Sunday, 21 October 2018

A Monument – and a Walk

A glorious autumn day yesterday (and another one today), so I was off into the country for a walk – one that would happily combine with a church visit. Taking the train to Ashurst in the Weald of Kent, I walked South and East and back over the Sussex border to Withyham, where the church of St Michael and All Angels houses the Sackville Chapel, in which stands one of the finest church monuments of its time.
 It commemorates Thomas Sackville, who died in 1675 at the age of 13, his father, who died two years later, and his mother.  The grieving parents kneel beside the chest tomb on which their dying son lies, their anguished faces turned towards him, their postures eloquently expressive of their grief. It's an extraordinarily powerful piece of work, very Baroque (Italian by way of Dutch Baroque) but with the inward, unself-conscious melancholy of monuments from an earlier time.
 While the figures on most Baroque monuments are thoroughly self-conscious, turning their pose and gaze outward to an imagined audience, in this one the grieving parents seem quite unaware of any presence but that on which they are so intensely focused – their dying son. This makes it a great rarity for its time, and a much greater and more moving work of art than many another carved and designed with equal skill. And skilful the Sackville monument is, the figures and clothing far more convincingly carved than the generically similar Ashburnham monument by John Bushnell (as written about elsewhere on this blog). The relief carvings on the sides of the tomb chest, showing the dead boy's siblings, are beautifully done too. It's impossible not to be reminded of Epiphanius Evesham's work, especially the Lewin monument at Otterden.
 The maker of the great Sackville monument was Caius Gabriel Cibber, a Danish sculptor who worked successfully in England (among other things, he carved the impressive relief at the base of the Monument in the City of London). He was paid £350 for the Withyham monument – not a huge sum for such an ambitious work – and full payment was apparently dependent on the finished work being to 'ye well liking of Mr Peter Lilly [Lely], his majesty's painter'. Presumably this proviso was to ensure that the likenesses of the parents – the Earl and Countess of Dorset – were satisfactory. Amazingly, considering the quality of the Sackville monument, Cibber seems never to have made another church monument. Perhaps this one was too far out of the ordinary run of English Baroque monuments of the time, too out of kilter with fashionable taste.
 And then I went to the pub – the Dorset Arms – for a little lunch, and walked back over the rolling, wooded hills of the Weald in glorious autumn sunshine. Wide views, enamel blue skies, the endlessly varied colours of the turning leaves and ripening hedgerow fruits... Is there anything better than walking in the English countryside on a sunny autumn day?

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Enjoying Albion

For a good many weeks now, I have been reading Peter Ackroyd's Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination – reading it off and on, a chapter here, a chapter there, then putting it aside for a while (it's a damn'd thick square book, not one to carry with you on your travels). Now I have finally reached the last page, I feel mildly bereft, as if a journey with a particularly agreeable and informative companion has come to an end. 
 A 'journey' – that overused word – is appropriate, I think, for Albion, but it's a journey of wanderings around a vast subject, most definitely not a systematic itinerary, leading from A to B. That vast subject is what it says on the tin – the origins of the English imagination – and Ackroyd traces them from their Anglo-Saxon beginnings through their expression in such various fields as art, architecture, music, history writing, translation, gardening, scholarship, portraiture, biography, decorative arts, antiquarianism, etc, etc, etc. Along the way he convincingly identifies a range of distinctively English traits: a gift for absorbing and transforming outside influences, a deep distrust of theories and systems, a particular strain of melancholy, a readiness to conflate history and fiction, a certain diffidence, a love of private space, a taste for decorated surfaces, again etc, etc, etc. This is a compendious book, if ever there was one, yet it opens out in all directions into other, endless possibilities and fields of inquiry – and no wonder, with such a vast subject. Reading it, I felt more than ever the absurdity of our official modern identity as 'British'. English identity is far stronger, far older, far deeper-rooted, far more real. Albion (though it doesn't have any such programme) leaves no doubt of that.
 It is not only a book about Englishness, it is an embodiment and demonstration of the very nature of Englishness, with all its (to some critical eyes) faults. As Ackroyd puts it in his introduction: 'If this book is diverse and various, digressive and heterogeneous, accumulative and eclectic, anecdotal and sensational, then the alert reader will come to realise that the author may not be entirely responsible.' No, Albion is.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Centenary Girl

