Friday, 14 June 2019

The Public

In The Strange Death of Liberal England, Dangerfield observes that:

"'The public', of course, is a brittle expression which, the moment one examines it, offers to break into numberless fragments

I am grateful to him for making this point as, ever since I read it, I have been alert to the use of "the public" and find myself distrusting any document that contains it, as it is an indication that the writer lacks clarity in his or her thinking. 

Therefore, while lots of people I know have been impressed by this piece, for my part, having encountered "the public" being invoked in the very first paragraph, to quote Count Jenő Teleki, (one of Patrick Leigh Fermor's hosts in Between the Woods and the Water), "I ha'e ma doubts" 

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Meals in Books - Flemton Banquet in The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

I read Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes recently. I hope I will get around to writing about it soon. To use a food analogy, since this is a post about food in the book, it was a curate's egg.

Near the beginning of the book, there is a village banquet though, which sounds okay; certainly there is no lack of food, even though some of it - most particularly those jugs of custard - doesn't sound entirely enticing:

"Already ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys, legs and shoulders of mutton, loins of pork, sirloins of beef, sucking-pigs - there was far more provender than the Wreckers ever could have cooked alone, and according to custom it had been farmed out among all the private ovens in the place.

Now, with all these and with huge home-cured hams boiled in cider as well, with pans of sausages, apple-pies, shudderng jellies in purple and yellow, castellated blancmanges, bedroom jugs of congealed Bird's custard, buckets of boiled potatoes, basins of cabbage - every matron of Flemton was gathered in the Wreckers big kitchen and full of jollity"

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Annunciations - National Gallery, London

Perhaps because I am female and have on occasion been surprised to discover that I am to have a baby, I love paintings of the annunciation to the Virgin of Christ's coming arrival and always look for them in any gallery I go to. Recently in London at the National Gallery I spotted two that were new to me:

 This is by the Master of Liesborn, the gallery's caption tells us, active in the second half of the 15th century. It was probably painted somewhere between 1470 and 1480. The caption continues thus: "In a comfortably furnished room, the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear God's son, Jesus Christ. The scene is framed by an arch on which perch the statues of Old Testament prophets. This is one of several scenes of the life of Christ from the Liesborn Altarpiece. (Oil on oak)
For me, the Virgin's expression is a bit uncomplicated in this depiction. However, I love the minute details - the cushions, each with its own design, the patterned flooring, the carved wood of the bench, the stained glass of the window, and the glimpses of the calm world beyond the windows.

This one is by Poussin, painted in 1657. The gallery's wall caption tells us: "The Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that, through the medium of the Holy Spirit, she will bear the son of God. The Holy Spirit, represented as a dove, hovers over Mary as she joyfully accepts the message (Luke i: 26-38) According to the inscription, the work was painted during the pontificate of Pope Alexander VII".

I am resistant to this painting. I dislike the angel. I am intrigued by Mary - although at first I thought she had been portrayed as simply accepting the news gratefully, looking closer I see that it is possible to see awe and some shock in her expression. Her drapery is beautifully painted, as is her hand and her touchingly bare feet. All the same, it will not become one of my favourites. Poussin always leaves me with little impression of his humanity, although no one could argue that he didn't know what he was doing with paint.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Learning Foreign Languages

I wrote a post some time ago about how much I like to learn languages, while never expecting to master any of them - how, in fact, that is part of the pleasure. Like learning a craft, when you try to learn another language, you are embarking on a task - or taking up a hobby - in which your skill cannot ever be entirely perfected. Even in one’s native language, there are unexplored areas, and this is doubly so with a language you set out to learn after acquiring your own. You therefore have a rich source of mental activity ahead of you for as long as you live.

Another pleasurable aspect of language learning, particularly in a time of uncertainty and relativism, is the immutability of much of the material you study. You meet a word you have never seen before and you search a dictionary for its meaning. You find it, and that’s it. You don’t have to argue about whether the word might actually mean something quite different, whether the source of your information is a fake news outlet (although I do admit there is a whole other post to be written about politics and dictionaries - we have a whole shelf of Croatian-English dictionaries, given to us as presents by Croatian diplomats since the break up of Yugoslavia; each volume is  rich with newly discovered vocabulary that differentiates the Croatian language definitively from the Serbian one) or feel any doubts at all about the information before you. This word in this language conveys what you mean in your language when you use that word. Learn this word and you can express that concept, no ifs or ands or buts.

But what I like better than all this about language learning is finding out about tiny, puzzling variations in perspective that are embedded in each nation’s language. Thus, for example, while we English speakers (apart from some Scots), think, when telling the time, about the past - referring back to the hour that has just been when we say “ten past one” or “five thirty”, those who speak Hungarian tell the time with their eyes firmly on the future. Their one fifteen is actually a quarter of the way to two o’clock; their half past five, becomes half the way to six.

Of course, having said I like the fixed certainties involved in  learning another language, I’m now contradicting myself, since what I love about this aspect of the activity is its mysterious quality. How are one’s attitudes affected by such tiny variations in the way we think about time and other elements of existence? Are we all seeing the same world, regardless of the language that we speak?

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

A Columnist's Farewell

Sorting through some papers the other day, I found the final regular column Susie Boyt wrote for the Financial Times, in which as a farewell gesture she endeavoured to provide a list of life-truths, if that is the right word, (or right hyphenated term).

I remember that I kept a copy of the column because I felt sad that she was quitting. As it happens, I think that she has come back, writing the column on an occasional basis, but at the time it seemed we were seeing the last of her whimsical imagination, and I felt sad. My sadness led me to go out and buy a novel she had written - with the idea of filling the gap left by the missing column - and, as a result, I  discovered, disappointingly, that Boyt's talent is bettered suited to being a columnist than a novelist. Never mind. Although my respect for her was slightly diminished by that experience, Boyt still seems to me to be a spirit that one wants to be fond of rather than not.

Certainly, in the set of life truths she supplied in that, as it turned out, not quite final FT column, there are many things that I agree with and others that at least provoke a bit of thought.

Here is the list, without any comment from me on which are, to my mind the most endearing or the most intriguing points she makes:

Things that are hard have more of life at their heart than things that are easy.

The future must prove better and happier than the past.

All feelings, however painful, are to be prized.

Glamour is a moral stance.

Loss, its memory and its anticipation, lies at the heart of the human experience.

If you have a thin skin all aspects of life cost more and have more value.

The world is crueller and more wonderful than anyone ever says.

