Saturday 28 February 2015

Random Notes

Though it's grey and drizzly today where I am, the glad news comes that the past three months have been the sunniest winter since records began. This is exactly as one would have expected following the Met's confident prediction - reported here - of the wettest winter since The Flood (I exaggerate, slightly). It really takes something like genius to get these winter and summer forecasts so radically wrong year after year. Perhaps, like Eric Morecambe's 'the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order', the Met's seasonal forecasts are right - but not necessarily for the right year. In fact, they seem to be exactly one year out - adjust for that and they're impressively accurate.

 I was in Sainsbury's this morning (living the life, as ever) and couldn't help noticing that their shopping trolleys now bear the legend - in ISIS-style white on black - 'Our values make us different.'
 Hmmm. There's a statement that begs a few questions. E.g: What would they be then, these values? From what do they make you different? In what way(s) different? Why are you telling me this? Does it mean anything at all? If it does, does anyone believe it? Can anyone? Am I going to have to start doing my shopping at Lidl? Or do they have values too - different ones, of course?

  Being very fond of extremely small books, I was pleased to come across a copy of Sorry Meniscus (1999), a tidy little pamphlet-length package from Iain Sinclair, with suitably grim grey photographs by Marc Atkins, subtitled Excursions to the Millennium Dome. The Excursions, described with typical Sinclairian relish and resource, are to the incomplete Dome as the Great Day draws near and everyone wonders what the hell they have made here, tries not to panic and racks what passes for their brains for something with which to fill the monstrous meaningless space. It's a shame it wasn't published later, after the Big Night and the unveiling of the full horrors of the Millennium Experience - I'd like to have read Sinclair's impressions of all that - but that would have been a bigger book. It's strange - or perhaps it isn't - that this whole sorry interlude has so soon lapsed from memory, nothing left of it all save another vast pop arena, minimally labelled 'O2'.

Thursday 26 February 2015

The Kellogg Brothers: Flakes

Today we mark the birthday (in 1852) of John Harvey Kellogg, one of the supreme cranks of a golden age of cranks. Kellogg, it seems, never met a crackpot idea he didn't like. He was a Seventh Day Adventist (though he flirted with pantheism), a convinced vegetarian, vehemently against alcohol and tobacco, a tireless enemy of sex in all its forms - but especially the 'solitary vice', the root of all the world's evil - and a keen advocate of frequent and copious enemas, also (inevitably) of eugenics and racial segregation. His Wikipedia entry alone is quite eye-watering stuff...
 Where Kellogg differs from other golden age cranks is that he left an enduring legacy - in the form of his ubiquitous Corn Flakes. With his equally crackpot brother, Will Keith, J.H. Kellogg made the chance discovery that if you mashed up corn into a pulp, left it lying around till it was stale, then ran it through a mangle, you'd end up with flakes, which could be toasted and passed off as food. John Harvey and Will Keith fell out massively, and indulged in a mighty, family-splitting feud, over whether sugar should be added to these flakes - but somehow corn flakes caught on and, more than a century later, they are still with us. So it is to the Kellogg brothers that we owe the decidedly cranky habit of eating processed cereals with cow's milk and calling it breakfast.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Henry James at the Pacific

I was delighted to come across this typically elegant sonnet by Donald Justice (an English sonnet, though the rhymes are scarcely noticeable), as it doesn't seem to be in my bedside Collected Poems. In Henry James at the Pacific, The Master has extended his American travels further West than he did in actuality and arrived at the blank immensity of the Pacific, where he muses on America and his art, and finds himself pining after all for the 'mild, dear light of Lamb House'.

Henry James at the Pacific

In a hotel room by the sea, the Master
Sits brooding on the continent he has crossed.
Not that he foresees immediate disaster,
Only a sort of freshness being lost -- 
Or should he go on calling it Innocence?
The sad-faced monsters of the plains are gone;
Wall Street controls the wilderness. There's an immense
Novel in all this waiting to be done.
But not, not -- sadly enough -- by him. His talents,
Such as they may be, want a different theme,
Rather more civilized than this, on balance.
For him now always the recurring dream
Is just the mild, dear light of Lamb House falling
Beautifully down the pages of his calling.

