Welsh or Elegant?

25 Feb

Customers at London’s exclusive Fortnum & Mason (The Queen’s Grocer) are presented with an unusual choice: would they prefer their rarebit Elegant or Welsh? Evidently these terms are mutually exclusive, so I cannot imagine affluent shoppers really have much of a struggle making up their minds.

George Smiley’s anti-Brexit tirade

6 Feb

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Listening to the audiobook of John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies as I drive home from work, I am startled by an extraordinary passage in which George Smiley is reflecting with his protégé Peter Guillam on their past as spies, and the reasons that guided him through the Cold War. At one point, near the end, the normally composed George Smiley utterly loses his cool, in what would appear to be a tirade against Brexit and Brexiteers, and little Englanders of all description:

‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.’

It is impossible to ignore Teresa May’s ‘citizen of nowhere’ jibe lodged in there.

Are these the views of the fictional George Smiley, or are they shared by his creator, John Le Carré? The answer is not hard to find. In an interview with the BBC from 7 September last year to mark the launch of the new novel – a kind of coda to The Spy who came in from the Cold – Le Carré said:

“It was terribly hard to write this book during the period of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump, and I’d like to think that Smiley was aware of the sense of aimlessness which has entered into all of our minds – we seem to be joined by nothing but fear,” he said.

“Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag in one way or another, feels alienated from it, feels a stranger in his own country, and that’s why we find him and indeed leave him in a foreign place.”

Yes, George has abandoned the UK, and lives in Freiburg.  He feels alienated by Brexit Britain, as so many of us do.

Alienated and bewildered. How to account for the fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg, ‘a pantomime toff with unpleasant hard-right convictions’ according to the New Statesman,  is the favourite of Conservative Party members to be their next leader, and thus, presumably, our next prime minister?

Desperate times indeed. Within the European Union, Britain would have been able to help shape the destiny of Europe, as George Smiley envisaged. Russia, for example, doesn’t give a toss about little England, but would listen to the UK within a powerful European Union. Outside of the EU, we will be marginalised by world leaders, ignored by the developing world and become an offshore tax haven for billionaires floating off into the North Atlantic. Goodbye to George Smiley’s ‘new age of reason.’

 

 

The mosaics of Torcello

4 Feb

 

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In an essay by Kathleen Raine on ‘Yeats’ Holy City of Byzantium’, there is a quotation from A Vision in which Yeats speaks of mosaicists as being at the heart of a community of philosophers and craftspeople and painters:

‘I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosopher worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even  . . . . I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious aesthetic and practical life were one, the architect and artificers – though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract – spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic-worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people.’

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Santa Maria de Assunta, central apse

 

Kathleen Raine, in her essay, suggests that the dome of the old Aghia Sophia in Constantinople ‘would have been inlaid with those mosaic figures who seem to stand in an optical space outside, not behind, the surface on which they gleam’. Of course, the mosaics of Aghia Sophia are gone now, and Constantinople is – and has been since 1453 – Istanbul. But I am wondering whether the mosaics of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, Venice, which I visited last month, don’t have that same quality of occupying a space beyond their immediately visible surface. The effect of these images, which we observed for only ten or fifteen minutes on a quick visit to the island, was dramatic and lasting. My own photos were not very good, so I have downloaded some that I found on the Italian Ways website.

We had taken a boat tour of three islands (Murano, Burano and Torcello), but I was only really interested in Torcello, which was the first of the islands in the Venetian lagoon to be occupied, in the sixth century or so. It was – and is – an island of low lying marshland, but it grew to sustain a population of around 20,000 between the 7th – 11th centuries, when its inhabitants started moving to the island that constitutes modern Venice, almost certainly as the result of a malaria epidemic. The island became depopulated, its buildings raided for materials and stone to be rebuilt in the new place. All of its great buildings and palaces have utterly vanished, and its population now is around 75. Only a few buildings and two churches remain, one of which is the Assunta.

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View of Torcello with the Basilica of the Assunta in foreground

We walked along the bank of the single canal that divides the island as far as the church and then returned straight back to our waiting launch. It was a cold and rather bleak winter’s afternoon. I cannot remember there being any birds, though I imagine there must have been. Once inside the church, I felt an immediate sense of familiarity with the place – one of those rare sensory responses that you cannot quite identify, and which afterwards strike you as carrying a message you cannot decipher. Something like déjà vu, but not exactly. Afterwards it occurred to me that perhaps I visited with my parents as a young child; I cannot remember (and doubt whether my siblings will either, and both my parents are dead) but I had a strong sense that I had been there before.

