Monday, 18 June 2018

Charge!

Seeing a large reproduction of this painting in a charity shop reminded me of my father's penchant for high Victorian patriotic art (and poetry). He was a great admirer of this picture, which he referred to as 'The Charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo', though it is generally known as 'Scotland Forever!'. It shows the regiment charging at full gallop towards the enemy, and makes its dramatic impact by putting the viewer in the position of the enemy as this formidable fighting force bears down on them. Full of ferocious energy and excitement and painted with tremendous dash, it packs a huge pictorial punch, and caused a sensation when it was exhibited, in 1881, at the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly.
  As is usual with this kind of painting, the artist has taken liberties with the historical facts: the Scots Greys advanced not at the gallop but at a quick walk, owing to the broken ground; their horses at Waterloo were mostly brown chargers rather than heavy greys; and in battle there would be practical oilskin covers on their dashing black bearskin caps. This is not the real but the ideal charge, a blood-stirring icon of patriotic valour.
  The surprising thing about Scotland Forever! is that it was painted not by a man but by a woman – Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler, who specialised, with great success, in this kind of thing. And she was no mean painter: Scotland Forever! is a technical tour de force, as are most of her larger paintings, many of which are more sombre and reflective in tone. A fine example is Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea (below), which was bought by Queen Victoria and is in the Royal Collection. 'I never painted for the glory of war,' wrote Lady B, who was a Colonel's wife, 'but to portray its pathos and heroism.' She was resolutely naturalistic in her approach, and intensely disapproved of the Aesthetic movement. Indeed Scotland Forever! was painted following a visit to the Grosvenor Gallery, as a riposte to all that greenery yallery nonsense.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Here Lies What Was Mortal

Interesting to see that Stephen Hawking's memorial stone in Westminster Abbey (installed yesterday) carries the words 'Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking'. This is an Englishing of the epitaph of his Abbey neighbour, Isaac Newton ('Hic depositum est quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni'). The neighbour on his other side, Charles Darwin (who kept quiet about his agnosticism), was content with his name and dates only.
  Hawking regarded the brain (all there is of us in his philosophy) as 'a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.'  Nevertheless Hawking was sent on his way with the Dean of Westminster commending 'his immortal soul to almighty God'. Ah well. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature......

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Shriver Stirs It Up

'From now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer ... that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling.' 
  Predictably enough, these forthright words from Lionel Shriver have stirred up an almighty brouhaha in the wonderful world of publishing, and she has been dropped from the judging panel for a writing competition run by Mslexia magazine. Shriver was writing in response to the news that Penguin Random House intends that by 2025 its author list will reflect the 'diversity' of society as a whole. This can of course only be achieved by a quota system, and quotas can only lead to the kind of scenario so graphically outlined by Shriver.
  The response of the editor of Mslexia is interesting. Why on earth should women writers – or any writers not living in a totalitarian state – need a 'safe space' to publish their work? If any writers are in need of a 'safe space' it might soon be those who dare to question the 'diversity' dogma that now seems to have the publishing industry, as well as so many other institutions, firmly in its grip.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

An Unlikely Debut

On 6 July, 1904, the Natal Mercury published these lines, written by a 16-year-old Durban High School pupil who styled himself 'C.R. Anon'...

Hillier did first usurp the realms of rhyme
To parody the bard of olden time: 
Haggar then followed and, in shallow verse, 
Proves that to every bad there is a worse.
Some nameless critic then in furious strain
Causes the reader cruel pain
While after metre pure he seems to thirst
But shows how every worse can have a worst


(Hillier, a former mayor of Durban, and Haggar, a teacher who later became a Labour Party member in the Natal Legislative Assembly, had made fools of themselves with some terrible verse parodies of Horace. 'C.R. Anon' had looked on with amusement.)
 
'Hillier did first usurp...' was, incredibly, the literary debut of the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who, among many other accomplishments, would later become (as Ricardo Reis) a master of the Horatian ode. He spent eight of his early years in Durban, where his stepfather was Portuguese consul, returning in 1905 to Lisbon, where he spent the rest of his life as a  flâneur, occultist, publisher and hugely prolific writer, under countless aliases (or rather 'heteronyms').
Pessoa was born on this day 130 years ago.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Poundworld: The Solution

I blame myself. When, last year, I posted a less than flattering review of my local Poundworld discount store, it clearly had a shattering effect on the company's morale – and now a failing Poundworld has been obliged to go into administration. Unless something turns up, it looks likely to become the latest casualty of the high-street retail cull.
  The consensus view among the experts seems to be that the 'everything for a pound' business model is defunct. However, I feel I must point out that there is an obvious solution staring Poundworld in the face – Guineaworld. Yes – price everything at a guinea and sales revenue will instantly rise by five per cent. What's more, the change of name will raise the tone of the stores, and perhaps attract a rather better class of customer. Everyone's a winner.
  In the circumstances, I'll waive my usual consultancy fee for this one.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Among the Happy

Derbyshire has but one butterfly reserve, and it is by no means easy to find. My cousin and I managed to locate it last year, and this weekend we returned to take a longer look. It's a worked-out quarry that has been encouraged to develop into a fine habitat for a range of limestone-loving butterflies, including the Wall (above, once common, now in steep decline), various Skippers, and a couple of Derbyshire specialities – the gorgeous Dark Green Fritillary and a Peak District form of the Brown Argus.
  While we were wandering around the site, we came across only one other person, a very knowledgable volunteer warden who soon got talking to us, about the reserve – which he was instrumental in saving from the gruesome fate of being converted into a caravan park – and all manner of wildlife matters. A born countryman, with a sharp eye and a sharp mind, he had been a computer scientist by career (hardware, not software), but always his passion  had been for wildlife, especially butterflies and birds. A fine example of the kind of expert amateur naturalist so vital to the study of the natural world, he had spent his life reading and reading, recording and, above all, observing, with an informed countryman's eye, and he was clearly a happy and fulfilled man.
  Happy men and happy women seem to abound in the Peak District. I know of no other part of the country where people are so ready to engage complete strangers in conversation and, in the course of it, rhapsodise quite genuinely about the pleasures of living in this beautiful and richly various region. To those of us who spend most of our time in parts of the country where people are unlikely to talk to strangers – and when they do are more inclined to grumble than to rhapsodise – it is like being in another world. And it is immensely heartening to know that such a world still exists in our much-changed country.
  I had been hoping to see a Wall butterfly at the reserve – it's a species I haven't seen in England in decades – but I was disappointed; not one came our way. But then, on the morning of my return to London, I was walking my cousin's dog (a magnificent trail hound with a missing hind leg) near Wirksworth's StarDisc when I looked down and saw a Wall basking on the sun-warmed path, practically at my feet. The perfect ending.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Landscape

A picture (a Breton landscape) for Paul Gauguin's 170th birthday today.
Tomorrow I'm off to Derbyshire for the weekend...