The Finest Hour

This weekend I went to the National Gallery’s exhibition on Monet and Architecture.  It’s a rather problematic subject. Compared to someone like Ruskin who recorded architecture in considerable detail, it remains open as to what extent Monet was concerned with the subject matter of his painting. The subjects in question range considerably from medieval cathedrals to train stations; the implication often seems to be that Monet painted what was available to him; if much of his work consists of painting nature, it is because he lived in the countryside for financial reasons in his later life. Of his earlier works, a panorama of Paris looking at from the Louvre towards the Pantheon stands out as being reminiscent of Canaletto’s cityscapes. A lot of works from this period of his career do demonstrate some absorption with architecture, whether French churches or Dutch windmills. But in the later sections, there’s a sense that it is largely immaterial whether it is Giorgio Maggiore or the Palace of Westminster, as when we see repeated series of the same subject with only the weather and light conditions varying. The series of Rouen cathedral shows the same facade, lacking detail but with all of its essential aspects recognisable but lit entirely differently depending on the time of day. I also visit the Guildhall’s exhibition of De Morgan ceramics (I hadn’t know about the mathematical career pursued by much of his family or his later career as a writer) and the Maqdala treasures exhibition at the V&A. I then go to the Rodin exhibition at the British Museum, placing Rodin’s works alongside the Elgin Marbles and other classical sculptures that Rodin has sketched or collected, in the absence of having visited Greece himself. You do suspect that Rodin was at least in part interested in them, due to their shattered and damaged status. I also realise there’s a free exhibition at the British Museum on the work of Nikos Ghika and John Craxton; I particularly like Craxton’s portraits and Ghika’s landscapes, most of which seem like Cubist labyrinths.

Later that day, I go to the Barbican for a Battle of Britain concert, featuring music from Coates, Coward, Lynn and Glenn Miller. In retrospect, I’m not entitled sure how I ended up agreeing to this (by not paying sufficient attention to the programme, I presume) but if the concert is rather enjoyable it’s still rather unnerving to be one of the few people present under seventy. A mention of Gracie Fields during Peter Bowles’ narration gets a loud cheer, which is odd as even given the average age of the audience it seems unlikely many there can actually remember her anymore than I can. It all seems a lot like switching on British Weekend television, where British history apparently stopped some time circa 1963, in the midst of programmes about Victorian Monarchs and Nineteen Fifties Midwifes. Nostalgism, often for periods of time that no-one can remember, is always the dominant mode in English life. At least most of the audience spend an infarction of ‘Land Hope and Glory’ staring awkwardly at their feet, thereby leaving only a few people waving plastic Union Jack flags.

The following day I visit Northampton. It’s a somewhat forgotten town, as is evidenced by the number of rough sleepers on its rather rough high street. The Guildhall as a statue of the town’s most famous son, the former Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, whose main claim to fame was being the only British Premier assassinated in office. But it is nonetheless rather rich in history; a walk from the train station into town takes you past the remains of the castle and the Norman church of St Peter. The Northamptonshire stone is an orange ochre colour that is as distinct as the pink in Herefordshire or the honey colour of Bath stone. In the case of St Peter, the exterior is composed of layers of white and brown stone, while the interior includes a number of Romanesque carvings. As you come to the town centre the first thing you see if All Saints, a Georgian church that manages to include a portico and a dome on something that is otherwise a conventional parish church. Nearby is Guildhall, which is a beautifully elaborate piece of Victorian gothic comparable to anything by Pugin or Scott. I like how details of horseracing have replaced medieval scenes in the stiff leaf carvings. Walking on further, I come to the main thing I’d wanted to visit; 78 Derngate, the only surviving work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. The building is a rather cramped and narrow terrace house, owned at the time by the owner of a company manufacturing model railways. Mackintosh did not visit but did provide designs for the interior. The most startling example of this is a rather small dining room, entirely decorated in black, with thing chequered lines leading up to a frieze of gold triangles, depicting a form of art deco forest. The effect is both rather striking and rather claustrophobic in a room this size. The owner was colour blind, so yellows were used as a preferred colour throughout, leading to the gold triangles becoming a motif. Later on I walk past some redbrick Victorian factories on the river (now inevitably rebuilt as housing) out from the town towards the Eleanor cross. It’s a really impressive thing, surviving where so many of its contemporaries did not and retaining much the same detail as its Victorian simulacrum at Charing Cross.

