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Category: UK

BRUGES AND BRICKS

Vienna, 5 July 2018

My wife and I have just returned from a whirlwind tour of Belgium with a cousin of mine and his wife – the battlefield of Waterloo, Tournai, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Louvain (or Brugge, Gent, Antwerpen, Leuven, to give them their Flemish names), all in a mere six days. (in case any reader asks himself or herself, we left Brussels out because we had all been there before). I think the next couple of posts will be about various aspects of our trip (the exact number depending on how strongly my creative juices flow).

In this post, I want to focus on bricks. These became a source of fascination for me in Bruges. For those of my readers who haven’t yet been to Bruges, I should state that Bruges is a brick city par excellence. Much of it has been built in what is called the brick Gothic style, of which this – a picture of some street in Bruges – is a typical example.

Actually, I would call it the Dutch style. I know I’m entering a minefield here, since many Flemings would be indignant at having something of theirs called Dutch, but I’m afraid to say that I visited Amsterdam before I visited the lands of Flanders so for me the style is indelibly linked with the Netherlands. Perhaps, to try to avoid landing myself in the middle of local quarrels, I could call the style the Hanseatic style since our brief forays into other Hanseatic towns suggest that this is a style common to them all. (In passing, I should say that I was surprised to learn that Bruges was part of the Hanseatic league. I hadn’t known that it had extended this far south. I have made a mental note to buy myself a book on the Hanseatic league).

But actually it’s not the style of brick building that fascinated me in Bruges. It was the colour of the bricks. To put this in context, I should say that my feelings about brick colour have been very much shaped by the brick buildings in the UK, where bricks first impinged themselves on my retinae. Although it’s no doubt a gross exaggeration, I would classify British brick colours as pleasant, unpleasant, and frankly awful. In the pleasant category, I would put the country’s older brick buildings. Christchurch Mansion near Ipswich in Suffolk is a fine example.

Readers will note that the brick is not too red, you could almost say it has pink overtones, and the colour is pleasingly non-uniform.

In the unpleasant category, I would put just about every brick building put up in the UK since the Industrial Revolution. This picture of an old brick chimney – icon, I would say, of the industrial revolution – can stand in for this type of brick.

To make the point even more strongly, though, I also throw in a picture of an old factory

of one of the buildings in the original red brick universities (in this case Sheffield)

and of a row of normal houses.

Readers will note that the red is harsh, strong, crude, and that the bricks are much more uniform in colour than the older bricks. As far as I can make out, the much stronger red colour comes mainly from the bricks having been fired at higher temperatures, although it could also be due to the original clay holding more haematite (the iron mineral which mostly turn bricks red, although nowadays dyes – rather depressingly – are increasingly being used). As I understand from the little bit of technical literature I have boned up on, higher firing temperatures were used to make the bricks stronger and so more usable in larger structures. But I also read – though can scarce believe it – that at least in London redder bricks were used to make the buildings more visible in the fog (Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London is given as the source of this nugget of information. I shall check it in my copy in Milan).

As for the frankly awful category, I would put all those bricks which are an unpleasant off-white. My grandmother’s old house in London can stand in for the genre.

But this brick was used extensively throughout London. Here’s a part of Waterloo Station.

It’s not just yesteryear that they used this brick. I throw in a picture of a modern use of bricks with this sickly colour.

I know there are readers out there who will indignantly tell me that it’s a beautiful colour, but as they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and in my eye that’s sick colour.

Now, after my trip to Bruges, I can add another brick hue to my pleasant category – indeed, perhaps I should create a new category, “very pleasant”, for this hue. This picture is an example of the type.

As I hope readers can see, the buildings in this case give off a very definite orange “glow”. A somewhat hasty study of such buildings as we moved from one place to another has led me to conclude that the colouring comes from a brick which indeed has more orange than pink hues but also from a savant mix of this brick with bricks of the hideous sick colour the effect of which is to give rise to a paler orange than might otherwise be the case. I throw in pictures which I took of some other buildings with the same light orange hue.



Very nice …

And oh, by the way, Bruges is a very pleasant place to visit. A bit overrun by tourists, perhaps, but at least in June still acceptable. Don’t be fooled by such idiot titles as “the Venice of Flanders”. The place has a few canals but in no way do they compare to Venice.

___________________

Bruges street: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/foto/old-street-with-crow-stepped-gable-houses-in-bruges-stock-fotografie/578469816
Christchurch mansion: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190725-d1575683-i74779233-Christchurch_Mansion-Ipswich_Suffolk_East_Anglia_England.html
Old factory chimney: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/foto/alte-industrielle-gemauerten-schornstein-gm932649592-255603992
Old factory: http://www.antiqueslink.com/antiques/antique-archaeology-492420.html
Firth Court, University of Sheffield: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2889648
Brick houses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accrington_brick
My grandmother’s house: https://www.buildington.co.uk/london-sw7/40-montpelier-square/40-montpelier-square/id/3544
Waterloo station: By Alex.muller – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4350988
modern use of london yellow stock: https://wienerberger.co.uk/inspiration/tower-bridge
Bruges houses: my photos

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GERANIUMS – SORRY, PELARGONIUMS

Sori, 14 May 2018

I’ve written about cacti in an earlier post. In that case it was in a plug for more cactus growing in LA. The micro (really micro) climate on the balcony of our apartment at the sea, coupled with the long periods when no-one is here to water plants, also makes this an ideal space for cactus growing. My mother-in-law introduced cacti to the balcony several decades ago, and my wife expanded the collection by borrowing a few cacti from our next-door neighbour. However, I am saddened to report that a particularly harsh winter this year, when Jack Frost managed to lay his bony fingers on the balcony, has put paid to some of the cacti. We were faced with blackened cacti corpses when we arrived a few days ago and have been mournfully wondering what to do ever since. As part of this wondering, we visited the local flower shop, to see if they had any suggestions about how we might be able to breathe some life back into our blackened cacti – and to see if they sold any cacti should we decide that there was nothing for it but to replace them. The answer was negative in both cases.

In any event, as is usual in these cases the discussion went off on several tangents. For reasons which I can no longer remember now, one of these tangents was geraniums. I’m rather fond of geraniums. My mother had large beds (or what I remember as large beds) of geraniums in her garden in Eritrea, which the memory bank of my mind suggests looked something like this.

The bright red of the flowers pleased me no end – I suppose bright primary colours appeal to five and six year-olds – and I really liked the scent which emanated from broken leaves and stems. I must confess to having been a terror in the garden. I was not above decapitating flowers or casually tearing off leaves and stems. I must have driven my mother wild with my antics.

But coming back to our local flower shop: the lady in charge said that geraniums had a hard time in this climate because it was too humid. This rather surprised me, I thought that all geraniums needed was a lot of sun. I started looking around, and I discovered that it was indeed rare to see geraniums around here. Her comments also got me to engage in my favourite pastime: surfing the web to find out more about geraniums. I am ready to report back.

The first thing I discovered is that geraniums should not actually be called geraniums. Their correct name is pelargoniums. It seems that when the first pelargoniums were brought back to Europe in the 17th Century, gardeners thought they were cousins to the geraniums already present here. By the time botanists realized their mistake, it was too late. The name geranium has stuck. To make up for this mistake, let me throw in a picture here of one of the many real geraniums, the Geranium platypetalum.

The introduction of pelargoniums to Europe is the story of European colonization of the rest of the world. It was the Dutch who first brought pelargoniums back to Europe, after they had established themselves in what was to become Cape Town.

