Monday, 31 March 2014

Authority (real and imagined) and a kaleidoscope of colour

The prose of The Railway Man/Eric Lomax seems numbed - so sensitively written but the writer's sensibility is in another place, beyond us  - we cannot begin to imagine what he has been through. It reminds me of The Killing Days/Kemal Pervanic: horror that is beyond the telling.

Interested to read of the moral authority that Lomax feels his early religious attachment conferred on him. It is mysterious where authority comes from  - how certain people within groups command respect. Perhaps it is bound up with a sense of moral compass: the notion of strong values that define behaviour. But it must be more than that.
"A rearrangement of personal authority took place during the three and a half years of our imprisonment. Under those terrible pressures a private might emerge as a leader, and his standing would simply be accepted. I must have seen it in very pure Protestant terms, as though we had somehow returned to the conditions of the Old Testament. I even felt myself gaining some moral authority, growing in a human way despite starvation and misery and dirt. I never felt that I was owed any particular status, but some others acted as though it were there. Some of the traditional leaders, on the other hand, some of the senior officers, sank without trace."
This - in marked contrast to the stories of Scott's Antarctic expeditions, when under great pressure in cramped circumstances, the lines (social and professional) between officers and men were maintained by protocol. Once in a small tent a line was marked down the middle between officers and their subordinates: this, it was suggested, is how everyone retained their sanity.

Many miles away from any kind of war, it is an almost misty, damp evening in west Cornwall. It has been a day of brilliant colour.  Camellias from my mother's garden:

A splendid car spotted in Tesco's Camborne car park. I want this car. Imagine the journeys possible in it. A car with a stripe is very desirable.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mother's Day and a broken phone

It is Mother's Day: still in bed....breakfast is on the way.

Also on the way: a new phone. The camera in the old one started to capture emotion rather than reality.
Always look out for this clump of trees on the way down to Cornwall. This time the broken lens records a blurred feeling of returning home. (On the bus: the trains still not running direct).

Raw damp grey weather: but winter is over.
Keep hoping for a hot summer but someone says that hope can be a wasteful, destructive thing.  It means you don't live in the moment. Also - how stupid to say 'I wish I'd done that earlier.' Why not just say 'I'm glad I've done it now' ?

But thoughts of summer are wonderful. Katherine Mansfield can be a bit too breathless for me, but love the opening of The Garden Party and that fresh still feeling at the start of a sunny day. Green bushes as if they had been visited by archangels.
"And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels."

An Edwardian sensibility (though think it was written post War).
Catching up with reading about Venice: discover a fabulous picture of the English colony there in Edwardian days. A letter from Rowland Burden-Muller describing a picnic with his Aunt Enid on the Lido.
"Gondolas were sent ahead with the chef and a couple of 'garcons de cuisine', and a butler and a pair of footmen who placed in position three easels for Aunt Enid, Princess Stephanie and Susie Duchess of Somerset who enjoyed painting in watercolour, thus creating a scene in the manner of Boudin. Being under 15 years of age I was permitted to bathe, and later we were served a six-course collation in the rush hut by the butler and footmen with cotton gloves, returning to Venice by sunset." 

Conversation sur la plage de Trouville by Eugène Boudin, 1876

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Petal mosaic

Rain in the night. This morning there's a petal mosaic under the trees at Ravenscourt Park.

The journey home and a return view of the Alps

A packed flight back to Gatwick.  The past few days have been much warmer: can spring have come to the Alps? Still lots of snow - can see ski stations and roads winding through the mountains.
Back in London, the blossom is at its peak.

The next morning the petals on the cherry trees in Ravenscourt Park look like so many pieces of mosaic. 
Imagine placing each one on the tree.
Am on my morning run but stop. Life is short like the three days of glory of the cherry trees etc.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014


Packing at the end of nearly two weeks on the road - interesting that some clothes were never worn. I never wear that primrose yellow silk shirt in London - let alone the leather look pencil skirt. So why did I think it might be a good idea in Italy? A bit of a waste of space....Odd choices.

This, on the other hand, was a very good idea - a Nicole Farhi silk dress bought for a snip at the end of season sale at House of Fraser, Westfield. Doesn't really crush and a very forgiving shade of deep green.
The blue linen shirt, in contract, creases terribly but I wore it so many times - who cares.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The papery look of a marble facade.... and images from a War

St Mark's is another place that is far to complex to comprehend on one visit. I remember from before, particularly in the rain, the wonderful marble panels on the exterior walls.
Mary McCarthy (to quote yet again) gets this just right.