A few weeks later, and I take the train to Portchester. The castle here dates back to Roman times and is mostly a survival from Norman times; long since surpassed by Portsmouth, the castle feels like something of a time capsule. I walk in through pebble-dash suburban housing until I reach the external walls of the castle. The area inside is rather large but the only building inside are the keep and the church of St Mary. Walking to the other side through the landgate, and you can see sailing boats. Over the glimmering water rises the towers of Portsmouth dockyards.

The following week I have a brief visit to Edinburgh. I spend some time in Gilbert Scott’s Episcopal cathedral, with its Paolozzi stained glass and the church of St Cuthbert, with its Tiffany stained glass.

The Tate’s exhibition on The Shape of Light is an attempt to create a parallel history for photography as a form of abstract art. It covers various possible techniques for this, such as using perspective to dwell on abstract detail (so that Lorca’s Mondrian Windows is placed next to a Mondrian painting, Coburn’s vortographs are paralleled to Lewis’s vorticist painting or a Bourke White photo of a transmission tower is placed near one of Moholy-Nagy’s geometric paintings), interfering with the film chemistry (so that Jackson Pollock is paralleled to photographers like Roger Parry or Hannes Beckmann), circumventing the use of a camera (as with Vitkine’s use of an oscilloscope, Kolarova’s use of Roentgeonograms or Kasten’s use of cyanotypes), painting with light (so that Man Ray is paralleled to Otto Steinert) or by dwelling on found detail (so that Aaron Siskind’s photos of cracking paint are placed near Villeghe’s accretion of Parisian posters).

I’ve just finished reading Malaparte’s Skin. Malaparte’s dominant style is one of irony; much of the book is dedicated to the exposition of how winning a war was an act of shame or that American soldiers became a form of slave labour for the impoverished population of Naples. The most obvious example is his claim that he had found Casa Malaparte pre-built but he had designed the surrounding scenery of Capri. Such irony tends to dissolve normal binary oppositions and the novel accordingly is ambivalent on this score. The same applies to questions of form as much as style, as the novel oscillates between realism and gothic fantasy and often attempts to collapse the distinction between the two (as when Malaparte answers a question about how much of his books are true by fooling a French general into believing that he has just eaten a hand that had been missing since its owner had stepped on a mine). Much of the novel depicts the American soldiers occupying Italy as innocents within a depraved and corrupt civilisation. But it equally attributes much of its degradation to the war, as with Malaparte’s twin insistence that Naples has always been a heart of darkness for immorality and slavery and that the present corruption of Naples is on an abhorrent scale never been known before the war.  A great deal of the novel equally depicts Italy as a Sodom or a Gomorrah facing the rain of fire, where the embrace of freedom is simply an excuse for perversion and depravity.

Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting narrative is a sort of inverted Robinson Crusoe, written from the perspective of Friday. I’m struck by how the narration occupies two perspectives, one that could be loosely termed Equiano’s, the former slave, who pleads for its abolition and the other Vasa’s (the European name given to him), who acts as a missionary to his fellow Africans in spite of repeatedly describing European society as far more immoral.

Reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, I’m reminded of Sontag’s observation about our tendency to ascribe metaphysical characteristics to medical or physical conditions where in reality there are none. Dealing with an intersex protagonist, Middlesex is replete with metaphysical aspects, many of them contradictory. One is clearly Biblical (subtly indicated by a character called Milton), with the exodus from Smyrna representing a form of fall into sin. One is mythological, with references to Plato and Ovid on hermaphroditism. Genetics is equated to fate, so that the incest leads to the intersex condition years later, something touched on with Cal’s casting as Tiresias in a school production of Antigone. In reality, incest has little connection with intersex children. But the novel also has a social dimension, covering the immigrant experience in America and the fall of Detroit; in this case, it plays on the theme of self-reinvention as an aspect of American life typifying Cal’s transition from female to male. The consequence is that the novel sets up a tension between the failure of Luce’s theories due to the rise of evolutionary biology versus Zora’s assertion that gender is cultural.