They, like European colonizers everywhere, looked around to see what plants they could find that might have a utility back home – and this included selling them to wealthy individuals who cultivated large gardens full of exotic plants. Over the years, they and the English who came after them found many different species of pelargonium in South Africa – some 90% of the 300 or so species in the family are to be found in South Africa. But I will concentrate here on the three pelargoniums which are the ancestors of pretty much all the pelargoniums we grow today.

There is Pelargonium inquinans, seen here in the wild

and here somewhat closer up.

There is Pelargonium zonale.

These two, hybridized together, have formed all the “common geraniums” or “zonal geraniums” which you will find in flower beds. My mother’s geraniums must have been of this type.

Then there is Pelargonium peltatum

which is the ancestor of all those “ivy-leaved geraniums” which trail delightfully from balconies such as the ones we shall shortly be seeing in Vienna and in every Austrian town and village.

As I said earlier, it was wealthy individuals with a passion for gardening who in the early decades of European colonization drove the domestication and spread of the myriad foreign plants which poured into Europe from every corner of the globe. In the pelargonium story, two in particular stand out. The first is the Right Reverend Henry Compton, Bishop of London.

Compton was born in 1632 into an aristocratic family, being the sixth and youngest son of the 2nd Earl of Northampton. At the age of 43 he was appointed, in short order, Lord Bishop of London, Dean of the Chapel Royal, and member of the Privy Council, and he was entrusted with the education of the two royal princesses, Mary and Anne, nieces of the King, Charles II. He clearly moved in high circles! His career suffered a dip when, ten years later, Charles’s brother, James II, acceded to the throne. Compton was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism. Consequently, James, a Catholic convert, relieved him of all his political positions. Luckily for him, James II lasted a mere six years before being ousted during the “Glorious Revolution” by James’s daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange (great-grandson of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, whom I mentioned in an earlier post). As might be expected, Compton fervently embraced the cause of William and Mary; in fact, he was one of the “Immortal Seven” who invited William to invade England. In recognition of his support, he got to perform the ceremony of their coronation (normally, this duty falls to the Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the-then Archbishop refused to take the oath to the new monarchs, so he was “deprived of his office”, i.e., was kicked out). The new monarchs also restored Compton to all his old political positions. And so Compton lived out the remaining 24 years of his life holding high religious and political offices (although, to his bitter disappointment, his hopes to become the Archbishop Canterbury were twice dashed). He died in 1713 at the ripe old age of 81.

Throughout all this political ferment, Compton managed to maintain a 36-acre garden at Fulham Palace, the country home of the Bishops of London, which stood on the edges of the Thames River.

The building still exists. The garden also still exists, though much reduced, and is a lovely corner of London.

Compton was an avid plant collector and was the first in Britain to grow many imported species. Because his diocese included the American colonies, his focus was very much on North America. He used his parish priests and missionaries in the colonies to send home seeds. Among other North American plants, he was the first in Europe to grow the Virginia Magnolia

the jacaranda

and the catalpa.

But Compton also built up a large collection of the-then rare pelargoniums, including Pelargonium inquinans pictured above. He probably was able to do this because through his support for William and Mary he had built up a good network of contacts in the Netherlands – remember that it was the Dutch, first settlers in Cape Town, who had sent the first pelargonium species back to Europe.

The second important early cultivator of pelargoniums was Mary Capell, daughter of Sir Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham, who through marriage became first Mary Seymour, Lady Beauchamp, and then, after her husband’s death and her remarriage, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. She was born two years before Henry Compton, in 1630. Here we have her with her sister Elizabeth – Mary is on the left of the painting.

Mary’s political vicissitudes started somewhat earlier than Henry Compton’s. Her father supported Charles I and lost his head for it, while her first husband, also a Royalist, was imprisoned. Her second husband successfully navigated the politically choppy waters of Cromwell’s Protectorate, during which he lost his titles, and ended up supporting the successful restoration of Charles II. The King eventually rewarded him with a Dukedom. He loyally supported James II but managed to avoid exile for this when William and Mary took the throne. He died in 1700 with his head still on his shoulders and none of his estates forfeited, which was pretty good going for a highly political man such as he. Mary was a loyal wife throughout all this, following him through all the twists and turns of his political fortunes and all the while bearing him six children. She survived her husband by fifteen years, dying in 1715 at the seriously old age of 84.

Mary began serious plant collection some ten years before her second husband died, and her interest in gardening intensified in her widowhood. She gradually accumulated one of the largest collections of exotic plants in England, with the support, it must be said, of some well-known gardeners. Through her aristocratic circles she traded and swapped in seeds (much like I did, in far less hallowed circles at primary school, in stamps). For instance, Compton sent specimens to his sister-in-law, Mary Compton, Countess of Dorset, who passed them on to Mary. But she also managed to have seeds sent to her from all the corners of Britain’s growing empire and trading interests: the West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan. In the specific case of pelargoniums, she too, like Compton, built up a large collection of them. She is credited with introducing into British gardens the other two pelargoniums of major interest which I mentioned above, Pelargonium zonale and Pelargonium peltatum. She did her plantings in the gardens of two houses owned by the Duke, Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. The Duke was rich enough and high enough in the aristocratic hierarchy to have Badminton House painted by Canaletto

although this more humble picture shows the all-important gardens as well as the house.

Badminton House still exists. Beaufort House does not. It was a large property in Chelsea, right on the Thames River – no doubt Mary could have gone to visit Henry’s garden by boat if she had wanted to (and maybe she did, for all I know).

Later urban developments wiped out the house and gardens, although Mary might be pleased to know that the Chelsea flower show takes place not too far from where she was – with the help of her gardeners – busily growing wondrous plants come from far and wide.

Well, while I have been whiling away my time researching this post, my wife has been busy and pulled out the dead cacti which started this post. We now have to decide what to put in the gaping holes which have been left. Not geraniums –  sorry, pelargoniums – dear! It’s too damp.

_____________________________

Red “geraniums”: http://www.parkswholesaleplants.com/spring-plants/annuals-ai/geranium-zonal-americana-dark-red/
Geranium platypetalum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geranium#/media/File:Geranium_platypetalum1.jpg
Cape Town 1790s: http://www.artvalue.com/auctionresult–english-school-18-united-kingd-view-of-cape-town-with-table-m-1538907.htm
Pelargonium inquinans: http://natureswow2.blogspot.it/2013/10/scarlet-pelargonium-pelargonium.html
Pelargonium zonale: http://www.africanbulbs.com/page67.html
Pelargonium peltatum: https://kumbulanursery.co.za/plants/pelargonium-peltatum
Ivy-leaf “geraniums”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/226094843769770841/
Henry Compton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Compton_(bishop)
Fulham Palace: http://www.fulhampalace.org/palace/history/
Fulham Palace Gardens: https://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/2016/05/15/five-fabulous-london-gardens-to-visit-this-spring/
Virginia Magnolia: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/413627547007792612/
Jacaranda: https://www.pinterest.com/royaljewel36/jacaranda-trees/
Catalpa: http://www.7arth.com/?product=50-%D8%A8%D8%B0%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%A7
Mary and Elizabeth Capell: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Lely_portrait_of_Mary_and_Elizabeth_Capel.jpg
Badminton House by Canaletto: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canaletto_-_Badminton_House,_Gloucestershire.jpg
Badminton House: https://landscapenotes.com/2015/10/31/book-review-a-natural-history-of-english-gardening-by-mark-laird/
Beaufort House: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463518986626622713/

THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

CONKERS AND CHESTNUTS

Milan, 26 September 2017

A few days ago, my wife and I decided that for our usual afternoon walk we would take the subway up towards the northwest of Milan and then walk back home. This strategy had us walk through a small park that was once part of the grounds of the royal palace. As we walked down one of the park’s shady avenues, conkers started raining down on us. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s say that two or three seed balls came cannoning down from above our heads and landed with a thump on the gravel, releasing their conkers which rolled around our feet. I picked one up and rubbed it gently with my fingers. Fresh conkers are really lovely, with their brown, lustrous skin and their smooth velvety feel.