You must try to prepare and be ready for the moment that you're needed, for the call could come at any time.

There are worse things in life than being taken for a ride.

Grief is no real match for the human heart, which is an infinitely resourceful organ (she adds - I really hope that one is true)

I am grateful to Susie Boyt for this list and for the pleasure her columns have given me

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A Mirror Written Cake

Yesterday we went over the river and up the hill to Budapest's Castle District to look at an exhibition of photographs we'd seen a poster for. The exhibition displays part of a project called Fortepan.

Fortepan is a vast archive of photographs that started as a collection made by Miklos Tamasi and Akos Szepessy, two friends, who from the 1990s onwards bought discarded pictures in jumble sales and gathered them up from the street throw-outs that happen in each Budapest district twice a year. When they put what they had online in 2010, other people joined in, adding their own photographs. The archive is enormous and fascinating and you can find it here.

The exhibition from the archive is beautifully curated so, if you are in Budapest, I recommend going to see it - it is on until 25 August. Even though all the photographs on display can be found on-line, the way they are presented in the exhibition adds resonance and depth to the experience of looking at them. Having forked out an absurdly large sum of money recently to see the exhibition of Martin Parr's pictures at London's National Portrait Gallery, I was struck by how this haunting collection of amateur snaps manages to ask many of the questions he asks with his photography and to highlight many of his themes, but without what I felt was his slight arrogance and mild contempt for humanity. Because of the mixed fortunes of the Hungarian nation during the last century or so, the pictures also tell a very remarkable and poignant story, showing hardship and resilience and a lot of sadness.

There were two particularly striking sections of the exhibition that it would be especially hard to replicate by looking through the digital archive. I will therefore try to give an idea of them here.

The first was a set of displays called something like Twin Pictures (that wasn't exactly its name, but I can't recall the precise title). In this section, you saw a photograph that appeared to be hanging by itself on the wall, but you then realised there was a small handle in the middle of the bottom of the photograph's frame. When you lifted this, you discovered the photograph you'd been looking at was actually mounted on a hinged board. When you raised the board, another photograph of the same subject but taken at a different moment was revealed hanging underneath.

Some of the twinned pictures were dreadful, highlighting the effects of war and revolution:

This one, for instance, shows the Castle District seen from a balcony, probably on the lower slopes of the Gellert Hill, in 1943.

This one shows the same scene from the same vantage point in 1946. Incidentally, both are from the collection of Carl Lutz, who was Swiss vice consul to Hungary during the Second World War and saved tens of thousands of people's lives, an extraordinary and very courageous man, who thought nothing of plunging into the icy Danube to rescue someone the Arrow Cross were trying to murder and then - still drenched, in freezing weather and soaked clothes - taking on the German authorities who were allowing the attempted murder to take place. You don't meet many like him on the ordinary diplomatic circuit

This picture shows Kossuth Lajos street in 1954, during a May Day parade:

This shows the same scene during the 1956 uprising. Both can be found in much more vivid detail at the Fortepan site. Search for the first by entering the number 129449; for the second, enter 129465.

More cheerful was this pair, in the background of which you can see the building where the Fortepan exhibition is being held:

In this sequence, I though there was something very touching about the character of the person in both photographs: in the second we see she has grown up but has not lost a certain innocent openness in the process:

The other section that I thought had been brilliantly conceived by the curators was one in which they chose to display the letters they had received from members of the public who had come upon a picture they recognised in the archive. The letters are very touching; their writers are so thrilled to have a little glimpse back into their past and to see people they were fond of who are no longer around.

In response to this next picture, someone wrote to the archive: "Fortepan is a wonderful thing.  I suddenly came across the old family shop with our old family home. It was my great-grandmother Mrs Izso Gotzler (Debora Neumann) who founded the corsetry shop in Ujpest. After the war her daughter took over the business, because Debora never returned from Auschwitz. By the time I was born, the shop had closed and Manyoka (Margit) had gone into retirement: there were few memories of the house. Then I happened to open the Fortepan site and there was the shop wth Manyoka on the signboard."

Imagine having to write about a relative, "Debora never returned from Auschwitz". 

In response to this picture, another person wrote: "The smiling face of our father, who died 25 years ago, can be seen in some of the pictures. He is one of the goalkeepers and can be seen squatting in the middle of this shot. The picture must have been taken in the late 1960s or early 1970s at the playing field belonging to the Motorcycle and Machine Factory on Fehervari Street. I was born in 1970 and I have a clear but fleeting memory of my father waving at me from behind the fence."

This one similarly brought back a lost relative for someone: "I discovered my grandmother in a 1959 photograph on your website. Sadly, she passed away in 2010, and I was over the moon to see her again in this way. I've been living abroad for a long time and so this is a true delight for me."

This, meanwhile, brought back a memory of a schoolfriend: "The picture of schoolchildren on bicycles was made around 1960 in Ujpest. A group of schoolchildren were taking part in a road traffic course. Perhaps this explains the new bicycles. I discovered in the middle of the picture Otto Lecz, a dear classmate of mine from high school. Sadly he passed away some years ago. We both attended the prestigious Konyves Kalman High School between 1960 and 1964. To the archive's creators, best wishes for 2018 from Mexico, where I have been living for 45 years."

I have always wondered why we take photographs, what the point is of trying to capture moments that we are not experiencing because we are taking photographs to try to capture them. However, confronted with these photographs, en masse, I have begun to wonder about my reservations. Looking at the pictures in this enormous collection, time and human life take on a slightly different aspect. Although the individual photographs often seem insignificant, (except, as is obvious from the letters above, to those for whom they have a special meaning), seen as a group they acquire a mysterious resonance. In some strange way, they seem to be collectively expressing something about time. What exactly that something is, I'm not sure; what I am certain of though is that the Fortepan site is one of the best ways I've found in years of consuming hours and hours.

(I should explain that the title of this post refers to my mind's insistence on thinking of Fortepan as Panforte, which is, of course, a Sienese cake)

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Night Thoughts

The things I've been fretting about when I wake at three in the morning:

Death, of course, that goes without saying

Pride - can it be true that there have been marches in favour of pride going on for years, and I've never noticed? Why the abbreviation from Gay Pride? Can celebrating pride, pure and simple, without adjectival distinction, ever be anything but, at least smug and at worst callous?