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The Pattern of Friendship

Travelling up to the Midlands, I stop at Compton Verney, for its exhibition on Eric Ravilious and various figures from his circle like the Nashes, Bawden, Freedman, Marx, Garwood and Binyon. I’ve seen a lot of the Nash and Ravilious paintings before but a lot of the rest are new to me. There’s a considerable range of work on display, from painting and Garwood’s woodcuts through to Bawden’s Morley murals and Marx’s textile designs for the London Underground. It seems striking that the woodcuts are some of the most successful works here, largely due to the absence of colour, which often seems confined to a range of subdued colours.The obvious example is Marx’s London Underground seat covers, which set of a range of rather fussy tessellations in yellows and browns; the results are rather hard to like. The most striking work by her in the exhibition is an attempt at a male nude in a Cubist style, which is easily the most obviously modernist piece in the exhibition.  By contrast, Ravilious is successful in moving from painting to decorating ceramics. The exhibition dwells on a lot of his landscape painting, from images of the Downs to his maritime works, concluding in his work as a war artist. Of the other artists, Garwood’s woodcuts mark her as her husband’s equal in that field. Binyon’s illustrations for Penguin Classics similarly suggest that the role of women artists of this period has been undervalued.  By contrast, Bawden’s rather fantastical Morley college murals are one of the highlights in the exhibition but perhaps mark him as a talented illustrator more than an artist; certainly his paintings are less successful. The gallery also has an exhibition of war art, ranging from Victorian paintings to a nurse’s cape stitched with badges from all the regiments she treated (including the Wehrmacht).

The following day, I visit Attingham Park. It’s been a while since I visited and photography is now allowed in the house. The most impressive thing is still the Nash staircase spiralling down to the art gallery and originally from thence to the main hall. The gallery shows a good taste for art, albeit without the means to acquire the most expensive works there are few well known artists (a lot of the works belong to a school or are imitations); Kauffman and Tournier are probably the best known. Some Italian scenes by Hackert are especially striking; a scene showing the excavations at Pompeii springs to mind. I also like a painting showing King William by candlelight. The rest of the house is also beautifully decorated with Scagliola marble and wall frescoes; Fagan’s trompe l’oeil friezes in the entrance hall are especially impressive. By contrast, Calke Abbey remains a mournful relic to aristocratic indolence. Much of the house was left in the state the National Trust found it, which generally means filled with antique junk, bare walls with peeled wallpaper and an alarming amount of taxidermied birds that the family had shot. It feels like an exercise in Urbex more than visiting a stately home. Although some of the rooms remain fairly ornate, the taste for art seems to have been largely absent, with wall after wall filled with paintings of obese cattle in improbably rectangular shapes, painted in the style of Stubbs or Cuyp. The most interesting items are an extensive collection, ranging from Shark’s teeth, Geodes, Fossils and a Crocodile skull. Afterwards, I visit the church at Ticknall, with its William Morris stained glass and medieval tombs.

Lastly, I go for a walk at Bradgate Park. This was the only sunny day all week. I walk up to the Old John folly and head down for a tour of the remains of Bradgate House. The house grounds included a fishing lake, a tiltyard, a bowls court, a formal garden, a kitchen garden (with black Mulberry Tree) and an orchard. A herd of Deer roam about inside, with several of them locking antlers. A Green Woodpecker makes a laughing cry as it watches. Walking round the ruins, I’m able to visit the interior of the only surviving building; the chapel. An impressive monument to Henry and Anne Grey is surmounted by a lion and unicorn design where the face of the lion appears human and is surmounted by horns to suggest the Devil.