Thinking back to the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, reflecting on the mosaics we found there . . . and reading the essay by Kathleen Raine on Yeats’ ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ I am reminded of the way the mosaic makers of Byzantium, and early Venice, were philosopher-craftsmen or women – and the mosaic makers’ art was something assimilative, in the sense that mosaic synthesizes from the world and makes concrete, fixes in time ideas and emotions and colours and pieces of stone and ceramic and other shapes from the material world, creating something shapely and beautiful and somehow, at the same time, apart, looking in on us as though ‘outside, not behind the surface on which they gleam . . .’

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Landeg White

1 Feb

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It was with shock that I learned last week of the death of the poet Landeg White, at his home in Portugal. He was seventy-seven years old. Landeg, who was born in Taff’s Well, near Cardiff, published around a dozen poetry collections, three of them with Parthian, and I had a lot of fun working with him on his Selected Poems, Where the Angolans are Playing Football (2003). He went on to publish two further collections with Parthian and did two historical novels with Cinammon: Livingstone’s Funeral (2010) and Ultimatum (2018). He is also the author of scholarly works in the area of African Studies. Perhaps he is best known for his superb translations of Camões, including Portugal’s national epic, The Lusíads, which won the TLS poetry translation prize in 1998. Although I did not know Landeg especially well, I certainly counted him as a friend and we spent time together in Cardiff, and later, in 2003, on a rather strange British Council tour of Portugal, which was scheduled to terminate in a reading at the glorious Lello bookshop in Porto (made famous as the inspiration for the shifting staircases in the Harry Potter stories). The reading never took place, as the bookshop was about to close when we turned up, not having been informed of our event by the BC. Instead we retired to a restaurant on the banks of the Douro and had a memorable evening of good food and wine and conversation, at each of which Landeg was an adept.

Landeg lived much of his life in Africa, during the era that followed the final collapse of imperial rule and he was a thorn in the side of more than one African dictator. Deported from Malawi in 1972, he lived and worked in several African countries before settling in Portugal, where he spent the latter part of his life.

His poetry addresses both the political and the personal in equal measure, usually in poems with a disciplined approach to form but bursting with colour and visceral energy.

Now that he is gone I wish I had known him better.

An obituary appeared in The Guardian on 22 January, written by his friend Hugh Macmillan. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/22/landeg-white-obituary

Below is one of my favourites from Landeg’s work, in the style of a West African praise poem, addressed – with a dollop of gleeful irony – to himself:

 

Self-Praises

(for my African age-mates)

 

I climbed the old elm tree and read William books in the rook’s nest,

My knee stuck in the pulpit rail: for once the congregation laughed,

The missionary told of the poison ordeal. I was spellbound in the cub hut,

I won the match by slicing a six off the back of the bat over backward point,

I cycled a hundred miles precisely to Nettlebed and back to town,

I planted crotons, a whole hedge in thirty-two varieties,

I scored Sparrow’s Melda for the steelbands’ Panorama,

I made love to the circuit-minister’s wife in a dark corner of the canefield,

I decamped from the island under an arch of leaping dolphins,

Baboons jumped on my steaming bonnet as I stalled on the escarpment,

I crossed the longest bridge at dusk, reading of a new country,

I found her on a sand dune where a coconut palm strained at its bole,

She to whom all metaphors return was outlined with chevrons,

She stretched like a tigress, adorned with her stripes,

I watched the Beetle spinning downstream, swept from the flooded causeway,

My dugout parted the hyacinths in search of the hidden history,

When the armed guerrillas ambushed us, I said Oh, there you are,

From four jobs I resigned,

From the fifth the President deported me, without rhyme or explanation,

I helped at my son’s birth: he came out looking dumbfounded,

My proudest expedient, bribing our baby on to the plane!

The professor rang at midnight: my poem was a masterpiece,

I designed and built a kitchen to a millimetre’s calculation,

I knuckled down to fifteen years of mortgages and pension,

I campaigned for my dear friend to step forth like Lazarus,

My vine, in Viking territory, was a miracle of survival,

My garden exploded in poppies and cornflowers: autumn blazed in nasturtiums,

He wrote marvellously of his resurrection: it was I gave the writing space.