Their seed casing is also very pretty, bright green with soft spikes all over it.

More than anything, though, conkers bring back happy memories from my childhood. I still distinctly remember during the breaks in the schoolyard fishing out my conker from my pocket and squaring off for conker duels with my friends. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this playground game, let me quickly explain how it works.
– Find a conker.
– Drill a hole through it with a nail.
– Thread a shoelace or other such string through the hole, and make a strong knot at the end.
– Face your opponent.
– One of you lets his conker dangle, let’s say your opponent.
– You swing your conker at his conker in a rather special way – see the photo below, which looks to have been taken during my boyhood years.

– If your opponent’s conker breaks, you win. If not, you dangle your conker and your opponent takes a swing at it.
And so on, until either one of the conkers breaks or the bell rings and it’s time to go back to those boring classes.

Conkers was, of course, a game of Autumn, played in the first month or so of the school term until the conkers stopped dropping off the trees and the conker supply dried up. Other games then took over the schoolyard until it was mid-September again and time to prepare that monster conker which would surely smash all other opponents in the schoolyard.

In case any of my readers are wondering, conkers come from the horse chestnut, that tree which gives lovely white or pink flowers in the Spring



and which in the last several decades have often looked distressingly mangy by summer time

the result of attack by the leaf miner moth. It seems that this disease was first noticed in Macedonia and has been marching across the globe ever since.

Perhaps, like I used to, some of my readers think that chestnut trees and horse chestnut trees are related. I mean, the nuts in both cases are so similar, as are their casings!

Yet they are not. They each belong to quite different families. I suppose this must be a case of convergent evolution.

One thing which very definitely distinguishes them is that conkers are not edible, but chestnuts very much are. And in fact in this Autumn season, Milan’s shops and markets are putting out piles of chestnuts to entice you.

I haven’t yet seen chestnut roasters on street corners, though.

Maybe they only appear when the weather turns cooler. I await them with anticipation, so that I can buy my paper cone full of roasted chestnuts.

________________

Conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.collinsdictionary.com/amp/english/conker
Conker seed case: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3838298/amp/The-end-conker-Playground-staple-vanish-15-years-horse-chestnut-trees-felled-pests-disease.html
Playing conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/437834394994706958/
White horse chestnut tree in flower: http://www.davekilbeyphotography.co.uk/index.php/plants-landscapes/species-trees/horse-chestnut-05/
Pink horse chestnut in flower: https://ag.purdue.edu/btny/ppdl/Pages/POTW_old/6-10-13.html
Horse chestnut attacked by leaf miner: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-common-horse-chestnut-tree-damaged-by-the-leaf-miner-moth-cameraria-39467824.html
Chestnut and casing: http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.it/2012/09/permaculture-plants-chestnuts.html?m=1
Chestnuts in an Italian market: http://mercatidiroma.com/mercato-trionfale/trionfale
Chestnut roaster, Italy: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/chestnut-street.html
Cone of roast chestnuts: http://www.ricettedalmondo.it/caldarroste.html

THE NATIONAL ART AUDIT

Vienna, 30 July 2017

As is my wont, I was perusing the electronic newspapers a few days ago during a leisurely breakfast (ah, the joys of retirement!). Normally, I focus on the unfolding Brexit tragedy, shooting off comments on various articles (another product of leisurely retirement hours), or on the soap opera that US politics has become. But a few days ago my eye was caught by an article on a “National Art Audit” conducted in the U.K. This very fancy term covers a publicity gimmick paid for by Samsung, to advertise its new television which doesn’t actually turn off when you turn it off, but instead shows electronic copies of paintings, photos, etc. Samsung has given the TV a picture-like frame so that you can hang it on the wall to make it look like a picture.

Very clever.

But back to the National Art Audit. It purports to give a snapshot of the Brits’ favourite pieces of art at the moment. In truth, the result seems to be a bit cooked in that works of art were pre-selected by a committee of arts writers and the final choice made by a mere 2,000 people. But let’s give the organizers of this exercise the benefit of the doubt and assume that the tastes of Britain’s arts writers more or less mirror the tastes of the general population and that the 2,000 people were a statistically valid sample. So what do we have?

I list the first twenty works in their order of preference:

1. We start with some street art, Banksy’s Girl with Balloon. The man, or woman, or collective (for who knows who hides behind “Banksy”?) stenciled copies onto walls in several locations. This copy is to be found – I think – on the stairs of the South Bank, Blackfriars bridge, in London.

There’s a lot of poo-pooing by art critics of Banksy’s work, but I rather like these whimsical pieces with a political sting which appear mysteriously overnight. Personally, I find this particular work somewhat twee, but no doubt that explains its popularity. I used one of Banksy’s more political works in an earlier post. Here’s another.

2. Constable’s The Hay Wain. The original is in London’s National Gallery, but copies are to be found in their thousands on biscuit boxes, tea towels, and puzzles, which no doubt both drives and explains its popularity.

I suppose the painting feeds into that nostalgia which so many English (not necessarily British) people have for the country’s past, although I suspect that that past was not quite the Garden of Eden that this painting would have you believe.

3. Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler. The original is in a private collection, but reproductions of it have made it the best-selling art print in the UK.

Interesting fellow, Vettriano. You wouldn’t think so from his name, but he’s Scottish – he adopted his mother’s name at some point. He had a very poor childhood, almost Dickensian, even though he’s more or less  my age. But he managed to teach himself to paint, so there’s hope yet for all us frustrated artists. I’m not terribly keen for his work, I have to say, much of which tends towards sado-maso soft-porn, like this painting.

4. JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Another painting which hangs in the National Gallery.

For those of a romantic bent, His Majesty’s Ship Temeraire fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, and here the grizzled warrior, old and outdated by modern technology like the steam tug towing it, is being taken to its final berth to be broken up for scrap.

5. Antony Gormley’s The Angel of the North.

This 20-meter high steel statue stands very close to the motorway to Scotland, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Probably the view most people have is from the motorway as they drive north. Since it is quite a striking sight as you drive along it has no doubt impressed itself on the memory of many a motorist.


6. LS Lowry’s Going to the Match.

Although Lowry is undoubtedly very popular, I personally find him depressing as hell. He painted from the late 1920s to the 1950s (he produced this painting in 1928), and his visions of industrial Britain in this period – these bleak urban landscapes with smoking factories, treeless streets, and gaunt people – are a nightmare as far as I’m concerned. This painting in particular makes me think of George Orwell’s 1984:

“So long as the Proles continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance. Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

7. John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott

Well, if you like the painter’s style, “the epitome of the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”, then head down to Tate Britain to see it. I prefer to quote the lines from Tennyson which inspired the painting:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

8. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover, designed by Peter Blake (and which I happened to refer to in a recent post).

