Saturday, 30 January 2010

Found: Lost innocence

This came to light the other day. I found it in a forgotten leatherette letter-compendium, which a favourite cousin gave me when I was about 12. The compendium unzipped to reveal little pockets and straps to hold envelopes, stamps, and a quarto pad of writing paper, complete with blotting paper and a guide printed with heavy black lines which showed through faintly from underneath your writing to keep it straight. Do they still make Basildon Bond?

Treasure trove inside one of the pockets, unseen for years:

A letter from the then Secretary of State for Scotland congratulating me on a performance of The Gondoliers which I'd recently conducted

A letter from a student friend beginning 'Dear Chris, As I have in my Levantine lethargy...'

A letter from a friend describing what it felt like to lose her virginity (Nothing to do with me: I wanted the information for a novel)

This postal order. Five shillings must be, let me see, 25p, but I see that its validity expired some little time ago. This came from an old schoolroom we cleared out once, some years after the departure of an ancient lady called Jessie, who had lived there in the utmost squalor. In the worm-eaten cupboard that served her as a larder there were a few eggs, probably of the same vintage as the postal order. Very old eggs explode when you put them in the fire.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Not a drum was heard...

Dave has been coming up with some interesting stuff about Spanish religious imagery, mostly a bit hyperbolic and in-your-face for northern European tastes.

I expect it would have been difficult to include the above in the exhibition he features. It's a Last Judgement. It's over a doorway in Corunna, at the tip - practically - of north-west Spain. I took this photo when we were in Corunna a year or two ago, but I can't make much of it. I can see a scales, like the astrological sign for Libra, in which I suppose the good or bad deeds of the departed are weighed and the relative warmth of his/her eternal destination is decided accordingly. (Yes, I KNOW about Purgatory, but I just wanted to simplify things for the multitude of people who come here with only Pt 1 of Doom for Dummies: A Practical Guide on their lifestyle bookshelves.) Perhaps you can see other elements?

Memorial to Sir John Moore, Corunna, Galicia, Spain

Sir John Moore, a fine general whose revolutionary ideas on military training swung the terrestrial balance of the Napoleonic Wars in Britain's favour, holed up in Corunna for several days in January 1809, having led a strategic retreat there in the earlier days of the Peninsular War with first Napoleon and then Marshal Soult snapping at his heels. It wasn't quite a Dunkirk situation, but he had to wait longer than he would have wanted for the navy to arrive to evacuate his troops. I don't expect he had very much time to wander about the old town looking at architectural sculpture, but the Last Judgement would certainly have been there at the time when, almost as the last troops were being evacuated, he was killed by a French shell. It took some hours for him to die, and who knows what his last thoughts may have been? All I recall of it is that he asked to be remembered to a brother officer's sister.

Cathedral of St Cecilia, Albi, France: The Last Judgement

In Albi cathedral, which isn't all that far from where we live, there's an extraordinary Last Judgement. Sinners are classified into whichever of the Seven Deadly Sins they have over-indulged in, and we can see the doom awaiting - if you blow the image up - the greedy, the proud, the angry, the lustful, the avaricious, the envious and . . . hang on, there's one missing. The truth is that the central doorway was cut in the wall after the Last Judgement was painted on it, destroying the central one. The missing deadly sin is sloth. Why, that's very one I'm afflicted by most. These days, anyway. But if they abolished it, at Albi at any rate, maybe I'll get away with it.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Joust a minute...

Far be it from me to set up in competition with Dave's famed Saturday Sporting Prints series (clearly this is the close field set for him batting), so please don't think that. I bought the postcard above in Montpellier, our nearest large city, in a card shop so crammed to bursting with cards of every description that they explode outwards on to the narrow pedestrianised street and cause significant pedestrian traffic jams.

I bought it not merely out of a craven taste for the whimsical but because this was a French card, taken by a French photographer on behalf of a French postcard company for sale in France. This must say something about the French take on everyday life in the UK.

The multitude of armorial geographers who drop in here will place the scene immediately. All I can say is that once J. and I stayed there having foolishly mistaken a town centre hotel for one in the same chain by the airport. When we went out to view the civic amenities we were so horrified by the extent of fresh blood on the pavements that we scuttled back to the hotel. Perhaps we should have worn armour too.

Friday, 22 January 2010

It was a summer evening:

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840): Moonrise over the sea

Monument Valley, Arizona

Old Caspar's work was done...

...for him already.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Where there is error?