There's a long in-depth analysis of this poem here. The author, William Logan, traces a deep affinity between Justice's sonnet and Keats's On First Looking into Chapman's Homer. The piece has a rather wonderful final paragraph [Spoiler Alert]:
'I once asked Donald Justice whether he had recognized the odd, subterranean links between "Chapman's Homer" and "Henry James by the Pacific." He seemed surprised, then gratified. After thinking for a moment, he said, "Not at all." 

Bayko Alert

I see my thoughts on Bayko have surfaced on The Dabbler today...

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Homer's Blackboard

It's time for a painting - and this one is Blackboard (1877), a watercolour by Winslow Homer, who was born on this day in 1836. Homer worked in so many styles, genres and media that he is quite hard to pin down, though it was perhaps in his breezy coastal and maritime scenes that he was most himself. Blackboard has something of the reposeful feel of a Chardin, with its muted palette, cool light, strong composition and air of being at once domestically familiar and faintly mysterious. The composition is boldly geometrical, from the dark rectangle of the blackboard and the grey dado below to the check pattern of the young teacher's pinafore and the straight line of her pointer - not to mention those geometrical shapes so carefully chalked on the board. What are they? It's now believed that they relate not to a geometry lesson but to a lesson in drawing, which in the 1870s often began with instruction in the drawing of such rectilinear shapes. Homer has crudely signed his name in a corner of the board, as if in chalk, placing himself at the heart of his own painting. It is, I think, a very beautiful picture.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Patrick Modiano

So I thought I'd have a look at Patrick Modiano. This was not because he won the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (no guarantor of literary worth, as a look at the list of winners - beginning with a French windbag called Sully Prudhomme - clearly demonstrates). Rather it was because a couple of people of sound judgment had mentioned Modiano (also French but no windbag) to me as perhaps worth a look. And so he has proved, on the evidence on the volume I've just read, Suspended Sentences - a collection of three short-novella-length pieces, in a highly praised translation by Mark Pollizzotti.
  It is clear from these pieces that Modiano is a writer who deals in indirection, in a gauzy world of enigmatic characters who come and go without ever coming fully into view, whose mysteries are never quite solved, while Modiano - or his fictional surrogate - stands always at a slight distance, at an oblique angle. It is also clear that these works are all variations of a few key themes and events, all of which are very close to the facts of Modiano's own life, in particular his early years. The most mysterious and most central figure - who keeps reappearing in various guises - is Modiano's father, who led a shady existence among the criminal gangs of wartime Paris, was finally rounded up for deportation as a Jew, but was rescued in mysterious circumstances by a leading gangster. Then there is the absent mother (an actress) and the various friends of hers who looked after young Patoche (Patrick) and his brother. And there is the death of that brother, a fact that colours everything.
 Those are the human presences, variously shadowy and enigmatic - and then there are the locations, the obscure corners of a Paris that has now disappeared (much of it under the peripherique). These are described with a precision of detail - including lists of names, a Modiano speciality - that is in marked contrast to the wraith-like humans who pass through them. I am quite sure I would have enjoyed reading this book more if I had a more detailed knowledge of the topography of Paris - and if my French was up to reading it in the original. Modiano's prose style is much praised, critics talking in terms of an elusive but specific flavour, even a 'signature scent'. Something of this comes across in translation, but I fancy Modiano is the kind of writer who doesn't travel terribly well. Reading him, I was strongly reminded of W.G. Sebald, another author whose works are peopled by mysterious and elusive characters (and another who relishes documentation and the mingling of fictional and actual worlds) - but Modiano doesn't (on this evidence anyway) achieve the allusive density and momentum of Sebald. He seems to be working in watercolour - delicate, elusive, enigmatic - while Sebald works with stronger, denser, darker pigments.
 I should add that I found the experience of reading Modiano enjoyable. These are intriguing stories with an atmosphere all their own, and they keep you reading. That 'signature scent' is attractive - but I have a suspicion that, like many scents, it fades fast.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Darkness and Sleep