Whether a society in which a young man can grow up thinking it is reasonable to try to punish someone he believes has sold him the wrong goods by throwing sulphuric acid at him is redeemable - especially when that young man, having allowed that acid to burn someone totally unconnected with him, does nothing and, when that same person dies and he is sentenced for her manslaughter, his reaction contains no discernible trace of empathy

Why interesting films it might be worth leaving the house to watch now seem so rare.

Whether, on narrow pavements, those of us who walk very fast should feel that those who walk slowly should hurry up, or whether we should instead be grateful for the opportunity to slow down (I do remember a relative asking me, "Why do you walk so unnecessarily fast?")

Whether dust is really god's way of protecting the furniture or whether perhaps I am just deluding myself.

Whether peonies - bought as tight buds at the local market but over the last few days opening bit by bit - are the prettiest flowers of all:

Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Limitations of Logic

We live in a flat that can only be reached by climbing ninety-six stairs. This means that it is difficult for many of our friends to visit us - they are too old to manage the climb, or, due to accident or illness, too weak in lung or limb.

I have a very good logical solution to this, which would mean they could visit easily. My solution is to employ some strong young men - they could be attractive too, if this would be helpful - to carry frail guests up the staircase. There is no shortage of hail and hearty males available - they happily run up and down the stairs with new fridges and bits of furniture when we buy them. The availability of the means of transport is not a problem at all.

But somehow, even though this is a rational, logical solution to a problem, it will not do. Illogical though it most definitely is, I know no one who is prepared to be carried anywhere, upstairs, downstairs or along flat ground. There is a loss of dignity involved that makes it better simply to refuse to attempt the ascent to flats on high floors if the only means of transport is a fireman's lift. I understand this although I cannot explain it in rational terms.

Similarly, the way I reacted the other day to what was, logically, a perfect question for starting a conversation, defied good sense.  It was at a social gathering to which I'd been invited as my husband's wife - that is to say, it was his achievements that had resulted in our attendance, not my own, meagre as they are.

At this event, a very high-powered woman involved in Washington politics found herself stuck next to me and decided to try to make conversation. After exchanging names and our reasons for being at the party, she sallied forth boldly with the question, "What are your interests?"

Again, just as logic dictates that hiring men to carry my more infirm guests upstairs makes sense, the clever woman's question was, logically, excellent. If you want to get to know someone, it's obvious - ask them about themselves, ask them for the information you need. It's a straightforward approach. It seems so reasonable - the data is lacking, so ask for it.

Yet it isn't, because, once again, it turns out that human beings are not always straightforward - at least I'm not. The very idea of being put on the spot and asked, bluntly, to talk about myself, appalled me. Leaving aside the fact that I was told repeatedly throughout my childhood never to be pushy,  on what basis would I reveal myself to a stranger? When you meet people, in my reality at least, you need to meander about conversationally, talking about neutral things, until you have established that your perspectives are vaguely similar and you can more or less trust each other enough to discuss the important things in life. Until I'm sure of the temperament of an interlocutor, my aim is to deflect personal questions - and not only out of an instinct for self-preservation, but also from a desire not to come across as a self-obsessed bore.

Mind you, in my case my interests are so abnormal that my reaction is actually probably not really all that illogical anyway, when you come down to it. I realised this when, too shocked to think of an alternative strategy, I endeavoured to answer the Washington woman honestly. I heard myself saying, "Handspinning alpaca wool, making patchworks out of my husband's old shirts, listening to The Archers", and I saw her eyes glaze with boredom (or was it horror?) at almost the speed of light.  And I hadn't even got on to the comparative grammar systems of Slavic, Romance and Finno-Ugric languages or the merits of Gregg shorthand in comparison to Pitman's, the mysterious quality of the paintings of the Northern Primitives and the difficulty of choosing between van Eyk and van der Weyden, the wonders of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and ...

Conversation, I realised at that moment, needs to proceed irrationally, each participant a diver in deep, dark water, groping for handholds in the uncertain gloom. Hurling a sensible question into the mix has the effect of a harpoon plunging into a rockpool, sending everyone scuttling back into their respective crevices and holes.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Modern Manners

Planning to make a stock, I ask for chicken carcasses at the butcher’s counter in a Bristol supermarket. “We aren’t allowed to sell bones”, they tell me, “you’ll need a butcher’s shop for that.”

I could ask who made this new mad rule and why it was agreed to, but instead I ask if there is a butcher’s shop nearby. They don’t know, and so I plunge out of the place, so fed up with this new pointless complication that I don’t notice that I’m leaving by a different doorway from the one by which I entered.

I find myself on a street full of marvellous sandstone buildings and wonder, as I always do when I see streets like this in Bristol, (and there are plenty): how to reconcile the loveliness of much of Bristol’s architecture with the fact that much of it was probably paid for out of money made through the ownership of slaves. And from there, as usual, my mind passes to the question of how people could even for a moment think it was okay to “own” other human beings - couldn’t they still have made money by offering people work in another country, paying them reasonably there and not behaving monstrously? Profits still could have been made, surely, but not at the awful expense of others?

Impossible questions - and no sign of a butcher’s shop. So I approach a young woman who is placing a folding chalkboard on the pavement.

“Sorry to bother you” I say, “but could you tell me if there’s a butcher’s shop nearby?”

Her expression changes from wary friendliness to what appears to be a mixture of shock and anger. I am taken aback when she turns and walks off, leaving me alone with her billboard.

Which reads, I now notice, “Vegan food, this way”.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Battered Penguins - Cork on the Water by Macdonald Hastings

Visiting Petworth House last month, I found a box of books for sale for almost nothing. Most of them were worth less than nothing but there were four clad in the old green and white Penguin covers that designated mystery novels once upon a time. They were all by Macdonald Hastings who, according to the back covers of the books, was one of the founders of Country Life magazine and, at the time the books were published, married to Anne Scott-James, who was a familiar voice on radio in my childhood. He also, I later learned, was the father of Max Hastings, journalist, historian and hater of  Boris Johnson

This week I read the first of the four and enjoyed it very much. The Cork of the title is Montague Cork, general manager of the Anchor Accident Insurance Company in the City of London. Clearly, the phenomenon of insurance men investigating incidents that their companies might have to cough up for was well accepted in the early to mid twentieth century, as Ronald Knox also established a series of novels with a main character, Miles Bredon, who works for the Indescribable Insurance company as an investigator targeting fraud.

