Sunday 30 September 2018

'The very last of late September...'

As September comes to an end, here's a seasonal poem by John Betjeman. For me, it chimes particularly well with a year in which I've spent far too much time cocooned in aeroplanes at an inhuman height. A beautifully managed Petrarchan sonnet with a perfect turn, I think it's one of Betjeman's best...

Back from Australia

Cocooned in Time, at this inhuman height,
The packaged food tastes neutrally of clay,
We never seem to catch the running day
But travel on in everlasting night
With all the chic accoutrements of flight:
Lotions and essences in neat array
And yet another plastic cup and tray.
"Thank you so much. Oh no, I'm quite all right".

At home in Cornwall hurrying autumn skies
Leave Bray Hill barren, Stepper jutting bare,
And hold the moon above the sea-wet sand.
The very last of late September dies
In frosty silence and the hills declare
How vast the sky is, looked at from the land.

Friday 28 September 2018

Pickles Latest

Five years on from Picklefest – an event I reported on here – I was delighted to learn that Pickles, the canine hero who found the stolen World Cup, has now been honoured with a plaque, attached to a tree at the spot where he found the 'not very World Cuppy' trophy in 1966.
 One Adam Thoroughgood of East Dulwich was moved to order the plaque while watching the last World Cup on TV back in June. 'It seemed like the right thing to do, with football coming home and all that,' he recalls. 'It only arrived this month.' (The plaque, that is – not football.) And now it is in place, on a tree on Beulah Hill, South Norwood.
 Poor Pickles died just a year after his brush with fame. While chasing a cat, he got his choke chain caught on a tree branch, with fatal results. 'Finding out how he died a year later was tragic,' says Mr Thoroughgood. 'It was a short life, but a worthy one.'
 Pickles's collar is on display in the National Football Museum in Manchester. As for the Jules Rimet trophy, following the 1966 theft a replica was made in base metal for publicity use. Then FIFA, in a moment of madness, presented the original to Brazil in perpetuity after the 1970 World Cup. In 1983 it was stolen from the headquarters of the Brazilian Football Confederation. Alas, there was no Brazilian Pickles to come to the rescue, and the trophy is still missing.

Thursday 27 September 2018

'A very great lover'

Today I was down in deepest Sussex, on a mission to see a monument – this extraordinary piece of work, by the wayward John Bushnell, maker of the Fulham monument. It commemorates Jane, wife of William Ashburnham, and carries a touching epitaph which tells how William, 'coming from beyond sea, where he was bred a soldier, married her and after lived almost five and forty yeares most happily with her, for 'she was a very great lover'. The monument is suitably packed with emotion – William watches, grief-stricken, as a putto crowns his dying wife with a heavenly wreath – but, alas, it's rather clumsily expressed and unconvincingly carved. Bushnell didn't know enough anatomy to get the figures quite right and make them properly inhabit their robes. But, boy, he certainly went for the High Baroque emotion and drama, and, drawing on his continental experience, he gave England something the like of which it had never seen before.
  It's a terrific, audacious design, and in more competent hands it would be a great monument. As it is, it actually packs less of an emotional punch than Epiphanius Evesham's Teynham monument of half a century earlier. But it's a fascinating piece  – a failure perhaps, but a glorious failure.
  And, as I walked up the path to the church (St Peter, Ashburnham), a pale female Clouded Yellow flew down and settled briefly on the churchyard grass. My only one this year, and a fitting finale (if finale it is) to an extraordinary butterfly season.

Wednesday 26 September 2018

Venice 3: And Yet...

And yet it was, for most of the time, a joy to be back – the place is just so beautiful. There were new wonders to discover, or rediscover after many years (I'd forgotten, for example, just how enchanting the Carpaccios in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni are). There were new drink experiences even – Chinotto (a kind of pleasantly bitter Coca-Cola, flavoured with myrtle-leaved oranges), a fine rosé from the Bekaa valley (Chateau Ksara), a honey-flavoured Greek grappa...
 In Ca' Rezzonico there was a small exhibition of superb figure drawings (very much in the Piazzetta style) by Giulia Lama, a Venetian late Baroque artist whose name was quite new to me.

 The art collection at Palazzo Cini I had never visited before. Indeed it seems to be little visited, even though it's very near the ever popular Guggenheim. We had the place to ourselves, our only company being two patrolling guards, one female, one male with notably squeaky shoes. When I chanced to rest my hand on a marble table top as I examined a picture, the male guard pounced and told me, in time-honoured fashion, not to touch.
 The Cini collection is strong on 'primitives', but might seem barely worth the visit but for two stunning masterpieces – a powerful double portrait of two young men by Pontormo

and a glorious Judgment of Paris by Botticelli.