Reading Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes, I’m struck by how much of the narrative could be in an Anglo-American novel. The story of a financier who lgoes bankrupt could come from Dickens or Trollope, but here Roble is lifted to a tragic figure more comparable to Oedipus or Lear, after he is forced to return to an impoverished life he had spent his life escaping. This tension seems fundamental to the narrative; it is partly concerned with how the middle-class had betrayed the Revolution and built their success on the poverty and death of others. It depicts a Mexico desperate to embrace American prosperity at all costs, but it is also concerned with how the Mexican lake of blood is always filled, suggesting that violence and death is simply a cyclical part of Mexican life, epitomised by Ixca’s role as the avenging demon throughout. It’s a novel filled with deaths, many of them simply incidental victims rather than fitting into the moral pattern that brings about Norma’s demise and Roble’s downfall.

Reading Aciman’s Enigma Variations reminds me a bit of DH Lawrence. For all of Lawrence’s tendency to treat heterosexual love as a sacrament his depictions of women lack physicality whereas his depictions of men are emphatically physical. In Aciman’s case, the novel depicts a series of polyamorous affairs with both sexes, but it’s only the male characters who are depicted as intensely physical (the sense of pressing a leg next to another man to see if they move it away springs to mind). Equally, most of the male characters are either depicted as gay or bisexual but none of the women are depicted as anything other than heterosexual.

Winter

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.

 

Disagreeable objects

Back up in the Midlands, I visit one of my favourite places; Wightwick Manor. The De Morgan collection of William’s ceramics and Evelyn’s paintings has recently opened in its new home at the Manor, so this is the first time I’ve seen it since it left its former home in London. The lustreware ceramics are easily as beautiful as I remember them; the paintings are more mixed. The best of them recall Botticelli and Burne Jones; the worst can be rather garish exercises in symbolism.  I also visit Shugborough while I’m up there. It’s not really a place I’ll ever love as such; the grounds are beautiful in the summer, with the reflections of the bridge in the water by the Chinese house being particularly lovely but the brutalist house never really seems in keeping. Some more of the follies are open to visitors than I recall, including Hadrian’s arch.

Back down in London, I visit the Tate’s Giacometti exhibition. The main thing that strikes me is the paintings,which rather remind me of Bacon’s Screaming Popes series. I also rather like some of his earlier surrealist inspired objects as well as his design work, but once he reaches his style for sculpting figures it sets fasts and quickly becomes repetitive.

My choice of reading Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism was obviously prompted by currents events, but in practice her definition of the term is heavily restricted, with it only being applied to Hitler and Stalin and exempting Mao, Lenin and Mussolini. There are parallels to current events though; I’m struck by how she describes totalitarianism are aiming to impose a fictitious mythos rather than producing realistic policy aims. Liberals aiming to critique consistently fail to understand that it has no intention of being a realistic response to events and will not be impaired even as its policies demonstrably fail; Arendt specifically says totalitarian states were often characterised by confused and contradictory government structures and counter-intuitive aims (such as the waste of resources entailed by the final solution in the middle of  a war). The essence of government is reduced to the erratic and inconsistent dictats of the leader. It’s difficult not to think of Trump or the Brexit vote here; Gove’s dismissal of experts obliterated all rational discussion from the campaign and left only fraudulent bromides behind. Blizzards of disinformation in both cases have settled to a point where the populations of both countries seem indifferent to the flagrant charlatanism of their political classes.

Arendt’s analysis of the rise of fascism in the thirties is also interesting; with England remaining stable she characterises the two party system as the source of it, given that it forced both parties to accept a stake in government that could only me met with realistic policies. By contrast, parties in multi-party states could simply retreat into ideological fantasy. In contemporary events, the reverse has been true with the US and UK winner takes all systems embracing ever more extreme and polarised politics even as European parties continued to draw cordon sanitaires around the sources of the infection.

 

The Winter of Our Discontent

Travelling up to the Midlands for Christmas I visit the church at Binton in Warwickshire to look at the stained glass; a series of four panels depicting Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition. The panels show a range of scenes including the departure of Captain Oates from the expedition tent. I later visit some other churches and National Trust houses in that area; a church at Lapworth with a Norman font, the house at Baddesley Clinton (including a Saenredam style stained glass panel showing an exhumation inside a church that I don’t recall having noticed before) and the nearby church with  medieval stained glass.