Unlike Bredon, who is an investigator first and foremost, Mr Cork is new to investigating and is more usually to be found in his office. However, his instinct, something that he believes is "the secret ... of such success that he had had, the success that the company had had", tells him that there is something odd about a particular claim and, as he explains to another character, although the amount involved is a drop in the ocean for his company, for the sake of integrity - "This great City of London you're in now has become what it is for many reasons, but the first of them is honest dealing. That is what we are so anxious to preserve." - he sets out to discover more. This leads to Richard Hannayesque adventures in Scotland and eventual resolution, followed by a treatise on salmon, for good measure.

If you enjoy wonderfully old-fashioned attitudes, good writing - I liked, for example: 1. the way a villain's change of expression is described thus: "the smile slowly smeared over his face again"; 2. the conjuring up of a certain kind of Highland hotel interior decoration, probably now extinct: "He opened the door and looked out into the hall, lined with stags' antlers, coloured fishing prints, and a collection of unspeakable brass pots arranged on carved teak furniture which Mr Mackenzie, or Mr Mackenzie's father, had brought back with him from India years before"; and 3. this description of landscape: "In the grey light of early morning, the flooded burns glittered like burnished copper. The fronds of bracken, lining the banks, were sticky and heavy with rain. The peat hags were swollen like leeches with blood-red water. The storm, drawing all the bright colours out of the hills, had washed the landscape till it was all drab sepias, live greens and the reds of rotting vegetation. The silver birches, fighting for a living among the outcrop rock, bent and creaked in the wind like rows of dead men on a gibbet" - then Cork on the Water may be for you. 

Although essentially a light read, the story does raise questions about vengeance and is also interesting on the effects of war on those who live through it. As Mr Cork points out to Robert, his young associate, the villain of the piece, Gabriel Daggers, has been produced by the experience of war. "Daggers, like you too, Robert, was one of the products of a world war", he tells Robert, adding, "In you, war confirmed your good qualities. In Daggers, it had the opposite effect. He found out that he was more courageous, more ruthless, more cunning in battle than the men around him. He rejoiced in the dangers of war and the lawlessness of it."

The book is also extremely vivid when it comes to accounts of fishing, demonstrating that the sport is not a dull one, even if, to an observer watching fishermen waiting patiently on a river bank, it may appear to be. As Mr Cork observes, "If I didn't get excited, I wouldn't come fishing". Reading Hastings's descriptions of the struggle between man and hooked fish, I couldn't help wondering, as I often have, why it is that so much fuss is made about fox hunting, but the suffering of fish at the hands of sportsmen seems to affect the tender-hearted much less severely. My theory is that it is because fish don't bleed.

Hastings conjures up a number of believable, if slightly caricatured, figures to people his tale. My favourite in many ways is the person with whom the book begins and ends, Lt-Col. Adrian de Crecy Johnson (Rtd). It is he who provides the book's Appendix, which contains a great deal of information about salmon and is delivered with hilarious bombast. "It is characteristic of the cult of the mediocre, which is such a regrettable feature of our times...", he insists, before going into some specifics about the study of fish scales. What I found particularly appealing in this section was the Lt-Col's characterisation of cabillaud, the damp, dull fish that seemed to be ubiquitous on the dinner tables of Belgium when I lived there.  Cabillaud, or cod is, he declares "almost inedible." I wholeheartedly agree.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

We All Lack All Conviction

Observing the events in the House of Commons over the past week or so, I find it hard to believe that anyone will vote for any party in any British election with anything approaching conviction any more.

While thinking about this, I came across an interesting review of Faber's reissue of The Selected Poetry of Christopher Logue. The piece contained this poem by Logue; it amused me; it also made me wonder whether such a poem could be written now. Nothing is straightforward any more, not politics, especially party politics, not humour - and least of all humour when mixed with politics.

I Shall Vote Labour 
I shall vote Labour because
God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour to protect
the sacred institution of The Family.
I shall vote Labour because
I am a dog.
I shall vote Labour because
upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because
I am on a diet.
I shall vote Labour because if I don’t
somebody else will:
I shall vote Labour because if one person does it
everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because
there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because I am
a hopeless drug addict.
I shall vote Labour because
I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because Labour will build
more maximum security prisons.
I shall vote Labour because I want to shop
in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.
I shall vote Labour because
the Queen’s stamp collection is the best in the world.
I shall vote Labour because
deep in my heart
I am a Conservative.

If you want to read more about Logue and be quite amused, this article is not a bad place to start. "I'll crush you with my Daimler" indeed.

Funny Things

Here are a couple of things that have amused me this week.

I don't know whether to believe all the items included in the first, although I want to:

As a long time intermittent listener to BBC Radio 4's The Archers - (each episode occupies just the correct amount of time in which to do the washing up and requires just exactly the amount of attention - practically none - I want to give to it, while also thinking, or half-thinking about other things) - I don't think there has ever been a moment when I wouldn't have found it perfectly acceptable to hear that the entire cast of the show had been hurled down a disused mineshaft, especially if the child character of Henry had been the first one to go:
Which is not to say I dislike the programme. Or rather, I do dislike it, but it is familiar and the strange thing is that the familiar can often be almost as pleasant as something one actively loves, (is that Stockholm syndrome?) Furthermore, a great advantage of The Archers is that, if all else fails and you hit a conversational brick wall, provided the other person you are talking to also listens to the programme, you will always have that to share.

Provided they don't like Henry.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Battered Penguins - The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

Although I’ve known about Daphne du Maurier all my life, until I found two of her novels in a secondhand bookshop in Hawes, North Yorkshire, a few weeks back I had not read anything by her.

The two novels I found in Hawes were My Cousin Rachel, which was the first one I tried. In it, I admired above all the opening page, plus: 1. du Maurier’s descriptions of Cornish landscape; and 2. the ingenious way in which the first and last lines of the book are absolutely exactly the same - that is one of the cleverest tricks I've ever seen in a novel.

All the same, for my taste the plot was too melodramatic and things became a bit repetitive - did she/didn't she, was she/wasn't she?  Page followed page and this dilemma kept being reiterated. In the end I got fed up. The drive to know what was going to happen won out over my enjoyment of the journey, and I flicked on through the pages to the end of the book and the plot resolution that I found there. I have to admit that I am a very impatient reader and in the end, despite du Maurier's best efforts, I got rather bored. Mea culpa.

