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."

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A new word

A tough, protective, semitransparent substance, primarily a nitrogen-containing polysaccharide, forming the principal component of arthropod exoskeletons and the cell walls of certain fungi.

Discovered in Unless/Carol Shields as 'chitinous'.

'But I was suddenly alerted to something about her presence: the fact that her face looked oddly fallen. Her eyes were swollen, filled, though not with tears. What I glimpsed there was something hard, chitinous. What was it? "We are real only in our moments of recognition" - who said that? I was recognising something new."

Shields is talking about an estranged daughter. And the moment she realised that she had lost her.

A discovery on Easter Sunday: the artist responsible for my Sunday School book illustrations is German Bernhard Plockhurst, whose life spanned much of the 19th century - he has a very 19th century vision of Christianity. He is apparently almost unknown in his native Germany, but still popular in the U.S.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

By whom nature feared to be conquered

Egg, Cornwall. Taken out (with others) every year at Easter. Cast in Plaster of Paris in a jelly egg mould, and engraved with the inscription on Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon. Done in spring 2009 after a trip to Rome.

"Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori."

"Here lies that Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die."

E M Forster's Commonplace Book has arrived.
An interesting thought about studying Greek and Latin: he believes it is essential in schools at an early age so that students have a vision of a world where Christianity is not the only force animating cultural endeavour.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Friday: Mantegna and Bellini

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward
John Donne

LET mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this, 
The intelligence that moves, devotion is, 
And as the other Spheares, by being growne 
Subject to forraigne motions, lose their owne, 
And being by others hurried every day, 
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey: 
Pleasure or business, so, our Soules admit 
For their first mover, and are whirld by it. 
Hence is't, that I am carryed towards the West 
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East. 
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set, 
And by that setting endlesse day beget; 
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall, 
Sinne had eternally benighted all. 
Yet dare I'almost be glad, I do not see 
That spectacle of too much weight for mee. 
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye; 
What a death were it then to see God dye? 
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke, 
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles, 
And turne all spheares at once, peirc'd with those holes? 
Could I behold that endlesse height which is 
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes, 
Humbled below us? or that blood which is 
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his, 
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne 
By God, for his apparell, rag'd, and torne? 
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I 
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye, 
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus 
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom'd us? 
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye, 
They'are present yet unto my memory, 
For that looks towards them; and thou look'st towards mee, 
O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree; 
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive 
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave. 
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee, 
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity, 
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace, 
That thou may'st know mee, and I'll turne my face. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Selling souls to the devil and decorative detail

Off to Faust this evening. An appropriate theme (perhaps) for Maundy Thursday: the temptation of selling your soul to the Devil. The loss of all moral compass.

A passage - fitting for the day - from Ruskin on San Marco, Venice: (found Stones of Venice: he would surely describe this as a 'word picture'.)
"Round the domes of its roof the light enters only through narrow apertures like large stars; and here and there a ray or two from some far away casement wanders into the darkness, and casts a narrow phosphoric stream upon the waves of marble that heave and fall in a thousand colours along the floor. What else there is of light is from torches, or silver lamps, burning ceaselessly in the recesses of the chapels; the roof sheeted with gold, and the polished walls covered with alabaster, give back at every curve and angle some feeble gleaming to the flames; and the glories round the heads of the sculptured saints flash out upon us as we pass them, and sink again into the gloom. Under foot and overhead, a continual succession of crowded images, one picture passing into another as in a dream; forms beautiful and terrible mix together; dragons and serpent, and ravening beasts of prey, and graceful birds that in the midst of them drink from running fountains and feed from vases of crystal; the passion and the pleasures of human life symbolised together, and the mystery of its redemption; for the mazes of interwoven lines and changeful pictures lead always at last to the Cross, lifted and carved in every place and upon every stone...."
Yesterday learned - from Ruskin - that there is an order in ornament. His list:
1. Abstract lines
2. Forms of earth (crystals)
3. Forms of water (waves)
4. Forms of fire (flames and rays)
5. Forms of air (clouds)
6. Organic forms (shells)
7. Fish
8. Reptiles and snakes
9. Vegetation A (stems and trunks)
10. Vegetation B (foliage)
11. Birds
12. Mammalian animals and man.

