Friday, 31 January 2014

On the shortness of life


In their fifties, in their forties
some of them; the small ailments
for which there are now cures
carried them off. Were they conscious
their days were rationed? They took
wives, begot children, fiddled
in a local quartet. Did they sit
under a dwindling candle over
a dead book? Where did they get
their knowledge from? Were there servants
for that as there are now
computers? I think of Wordsworth
boiling his eggs, Coleridge wearing
his shoes out under a Stowey
moon. These had time, both
of them. What of the others,
those who 'in a short time fulfilled
long years'? Did Shelley between
long poems fit in his longer
travels? And what of Marlowe and Keats?
'A free man thinks of nothing less
than of death.' These drove their pen
daily under its lowering
sky. Were they, then, not free?
The distance between one place and
another was like time spent on their knees,
gathering treasure. Between one
hour and the next the cupped mind
did not upset itself, but remained
full, still and deep as the firmament
it reflected. We have shortened
our journeys but have nothing to do
with our time. Hurrying between
one place and the next we make our plans
of what we will do, when we have saved
enough of it to retire on.

R.S. Thomas

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

When a station is more than a place to catch a train

"Railway stations have always attracted me, not just because trains are there, but because they are also ambivalent places, echoing with completed journeys and still with the melancholy noises of departures."
Eric Lomax/The Railway Man

"There is something illusionistic and illusionary about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in travelling."
W.G. Sebald/Austerlitz

Austerlitz/W G Sebald: opening scenes are at Antwerp station, designed by Delacenserie
"...which was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, in such stupendous fashion that even today, said Austerlitz, exactly as the architect intended, when we step into the entrance hall we are seized by a sense of being beyond the profane, in a cathedral consecrated to international traffic and trade. Delacenserie borrowed the main elements of his monumental structure from the palaces of the Italian Renaissance, but he also struck Byzantine and Moorish notes, and perhaps when I arrived, said Austerlitz, I myself had noticed the round grey and white granite turrets, the sole purpose of which was to arouse medieval associations in the minds of railway passengers. was also appropriate, he continued, that in Antwerp Station the elevated level from which the gods looked down on visitors to the Roman Pantheon should display, in hierarchical order, the deities of the nineteenth century - mining, industry, transport, trade and capital."

There are stone escutcheons with sheaves of corn, crossed hammers, winged wheels - a beehive - and a huge clock surveying all.
Antwerp Station

The clock dominates in Milan Centrale too: also signs of industry: a temple built at the height of the Fascist era.
The clock at Waterloo: a good meeting place.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Notes on escape, ennui and the failure of love

"L'univers est une espece de livre, dont on n'a lu que la premiere page quand on n'a vu que son pays. J'en ai feuillete un assez grand nombre, que j'ai trouve egalement mauvaises. Cet examen ne m'a point ete infructueux. Je haissais ma patrie. Toutes les impertinence des peuples divers, parmi lesquels ja'i vecue, m'ont reconcilie avec elle. Quand je n'aurai tire d'autre benefice de mes voyages que celui-la, je n'en regretterais ni les frais ni les fatigues."
Le Cosmopolite, ou, le Citoyen du Monde, par Fougeret de Monbron. Londres, 1753

May 1. Weigh anchor from off Cape Janissary, anchor eight miles from Dardanelles
May 2. Anchor off Castle Chanak Kalessia (Kale i Sultaniye)
May 3. Byron and Mr Ekenhead swim across the Hellespont (lines "Written after swimming," etc)

'His house, his home, his heritage, his lands,
The laughing dames in whom he did delight,
Whose large blue eyes, fair locks, and snowy hands,
Might shake the saintship of an Anchorite,
And long had fed his youthful appetite;
His goblets brimmed with every costly wine,
And all that mote to luxury invite,
Without a sigh he left, to cross, the brine,
And traverse Paynim shores, and pass Earth's central line."
Byron, Childe Harole's Pilgrimage, stanza xi

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Ten thousand worlds for the choosing and the American sublime

"They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and cased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing."
Wonderful sentence about a start of a journey in All the Pretty Horses /Cormac McCarthy.... a start of an adventure into a landscape that's mythical as much as real.... all part of the American dream - early 19th century American landscape painters and their vision of the sublime (anything possible in this grand and awesome new world - as indeed it was.

Frederick Church/Twilight in the Wilderness

Friday, 17 January 2014

The nape of a neck and emotion

Very intrigued by portraiture and emotion: why do we care about the sitter?  Brilliant letter in the London Review of Books on a recent article on Lucien Freud. Remember - but will never re-find it - a line in a Iris Murdoch novel about a man's wrists- and the sight of them moving the protagonist deeply. Two points - what it is like to occupy a certain body at a specific moment and time, but also one's feelings towards that body.

 In my view the essential thing to say is that Freud’s good paintings are not really there to be ‘read’. They are not that kind of painting. They gain their charge more from what is unknown – including personality and what (Julian) Barnes calls ‘moral likeness’ – than what is known. They are moving in the way that the nape of a neck can be. (How much moral character is there in a neck?) And they really are, as Freud kept on insisting, concerned with biology, with physical sensation. They try to get at what it is like for a person at a particular age to occupy a body over a certain duration in a specific setting. And so they pay unusually close attention to body parts in ways that few artists before Freud ever attempted. In paying this kind of close and un-neurotic attention, Freud’s naked portraits ‘bypass decorum’, as Robert Hughes once put it, ‘while fiercely preserving respect’.     Sebastian Smee/LRB 23 January 2014

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

'Details' and a day when an umbrella is essential

"Why pile up a jumble of 'details'? When you start really imagining something you have to forget the details anyhow, they just get in the way. Art isn't the reproduction of details of oddments out of life."  The Black Prince/Iris Murdoch
Large atlas of Bible Lands on the table in the library: the tribes of Israel. Judah. Ancient delineations.
A discussion about the wall at St James's. "Apathy creates walls. Was that the message?"