I was really surprised when I first saw this painting of St Francis. Actually it's a fresco, not a particularly prominent one, in the the lower basilica of the great church of Assisi. J. and I went there several years ago, intending to have a look at the Giotto frescoes in the upper basilica, but it was closed for renovation, so we had to make do with the lower.

Chief memories of Assisi are:

The most monstrous pile I've ever seen of Walkers of Strathspey shortbread in one of the souvenir shops

The monstrous irony of Bellamy our golden retriever not being allowed into St Francis' own church

The monstrous array of scaffolding around the upper basilica, each pole painted black and decorated with beautiful gilded finials

And of course this portrait of St Francis. It was painted in about 1270, within living memory of St Francis, by the most shadowy forerunner of the Italian Renaissance, Giovanni di Pepo, better known by his nickname Cimabue, or 'ox-top', maybe because of a curly tuft on the top of his head.

I was struck by it because apart from the obligatory halo and the wounds on his hands and feet St Francis appears as someone entirely believable, an unprepossessing little bloke with a hooked nose, big ears and piercing compassionate eyes that see through pretence and vanity to the weakness beneath. Not that there's doubt about his existence: his life is well documented even if you scrape away the accretions of legend. What damage to credibility later artists caused, oiling and massaging their saints into an impossible, unapproachable and downright unappealing sanctity!

But I think there's a problem with the famous stigmata, the supposed mystical appearance of Jesus' crucifixion wounds on someone of great holiness. Cimabue has painted them in on St Francis' feet and hands. (His habit is also torn to show the wound in his side.) We sometimes forget that crucifixion was as usual a method of execution of criminals in Roman dominions as hanging was in the UK until its abolition in the 1960s. Crucifixion nails were heavy, hand-made builders' nails. To support the body weight on the cross, they were driven in through the wrists and the ankles, crossed one over the other, of the condemned. Nails driven through the palm would have torn through the flesh and ligaments of the hands and the victim would have tumbled forward, still pinned at the ankles. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Why has Cimabue, revolutionary devotee of realism, given St Francis - his real name was Giovanni di Bernadone: the Italian 'Francesco' just means 'frenchified', because he was born in France and affected French manners during his wild youth - why has Cimabue given him stigmata that couldn't have existed in that form? Or should we accept them as a convention, like his halo?

It's quite nice to write a serious post now and again.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Magi Mix

For the first time ever I won the crown this year. Of course no one was on hand to photograph the event, so you'll have to take my word for it. And I did cheat, but only a little...

You can't get through January here without La Galette des Rois, the tart of the kings. (No sniggers, children.) The kings in question are the Magi. No social or family gathering is complete without getting together round the table in early January, about Epiphany time, and consuming one or two of these things, usually with a sweetish wine called muscat. Bakers' shops are full of them, in all sizes. They sell them with paper crowns included.

Dedicated Epiphany buffs prefer the sort pictured above, a type with layers of marzipan. The most popular version is a circle of bun sprinkled with large-grain sugar. Marzipan tart or crunchy sugar bun, they all have hidden inside one or two fèves, literally beans, little porcelain favours. Dedicated fève buffs collect them.

Whoever gets the fève in their portion gets the crown. I was serving and just happened to notice this little pink thing sticking out of the side of one of the slices. There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune... the fève entitling me to the crown turned out to be a little porcelain orang-outang. No, don't ask. I've no idea why.

Here are two crowned heads from a previous year.

I imagine that eagle falls into the category of chest protector, wouldn't you agree?

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

De profundis

Very weak today. Sorry.

Kind friends have been suggesting items for my choir to sing and/or provide some kind of all-Brit entertainment to keep the Entente Cordiale up to scratch.

How about this?

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Repast of the Ancients

Tomorrow we're going to the repas des anciens, the meal of the ancient ones. It's a five-course lunch offered annually by the village council to anyone of retirement age.

We feel uneasy about this for several reasons:

1. Although in receipt of various pensions we're a good bit younger than the average village ancient.

2. We're much too young to be waited on by the village worthies who undertake this sort of thing.

3. We eat very lightly at lunch-time. Five courses with four different wines wrecks us for the rest of the day.

4. A few years ago we were pressured into presenting some kind of typically British entertainment. We got a few other expat ancients together and did the Hokey Cokey. It was received with complete mystification and in embarrassing silence. It started to rain immediately afterwards. We were retained to be on hand in case of summer drought. This is a heavy responsibility.

5. There's always dancing, tangos, madisons and paso dobles. The village ancients put us to shame. In fact we're rubbish.

6. It's not as though we're starving to death. Many village ancients must be much worse off than we are.

We've tried to get out of it, but it can't be done. Once an ancient, always an ancient. They put us on the list without even asking. If you can't beat them, join them. But we're never doing the Hokey Cokey again.

