Sunday, 27 March 2016

Ways of Remembering

On my way to New Bond Street the other day, I couldn't resist wading through the traffic to have a look at Hyde Park Corner and the various memorials that stand there. Each time I do this, I wonder if it is really beyond the wit of transport planners to redirect the cars and trucks that form an almost constant cordon round the Corner's little island of grass. If they shoved the whole lot underground, the place would become properly accessible to people, while also giving the wonderful house at No. 1 London the room to breathe that it deserves:

I have to say that no matter how many times I look at it I find the design of the memorial to the machine guns corps intriguing. Did they fight naked? It seems unlikely:

The New Zealand monument is less baffling, even if does look like a slightly demented fencer has knocked off for lunch or, having set up the posts, gone into town to get the fencing wire to link them with:

Part of the problem is obviously that these monuments are all grouped in the same spot as possibly the greatest war memorial ever designed, the Royal Artillery memorial, with 'Here was a royal fellowship of death' inscribed around its base and the tragic figures made by Charles Jagger, grouped around it:

Recumbent Artilleryman

Shell Carrier

The one that comes off worst in this encounter, sadly, is the Australian memorial, which was summed up all too accurately recently by the sculptor Michael Sandle in an interview on Radio 3. This is what he had to say about it:

"The Australian Memorial looks like a pissoir in an upmarket hotel designed by a 12-year-old girl"

I'm afraid I find it hard to argue with that, although I do wonder why Sandle feels the need to specify the imaginary perpetrator's gender - would it make things better if it had been conceived by a 12-year-old boy?

(I found this article about the Jagger memorial interesting, by the way)

Saturday, 26 March 2016

An Act of Vast Inattention

After bemoaning the ugliness of most things erected after about 1940, I took refuge in one of Michael Innes's agreeable Inspector Appleby novels. This one is called The Secret Vanguard and in it Innes shows Appleby reflecting as critically as me on the progress of architecture.

As the novel was published in 1940, I may need to push back my date for acceptability of buildings - or review my whole belief and accept that buildings I find hideous will eventually, like each season's fashions, grow on me. Perhaps all that I - and Mr Innes/Inspector Appleby before me - am/are suffering from is shock of the new.

On the other hand, judging by how rapidly modern buildings deteriorate, are torn down and replaced by equally unloveable, usually even taller ones, perhaps I'll never have the chance to get beyond the shock phase.

Here is the passage that struck me. In it, Appleby takes a taxi from Trafalgar Square to a library somewhere in Bloomsbury:

"In five minutes the taxi, much as if it had been a contraption in a scientific romance, deposited him at the threshold of the eighteenth century. Strange how these severe facades satisfied the mind. Or rather not strange; nothing subtle or inspired was involved - nothing more, probably, than observance of the law of golden section. Strange rather that, as if by some act of vast inattention, people had just ceased to build that way."

Friday, 25 March 2016

Eggs Are Out

By chance, I have begun to read Charlotte Bronte's Shirley on the evening of Good Friday. To my surprise, the second paragraph of her first chapter draws an analogy between what the book will be like and the kind of meal that ought to be eaten on Good Friday. In the process, Bronte provides a detailed description of the meal that is required.

As I love almost nothing more than descriptions of meals in fiction, I am copying Bronte's passage here, so that anyone who wishes can follow Bronte's instructions as they prepare their dinner tonight:

It is not positively affirmed that you shall not have a taste of the exciting, perhaps towards the middle and close of the meal, but it is resolved that the first dish set upon the table shall be one that a Catholic—ay, even an Anglo-Catholic—might eat on Good Friday in Passion Week: it shall be cold lentils and vinegar without oil; it shall be unleavened bread with bitter herbs, and no roast lamb.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Getting Better All the Time?

I never took a photograph until a year or two ago, but, now that I've started, I'm at it all the time. Everywhere I go, I'm on the look out for Instagram possibilities. The world for me these days is just a series of brightly coloured squares.