An anniversary worth celebrating today – the centenary of the birth of Rita Hayworth, one of the loveliest and most talented stars to grace Hollywood. Fred Astaire, when pushed on the subject, acknowledged that she was his favourite dance partner, and they were certainly well matched in their cool artistry and professionalism.
 However, to watch, they are never as eye-poppingly, soul-stirringly, exultantly right as Fred and Ginger. Really Rita is too tall for Fred, and with her long limbs her dancing tends to be that little bit too big for him. She doesn't have that effervescent joie de vivre joie de danser - that was Ginger Rogers' trademark and that so perfectly set off Astaire's cool perfection. With Fred and Rita, the romantic element was never convincing, because it was always clear that he was absolutely not the type of man she would go for. As Joseph Epstein puts it in his book on Fred Astaire: 'Rita Hayworth needed ... to play off a man she could betray for high stakes; a dangerous man, tempestuous, someone possessive and violent, as likely to slap her around as to make steamy love to her. Fred Astaire did not meet this job description.'
 However, Fred made his brief screen partnership with Rita – just two movies – work beautifully, and Hayworth, looking back, said, 'I guess the only jewels of my life were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire.' Here they are dancing an ultra-elegant rumba to Cole Porter's So Near and Yet So Far in You'll Never Get Rich. It was the only time Fred let his partner lead. Enjoy the amazing 'armography' towards the end...

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The House in Paris

Undeterred by reading The Death of the Heart (nine years ago!), I have returned to Elizabeth Bowen, this time to read The House in Paris, partly because Susan Hill and others rate it as Bowen's best.
  I can see why; it's an extraordinary novel by any standards, one in which nothing happens (twice) and everything happens. The two outer sections of the novel trace the course of a day in which two children, Henrietta and Leopold, both in their different ways unwanted, both in transit, find themselves thrown together in the Parisian house of the imperious invalid Mme Fisher and her unmarried, unfulfilled daughter Naomi. Leopold's mother, whom he has never met, is supposedly coming to pick him up and take him to London with her, but the first section of the book ends with news that she is not coming after all.
 The novel then goes off on a great loop back into 'The Past' to give us some at least of the back story, with Leopold's mother, Karen, at the centre of things, along with Naomi and the man they both love. A tale of multiple betrayals, great and small, this section takes us up to the time when Karen finds herself pregnant with Leopold. After which it's back to 'The Present' for the resolution, such as it is, of Leopold's unhappy situation, and the departure of Henrietta to stay with her grandmother.
  The House in Paris is a dark, dense and knotty read, and has little good to say about humans and the things they do to each other – and yet it exerts a tenacious grip. Bowen's extraordinarily effective creation of atmosphere is achieved largely by cumulative means, by what Peter Ackroyd calls her 'munificence of detail'. Her long descriptive passages – especially in 'The Present', parts of which are set in County Cork and in Hythe – are luxuriant, intense, almost clotted. And they work; they do the job of building atmosphere, creating an unmistakable Bowen world, and lending a tremendous potency to those scenes in which the atmosphere-building stops, emotions break cover and secrets are spoken. Bowen's fictional world is not one in which you'd want to live, but it's a bracing experience to plunge into it from time to time, and emerge chastened, sadder but wiser, and with that bit more insight into some of the darker byways of the human heart.

