic grandeur for genuine wealth. However, equally, Ralph is clearly an exception to this rule, but his desire to save Undine from the mercenary aspects of New York life are confounded by her own wishes; his failure is not due to lack of interest. Similarly, if European man take more interest in their wives, such interest does nothing to salvage Undine’s marriage to Raymond, leaving it open whether Undine is a "monstrously perfect result of the system" or whether she is simply more representative of the wider greed of American life. The main thing that occurs to me from reading the Pages From the Goncourt Journals is also about women and how the brothers were utterly alienated from any. Their existence revolved around a series of society soirees that were almost exclusively populated by men. The only two exceptions in the decades spanned by the journal are the Princess and George Sand; otherwise the only means by which they encounter any women is through prostitution. Their attitudes towards women are accordingly a mixture of fear and contempt. The other aspect of their lives that comes through particularly strongly is how a set of writers given to naturalistic depiction of the lower class were actually snobbishly aristocratic in their attitudes, fearing the lower classes and sneering at the middle class.

Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons expounds the themes of heredity versus environmental factors that were to become a staple of all his novels; "Heredity, like gravity, has it laws… the dual problem of temperament and environment… he was predisposed to utopian ideas by certain hereditary influences… his lonely childhood, his patchy education led to unusual developments of his natural tendencies." It also introduces some of the dichotomies inherent in his novels; although it dwells on the Rougon tendency towards greed and ambition, it also introduces the tendency towards violent zealotry that re-emerges in The Debacle; "another dream, that of compelling men to be happy by force… Liberty was his passion, an unreasoning, absolute, passion." Utopian idealism is not easy to square with the general character of the Rougons or Macquarts in the novel and it accordingly also introduces some of the anomalies that re-emerge later, as with Pascal’s very different character to his parents and brothers; "he was one of those frequent exceptions to the laws of heredity. As a race evolves, nature often produces a being whose every aspect is derived from his own creative powers." The irony in this case is that as a doctor, Pascal is precisely the one who sees everything in terms of genetics, comparing his parent’s drawing room circle to animals in his mind.

I’d wanted to read Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room for a while after visiting the old synagogue on Princelet Street in Spitalfields. The initial premise of the tale is one of singularity, with Rodinsky seen as a mysterious figure possessed of arcana kabbalistic knowledge like a figure out of Meyrink’s The Golem. As the narrative unfolds though, Rodinsky takes on a dual character, half characterised by singularity of that kind and half characterised by being representative; sufficiently ordinary as to represent an entire swathe of Jewish history in London; "as did any notion of Rodinsky’s singularity. It was clear to me.. that this story… was only one of many similar tales… make sure that David Rodinsky’s story was not being mythologised.. the different Rodinskys lived on in memory… we each see each other in a different light."

Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norman and Saxon

The gothic surroundings of Lichfield’s chapterhouse perhaps make for an odd setting for an exhibition dedicated to the Staffordshire Hoard, but it is one of the few places where the Hoard can be supplemented with other Saxon exhibits from the region, like the Lichfield Angel and the Gospels. The exhibition also contains a number of reconstructions of helmets, swords and seaxes, based on fragments of cheekpiece and sword pyramids. A lot of the exhibits show a very similar style to the pieces I’d previously seen in Stoke on Trent, with garnets set into intricate filigree gold spirals on fragments of crosses, weapons and jewellery. Nonetheless, some seen quite striking, like a stylised seahorse design. Elsewhere in the cathedral, the medieval stained glass is away for restoration, creating a somewhat disconcerting brightness inside the formerly gloomy interior.

After visiting the cathedral, I pass onwards to Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire. It’s a somewhat odd structure, a newer version of the Carolean Sudbury Hall, down to the elaborate wood carvings and plaster work decorating the ceiling, but the interior almost groans under its attempts at splendour. The main hall features a staircase decorated with frescos by Thornhill, the sort of things normally reserved for a much larger structure like Chatsworth or Greenwich Palace. Some of the more unusual features are the ‘Gothick’ corridor, lined with wallpaper replicating tracery designs, the neo-Moorish gazebos and the long gallery being detached from the house and standing apart in the garden. Afterwards, I visit the nearby church, perched high up on a hill. Storm clouds are gathering in the sky by this point and the church takes on a rather sinister aspect, particularly as the churchyard proves to be full of rather ancient and large tombstones and one rather bizarre tomb depicting a railway accident. The church interior was renovated by Street and is accordingly rather dark, with monuments by Chantrey and Roubillac clustered in the shadows.

The following day is taken up with a visit to All Saints at Claverley. The church interior is a mishmash of Gothic and Romanesque, as well as being lined with allegorical frescos of battling knights, consecration marks, lions and dragons as well as Early English carvings of faces being eaten by strange beasts that rather remind me of Kilpeck. The interior also contains a fine alabaster tomb, medieval tiles and a dual set of Norman and Saxon fonts. On my way back, I call in at St Mary in Adderbury, with its extraordinarily well preserved misericords.

A few weeks later, I go to a Temenid dynasty exhibition at the Ashmolean. The gold retrieved from the burial mounds at Aegae proves the most interesting items; oak and myrtle leaf wreathes, an image of Medusa from a cuirass, as well as a silver jug carved with an image of Silenus. Other items include ceramic clay heads and red figure ceramics. There are a couple of newly opened galleries in the Ashmolean; Maoist propaganda posters (suspiciously looking like advertisements for musicals) and Indian paintings.