But this afternoon, in pursuit of my new happy-snappy hobby, a rather awful thought came into my mind.

I was standing on a bridge in a pretty Belgian town called Durbuy when it happened. I had just gazed through the viewfinder, hoping to frame an attractive shot, but, as so often happens, I'd realised it wasn't going to be possible. And the reason it wasn't going to be possible was the same one it always is. The problem was that the scene contained too many traces of post-1950s human activity.

It should have been simply lovely. After all there was the river, which was flowing and sparkling and generally being an exceptionally nice stretch of moving water. And lining the river there were willow trees whose weeping boughs had that smudged glow that is not quite a colour, that has no form and yet, for all its intangibility, is the clearest of all indications that spring is just around the corner. In addition to these natural attractions, there were ancient stone buildings and a church with a pretty steeple.

All the major elements that might have made up my picture were attractive, but they were undermined by small but unignorable flaws.

The first was  a large plastic sack full of some kind of agricultural chemical, which someone had dumped on the riverbank. I suppose, if I'd been really keen, I could have gone down and dragged that out of view. But then there was the ugly stretch of municipal fencing that appeared to have been put up the day before yesterday, presumably in response to some EU directive about protecting people from moving water and the possibility of  their falling into same. And running alongside that was a carefully placed row of concrete edging bricks that it probably took several committee meetings and a number of discussion papers to come up with, plus the labour of a dozen or so men to lay so neatly along the upper edge of the riverbank. Plus, of course, there were the bright green plastic rubbish bins fixed to several of the willow trees and, in every possible spare space, the rows and rows of cars.

If I were original, if I had a genius's vision, I might see the beauty in bright green plastic and, as it was a car that brought me to Durbuy, I really ought to have appreciated the sight of massed automobiles.

Stupidly though,  I remain romantically attached to the handmade (not merely notionally; I make a lot of things by hand myself, I should point out). As a result I find myself wondering whether we humans still contribute to the beauty of our surroundings or whether we only detract from it these days.

I've  tried to think of one example where we've improved an old town with our erections. The Sydney Opera House has been suggested as one possibility but it has got location on its side - and I've never been convinced that it's a really resolved design anyway (its base has always bothered me).

Besides, I'm really thinking about domestic architecture, the fabric of the towns we live in. Will any housing cluster today be as attractive to visitors of five or six centuries in the future as, say, Lavenham is to us today?

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Tricked You

Over at Hats and Rabbits, Chris has come up with the most wonderful scenario. He no longer has faith in it, but I shall cling to the dream regardless. Chris's scenario is that Donald Trump is playing a huge practical joke on the American public and very soon - any day now, (please) - he's going to turn round and say:

"Look how far you let me push you, American people, to support the most negative and insensitive views! Look how you let me appeal to your reptilian brain instincts! Let this be a lesson to you: Don't let fear and hate drive your decisions. I am officially dropping out of the presidential race. It has all been an act. How could it have been anything else? Just don't forget how you almost voted for a guy who was clearly running a campaign that alluded to Hitleresque ideas..."

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Not So Tired After All

Has London changed or is it me? When I lived there, I let it defeat me. Mind you, I lived just off Victoria Street and, passing through that area the other day, I realised that it might defeat me again, if I were given a second chance - the density of pedestrian traffic is bad enough, but the fact that all the pedestrians in the area are in a great and unrelenting hurry is, over even a quite short space of time, rather dispiriting. No-one has patience for hesitation, no-one is prepared to give an inch of pavement away.

These days though, as a visitor, I enjoy a walk through London, so when I was there last week I went for a wander. This is what I saw.