The power of lists. Particularly like 8. Reptiles and snakes. From reptiles and snakes come beauty and horror: the dragon a fusion of both (as above). Oddly symbolic to the Christian church, as Ruskin says.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Tricky translations and insights from Ruskin

The possibility of disillusion threatening to be a theme of the week: ridiculous as it is a sunny, exhilarating Easter Week. But it did come up in passing when thinking about anticipation yesterday: disappointment is always a possibility i.e. actually seeing things as they are.

There are - apparently - difficulties in translating 'Disinganno', the title of one of Veronese's Allegories of Love in the National Gallery (which displays it as 'Scorn').  T.J. Clark in the London Review of Books questions this. He says there is more disillusion and dispiriting eye-opening than 'scorn' in 'disinganno'. Love the idea that this is a Baroque term: what exactly does that mean?
"The English Scorn, which has come to be attached to it, is surely wrong, both visually and in terms of philology. Disinganno is a strong Baroque term. It is the moment of being robbed of one's illusions and seeing the actual state of things. There is an element of chastisement and self-chastisement to it, and certainly an element of stripping to the bone. 'Disabuse' is as close as we can come to the idea in English, but the word is too weak, too awkward. In this case, the Italian should stand."  
Veronese was Ruskin's favourite painter.
Ruskin himself turned to words: word pictures, as he called them - the intent to describe a scene in words as accurately (perhaps more vividly) than by drawing.  His description of S. Marco so precise that it awes.  His art is just as intricate: he felt he could possess an object in some way by drawing it.

Very interesting ideas, too, on how to travel. As a child, he travelled with his family around Britain and mainland Europe - to the Alps, the medieval cities of France and Italy, in particular Amiens and Venice.  They journeyed slowly in a coach, never more than 50 miles a day and every few miles stopped to admire the scenery. Ruskin did this for the rest of his life.

For this reason, he deplored the haste of tourists who cover Europe in a week by train (apparently Thomas Cook first offered this in 1862.)

"No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; the will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being."
Back to mindfulness.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


Looking forward to Easter: escape from London.
Usually don't allow myself to look forward this much. It feels like wishing the time (the days between now and the Paddington train on Friday morning) away.
So much talk at the moment about mindfulness and living in the present. Of course. But maybe the anticipation of a journey, and looking forward to a journey, is a very important part of travel (whether mental or physical).
Alain de Botton (have finished The Art of Travel ) disagrees. He argues that it's like believing the photos in the holiday brochures are true - the empty Caribbean beaches fringed with palms.
"... valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality. The anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress, they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments and, without either lying of embellishing, thus lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in teh distrcting woolliness of the present."

Yes perhaps. But there may be a half-way house here somewhere. Thoughts that lift and strengthen the mood can't be bad.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A footnote on Veronese: two recurring women

Detail: The Supper at Emmaus

A footnote on Veronese - will no doubt get to the National Gallery again this week during my lunch hour.
And will I see this woman in another painting?
I spotted her here last week....
But - through the miracle of Pinterest (not quite sure how that works) - see that she also appears in at least one other painting - the Wedding at Cana which is at the Louvre.
The Wedding at Cana/Veronese

Detail: The Wedding at Cana

Mary McCarthy in Venice Observed throws some light on this - I must ask an art historian for more. (Maybe I will even have to get the audio guide at the National Gallery)...McCarthy talks about the vast banquet scenes - greedy, vital, sensual.

"Indeed, the first impression is one of a tumultuous rabble of vulgar parvenu persons who have taken possession of a series of classical palaces and who, drunk with success, are invading the sky...

"But there are two Veronese dominions. One is ruled by a fat woman who looks rather like the Empress Maria Theresa. The other is ruled by a young woman with delicate pensive face and an intent, halted listening expression."