A few days later I visit Leicester and the tomb of King Richard. The tomb, an austere affair in marble with the shape of a cross cut out of it, contrasts rather oddly with the ornate Victorian cathedral it is housed in. The nearby Tom Denny window depicting scenes from Richard’s life seems rather more at home amidst the green man corbels, polychromatic wooden angels and Tudor tomb monuments. Next, I visit the nearby Guildhall with its long gallery and wooden clock showing Father Time and the church of St Mary De Castro. Lastly, I visit the Museum and Gallery. I dimly recall visiting it as a child after the discovery of the Rutland Dinosaur and some of those memories come back to me now. Alongside the Plesiosaur and Cetiosaurus bones, the Charnia fossil and a piece of the Barwell meteorite, some of the fossils from the Oxford Clay formation are also impressive. The museum’s collections are rather wondeful beyond that; a series of Egyptian sarcophagi and funerary stelae, Persian ceramics, an arts and crafts section showing work by De Morgan and Ernest Gimson, blue john vases and a set of Picasso ceramics bequeathed by Richard Attenborough. There’s an especially striking German expressionism exhibition, featuring work by Franz Marc, Lyonel Feininger, Max Pechstein, Kathe Kollwitz, Kokoschka, Max Beckmann and Kandinsky. The work I’m most impressed by is Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas by Otto Dix.

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.

Easter

I begin this Easter I drive up to Compton Verney for its Canaletto in Britain exhibition. I recall a lot of the paintings from a similar exhibition at Dulwich a few years back but it still impresses; areas like Greenwich and Horse Guards Parade emerge as rather quiet and pastoral locations in contrast to the dense packing of buildings onto London Bridge. Other paintings show a lost London (the Ranelagh Rotunda or Vauxhall Gardens) or one that never was, as with Marlow’s painting of St Paul’s relocated to Venice.

Back in Staffordshire, I visit the church at Clifton Campville with its alabaster monuments before visiting the Brockhampton estate in Herefordshire. I also visit the church of St George at Brinsop, with its combination of medieval stained glass. designs by Ninian Comper and a medieval tympanum & green man. I also visit the church of Saint Mary at Madley,which has an extraordinary set of medieval stained glass windows. On the subject of stained glass, I realise that the Herkenroode stained glass has been reinstated at Lichfield Cathedral; the interior of the Lady Chapel certainly seems a lot lighter than I remember it from before the glass was restored,

Lastly, I spend a day visiting Derbyshire, staring with Hardwick Hall. I’d forgotten how lovely the collection of tapestries and rugs inside it is, but it does seem a pity that a building notable for its large glass windows has to be kept shrouded in darkness with drawn curtains in order to protect them. I’s also forgotten the wonderful wood carving on the furniture, with table legs formed as sea dogs. I then travel onto Eyam, where I visit the church with its Celtic cross, plague memorial window and graveyard suffused with buttercups. Nearby Eyam Hall proves to be full of curiosities; a poem etched into one of the windows, a tapestry room and a weird pair of bacon settles in the hall.

Back down south,  I decide to revisit Canterbury, mostly so that I can see the place for myself rather than at the whims of a tour guide. This time I’m able to see a bit more of the cathedral, including the cloisters, chapter house and the frescos of St Hubert. I’m also able to visit the ruins of Augustine Abbey and the church of St Martin, as well as the remains of Canterbury Castle. On the way back, I’ve booked tickets for a performance of King John at the Temple Church in London. The performance takes place in candlelight, with a stage having been erected in the middle of the nave. John is shown as a rather weak and indecisive figure than as being ‘determined to prove a villain.’ The absence of a dominant central protagonist gives a degree of unpredictability to events, as with the unexpected deaths of Arthur, Eleanor and ultimately John himself. I also go to see Tom Morton Smith’s Oppenheimer at the Vaudeville Theatre; it does occur to me that I don’t think I’ve ever see a play performed in a West End theatre before. The theatre does come over as having seen better day. The play rather reminds me of a film or documentary; the narrative suddenly flashbacks between different times without the actors leaving the stage while images of atoms are projected onto the stage, effectively providing a form of special effects. The play even has its own soundtrack.