I walked up through the park and onto Piccadilly. Then I passed the old In & Out Club and was, as usual, puzzled to see it standing unused and empty. The poor old place is looking even more delapidated than it was some years ago when I last peered through the railings. What is the point of leaving it to rot? Someone very rich from a far away country owns it, I believe. I wish he would either make use of it or let it go. It is looking very miserable at the moment:

Even though I thought I was fairly familiar with this part of London, it can still spring surprises, especially if you glance upwards. Despite having walked up St James's Street and onto Piccadilly a hundred times, until the other day I'd never registered the rather imposing figure at the top of the building on the corner:

For a while in my youth, I used to work near Mount Street. A great many things have changed in that area - including the sign at the entrance of the gardens, which seems to be ageing into a thoroughly grumpy billboard. It would be easier and quicker to simply list the one or two things that are permitted in the gardens - but perhaps nothing beyond breathing and scuttling fairly briskly through the place is in fact allowed:

Not that it really matters, since from Mount Street it is only a short walk to a much bigger and better park, if you can brave the traffic in Park Lane or the n'er do wells in the tunnel underneath.

Once again, near the entrance to the park I discovered something I'd never noticed before - this sign telling passers by that Her Majesty, (it's only just occurred to me, but it must be rather good to be called "Her/Your Majesty"; excellent for one's confidence, don't you think?), the Queen planted a little grove of silver birches in this plot in 1977. 1977! And they're still tiny. Gardening must be very much a game of patience in the British Isles:
Wandering on, I arrived in Belgravia and was just going past this building:

when I noticed a plaque I'd walked past many times without paying any attention. As I am now a temporary resident of Belgium, it suddenly seemed enormously interesting - moving even:

Sadly, I have to reveal that my walk wasn't all exciting discoveries - it also had its fair share of disappointments. My favourite haberdasher's has somehow turned into a branch of Pret a Manger and several other equally well-established businesses seem to have been swallowed up by more food outlets for office workers. I wonder if these are the only kind of business that breaks even in London at the moment.

The worst blow of all was the disappearance of Allen's, my favourite butcher in the world. It was a place where good food was understood and valued, where you could buy meat that was not killed yesterday and, most fantastically, where, if you went in a week or two before Christmas and looked up, the ceiling appeared to have been completely replaced by a dense mass of feathers - actually, closely packed turkeys, suspended and awaiting their turn on the Christmas table. I doubt I'll ever see anything like it again:

The French government subsidises small quirky shops, I've been told. It certainly has much more varied high streets than Great Britain does generally. But the British population doesn't seem greatly moved by the march of chain shops and the erosion of individuality in the retail sector, (an exception being Totnes, where I went later in the week; cheeringly, the inhabitants of that town seem to have fought off the Zara-Next-Accessorize-BootstheChemist-M&S-Costa blandness that characterises so many midsized rural towns).  

After London, I got on the train and headed for Devon. I was still sad about the loss of Allen's and the various other shops I'd always assumed would be there forever, but the British countryside looked so lovely, I couldn't stay sad for long. I was reminded, when I glimpsed some allotments on the edge of one or other town we passed through, that I am truly a hybrid, half-Australian/half-English: that is to say, I have always rather wanted an allotment, which is something no Australian I have ever met can even begin to understand. Because I am also Australian I can see how allotments represent an English embrace of small horizons and expectations that is anathema to Australian optimism, but as an English person, I cannot quite rid myself of pinched perspectives and dismally unambitious dreams.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Miserable Clarity

I've been wondering about the strange extremes that seem to have captured the imaginations of the American voting class. I'm not wondering any more, because I went to see The Big Short. It is such a good film, but it also makes sickeningly clear that cynicism and distrust of the elites that run government and financial markets is the only response anyone could sensibly have in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis. Trump and Sanders are the children of sub-prime and CDOs.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Miaowing Up the Wrong Tree

The other day I mentioned the confusion so many of the Europeans I meet feel when they contemplate the ways of their British colleagues. Reading Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy this morning, I was struck by a passage, which dramatises the situation. A young Romanian woman called Sophie has just listened to a group of English speakers telling a joke, and finds it confusing; she proceeds to tell a Romanian joke to illustrate what humour is about so far as she is concerned:

'"Then I do not understand. Why is it funny?"

