Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Winter sun in Estonia

Great post from Winter Pilgrim  on walking through Estonia as the winter sun (only visible for a few hours of the day anyway) finally disappears. Love this description of arriving at her destination for the day:

"Lucky to be a woman pilgrim - when I finally arrived in the small village, the only lights I saw were from a beauty salon. Without hesitating, I walked on in. Within minutes, my feet were up, I was reclining on a comfortable chair, a cup of hot tea in hand and a platter of chocolate bonbons, chattering with the ladies there. Men pilgrims wouldn't likely venture into such a shop, but women take care of each other everywhere."
 A good excuse to find a snow scene - I love snow scenes. This one though by Monet is not quite right as it has the brilliant exhilaration of snow - the promise of a new, clean world. While Winter Pilgrim's post has the feel of light slipping away - a slow slide to the winter equinox.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Carnage in Jerusalem

Scenes in Jerusalem. Four men hacked down in a synagogue in west Jerusalem by Palestinian extremists. Israeli forces rush to the scene.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Saint Teresa walks among the saucepans

Back in Avila after 22 years: was there last in 1982 to cover Pope John Paul 11's visit and an outdoor mass at nearby town Alba de Tormes. Saint Teresa's uncorrupted arm is preserved in one of the churches there.
In the spirit of pilgrimage - and having seen St Anthony's teeth in Padua, Italy, earlier this year - was determined to see another sacred relic - Saint Teresa's finger in Avila. Remembered in 1982 being told by a very senior correspondent (the Vatican correspondent no less) before I left the office to say the following words to Saint Teresa when I arrived: 'Saint Teresa, you walk among the saucepans'.
The finger is too gruesome to merit a photo on the blog - somehow the more disturbing because it is on display in a gift shop, by the monastery, rather than in a sacred place.
There too is Saint Teresa's flagellation rope.
So almost left without recapturing the spirit of that adventure in 1982 - until I saw the menu at the Parador.
Saint Teresa ' among the pots and pans (entre los pucheros)' . God walks among the saucepans.

From Christ to Judas

A poster at Madrid airport reminded me of a favourite story - told often in sermons (around Easter) by the former vicar of Crowan. Of how we may have the face we deserve: the choice is ours.
A renowned painter in Renaissance Italy was commissioned to paint a picture of Christ, the man. He searched the streets of his city - Florence or Rome or Siena - and found the perfect model, a handsome man with nobility etched in every feature.
The painting was a huge success and widely acclaimed.
A few years later the same painter was asked to paint a picture of Judas. Again, he searched the streets of the city and found the perfect model: a man with a face that betrayed his true nature - corrupt, evil and weak.
The artist asked the model to his studio - then to his surprise, the model said 'Don't you remember me? I am the man who was the model for your Christ painting years ago."
Do we have the face we deserve?

City walls: Avila, Spain, and Jerusalem

Thursday, 13 November 2014

El Pobre Jesus

A personal pilgrimage in Madrid to El Pobre Jesus. They parade this statue (with real human hair) along the streets at Easter. I used to live on the route.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A Walkers' Chapel at St Levan Church

A Walkers' Chapel at St Levan Church, near Land's End, offering water, biscuits and silence.
Gorse on the altar cloth.... and a bench end of a pilgrim heading to Santiago de Compostela (you can tell by the scallop shell on his hat, the sign of St James). A call to action?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

I went to a marvellous party

'I went to a marvellous party'. By Diarmuid Kelley. 2010. Major Chris Palmer of the Light Dragoons.

Ruskin on Tintoretto: notes from Stones of Venice

Christ before Pilate/ Tintoretto

Christ before Pilate: best seen on a dark day. White figures looks almost like a spirit. Note the meagreness of the other minor figures.
The horizontal clouds shine through the banner.
Pilate looks very mean, intentionally. In the 13th and 14th centuries the figures of Herod and Pilate were always made contemptible.
Christ bearing his Cross/Tintoretto 

Christ bearing his Cross:  troops and attendants are climbing a winding path. There are two turns with figures on the uppermost ledge. Christ is central among them.
The head of the white horse highlights the bright horizon.
The effect is very powerful. The figure of Christ is too far off to be very interesting - the malefactors on the near path are somehow more important. It's 'as if one had been truly present at the scene, though not exactly in the right place to see it."

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Architecture in Renaissance painting: notes from the National Gallery

Portrait of a man in armour /Francesco Granacci (c1469-1543). The landscape beyond his shoulder creates actuality/realness.

Arches, archways, openings and doorways are architectural forms of greetings - and entrances.