Tarr by Wyndham Lewis offers a refreshing counterpoint to some of the author’s later works and the didacticism of novels like Lawrence’s Women in Love, instead suggesting a plurality of views that rejects both bourgeois conformism and romantic individualism alike. Instead, Lewis sees the self as a set of masks; "The closest friend of my Dr Jekyll would not recognise my Mr Hyde and vice versa; this rudimentary self I am giving you." Conversely, at the same time, it has an essentialist view of character; "humour may be exactly described as the most feminine attribute of man – and it is the only one of which women show hardly a trace." At other points, these two are opposed; "in the interests of his animalism he was about to betray the artist in him." In Tarr, the two sets of masks represent philosophical opposites, just as the opening declaration of Blast contains the same set of opposed concepts that it both blasts and blesses. For Lewis at this point, dichotomies are never something stable but rather something that tends to collapse in on themselves, hence many of Tarr’s orations seem an attempt to formulate a somewhat convoluted via media between Kreisler and himself; "an attempt to get out of art and back into life again… the sex instinct of the average sensual man had become perverted into a false channel." Much of this can be attributed to the anxiety of influence Lewis seems to have felt towards figures like Stirner, Nietzsche and Marinetti. In the case of the latter, much of Blast‘s stance is derived from Marinetti and the text describes itself as futurist at various points. However, it also condemns Marinetti for his romantic ‘automobilism’ and goes out of its way to praise Da Vinci as a Futurist, taking a diametrically opposed view of the art of the past out of what looks like contrarianism. Picasso and Kandinsky receive far more praise in Blast than Marinetti but it is the latter’s language that it is used to codify the attack on him; not an unusual scenario, as many manifestos of that period aped Marinetti’s tropes whilst articulating Kandinsky’s thoughts. By the same token, in Blast‘s self contained monodrama Enemy of the Stars (in many ways a parallel rendition of Tarr stripped of the novel’s realist veneer but retaining its carnivalesque parody of the Promethean hero), a copy of Stirner is thrown out of the window but the opposition of Hanp’s bourgeois predilections (Tarr) and Arghol’s romantic individualism (Kreisler) again proves far from stable; "He had wished to clean up.. accumulations of self… this man has been masquerading as me… Arghol has preached a certain life, and now insolently set an example of the opposite." To Lewis, romantic individualism is essentially a risible product of the bourgeoisie. Later on, Lewis further knocks down the opposition he has set up "in the old style, two distinct, heroic figures were confronted and one ninepin tried to knock the other ninepin over. We all today… are in each other’s vitals – overlap and intersect and are Siamese."

Reading Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is somewhat odd experience; in his afterword, Pullman notes that he normally supports plurality in interpretation but that in this instance he feels more obliged to offer a context for the novel. Certainly, the title leaves little room for plurality in interpretation but the novel still seems more more ambiguous than the title or afterword might suggest. For example, the novel assigns naturalistic explanations to many of its events but many still retain a certain degree of unexplained supernaturalism; even if the mysterious puppet master is stripped of being angel or demon by the end of the novel, his ability to foresee and manipulate events remains as unexplained as Christ’s miracles at the start of the novel. Equally, the moral dichotomy established between Christ and Jesus gets routinely undermined by some of Christ’s criticisms of the nascent theology; "if it were true that only children could be admitted to the kingdom, what was the value of such adult qualities as responsibility, forethought and wisdom… God surely created the Gentiles too and there are surely good men and women among them." Equally, Christ’s complaint that the stories Jesus tells manipulate the emotions while unfairly introducing extra-legal elements into his replies, has some force to it. When Christ observes that "to him, the kingdom of God is coming very soon and it makes no sense to be cautious and prudent" it reminds me of AC Grayling’s observation that New Testament Christianity was a millenarian cult that made no concessions to practicality in its belief in the apocalypse; in reality, the meek will not inherit the earth and turning the other cheek is not necessarily a sensible thing to do.

I’ve always been inclined to regard Plato as a great historical villain, turning Western culture away from empiricism and towards the transcendental. Reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics goes a long way towards reinforcing that prejudice; lacking any real interest in the mind body problem or the moral dilemmas of later philosophers, Aristotle’s notion of virtue is situational, grounded in social practice; "it is not easy to see how knowing that ideal good will help a weaver or a carpenter in the practice of their own craft… it does not appear that the physician studies even health in the abstract." At times, Aristotle sounds like Rorty in his dismissal of metaphysical preoccupations; "the virtues we acquire by first having practised them, just as we do the arts."

Going to the Proms this year, I’ve listened to Britten, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy, De Falla (which came out rather better than either Debussy or Ravel who perhaps lack the necessary force needed for a venue like the Royal Albert Hall), Tchaikovsky, Verdi (a wonderful performance of the Requiem) and Handel. In the case of Rinaldo, the performance wisely decides to resist a historical Crusaders versus Saracens interpretation that would impart considerably more weight to the libretto than it could reasonably be expected to bear. Nonetheless, their camp St Trinians versus Monty Python and the Holy Grail interpretation goes to the other extreme, seeming to mock a text that gives a female character a remarkable degree of prominence and sway.