I’m glad that album covers have made it onto the list, I’ve always believed that I had a rich collection of art in my LPs. It was one of the reasons I was unwilling to make the switch to CDs. It was great to lie on the sofa admiring the album cover while the music boomed around you. Mind you, personally I would have chosen the Yellow Submarine album cover for the Beatles.

9. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover, designed by Hipgnosis and George Hardie.

Another great album cover, although personally I would have chosen Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover.

10. George Stubbs’s Mares and Foals in a River Landscape, another painting in the Tate.

I put its being in the list down to the British love of horses. But even I, who have no great love for horses, can appreciate that they are very fine specimens of the species.

11. Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, in London’s National Gallery

This seems to be the epitome of an English painting, and I use that geographical term advisedly; I see nothing Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish in this painting. That being said, I do remember years ago, a lifetime ago in fact, during the French elections of 1981 which François Mitterrand won for the Socialists, the French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchainé published a whole magazine on the wrongdoings of the-then President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the cover of which was this painting with the faces of Giscard d’Estaing and his wife pasted over those of Mr and Mrs Andrews.

So perhaps the painting’s message is more European than Little Englanders might think?

12. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, in Tate Britain.

Like I said earlier, you have to like the Pre-Raphaelite style to appreciate the painting. I find it more interesting that Laurence Olivier, in his film version of Hamlet, chose to model Ophelia’s death scene on this painting.

I should also say that I am not untouched but this painting. As I’ve evoked in an earlier post, an evening in a cold airport in China set off a train of memories from my childhood which led me to this painting.

13. Andy Goldsworthy’s Balanced Rock Misty. Anyone who wants to see the original photograph should go to the Carlisle Museum and Gallery.

The work dates from 1979 and is located in Cumbria (or more probably was; I can’t believe that that rock is still balanced like that). I must confess to never having heard of Andy Goldsworthy before looking at this National Art Audit. I read in Wikipedia that he “produces site-specific sculpture and land art situated in natural and urban settings”, that he “is generally considered the founder of modern rock balancing”, of which this is surely an example, and that “photography plays a crucial role in his art due to its often ephemeral and transient state”, no doubt the reason he took this photo. Without knowing it, I’d actually come across a work of his at the Storm King sculpture park north of New York when my wife and I last visited it, where he had built this stone wall snaking through the trees.

14. David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, another painting in the Tate.

It’s from his time California during the 1960s. Personally, I prefer Hockney’s much later work, like this landscape, painted when he came back to the U.K. a decade or so ago.

15. Bridget Riley’s Movement in Squares, painted in 1961.

For once, this painting is not in the Tate, although still in London. It’s in the Arts Council Collection at the Southbank Centre. I’ve never really liked these optical illusion paintings. I find them too visually unsettling and I don’t see why I should look at a painting that unsettles my balance. But hey, beauty is in the eye of the observer.

16. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit.

I’ve never seen this thing (not sure it really fits the definition of a tower), so I shouldn’t comment. I suspect, though, that it will become London’s response to Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

It certainly seems to be attracting the same kind of passionate criticism and praise that the Eiffel Tower did in its time. I understand they’ve added slides to the Orbit, to attract visitors. Maybe the Eiffel Tower could add them too.

17. Stik’s A Couple Hold Hands in the Street. Another street artist, this time with a face but no name. I’m not completely sure what work this entry refers to, but I think it’s this one.

This is what the artist had to say about it: “This one, with the burka, was done around the back of a mosque on Brick Lane. I was really nervous about doing it actually, because there had just been an attempted assassination on a cartoonist who had depicted Mohammed somewhere in Sweden. … But I did my research and I found that actually, within Islam, if you choose to depict living beings you have to do it in a two-dimensional way without any illusion of depth, and that’s me!” First time I’ve heard of this.

18. Maggi Hambling’s Scallop.

The sculpture stands on a beach at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, where Benjamin Britten lived. It is a tribute to him; the words piercing the shell, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, come from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The artist has had this to say about the sculpture: “An important part of my concept is that at the centre of the sculpture, where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea.”

19. Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure. The problem is, Henry Moore did a lot of reclining figures and I’ve no idea which one this little exercise is referring to. So I show here reclining figures of his from 1929, 1939, 1957, 1969-70, and 1984, and readers can take their pick. (Giving a time-series like this also allows one to study how Moore went about “decomposing” the body into abstract masses)





20. And so we come to our final entry, Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks album cover, designed by Jamie Reid.

Interesting. Can’t think what else to say about it. Perhaps because I was never a Sex Pistols fan the picture doesn’t evoke any fond memories in me.

So what do we conclude from all of this apart from the rather unsurprising conclusion that my personal list of the best 20 would have been somewhat different – I mean, this list represents some sort of national average. One thing that struck me is how London-centric the list is, with the majority of the works to be found in the capital. Maybe I noticed it because recently so much of my newspaper reading has been about Brexit, and “London vs the rest of the country”, “London getting all the attention” has been an important thread in the arguments between Leavers and Remainers. But it does seem to me from this list that London is sucking the cultural air out of the lungs of the rest of the country.

The other thing that struck me is the absence of any advertising art. Yet this can be a very honourable art form, and I’m sure certain ads are very familiar with many people; the old Guinness ads, for instance, which I’ve often seen copies of.

Or how about propaganda art, which is a close relation to advertising art? This one from World War II seems to have taken the world by storm. I constantly see T-shirts with endless variations on the theme.

Or that most iconic of all posters, the London Underground map?

I don’t know, it seems to me that there’s a whole form of art here that people are very familiar with and enjoy, yet is missing. Maybe for the launch of its next super-clever TV product Samsung can make sure this gets included.

_______________

Samsung The Frame TV: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/the-frame-4k-tv-samsung-wall-art-standby-uhd-led-a7630716.html%3Famp
Banksy Girl with Balloon: https://hubpages.com/art/banksy-girl-with-balloon
Banksy Make Trouble: https://www.canvasartrocks.com/blogs/posts/70529347-121-amazing-banksy-graffiti-artworks-with-locations
Constable The Hay Wain: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/john-constable-the-hay-wain
Jack Vettriano The Singing Butler: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Singing_Butler#/media/File%3AVettriano%2C_Singing_Butler.jpg
Jack Vettriano Fetish: https://www.collectorsprints.co.uk/product/fetish/
JMW Turner The Fighting Temeraire: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fighting_Temeraire#/media/File%3AThe_Fighting_Temeraire%2C_JMW_Turner%2C_National_Gallery.jpg
Antony Gormley The Angel of the North: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_of_the_North
The Angel of the North from motorway: https://www.reddit.com/duplicates/3obbfn/angel_of_the_north_gateshead_uk_a1_motorway/
LS Lowry Going to the Match: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/going-to-the-match-162423
John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_The_Lady_of_Shalott.jpg
Sgt Pepper album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_images_on_the_cover_of_Sgt._Pepper%27s_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band
Yellow Submarine album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Submarine_(album)
Dark Side of the Moon album cover: http://www.b-wave.be/blog/david-gilmour-on-the-run-dark-side-of-the-moon-on-synthi-a/
Animals album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animals_(Pink_Floyd_album)
George Stubbs Mares and Foals in a River Landscape: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/stubbs-mares-and-foals-in-a-river-landscape-t00295
Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews: https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/mr-and-mrs-andrews-by-thomas-gainsborough/
Les dossiers du canard: https://www.priceminister.com/offer/buy/143212034/giscard-la-monarchie-contrariee-les-dossiers-du-canard-n-1-de.html
John Everett Millais Ophelia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophelia_(painting)
Ophelia drowned in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: http://arainbowofchaos.blogspot.co.at/2011/12/?m=1
Andy Goldsworthy Balanced Rock Misty: http://www.goldsworthy.cc.gla.ac.uk/image/?tid=1979_068
Andy Goldsworthy Storm King: http://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/505388389415343402/
David Hockney A Bigger Splash: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Bigger_Splash
David Hockney Landscape: http://minimatisse.blogspot.co.at/2014/12/hockney-landscapes.html?m=1
Bridget Riley Movement in Squares: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/movement-in-squares-64038
Anish Kapoor ArcelorMittal Orbit: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArcelorMittal_Orbit
Eiffel Tower: https://www.getyourguide.com/eiffel-tower-l2600/
Stik A Couple Hold Hands in the Street: http://www.eastendreview.co.uk/2015/09/08/stik-new-book/
Maggi Hambling Scallop: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maggi_Hambling
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1929: https://www.henry-moore.org/collections/leeds-sculpture-collection
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1939: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-reclining-figure-r1147454
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1957: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-working-model-for-unesco-reclining-figure-r1171983
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1969-70: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/lost-art-henry-moore
Henry Moore Reclining Figure 1984: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4637053
Never Mind the Bollocks album cover: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Mind_the_Bollocks,_Here%27s_the_Sex_Pistols
Guinness poster: https://www.amazon.com/Guinness-Poster-Lovely-Tucan-Weather/dp/B009SDXUUM
Keep calm and carry on poster: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-surprising-history-of-keep-calm-and-carry-on-2015-6?IR=T
London Underground map: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Beck