Monday, 15 October 2018

'The referee has spoken'

I gather the BBC has a new editorial policy on reporting climate change.  A briefing note from the director of news and current affairs warns of the dangers of 'false balance' thus:
'Manmade climate change exists. If the science proves it we should report it. To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.'
'Climate change IS happening ,' the note asserts, going on to warn against such 'common misconceptions' as that 'not all scientists think manmade climate change is real' and 'climate change has happened before'.
Both of those 'misconceptions', it seems to me, are rather closer to the statement 'Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday' than is the statement that 'Climate change IS happening'. Though that is, on the face of it, unexceptionable, as climate is never static, the implication is clearly that 'Catastrophic anthropogenic climate change' (memorably acronymised by Clive James as 'CACC') is happening. To assert that that kind of climate change 'IS happening' looks more like a statement of faith than one of scientific fact. For a start, it isn't even falsifiable, is it? 
What's more disturbing is that 'deniers' is now the BBC's default term for all those with any doubts about the story we're being told. People who used to be described, accurately, as 'sceptics' are now tacitly aligned with the swivel-eyed antisemites who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. Even the amiable Roger Bolton, discussing the issue on Radio 4's Feedback, referred to sceptics throughout as 'deniers'. I guess that's going to be the new normal on the BBC now.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Street Preachers

A curious scene on my local high street this morning. Local Muslims had set up a 'Discover Islam' stall, with leaflets and banners, and right next to them was a very vocal group of evangelical Christians, taking it in turns to preach in a loud and forthright manner and break into impassioned Christian song, all on the same theme – that Jesus is not only the Lord but the only Lord.
 The Muslims, who were offering free tea and coffee, and even free Qurans in English translation (was this wise?), looked the other way and adopted stoical, not to say bored, poses. They were getting scarcely any takers – but neither were the Evangelicals, despite their energetic efforts to buttonhole passers-by. Everyone was far more intent on getting their shopping done than letting Jesus or Allah into their lives. There was no sign of Christian-Muslim animosity. It was all very polite and very English.
 Let's hope things stay that way long into the future.

Friday, 12 October 2018

So Many Memorials

Not all that long ago, Remembrance of our war dead was an annual ritual that looked to be gradually dying out as the years passed. How times have changed: now Remembrance is bigger than ever, with ceremonies thriving and proliferating, and so many memorials being unveiled that we are in danger of becoming, in Geoffrey Hill's words, 'a nation with so many memorials, but no memory'. With the teaching of our national history now seriously distorted by post-imperial guilt and political correctness, and actual knowledge of our past getting sketchier with each generation, how much of this modern Remembrance is more than fuzzy feel-good sentimentality, fed by an increasingly imperfect understanding of what actually happened and why? I must admit there's something about the whole business that makes me feel a little queasy.
  War memorials used to be places to which ex-(and serving) servicemen would gravitate annually – or not (many, perhaps most, abstained) – for acts of communal remembrance. Such superbly restrained monuments as the Cenotaph still are. However, the new memorials and places of remembrance are designed more as tourist destinations, visitor attractions, offering something for everyone. Which brings me to the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield – a tourist attraction if ever there was one, winner of Gold Large Visitor Attraction of the Year and Coach Friendly Attraction of the Year.  I visited for the first time yesterday, and enjoyed it very much, with some (you'll not be surprised to hear) reservations.

