Friday, 30 December 2011

Happy New Year


Got this trash-injection going round my head now, reblogged from the fabulous World of Wonder. Happy New Year to all readers! Please God let 2012 be less of a car crash of stress and worry than 2011 was. And kudos to RuPaul for the parodic Beyoncé chest-heaving at the end.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Recipe

Recipe time at Cantos: a good idea for a quick-ish dinner for four, this.

Butternut squash and sage fusilli

Ingredients

1 medium-sized butternut squash, peeled and chunked
20 fresh sage leaves, chopped
half a pack of salted butter
enough dried fusilli for 4 people
packet of pinenuts/walnuts
juice of 1 lemon and its zest
parmesan
olive oil
fresh thyme

Method

Roast the butternut squash chunks with a drizzle of olive oil and the thyme, until soft, c. half an hour.
Towards the end of that period, bring a pan of water to the boil and put the fusilli on.
Melt the butter in a frying pan and fry the chopped sage leaves and half the lemon zest until the butter browns.
Then toast the pinenuts/walnuts in a dry pan, without blackening them.
Drain the pasta when al dente, and combine all the other ingredients, including the other half of the lemon zest and the juice, in a big pre-warmed bowl---all except for the parmesan which you sprinkle on individual servings with lots of black pepper.

Healthy it's not, but it's absolutely bloody delicious on a cold winter's night. Replace the butter with good olive oil to make it vegan, but if you do remember to season it liberally.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Cold Hailey Rainy Night: The Imagined Village


Deeply British and completely fantastic.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Miller Harris, Feuilles de Tabac



Very odd take on woody-tobacco, full of unsettling swerves. Starts with the overpowering and indeed alarming citrus/farmyard/rotting hay note of clary sage which lasts about a minute before settling down to an oily hum round the back of the fragrance. It comes on arm in arm with the clove/herbaceous smell of crushed basil. This pungent soggy-leaves accord then swiftly dissipates and the hay is then picked up by a series of meadowy notes which come forward and circle cheerfully like Graces. Despite the advertising blurb about the 'smoky, romantic brasseries of Saint-Germain' this is in no wise an urban fragrance, nor is it in the least French: it is an attempt in fragrance at the English pastoral. It's all very like a Samuel Palmer print in fact: dusk in August, a harvest moon lengthening the chilly shadows (the cold tang of pine needles) in a field with noble rot (patchouli), and sheep shit hovering under the wonderful, sweet fragrance of drying grass (mainly tonka bean here). But there's something here like the sulphurous quality of bad breath too, and a briny, sweaty animalic note: no bad thing, in fact, as it saves the fragrance from excessive prettiness. Despite the name, there's not much tobacco leaf here: instead it's the fuzzy, vanilla-like sweetness of nicotiana flowers which is prominent, the perfume of which is especially strong at dusk. After this bold opening, Feuilles de Tabac suddenly loses the courage of its convictions and dries out to something cool and woody---leafy, a little 'beige', with a lot of cedar---which sadly then doesn't do much.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Form Is Void

Look at this gorgeous new art blog, Form Is Void (found via the equally amazing Black Nyx).

Friday, 23 December 2011

Cuio anann i Berian! (Long live the Hobbit!)



I honestly nearly lost control of my urine when Galadriel came on. Remind me not to see this 18 times in the cinema like I did with FOTR. (I was VERY DEPRESSED at the time, and living in Melbourne.)

Lucy

As is traditional on Cantos---the best midwinter poem in the language (Coleridge's 'Frost at Midnight' notwithstanding). Happy Solstice.



A NOCTURNAL UPON ST. LUCY'S DAY, BEING THE SHORTEST DAY, John Donne

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—--things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—--which word wrongs her--—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

Monday, 19 December 2011

No Cat



My mental state by the end of term.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Hagia Hesychia



I've been working on a new icon, this time in a more Russian vein than usual, called Jesus Christ Holy Silence. It's about half done: above is a snapshot of the work in progress. The drapery needs to be shadowed, the hair needs to be textured, and the wings have to be repainted and gilded.