At the British Museum a few weeks later, I visit its exhibition of Greek sculpture. This contrasts original Greek sculptures (the Discobolus of  Myron, the Westmacott Youth and the Parthenon sculptures by Phidias, for example) with replicas of Greek sculpture as it originally appeared, such as a gilded statue of Athena which shines out against the darkness. Nude depictions of Greek warriors counterpoint to more puritanical Assyrian depictions. The Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate rather reminds me of their previous exhibitions on Malevich and Rodchenko; like them Delaunay works in many different media, with the exhibition including bookshelves, mosaics, curtains, book bindings, dresses and home furnishings as well as her painting. Much of the work also demonstrates a lot of the familiar tropes of the time; partial abstraction in which figures like singers and dancers blur into light and movement or more full abstract work based around electric lights (circular patterns called electric prisms – it rather reminds me of Klee’s magic squares) – the most orginal pieces are the mural she created for the International exposition, based around aircraft parts. Painted in bright blues and yellows and overlaid with blueprints, it’s quite unlike most of her work. I also enjoy the Eric Ravilious exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Much of the watercolours on display are pastoral, but it’s a heavily qualified version; ruined buses and dilapidated caravans rest in England’s green and pleasant fields. Unsurprisingly his war work strongly shows this tension with many paintings of ships and fighter plans but also frankly picturesque depictions of the locations he was sent to. Lastly, I also go to the Impressionism exhibition at the National Gallery; being primarily about the art dealer who backed the impressionists it does accordingly rather lack focus; I find myself rather disliking Renoir’s sentimental paintings of children and much preferring his dance paintings, surprised by a Manet painting of a naval battle and liking Sisley and Monet’s landscapes (especially of Dutch windmills and of the Houses of Parliament).

Another weekend, and I visit the Sky Garden on Fenchurch Street. It’s a rather grey and dull day, so the visibility is somewhat limited; one one side the only comparable building is the Shard while on the other a few buildings like the Gherkin compete. The garden at the summit with its assemblage of ferns seems rather odd, like something out of a film.

Lastly, I visit Oxford to see a couple of exhibitions at the Ashmolean. This is mostly for a set of Gilray prints. As often with Gilray I’m struck by how his preferences vary; for the most part his work is anti-whig propaganda, but he equally turns his fire on Pitt, while his attitude towards the royal family is hardly that of a conventional Tory. There’s also an exhibition of British drawing, including Ravilious, Nash, Sutherland, Piper, Ruskin, Holman-Hunt, Hamilton-Mortimer, Turner, Beardsley, Rossetti,  Rowlandson and Francis Barlow.  I have a bit of time before the return train, so I go for a walk along the Oxford canal.

Kenilworth

I went to Brimingham in early December to visit its Christmas market – sadly locating the stall with the Reindeer burgers proved elusive. We also went round the Museum, looking at the Eginton and Pre-Raphaelite glass, Indian votive sculptures, Eptein sculptures, Pre-Raphalite and Italian paintings, the Staffordshire hoard exhibits, Egyptian mummies, De Morgan and Wedgewood ceramics. I also see inside the Hall of Memory for the first time, with its darkened interior illuminated by lamps and light pouring through the sole stained glass window and the new library. The library interior revolves around a central atrium, with a circular staircase winding its way upwards. The upper floors have a number of roof gardens from which you can see over most of Birmingham, while the top floor also has a viewing room. This is also where the Shakespeare memorial room can be found; I’m reminded of the experience of visiting the Adam dining room on the top floor of the Lloyds building.

At Christmas, I’m back up in the Midlands. I spend some time visiting some of the local churches listed by Simon Jenkins; Holy Angels in Hoard Cross with its German rood screen, Kempe stained glass and Victorian gothic, St Nicholas Mavesyn Ridware with its strange monuments of family members throughout the ages from the Norman conquest onwards and St Peter’s at Elford with its alabaster tombs. I also go for a walk on a beautifully sunny day at the National Memorial Arboretum where there’s a new (but not especially great) monument to the Christmas truce alongside a more striking Pegasus memorial to the Parachute regiment.