SEA BEET

Milan, 11 February 2017

I’ve written much earlier about the culinary dowry which my wife brought to our marriage, a splendidly long list of Italian foods and dishes against which my contribution shriveled to nothingness. However, the columnn on my wife’s side of the kitchen ledger should have been even longer. I wrote that first post when we were living in Beijing and I drew up the list from memory. Now that we are back in Italy a good part of our time, I can closely scan the supermarket shelves to see what delights we have come back to. One of these is the vegetable known in Italian as coste, chard in English (often called Swiss chard, although there is absolutely nothing Swiss about the plant).

When I first tried coste all those decades ago, cooked by my mother-in-law, I was immediately struck by two certainties: the first, that I had stumbled across a culinary treasure; the second, that this treasure had never crossed my lips either in the UK or in France – neither of my grandmothers seemed to have been familiar with this worthiest of vegetables.

The wonderful thing is that the cooking method for chard which I prefer adheres strictly to my golden rule for all things in life, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). Strip the stalks of the leaves. Boil each briefly in water. Then briefly fry each separately in butter (oil will also work). Serve. That’s it. Yes, you can add this and that, garlic for instance, but it’s really not necessary.
img_1856

The stems are by far the best. Cooking them gives them a delicate, slightly sweet taste that inexorably leads you to eagerly slip the next stalk into your mouth. They are addictive.

Readers looking on line will see that many recipes consider chard a side dish, to be eaten as a complement to something else. I disagree. They stand on their own, as a complete dish. If anything, the stalks can be the main dish, the leaves the side dish. Many other recipes mix it into soups or into quiche-like things or into pasta sauces. Forget it. Just eat them on their own.

I thought perhaps that with the broadening of the British culinary horizons over the last forty years I would now find chard commonly stocked in supermarkets. But no. I went on Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s websites to see what vegetables could be ordered online, and chard was nowhere to be found. I double-checked with a friend of mine in the UK and he confirmed that chard was not readily available in supermarkets (although he did note that his sister, who has a green thumb, grows them in her vegetable garden).

It’s funny, that, because the wild ancestor to chard is sea beet.
Papier beet
For reasons which will become clear in a minute, I also show it uprooted.
img_1859
Sea beet can be found along along the coasts of the UK more or less up to Scotland, so it is a plant that surely made its way into the British cooking pot very early on, when people ate whatever the local environment offered and when hunger was a constant companion. From a quick zip through web sites run by enthusiasts dedicated to recreating ancient recipes, chard was certainly eaten in Britain in Medieval and Tudor times (when it was called beet; Lord knows why the name changed). Take this entry from John Gerard’s 1597 Herball:

Beta alba. White Beets….the white Beete is a cold and moist pot-herbe…Being eaten when it is boyled, it quickly descendeth … especially being taken with the broth wherein it is sodden…
Beta rubra, Beta rubra Romana. Red Beets, Red Roman Beets …The great and beautiful Beet last described may be vsed in winter for a salad herbe, with vinegar, oyle, and salt, and is not onely pleasant to the taste, but also delightfull to the eye. The greater red Beet or Roman Beet, boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegar and pepper, is a most excellent and delicate sallad
.

(It seems that by 1597 farmers had already produced beets of varying colours – the earlier photo of uprooted sea beet shows that white was originally the only colour complementing the green.)

For some reason, chard seems to have fallen out of favour with the greater British public in later centuries. I’ve read that spinach, to which chard is often compared, could have been the culprit, displacing chard in the hearts of consumers. Naughty spinach …

The opposite fate has befallen another descendent of see beet, the beetroot.
beetroot isolated on white backgroundThe quote above from Gerard goes on:

But what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is to be preferred before the leaues, as well in beauty as in goodnesse) I refer vnto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when he hath had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and diuers dishes, both faire and good.

From which we can gather that the root of the chard/beet was not eaten by Brits in 1597. But things changed somewhere along the way, for if the selection on offer from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s is at all a guide to general British preferences in vegetables, beetroot does now have a following in the UK. Perhaps the reason for this change of heart can be traced to the growth in the size of the root. Gerard’s illustration of the Red Roman Beet in his Herball shows it to have a pretty skinny root in his day, much like the root of the sea beet. Perhaps only when a myriad of farmers had patiently coaxed the beet’s root to grow mightily in girth did it become popular.

Not that the British have ever done anything very exciting with the beetroot. The best they have managed to do is to pickle it.
img_1861
That sweet-sour combination certainly seems to be a winning combination for the beetroot, and has been brought to a glorious culmination by “curious and cunning cookes” with the borschts of Eastern Europe. Every country from that part of the world has its own borscht tradition, but there is a commonality in all the recipes. Sauté a variety of vegetables including, of course, beetroots. Add stock. Simmer for a bit. Serve with a dollop of sour cream. The result looks something like this.
img_1862
Let’s not forget the leaves of the beetroot! Just as much as chard is edible so too are the leaves of the beetroot. Various Italian (and English) recipes show that they can be prepared exactly the same way as chard.
img_1863
And there is of course Gerard’s suggestion to eat them with “vinegar, oyle, and salt”.

This celebration of the sea beet and its offspring would not be complete without a mention of two more of its descendants, neither of which are normally eaten by humans: the splendidly named mangelwurzel, developed in Germany as fodder for cattle
img_1864
and the sugar beet, developed – also initially in Germany – from the sweetest of the mangelwurzels around at the time, as an alternative to sugar cane.
img_1866I’m not sure we should celebrate the sugar beet, since there is a growing consensus that sugar is a plague.
img_1869
Mangelwurzel, on the other hand, deserves to be given a big hand. We don’t eat it, but farm animals like to eat it very much
img_1867
(as do their wild cousins)
img_1868
and we like eating the farm animals. On top of this, mangelwurzel is used to make jack-o-lanterns in certain parts of the UK
img_1865
an art form that is surely worth celebrating.