The Scapegoat suited me much better. For a start the situation was a much more interesting one - rather than a reworking of the myth of the woman devil/angel, this book concerns the story of two men of identical appearance who meet by chance and swap lives with each other. To make this appear not only believable but entirely feasible is no easy task but du Maurier manages it brilliantly. She also displays much greater inventiveness than she does in My Cousin Rachel, as in The Scapegoat she creates not only a whole array of vivid characters but an entire world, in a setting that was not, as My Cousin Rachel's setting was, intimately familiar to her.  The plot also is a great deal more complex than that of My Cousin Rachel. It contains not just one but a number of different threads that each need resolution. I was gripped by the story for almost all of the novel, and I came away with huge admiration for du Maurier's imaginative powers and storytelling gift - both traits that I think may be underestimated at the moment and possibly a bit out of fashion in the world of literary fiction.

Of course, some might say that du Maurier's work is not literary fiction, but she writes so well, with such a grasp of language and such excellent descriptive ability that I don't think it would be fair to class her with writers of hackneyed potboilers just because she sets out to be entertaining. I think she deserves enormous respect for the rare skill she has for conjuring whole imaginary casts of people and grounding them in believable, vividly portrayed places that she has entirely made up.

When I said that the two lookalikes swap lives with each other, I should have explained that, in fact, one is forced into this by the other, who leaves him no choice. Having got extremely drunk with his French doppelganger, Jean, English John wakes up in the morning to find the Frenchman has scarpered, taking all his belongings. People appear in the hotel room where he has been sleeping and they all expect John to be their Jean. Before he knows it John has been forced into the position of taking over the other man's life.

This other man turns out to be a count, head of what is, at the time John comes into the role,  a dysfunctional family. Over the course of the following days, plodding English John uses his native commonsense and decency to set all to rights and by the end of the novel, thanks to him, everyone in the chateau is on the path to peace and happiness. What happens next I cannot tell without giving the plot away.

I suppose if one wanted to see it, there might be a Brexit parallel to be found in all this, or at least a comforting impression that solid old England, represented by John, could sort out Johnny foreigner’s mess. While the political situation right now appears to be pretty much a mirror image of this situation, England in a shambles and Johnny foreigner triumphant, the salient point (she said desperately) is the mirror element. Mirror images are at the heart of the book and things are not always what they seem on the surface. As the introduction to my edition points out, in her examination of what happens when two beings who are outwardly identical swap places, “what du Maurier does so brilliantly is to shows us that identity (mistaken or not) is largely based on what others want or expect of us, what they project on us”. If only the EU understood that they should have wanted dear old Blighty to run the show, everything would have been all right.

Shut up, Zoe, no one wants to think about Brexit - and, indeed, it was to escape the whole subject that you picked up these novels in the first place.

I should add that, despite my initial assertion that this book is very different from My Cousin Rachel, like that book it is concerned with the possibility of duality in a central character. That is to say, just as the reader is never certain whether Rachel is a much maligned person or unspeakably wicked, so in John and Jean, we can, if we wish see a devil and a saint. However, du Maurier's tale in the end suggests that each individual contains both possibilities and even when someone's motives are devilish - as Jean's may be, in tricking John into taking over his life - the results can be entirely for the good - in this case, the effect is that John learns how to love. When he realises that this has happened, John asks another character,"What do I do with love?" The answer he receives is, for my money, the best line in the book:  "You give it away."

I think it is all too easy to dismiss du Maurier because she produced plot-driven novels and did not give a great deal of attention, so far as I can see, to style (I'm not suggesting her writing is bad, just that, for her, style is not the central thing). On the evidence of these books, it seems to me that she was a born storyteller with a rare gift for creating in the reader’s mind vivid imaginary worlds, crowded with apparently real people. That is a great deal harder than it looks and for du Maurier I have nothing but respect and admiration.

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Complex Business of Kindness II

The talk given in Budapest  at the Matthias Corvinus Collegium conference on migration by Fr. John Bogna Bakeni – Secretary General of the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, Nigeria and Rev. Fr. Christopher Bologo – Chancellor of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Nigeria was impossible to transcribe, as they referred constantly to supporting slides; a verbatim transcription makes little sense without the slides to accompany it. However, the salient facts they provided are worth reiterating here, partly because they are important and partly because they are little reported.

After detailing the horrors experienced by one of their flock in his failed attempt to reach Europe, (stumbling across skeletons of others who had not made it, as he made his way through deserts, being tortured in order to make him extort further sums of money from his family in Nigeria, who had already paid thousands of euros to smugglers), the priests explained that the population of Nigeria, according to the Brookings Institute, is 180 million and of that number half are deemed to live in extreme poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa more generally, they told the conference,  there are 10 million displaced people, which one of them pointed out is not a number that could be absorbed by Europe, should they all decide to come our way. Even leaving that small issue aside, the two priests continued, the countries of Africa cannot afford to lose their young to Europe, however helpful it may be for us to use them to perform work that no one else wants to do. 

The priests went on to describe how the problems of Africa are the result of a collapse of democracy, leading to failed states and a lack of proper - or, indeed, any - governmental structures. In their view, what is needed from the west is help from the bottom up - education, (literacy promotion et cetera) - and at a structural level, assistance in building proper government practices and democratic frameworks - plus investment to create jobs 

This last suggestion is all very well, but, judging by some of the illustrations shown at the conference, not to mention other things I’ve read, some western oil businesses have been more than happy to operate in a country where government is not at its best, as it is precisely the lack of oversight (and probably the corruption that is so often present in bad governments) that has allowed them to do terrible things to the environment in Nigeria, not to mention exploit their workers revoltingly. Similarly, the cobalt industry in the Congo provides jobs, but not jobs that allow workers any kind of safety, let alone dignity - or even decent earnings. Therefore doing everything possible to create good governance seems the first priority. Sadly there may be no time left, of course, as in many places the Chinese are turning up to offer their own investment, which is unlikely to offer the kind of governance that I would call good.

But, turning from sub Saharan Africa in general, the two priests explained how particularly dire the situation is now in northern Nigeria, for Christians in particular (although not exclusively Christians, they explained, as Boko Haram kill Muslims as well as Christians, when it suits them). 

Northern Nigeria is now 75% Muslim. The 25% of the population who are Christian are barred from participating in many areas of activity, including studying medicine or engineering or taking government office, we were told. Most appallingly though, Christians in that part of the country are being murdered in large numbers. The priests cited the year 2014 as an example. In that year, out of every 100 Christians murdered in the world, 64 of them were murdered in Northern Nigeria. And the numbers are large -  between 2006 and 2017, 20,500 Christians were murdered in this one part of Africa - and 1.1 million Christians were displaced from the region. 

