Sunday, 16 September 2018

It's Raining Conkers

As I was strolling in the park just now, the ripe conkers were crashing down from the horse chestnut trees in quite incredible numbers. I was surprised, and mildly disappointed, not to be hit on the head by a falling conker (there were several near misses). It's another mast year, of course, and every fruiting tree has been amazingly productive – even my tiny miniature plum tree yielded a substantial harvest this year.
  It was at just this time of year that I first arrived, at the age of nine, in the suburban demiparadise I still call home. After the first day of school, I joined a gang of boys heading straight to the park to climb trees and harvest conkers. We had to throw sticks – there was nothing like this year's easy largesse – but that only made it more fun. I looked around me at the park, lit by a mellow September sun, and knew I'd arrived in a rather special place...

But I'll be leaving all this behind tomorrow, when I head for Venice on my biennial (not Biennial) visit. Whether I'll have the stamina for the Tintoretto quincentennial exhibitions remains to be seen...

Saturday, 15 September 2018

The Blank Wall

And then I spotted a novel called The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Neither title nor author's name rang any kind of bell, but as it had been reprinted, in a typically handsome edition, by Persephone Books, I decided to give it a go.
  It turns out that Elisaberh Sanxay Holding is indeed an all but forgotten author, one whose best work was in the rather surprising genre of suspense fiction. Raymond Chandler praised her as 'the top suspense writer of them all', and her biggest success, The Blank Wall, was filmed twice – in 1947 (by Max Ophuls) as The Reckless Moment, and in 2001 as The Deep End, with Tilda Swinton. Reading the novel, it's easy to envisage it as a movie: there are plenty of cinematic set-pieces, the dialogue is sharp, and the narrative is well paced.
  For a suspense story, it's unusually homely and down-to-earth, and its characters are perhaps unusually well drawn. Lucia, through whose eyes we see the action and through whose sensibility we experience its impact, is a housewife valiantly keeping her household going while her husband is away fighting the Pacific war. What sets events in train is a commonplace enough situation: Lucia's anxiety about her teenage daughter's relationship with a dubious older man, and her clumsy attempt to put an end to it. When her daughter's suitor meets a grisly end in the boathouse of Lucia's lakeside property, she finds herself in an impossible situation, and the decision she makes at this point is the 'reckless moment' from which all else springs.
  Holding builds the action, and the tension, expertly, entangling the unfortunate Lucia in a terrible situation from which there seems to be no escape. Caught between low-life blackmailers and a clearly suspicious police officer, while trying all the while to maintain her regular domestic life, she discovers that she is tougher, more resourceful – and indeed less scrupulous – than she ever knew. But still she is caught in an ever tightening net...
  All this was fine, but I found the denouement – heavily dependent on a criminal belatedly discovering his virtuous side – less than fully convincing. I guess that's the trouble with suspense novels: it's always going to be something of an anti-climax when the screw stops turning and the tension finally breaks. For most of its length, The Blank Wall is an engrossing read, tense and psychologically convincing, something a good deal more than a genre page-turner. It deserved its reprint.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Who Was Changed

Having recently bought Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead purely because I remembered enjoying her The Vet's Daughter, I wasn't at all sure I was going to like this one nearly as much. A tale of flood, fire and raging madness set in a Warwickshire village in the early years of the twentieth century, it looked rather too highly coloured and over-the-top for my taste, and suggested the dread prospect of 'magical realism'. The sentence quoted on the back cover (of my VMC paperback edition) also sounded dishearteningly reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm:
'The grandmother cried, "Don't go yet, tell me more. What about my rose beds?" Her son seized the trumpet ... and shouted down its black depths, "Dead animals floating everywhere. Your roses are completely covered."'
  This grandmother with the ear trumpet – the violently tyrannical matriarch of the Willoweed family – is indeed a monstrous character, but Comyns manages to make her as believable (in context) as the other members of her variously dysfunctional household: her weak, self-pitying son (a would-be author) and his three children, of whom the gentle, thoughtful Emma is the most attractive and the one through whose eyes we see much of the action. However, Comyns's skill is to keep switching the point-of-view from one character to another to give us an all-round view of the events that unfold.
 These are, to say the least, dramatic. The novel begins with the river flooding: 'The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.'
The flood waters subside, but far worse is to come, in the shape of an outbreak of fatal madness that afflicts the village, the result of ergot poisoning. There are deaths and funerals galore in the course of this short novel, but Comyns's matter-of-fact tone, sharp eye and macabre humour – and her swift, light-footed narration – ensure that things never get bogged down in misery, and moments of quiet and serenity punctuate the action. The setting is evoked with great skill, the characters are deftly drawn, and all the principals (with the possible exception of Granny Willoweed) are fully rounded. Amazingly, this tale of horrors achieves a quite unforced happy ending – but then, even at its darkest, it always (apart from one scene of pure horror) feels more like a comedy than a tragedy. It is certainly an exhilarating read – and, I think, a bit of a masterpiece. Barbara Comyns is such a good writer; she deserves to be much better known.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018