____________

Chard: http://www.squicity.it/bieta-biologica
Cooked chard: http://blog.cookaround.com/peg930/bieta-a-coste-saltate-in-padella/
Sea beet: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/261719699_fig1_Wild-sea-beet-Beta-vulgaris-subsp-maritima-the-wild-ancestor-of-all-cultivated-beets
Sea beet uprooted: http://www.bushcraftuk.com/forum/showthread.php?t=142391
Beetroot: http://www.realfoods.co.uk/article/so-fresh-and-so-green
British pickled beetroot: http://m.tesco.com/h5/groceries/r/www.tesco.com/groceries/product/details/?id=272309421
Borscht: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borscht#
Cooked beetroot leaves: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/allrecipes.it/ricetta/5137/foglie-di-barbabietole-saltate-in-padella.aspx/amp/
Mangelwurzel: http://www.naturganznah.com/shop/index.php?sid=x&shp=oxbaseshop&cl=details&anid=c7943302e125e3a84.49084479&tpl=&lang=1
Sugar beet: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/beets/sugar-beet-cultivation.htm
Book on sugar: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Beat-Sugar-Addiction-Now-Cutting-Edge/dp/1592334156
Pigs eating mangelwurzel: https://hisandhershomesteading.wordpress.com/page/2/
Wild boar eating mangelwurzel: http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/550643113-turnip-field-mangelwurzel-potato-field-pack
Mangelwurzel jack-o-lanterns: http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.it/2012/05/mangel-wurzel-confusing-vegetable.html?m=1

POLITICALLY-CHARGED PUBLIC ART

Milan, 4 November 2016

There is a quiet square not too far from where my wife and I live in Milan which goes by the name of Piazza Affari. As the name suggests, this is meant to be the pulsating business and financial centre of Milan. That certainly was the idea when the square was fashioned back in the early 1930s by demolishing a whole block of buildings in front of the just completed stock exchange, the Palazzo Mezzanotte.
image
This quite handsome building clad in white travertine is often considered “typical” Fascist architecture because of when it was constructed, but in truth it is actually a nice exemplar of the Italian architecture of the turn of the century, most famously exemplified by Milan’s main train station.
image
Another building opposite the stock exchange, finished in 1939, closed off the new square.
image
Well, the war came and went, this corner of Milan survived the intense Allied bombing of the city, Fascism fell, and life went on. Then, in 2011, as part of a plan to make Milan a centre of contemporary art, the-then municipal government wanted to hold an exhibition of the works of Maurizio Cattelan, a famous Italian contemporary sculptor well known for satirical sculptures. As part of the deal, the city commissioned an outdoor work from the artist. After some back and forth, it was decided to place the piece in Piazza Affari and Cattelan came up with this.
image
Of course, everyone immediately decided that the artist was giving the finger to Italy’s financial sector – this was a few years after the near meltdown of the banking sector worldwide, whose impacts on the Italian economy were then still being felt (and continue to be felt). The denizens of the stock exchange hated it, everyone else loved it. What was meant to be a temporary exhibition has turned out to be permanent. It has been pointed out, and the photo above shows it clearly, that the hand is not actually giving the finger to the stock exchange but, if anything, to the anonymous building on the other side of the square. And the artist himself has said that the sculpture was actually a commentary on the fall of Fascism – some complicated explanation to the effect that the hand really represents the Fascist salute, and the chopped-off fingers represent the fall of Fascism; its positioning in front of a building seen as Fascist is what links it to Fascism. Others have commented that this finely sculpted hand (look at those veins!) in lovely white marble, in a square with its vaguely Roman look (look at those arcades attached to the 1939 building), reminds them of a De Chirico painting.
image

None of this matters. What is important is what people think. And people think the finger is being given to all those goddamned bankers who screwed all of us over, and they cheer the artist on.

Statuary in public places has always excited intense emotions. Staying in the world of white marble, consider the statue of the naked Alison Lapper, a British artist born without arms and only stubs of legs, and eight months pregnant when the statue was made.
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In 2005, this statue was placed as a temporary exhibit on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in London, which has been empty ever since the square received its current look back in the 1830s.
image
Many people hated it (because it was ugly; did those who said this realize the judgement they were passing on handicapped people?), many people loved it (because of its optimistic message about the handicapped and because it brought handicapped people more into the mainstream). A much larger replica was used in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
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But what about that granddaddy of white marble statuary, Michelangelo’s David?
image
(another statue, I note in passing, with lovely hands)
image
Today, we look at it simply as a glorious work of art, but at the time of its unveiling it was also a highly charged political statement. Already, David had a special place in the heart of the Florentines. They identified with the puny boy who destroyed the huge, nasty Goliath (seen to represent Rome, the French, the Holy Roman Emperor, or any other power threatening it at any particular moment in time). A committee of notable artists, including Da Vinci and Botticelli, was charged with deciding on its emplacement. They chose to have it stand in Piazza Signoria, at such an angle that the statue glared defiantly towards Rome.
image
A statue whose unveiling in 1992 had particular resonance for me was that of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander-in-chief during the Second World War of Britain’s Bomber Command.

As the picture shows, it is the typical statue of some Worthy Person which dots every public space in Europe, nothing terribly exciting artistically. But Bomber Command was the group responsible for the so-called area bombing during the War which wiped out entire German cities, many of no military value. Dresden is perhaps the best known.
image
There are many people, and I include myself among them, who believe that these bombings were a crime against humanity, so I have difficulty feeling any disapproval for the person who did this to Harris’s statue.
image
To be fair to Harris, he was not the only person in high circles (Winston Churchill included) who thought that area bombing was a good idea, but he implemented the plan with particular relish.

The placement of politically-charged art in public spaces continues. Banksy’s painting in the Calais “Jungle” of Steve Jobs as an immigrant trying to get in shows this.

In a rare statement on any of his art, Banksy commented that he wanted to remind people of the value of immigrants. If Jobs’s father, an immigrant from Homs in Syria, hadn’t been let into the US we wouldn’t have Apple. In this day and age of heated debates, especially in Europe, about refugees and how many to let in, Banksy has very publicly taken sides. It’s a pity that his high mindedness has been subverted, first by an entrepreneurial inhabitant of the Jungle demanding to be paid 5 euros to view the painting and then by a nihilistic vandalizing of the painting.
image
I presume that the vandalizer was doing no more than celebrating The Clash’s third album. Such is life.

Let’s see what this year will bring us in politically-charged statuary.

____________
Palazzo Mezzanote: http://www.newsly.it/braxit-ultime-notizie-borse-europee-in-rialzo-scommettono-sul-si-1
Stazione centrale: http://www.milanoguida.com/visite-guidate/altri-monumenti-milano/stazione-centrale-milano/
Palazzo on other side: https://ripullulailfrangente.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/ancora-per-milano-al-mattino-presto-targhe/
Il dito: http://www.manageronline.it/articoli/vedi/3359/il-dito-medio-in-piazza-affari/
Giorgio de Chirico: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Eventi/visualizza_asset.html_1741131230.html
Alison Lapper statue: http://www.arupassociates.com/en/projects/trafalgar-square-fourth-plinth/
Alison Lapper statue close-up: http://albertis-window.com/2014/01/
Alison Lapper statue Paralympic Games: http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/wellbeing/galleries/34626/london-2012-paralympic-games/41
David: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/430234570629286662/
David’s hand: http://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/
David’s head: https://www.pinterest.com/almetrami/renaissance-david/
Sir Arthur Harris: http://www.fotolibra.com/gallery/1172664/sir-arthur-harris/
Dresden bombed: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/dresden-bombing-70th-anniversary-interactive-then-now-photos-show-scale-destruction-1487817
Harris statue defaced: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2166966/PETER-HITCHENS-The-heroes-Bomber-Command-deserve-memorial–unlike-butcher-led-them.html
Banksy’s Steve Jobs: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/11/europe/banksy-steve-jobs-graffiti/
Banksy’s Steve Jobs defaced: http://www.zeroviolenza.it/component/k2/item/74240-alto-4-metri-e-lungo-un-chilometro-il-nuovo-muro-antimigranti-è-a-calais

HORSERADISH

Turin, 12 October 2016

I’ve just had a yummy lunch at Vienna airport, which is a bit surprising since airport eateries are not known for quality. It was nothing special; actually, it was very ordinary for this part of the world (this part of the world being Austria). It was two sausages of the frankfurter variety (although longer and thinner than the classic frankfurter), a bread roll, a dollop of mustard, and some grated horseradish. Voilà!