  It's a wonderful site – 150 acres of former gravel beds, now planted with something over 30,000 trees – and the overall design is well thought out. To combine an arboretum with a memorial site seems to me a rather brilliant idea. In time, I guess, the memorials will be found standing in woodland groves, seeming almost part of the landscape, and to walk around the site will be a rather different experience from what it is now, when the trees are young and low. The visitor centre is an attractive, low-lying building with a cloister and garden, and the hub of the site, the Armed Forces Memorial, built on a mound and crowned with an obelisk, is an excellent design. The outer curved walls, which have the same diameter as the dome of St Paul's, enclose inner walls and a large, eloquent space. The walls are covered with the carved names of all who have died in service since 1945, and at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the sun sends a beam of light through a slit between the outer and inner walls and projects it onto a wreath at the centre. Taken as a whole, this is, I think, a fine memorial.
  The other memorials, however – and there are a quite astonishing number, so many that the place sometimes feels like a remembrance theme park – vary in quality considerably, and I can't honestly say that I found any one of them (perhaps because of the quantity) especially moving. Generally speaking, the more abstract monuments are the most effective – and that points to a big problem with the Memorial as a whole: the figure sculpture is simply not good enough. Even the figure groups inside the Armed Services Memorial – which are probably the best on offer – are rather unconvincing individually, though they are very effectively grouped [that's one above]. I get the impression (which may well be wholly unfair) that figure sculptors today do not put in enough time studying anatomy. Few of the figures I saw yesterday were as convincing, in that respect, as the most routine academic sculpture of the 19th century. Too many were awkward, lifeless, ill proportioned and crudely characterised – and they also looked, like so much public sculpture these days, as if they had been moulded in resin (though clearly this was not the case).
 But enough of my gripes. Overall, I think the National Memorial Arboretum is a fine enterprise, parts of which – especially the Armed Services Memorial – work very well. And, as the trees mature, it will become an increasingly attractive place to visit, stroll around – and, perhaps, remember.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Birthday Boy

Today is the 95th birthday of broadcasting legend and model of old-fashioned English charm and good manners, Nicholas Parsons. Born on this day – fittingly at the height of the cravat season – in 1923, Parsons has been celebrated on this blog more than once. On the first occasion, launching an occasional series (long defunct) of Cravat Heroes, I briefly outlined his remarkable career., or some of it. Since then, he has achieved the distinction of becoming the oldest 'intermittent broadcaster' on the BBC,  just ahead of David Attenborough. When Parsons recently took a couple of weeks off (his first ever) from Just A Minute, it seemed an ominous event and the listening world held its breath – but no, back he came in fine fettle, and he remains firmly in the chair.
  Parsons once snaffled the world record for the longest after-dinner speech from Gyles Brandreth, but he held it only briefly before Brandreth, typically, snatched it back, managing twelve and a half hours against Parsons' mere eleven. To spare us further pain, Parsons graciously conceded.
 I saw Nicholas Parsons on stage at least once, playing the straight man to Arthur Haynes, at the time (the early Sixties) the most famous and popular comedian in Britain. I remember little about it, but I'm sure he performed impeccably, as always.
 Happy birthday, Mr Parsons.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Aurelian Matters

I see Butterfly Conservation has managed to extract a bad news story from the most amazing butterfly season in years. Analysis of figures from the Big Butterfly Count shows a steep drop in Red Admiral numbers, and a less dramatic fall for the Small Tortoiseshell (though it seemed a pretty normal Tortoiseshell year for me). The strange shortage of Red Admirals – despite perfect weather conditions – was a conspicuous feature of the summer, but might just have been a one-off. Otherwise, as BC acknowledges, it was a bonanza summer for all the Whites and for Holly and Common Blues – and if the Big Butterfly Count had been conducted a few weeks earlier, it might have given a much more cheerful picture, as the butterfly season was running very early, thanks to all that hot, dry weather.
  For me (as I've mentioned here more than once) it was a quite glorious butterfly summer in terms of sheer abundance and variety, though it ended strangely early and abruptly (hardly any late fliers, despite the autumn sun). That may well be the picture that emerges when BC's wider-ranging figures (covering many more species than the Big Count) are analysed. Let's hope so, and that for once it will be hard for the media to find a Bad News story – though there are always the Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells.