Despite everything, Venice remains as inexhaustible as it is beautiful.

Venice 2: The Death of Venice?

Ah Venice, 'human awful wonder of God'. Okay, that was Blake on London, but as I fought my way through the hordes of selfie-stick-touting, wheelie-case-hauling visitors to the most beautiful city ever made by man, that phrase kept occurring to me...
 Having always believed that Venice can ultimately withstand anything, I'm beginning to wonder if the city might finally have signed its own death warrant by allowing such numbers of vast 'floating hotel' supercruisers to tie up and debouch thousands of extra visitors into the already crowded tourist hotspots every day. The crowding has now reached such a level that, in ever growing areas around San Marco and the Rialto, it is all but insufferable. And it will only get worse, so long as the Venetian authorities persist in chasing the tourist dollar (or yen or yuan) at any cost to the city.
 Things are fast reaching the point where some visitors (especially if they haven't done their homework) must find the experience of visiting Venice so unpleasant and stressful that they wish they hadn't bothered and had kept their money. And yet the numbers will continue to grow, especially as more and more Chinese tourists find themselves able to afford the journey. Venice could, if it continues on this course, end up as little more than an overcrowded, overpriced theme park, cynically devoted to parting visitors from their money.
 Even I, a lover of Venice who has been visiting the city for half a century, am beginning to wonder if it's really worth going back again. How crowded will those streets around San Marco and the Rialto be in two years' time? In four? And, alas, there is no way of avoiding the crowds: both areas have to be passed through if you want to cross the Grand Canal. (The vaporetto is an alternative, of course, but boats on the main routes are bursting at the seams with people at almost any time of day, and you certainly see more of the city by walking.)
 Many Venetians are deeply unhappy about this state of affairs. There have been angry protests against the degradation of city life by mass tourism (and there is conspicuous anti-tourist graffiti in the so far tourist-free eastern district of Sant' Elena). There is widespread hostility to the floating hotels; another large waterborne demonstration is scheduled for this weekend, though nothing seems to have any impact on the money-crazed city fathers. If the visitors keep on coming, that is proof to them that their policy is working, even if it has also degraded and compromised the very thing the visitors are coming to see.
 At which point, it's time to look on the bright side. It remain true that the tourist throng can be escaped. Many parts of Venice, and many of its churches and museums, are still quiet and peaceful, as yet unreached by the crowds (though fewer and fewer are entirely tourist-free). And, gratifyingly, the native population is still hanging on, perhaps even thriving; there seem to be more babies and children in evidence each time I visit – the children careering around the campi and playing street games with all the freedom that life in a car-free city confers. Venetian Venice still exists, thank the Lord, as well as tourist Venice. And, as an indirect result of the tourist influx, churches that were once obscure, dilapidated, little visited and seldom open are now in much better shape, restored and open at sensible times – and, in some cases, charging an entrance fee. Well, that's Venice.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Venice 1: The Hospital

In the event I didn't get to see either of the Tintoretto blockbuster exhibitions – but I still saw lots of wonderful Tintorettos (including those in his parish church of Madonna del Orto). Blockbusters or no blockbusters, the churches of Venice are still full of the works of this astoundingly productive master.
 A Tintoretto exhibition I did see was in the Scuola Grande di San Marco, a magnificent room that I hadn't visited in many years. This Tintoretto, however, was Domenico, Jacobo's son. Having secured the commission to paint a series of pictures for the Scuola (extorting various favours on top of his fee), Tintoretto senior then failed to oblige, finally handing the job over to his equally reluctant son, who, having failed to pass it on to someone else, was eventually compelled to honour the commission – and a fine set of paintings he produced, in the end.
  The Scuola (which is nowhere near San Marco but next to Ss Giovanni e Paolo) is housed in an upstairs room off what is now the vestibule of the city hospital – that's it below. Only in Venice...