What really made the dish for me was the horseradish. It was the first time I ate horseradish like this, and I found that its slightly sweet tartness calmed the excesses of the mustard.

I have to confess to being a great fan of horseradish, although I joined this particular fan club latish in life: I only discovered the culinary delights of the root once I moved to Austria, when I was already over 40. For those of my readers who (like me) have never seen a horseradish in the flesh (as it were), I throw in a picture.
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It’s rather surprising that I came to horseradish so late, because it’s actually quite popular in the UK. A common way of eating it is to mix it with vinegar and use it as a condiment with meat or fish. This commercial offering looks very fancy.

Fancy or plain, I never partook; the closest I ever got was lamb with a vinegar-based mint sauce, the glories of which I have extolled in an earlier post. I’m guessing that the British picked up the habit from the Germans: Wikipedia informs me that a certain John Gerrard, in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes of 1597, writes that “the Horse Radish stamped with a little vinegar put thereto, is commonly used among the Germans for sauce to eat fish with and such like meats as we do mustard.” I wonder if, rather than classic mustard, John Gerrard meant Tewksebury mustard (another British condiment which I have never tried). It seems that the British, since at least the Middle Ages, have been fond of this blend of mustard and grated horseradish. No less a person than Shakespeare mentions it in Henry IV Part II, where he has Falstaff say of Poins: “his wit’s as thick as Tewkesbury Mustard”. Here’s a modern version, sold by the ASDA supermarket chain, so it can’t be too fancy a condiment.
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Just to close the circle, a very similar horseradish-mustard blend, called Krensenf, is popular in Austria. I suppose the cook in my airport eatery was expecting me to make my own blend before slathering it onto the frankfurter. Ignorant at that moment of Krensenf, I just blended it in my mouth.

I haven’t mentioned in what dish I first discovered horseradish. It was that great, that glorious, Austrian dish, Tafelspitz. It’s actually a very simple dish: boiled beef, served with boiled root vegetables (carrots, parsnips, celeriac) and re-fried boiled potatoes.
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To my mind, what elevates it above similar dishes, like pot au feu in France or bollito misto in Italy, is the sauce into which you dip your morsels of meat: it must be a blend of thickish apple sauce and grated horseradish. The horseradish wakes up what is otherwise a rather bland apple sauce, and this jazzed-up sauce wakes up the otherwise slightly bland meat, to the delight of one’s taste buds. I see that this mixing of sweet with horseradish seems quite popular. Several parts of Eastern Europe (which seems to be the original home of the horseradish, by the way) mix it with beet roots, as do the Ashkhenazi Jews, who often use it as a condiment for gefillte fish. Another recipe from Franconia in southern Germany blends horseradish with lingonberries.

No discussion of horseradish is complete without a mention of wasabi, that wonderful green paste which, together with ginger, accompanies sushi and sashimi.
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I’m not particularly keen on the ginger, but wasabi is a must for me – whenever my wife and I eat sushi or sashimi, she gives me her wasabi and I give her my ginger, which she loves; it’s a deal made in heaven. As anyone who has eaten both horseradish and wasabi will know, there is a definite relationship; the tastes are too similar for it to be coincidental. In fact, the two plants are close botanical cousins; the picture above shows the greenish root which is the source of wasabi. But here I have to reveal a mournful truth. In this era of globalized cuisine, where sushi bars seem to be sprouting up everywhere, when we eat wasabi we are nearly always eating horseradish paste mixed with green colourant. The wasabi plant is difficult to grow, so production cannot keep up with demand, hence the substitution. Sad in a way. An Italian friend of mine was recently telling me of a similar case, for a foodstuff I am particularly fond of, bresaola, which has also become a global food-star. In principle, bresaola should be made from cattle reared in the Valtellina, in the Italian Alps. But cattle production in this really quite small Alpine valley cannot possibly keep up with demand, so cattle is shipped in from Brazil to be processed in the Valtellina and stamped “bresaola”.

My wife and I are going to Japan in November. Let’s see if we can find a place which serves real wasabi.

_______________

Horseradish: http://www.herbalextractsplus.com/horseradish-root.html
Horseradish and vinegar: http://www.handmade-treats.co.uk/shop/horseradish-vinegar/
Tewksebury mustard: https://groceries.asda.com/product/mustard/asda-extra-special-tewkesbury-mustard/80755029
Tafelspitz: http://www.lecker.de/tafelspitz-19222.html
Wasabi: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/03/pantry-essentials-all-about-wasabi.html

LET’S NOT LEAVE THE EU

Bangkok, 18 June 2016

As my country of citizenship moves inexorably towards a historic referendum on whether or not to leave the EU, with there being a damned good chance that a majority will vote yes, my thoughts turn towards what it means to be British. And of course, the first thing that comes to my mind is … cricket (although you can’t really say it’s a British game; it’s the English who developed it while the Scots, for one, hardly play the game at all).

I started playing cricket, at school, in the summer of 1963, and played my last game, at school, in the summer of 1972. I stopped playing with no regret (and anyway went to University in Scotland, where, as I have just mentioned, hardly anyone plays cricket). Truth to tell, I was never very good at the game. I never could get over my nervousness of having someone throw a hard – very hard – ball straight at me, and pretty damned fast at that. In the years I played, batters protected their shins with pads and their testicles with a cup. The rest was naked, unprotected, at the mercy of nasty, vicious hits from the ball. That being said, when I was far out of the line of fire, standing in the far reaches of the field waiting idly for the odd ball to come my way, I could not help but admire the simple beauty of it all: lovely green grass sweeping off into the distance, framed by a venerable tree or two, the field dotted with people kitted out in impeccably white attire, and with luck a beautiful summer sky crowning the whole.
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It’s even better if there is a quaint old pub in the background to which one can retire for a refreshing draught of the local ale.
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And when batsmen were good, it really was a pleasure to the eye to watch them taking clean, easy swings, knocking the ball this way and that, twisting their body elegantly as they followed through their shots.

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Yes, elegant is the word for the best of cricket.

I still remember with great pleasure a match we played when I was 12-13 years old, against the local village. It was an annual affair, where we fielded a side of mixed Masters and boys. For some reason, I was included – someone must have been sick. In any event, I have this memory of politely playing against the local farmers on the village green, a beautiful oval surrounded by great beeches. I batted way down the list and was out pretty quick. Then I watched from the edge of the playing field as we got convincingly trounced. No matter, we were English, and the winners and the losers mingled in good cheer at the end:
“For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost –
But HOW you played the Game.”