The type is rare: it's an image of Christ prior to the Incarnation, as pre-incarnate Word (Silence). As a heavenly being---for want of a better word---Christ is winged, and is represented as an androgynous youth to symbolise his connection with Sophia, God's personified Wisdom, who is usually depicted as feminine. The folded hands over the breast indicate utter kenotic silence. The halo is both red (divine) and blue (human) in the form of an eightfold star: the hidden eighth point represents the day outside of the seven days of creation, or eternity. This is therefore an image of Christ 'from eternity', begotten, not made.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Bhakti



Absolutely extraordinary. I can never listen to Sr Marie Keyrouz without feeling that I am in a sound-world of intense devotionalism which would have been familiar to En-hedu-ana. (How unexpected that the world's earliest poet whose name is known and whose work in part survives should be female.)

Friday, 9 December 2011

Ask No Questions



Over at the restlessly brilliant Lathophobic Aphasia, Vilges Suola does a lovely and revealing self-interview; I've borrowed the format to bring you the following.


What three adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

Slantwise, earthy, ruminative.


What is your greatest achievement?

Being thought of as more or less sane, professional, and kindly, despite periodic nasty brushes in the schizotypal swamplands of the soul. Or: having made and maintained so many richly fulfilling friendships.


What’s your favourite smell?

Church incense, woodsmoke, wet autumn leaves. All together. (I've done some odd things over the years.) Or---heartbrokenly honest answer---: my ex-partner's hair.


What is your favourite taste?

Artichoke hearts in oil, with goat's cheese and very cold Vouvray. Or: seafood.


What’s your favourite piece of music?

I am a musical dunce, unable, thanks to congenital 'music deafness', to perceive most kinds of musical structure or meaning. Probably Tavener's The Last Sleep of the Virgin. Perhaps Byzantine or Znammeny chant.




What book would you like everyone to read? Why?

I'd be happy with a world in which everyone COULD read.


What website would you like everyone to visit? Why?

Absolutely no idea whatsoever. I'm a terrible, unrepentant individualist and dislike the idea of dictating to people.


What is your favourite sound?

The dawn chorus in late April. The Armenian duduk. Richly textured drones.




If you were an animal, what animal do you think you would be?

A marten.


What do you like to do in your spare time?

I paint Greek Orthodox icons and garden.


How many languages do you speak and why?

About ten, but I have to problematise the word 'speak'. I learned French at school which I still read happily, and I am fairly fluent in Welsh, which I learned as an adult. I did Latin from the age of eight and Greek from the age of twelve, both to degree level, so I have a thorough working knowledge there. I then learnt medieval Irish and Welsh, added Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and Manx, and have taught Breton and Old English. I read heavyweight academic German and cheapo-airport novel Spanish.


What do you like most/least about your job?

I love academic teaching, and am often identified as a born teacher---not altogether a good thing, as the job brings with it a measure of frustration at the slowness of oneself and others. I do like being able to play with language all day, and the pretence that words are the most important thing in the world for the duration of a tutorial. But I dislike the vamping self-promotion, precariousness, and careerist cant of the profession.


What would heaven be like if you were in charge?

An endless, internally enlarging world of varied, unspoiled, biodiverse, temperate, 'British', landscapes, mainly woodland and meadow. With various young gentlemen famous from stage and screen appearing randomly, all doe-eyed and playful.


When and where are you happiest?

When gardening, between March and June.


Something you are never without.

A manbag with at least two books.


What is your most appealing habit?

Christ, I've no idea. Good manners, probably.


And your least appealing habit?

Gravid somnolence, verbal repetition compulsion.


What is the trait you most dislike in others?

Cruelty to animals, or indifference to nature.


What is your most treasured possession?

My 2,500 volume book collection.


If you could have a supernatural power, what would it be?

Nothing short of full omnipotence, baby.