"The marble veneers of St Mark's sides, especially when washed by the rain so that they look like oiled silk, are among the most beautiful things in Venice. And it is their very thinness, the sense they give of being a mere lustrous coating, a film, that makes them beautiful. A palace of solid marble, rain washed, simply looks bedraggled."

She also says - can this be true? It must be! She wrote for the New Yorker! Our nameless hero in Bright Lights, Big City (a fact checker) would surely agree - that Allied command officially 'captured' Venice with a fleet of gondolas. Something to research - surely.
But a lovely picture of troops on St Mark's square from the Imperial War Museum.

Flags through the ages - Carpaccio in the Accademia and the hotel terrace

Realise that the flag in the wonderful Carpaccio at the Accademia (Return of the English Ambassador) continues to fly in Venice. There are many such flags, all over the place.
There is even one on the rooftop terrace of the hotel, from where there is a sublime glimpse of the sunset - but not a breath of wind.

A last minute trip to the Accademia

I am one of the National Gallery's most frequent visitors ( a bold claim) - but I work on Leicester Square and it would seem a near criminal oversight not to call in at lunchtimes. 
So I left the Accademia until last in Venice - I didn't feel like going to a museum. I even bought a ticket after 6pm and calculated on 45 minutes to see all before closing time (after an drink on the rooftop balcony at the hotel).
Thank goodness I went.
Otherwise would not have seen some important paintings: The Dream of Ursula/Carpaccio - John Ruskin's favourite painting, I read - more to research later .... an odd favourite, it seems to me.

And Tintoretto's St Mark's Body brought to Venice.

Breakfast in mist and a visit to St Mark's Basilica

A news flash came through last night on my iPad: L'Wren Scott hanged herself - apparently - in her flat in Manhattan from a door knob with a scarf of her own design. Truly awful: and somehow, one fears, something to do with the corrosive power of celebrity and the rottenness of celebrity. Mick Jagger, who apparently didn't refer to her as his girlfriend but 'someone I'm seeing' - the eternal adolescent.

I am staying at the Pension Calcina, where Ruskin apparently penned Stones of Venice.

The morning is misty: there is excellent red currant jam. The taste reminds me of home.
There are fat pink carnations by the church candles on the breakfast table, but I can't really take a picture.

Read Ruskin in preparation for St Mark's: have avoided it up to now - too many tourists. But I am one, after all - and after the mosaics in Ravenna I can hardly ignore it.  Step away, says Ruskin, from the dark
flag-stoned cathedral close of the English shires to the Byzantine wonders of Venice.

"... there arrives a great vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that we may see it far away; a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic, and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory - sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranate, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes; and, in the midst of it, the solemn forms of angels, sceptred and robed to the feet and leaning to each other across the gates... And around the walls of the porches there are set pillars of variegated stones, jasper and porphyry and deep-green serpentine spotted with flakes of snow, and marbles, that half refuse and half yield to the sunshine....."

Such prose!
Mary McCarthy notes that some people, on hearing that she has an assignment to write about Venice, say - how lucky! Those are the uninitiated. Those who know - how much has been written -  realise how difficult it is  - and are slightly more cautious in their congratulations. So much has already been said.

Ruskin, by the way, loves the mosaics. He feels that they are truer in their purpose than some of the great Renaissance art - where we wonder at the painter's skill, rather than his religious feeling.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.... explained to a degree

Still very taken with the mosaics in Ravenna and trying to understand more. Struggling to work out why they are hard to understand. I think it's because they are speaking with such a different dialect, as it were.
Help, as ever, from E.H. Gombrich/The Story of Art who discusses The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, above.

The point is, he says, is that this mosaic concentrates on what is strictly essential to convey i.e. that this is a miraculous and sacred scene. This is an important development away from Greek art, which had a multitude of other elements.

"At first glance, such a picture looks rather stiff and rigid. There is nothing of the mastery of movement and expression which was the pride of Greek art, and which persisted until Roman times. The way in which the figures are planted in strict frontal view may almost remind us of certain children's drawings. And yet the artist must have been very well acquainted with Greek art. He knew exactly how to drape a cloak round a body..... If the picture looks rather primitive to us, it must be because the artist wanted it to be simple.....the forms which the artists used in this new attempt were not the simple forms of primitive art, but the developed forms of Greek painting. Thus Christian art of the Middle Ages became a curious mixture of primitives and sophisticated methods."

