Friday, 30 September 2016

A Butterfly Year to Remember

I was startled to learn that today is my second birthday on Facebook - I had no idea it was so long since I half-heartedly joined up to that epic time-waster (largely because The Dabbler had migrated there). My participation has been limited to putting up the odd photo, posting the occasional comment and 'liking' this and that, and I have no intention of going any farther...
 Today is also the last of September, and I got Butterfly Conservation's Annual Review in the post, so clearly it is time for my own annual review of my butterfly year - which was, I have to say, a corker. I totted up more species than ever before, and in fact saw every one I could have hoped to find in my patch of Surrey suburbia on the edge of the North Downs chalkland (except the Purple Emperor and Clouded Yellow). I even had the added bonus of the reintroduced Glanville Fritillary. But essentially this was the Year of the Hairstreak, and I shall never forget my magical, wholly unlooked-for encounters with the elusive White-Letter Hairstreak (a fifty-year first for me) and the equally elusive Brown Hairstreak (a lifetime first). What a year!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Remembering Passe-partout

My latest charity-shop spot was this slim volume from 1954 - scarcely more than a pamphlet - of church poems by Betjeman, with delightful line drawings by John Piper. The Author's Note is characteristically self-effacing: 'These verses do not pretend to be poetry,' he begins. They were written, Betjeman explains, 'for speaking on the wireless', and 'in order to compensate for the shortcomings of the verse, I have prevailed on my friend Mr John Piper to provide the illustrations.'
 The volume contains Septuagesima, Betjeman's love song to the dear old C of E ('The Church of England of my birth, The kindest church to me on Earth') and the ever popular Diary of a Church Mouse. One I hadn't read before was the mildly satirical Friends of the Cathedral, and in this I came across a phrase that gave me pause - 'The hundred little bits of script Each framed in passe-partout'. Framed in passe-partout? Passe-partout? Suddenly it came back to me...
 You used to see it everywhere. Passe-partout was a kind of tough adhesive tape, typically black with a slightly grainy texture, that had a variety of uses but was particularly popular as a cheap form of picture-framing - just run the tape carefully around the edges, pressing picture, glass and backing board together, leave to set, and you had the semblance of a framed picture at negligible cost. My father was keen on the stuff, I remember - this before he discovered the thousand and one uses to which Fablon could be put - and there were pictures framed in passe-partout all over the house. It was not pretty, but it did the job, just about.
 The stuff is no longer manufactured, but it still has its devotees. You can buy vintage rolls of passe-partout on eBay ('Butterfly Brand', with the stylised Camberwell Beauty trade mark), and there is even - you will not be surprised to learn - a blog devoted to the wonders of passe-partout. Don't you just love the internet?

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

One More

One effect of visiting an art-rich city like Venice over a span of years - decades indeed - is that you get to notice how your taste changes over time. Mine has certainly widened to include much more Venetian 18th-century painting (especially the Tiepolos and Piazzetta), which I used to regard as essentially frivolous and sketchy. How wrong I was...
 On this visit, looking round the beautifully sited Peggy Guggenheim collection for the first time in many years, I realised that my taste in modern art had changed as well. Whereas before I had marvelled at the pioneering early-20th-century work of the Cubists, Surrealists and even Futurists and had been left cold by the Abstract Expressionists, I now found, to my surprise, that these responses had been reversed. Much of the early-20th-century stuff now seemed dry, lifeless, even academic - whereas the small collection of Abstract Expressionists stirred me as never before. In particular Jackson Pollock's vast Alchemy now speaks - or sings - to me, and I found it hard to tear myself away from the beautiful early Willem de Kooning (Untitled, 1958). Clearly I have changed, or my taste has.
However, the division was not that clear-cut, as at least three of the early-20th-century paintings caught my eye: a magical 1911 Chagall, La Pluie, and two wonderful Klees, Magic Garden (1926) [below] and Portrait of Frau P in the South (1924) [above], neither of which reproduces very well.
 But enough - basta.

Monday, 26 September 2016


Above is the view from my hotel room, looking over to the Giudecca and Palladio's Redentore, the most intellectually rigorous of his Venetian churches, a brilliant exercise in pure architecture. Oddly the fa├žade - one that repays endless contemplation - looks better close up than it does from across the canal. Which is a pity, in view of its location...
 And below is the same view obscured by one of the monstrous cruise liners that sail into Venice every day to tie up and disgorge their thousands of day trippers into the clogged streets around San Marco.

These gigantic floating hotels are extremely unpopular with the locals. Stickers and banners proclaiming 'NO Grandi Navi' are everywhere in the city, and on the day we left a big demonstration against them was just getting under way. The administration, however, having effectively bankrupted the city, has little choice but to encourage anything that brings in money. A sad state of affairs, but such is the resilience of Venice and the Venetians that you feel they will somehow survive and thrive, come what may.