There was another brilliantly sunny day when I visited Kenilworth. It was a cold day and the ground was frosty, although there wasn’t too much snow. It’s now possible to go up a series of viewing platforms on the ruins of the keep as well as walking through the darkened chambers of the surviving buildings and walk around the outside of the castle walls. Given the size of the mere that would have originally surrounded the castle, I’m reminded of how the idea of Camelot influenced the design of medieval buildings like Dunstanburgh. Although not too spectacular at this time of the year, there’s also the recreated Elizabethan garden, with its Altante dominated marble fountain and wooden aviary. It seems a rather hyperreal idea, given that there are no detailed records of what the original garden looked like and this design is based on details from other period gardens. We also have a brief look at Kenilworth church with its Norman beakhead door before visiting the church at Berkswell, whose crypt divided between two chambers reminds me of Repton and Lastingham.

El Dorado

The British Museum’s El Dorado exhibition reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki’s observation that part of the historical appeal of gold (shared here by the Colombians and the Conquistadors alike) rests with how it catch the light in the darkness. With the artefacts lit up amidst the shadows inside the British Museum’s reading room. For the Colombians, the glittering of gold in the light was an emblem of the sun; wearing a gold headdress or jewellery was to bring one closer to the sun’s power. Gold was used to form emblems of the natural world, from crocodiles and bats through to birds, jaguars (I especially like one that resembles a Cheshire cat), frogs and lobsters and as a component of religious ceremonies with cups and dipping sticks used to mix coca and lime. Gold was even used in the rattles and bells that formed their musical accompaniment. The most striking story is of the golden one,their body painted with body casting gold offerings into a lake, recalling at once the founding of Tenochtitlan or the marriage of Venice to the sea. The exhibition at one stroke trades off the prominence of gold and at another seeks to diminish it, noting that as with the Aztecs other objects such as feathered headdresses held similar votive qualities.

Next, I head into central London one evening to visit the Pop Art exhibition at the Barbican. Ranging from videos of the Smithsons at the Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition, Aarnio ballchairs through to lip sofas, plastic cacti & lamp shades, Warhol’s Marilyn prints, Lichtenstein comic panels and Hamilton collages. Obviously, pop art expressed itself through re-purposing contemporary industrial design and advertising but there does remain quite a difference between the design of an Eames chair and Chair 1969 by Allen Jones. Much of pop art is infected with irony and surreal humour in contrast to the rather spartan design ethic of much of the age. The inclusion of Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip rather serves to remind me that much of pop art probably had more in common with the demotic mass culture it appropriated than it did with a lot of the official design placed alongside it here. I’m a little less taken with the Klee exhibition at Tate Modern, as I find myself liking some of his protean incarnations more than others. The one I respond most to is perhaps the most Cubist; the ‘magic squares’ that make up his conception of pictorial architecture. Afterwards, I go for a walk from the Tate through to London Bridge.

Next weekend, I visit Oxford for its exhibition of Bacon and Moore works. The exhibition notes that these two artists have not been exhibited before but compares them by noting that both tended to work by deforming conventional representations of the human body; as Bacon’s work became more plastic and definite so did Moore’s work become less static. Both shared an interest in Christian themes, with Moore both drawing & sculpting the crucifixion and Bacon’s screaming Popes. I’m not sure I’m wholly convinced though; amongst the Moore sculptures in the exhibition are various sketches, which tend to resemble Chirico rather more than Bacon. Moore’s work is emphatically concrete, emphasising the physical. Bacon’s idea of the flesh is that it dissolves, so that the boundaries between his figures become indistinct. Although works like his drawings of miners discover a sense of dynamism, Moore’s drawings of sleepers in the London Underground are perhaps more typical. The following weekend comes and I visit the Chinese painting exhibition at the V&A. The early sections dwell on Buddhist influences on Tang silk screen paintings, originally painted in bright colours and marking what are essentially chantry offerings. With the advent of the Song dynasty, colours becomes sparse and muted, and forms like landscape emerge more clearly, where images of clouds and mountains blur into one another. The use of ‘mi dots’ to create blurred, stippled, brushstrokes, rather recalls pointillism and divisionism. Literati painting emerges as a style where calligraphy, poetry and painting merge. My favourite piece through is Xu Yang’s Prosperous Suzhou a detailed panoramic depiction of the city from its opera house, temples, markets to its harbour. I wonder why it would have been like if a European city of the time had been depicted in such detail.