As the summer sun slowly set and the shadows grew longer across that village green, we ate home-made cakes and quaffed the local cider – we boys quaffing with special permission from the Headmaster.

Well, as much as I have changed, so has cricket. The commercial diktats of TV required that the achingly long Test matches be shortened to much shorter one day-and-night matches. The result is far more exciting to the uninitiated, as slugging has become the norm for batters rather than the patient, incremental build-up of runs of yesteryear; anyone can appreciate slugging. Taking a leaf out of football, all that uniform white in the kits has given way to a rainbow of colours as each national side now goes out in its own distinct colour. I suppose like that it’s easy to tell who is batting and who fielding. To get the evening viewers, matches go on into the night under the glare of lights. No doubt players get paid much more. And cheating during play, so as to make money on the betting, has begun. I’ve not heard of doping scandals in cricket, but if it isn’t happening yet I’m sure it eventually will.
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Sometimes, when I look at a modern match of cricket, I wish we could go back to the old ways. Cricket seemed so much nicer back then.

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Of course, my memory has quietly deleted those much less pleasant memories of cricket, on a nasty windy day, for instance, or under the rain; it really was not as wonderful as I’d sometimes like to think it was.

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And anyway we can’t go back. The world has changed, and so must cricket.

I’m sure much the same nostalgia drives many of my countrymen and women who want to vote to leave the EU. They want to go back to the past, to a time when Britain was great, was self-reliant … and was white. But paraphrasing Karl Marx, history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Britain’s past history was not necessarily a tragedy, but it wasn’t as glorious as some people might think. My family did well out of Britain’s industrial revolution and later imperial ambitions, but there are many, many, many British families who suffered enormously from the industrial revolution

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and there are a multitude of families in the countries we colonized who suffered enormously from our imperial ambitions.

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As for Britain’s future, trying to go back to its, largely mythical, past will simply condemn the country to be a poor, foggy little island on the outer edges of Europe, which itself is turning into the frazzled outer edge of a renascent Eurasian continent. Britain’s future history will not necessarily turn into a farce, but it will be trivial. With no manufacturing sector to speak of, sacrificed decades ago to the financial services sector, and with no financial services sector to speak of, since an exit from the EU will all make them emigrate to Frankfurt, Britain, like Italy, will have to rely more and more on tourism to make ends meet. It will become one vast Disneyworld
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welcoming hordes of foreign tourists to its shores, to watch – for five minutes – its quaint games of cricket, visit a quaint pub, watch the Queen or King inspect all those nice toy soldiers with their lovely scarlet tunics and tall, funny hats

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visit its majestic museums (while muttering to themselves about how much stuff was stolen from them)

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and send their children to spend a year in one of its quaint universities getting a costly but ultimately meaningless Master’s degrees.

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Let’s not make this our future.

POSTSCIPT 24 June 2016

Well, my (very modest) call to remain fell on deaf ears. By midday today (Bangkok time), it was clear that a majority of my country men and women had decided to leave the EU. A pity.

________________
Cricket on local field: http://blog.acis.com/2013/08/
Cricket in front of the local pub: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/countryside/8695840/The-village-green-is-crickets-soul.html
hitting a six: http://www.gettyimages.com/event/first-test-india-v-south-africa-day-3-51766051#robin-peterson-of-south-africa-hits-a-six-off-harbharjan-news-photo-id51774798
One day international at night: http://colorlibrary.blogspot.com/2012/07/stadium-which-hosted-most-number-of-one.html
Old painting of cricket: http://www.antiquemapsandprints.com/chelmsford-1934-old-vintage-print-nice-view-cricket-match-essex-l-b-bruhl-185061-p.asp
Cricket under the rain: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-a-set-of-stumps-at-an-abandoned-village-cricket-match-due-to-the-rain-9630656.html
Social consequences of industrial revolution: http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2007/08/social-conseque.html
Aborigines in chains: http://nationalunitygovernment.org/content/prisoners-frontier-wars-blackbirding-chain-gangs
British Disneyland: http://www.dailymail.co.uk
Trooping of the colours: http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/GChQyMYbIXr/Trooping+The+Colour
British Museum: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Museum
Cambridge University students: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/feb/02/cambridge-university-to-introduce-written-admissions-tests

WATER

Bangkok, 7 May 2016

It’s hot here in Bangkok at the moment, very hot.

And it’s humid, very humid.

We drag ourselves through the day, stumbling from one air-conditioned space to another.

We scout the horizon for clouds. Will the cooling rains ever come?

We sweat, we’re thirsty. We go to the fridge to get that bottle of cold, cold water. We pour ourselves a glass. A film of water immediately forms on it.

We drink. Aaaah, sooooo good …

In her garden, my French grandmother had a water pump which looked like this.
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When we were children, half a century ago, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by pumping the handle vigorously till the water poured out. Watching us one day, my mother told us that when she had been a child our age, so some time in the late 1920s, early 1930s, before refrigerators were common, on hot summer days she was sent out by various uncles and aunts who were visiting to get a glass of water from that pump. But she was not to take the first water to gush out, no, she was to pump and pump until the water was “bien frappé”, well chilled, enough to form a film on the glass …

That pump stopped pumping 30 years ago. As ever more water was sucked from the aquifer the level dropped, until one day it dropped so far that the pump ran dry. It never pumped a drop of water again.

At my old primary school in Somerset, whose halls I graced half a century ago, there was a bubbling little stream that ran along the edge of the playing fields. We played for hours on it, floating sticks and leaves, building dams, and generally mucking about. It looked like this, minus the horses.
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30 years ago, when I visited one summer, it was gone, dried up. The aquifer had dropped too far.

A larger stream ran along the valley floor not too far from my French grandmother’s house. It was a quick bike ride away, and my cousins and I would often go there to catch freshwater crayfish in its clean, clear waters and bathe in a deep, blue pool that had formed in the middle reaches. 20 years later, when I visited, it was turgid and scummy, with froth floating on it.

Bangkok is a water city. It sits on a river and is laced with canals. It should be lovely to travel on its waterways. Instead, it’s like cruising along stinking, fetid sewers. We take a water bus from time to time, when the traffic is really bad, from the Golden Mount Temple to the modern downtown.
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Instead of enjoying the passing scenery, I live in dread of spray from the canal landing on my face; God knows what viruses and bacteria populate the water. I always scrub my face vigorously when I get off. As for the river, from our apartment terrace we look down on the rubbish of the city which floats by every day.
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Recently, we visited Halong Bay, in Viet Nam, a World Heritage Site. We gazed on the unutterable beauty of the surroundings. But we also gazed at the rubbish floating around us and at the locals’ pathetic attempts to get rid of it.
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Are we mad? We guzzle water like there was no tomorrow and treat it like a rubbish dump. Yet we need water, it’s vital to our lives. How can we treat so badly something we absolutely cannot do without?

________________
Glass of water: http://www.healthydietbase.com/does-drinking-ice-cold-water-help-you-lose-weight/
Old water pump: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_20440985_fonte-ancienne-pompe-a-eau-de-fer-humide-dans-le-jardin.html
Small stream: http://www.gettyimages.com/image/photo-2-tarpan-horses-crossing-a-small-brook/508354517
Bangkok canal: http://aspiringwriter.ca/tag=bangkok
Rubbish in Chao Praya River: https://bangkok2birmingham.org/2013/05/30/deteriorated-water-so-what/
collecting rubbish in Halong bay: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/27725353931017487/