Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Great War Remembered #113

'Embarking for the Front, Blanquette-de-Poulet-avec-Estragon, 1916.' 

Another tableau by the Cromer Poultry Great War Re-Enactment Society.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

On First Driving on the A11 Elveden Bypass

This morning while out on a fare for Dad's taxis, I noticed that Caroline, my trusty EVolvo 850 saloon, had notched up another millstone milestone. Here it is.
A milestone, earlier today
Yes, my 20-year-old car has 180,000 miles on the clock, and although parts of her aren't working any more, these are strictly non-essential, and with a surprisingly lusty 2.5-litre, 20-valve, 5-cylinder power plant that feels like a much younger engine [who do you think you are? Jeremy Clarkson? - Ed] she can still rip it up on the A11, cruising at 70mph all the way between the Great Wen and Nelson's Fine City.

By the way, my correspondent Mr. R. C. of Hebden Bridge helpfully noted that Caroline would need to accumulate only another 6,282 miles and she'd have traveled a light second. Which kinda puts things into perspective.

But I digress.

The astute reader will have noted the phrase 'cruising at 70mph all the way between the Great Wen and Nelson's Fine City' (emphasis mine) and choked on their cornflakes, notwithstanding inasmuch as which any seasoned traveler will have noted that the A11, while as fine a strip of two-lane blacktop as you could hope to find between here and, oh, I don't know, North Dakota, constricts to a single-lane in Suffolk, where the entire traffic between London and Norfolk has to obey the whims of the single traffic light in the picturesque village of Elveden (pop. 270) whose local paper probably reclines blessedly beneath headlines such as DOG CROSSES ROAD.

But no more!

Caroline (back view)
Over the past few months [seems like years - Ed.] Elveden has been bypassed, leaving the little village to slumber amidst its bosky groves ('Elveden' is a mere springle-ring away from OE aelfa-dene - Valley of the Elves). To the motorist, the village street and its traffic light have been replaced by a fine two-lane highway, the final stretch of the A11 to have been elevated to such high estate. So, for the past few journeys, I have been able to zip along the new road's sensuous lines and boy-racer straights with a sense of nothing short of utter wonderment.

The journey between London and Norwich has been cut by -- oooh - twenty minutes at most. But the psychological difference is disproportionately great. It now feels like you can (and you can) just nip down to London from Norfolk and get back before lunch, whereas before it seemed like one of Marco Polo's expeditions. Not that Marco Polo ever visited Norfolk - China was probably far enough - but you get the idea.

I felt almost moved to compose a sonnet along the lines of On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer, but Keats was a far better poet than any one of us will ever be. And he didn't drive a Volvo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Much Chortling, a Sleepy Little Village where Nothing Ever Happens.

There has been much chortling today in the offices of the Submerged Log Company over this story, reporting an extensive survey on the local attitudes, one assumes, of local people, in the highways and byways of Britain. Measures of such imponderables as concientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, openness and ... er ... neuroticism were plotted by local-authority area. The fun started with a quiz, the intention of which was to match you with an area of Britain where one would, apparently, be happiest.

I tried the test twice, to assess variation, and with that scientific replication (N=2) I found I would be happiest in different places, though both were in the Yorkshire Dales, which I'd rate as reet proper grand, 'appen, like. However, both tests had me as least happy in the Borough of Spelthorne in Surrey.

I am fairly happy in North Norfolk, where people are middlingly conscientious, and so on, but I do worry about Lincolnshire, where people are rated as both highly introverted and neurotic.

The chortling continued when a particular colleague was perpetually relocated to the Shetland Islands. The same colleague was predicted as being least happy in ... Spelthorne. [What have they got against Spelthorne? Ed.]

This reminded me of a job advert I saw, many years ago, in the UK Press Gazette, a trade magazine for journalists, particularly the unsung staffers on trade magazines such as Cavity Wall Insulation Today, as well as local and regional newspapers, who find themselves having to find a local angle for everything:

The advert was for a news reporter for the Orcadian, the weekly newspaper of the Orkney Islands (though, as with all things, it's now online). 'We can't pay you very much,' the advert said, 'but up here, there's not much to spend it on.'

Had I not had family ties, I'd have been seriously tempted...

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Worst Part Of Giving Is Receiving

To give is better than to receive, says the old adage. I entirely concur, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

I am increasingly plagued by junk phone calls, which arrive even though I have signed up with the telephone preference service. It's got to a point when I hardly even bother with my landline, as most calls we receive on it are unsolicited. But they've started arriving on my mobile, now. I'm due a refund on some insurance policy I've never taken out. I am entitled to compensation because I was involved in a road traffic accident at which I was not present. Worst of all, I am told that a member of my family has been involved in an accident. How low can these people go? I try to block callers … but can only do this if the number of the caller is displayed. Increasingly, it's 'unknown'.