Greyfriars house in Worcester is a medieval building, its interior combines medieval wooden furniture and tapestries with Georgian wallpaper, Chinese porcelain, Ostrich eggs, majolica tiles, William Morris furniture and Worcester ceramics. I particularly like a spice cabinet in one room, showing examples of now largel unused spices like Zedoary, Cubeb and Grain of Paradise. Even in autumn, the garden is rather pleasant with a sale under way of apples, pears and quinces grown in it. One gateway is flanked by a pair of ceramic dolphins given by Clough-Ellis. Elsewhere in the city, the art gallery has a Joseph Beuys exhibition combining some of his experiments with textiles and materials with some of his installations and polemical posters; otherwise the gallery has some good Roman mosaics, Worcester pottery, Icthyosaur fossils and an assortment of stuffed animals including a Sturgeon and an Albatross.

Travelling back to the Midlands at Christmas, I stop off at Banbury and visit the church of St Mary, with its Georgian exterior, Victorian interior decoration and Antarctic stained glass window, as well as looking at the nearby Banbury cross and statue by John Gibbs. Back in the Midlands, I visit the National Memorial Arboretum; the nearby rivers are flooded and the ground is marshy but it’s a beautiful day, with the reflections of the leafless tree boughs reflected in the muddy river water. I also note that the redwoods planted at the far side of the arboretum have grown tremendously since I last saw them. I head up to Derbyshire to visit the ruins of the Georgian house at Sutton Scarsdale. It’s a rather bright but cold winter’s day and the ruins cast a forlorn prospect on the horizon. On what were once the interior walls decayed plaster casts of the decoration remain I then visit Bolsover castle, where I’m rather pleasantly surprised. Initially, I start by looking at the stables, where the wooden roof beams form a cathedral-like interior before I walk onto the ruins that form part of the castle, with a terrace that runs along the edge of the ridge that the building surmounts. Lastly, I look at the ‘little castle’ where wall frescos of Hercules remain, alongside frescoed ceilings, painted wood panelling and fireplaces built with English marbles, all in a combination of gothic and Jacobean domestic design. I then briefly visit Hardwick Hall; the building is closed but the grounds are open. I’m struck by the row of white painted trees leading up to the main door. On my way back down south, I visit the Rollright stones.

Reading Rider Haggard’s main novels, I was struck by the contrasts in his attitudes towards colonialism and gender. In King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain African natives are frequently depicted as barbarous (as with the Zulu kidnapping of a missionary’s daughter) but as is often the case in such depictions, Haggard frequently seems to prefer the noble savagery of warrior natives like Umslopogaas and Ignosi to the civilised effeminacy of Alphonse. In King Solomon’s Mines Haggard suggests the possibility of inter-racial love between Good and Foulata, only to withdraw it through the deus ex machina of her death. Whereas in King Solomon’s Mines the white explorers participate in a colonial narrative that benevolently deposes a despot, their intervention in the affairs of the white Zu-Vendis is a force of destruction, leading to the anti-colonial indictment at the end of the book. One notable aspect of Allan Quatermain is that it takes the Zu-Vendis religion seriously; this is even more apparent in She and Aysesha where Egyptian and Tibetan mysticism presents a challenge to Christianity that is left answered. As with the queen in Allan Quatermain Ayesha’s gender is not presented as an impediment to her rule; if anything her behaviour is often similar to that of the male tyrants in Haggard’s novels while her glamour tends to leave her male servants passive to her; however, even so she is often portrayed as weak and indecisive, as when Leo is at the point of death.

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.