You'll have worked out already that the photo at the top was taken last year. We're in it somewhere.

UPDATE: Just back from the Ancients' Repast. A five-hour blowoutathon, won't eat again for days. Plus dancing between courses. Goodness, these oldies can dance. Personal glass of whisky from the Mayor. My prize for messiest place, split wine, crumbs, sticky caramel droppings? Compliments on my cravat from natty dresser on next table. Raucous singing. Stagger home against bitter mistral. That's it for today.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Irish Is.

Channel-hopping the other evening we landed on David Lean's Ryan's Daughter on TCM.

Something in the setting, in south-west Ireland, caught my eye time and time again, something I'd seen on a DVD of the BBC Coast series. It was impossible to construct a precise geography of the location - not surprisingly, because it was filmed at several different places, including a beach in South Africa, all pretending to be one locality - but there was one recurring backdrop that fascinated me. It's the one above, the view from the school-house in the film. If you blow it up to maximum size there's a distant island, on the horizon left of centre. (The nearer island is called Dead Man's Island, I suppose from its resemblance to a corpse.) It's cone-shaped and pinnacled, and, if you're attracted by islands, and the remoter the better, it seems to good to be true.

It's called Skellig Michael, shown here against a backdrop of magnificently brooding Atlantic clouds. It's one of a pair of offshore sea-mounts breaking the surface about 10 miles from the County Kerry mainland. (The other, Little Skellig, lies a bit closer inshore.) Skellig Michael featured in Coast 3, when fruity presenter Alice Roberts explored it, but a bit too superficially for me.

It looks too inaccessible and steep-to to be inhabited, and indeed it's home only to a colony of puffins. There's a short story by D.H.Lawrence, which of course I can't find just when I want it, about a man whose urge to isolate himself drives him to seek out ever smaller and remoter islands. I might have sensed the ghost of Lawrence's hero on Skellig Michael if it hadn't been eclipsed by something that would have made him feel crowded: the remains of a monastery and the ghosts of the dozen or so monks who lived and worked there at any one time.

The remains are well preserved, some might say suspiciously. They're fascinating, a walled hamlet of beehive-like cells, oratories, scriptoria, ambulatories and hermitages, and I suppose sheep-fanks and lazy-beds, built in Skellig stone mostly in an ancient technique called corbelling: you lay each course of stone very slightly overlapping the one below it, so that walls curve upwards and inwards until you can cap the apex with a large flat flagstone. As a drystone waller I was particularly interested in this technique, and can't wait for sunnier days to try it at home.

These monastic cells date from the earliest christianisation of the British Isles. They are the husk of the seed that produced the Celtic church. Now I discover to my disappointment that the Skellig Michael site, recognised and protected by UNESCO, is being 'improved' in the process of restoration. The 'improvement' has included new building.

Oh dear. And apparently Ryan's Daughter was a remastering of the very powerful original. Is nothing sacred?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Nomen canis olate themselves easily from their dogs...

It seems to be the season of quizzes. I wouldn't like Lydian Airs to be found wanting, so here we go:

What do (or did) Mark Twain, Alexander Pope, Bill Clinton, Christopher Marlowe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lords Byron and Mandelson have in common?

Come on, come on, we haven't got all day.

Here's a clue: Woof woof. (Or if you prefer it in French, goodness knows why, Ouaf ouaf. )

Yes, you've got it. You're brilliant, every one of you.

They all had dogs whose names started with B.

But this is where the real test starts: now match the dog to its owner:

Bosun, Bobby, Bungey, Bimberl, Beelzebub, Buddy, Bounce.

Answers tomorrow, or some other day. No prizes, just immense kudos.

The photo above is of Bellamy's rear end, her front end being preoccupied with a sub-snow mole or mouse. She was the last dog we had. She died at 15½ about 7 years ago. We've been without a dog since, probably the longest period that I've ever gone dog-less.

I think people eventually find 'their' dog, the breed that suits them best , sometimes after some trial and error. I ended up with golden retrievers, despite them being entirely belly-driven, sybaritic and useless as guard dogs.

Bellamy was our second golden retriever. The first was originally called Haida, after a British Columbian water-goddess, or some such thing. She was given to me by a colleague (who had once been BBC Sports Personality of the Year) when this person emigrated. Tastefully or not, we changed her name to Snuff.

I don't know why I'm telling you all this. Here's Bellamy swimming in Lake Trasimene in Tuscany. Or is it Umbria?