Virgin - porta coeli.
Doorways that lead to heaven.
Indoor space is a focus for intimacy.
By 1420. artists began to explore new kinds of interior.
Inventing places was as fundamental as inventing figures.
Nativity/Ercole de' Roberti

Adoration of the Kings/Botticelli

Virgin Adoring the Infant Christ/Andrea del Verrocchio. John Ruskin described this painting as 'an entirely priceless example of excellent painting, exemplary for all time'.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

We would have told him if he asked us, but he never asked

13 June 1994
Barrow Station - notes

Old lady: "I'm scared of some things, never learned to swim... We were all getting on very well down at the baths but a girl drowned. They were fooling around, pulling each other under water. She got exhausted. We all had to get out, shivering. She looked beautiful. They pulled off her cap, beautiful long gold hair. Never forgot that."
(She's 87, that was when she was 16, 71 years ago).
"My sister and I said 'We're never going again. Dad won't like that, he just bought us new costumes.'
Next time we went, we went over to the park - water pump, splashed water over our costumes. Then we hung them out to dry in the garden.
He never asked us.
We would have told him if he asked, but he never asked."

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


The view tonight in the local kebab shop (Shepherds Bush).
The colours remind me of a great photo by Monica Alcazar-Duarte  ... and a postcard that arrived this morning from a friend - Tiepolo in Udine.


Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Unexpected discoveries

A signed engraving of Milan Cathedral from a charity shop. Not quite as acutely observed as J W Bunney's painting of the west front of St Mark's,Venice commissioned by Ruskin as a perfect architectural record.
A good thing to have on the wall. Collecting on a theme somehow consolidates knowledge: Italy  a theme of the moment.

Need to find a recording of Britten's The Holy Sonnets of John Donne - Batter my heart, three-personed God etc. Some tells me he heard Toby Spence singing them - particularly poignant following Spence's experience of cancer.

Another recurrent heme: Donne's poetry - sacred and profane - and voice.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Industry and perseverance

The Nature of Gothic, the chapter in The Stones of Venice/John Ruskin described by Kenneth Clark (father of Alan) as one of the noblest things written in the 19th century: "Even now, when the ideas it expressed are accepted and the cause it advocates is dead, we cannot read it without a thrill, without a sudden resolution to reform the world."

A dense read: an analysis of Gothic architecture and pattern with detailed instructions on how to interpret a Gothic building  Below: a painting of the west front of St Mark's by J W Bunney. Ruskin commissioned the painting as a strict architectural record. The artist apparently spent 600 days working on it.

"Lastly, Read the sculpture. Preparatory to reading it, you will have to discover whether it is legible (and, if legible it is neatly certain to be worth reading). On a good building, the sculpture is always so set, and on such a scale, that at the ordinary distance from which the edifice is seen, the sculpture shall be thoroughly intelligible and interesting...
... the criticism of the building is to be conducted precisely on the same principles as that of a book and it must depend on the knowledge, feeling , and not a  little on the industry and perseverance of the reader, whether, even in the case of the best works, he either perceive them to be great, or feel them to be entertaining."

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Horse brasses on a mobility scooter

An array of horse brasses on a mobility scooter in Camborne, Cornwall.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Landscapes, lands, aging and love

“Love makes you see a place differently, just as you hold differently an object belonging to someone you love. If you know one landscape well, you look at all landscapes differently.  And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can learn to love another.” 
Fugitive Pieces/Anne Michaels

An object belong to someone you love
My daughter who (temporarily) mislays a cherished onyx ring says old rings carry the love of the people who once bought them and gave them.

Knowing a landscape: David Hockney painted a certain Yorkshire view again and again at one stage, through different weathers and different seasons. Results on display at his Royal Academy show in 2012. This was to rid himself of a great grief, I think.

But what about knowing a landscape or having a landscape so deeply ingrained in you that you are just not capable of seeing another landscape? You can never absorb, or adopt,  another landscape because it can never be valid i.e. 'the’ landscape.  

Close to home in Cornwall there was a farmer who had never travelled further than Truro i.e. 17 miles away. When he died, opinion in my family was divided as to whether he had lived a rich life, or a very limited life. Someone – who? a French philosopher? – said that no one knew the world as well as the man who had never travelled more than five miles from his door.

A misapprehension that travel broadens the mind – of course – as Paul Johnson says here. It's a theme throughout The Art of Travel/Alain de Botton.

Palestine: local MP Andy Slaughter gives a talk at the Upper Room on Cobbold Road. A walk to the church on a damp May night past privet hedges. Privet has its own distinctive scent.