The charity shop that keeps returning my boyhood to me – in the form of Ladybird bookscigarette card albums, etc – has done it again. Yesterday it had a window display devoted to another staple of my childhood – I-Spy Books. These were little illustrated books that encouraged children to look about them and score points for the things they spotted, graded according to rarity value. Titles – a dozen or so of which were lined up in the window – included such categories as 'At the Seaside', 'On the Farm', 'Cars', 'Churches' and even 'People'. I restricted myself to buying one title – 'Butterflies and Moths', one of the 'I-Spy Colour Series' (only a third of which, the middle 16 pages, is in colour). This edition was published in 1964 by The Dickens Press, a publishing offshoot of the News Chronicle newspaper, and priced at one shilling.
  The introduction does not inspire a lot of confidence, with its bold statement that there are 700 species of butterflies in the UK (the actual figure is 59, with around two and a half thousand moth species), but the illustrations are competent, and about as useful as they can be when two-thirds of them are in black-and-white. Of the 63 species shown, 30 are moths – 'you need only leave your light on, your window open, and on a summer evening they'll come to you!', the introduction breezily declares. My copy was apparently owned by a child living in the Coulsdon area in the late Sixties, who doesn't seem to have put much effort into his/her I-Spying – a couple of moths spotted 'at the shops', a few common butterflies 'on the downs' and, on 26 June 1967, also 'on the downs', a Swallowtail, scoring a maximum 50 points and entirely shattering the credibility of this particular I-Spyer.
  For the serious butterfly-and-moth I-Spyer, the aim would have been to spot everything in the book, send it in, and score the maximum 1,500 points, thereby earning the 'Tribal Rank of LEPIDOPTERIST – First Class'. Failing that, 1,250 points would earn 'Second Class Honours'. The duly filled-in book had to be sent to this address:
Big Chief I-SPY
4 Upper Thames St
London, E.C.4.
  Big Chief I-Spy (originally a former headmaster called Charles Warrell) was the head of the I-Spy Tribe of 'Red-skins'*, who wore a badge, used secret signs to make themselves know to fellow tribe members, and had a code book to decipher messages from the Big Chief. At its peak in the Fifties, the I-Spy Tribe numbered a million and a half young Red-skins. (I was not of their number.)
  In the words of Big Chief I-Spy, 'Odhu/intinngo, Redskin!' Anyone out there got a code book?

* Cultural appropriation alert.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018


It was strange being back in Edinburgh. I lived there (if lived is not too strong a word) for a year in the early Seventies, and had only been back on a couple of flying visits. The intervening years, it seems, have brought big changes: parts of the city that I remember as dismal, menacing and derelict are now smart, colourful, thronged with tourists and bursting with cafés, restaurants, trendy bars, artisan bakeries and all manner of hipster havens (amid the tartan tat). As for the Royal Mile, tourists on the more popular stretches form an all but impenetrable mass of cosmopolitan humanity. It's like St Mark's Square or the Riva degli Schiavoni in high season – except that, alas, it's not Venice but craggy old, windy old Edinburgh. Frankly, it's not my kind of city.
  However, there are compensations  – not least the Scottish National Gallery, which is now high on my list of favourite art galleries. When we visited, about a third of the building – including all the Renaissance galleries – were closed for refurbishment, but there was more than enough to enjoy in what remained open. The gallery now proudly displays a recent acquisition that can truly be called iconic – Landseer's The Monarch of the Glen. The original is startlingly fresh, full of light and depth and plein-air sparkle, quite unlike the gloomy image familiar from the countless prints that once hung on the walls of seaside boarding houses. It's a painting with tremendous presence, and the gallery is right to be proud of it.
  Hanging near the Monarch is a huge and characteristic work by Frederic Church, a view of Niagara Falls from the American side. This mighty canvas is a dizzying tour de force that does full justice to the grandeur of its subject – and it's all the more cherishable for being the only large-scale work by Church in any public collection in the UK. And, in the same room as the Church, is one of Constable's finest paintings, a dazzling view of The Vale of Dedham.