I had taken all this as part of life in the 21st century until the past week when I was plagued - I use the word advisedly - by calls from my alma mater with messages saying they were trying to call me. Eventually I was around to pick up a call from an actual human being and I made it clear, even before they made their pitch, that whatever it was, I wasn't interested. Did they want to award me a prize? Did they want me to give a talk? I don't know, I didn't ask, but my guess is that they wanted me to give money. I did try to keep my tone mannered and calm, as the caller said he was a first-year Ph.D. student, and having been a first-year Ph.D. student myself, I'd otherwise have had plenty of sympathy and even, maybe, unsolicited advice of my own.

This brought to a head a phenomenon I've experienced but have previously have dismissed with a sigh, followed by a trip to the recycling bin.

You've all been there.

You are touched, perhaps, by an appeal to donate towards oh, I don't know, a home for distressed girrafes, for whom the press of circumstances has separated them from their unicycles. Just £5 will oil the chain on a unicycle. £25 will buy a new set of pedals. £200 will buy a whole new unicycle and the community of unicycling girrafes will be forever grateful. 

So, you give some money, sincerely hoping that the lot of disunicycled girrafes will be relieved, because, you know, you care.

But then what?

If you donate online, you find yourself deluged with emails from Rescue Unicycling Girrafes (RUG), which can only be stopped by scrolling to the bottom of an email and clicking on an link, which then gets you to a webpage imploring you not to unsubscribe.

If you donate by the old-fashioned way of sending a cheque in the mail, you then get flooded with circulars from RUG imploring you to donate more, and often including brochures with full-colour pictures of happy girrafes on donated unicycles, which, while touching, must cost more than the donation you originally made.

Now, I like giving to charity. But I'd like to give on my terms. If any charity-type people are reading this, I'd much prefer just to give, in the expectation that the recipient will know what to do with the gift. If I want to give some more later, I shall. Just please stop hitting me, OK?

UPDATE: A reader, Dr T. N. of London, tells me that one can donate to charities anonymously through the Charities Aid Foundation, and Mrs K. P. of Guildford says she uses the Stewardship Foundation, which has a distinctively Christian accent. But, as ever, caveat emptor - I haven't tried these services so these ideas don't carry my endorsement.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


By chance I heard a radiophonic emission on the relationship between museums and their shops. This struck a chord with me as I have recently been immersed in museums and galleries - and have also enjoyed their shops.

I tend to emerge from gift shops laden with books, for I find it hard to resist a bookshop, and the younger Croxii are similarly inclined, for if there is only one house rule chez Crox, it is that all reasonable requests for books will be respected. This, I guess, is a habit passed down the generations. My parents instilled within me a love of books and reading, and I am passing the habit down another generation still, from father to daughters. Crox Minima, in particular, loves bookshops, and we are planning a trip together to Hay-on-Wye, the secondhand bookshop capital of Britain, if not the world.

I do have another habit, which, as with book buying, has been vertically transmitted. Even if I do not buy a book in a museum or gallery shop, I will always buy postcards, and will be disappointed if the postcard selection is small, or, in some cases, non-existent.

So, each time I go to a visitor attraction I buy a handful of postcards, and put them in a box at home. I love to hoard them, and rifle through them to recollect the many and diverse places I have visited - but they are also useful for sending very short notes, covering letters and so on. Here is a not-quite-random selection.

Postcard-buying, like book buying, is a family habit. I acquired it from my mother, who always, when she visits anything, likes to buy what she calls her 'statutory' postcard(s).

Not all the postcards come from museum gift shops. Some are more old-fashioned, that is, commemorating visits to a location, such as Cromer. Others are more like adverts, picked up as freebies. From that I got the notion that postcards could be great as promotional items. Which is why I have a large stock of my own postcards, advertising my own Shameless Plug, which, if you are interested, comes out in paperback next month. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Resonant Object V: Artifacts

On Sunday Crox Minima and I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. Neither of us had been for many years - neither of us was prepared for what was to be an overwhelming experience.

The V&A is crammed with decorative arts of all sorts from all parts of the world accreted over several centuries. There is art, sculpture, ceramics, metalwork, furniture and fashions from - just to take one gallery - Japan, where we saw some early manga.
Crox Minima and I wafted past a history of wrought ironwork; amazing objects from India, Persia, Thailand and Burma; fashions through the ages; an entire gallery full of keys, locks and strongboxes; and Highest Victoriana from the era of the Great Exhibition and the Gothic Revival.

Wafting, however, is not a good way to appreciate the V&A. It's just too big, and the constant assault on one's senses of so many beautiful things apprehended in so short a time leads to a kind of mental indigestion.