The first is clearly above; the second here below in Venice and Hercules and Ceres: 
Detail: Venice and Hercules and Ceres/Accademia, Venice

What and who are these two Venices? McCarthy says the august matron is the Venice of splendid entertainments.
The second is 'the awakening, tinctured with melancholy, in the candid morning light of the lagoons...'
A puckered brow, as if a frown may pass over it. The morning after the party feeling, perhaps.

Riding into Jerusalem: the view from the treetops and visions of the sublime

Palm Sunday: in my mind's eye can see, this year, the Lion's Gate through which Jesus rode on his donkey - having sought it out last November. But merely having seen it doesn't add to the significance of anything - or of  the day somehow. The figures I spotted in Padua make me think more. Loved them at the time.  The frenzied excitement of the crowds watching.
Giusto de'Menaboui's fresco of figures hung like washing in the trees as Jesus rides by: in the Baptistry in Padua.
And Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel.

(Idly googling other images like this - come across the painting/illustration which is in my childhood Sunday School book. No indication of who it's by. The three boys carrying garlands on the right are here....)

Sticking with Alain de Botton and The Art of Travel. He talks about visions of the sublime (am not sure that the crowds welcoming Jesus thought they were in the presence of anything sublime - perhaps just the promise of great change - revolution, perhaps.) 
The term sublime started to be used at the start of the 17th century to describe landscapes that inspired awe: precipies, glaciers, night skies, deserts. These places inspired a sense of smallness. So why do we seek out divine visions - landscapes that inspire such wonder?  Because we could be seeking a sense of a god, de Botton says.
"... we may come away from such places, not crushed, but inspired by what lies beyond us; privileged to be subject to such majestic necessities. the sense of awe may even shade into a desire to worship."
An Avalanche in the Alps/Philip James de Loutherbourg

Friday, 11 April 2014

A Merchant of Venice: manners makyth man

Portrait of Iseppo da Porto and his son, Leonida (another Veronese currently in the National Gallery, viewed in my lunchhour). So affectionate; such wealth - the fur trimmed capes (of both of them); the boy leaning into his father's body, hands clasped and the lines of their arms mirroring the movement of the fabric. Da Porto was one of Vicenza's richest citizens. He was a silk merchant - responsible no doubt for the importing some of the fabulous fabrics worn in Veronese's paintings....
He looks an upright man. What makes a man? The motto of New College, Oxford: Manners makyth man - has to mean profoundly i.e. not that not merely manners but one's manner towards other people - the way you treat other people - defines you.
Struck by Alain de Botton's remark in A Week at the Airport about a pilot that he met during his stint at Heathrow. He is in awe of this man.

"I looked at his steady, well-sculpted hands and thought of how far he had come since childhood.
He, too, must be capable of petulance, of vanity, of acting foolishly, of making casually cruel remarks to his spouse or neglecting to understand his children. There are no directional charts for daily life. But at the same time, I was reluctant to either accept or exploit the implications of this knowledge. I wanted to believe in the capacity of certain professions to enable us to escape the ordinary run of our frailties and to accede, if only for a moment, to a more impressive sort of existence than most of us will ever know."
I don't 'want to believe' - I certainly do believe that professional callings can lift you into a different stratum of being: piloting hundreds of passengers through the air certainly does. People entrust their lives to you; literally put themselves at your mercy.

This is living in one sense at a frontier - negotiating a knife edge between life and death. Facing up to responsibility; putting yourself on the line.

Medics handle this too, of course, particularly people who deal with trauma injuries and heart conditions. Have to think that daily contact with this transports you into a different space: after repeated contact with sudden death, you have to think differently about the world.

Back at Mad Men: Don Draper has had a breakdown. He has become an alcoholic. Strayed across the line into dependency. A tragic dichotomy: he looks iconic, so handsome, so whole - and is apparently fatally flawed.

Haven't thought at all about people who help you travel - or enable you to travel. Pilots, guides, bus drivers....

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I really don't know clouds at all

Something fantastically subversive about clouds this morning, viewed from the bus going up Uxbridge Road. What worlds away from the small, frightened boy in an over-sized school uniform sitting next to me - the ticket inspector - the people punching fiercely into their mobile phones.... The clouds promise other worlds, in fact, beyond the bus window.

