Friday, 23 July 2021

Runge and Sendak

 Born on this day in 1777 was the German Romantic painter (and colour theorist and Christian mystic) Philipp Otto Runge. His most famous, or most lasting, work is The Hülsenbeck Children, an extraordinary group portrait of the children of Friedrich August Hülsenbeck, a shipping magnate and business partner of the artist's elder brother. This is a child portrait like no other before and very few since. Painted from child's eye level, it takes you straight into the children's world. These children are not ornaments of a family group portrait but individuals living their lives, filling the frame to the edges and looking out at us with a disturbingly candid gaze. And the lives these children are living are no sentimental idyll; they do not radiate the bliss of innocence. They are playing, but they are deadly serious. There are flowers, but they are not pretty; a giant sunflower looms over them. The girl, the one child who does not stare out at us, looks back anxiously over her shoulder at the plump baby in the cart, who holds not a flower but a dark sunflower leaf. It is an altogether unsettling picture – and its artistic progeny was to be even more so.  Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There is steeped in the spirit of Runge's painting, which is explicitly quoted throughout, most obviously on the cover.

Outside Over There is, as those who have braved it will know, the strangest and most disturbing of all Sendak's works, truly the stuff of nightmares (though it does, thankfully, have a happy ending). Ida, the girl with the wunderhorn, must look after her baby sister. Their father is away at sea, their mother is lost in some reverie of her own, and even the German shepherd seems uninterested in guarding the baby. One terrible night, Ida blows her horn and summons a goblin who, all unnoticed, climbs up a ladder to the bedroom and snatches the baby, replacing her with a baby of ice, who then melts in Ida's arms... 

Sendak said that, when he was working on Outside Over There, he listened exclusively to Mozart to get the period feel (though Schubert's hair-raising Erlkönig might have been more appropriate). He drew on his memories of a real-life nightmare from his own childhood – the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's 20-month-old son – and, to brilliant effect, he drew on Philipp Otto Runge. 

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

A Funeral

 Today I went to a beautiful and very moving funeral service. I mention this because funerals these days are so often disappointing events – relentlessly upbeat 'celebrations of the life'  – and do scant justice to the person we could once refer to as the loved one, before Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel made the phrase unusable. Today's funeral was for an old friend – or rather a young one, who had died in her early 50s, but whom I had first met some 30 years ago. We had once been very close to her and her family, but had lost contact in recent years as her life began to drift into a dark place from which, in the end, no one and nothing could rescue her. 
The funeral was that increasingly rare thing, a Christian service, with all the necessary depth that the spiritual element provides. There were prayers, a hymn, a reading (Mary Magdalen encountering the risen Jesus) and a well judged address by the vicar. But what made the occasion so special were the words – heartfelt, loving, honest and entirely fitting – spoken by her son and her ex-husband. How rarely anyone manages this well – especially when such difficult and complex feelings are in play – and yet both of these addresses were exactly right and intensely moving. This was a funeral to remember, and it did full justice to a remarkable woman who at her best gave so much love, warmth, kindness and happiness to her family and friends. RIP.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Sublime Adjustment

 And now a real poem, and very good one. Browsing in Peter Porter's Collected Poems last night, I came across this dense but elegant, perfectly formed meditation on music, death, life and who knows what else. Porter really should be recognised and remembered, but I fear he's posthumously paying the price for writing too much and making it seem too easy.

Walking Home on St Cecilia's Day

It is sublime adjustment: now
The only home for a deep sunk spine
Raising blood cordial, the plain wine
Of the bored. They can never trespass enough

Against us, who use their surly right
Of making the world hateful. The rose
Foot is in the clay and the catgut clothes
The notes of ink. On our backs the freight

Is never less and the pack sores rub,
But these are scabs of scarab. Atlas' welts
Where the whole world has hung or else
No single blade of grass could stand up.

The packed authority is in one glance.
The injustice of delight! All that is made
Makes this ventriloquist's serenade – 
Words to sing, beautiful impermanence.

And feeling my death in me, I walk home,
Rehearsing wrongly Mozart's own congruity.
Thus I say to the gatepost, see
I could be drunk and not fall to this huge drone.

It is the maker's gift, mechanic sound,
Which they say can analyse to God.
But here is hunger where we would feel greed;
We can learn it, a miracle on the ground.

But it still won't make tomorrow other than
Another day of chafing, shaving, sitting still:
Nodules on noses grow, pet cats get killed,
The lush and smooth upstage the scrag and thin.

But I know now as I charge my batteried heart
With thirty years' unhappiness on end,
There is a practice of music which befriends 
The ear – useless, impartial as rain on desert –

And conjures the listener for a time to be happy,
Making from this love of limits what he can,
Saddled with Eden's gift, living in the reins
Of music's huge light irresponsibility.

Monday, 19 July 2021

Freedom Day: A Celebratory Ode

 Its subject having mysteriously dissolved into air, this ode is being held over. 

Saturday, 17 July 2021

'A little inward note of complacency'

 The swifts have been livelier than ever today, perhaps encouraged by the hot sun. Flying low, they've been hurtling past their nest sites, screaming as they go, then ascending to perform their aerobatics with equal gusto over the rooftops. Gilbert White was fascinated by these 'amusive birds', which he observed with delight. Here he describes their behaviour at the height of the season: 
'In hot mornings several, getting together in little parties, dash round the steeples and churches, squeaking as they go in a very clamorous manner; these, by nice observers, are supposed to be males serenading their sitting hens; and not without reason, since they seldom squeak till they come close to the walls or eaves, and since those within utter at the same time a little inward note of complacency. When the hen has sat hard all day, she rushes forth just as it is almost dark, and stretches and relieves her weary limbs, and snatches a scanty meal for a few minutes, and then returns to her duty of incubation.'

Giant Butterfly Back!

 Under the heading 'Butterfly back from the dead', the Daily Mail (which I buy for old time's sake and out of gratitude for the pension they pay me) announces today that 'A giant butterfly thought to be extinct in Britain has been found breeding in the country for the first time in half a century'. 
'Giant' is pushing it – it's about the same size as a Peacock – but news that the beautiful Large Tortoiseshell is breeding again on the Isle of Portland is very welcome. The story has been bubbling under for a while – there was some evidence of breeding last year – but it now appears that the butterfly might be establishing itself in that corner of Dorset. At least one specimen seems to have survived the English winter, which is a very hopeful sign. We can assume that this development is a happy result of the Minor Modern Warming, which has also attracted various exotic (and very small) continental Blues and the gorgeous Queen of Spain Fritillary to these shores. 
One likely result of the Daily Mail piece is a lot of excitement for people who have spotted the similar, but infinitely commoner, Small Tortoiseshell. I need hardly add that I have never seen a Large Tortoiseshell (even abroad), but my father did once catch one in a tea garden in the New Forest. Even then (the 1930s) it was on its way to extinction. Let's hope that now it's on its way back.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

'At least they flap their fins to express emotion...'

Today is the birthday of the great lyricist and librettist Dorothy Fields (born 1904) – she who wrote the words to, among many others, 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'On the Sunny Side of the Street', 'I'm in the Mood for Love', 'Pick Yourself Up' and, much later, 'Big Spender'. Not to mention this feast of virtuoso rhyme-making – enjoy...