More mosaics and a sunny morning in Ravenna

It's possible to buy a five-stop ticket to see the main mosaics in Ravenna. Did that yesterday - but the whole thing was so overwhelming that decide to do the same today.
Those in S ApolinnaireNuovo strike me most as they seem most human (as it were) - San Vitale is tremendous of course - but the detail seems important here.
Above is thought to be the first depiction of Satan - the blue angel to Jesus's left, behind the three goats (as in St Matthew's gospel).
Jesus here is a young, beardless man and is dressed as a Roman emperor.

Gombrich The Story of Art throws light on this cavernous place. Emperor Constantine established the Christian Church as a power in the Roman empire in 311 AD: but there were no public places of worship. These couldn't be modelled on ancient temples, as their purpose was different. The inside of a temple usually just contained a small shrine for a god. Processions and sacrifices took place outside.
A church, however, needed room for a congregation.  So they were modelled on assembly halls that were known in classical times as 'basilicas'.  These buildings were also used as market halls and law courts and were usually long narrow spaces with narrow compartments on the longer sides, divided from the main hall by columns.  Hence the barn-like space.

The Sheep and the Goats/Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 25

31When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: 32And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did itnot to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

A Sunday morning concert and mosaics

Marquetry in the hotel lobby. Swirling movement .... think of Tintoretto - though this is nothing like Tintoretto... Perhaps it simply mirrors some kind of urge to recreate visual ebbing and flowing...
The Teatro Aligheri is another splendidly bright yellow northern Italian opera house.
Lucky to get a ticket for a concert. Its in the Sala Corelli and the pianist is ill so the maestro will play Bach partitas. Amazing. He has a contract with Sony. A grumpy man in front of me calls out requests for old favourites to the intense annoyance of the audience. Paganini! At one stage the maestro stops and waits for silence.

Outside afterwards it is grey and cold compared to Venice. The town has a reconstructed feel. My 1950 Blue Guide says it suffered heavily from aerial bombardments in the last war. The war memorial makes sobering reading - particularly the 'reprisals'.
Maybe because so much has been rebuilt- there's little sense of the town that Byron knew. No one seems to know which Palazzo he rented in the Via Cavour - or whether the Palazzo Gamba (which looks possibly reconstructed) is where Theresa, object of affections, lived. Lots of places are named after Byron - even the breakfast room in the hotel - but there is little really about him....
At the end of the street are astonishing mosaics in San Vitale - as there are in other key churches around the city. But for one used to the emotion of Venetian art - they are initially baffling. It takes the Blue Guide to tell me that they are very early - 6th century - and informed by a classical tradition. Ravenna was the last capital oof the Western Roman Empire. Christ - could I even say - looks like a Roman emperor in these mosaics. The dizzying apses mirroring Hagia Sophia in Istanbul....

Fantastic marching figures in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo - again 6th century - a procession of 22 Virgins preceded by the Magi offering gifts to Jesus, and 26 Martyrs approaching Jesus. Impossible to take photos of....

Best of all the Magi prancing forward in their fabulous leggings...

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Notes on travel: why travel at all?

An interesting conversation at breakfast with my host. What would I want in a rented flat? He is just furnishing one to let (short term to tourists.) Would I want a home cinema? (When we say 'home cinema' , we mean a television with a DVD player). Would I want DVDs? What kitchen equipment would I like? Would I prefer a shower or a bath? Some people prefer showers because they don't want to think about lying around in water in a place where other people have bathed.
People now expect - apparently - home from home. Or to judge from TripAdvisor, even more than home from home. What is the point of travel? If you just flop in front of a DVD at the end of the day? Shouldn't it really be something else - to open up new vistas and new thoughts?
On this trip have not bought a return ticket. Know that I have to be back at work on a certain date. But otherwise everything is up in the air.
I have realised that I have forgotten a few things i.e. stuff to clean glasses with, and a nail scissors.
A pencil sharpener would have been very useful, as would small (very light weight) binoculars, and a camera with a zoom. (The only camera is on my mobile phone and the zoom is hopeless).
Why did Byron travel? Melancholy, says Thomas Moore. "... to have, at once, anticipated the worst experience both of the voluptuary and the reasoner - to have reached, as he supposed, the boundary of this world's pleasures, and see nothing but 'clouds and darkness' beyond, was the doom, the anomalous doom, which a nature, premature in all its passions and powers, inflicted on Lord Byron... Such was the state of mind and hear t- as from his own testimony and that of others, I have collected it - in which Lord Byron now set out on his definite pilgrimage...."
John Ruskin/Stones of Venice would be spinning in his grave were he to think of flats in Venice with home cinemas - 'home from home'.
"In the olden days of travelling, now to return no more, in which distance could not be vanquished without toil, but in which that toil was rewarded partly by the power of deliberate survey of the countries through which the journey lay, and partly by the happiness of the evening hours, when from the top of the last hill to be surmounted, the travelled beheld the quiet village where he was to rest, scattered amongst the valley stream.... in those days, I say, when there was something more to be anticipated andremembered in the first aspect of each successive halting place, than an arrangement of glass roofing and iron girders..."
Railway stations, he means, of course. But stations have their own magic.