Furthermore, in the last few weeks an estimated 280 Christians have been murdered by radical Muslim herdsmen in northern Nigeria. This is a story that gets very little coverage in the western press, which is why I felt it important to record here what the two priests told the conference. The lack of coverage seems particularly worrying as it seems to suggest that we hold the peoples of other countries to lower standards than we hold ourselves. Surely the murder of so many innocent Africans merits at least the same measure of outrage as that expressed in the aftermath of the murder of innocent New Zealanders.

While the talk given by the two Nigerian priests left me with nothing but concern and very little hope, I was glad that the issue was discussed and that I was given the opportunity to become a little better informed about what is going on in this underreported area of the planet. Without serious assistance from the international community, I doubt anything will be resolved, and I fear the bloodshed will continue in northern Nigeria. This is not right and I cannot understand what the United Nations thinks it is doing - or not doing. So much money is poured into that organisation, but it seems unable to do much to improve the lives of people living in the more violent areas of the world. 

Thursday, 28 March 2019

The Complex Business of Kindness

Over the weekend, I went to a conference on immigration, organised here in Budapest by the Matthias Corvinus Collegium. The organisers of the conference had brought together an enormous number of interesting speakers, and I found much of what I listened to extremely thought provoking.

While, at first glance, it seems obvious to anyone who professes to be a Christian that the people streaming into Europe from the various hellholes of the world deserve our sympathy and generosity, I realised, over the course of a number of talks, that, as so often, things are much more complex than at first they seem and that, when we think we are doing good by others, we are often creating dreadful situations and aiding and abetting appalling people to ply a ghastly trade.

I recorded a few talks and, as there does not yet seem to be any sign of the video-ed conference proceedings appearing on the Matthias Corvinus Collegium website, I have decided to transcribe what I have, so that other people can share in some of what was said.

In today's post, I am putting my transcription - (probably including several inaccurate place names and names of tribes, as the speaker dealt in territory that was very unfamiliar to me) - of a talk by Dr Saul Kelly, who is a Reader in the Defence Studies Department of King's College, London.

In his talk, Dr Kelly explained how the new migrant flow that is arriving in Europe from Africa is in many ways a replication of the slave trading that Europe made such intense efforts to end in the nineteenth century. After considering the thesis that Dr Kelly advances, it is hard to look at the refugee influx to Europe from the simplistic perspective of thinking that all should be allowed in as that is the only decent thing to do.

Even before listening to Dr Kelly, I must admit that I had begun to feel concerned about whether we were doing the right thing by not enforcing our borders strictly. Various incidents had led me to wonder about this. The most recent was a couple of weeks ago, in a Vietnamese restaurant in Kinsgland Road, London, when I noticed a young person being horribly bullied by the boss of the restaurant. When the boss wasn't looking, I asked the person being bullied where they came from and they answered, "Eritrea". They spoke very little English and seemed very frightened and I wondered whether, by not being stricter about stopping illegal migration, we may not in fact be encouraging people to misguidedly make dangerous journeys away from everything and everyone they know, only to find, if they survive the journey, that, unskilled and unable to speak the local language well, they must endure terrible circumstances in the new home they have sought.

Anyway here is my transcription of the talk that Dr Kelly gave. Its content only increased my fears about the whole complicated business, which I believe really is one of the major questions facing us today. If it is too long, at least take a look at the parts I have highlighted in bold; I think they get across to the reader the major concerns that he raises:

"In the autumn of 2004, I was on an expedition to the Gil Kabeer (?)  in the extreme southwest of Egypt, hard up against the borders of Sudan and Libya. We were looking for new rock-art sites, but we were also on the trail of a rather famous Hungarian explorer, who some of you may have heard of - Lászlo Almássy, who in 1942 took a German commando expedition across the Libyan desert to the Nile, to deliver a couple of spies on behalf of Rommel, from behind British lines.

During the course of our hunt for rock-art and Almássy, we came across a shallow, unmarked grave on the edge of a WWII air strip. We wanted to know who the person was who was buried in such an isolated spot, far from habitation. We talked to our Bedouin guides about this and we were told, with a shrug of the shoulders, that it was probably someone from the south – from Eritrea or Somalia – someone who didn't make it to the Mediterranean coast across the great wastes of the Libyan desert.

Fifteen years ago, when I was on this expedition, the Libyans were still patrolling their frontiers with Egypt and the Sudan, looking for these elicit caravans run by people smugglers across the Libyan desert, as I discovered when we were stopped in Sudanese territory by a Libyan patrol – because the Sudanese government, as I learnt later from their director of desert surveys, was not aware at this time that migrant smugglers were using this route through what was the northwest corner of Sudan into Egypt and Libya. And the Egyptian army were reluctant to leave their comfortable billet in the western oases in Egypt to actually patrol the tri-border area around Jabal Uweinat. This is classic bandit country, where there is no rule of law, except through the barrel of a gun. This is where smugglers coming from the Sudan rest up and hide out on their way north to the Mediterranean shore, skirting great sand seas on their way. 

Their elicit task of people smuggling was made much easier in 2011 with the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. After that event, the Libyans gave up all pretence of policing their borders. The consequence was an unimpeded flow of migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, into Libya. And this has been mirrored by a more westerly stream of migrants coming up from West Africa, mainly Nigeria, through the Fezzan, which is the south western province of Libya, on their way to the Mediterranean.

So what we have been witnessing in recent years is the mass migration of people from failed or failing states to Europe. This is aided and abetted by criminal syndicates, expatriate networks, corrupt officials, militias and tribal leaders, who all benefit financially from this trade in people – and in fact the Libyans call them abid, which means slave.

For, make no mistake, we are looking at a revival of the slave trade, something we thought had been finally put down by the European powers in North Africa a century ago. Then it was the Ottoman empire that had an insatiable appetite for African slaves; now it is the European Union, whose leaders seek a new workforce to support and replace its ageing population.  It is one of the great ironies of history that the western liberal conscience that drove the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade should now not only condone but positively encourage the revival of that trade, as I shall detail in this paper.

So what is the problem? We need to identify it, and I think some comparative statistics are useful here. At a conservative estimate it is calculated that between the seventh and the 20th centuries about six to seven million African slaves - men, women and children - were delivered alive across the Sahara to North Africa. This amounts to an average annual rate of some 5,000 people, of whom about 1,500 to 1,700 were taken to Egypt or shipped across the Mediterranean, the rest becoming domestic slaves in North Africa, which of course was under the Ottoman Empire at this time.