They shook hands, enemies to the vein,

They shook hands and reminisced across my conference table

(The student wrote: thank you, who else could we have got drunk with?).

As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet, I found my niche.

Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where they will.

 

 

 

 

By the Loire

25 Jan

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Orléans lies precisely half way between the dual fixed points of home. We stay the night, and in the morning there is a thick mist over the great river that flows past the bottom of the hotel grounds. I like to take a turn down the river with Bruno the Dog before breakfast. The river, like its name, perhaps because of its name, feels like a constant, an unalterable fact: Loire. But it is not the name, merely. Something else emerges in the conjunction of landscape and water, whether in memory or in imagination, I cannot be sure: the two are fused in a single process. As the mist lifts, walking west, we pass empty villas, which, when I first came this way, years ago, I thought might only be closed up in winter. This has proved not to be the case. However, it is winter now. One of the villas reminds me of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes translated into English as The Lost Domain – but also, variously, as The Land of Lost Contentment,  The Wanderer, The Lost Estate and The End of Youth – a novel I read at around the age of fourteen, and which, at the time, made as much of an impact on me as any book I had read. It was the only novel by Alain-Fournier, who was killed in the first month of World War One, aged twenty-seven.

The villa in question has been boarded up for as long as I can remember, apart from the window under the gable, behind which, even from the distance of the riverside path, one can sense life. Once, a couple of years ago, when we passed this way in the summer, the window was open. It is not open now.

The villa, with its single unshuttered eye, evokes a world that has been left behind – perhaps the Lost Domain itself – the same domain that, like Proust’s, was buried beneath the rubble of The Great War. The house with its otherwise boarded windows evokes a sense of imminent departure, or else of disappearance, of something so longed for or regretted that it became material, before fading into the texture of the walls. Perhaps all that is needed on a day like this is to see past the torn fabric that separates my world from that other one, and I will lean so far over as to tumble through, onto the other side . . .

Meanwhile, in the river, in a small boat nudging the island that lies midstream, a man stands erect. He appears to be doing nothing at all.

France

Whatever they had been told was lies: there was no kind of deal awaiting them, no siren call. The armistice was signed but the war had been lost years before and nobody had told them. Indigo night interrupted by orange explosions on the horizon, great sweeping clouds of dust making everything invisible for hours on end, the spotlights bearing down on them the length of the assault line. We will never know defeat, they repeated; the words of their leader an idiot’s mantra in their throats. They spent the whole day waiting for news: when should they expect the enemy? In the evening, a small group sat by the linden tree and passed a bottle around. The dusk obliterated memory. One of the men dreamed of France, a country he had never been to. People’s lives there are almost perfect. Something small and forgotten in his soul told him France was a better place in which to die; that there, eternity has brushed its sleeve against the land.

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Joan Ponç at La Pedrera

18 Jan

 

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Joan Ponç was a Catalan surrealist painter who seems to have lived – to a greater extent than most – almost entirely in and through his imagination. It is probably not an easy way to live, and it does cause certain logistical problems, not least for the protagonists and those who choose or are forced (in the case of children) to live by their side.  Ponç is not well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, and I had been looking forward to visiting this major retrospective of his work at La Pedrera in Barcelona.  Follow this link for a video tour of the exhibition itself.

 

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I spent a couple of hours wandering around the rooms, marvelling at some of the images, the startling use of rich colours and the bizarre and terrifying creatures that find their way into his narratives. I had reservations, however, about figures that reminded me of the kind of hippy art that used to adorn the night clubs of my youth, and was left cold by the quantity of flying phalluses, which I haven’t reproduced here. I guess, in a way, such imagery was of the era, and although he would probably have denied he was a surrealist painter, in the strict sense (is there even a ‘strict’ sense?) he was – as his friend and fellow member of the artists’ group dau al set Arnau Puig observes – a surrealist through and through ‘as a person’.

 

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The remaining members of dau al set (seven-faced dice, in Catalan) were the poet Joan Brossa and the artists Antoni Tàpies, Modest Cuixart and Joan-Josep Tharrats. As far as I know, Puig is the only one still living. The group was supported by the poet J.V. Foix and Joan Miró, and constituted a bravely defiant statement of intent in the darkest years of Franco’s dictatorship. As the exhibition leaflet tells us in rather wobbly language: ‘This [his output during the late 1940s and 50s] was a period of oracles and spells, magicality and demonism, heightened by nocturnality and the blend of highbrow literary sources of Surrealism and popular culture. Ponç often represented himself as a harlequin and his paintings became magical and surreal, night landscapes filled with strange creatures: fauns, top hats, harlequins, fantastical ruins, geometrical shapes and imaginary zoomorphic forms in denuded and metaphysical landscapes.’