If you haven’t been, he says, it’s really very hard to imagine. Indeed – it is. But his is a  one-sided discourse – of course – to be expected. He is Secretary of the Britain-Palestine All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) and Vice-Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. He was not challenged. Did not one person in the room besides me wonder why he did not explore the reasons the Barrier as he called it – or the Separation Wall or the Security Wall was built?

Journalism tended to polarise the debate, he said,… the BBC….. But was he not guilty of this himself? Jews have the right to go to Israel – Palestinians do not have the right to return. That is clearly unjust. Of course, too,  Israel has broken all international laws regarding the new settlements. But why is there never space for the voice of the liberal Jew?

The most interesting point from Slaughter: that this situation is debated so much, and attracts so much emotion, because it could be solved. 'It is an eminently solvable problem... It is possible to make a difference here. It is a political problem with a political solution.'

It is too late to argue and I am too tired: have had two glasses of white wine and the company is too distinguished. Say hello to an acquaintance who is a world authority on ancient Mesopotamian seals (not the animals). Someone else in the audience prefaces his question… “As a lawyer….”.

My companion says as we part, concerned – ‘Your job was very heavy – it was a heavy job.” Not that it’s over: I have two more months to work.

Half asleep, read Jenni Diski on aging in the London Review of Books. There is not much to be said for aging, she says – noting that a Scandinavian correspondent of hers scolded her for describing herself at the age of 66 as ‘old’. The Scandinavian said she worked with people in their 80s who thought of people her age as young. Diski seems startled at this response – but  I tend to agree.

Why whine? Why look in the mirror? (Remember Nigella Lawson giving this very sensible piece of advice somewhere). Diski wrote the article in question in response to the way that her hairdresser was responding to her – with the terribly irritating ‘Ah Bless!’ to everything. “Are you busy today?” “Ah bless.”  “What are you doing at the weekend? “ “Ah bless.”  Yes - that is fantastically irritating.

And not much solace to be gained – I agree – from the traditional antidotes to old age: e.g. saying fleshly delight is a thing of the past. Virginia Ironside (Shepherds Bush resident) has apparently written a book “The Virginia Monologues: Twenty Reasons why growing old is great”. One aspect is sex and the abandonment thereof. Ironside had loads of sex in the past: now she has had enough and is luxuriating the comfort of her single bed.  Cheerful sexual abstinence... But that does seem to suggest that sex is just a physical action that’s no longer performed – it ignores desire and emotional engagement. 

Simone de Beauvoir said decent aging involved a sense of love and community.
“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.”
All well and good – but of course: that’s how one should lead a decent life anyway. 
It’s probably not enough to get one through the twilight years without a bit of serious thinking e.g. on the lines of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. You probably do have to learn how to live every moment as if it were your last: hard though that might be and however much of a cliché that might seem.  Age has nothing to do with it – really  - as a very wise person once said to me.

The woman behind the bar on the First Great Western train down to Cornwall says she has gone up to a size 14 from a size 10 in two years. 

“Contentment, that’s what they say.” She is blond and plump and has a gentle West Country accent.  Her colleague in jacket and navy trousers (like men’s – why do they make women wear these versions of men’s clothes?) comes and leans against the bar beside me. “Contentment, they say,” she nods in agreement.

“See," says the woman behind the bar. " I’ve been with Andy since I’ve been here and he feeds me up, he likes cooking, so they say it’s contentment.”

Say what could be nicer. Thank you, she says.

(Wonder if Andy also works on the trains.)

Bob Hoskins dies. Hard to imagine that someone so vital isn’t around anymore.

Gerry Adams is arrested in connection with the 1972 murder of Jean McConville. Mrs  McConville, a 37-yaer-old widow and mother of ten, was abducted and shot by the IRA. Adams spent the night in custody after going to Antrim police station where he was arrested. He says he is ‘innocent of any part’ in the murder.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Don't put in meaningless lines

Reading Fugitive Pieces/Ann Michaels which comes highly recommended ... but is not gripping me. It seems crafted - over-researched and over-wrought - striving for effect.

Pleased to see an early mention of Edward Wilson who was with Scott as surgeon and naturalist on the Discovery and Terra Nova.  He catalogued the journey and his discoveries by painting and drawing (having read Natural Sciences at Cambridge and studied medicine at St George's, London).  His watercolours are highly skilled and scientifically accurate - precise colours reflecting atmospheric conditions.
Seeing precisely: back to Ruskin and his exhortations to the traveller to really look at what is around him.