What words or phrases do you overuse?

'Um...' in a singing note, or, when teaching, 'With me so far!?' Various friends and I share an idiolect, Maux-Hindi, which is literally unintelligible to outsiders, though wholly pellucid to us; in that, 'jhagati namaha agacchanti ma!' is wearing a bit thin as a greeting.

Other than that, 'Your problem, my darling---one of them---' is probably my most overused turn of phrase.


What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

A bangingly toned body. Or about £10 million.


How would you like to be remembered?

'Inexplicably loveable despite the hint of benign malevolence.'


What music do you enjoy listening to/playing most?

Dead Can Dance, a vast array of medieval music, a lot of Indian and Persian music, old Tozzer Amos, This Mortal Coil, the odd bit of Nu-Disco. Chant, and, broadly, religious music in all its manifestations.


What did you dream of being when you were younger?

A botanist, a garden-designer, a herbalist, a Jungian analyst. Oh Christ, a fucking druid.


What were you like as a student at school?

Mildly disturbed and disturbing. I found everything---Maths, Science, Languages---unforgivably easy and yet I worried all the time. I was always depressed, anxious, manic, enraged, or sexually frustrated. At one point I stopped eating and announced I was a witch. I was also obviously gay as a daisy and without much emotional intelligence, which I have had to learn painstakingly as though from a book. It's been like teaching a badger Urdu. In all, from the inside it wasn't an easy time, but people probably just thought I was a polite, slightly strange boy.


How do you cheer yourself up when you are feeling down?

Meditate, have a glass of red, or ring a friend. Read poetry.


If I hadn’t been a teacher, I would probably have been a...


A garden designer/garden writer. Or a psychoanalyst.

Still might, at that.


Who has been the best teacher you have ever had?

There have been several. My D.Phil supervisor at Oxford was and is magnificent; I learned a tremendous amount from my undergraduate tutors as well. One of the best was the late and lamented Michael Comber.



Something that few people know about you.


Nothing I'd care to klaxon on the internet. Oh: I have a pattern of three moles on my chest that match exactly with the stars in Orion's belt (i.e., one is slightly out of true).


If you could travel back in time where would you go and why?

I'd probably be on the shore of Kent some time in the early 5th century, waiting for Hengist and Horsa with a gatling gun. Being a rich Roman in the Principate might have been OK. Or I might be found hunkering down in the long grass of east Africa c. 2 million years ago with some grunting hominids, saying 'Look, you guys, are you really sure you want to do this?!'


What’s your best learning memory from school?

Reading The Bacchae for the first time in Greek.



Are you a tidy desk or a messy desk person?

Very, very tidy, though I have not deployed Sheila Chandra's improbable system for de-cluttering.



What’s your favourite thing to do when it rains?

Sit under a tree, or if indoors, open all the windows.


A poem you know by heart.

'Kubla Khan'.


What would you like to learn to do next?

Drive.


What question would you have liked me to ask you?

When would you like Jonas Armstrong to be delivered?


What would have been your answer?

About 10.30pm tonight, please.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Books in the Lavvy



As you know, I spent much of the last few weeks redecorating my flat, which is up in the eaves of a late medieval building right in the centre of Oxford. The loo was particular dismal: nasty pink glittery lino, budgie-yellow walls. Now, however, it is done in Farrow & Ball's 'All White', a crisply chalky shade, and the floor is in smart black and white tiles which were a bugger to lay around all them wonky surfaces.

(If you ever want to really rile me, tell me that as a supposed intellectual I'm not practical. I am in fact very practical, good at digging, decorating, and making something that I've imagined into a real object in the outer world.)

Adorning the walls is Tom Phillip's much loved , semi-allegorical portrait of Iris Murdoch, glancing sidelong in front of Rubens' The Flaying of Marsyas and next to a sprig of the ancient and unchanged gingko. Over the cistern is a startled yet compelling Romanesque face from Parma Baptistry.