In the comments under Wolf Hall on TV (below), Brit mentions the oppressive darkness - a darkness that has drawn a few complaints (and a little critical birdshot). These are quite unmerited - unlike the 'moody', 'atmospheric' darkness of many a modern police/forensic procedural, Wolf Hall's is not a contrivance but a pretty accurate representation of living by candlelight. The producers went to a lot of trouble, too, to get the 'right kind' of candlelight, eventually opting for church candles with a high beeswax content, giving a relatively strong white light.
Anyway, this reminded me of something I'd read on - of all the unlikely places - the BBC News website, about sleeping patterns in premodern times. A psychiatrist had conducted an experiment in which a group of volunteers were plunged into darkness for 14 hours of every 24 and their sleeping habits observed over a month. What happened was that they settled into a sleep pattern of two four-hour spells of sleep with a waking interval of one or two hours in between. And this, all the evidence suggests, is exactly how people slept (and woke) in the long dark nights before electric light, street lighting and the demands of a clock-timed working life. The 'first sleep' would begin a couple of hours after dusk and last around four hours. Then there would be a waking period of one or two hours, followed by the 'second sleep'. This waking period would be spent in praying, sometimes in reading or writing, often in talking with bedfellows and, of course, having sex (this period was recommended as the best time for it). Then it was back to the Land of Nod for another four hours... This way of sleeping apparently began to die out in the late 17th century among the better-off, and gradually, over the years, in the rest of society.
 All this, and much else, is dealt with in a book by Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past. This sounds so interesting that I've ordered it on Abebooks. It's extraordinary how little interest we take in that half of our lives we spend abed, sleeping, dreaming, withdrawing into a timeless world...


My review of Peder Balke at the National Gallery is up on The Dabbler, with bigger and better pictures.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

It has begun!

A cold and frosty morning, with little warmth in the low sun, as I strolled to work along Launceston Place, glancing idly into the front gardens (always beautifully planted). And there, to my utter amazement, was a Red Admiral, precariously riding a nodding Crocus as it tried to extract some much-needed nectar. My first butterfly of the year, and the earliest in recent memory. Indeed, I can safely say that this is the first time I have stood in winter overcoat, scarf and gloves and watched a butterfly feeding (or attempting to). This Red Admiral soon gave up the effort and flew away, with surprising vigour. And I to work with a spring in my step and a grin on my face. The butterfly year has begun!

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Wolf Hall on TV

The contrarian (and BBC-basher) in me protests, but I have to admit that the consensus view on the TV Wolf Hall is right - it is pretty damn brilliant. Peter Straughan and Peter Kosminsky's dramatisation of Hilary Mantel's two (so far) Thomas Cromwell novels is up there with the very best historical dramas. Having said which, I should hastily add that it is not, of course, history; it is a fiction that plays out in a historical framework. Mantel is clearly in love with Cromwell, has a huge soft spot for Wolsey, and cordially loathes Sir Thomas More, so as history it is definitely not to be trusted. However, as a human drama, and a picture of what Tudor court life must have been like, it is entirely convincing. It benefits from three extraordinary performances - Mark Rylance's Cromwell (a masterclass in 'less is more' acting), Claire Foy's Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis's Henry - all of which deepen and strengthen as the series nears its end. As does the menacing and oppressive atmosphere of the court, a precarious world in which advancement and disgrace, life and death can hinge on a word, a gesture, a look. (This sense of deadly peril lurking beneath oppressively sumptuous appearances reminded me of the feel of some of Walerian Borowczyk's films, particularly Blanche.) By the time of the final episode (which, thanks to the wonders of technology, I have seen) the tension becomes almost unbearable as events build to the inevitable climax. When it comes, it is almost impossible to watch. And there's a brief, brilliantly staged final scene that is every bit as disturbing. In fact it's probably the greatest TV ending since The Sopranos.Yes, Wolf Hall is the goods. The fifth episode (of six) is on BBC2 tomorrow night.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Revisiting Kind Hearts: Cineastic Bliss