Yesterday's lunchtime Veronese at the National Gallery had a cloud-strewn sky. (Is there a Veronese without a stormy sky?) Plus dogs: The Supper at Emmaus (about 1555).
A large, aristocratic family surrounds Christ's supper after his resurrection. Everyone is clutching something; the painting swirls with movement.

Particularly love this lady on the right  - clearly the matriarch of the household, impassive, resigned, thinking oh no what now.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

A Heathrow diary and inner demons

Monet/Gare Saint-Lazare
There've been famous reviews of Alain de Botton but whatever one thinks about him -the jury's out as far as I'm concerned - his A Week at The Airport has interesting reflections on travel, in particular airports. We rush through unseeing, intent on reaching our destination - steeling ourselves to endure a crowded, long flight - imagining that we will be dicing with death in the air.  But airports can be extraordinary structures - like the new Terminal 5.

"The mighty steel bracing of the airport's ceiling recalled the scaffolding of the great nineteenth-century railway stations and evoked the sense of awe - suggested in paintings such as Monet's Gare Saint-Lazare - that must have been experienced by the first crowds to step inside these light-filled, iron-limbed halls pulsating with strangers, buildings that enabled a person to sense viscerally, rather than just grasp intellectually, the vastness and diversity of humanity."
Like Paddington - such promise of adventure - sunshine - the sea - home. More on this here.

The best/most appealing airports though, in my experience, aren't the ones that awe - but the ones that are small and in which you can step almost immediately from one world into another. Remember waving goodbye to someone at Nantes and watching him waving back as I progressed almost to the departure gate; Tobago  - stepping out into colour and heat, the blue sea in the distance, the departure hall with sparkle (purple tinsel - did I imagine this?) Newquay - just so small. From plane to car park and the drive home in a few steps.

Even taking a bus from the plane to the terminal at the end of a journey can be exhilarating, rather than a tedious final stage to the exit. It involves stepping on to the tarmac and actually making contact with a new or familiar land - a blast of heat as you step off the plane always exciting.

De Botton also talks about people setting out on holiday having made endless arrangements but forgetting that they themselves, their thoughts and inner demons, are going too. Shades of Cavafy and Ithaka.
"As David lifted a suitcase on to the conveyor belt, he came to an unexpected and troubling realisation: that he was bringing himself with him on his holiday. Whatever the qualities of the Dimitra Residence, they were going to be critically undermined by the fact he would be in the villa as well.  He had booked the trip in the expectation of being able to enjoy his children, his wife, the Mediterranean, some spanakopita and the Attic skies, but it was evident that he would be forced to apprehend all of these through the distorting filter of his own being, with its debilitating levels of fear, anxiety and wayward desire.....
We cannot enjoy palm trees and azure pools if a relationship to which we are committed has abruptly revealed itself to be suffused with incomprehension and resentment."
End the day with an episode of Mad Men: Don Draper drinking after his daughter discovers him in flagrante delicto with the neighbour's wife.  He is spiralling down into despair.

The bar here seems an entire world. It's in Manhattan and the best kind of bar. Dark. With a bank of bottles. At best, bars promise something - a journey - not just a drink. A passage to another frame of mind.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

More on forgiveness and the perfect Lent book

Forgiveness has been a theme of the weekend. A very interesting conversation in Leicester Square on Friday afternoon.
And then the end of The Railway Man - which is very hard to read without tears. Eric Lomax forgave his torturers. I cannot believe it. But it took him time. He also said that he could never forget.
B. on Friday afternoon said that forgiveness isn't as easy as all that. It involves talking to the person involved and understanding - really understanding, not just making a token, emotional gesture. (Forgiveness is something we should aspire to. Of course. For some of us, it's the most difficult thing.)
Prisoner at Changi POW camp, Singapore

In the final pages of The Railway Man Lomax writes about forgiving someone involved in his torture in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in Singapore for making a crude radio.
It is the most appropriate read for Lent that I can imagine. He forgives a man who was involved in torture aimed  at breaking him to the point of death: torture so vile that 50 years on the torturer is still physically affected by the memory.
Lomax  is - almost miraculously - able to meet the man (called Ngase) and come to terms with what happened. It is - as my friend B said on Friday afternoon - a progression. It takes time - from the moment that he realised he had found his tormentor to feelings of rage and hatred - then a maelstrom of thoughts of what to do. Revenge, or a meeting? He finally travelled to Singapore to meet Ngase and talk to him.