 

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Ponç’s work leans to a large extent on the precedent of surrealism, but it is significant that in his diaries he speaks with admiration of painters such as El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, and most importantly, Cézanne. At times his painting seem almost devoid of the kind of technical skill exemplified by those painters, and one has to wonder at what level he internalised their lessons. I am not really in a position to say. Perhaps the fact that he always painted at night, by the light of a single stark lightbulb, is a clue. However, having bought a very attractive edition of his writings, I was struck his obsessiveness, by the dedication to his art that is in many ways remarkable, especially considering the severe ill-health he endured towards the end of his life. He also refused to exhibit for long periods, and was hostile to the idea of the art world as a market-place.

 

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Ponç, almost inevitably, fell out with the other members of dau al set, and in 1953, armed with a letter of recommendation from Miró, set off for Brazil, where he stayed for ten years. He radically revisioned his own art, became fascinated by science, especially physics, an interest that he pursued further on returning to Europe, settling first at Bruc, near to Barcelona, and then in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in an area he began to regard as his spiritual home (he referred to the Pyrenees as ‘the ground zero of the universe’). After living for a while in Cadaquès, then Collioure, and then Ceret, he eventually moved to La Roca de Pelancà, after spotting a house on hilltop that had been struck by lightning, and deciding make it his home (after the judicious placing of lightning conductors).

Reading Ponç’s diaries and notebooks I was reminded at times of Leonora Carrington’s writing, not only by some of the themes that obsessed them both but also by the shared capacity to dwell, as I stated at the outset, so thoroughly in their own imaginations. On Leonora, incidentally, I would refer the reader to Bill Herbert’s excellent blog.

Two anecdotes stood out for me in his short autobiography, which I read on the train home, and have reproduced here (Ponç’s journal entries are written in Castilian Spanish, although the book’s introduction and footnotes and commentary are in Catalan). The first concerned a visit to an antiquarian shop while Ponç was living in São Paulo, Brazil. He spends some time admiring a display of strange-looking angels, ‘some of them hanging by strings, their faces seeming to express a terrible fury’ and a wooden marionette with fully articulated limbs. As he turns to leave the shop, the owner calls out to him:

– Are you Joan Ponç?

– Yes, I answered.

– Don’t you remember me?

– No.

– Two years ago – he went on, – I bought one of your paintings. There was a black goat in it, against a dark red background.

I remembered the work in question.

– I want to talk to you about this work – he said, and continued. I was broke, I didn’t have any money to buy more pieces, and I decided to bring to the shop some of the works I had at home, among them your painting, which upset me, as I had given it to my mother. The day that I brought it here, someone was waiting for me at the shop. He bought all my merchandise and told me, as he went on his way: “the thing that interests me most is that goat, but you must never sell it.” From that moment onwards, my business began to prosper. A short time afterwards – the antiquarian continued – a friend who was on the verge of bankruptcy, and to whom I had told my story, came to see me, and begged me to lend him your painting. He hung it in his office and his business began to change for the better at once.

In spite of finding the story supremely interesting, I couldn’t stop myself laughing, never mind the sincere gaze of the narrator.

– It’s important that you believe what I’m telling you, and I’m going to give you proof. These things I’ve told you have spread around, and people come here often to ask me for the painting. Fearful of losing it, I’ve taken various photographs. Look.

He opened a box, inside of which were a good number of photos.

– Another proof. Choose from my shop the object that you most like.

Without wanting to, I let my gaze fall on the wooden marionette.

– Is that what you want? Then take it. It’s yours.

I didn’t want to accept it, but he told me that if I didn’t accept the gift, he would take it out on the street and leave it there for any passer-by to pick up.

– Please take it with you, it would bring me relief.

I know that some people will laugh, as I did, at this. Others will attempt to reduce it to something comprehensible. It doesn’t matter, we are all free to interpret things in accordance with our own manner of thinking. For my part, I can affirm – in the face of accusations of ingenuousness or dishonesty – that I have narrated these things exactly as they occurred and that anyone who had lived through the chain of events that over years have accompanied my life, would react in the same way. I remember a marvellous phrase from Saint John of the Cross: “The true way for man lies in believing less in what can be seen, but does not exist, and more in that which cannot be seen, and does.”