The other evening I came across a DVD of the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (given away by a newspaper, by the look of it) and decided to watch it - after all I hadn't seen it for 20 years and more. So I slipped it into the player, the J.Arthur Rank muscleman took a swing at the gong and the titles came up - prettily lettered and framed in Edwardian neo-rococo style, and playing over an instrumental version of Il Mio Tesoro Intanto, that sweet song of revenge from Don Giovanni.
 I was already slipping into a state of cineastic bliss - and then came the opening scene. Miles Malleson - he of the receding chin and clerical air (he was Dr Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest) - playing the hangman, arriving at the prison, removing his top hat, signing in, and looking forward with relish to the prospect of using the silken rope, for this was to be the climax of his career: he was hanging a Duke! And then we see the Duke, sitting in his cell, wonderfully insouciant in a smoking jacket, whiling away what will likely be his last night on Earth by writing a memoir of his recent activities.
 These have, as anyone who's ever heard of the film will know, consisted largely of an ambitious programme of bumping off every member of the D'Ascoyne family who stands between him and the Dukedon - for his mother was a D'Ascoyne, disowned and cruelly treated by the family. Each of these D'Ascoyne murderees is, famously, played by Alec Guinness in a bravura display of actorly versatility. The funniest of them is perhaps the Rev Lord Henry D'Ascoyne, the tippling, long-winded Parson - 'I always say that my West Window has all the exuberance of Chaucer - without, happily, any of the concomitant crudities of his period.'
 The whole air of the piece is consciously artificial and the murders are farcical, hygienically unreal and farcically easily achieved. This is high comedy, but very black comedy - indeed a serial killer comedy (50 years before Dexter) - but it retains just enough moral structure never to be quite cynical. Even today the laughs it provokes are often of the gasping, jaw-dropped kind - and it is extraordinary how little about this film has dated (only the accents of the leading ladies really).
 Kind Hearts and Coronets is brilliantly edited and briskly told, with a beautifully written script rich in layered irony that keeps the twists and surprises coming right to the closing seconds of the film. But one thing above all makes it stand out, makes it indeed a comic masterpiece - and that is Denis Price's utterly mesmerising performance as the suave, self-contained killer Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini. He is quite devilishly attractive, with a presence  and quality that effortlessly dominate every scene he's in. And boy, is he a dresser - every outfit seems to have been put together with the care of a Beau Brummel and is worn with the perfect posture and elegant movements such outfits demand. The costume design - and the production design as a whole - of this film are quite wondrous, giving it just the right ornate, stagey, dream-Edwardian look. Even the staging and lighting of the outdoor scenes is exquisitely picturesque - and the hats worn by Joan Greenwood's Sibella (Louis's love object and nemesis) are a comedy subplot in themselves.
 But it is Price's performance above all that makes this film a classic. It is surely one of the most brilliant star turns in British cinema. How sad that he never did anything else that came up to this level - though his Jeeves to Ian Carmichael's Wooster in the Sixties TV series was very fine, in its smaller way.
 Kind Hearts and Coronets keeps on giving right to the very end - and in more ways than one. The reporter from Tit Bits who approaches Louis outside the prison is none other than Arthur Lowe. From Miles Malleson to Arthur Lowe... If you're thinking of watching Kind Hearts again, do! And if you've never seen it, I envy you.

Thursday 12 February 2015


The great photographer Eugene Atget was born on this day in 1857. His self-appointed mission was to document what remained of the old, pre-Haussmann Paris (the Paris whose passing Baudelaire mourned). He set about it methodically and on a grand scale, using a large-format wooden bellows camera with glass dry plates, and capturing thousands of images of forgotten corners and commonplaces of the city.
 Though he saw himself purely as a documenter, the Surrealists, as was their way, adopted him as one of their own after Berenice Abbott published some of his photographs. You can see their point: there is something strange and unsettling about Atget's street scenes - not least that they are characteristically deserted, any human presences tending either to blend into the scene as if they've always been there, or to be present only as ghost-like images, blurred into near-invisibility by long exposure times. The pictures often have a haunted quality - or, as Walter Benjamin put it, they feel like 'the scene of a crime'. He went further, declaring that Atget's photographs of the unremarked, forgotten and abandoned 'work against the exotic, romantically sonorous names of the cities; they suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship'. Well, maybe. Needless to say, the web is well populated with Atget's haunting images; it's easy to spend an awful lot of time poring over them... 