Compare those statistics to some from the International Organisation for Migration which says that, between 2014 and 2018, 600,000 migrants landed in Italy, 90 per cent of them coming from the Libyan shore, only six per cent from Egypt. As we know, there were also some 3,000 recorded deaths on the central Mediterranean route during this time.In a nine-month period, from January to September 2015, a quarter of the 128,619 people recorded by Frontex, the EU border agency, as having landed in Italy were identified as being from Eritrea. They amounted to more than 30,000 Eritreans - and their numbers were more than double those of the second largest national group, those from Nigeria. This is remarkable, given that Eritreans represent only some four per cent of the region's population.

So why is this exodus from this small state on the Red Sea happening? Well, to put it in a neat phrase, it is due to young Eritreans dodging the draft. In a desperate attempt to deal with a deteriorating internal security situation in Eritrea,the regime in Asmara has sought to dragoon more young people into the armed forces, and many of them have voted with their feet and fled Eritrea to Europe. They have been helped by organised crime groups, whose kingpins are based in Sudan, Libya and Italy, and, before 2013, by a consortium of Rashidi (?) smugglers operating across the border between Sudan and Eritrea, along with, later on, Egyptian Bedouin gangs, colluding with Eritrean kingpin gang masters to smuggle tens of thousands of migrants along the arms-smuggling route to the north of Sinai and the borders of Israel. This was only stopped in 2013 when the Israelis built a 330-kilometre long security fence along the frontier with Egypt. Once this Sinai route had been cut off, the smugglers focused on the Libyan route, and there was put in place a network of transporters, financial facilitators and warehouses, like the old slave barracoons on the West African coast, existing essentially to serve this trade route in people.

In 2015 the majority of Eritreans were smuggled in vehicles through the Sudan to Libya, via the triborder area around Jabal Uweinat. They avoid Kufra, across the border in Libya, and this is because the Toubou and Zawiya tribes are fighting each other. These traditional enemies and rivals having gone to war over the revival of the slave trade and who can make the most money out of it.

So the smugglers make for the Tazirbu oasis which is north of Kufra on the track to Ajdabiya, which is country controlled by the Mugaba (?) tribe. From Ajdabiya, the Eritreans are conveyed north westwards to the Tripolitanean coast, from whence the lucky ones are dispatched by boat across the central Mediterranean to Italy. I say "the lucky ones" not because I think them lucky, but because the less fortunate suffer a worse fate, being incarcerated in makeshift warehouses or detention camps along the Tripolitanean coast.

At every point along this journey, these migrants are subject to depradations from smugglers and tribal militias, who proceed to extort more money from them. There have been plenty of horror stories of kidnap, rape and even abandonment of migrants in the desert, where they die of starvation and thirst. There have also been stories of ISIS militants, when they were based at Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, actually ambushing migrant convoys, separating Muslims from Christians and executing the latter. There have been reports - and some other speakers here have referred to this - of slave auctions being held in the large detention camps, called barracoons in Libya, near the coast. And the escalation of the conflict between the various militias from 2014, combined with a significant increase in the number of migrants coming through Libya, meant that the latter became a commodity that fuelled the war, further pulling apart the Libyan state, such as it is. 

 In effect, what we have witnessed in Libya is a revival of the old Saharan slave trade - and along some of the same routes. It is worth remembering that in the latter half of the nineteenth century it was the European powers that put pressure on the Ottoman empire to abolish the slave trade, and it was French expansion in the Sahara that forced the trade onto the Wadi(?)-Kufra-Benghazi route, which, under the supervision of the Sanusi(?) brotherhood and the deputations of the Zawiya tribe, was remote from prying European eyes. This is basically the route taken by slave traders today, and some of the very same tribes that were involved with the original slave trade are involved with today's trade - and are profiting from it. 

What is to be done to abolish this miserable trade, which threatens not only the countries of origin by robbing them of their young; but the transit countries, where it contributes to the breakdown of law and order; and the countries of destination in Europe, where it puts great strain on society? If some “experts” and Jean Claude Juncker are to be believed, the answer to illegal migration lies in legalising it. According to this line of argument, this will benefit both Europe, meeting labour shortages, and Africa, through the remittances being sent back to the countries of origin. The UN has given this approach their imprimatur in their Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regulated Migration, which was adopted at their Marrakech conference in December 2018. It is worth noting that the European Commission's attempt to have this approach written into the communique at the recent EU-Arab League summit in Sharm-el Sheikh was thwarted by Hungary. The latter does not accept the EU's position that migration is unavoidable because of the situation on the African continent.

And indeed, the EU, in this instance, seems to be contradicting the logic of its own emergency trust fund for Africa, which is intended to fight the root causes of irregular migration. Through large grants of money, the fund seeks to improve the situation in the countries of origin, so that people do not feel the need to migrate. But the EU has put equal emphasis on - and money into - stopping migrants along the way in Niger, Mali, Senegal, Libya and Ethiopia as into preventing their leaving the top countries of origin - namely Nigeria, Eritrea and Somalia - in the first place. While such aid can, according to the OECD, prevent an increase in the proportion of people who emigrate and possibly reduce numbers, this will only occur in the long-term; in the short-term, by slightly raising living standards, the aid can actually encourage migration, by making it affordable.

So what we can see here is that the EU has got itself into an awful tangle over migration and seeks an easy and defeatist way out. In doing so, it is effectively seeking to legitimise an abhorrent trade for its own perceived economic and social needs. But it is not consulting the people of Europe and of Africa on this, even though it is a matter that will affect their lives and the lives of later generations. This demonstrates a moral bankruptcy and an abdication of responsibility towards the peoples of two continents.

 The answer to migration does not lie in Europe; it lies in the countries of origin. By allowing corrupt regimes to survive - and even prosper - the EU and the UN have simply compounded the problem of state failure, a chief by-product of which is migration. Until the EU and the UN face up to their responsibilities in countries like Eritrea and Libya, which they should have done after 2011, the new slave trade in migration will continue.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

March Faces

I’ve been continuing to photograph the faces on buildings and, if you’re interested, you can see some more of them here.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Modern Annoyances

The BooksInq blog led me to an interesting site the other day. It regularly does.