I concentrated on European medieval and renaissance art and architecture, mainly so I could get some idea of what the Pre-Raphaelites were on about - trying to achieve the realism and purity they imagined held sway in an earlier age. To be sure, you can quite see where they got it from. One can quite imagine one of the PRB - Holman Hunt, perhaps - working up this relief of the annunciation into a painting.
Or perhaps the chivalrous subject of this stained-glass window.
Some of the imagery, though, makes one suspect that the designers had access to mind-altering drugs. Here is a detail - just a detail - of a truly vast tapestry depicting boar- and bear-hunts.
And if that seems overly busy, this marvelous altarpiece depicting scenes from the Revelation is postively ergotic. Again, this is just a detail.
From the search for meaning in the relics of the past, to those from the future. The origin, purpose and meaning of the thingy hanging uvulous in the Museum foyer remain - to me - unknown, and perhaps it is better so.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Resonant Object IV: Albion

This last weekend saw me in London once again, this time with Crox Minima (14), and on Saturday we visited the Tate Britain.

In my youth this was the entire Tate Gallery, but was rebranded when the modern art moved across the river to become the Tate Modern. It was a favourite haunt of my youth but I had not visited it since the sundering.

The last time I visited, it was to see an exhibition of paintings by one of my favourite artists, the surrealist Max Ernst. As I climbed the steps to the main entrance, eager to sample the delights within, I was slightly unnerved that towards me came a group of people, each with their own slightly unfortunate expression, as if they were all, collectively, on an excursion from some home for the bewildered. But then, I hadn't yet seen the exhibition. Just one Max Ernst picture is enough to be disturbing - six rooms full of the stuff could paint an expression of derangement on the face of the sanest among us.

But I digress.

Crox Minima had been on a school trip more recently and wanted to spend a more leisurely time there than such excursions permit, even if in the company of her embarrassing parent.

I had forgotten what a stately building it is.
I had also failed to appreciate the enormous contribution to art that has been made by British artists. Once all the non-British artistry had been removed (presumably to the Tate Modern) the gallery feels even more vibrant, its artistic integrity all the better for its focus.

The heart of the gallery is a chronological 'walk-through' of British art from the Renaissance to the present day, revealing the changes in styles in British art, and the various preoccupations, all the way from Tudor portraiture, rich in symbolism, and surely a sauce tzores source for the costumiers working on the recent televisual emission of Wolf Hall.

Seeing some of these pictures up close I realised that Constable's pictures are smaller and more crabbed than one imagines; that I prefer Stubbs to Gainsborough; and that J. M. W. Turner's proto-impressionist seascapes must have been revolutionary in their time.

Our favourite gallery - a taste shared by many, it seems - is the one holding the varied luminosities of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their circle, such as Waterhouse's The Lady Who Liked Shallots,

and Holman Hunt's Ewe-KIP Supporters Turn On A Black Sheep And Attempt To Throw It Off A Cliff.
I've always been intrigued by the recurrence of the same models in Pre-Raphaelite pictures, especially the rather striking redhead. I was happy therefore to have found, in the Museum shop, a lively biography of the model. She was one Elizabeth Siddal, a milliner's assistant, who became the long-time muse of leading Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who treated her cruelly - though she also seems to have been a very difficult character herself.

Siddal appears in many Pre-Raphaelite pictures, and perhaps the most famous is Ophelia, by Millais, in which the just-deceased Shakespearean heroine floats in a river. To achieve this effect, Siddal had to lie fully clothed in a bath whose temperature was maintained by oil lamps placed beneath… but these went out as Millais painted. Siddal, being too professional a model, didn't complain but maintained her pose until she was quite numb with cold. She never quite recovered from the effects and was often ill for the remainder of her life.

Waterhouse, working later than most of the PRB, had different models. The Lady of Shallot was painted in 1888, almost three decades after Siddal's death. The model is probably Mary Waterhouse, the painter's half-sister. The fact that she looks like Siddal is perhaps a testament to the influence of a genuine Victorian supermodel.

The high Victoriana in British painting remained almost impervious to continental movements such as Impressionism. The 'almost' is a figleaf hiding such pre-Impressionist pictures by Philip Wilson Steer. In general, modernism didn't seep gradually into British art, but arrived very suddenly, with World War I. The impact of this change is evident as one walks through the galleries. Victoriana, the heir of gradual changes in painting for three or four centuries, is swept away as one walks from one gallery to another, as if supplanted by a completely alien force.

It is seen as much in sculpture as in painting. My favourite is Epstein's Rock Drill (1913-14) a striking testament to the dehumanisation of industry. Inside this steely cyberman is a squishy, almost unformed human dying to get out but rendered formless, helpless and immobile.
… though it was this sculture by Henry Moore which made us realise that it was time for lunch.

And yet, and yet - British art started with portraits of the great, the good, the noble, the titled and the notorious, and this tradition continues. One of my favourite paintings is David Hockney's portrait Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. This double (or triple) portrait from 1970-1 is of celebrity fashionistas Ozzie Clark and Celia Birtwell - as celebrated in their time as (say) Emma, Lady Hamilton was in hers.