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Duke of Burgundy

'Yes, that's a butterfly reference,' said the voice on the radio. 'The film is full of them.' At this, naturally, my ears pricked up. The film under discussion was The Duke of Burgundy - clearly a reference to Hamearis lucina, Britain's only Metalmark butterfly, a pretty little thing (once classified as a Fritillary) that flies in early May, though not, alas, in my neck of the woods. However, it turned out that the Duke of Burgundy under discussion is a mucky  - sorry, 'stylish, sensual and smart' - movie (starring Sidse Babette Knudsen of Borgen fame) about 'a butterfly professor's dom/sub lesbian relationship'. Fancy.
 Why is it that whenever lepidopterists - or simple butterfly collectors - turn up in fiction they're invariably at least weird and manipulative, and often something far worse? From Frederick Clegg in John Fowles's The Collector to Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles, from Judge Holden in Blood Meridian to Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs, they're a thoroughly creepy bunch. And now a 'dom/sub lesbian' with some decidedly unhygienic habits has joined their ranks. I may be wrong, but I don't think much of that sort of thing goes on in my branch of Butterfly Conservation.

Over on...

... The Dabbler, I'm enjoying the wood engravings of Eric Ravilious.

Monday 9 February 2015


As Bad As A Mile

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

This short poem by Philip Larkin (written, or signed off, on this day in 1960) could almost - if the lines and the structure were further broken up - have been written by Kay Ryan, could it not? Especially the progress to the final image. The eversion of a familiar phrase, the reverse chronology, tracing the path from the everyday to something bigger and sadder - above all the extreme succinctness of a few plain words doing their work in a tight grid of sound and meter... I don't know if Kay Ryan has read Larkin, and I doubt there's any direct influence, but it's interesting to see how, at least on this occasion, they might arrive in much the same place.


I was strolling around Lichfield on Saturday - a fine city, with a handsome but homely old town of red brick, sandstone and black-and-white, a market square with a grand (ex-)church, a string of large ponds, and everywhere you look the famous three spires of the great cathedral. It was in Lichfield that Samuel Johnson was born and spent the first 27 years of his life, in the house of his bookseller father - which, happily, still stands, is open to the public and now houses England's second 'Dr Johnson's House' (the other being on Gough Square in London). It's a pleasant house to visit - all creaking boards and twisting stairs and small rooms with undulating floors - with a warmer and more welcoming feel than the London house, informative displays presented with a light touch, and even a rather wonderful second-hand bookshop downstairs.
 Lichfield also has the charming Erasmus Darwin house, larger and more imposing than the Johnson house - in fact very handsome - and with displays inside that must be doing a great job in bringing the Grandfather of the More Famous Charles some of the recognition he deserves, as natural philosopher, poet, inventor, physician, thinker and all-round good egg. His physic garden has also been recreated and must be quite something in the summer months.
 And then there's the heartrender, which caught me unawares. In the southeast corner of the cathedral stands a monument every bit as moving as the great memorial to Penelope Boothby in St Oswald's church in nearby Ashbourne. The Lichfield monument, by Sir Fancis Chantrey, is known as The Sleeping Children, and made a huge impact in its day (it was initially displayed at the Royal Academy) and into the Victorian period. The children asleep in one another's arms - the younger holding a little posy of snowdrops - are Ellen-Jane and Marianne Robinson, daughters of Mrs Ellen-Jane Robinson, whose husband, a prebendary of the cathedral, had died of tuberculosis in 1812, at the age of 35, leaving her widowed with two young daughters. The following year, Ellen-Jane (the elder daughter) died of burns after her nightdress caught fire while she was preparing for bed. Then, in 1814, the younger daughter, Marianne, fell ill and died during a visit to London. In three years, Mrs Robinson had been trebly bereaved, losing her entire family. It is hard to imagine how anyone could survive such an onslaught, hard to conceive the sheer strength of faith and hope required. The children's epitaph concludes thus:

              '...Their affectionate mother
In fond remembrance of their "heav'n-lov'd innocence",
        Consigns their resemblances to this sanctuary,
                    In humble gratitude
            For the glorious assurance that
          "Of such is the kingdom of God".'