   I was happy to discover a top-notch Tiepolo, The Finding of Moses – a symphony in Venetian colour and light – and one of Bellotto's very finest views of Verona. Also a wonderful, Rembrandtesque Portrait of a Young Man by Jan Lievens  – and, right up my street, another Dutch painting, Six Butterflies and a Moth on a Rose Branch, by William Gouw Ferguson, a Scottish painter who worked for some years in Holland.
  The poster girl of the gallery is, with good reason, Lady Agnew, whose large portrait by Sargent is a glorious specimen of his free brushwork and luminous colour – an absolute stunner.  Nearby hangs a portrait that is every bit as impressive, in its very different way – Degas's very informal but cleverly designed portrait of Diego Martelli, who, viewed from a strangely high angle, sits to one side of the picture, staring out of it with arms folded, looking bored.
In the same room as these two hang two Van Goghs (a spring orchard and a summer olive grove), two fine Cézannes (The Big Trees and a study of Mont St Victoire), a couple of Monets, a late and free Degas study of dancers, and Gauguin's famous (and strange) The Vision of the Sermon: you know the one – this one...

Thursday, 6 September 2018

So Long As It's Black

Walking past a car park the other day, I noticed a line of bulky black cars and thought, 'Ah, looks like there's a funeral.' Then I looked again and realised that no, there was no funeral – this is what cars look like these days, black and bulky. Streets of parked cars often resemble some kind of cortege, and many slab-paved former front gardens around my way contain nothing but one big black monster parked in front of the living room window. How did it come to this? Surely it wasn't that long ago that black seemed the last colour anyone would choose for their car – too redolent of the fusty old days and police cars with blue lights on top?
  Actually it was that long ago. The trend towards black in all things began well before the end of the last century, and it shows no sign of going into reverse now, at least as far as cars go. One of the many little things that make Wellington such a pleasant city is the fact that cars there are overwhelmingly white. No one seems to know quite why, though it probably has something to do with importing so many of them from Asia, where nearly half the cars manufactured are white (again why? Why does Asia prefer white cars to black? Why don't we?). Over here car owners seem to be living out Henry Ford's 'any colour so long as it's black' maxim. But even Ford probably didn't mean it – from the start, his cars were usually available in a wide range of colours. Only now and only here in the UK, it seems, have we finally embraced the black-only ethos. After all this time, have we finally succeeded in painting it black? If so, I don't think this is quite what Presuming Ed (see Withnail and I) had in mind.

Tomorrow I'm off to Edinburgh for a few days  – a family wedding. I shall not be wearing a kilt.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

A Fulham Monument

Having been laid low (well, lowish) by what is laughingly called a 'cold', I thought I'd recollect in tranquility my recent visit to All Saints, the parish church of Fulham, which stands on the edge of the Bishop's Park, by the river.
  All Saints is something of a treasure house, especially for a monument maniac like me. Perhaps the most outstanding monument is the one pictured above, doubling up as a handy place for displaying leaflets, a collection box and a scale model of the church. All these are arrayed on the black marble table on which stands the white marble statue of John Mordaunt, 1st Viscount Mordaunt (died 1675), in all his martial glory. The gauntlets and coronet that stand on the two outlying pedestals are part of the monument – which is, in design, a quite extraordinary one. Pevsner (or Bridget Cherry) describes these corner balusters as 'bleak, hard, bulging', and the monument as a whole as 'curiously dry and bare'. For Margaret Whinney (Sculpture in Britain, 1530-1830), however, the Mordaunt monument, the work of John Bushnell, is 'probably the finest tomb of the period'.
  For myself, I'm inclined to side with Whinney, while having doubts about the overall design. The figure of John Mordaunt – in particular the great sweeping folds of his cloak (very Baroque) – is carved with striking brio. Mordaunt's pose is bold and swaggering, the drama enhanced by the black backing that shows off his Roman profile. The projection of his right leg and the rightward turn of his head are balanced by the baton he is holding and the mass of gathered cloak around his waist and left arm. On closer examination, the swagger looks a little less assured, and it's hard not to smile at Mordaunt's elongated legs and Roman boots (a good thing there's a mass of cloak behind to soften the effect).
  Mordaunt was an ardent Royalist who was engaged in countless uprisings and conspiracies on behalf of Charles II, but who was widely mistrusted by others on the same side. Only the King seems never to have lost his faith in him, even pardoning him after he was charged with having imprisoned the Surveyor of Windsor Castle and raped his daughter. After this, however, Mordaunt retired to France for a long sojourn, returning to England to spend his last years quietly at Parson's Green.
  As for the maker of this monument, John Bushnell, he was a sculptor of great but wayward talent, who, having worked abroad for some years, returned to England with an arrogant attitude that did him no favours. High-handed and professionally unreliable, he became increasingly eccentric, spent much time pursuing futile law-suits, and in the end descended into madness. After his death, his house on Park Lane was found to contain the remains of several grandiose projects, including a Trojan horse designed to contain twelve men. He died intestate as well as insane, leaving two half-mad sons living among the ruins.