Temporary farewell to Venice and a train to Ravenna

Never easy to say goodbye to Venice but my route to the station aided enormously by my host who dropped me there in his boat. (Rather illegal, he muttered, as we drew near. Could you leap up on to the concrete? Of course).
Here he is speeding away, dodging the vaparettos.
The station - Venezia St. Lucia - has a slight monumental swagger.
But nothing compared to Milan Centrale (of which more later. A note on stations is needed. As is a note on reasons for pilgrimage: was Childe Harold really a pilgrim, in the strictest sense of the word?)
The train is busy until Padua, then almost empty. The light fades as we speed through orchards.
Am carrying my disintegrating Blue Guide in a recycled envelope from my daughter, which has become something of an old friend. (The original copy mentioned was of another book - The Black Prince/Iris Murdoch which I have been carrying around with me, without opening...)
Byron travelled to Ravenna on May 25th 1819. Stopping en route in Bologna where he found inscriptions in cemetery that pleased him.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The scent of the first snow

La Fenice stands like a great ship in the muddle of houses. 
Get a last minute ticket for the stalls. Take the vaporetto from St Toma, where a man in an expensive camel cashmere coat is looking at his phone. An elderly man appears and greets him. He is wearing a soft lemon very soft wool scarf.
Later see him in the front row of the stalls.
A lot of fur around me. (A fur collar, tied into place with a fine leather lace. Some women wear fur throughout - a sky blue tippet. Very smart evening bags and shoes. Even the orchestra is glamorous - casually draped sequin blouses with a cardigan slung over - a violinist with a wonderful turban.) 
The woman sitting next to me is thin and bird-like. Sits in her deep navy long-sleeved shift dress, stiff-backed, clasping her neat hard evening bag on her lap, her black shoes long and pointed. Brilliant crimson lipstick and long curls blow-dried for the evening.
Sibelius's Sixth Symphony: "It always reminds me of the scent of the first snow", the composer apparently said. 
(Nostalgia and thoughts of home: are pilgrims often homesick? Do they travel so that home means more when they finally return?).

More effortless style glimpsed at the bar in the interval. Of course could not take pictures. But again - another Italian woman that I would like to be - in her mid 60s, a black tight pencil skirt, fish nets with taupe pointed heels, a bright orange satin blouse and monumental acquamarine earrings. Not possible - ever - to take photos of life's most interesting moments. A drawing cannot reflect the colour. She has a bright red pair of monocles hanging on a cord from her neck.
So much more luminosity than that. These are the colours of frescoes - bright and translucent.
(The supermarket has some marigolds with orange that starts to match it. Wonderful to think that spring/summer might even be within reach....)

When Byron arrived in Venice it was already faded. Napoleon had invaded in the late 90s and had taken lots of stuff back to the Louvre. There were still many noble families living there but they were probably not wealthy. It already had a faded feel - to which Byron often refers.

Earlier: after Tintoretto yesterday cannot imagine that anything will compare.... feel that it might be as well to sit on the Zattere and drink coffee. Offer to share my table with an English couple from Shropshire, it turns out. Had spotted them earlier at the station when buying my ticket to Ravenna. They were looking lost.
The man is in a polo shirt with a stain on the front. The wife (bare feet, in sandals) says they came here two years ago. 
Two years ago? was it three? says the husband. And everyone was drinking that red drink, we don't know what it was but we want to have it again. When we arrived we thought we'd take the boat in from the airport for the view... but we had to walk nearly a mile to the boat... and it was already dark and we couldn't see a thing... Then the drains.... it was hot and we opened the window and then the smell.

Veronese's church S Sebastiano is being renovated. Lots of scaffolding so hard to take in the paintings. Go in preparation for the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery. ... Stormy skies and large dogs... Below: The Martyrdom of St Sebastian and The Repudiation of the Vashti.  To remember: the architecture of Rome, the child's face, the foreshortened leg (in the latter).

Image of the day: the hands waving from the top of the Redentore church across the Guidecca from Zattere.

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