Friday 6 February 2015

Quartet In Autumn

After I'd read (and reviewed) Philip Larkin's A Girl In Winter, it was a natural step to read another Barbara Pym. Larkin was a big Pym fan and, along with Lord David Cecil, responsible for the revival in her fortunes after a fallow period in which she could not get published. Larkin and Lord D named her in a TLS round-up as a criminally underrated writer, the literary world - and a publisher (Macmillan) - took notice, and the first fruit was Quartet In Autumn, published in 1977 (and shortlisted for that year's Booker). Oddly, while most of the rest of Pym in easily available in chicklit-styled paperbacks from Virago, Quartet In Autumn can only be had in Macmillan's digital imprint Bello. Not that it matters - the main thing is that, thanks to Larkin and Lord D, it was published, and it remains available...
 Quartet is a difficult book to write about, being, even by Pym's standards, sparse, tight, nuanced and extremely finely drawn, with very little 'happening' in the sense of narrative events. It is a beautifully managed group and individual portrait of four people - two men, two women - who have been working together for some time in an office (a very Pymian office where nothing identifiable as useful work is done, time hangs heavy and the day revolves around cups of tea, an economy-size tin of instant coffee, and lunchtime activities). All four are nearing retirement age and, in the course of the narrative, the two women, Letty and Marcia, do retire, leaving the two men, Edwin and Norman, to respond, in their different (and equally ineffectual) ways, to their absence.
 These are not, on the face of it, terribly attractive characters - Norman mean and cunning with an eye to the main chance; Edwin passive and self-satisfied, his life revolving smoothly around the (Very High) Church; Letty as passive as Edwin, but less satisfied (and in the end finding, perhaps, a future and some hope of autonomy); and Marcia, a strange, prickly character, fending off the world and retreating ever deeper into her obsessions once she loses the daily routine of work. And yet, such is Pym's delicate art that she makes you care about them all (well, perhaps not Norman), writing about them with cool, clear-sighted sympathy - and, of course, with humour, that sharp but always forgiving wit of hers. This is, despite the ostensible sadness of the little world it portrays, an often very funny novel, most definitely a comedy rather than a tragedy. And it is, in its unique Pymian way, a minor (and minor key) masterpiece.
 Quartet In Autumn gets off to a bravura start in which, in the very first paragraph, Pym, before she's even introduced them, tells you all you need to know about her four characters simply by describing the different ways in which they wear their hair. After an opening like that, what can you do but read on?

Wednesday 4 February 2015

La Sagesse des Normands

I cannot let this day pass without marking the centenary of the birth of Norman Wisdom, who in his day was one of Britain's biggest film stars (as was George Formby - we have a funny idea of film stars here). Wisdom was one among many deeply unfunny comics who peaked in the Fifties and Sixties (something of a sub-speciality of this blog: see Charlie Drake, Bernie Winters, Dickie Henderson, etc). As with Charlie Drake, in my innocent boyhood I found Wisdom hilarious and would queue up with my brother to catch his latest film, which would invariably feature his Gump character, most often in the form of Norman Pitkin, a tiresome imbecile who was constantly falling over and creating mayhem, yet who always ended up getting the better of Mr Grimsdale or some other representative authority figure (usually played by Jerry Desmonde) and even getting the girl or, if not, treating us to some excruciating pathos, yet more painful to watch than his comedy - even as a boy I found that part of the package hard to take.
 There was not so much as a Google doodle to mark the centenary today, but they'll no doubt be marking the occasion with due ceremony in Albania, where Wisdom was a cult figure, largely because his films were among the few to reach Communist Albania from the capitalist West, being considered as fine embodiments of the triumph of  the proletarian little man (Norman Pitkin) over the capitalist ogre (Mr Grimsdale). Wisdom was treated as a national hero in Albania and on one occasion was in Tirana when the England football team were playing Albania's finest. The little chap duly ran out onto the pitch, wearing a half-English, half-Albanian shirt and executing one of his trademark trips, to universal hilarity. He also treated the Queen to one of his comedy trips while stepping up to collect his OBE at Buckingham Palace. Irrepressible he was.
 Norman Wisdom's theme song was Don't Laugh At Me. Not a great choice for a comedian really...

Satan unavailable for comment (again)

A fine (non) story has popped up on the BBC News website, to the effect that Bolsover in Derbyshire is not, in fact, the Satanic capital of the UK. Having been there a couple of times (to see the castle, which is well worth a visit), I can't say I was surprised to learn this. I suspect the famous Derbyshire sense of humour was at work when those census forms were filled in... The article is, however, an exemplary piece of work, and if I hadn't read it I would never have known that the so-called Church of Satan does not worship or even believe in the existence of Satan. Follow the handy link in the piece and you will discover that these Satanists are merely atheists, with a tendency to self-worship (or 'I-theism') and no interest or belief in any supernatural beings. Which rather begs the question, why call yourselves the Church of Satan then? Church of Me would be more honest.
 The only disappointing feature of the BBC News piece is that the assiduous author didn't get a quote from Satan. However, the contribution of the Bolsover council chief is priceless. He had not, he said, heard of any Satanic activities in Bolsover, adding 'There's the usual traditional harvest festivals or flower festival, but that's more or less a fundraising job for the churches.' Yes, not quite the same thing...