"Why," Inchcape blandly asked, "is anything funny?"

The answer did not satisfy Sophie. She said with some asperity, "That is an English joke, eh? Here in Romania we have jokes, too. We ask, 'What is the difference between a kitten and a bar of soap?' I think they are silly, such jokes."

"Well, what is the difference?" Guy asked.

Sophie gave him an irritated look and would not answer. He set about persuading her until at last she whispered in a petulant little voice: "If you put a kitten to the foot of a tree, it will climb up."'

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Now I Understand

After what turned out to be a slightly wan experience looking at the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire's things spread out for auction, I picked up the latest issue of the London Review of Books and began to read an article on the subject of borders. In it was this quote from Georges Perec who, it seems to me, goes some way to explaining my reaction to what was on view. Sotheby's was trying to slide the domestic into the public and the result was jarring:

"The private, the domestic (a space overfilled with my possessions: my bed, my carpet, my table, my typewriter, my books, my odd copies of the Nouvelle Revue francaise); on the other side, other people, the world, the public, politics. You can't simply let yourself slide from one into the other, can't pass from one to the other, neither in one direction nor in the other. You have to have the password, have to cross the threshold, have to show your credentials, have to communicate ... with the world outside."

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Left the Building

I loved the character that emerged from everything the Duchess of Devonshire wrote and so, when I saw that Sotheby's was auctioning her belongings, I decided I'd go along and have a look.

There is a logical flaw at the heart of that sentence isn't there? However charming someone's writing - or indeed personality - may be, what on earth has that got to do with their things?

I didn't think it through until now though. As a result, I set off for Sotheby's cheerfully. When I went in to their New Bond Street building, I was actually quite excited, but, instead of enjoying myself, as I wandered around I began to feel faintly miserable. I looked at everything, but none of it gave me pleasure. I certainly didn't feel any sudden urge to bid on any of the lots up for auction. In fact, by the end of my visit, I was rather glad to leave.

It wasn't that the auctioneers hadn't made a good effort. They'd plastered the staircase wall leading to the rooms where the Duchess's things were displayed with an attractive photograph of the Duchess's house - a very pretty stone ex-vicarage, pictured on a sunny day with flowers in full bloom. They'd set up a series of rooms to look as though they were actually the Duchess's dining room, bedroom, kitchen et cetera. But somehow the whole thing was dismal.

I think it was the fact that the illusion they were trying to create remained very clearly an illusion. We were in a windowless shop space and there was no getting away from that fact. Despite the very best efforts of the organisers, the rooms they'd set up so carefully owed a great deal more to Ikea in concept than to a time-worn interior that a particularly engaging person lived in.

Worse still, once the idea of Ikea had seeded itself, you couldn't help noticing that the furniture - which in its own milieu would have looked exactly right - here in a showroom revealed itself as a bit battered, chipped in places and generally bearing the inevitable marks of use.

Many of the smaller things didn't even have the virtue of being old and originally well-crafted from good materials. Like most of us, the Duchess gathered up all sorts of odds and ends that appealed to her for reasons not always to do with aesthetics - after all, her house wasn't a show room or a museum, just a place where somebody lived. The fact that things that amused her or had sentimental value were really rather ghastly if you did not share those same sentimental attachments to them meant that they ended up looking frankly a bit tawdry in this impersonal setting.

I should have known of course. Stuff is just stuff, regardless of who it belongs to. Stupidly, I'd imagined that some vestige of the Duchess's personality would have lingered with the objects with which she surrounded herself. Instead, seeing them all laid out there - for sale to the highest bidder -made it chillingly clear that she was very definitely no longer here among us. She had, like her beloved Elvis, left the building and, without her magnetism to enliven them, the things that she treasured had reverted to being just things.