This site - called LitHub - had an article about 'voice' on it, written by someone called Tony Hoagland. In his article, Hoagland quoted a poem by Naomi Lazard. It is a poem that conjures up the sense I often have that shadowy figures somewhere in glass offices are making perverse decisions about all sorts of things that affect me, but without reference to whether I or anyone else might object:

We are sorry to inform you
 the item you ordered
is no longer being produced.
It has not gone out of style
nor have people lost interest in it.
In fact, it has become
one of our most desired products.
Its popularity is still growing.
However, a top-level decision
has caused this product
to be discontinued forever.
Instead of the item you ordered
we are sending you something else.
It is not the same thing,
nor is it a reasonable facsimile.

While not as poetic - it is that 'forever' that I think makes the poem - my first experience of this particularly annoying aspect of modern consumerism came when I travelled to England from Australia to visit my brother. A friend in Australia had been to England many times and each time she had bought a new pair of a style of shoes that she liked in Dolcis. She asked me if I would buy her another similar pair when I was there.

I said I would, so when I spotted a big branch of Dolcis, I went into the shop and asked if I could find another pair of my friend's shoes. The assistant looked at my picture of the shoes and shook her head. She said she recognised the shoes but they didn't sell them any more. "Why not?" I asked. "They were too popular", came the reply

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Beware of the Dog

Among the pictures I was marvelling at in London’s National Gallery the other day was this one -
The adoration of the Kings, Jan Gossaert, 1510-15, (Caspar, one of the Three Kings, kneels before the Virgin. Melchior stands behind him, and the black king is Balthasar. The dove of the Holy Spirit descends from the star which guided the kings. Shepherds stand to the right and more appear in the distance.)

My main interest was the dogs, but it turned out I missed a hidden angel - & so much more. Luckily a BBC Radio 4 programme explained many interesting things about the painting & it can be listened to here

This picture I didn't even like, except for the dog. I suppose I ought to have been interested because the painter is female, which as we all know is unusual because of the horrible male dominated art world, blah, blah, blah:
Portrait of a Woman, 1551, by Catharina van Hemessen (The woman carries a small dog under her arm. She is probably from Antwerp in the Low Countries, where the artist painted many similar portraits of women. The sitter's exact identity is unknown.)

Although I'm not usually wild about Gainsborough, this one I thought lovely - and, at the time, idealised, but since then I have spent ten days in various rural places and discovered that rural England really is this lovely:
The Market Cart, 1786, by Thomas Gainsborough, (A girl and three younger children are shown returning home from market. Their wagon is laden with fresh produce. The boy gathering sticks for fuel ont he right was included as an afterthought. The position of the horse's head was also altered, making it strain forwards: the old position can be seen where the paint has become transparent with age)
The dogs just added to the image's appeal:

This couple doesn't appeal to me at all, but their dog redeems them; sometimes I think that is the function of dogs, which is perhaps why so many terrifying people loitering in city streets keep dogs. My cousin's husband believes there is a shop somewhere that sells canine accessories especially for the dogs of itinerants - a collar and lead made out of grubby string, that kind of thing, or possibly a kennel owner who has a long queue of waiting clients for his line of slightly depressed, sandy grey, uncertain breed puppies, each one provided with a rope collar and lead as part of the package:
Mr & Mrs William Hallett ("The Morning Walk"), 1785, Thomas Gainsborough, (Gainsborough portrayed William Hallett (1764-1842) & Elizabeth Stephen (1763-1833) shortly before their marriage on 30 July 1785. They may be wearing their wedding clothes. Mrs Hallett's silk dress; the white fur of the Pomeranian sheep dog; and the foliage are evoked with the light brushstrokes Gainsborough used in the last phase of his career)

Stubbs is famed for his horses, but this picture includes a pretty good stab by him at a dog as well
The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, about 1769, George Stubbs (Elizabeth Milbanke, left, married Peniston Lamb, far right, later First Viscount Melbourne, shortly before this group portrait was painted. She is shown seated in a carriage, perhaps because she was pregnant at the time. The other sitters are, from left, her father Sir Ralph Milbanke and her brother John Milbanke)

Not that I am arguing about Stubbs's status when it came to painting horses; he was and remains the king in that field:
Whistlejacket, 1762 George Stubbs, (The racehorse Whistlejacket was painted life size for his owner, the second Marquess of Rockingham, in celebrtation of the Arabian-bred stallion's superb proportions and beautiful appearance. Rockingham's interest in classical sculpture may have inspired this arresting and unusual presentation)

There is a dog in this picture, but even without one it is extremely intriguing. It seems to be a painting out of its time, faintly surreal and more 1920s than 1750, and I have to add that the inclusion of a third Gainsborough in one post seems to be undermining my claim that I don't like Gainsborough:
Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough (Robert Andrews married Frances Carter in 1748. The couple pose under an oak tree in a field where sheaves of ripe corn have been harvested. The painting of Mrs Andrew's lap is unfinished; the space may have been reserved for a child for Mrs Andrews to hold)

This painting I definitely wasn't interested in, beyond the chubby pup:
Portrait of Don Justion de Neve, 1665 by Murillo (The sitter was a canon of Seville Cathedral and a friend and patron of the artist. He obtained a major commission for Murillo, the decoration of the church of Santa Maria la Blanca in Seville)

This one appealed to me for its subject matter, and the dog was just an added bonus:
Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, 1667-70, Murillo, (Christ, with three apostles, healed a paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda, (John 5: 2-8) The painting is one of six works by Murillo illustrating the Acts of Charity. They were made for the church of the Confraternity of the Caridad in Seville)

This one has a background that hints at intrigue and makes one curious - but the dog, ugly as it is, was once again the clincher for me:
Queen Mariana of Spain in Mourning, 1666, by Juan Bautista Martinex del Mazo, (Queen Mariana was the wife of Philip IV. She acted as Regent from his death in 1665 until 1677, when their son Charles II, reached majority. Charles is shown as a young boy in the background. The widow's dress Mariana wears in this portrait resembles a nun's habit)

It may seem wrong and frivolous to be focussing on dogs, given the National Gallery's collection has so much more of spiritual edification to offer. I offer as justification the fact that Crufts, the dog show, has just taken place in Birmingham. Of course, this is a time-limited (that dreadful Brexit jargon, it seems to slip into one's brain by osmosis, eurgh eurgh eurgh) justification and I will have to come up with something better when I continue to focus on canines, both back at the National and everywhere else I go to see paintings.

All right, I admit it - I like looking at paintings of dogs.