"He looked up at me; he was trembling, in tears, saying over and over 'I am very, very sorry...'
They returned to the place they first met - the camp now built over with new housing. They visited war memorials.  Then they flew to Osaka to visit Ngase's home.
Then Lomax so touchingly - forever mindful of procedure - decided that some kind of formal gesture of forgiveness was needed and visited him for a final time in Tokyo, in his hotel room: 'I had decided to give him a piece of paper which I thought would meet both our needs...'
"I read my short letter out to him, stopping and checking that he understood each paragraph. I felt he deserved this careful formality. In the letter I said that the war had been over for almost fifty years; that I had suffered much; and that I knew that although he too had suffered throughout this time, he had been most courageous and brave in arguing against militarism and working for reconciliation. I told him that while I could not forget what happened in Kanbury in 1943, I assured him of my total forgiveness.
He was overcome with emotion again, and we spent some time in his room talking quietly and without haste."
Just how Lomax summoned such humanity - I don't know.Reading of it touches me to the core, though.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Commonplace books and a Leicester Square epiphany

Came - by complete chance - across the term Commonplace book and am intrigued. Traditionally these are books for recording concepts, facts and formulae. They are not diaries or travelogues but something else. Just love this idea: a scrapbook for thoughts and ideas. E.M. Forster's Commonplace Book (or one of his commonplace books, perhaps) has been published.
It reminds me: I used to keep notebooks, when I had more time. In the front I kept notes, clippings and postcards; stuff about work - in the back. I tried to make sure that the front part was fuller. How sad to have stopped.

Love St James's Piccadilly's mantra for Easter (on its website): Create in me a clean heart, O Lord.
Cleansing the heart: very hard.

A Friday afternoon conversation at Cafe Rouge, Leicester Square, with a colleague who is a Catholic Brother. We're talking about a group of volunteers at work and the dynamic within the group. There is a problem as one woman feels excluded from the main clique. We don't understand why, and those in the main clique say 'What's the problem?'

B.:  'They don't realise, you see, because they're part of the group. They don't see the exclusion clearly.  I remember ... as a chaplain in a school ... there were dinner ladies and a new one started and there were terrible problems, they didn't include her. So I had a word with them all, gathered the old guard together and asked about it.  And one said 'Well, I don't know why she thinks that, I've said nowt to her."'

Changing the subject: Easter approaches. I say that I haven't been back to church since last Easter when I had an argument at a quiet Pascal reflection about Judas.  I said I just couldn't forgive Judas. Someone was trying to make a comparison with Oscar Pistorius (that still seems absurd to me) -  on the lines that we must not judge without knowing the facts. We do not know what drove Judas to this, she said. I said: well, no, but he took money, he betrayed it was a crime. I can't forgive that.

B. is quiet. We settle the bill. He insists on paying.
He says 'You know, when I was working in Cambodia I saved up enough to put the son of one of the families in the community through college for a year. He was really pleased. It took me a long time to save up the money. Then I found, after a few months, that he hadn't gone to college. He'd used the money to pay for food and school for his brothers and sisters. I was not pleased, I can tell you.
Then I thought....'

We emerge into the sleazy light of Leicester Square. People are queuing at the ticket booth. There is fat on the pavement from an infinity of take away pizzas and greasy sandwiches. The sky is grey. It is a raw April evening.

'And you know,' he continues, 'then I thought ... when my time's up and I'm at the Pearly Gates and the big question comes - and .... what have you done with your life? I thought, well, the key question will be 'How much have you loved?'