Venice Notes

Well, the week in Venice was wonderful (what else could it be?) - and there were even butterflies: tiny Long-Tailed Blues were flying everywhere, along with more familiar Red Admirals and Commas. I had the most satisfying tour of San Marco I've ever had, thanks to the excellent queue-jumping system and the fact that the balcony overlooking the Piazza was open. The glittering mosaics inside never looked better - I'm sure they've improved the lighting since my last visit - and the crowds were at quite bearable levels.
 There were also things I was experiencing for the first time (in getting on for 50 years of visits to Venice), including a visit to the cemetery island of San Michele. The more recent parts feel very much like warehousing for the dead, who are mostly represented only by tablets (with photographic portrait and tribute of artificial flowers) arranged over every surface of numerous massive slab-like blocks. It is, if nothing else, a potent reminder that the vast majority of us humans are dead. However, the older and less crowded parts of the cemetery are more atmospheric, and in the Russian/Greek section are the graves of Igor and Vera Stravinsky (two large but plain horizontal slabs) and that of Diaghilev, a grander affair, touchingly hung with votive offerings of ballet pumps.

Also on San Michele, hidden away in the Protestant section, is the remarkably unostentatious grave of Ezra Pound - a small incised tablet in danger of being overgrown by vegetation, but still evidently attracting the odd floral tribute. (Somewhere among the Protestants, too, is the grave of Joseph Brodsky, but we weren't able to find that one.)
 Another Venice first for me was a visit to the Palazzo Fortuny, home of the great textile designer whose dresses were made of such fine silks that it was said you could pass one through a wedding ring. Naturally I was expecting a display of gorgeous textiles and dresses - but alas, the Palazzo, when we eventually found it, had been taken over by an extravagant display of the Contemporary Yarts at their most tiresome, including a massively dreary installation devoted to stirring our consciences over Syria and such. I was neither stirred nor shaken.
 Elsewhere some Fortuny textiles were indeed present, but hung in dim light and mostly behind works of Contemporary Yart, or indeed behind the so-so paintings of Fortuny himself. Whether it was just bad luck to find such a state of affairs at the Palazzo Fortuny I do not know, but it was certainly a sad disappointment.
 And then there was the Acqua Alta bookshop, which I didn't even know existed but just happened to spot as we were walking past. This is up there among the most eccentric, not to say mad, second-hand bookshops I have ever come across, in parts less like a bookshop than some kind of junkyard. However, despite appearances, many of the shelves are actually quite well organised - which is more than you can say for some bookshops I've known. The impression of chaos, however, prevails - especially when the dishevelled proprietor is wandering about the premises, cigarette in gesticulating hand, talking apparently to himself in a voice raspingly harsh and guttural even by Venetian standards (which is saying something). There's more about Acqua Alta - which has quite a cult following - here.
 And there will be more about Venice here in my next post...

Sunday, 18 September 2016


Enough of stinkpipes - tomorrow I'm off to Venice for a week of aesthetic overload in the most beautiful city on Earth. Unfortunately my best strolling shoes came apart at the seams the other day, so I was obliged to look for another pair - Venice is a city that demands stout footwear.
 It was not easy to find anything at all in my size (it never is, not since Clowns R Us closed down), and I was on the point of giving up when I happened on a shoe shop called Deichmann - a new one on me, German I believe. There, finally, I found a pair of shoes of acceptable design in my size - perfect. And the brand name of those shoes was (drumroll, please) Venice.
 I have my Venice shoes.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Stinkpipe Days

Reading this interesting piece on London's lost rivers (which has been shared on The Dabbler), I was intrigued to come across the phrase 'Victorian stink pipes'. It took me back (like a rather less fragrant madeleine dunked in linden tea) to the autumn of 1959, when I arrived from Ealing, the alleged 'queen of suburbs', at my new home in the Surrey suburban demiparadise of Carshalton. Here was a streetscape - and water-woven parkscape - notably unlike what I had been used to, and it had its mystifying features.
 Among these were the tall, green-painted cast-iron columns that decorated so many streets. A number of these had ornate crowns, some with wind vanes, some with three or four trumpet-shaped openings. What on earth were they, and what were they for? None of my schoolfriends seemed to know, but there was a quite plausible theory that during the war they had housed air-raid sirens.  Gradually I began to realise that they must in fact be some kind of ventilation system, presumably for sewers or underground rivers - but by then they were mysteriously disappearing anyway (I never saw one being taken down). Now I know just what they are/were - 'stinkpipes', aka 'stenchpipes', both good no-nonsense names which we schoolboys would have relished had we known them. They are so popular there is even a blog devoted to the stinkpipes of London.
 Pictured above is a surviving ornate stinkpipe just down the road from where I live.