Monday, 8 October 2018

A Change of Plan

Following a radical (and, frankly, inspired) change of plan, we never made it to Cognac, but instead turned West for Brittany – for Dinard specifically, where a hotel apparently had three single rooms available at a startlingly low price. Pausing only for oysters and Muscadet at a roadside huitrerie and a stroll around a headland known for its views, we made our way to Dinard, that old-fashioned, unspoilt, rather genteel resort that still has something of the flavour of its century-ago Anglo-French heyday. As did the hotel, which had more charm and character than any I've stayed at in years. That's the sitting room above, like something out of a Vuillard painting, and the breakfast verandah below, which commands a spectacular view across the bay to St Malo.
  There was nothing that could really be called walking, but we had a good look around St Malo – spectacular, if tourist-heavy – and the medieval walled town of Dinan, of which much the same could be said. Our peregrinations ended with a night at another hotel (equally good but quite different) near Fontevraud, where we dutifully inspected the Abbey, a building of great historical and antiquarian importance, but sadly lacking in atmosphere, let alone anything remotely numinous. Over the centuries, French restorers have done it over with typical Gallic thoroughness, leaving it stripped and scraped and depatinated, little more now than a prodigious barn. The 'interpretation' too is notably bad, telling you little you need or want to know and much you don't, and at one point featuring a creepy hologram of an actor pretending to be a medieval monk. The Abbey does, however, contain effigies of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Coeur de Lion and Isabella of Angouleme, all of whom were buried there. Standing in the middle of the bare nave, they might as well be in a museum...
  The more I see of France, the more grateful I am for England's extraordinary wealth of parish churches. Leaving aside the abysmal architectural quality of so many small-town churches in France (and the habit, all too common in Catholic countries, of filling them with even worse furnishings and art), there is also the problem of what has been done over the centuries to even the more historic churches, many of which, like Fontevraux, survive as little more than impressive empty spaces, 'restored' to within an inch of their lives. This is partly the result of France's unfortunate history of religious upheavals, iconoclasm, political revolution and secularisation.  A church that has suffered the full French Revolutionary treatment is never going to be the same again. Nor, alas, is a church that has suffered the full French 'restoration' treatment, which so often amounts to a ruthless stripping down and/or an almost total reconstruction in a style deemed 'appropriate'. Even at their harshest and most programmatic, our English church restorers have seldom had such a destructive, deadening effect.
 But the French still have better hotels than us...

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Gallivanting Again

Pausing only to mark the birthday of that interesting painter Pierre Bonnard ( born on this day in 1867), I depart on my travels yet again today. This time, I'm gallivanting off to France, to the Cognac region, for a few days' walking. After that, I think I'll be done with foreign travel for the rest of the year. A bientot, amis.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Wolf? Thorn?

In my boyhood and youth, gentleman's fragrances were thin on the ground. Apart from the (rather nice) Imperial Leather aftershave my father used, one brand had the field pretty much to itself – Old Spice, which turned up without fail every Christmas (often, oddly, in the form of talcum powder). It had a distinctive, pungent aroma that harmonised all too well with the smell of male sweat – a smell that was very widespread in those days of once-or-twice-a-week bathing and no showers except after organised sports.
 The effective monopoly of Old Spice ended, at least for the youngsters, with the coming of Brut, that industrial-strength eye-stinger rumoured to be packed with male pheromones. I must confess I fell under the spell of this stuff for a while – I was young, m'lud, and knew no better; the Penhaligon years were far in the future...  Since those days of youthful folly, I have never taken so much as a sniff of Brut – I'd rather not dip that olfactory madeleine, who knows what forgotten horrors it might resurrect? But Brut, after long years out of fashion, does appear to be back – I see it everywhere, and flinch.
 Also back, and also everywhere now, is Old Spice. The other day, having run out of Tabac (the finest deodorant spray available to man, apart perhaps from the hard-to-find Caractere), I noticed a range of revived Old Spice products lined up in Boot's and thought I'd try one of the deodorant sprays (which, I must say, were startlingly cheap). So I went for one called Wolfthorn, looking forward to a blast of retro manliness. I mean – Wolfthorn! If ever a name smacked of the rugged outdoor life, of man at his manliest pitted against nature at its wildest, surely this was it. I bought one, took it home, lifted an arm and pressed...
 What emerged from this ultravirile spray container was a haze of something so intensely sweet and fruity it could have been rendered down from several tons of Opal Fruits. I had never smelt anything like it – yet it was weirdly evocative, not of anything to do with manhood or male fragrances but of the sweetshops of yore. It was like plunging your head into one of those big old-fashioned sweet jars that had lately been filled with all the most pungent items in the shop. Happily the initial blast soon wears off, and what lingers is not actually unpleasant. It's also surprisingly effective, over many hours. According to online comment from members of the Old Spice community, women tend to find the smell of Wolfthorn very agreeable. So maybe that's what it is – a man's deodorant for women, cleverly disguised as a deodorant that only the manliest of red-blooded males could handle. Well, I'll finish the canister I've got, but I don't think I'll be back for more.