People are translating the Old Testament by the fire, tentatively reading from the Greek. "I always thought that Christ came from a poor background."

Earlier: The Adoration of the Kings (Jan Gossaert) is impossibly bright and pristine. Stop to look at it in the National Gallery during my lunch half hour.

The pest control man visiting the office in the morning says that he collected 50 dead rats in total this week from the University of Westminster on Regent's Street, just down from Portland Place. "Some get caught in the traps.... but you never find them... you see a leg, or a piece of fur. Because once they're trapped, the other rats eat them alive."

It is a wet, cold day. Forget an umbrella at your peril. The tubes are crowded even quite late. An aura of bad temper post holidays.

The first daffodil leaves are emerging in the flowerpots by the front door.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Dismantling a wall and diversions on Uxbridge Road

They are dismantling the Wall at St James's Piccadilly - pass by on my way to NatWest at lunchtime to pay in a cheque. Am sorry that I missed this but also sorry somehow that it happened. Cannot believe that presenting such a visual symbol of conflict in such a way can result in any good.
Lucy Winkett (Rector of St James's) is a role model of mine but she seems defensive in the Guardian.
"When we have been challenged about "taking sides" and "politicising the church" – which is a fair discussion to have – we are clear that we are not "pro" one side or another but we are instead campaigning for equal human rights for all people regardless of ethnicity or background. Sometimes the church will speak on issues seen as political in order to advocate for people who are suffering. We are supporting the ordinary people of Bethlehem at Christmas because we believe it would be wrong to sing about the town and meditate on its importance to our faith without acknowledging the grievous situation its citizens find themselves in today."
Later get far too strident with an old friend in the National Gallery bar. He has been to Israel/Palestine more times than I have had hot dinners and is genuinely shocked by my suggestion that he might be too overtly pro-Palestinian. "They are the poor and oppressed. What else are we do do?"
(On the table next to us someone I have not seen for years is chatting up a blonde girl with a transparent green Louis Vuitton bag. The last time I saw him was four years ago at a seminar in Swansea. He is absorbed in his conquest and buys glass after glass of champagne - takes out his Mac to show his photographs.)
A reading list from my friend: Anne Michael Fugitive Pieces and The Skin Divers.
Paul Celan's poetry - especially that set to music by Harrison Birtwistle (which I know will be far too challenging for me).
Driving rain outside. A deaf homeless man in the damp tiled tunnel in Charing Cross tube station - mouthing and gesturing to a comrade in a blanket a few yards away.
On Uxbridge Road there is a crowd at the bus stop. A ginger headed man wearing high vis trousers, covered in mud, and some kind of jerkin over a short sleeved shirt strides down to us and gestures. "It's no use waiting here - there's no bus coming. The buses are coming out of that road there see...." pointing towards a side road "you'll have to walk down to the next bus stop." What had he been doing? Lying in the road? Digging? Physically diverting the buses? His forearms are covered with tattoos and short ginger hairs. Why is he not cold?
He turns and walks a few steps beside me. "It's not very far," he says, nodding, encouraging.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Defining terms: what is a blog?

The storms continue.

An interesting discussion on the nature of a blog: what is a blog? What is this blog? It is not quite a diary as it makes no attempt to be comprehensive i.e. systematically log what happened, when and how. Instead it's highly selective. It's certainly not a private diary as it's published on the internet. 

Decide that it's more of a column on a theme - if a definition has to be found.
However it does, of course, have an element of a diary - hence the title.

What makes a good diary? John Bayley, reviewingVirginia Woolf's diary 1936-41 (published in 1984) in the London Review of Books, says hers was a thin and self centred narrative....

"Katherine Mansfield writes in her journal what Virginia Woolf’s Diary continually implies: ‘I must not forget that.’ She must not forget the way the hens looked, and how the rain soaked her thin shoes. A few days before her death Virginia Woolf recorded the haddock and sausage meat. ‘I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’"

Good diarists: Pepys (of course), Chateaubriand,  Rousseau, Anthony Burgess, Barbara Pym (Bayley's list).

I like primitive diaries: basic logs.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Like faces in a crucifixion crowd

"I saw the two faces very clearly, like faces in a crucifixion crowd who represent the painter and his friend." The Black Prince/Iris Murdoch
Airing cupboard door half open, revealing too much, shelves piled haphazardly with clothes, towels and other folded items, stuffed in at angles.

Heavy wood polished floor. "I think it came from a gym somewhere."

Black and white photo of a wedding, in the 60s, she half hidden behind her parents, beautifully dressed in a coat and dress, large lapels, brooch on the lapel. He in profile, holding out his hands, talking, gesturing, more handsome than any Hollywood star.

"I don't look bad, do I?" he says, a bruise on his forehead, a beard as he has not shaved or let anyone shave him.

The rugby coach from Hayle clips the skin flaking from his swollen red feet and his thick yellow nails, curving in age and diabetes.

He holds up the bottle, silently, then says. "I'd like to share this with Susan." It is 1030am. "We thought you'd forgotten us.... Never forget your roots."
"The room had the rather sinister tedium which some bedrooms have, a sort of weary banality which is a reminder of death. A dressing table can be a terrible thing." The Black Prince/Iris Murdoch

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