Elsewhere in the complex of buildings that houses the hospital is the church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, a large one with an imposing classical facade. I have never known this church to be open, but on this occasion, for a wonder, the door was indeed open, so I slipped in – and found that a well attended funeral service was in full flow. Making myself as inconspicuous as possible, I sidled gradually along the north wall until I had a view of what I had come to see.
  It was not a pretty sight, nor was I expecting it to be. The monument to the condottiere Alviso Mocenigo, who won a famous victory over the Turks at Crete, covers the entire west wall, rising to the full height of the building. On its uppermost level stands a statue of Mocenigo, flanked by bombastic reliefs of battle scenes. This unpleasant assemblage is of interest (to me anyway) solely because the English sculptor John Bushnell – whose work at Fulham I recently wrote about – is known to have worked on it, in the course of his travels in France and Italy. If he was responsible for the statue of Mocenigo, then it was nothing to be proud of, though he liked to boast of having done great things in Venice. The statue is a clumsy and lifeless affair – but at least Bushnell had the distinction of being perhaps the only English sculptor to have worked in Venice in the seventeenth (or any earlier) century.
  I had hoped to get a photograph, just for the record, but in the circumstances I could hardly start behaving like a camera-clicking tourist. I sidled out again. Below is a photograph from the archives.

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.

Monday 3 September 2018

Wordsworth on the Bridge

On this day in 1802, William Wordsworth wrote what was to become one of his most anthologised and memorised poems. Or rather, 'September 3, 1802' was the date he added to the title of his sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, published in Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807. The actual date of composition seems to have been the 31st of July, when, as Dorothy Wordsworth writes in her journal, 'we left London [en route to France] at half past five or six ... It was a beautiful morning. The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge. The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of one of nature's own grand Spectacles.'
  It's a fine poem that proceeds smoothly and musically, the tight interlocking structure of the Petrarchan sonnet curbing Wordsworth's bloviating tendencies (though there's a touch of bathos in the penultimate line). In the early morning sun the City lies in a state of suspended animation, for this short interval no longer a city but a beautiful and strange phenomenon to which the poet can respond as if it is 'one of nature's own grand Spectacles'....

Earth has not anything to show more fair: 
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by 
A sight so touching in its majesty: 
This City now doth, like a garment, wear 
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, 
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie 
Open unto the fields, and to the sky; 
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. 
Never did sun more beautifully steep 
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; 
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! 
The river glideth at his own sweet will: 
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; 
And all that mighty heart is lying still! 

Sunday 2 September 2018

Up North (London)

For a South Londoner who tends to come over funny if he strays too far into North London, I seem to have been spending a lot of time in those northerly latitudes these past few days.
  On Friday I was on an architectural walk around Tottenham, enjoying the streets of late Victorian, Edwardian and later housing built for working-class (and latterly rather more prosperous) tenants. The earlier, less picturesque cottages, laid out in wide terraced streets, still look good, the potential monotony of the layout lent variety and rhythm by different arrangements of porches (mostly paired or shared), by the use of varied gables, occasional ornament and glazed bricks. On the streets developed later, the legendary LCC architects' department were building to a rather higher specification. The two-storey houses (with gardens) are more picturesque, with gables of various shapes and sizes, some tile-hung, others slate-hung, often tall chimneys and a variety of window sizes, all very Arts and Crafts, though with a certain Georgian restraint. The overall effect of these estates is quite delightful, and it's easy to understand why the houses are now so desirable. And yet they were built essentially as 'affordable' workers' housing, back in the long-gone days when, at least in London, talented and idealistic architects put real thought, imagination and attention to detail into building houses for working people. Compared to the gimcrack production-line housing of today, these cottages seem like works of art.
  And then yesterday I was walking on Walthamstow Marshes, on the eastern bank of the River Lea, a corner of London I had never visited before. Much of the area is now a nature reserve, with interpretation boards, signposts and laid-out paths (though it's still possible to get lost). The landscape is of course flat, a wide expanse with cattle grazing and a little woodland around the edges – nothing spectacular, but with the welcome feel of a quiet oasis of genuine countryside amidst one of the most built-up areas of London. When we visited, large numbers of Hassidic Jews – the men in full fig, their wives in their best dresses – were enjoying a Saturday afternoon stroll. It was all very agreeable – if uncomfortably far North for me.
  Although it was sunny and warm, there were few butterflies flying – some whites, the odd speckled wood, and two beautiful small coppers. It seems to be the same everywhere (down in the Southeast at least): after the prodigious abundance of the heatwave months, the butterflies have largely disappeared. Most of them seemed to have gone by mid-August, despite the fact that the warm, sunny weather soon returned after the brief cooler, wetter spell. This feels very odd. Normally there would be plenty of late-summer red admirals, commas, tortoiseshells, peacocks and brimstones flying – but not this year. I wonder what has happened, and what it will mean for next year.