Ruskin - admired greatly by Wilson -  thought anyone was able to draw. It doesn't matter how well. Simply the attempt to describe - regardless of talent - is admirable. Drawing can teach you to see, not just look.
"There is a satisfactory and available power in everyone to learn drawing if he wishes, just as early all persons have the power of learning French, Latin or arithmetic, in a decent and useful degree." 
In Scott's Journals (May 1911) Wilson himself entertained the party with a lecture on sketching.

"He started by explaining his methods of rough sketch and written colour record, and explained its suitability to this climate as opposed to coloured chalks etc - a very practical method for cold fingers an one that becomes more accurate with practice in observation. His theme then became the extreme importance of accuracy, his mode of expression and explanation frankly Ruskinesque. Don't put in meaningless lines - every line should be from observation. So with contrast of light and shade-  find shading subtle distinction, everything - impossible, without care, patience and trained attention."

'Don't put in meaningless lines': today's 'Thought for the Day'.
Scott closes the diary entry that day with a few words of praise....:
"The lecture was delivered in the author's usual modest strain, but unconsciously it was expressive of himself and his whole-hearted thoroughness. He stands very high in the scale of human beings - how high I scarcely knew until the experience of the past few months. ....
The achievement of a great result by patient work is the best possible object-lesson for struggling humanity, for the results of genius, however admirable, can rarely be instructive. The chief of the Scientific Staff sets an example which is more potent than any other factor in attaining that bond of good fellowship which is the marked and beneficent characteristic of our community."

Friday, 25 April 2014

Impossible role models and 100 desserts (alphabetised)

Fiona Shaw at St James's Church, Piccadilly, talking about The Testament of Mary/Colm Toibin. (The play opens early next month at the Barbican).  She is perfectly at ease with herself  - such a role model.

She talks about role models: for a girl growing up in Catholic Ireland the Virgin Mary was an impossible role model. You could never really be the Virgin Mary. This is de facto an impossible role model.
In the book,Toibin contrasts two Marys - the pure, remote Mary in Titian's Assumption of the Virgin

- and the 'impure, chaotic, cruel, strange, unforgettable' Mary in Tintoretto's Crucifixion in San Rocco (the one painting I would have chosen to see in Venice, had I been restricted to one).

Detail: Mary in Crucifixion/Tintoretto

Most touching moment of the discussion came when someone in the audience said she sympathised with Mary leaving the scene of the crucifixion. This is criticised by some. But the death of a child can be impossible to witness. Words failed her; this was very close to home.

Millennia away: In Unless, Carol Shields also talks about the loss of a child - not the death of a child but alienation and trauma. I love Carol Shields usually - and in particular the domesticity in her books which seems to me to have a kind of greatness. It's so solid - such a grounded domesticity that it seems to encompass big issues - i.e. how to live life.
"Seven o'clock. I reached in the oven and removed the foil from the lasagna, then shut the red kitchen curtains which is my signal to my mother-in-law next door to put on her coat and walk up the hill and across the leaf-strewn lawn for dinner. She takes her evening meals with us and we have used the curtain signal for close to twenty years. She'll be watching from her darkened sun room, waiting patiently, her nose already powdered, a dash of lipstick applied, her bladder emptied, her house key in her pocket and it will take her exactly four minutes to travel the hundred yards uphill to our back door, which I leave unlocked."
Of the same mother-in-law (above) :
"She had a list of one hundred desserts, alphabetised in a recipe box, beginning with almond apples, moving to date pudding, on to nut brittle mouse (frozen) and ending with zwieback pastry cheesecake; she rotated this list around the year. It is no longer easy to find zwieback biscuits, but graham crackers can be substituted. Needless to say, seasonal ingredients mean that the desserts themselves are not served alphabetically."

Reading and watching

  • Foot by Foot to Santiago de Compostela/Judy Foot
  • The Testament of Mary with Fiona Shaw at the Barbican
  • The Testament of Mary/Colm Toibin
  • Schwanengesang/Schubert - Tony Spence
  • Journals/Robert Falcon Scott
  • Fugitive Pieces/Ann Michaels
  • Unless/Carol Shields
  • Faust/Royal Opera House
  • The Art of Travel/Alain de Botton
  • Mad Men Series 6
  • A Week at The Airport/Alain de Botton
  • The Railway Man/Eric Lomax
  • Bright Lights, Big City/Jay McInerney
  • Stones of Venice/John Ruskin
  • The Sea, the Sea/Iris Murdoch
  • Childe Harold/Lord Byron
  • All The Pretty Horses/Cormac McCarthy
  • Extreme Rambling/Mark Thomas
  • Story of my Life/Jay McInerney
  • Venice Observed/Mary McCarthy