The other story in Ponç’s autobiography is altogether more trivial, but none the less entertaining. It concerns the artist’s time in Cadaquès, where Salvador Dalí was a neighbour. Ponç writes that he frequently dropped by on Dalí in his studio, that while he admired the older artist’s prodigious mental ability and profound sense of humour, the visits often terminated in a fierce argument. ‘One of these’, he writes ‘acquires huge proportions after he [Dalí] attacks van Gogh in an extremely violent fashion. He tells me that I am defending him because I am a madman like him [van Gogh], to which I respond that at least we have the papers to certify that we spent time in the lunatic asylum, and that we are, in any case, professional madmen. “You, Dalí”, I tell him “will never be more than an amateur madman.”

I left his house, determined never to return. The following day, we were both at the beach. I pretended not to see him, but to my great surprise, he called out to me, and began a conversation as if nothing at all had happened. It was an important lesson.’

 

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The visibility of beggars

14 Jan

 

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On the subject of beggars in Venice, I came across this offering in Javier Marías’ essay Venice: An Interior, which is also available in a new collection of essays, Between Eternities.

‘There is in Venice a beggar (oddly enough, despite all those tourists, you don’t see many, which is why they’re easy to recognise) who begs for alms in all six sestieri. He’s rather chubby and getting on in years; he wears a hat that is a tad too small for him, plays the panpipes – an instrument that betrays his southern origins – and displays to the compassionate gaze of passers-by a pale, plump plastic calf that emerges from a very short white sock. It is the cleanest leg I have ever seen, and I always stop to look at it. I give him a few coins to reward such cleanliness as well as the pleasant sound of his pipes. This eminently recognizable man, however, is quite different depending on whether he’s in San Marco, San Polo, Cannaregio, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro or Castello. In the first of these sestieri, he seems like a fraud or local con man preying on tourists; in the second, his ‘foreign’ terrone aspect seems more pronounced and he looks out of place; in the third he blends in so well that no one even notices that he’s begging for alms with his impeccable leg. It’s the setting that dictates how things appear, and so it isn’t the same seeing a tourist crossing the Rialto Bridge as it is seeing him cross one of the various Ponte delle Tette.’

The essay was first published in the late 1980s, but Venice is still not overpopulated with beggars. There is a growing number of single young African males, who tend to do their begging away from the main tourist centre (presumably to avoid the police), but as for the other, more traditional kind, they tend to be found near churches, and adopt the classical, abject kneeling stance, arm outstretched, a pose intended to arouse the deepest feelings of Christian shame and, hopefully, charity, and one which is shocking to witness in the twenty-first century.

I would argue that, contrary to Marías’ presumption, tourist zones are not good begging zones in general. Ask any indigent about this, or take my word for it. TOURISTS ARE NOT GIVERS.  Beggars are far more likely to receive generosity from locals than from tourists in almost any of the tourist centres of Europe. The only exceptions to this rule are performers – and I am not talking about the bog-standard buskers or ‘perroflautas’ as the charming Spanish term has it (which can be translated literally as ‘dog and flute’, i.e. those beggars accompanied almost everywhere by a penny whistle and a mangy hound) – but magicians and jugglers and tightrope-walkers and fire-eaters (if there are any of these last remaining).

Marías’ second point, about setting being all, is worth picking up on. His itinerant beggar, who appears in slightly differing guises in different locations, is one I have met in various cities across Europe. But on reflection, doesn’t this mutability apply not only to beggars, or to tourists (on the Rialto or one of the Ponte delle tette), but to all who fit in between? That is, everyone? We all have the capacity for self-reinvention or re-assembly, of appearing in different guises, speaking in different voices, of being someone else depending on the place and context. Beggars such as the one Marías encountered in Venice, do not have a monopoly on this, they are just more easily noticed than the rest of us.

All of this must have seeped in on at some deep level, as I dream of a post-apocalyptic world, in which each group or family is allocated a space or island of the Venetian lagoon to settle: my group was allocated an islet, or part of a section of Cannaregio, which pleased me. But this pleasure was short-lived. When we landed there, all the alleyways and squares were empty, and we had to choose a house to live in, and once we broke in we had remove the bodies of the owners, who had perished during the disaster. There were no beggars in my dream. After the apocalypse, we will all be beggars.