Monday, 1 October 2018

'A master of the middle range'

'She was tall, but not unusually so, and sturdily built up. Her figure, though the bust was a little flat, had the feminine curves of absolute maturity. Anna had been a woman since seventeen, and was now on the eve of her twenty-first birthday. She wore a plain, home-made light frock checked with brown and edge with brown velvet, thin cotton gloves of cream colour, and a broad straw hat like her sister's. Her grave face, owing to the prominence of the cheekbones and the width of the jaw, had a slight angularity; the lips were thin, the brown eyes rather large, the eyebrows level, the nose fine and delicate; the ears could scarcely be seen for the dark brown hair which was brushed diagonally across the temples, leaving the forehead only a pale triangle. It seemed a face for the cloister, austere in contour, fervent in expression, the severity of it mollified by that resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment.'

Well, having recently been reading rather a lot of marginal or out-of-the-way fiction, I thought I'd immerse myself in a proper, well-made, old-fashioned, brass-and-mahogany novel – and the above is the kind of writing you're likely to get in that kind of work. It's the first (and weirdly exhaustive) description of the heroine in Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns (1902), which I have just finished reading.
  Happily, such passages are few and far between in Anna, which is quite a short novel (under 200 pages). Bennett does occasionally apostrophise the reader or offer airy generalisations, but his bravura descriptive passages more than earn their keep, vividly evoking the Potteries towns of Staffordshire as they were around the turn of the last century. At the centre of the novel is, of course, Anna, a character drawn with great subtlety and finesse, and her desperately unhappy relationship with her father, a pathological miser who seems to delight in inflicting mental cruelty on the sensitive Anna. Such is Bennett's skill in bringing the character of Anna to life that it is impossible not to be drawn into her story and to suffer (and occasionally rejoice) with her. As the playing out of the narrative is equally skilful, this turns out to be an engrossing, emotionally involving page-turner.
  Bennett described Anna of the Five Towns as 'a sermon against parental tyranny' – something he had experienced himself in his early life. But it is less a sermon than an exploration of the effects of such tyranny on a particular sensibility, the movements of which are traced with a sometimes almost Jamesian delicacy and precision. The world in which Bennett places Anna is a small, narrow one, dominated to what today seems an extraordinary extent by the Methodist church in its various manifestations. Bennett's focus is accordingly narrow and closely attentive to the telling detail.
The novel is not without weaknesses, especially in the characterisation – the male lead, the man who falls in love with Anna, is notably thinly drawn – but, reading it, you can appreciate John Gross's generous judgment of Bennett (in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters):
'If one wanted to explain to a ghost what it felt like to be alive – on the whole, by and large – Bennett is the English novelist one would turn to first. He is a master of the middle range, almost unsurpassed at showing how everything goes on as usual and nothing remains the same.'
  Bennett, a blatantly commercial writer who made no bones about his love of money and luxury, courted the distaste of daintier sensibilities – especially Bloomsbury ones – throughout his career, and towards the end deserved some of the contempt that came his way. He remains deeply unfashionable and somehow suspect, but the best of his novels remain in print – and, on the evidence of Anna, clearly deserve to. I fancy I'm going to be reading more.