He smiles.
It is a bit of an epiphany.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Shadowy figures and a definition of hell

Lunchtime Veronese at the National Gallery. Veronese born in Verona - but a Venice painter.

The Family of Darius before Alexander (about 1565-7).  Darius, King of Persia, was defeated by Alexander the Great. Here he is being brought before Alexander. This painted for the country palace of the Venetian Pisani family at Montagnana near Padua.
The painting is huge and the reproduction doesn't do the colours or the composition justice. But very striking is the shadowy quality of the horses (bottom left) and figures on the balustrade, as if they were sketched in and not quite there.

More shadowy figures and a vision of hell in The Railway Man/Eric Lomax.

The cell in a Victorian prison in Singapore:
"The door was shut and we looked around our new home. It was totally, empty: a stark oblong space, about nine feet long, six feet across and with a very high ceiling.  The walls were peeling, had once been thickly painted in white and were utterly blank. The door was solid and steel-clad, with a rectangular slot like an English postbox. There was a small window, very high up in the end wall, through which we could see the sky. It seemed to be a nice day outside. "
The food:
"The main events .... were the delivery of the so-called meals three times a day. Each consisted or rice and tea, or at least a quantity of slightly discoloured hot water which looked like tea. This was our main fluid intake for the day, and thirst usually preceded it by many hours."
 The first sight of fellow prisoners who had been there for some time:
"In the yard were about twenty prisoners, most of them apparently unable to walk. Some lay flat out; some were crawling on their hands and knees. Several were totally naked. Almost all had one thing in common: they were living skeletons, with ribs and bones protruding from shrunken flesh."

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Spring shades in Veronese and mosaics underfoot

Easter pastels in Veronese's Conversion of Mary Magdalene at the National Gallery - a tumbling composition of figures - the eye is drawn to the jewels on her neck.
The colours - pale mauves and greens - shades of spring outside - are striking as I whizz past on my lunch hour. (Veronese: last encountered in Venice).
Underfoot are more mosaics - Boris Anrep.
They are simply extraordinary but everyone - including me - rushes in over them.

Still reading The Railway Man/Eric Lomax. The torture scenes: vile brutality presented as the true evil it was by the dignity with which Lomax writes. He recalls how his mind helped him. How else to live through the time. He was lying in a bamboo cage in his own excrement, in the heat, with red ants crawling over his body.
"I tried to keep count of the passage of time by making scratches on the wall of the cage with a fish bone which I found in the rice.....My mind was turning into a machine that produced texts, words and images, cutting them up and feeding them to me in disconnected and confused snatches.....Sometimes the messages had a sound, quite loud; sometimes they were intensely visual. Most of them were religious, or at least came full of immense and comforting majesty; they were based, mainly on the most exalted literature that I knew, which was that of the Protestant 17th century....
Behold I stand at the door and knock
if any man hear my voice, and open the door,  I will come in to him." 
Wonder again about mental equipment - what is in the mind, learned by heart or by rote, to sustain in times of trouble.Apart from hymns and prayers learned at Sunday School, have very little. Some - very few - passages of Shakespeare. Attempts to follow Ted Hughes' anthology By Heart: 101 poems to remember keep faltering.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Change in the air and another Strauss opera

More Strauss opera: this time Die Frau Ohne Schatten: The Woman without a Shadow. The kind of score that critics call sumptuous. An absolutely baffling plot - I would say Wagnerian with its strange characters from myth/folklore and symbolism but someone would contradict me (everything Wagnerian is highly circumscribed.)
The music is mesmerizing: an amazing soprano in the DVD I watch (from the Mariinsky). The voice somehow makes it clear that the theme is apparently - quite simply - about love blessed by the birth of children and the tragedy of love lost. 
So the golden falcons, souls turning to stone, Emperors in dark forests, sorcery and demon lovers are just a vehicle for something very straightforward. The end of Act 1, has a duet vocalising this - misunderstanding and longing.

Back on the beach, the sand (swept away by winter storms) has returned.

January 2014
March 2014

It's time to go back to London.
The camellias, I hope, will travel.

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