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Egyptian Geese

Only a few patches of snow in the shadier parts of Kensington Gardens at lunchtime, where the early spring flowers (including a couple of precocious anemones) were looking rather sorry for themselves. A pair of Egyptian Geese were grazing under a tree, far from the Round Pond. These spectacular, prettily marked birds are becoming an increasingly common sight - a beneficiary, perhaps, of the Modern Warm Period (such as it is). I often see one from the train, perched in a poplar tree between Streatham and Balham - an incongruous sight, but these waterfowl nest (like Shelduck) in holes in trees. They have a look of Ancient Egypt about them; indeed they're very similar to the geese in Egyptian wall paintings (as below, the right hand pair).

The Snow that never drifts -

I woke to snow this morning. This is always exciting, especially if it's the first of  the year (and might  well be the last). It was only a couple of inches but it had worked that white transforming magic on the garden, the streets, and the park as I walked through it on the way to the station. It was soft snow, never going to last, and has probably already melted away -  'transient, fragrant snow' as in Emily Dickinson's poem:

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February's Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature's Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

Monday 2 February 2015

Peder Balke: A Revelation

Yesterday I was back at the National Gallery to see the exhibition of paintings by an artist I admit I'd never heard of before I read about this display - Peder Balke, a Norwegian painter (1804-87) whose mature style was so heavily criticised in his day that he gave up painting for public display and got on with being a distinguished citizen of Christiania (Oslo), active in the Norwegian labourers' movement and in the fight for universal suffrage. But he carried on painting, and his work gradually began to be rediscovered in the 20th century. Now Balke is regarded as one of Norway's 19th-century greats and - where he is heard of at all - as a fascinating figure in the development of landscape painting into increasingly free, increasingly abstract styles.
 He has been well served by the National Gallery exhibition, which is on a small scale and thoughtfully hung in the airy and always pleasant Sunley Room. It's the very antithesis of the Rembrandt-style subterranean blockbuster: even on a Sunday afternoon, there was nothing resembling a crowd and it was possible to wander freely and spend as long as you liked with each picture - and that was quite a long time, for these are extraordinary works. The display begins, cleverly, with four paintings of what is essentially the same view - the North Cape, at the northermost tip of Norway, viewed from the sea. Three are relatively early, from the 1840s, and display Balke's fluid brushwork, deft use of impasto and easy mastery of light - especially moonlight - and sea and sky. They are fine paintings by any standards - but the fourth, a large canvas dating from the 1870s, is something else altogether. In this one, which seems filled with light, the scene has been reduced to delicate washes of blacks, greys, whites and blues from which emerge forms of rocks, ghost-like boats, the distant Cape itself, a pale cloud. In its delicate brushwork and reduction of the scene to a few eloquent essentials, the effect is strangely reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting.
 That group of four paintings offers a striking epitome of what we see unfolding through the rest of the exhibition, as Balke develops his extraordinary style. At one point he makes his seas creamy and clotted with impasto, against mountain backgrounds more thinly painted with broad but perfectly controlled sweeps of the brush. Later, he turns to black and white , working often on a very small scale and becoming ever more brushy and abstract in his depiction of stormy seas, jagged rocks and soaring mountains. In a pair of wonderfully deft miniatures he depicts the Northern Lights - in black and white, in a composition that is all horizontals and verticals. (Oddly, when he turns his attention to inland views, the results are rather generic Romantic landscapes - he was a painter who needed the sea to unleash his genius.)
 After all the storm-swept darkness and towering, wave-lashed cliffs, the exhibition ends beautifully with another picture full of light, in which a boat is rowed across a calm sea of blue and gold, under a wide luminous sky, to a safe haven. It's a glorious painting, and the perfect end to an exhibition that really must be seen - it is truly a revelation. And there's still plenty of time to see it - it's running till April 12th.