After several hours painting the snot-coloured room white (it took three coats), I felt disinclined to spend any longer in there. Bodily needs must, however, and so I decided to leave a selection of the most interesting, quirky books I own in there for visitors---why did I nearly say 'customers' there?---to peruse.


Perfumes: The Guide, Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin

Simply splendid, dippable, addictive account of 400 great and not-so-great fragrances, all written up in synaesthetic, critically astute, often hilarious prose. If you like the sound of one, you may well find it in the wicker basket by the sink.


The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton

One of the English Renaissance's strangest books and a brilliant illustration of Saturnian humour, monumentalism, and creativity. 400 pages of relentlessly learned, highly rhetorical prose on what we would now call depression: its causes, its manifestations, and attempts at its cure. Disenchantment and the longing for death emerges forcibly as an arch-metaphor for life, rough-textured and richly-lived.

There's an unsettling story about Burton. Whenever his melancholy affliction got too much for him, he used to go down to the river and watch the boatmen coming and going, all the while laughing hysterically. One speculates as to why.


Towards Emotional Literacy, Susie Orbach

Little two page extracts from Uber-therapist Orbach's Guardian columns, ideal for learning to make soothing, leftist, on-message noises about say, smacking, or adolescence, or failure. I do this in much the same way that other people might learn Balinese.


The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd

A small, knocked-off book of true ghost stories by a large clapped-out queen, clearly dashed off to pay an unexpected bar bill. Good on the English uncanny; I was particularly unnerved by the unheimlich implications of the story of a three year old child in the late 19th century, who, when asked to describe the old man who had appeared to him, said: 'He’s like Father Christmas. Only he’s wearing burnt paper.'

Ackroyd once tried pulling a Harold Bloom and Naomi Wolf number on me when I was a student (the heavy paw creeping up the thigh, the sherry breath coming in wheezes); I laughed almost as hard as Burton.


How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Britain's best journo stylist takes on the legacy of feminism; hilarious, lovable, verbally pyrotechnic yet unpretentious. Especially marvellous on words for the female genitals ('Minge': hmm, sounds like a slightly put-upon cat'), she handles puberty, love, music, eating disorders, pregnancy, childbirth, beauty and abortion from a barstool. I was aiming to ask her to a feast at Porterhouse---even though I feared she might be, in her own words, 'as out of place as a seagull in a beehive'---partly because I think she's a national trezh, and partly because I would then have trolled someone into college in whose lap Lady Gaga has laid her head.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

'What kind of person lives in a house like this...?'

A few years back, I gave you all a bit of a Through the Keyhole moment with my flat at Porterhouse. I never really felt comfortable in it---the ceilings were low and though it was beautifully appointed it was also a ground-floor fishbowl with an oppressive fifties feel. So here, as promised, is the sequel.

My new flat is at the top of a wooden staircase in the heart of the front quadrangle of a venerable, central Oxford college. The building itself is late medieval with a great deal of later frontage, and despite being the home of 500 madcap young persons it is also, unexpectedly, almost completely silent. So when students or friends enter, having wheezed their way up three flights, this is the view as they are shown in:



The solemn, enigmatic face of the Virgin is placed to draw the visitor through into the flat, framed by the open doors the rectangular shape of which it echoes. The walls are a faintly greenish white which I chose for its cool neutrality and ability to hold light. As the windows are low, fostering light is of the essence: the first thing I did when I arrived was to take down and store the curtains safely (I keep the heating off.) The whitewash also subtly picks up the green accents through the room, visible in throws over the sofa, tabletops, cushions, paintings and the jugs and bowls of flowers I leave around the place. Through the left-hand door is the bedroom, which slightly oddly has a shower leading directly off it---as though one is climbing into a cupboard---and a separate loo:



You can't see this in the picture, but the shower door has been covered with a long rustic curtain made out of rough sacking. The bedroom in truth was a problem: sickly, budgie-yellow walls, tatty carpet, and minimal storage space as the wardrobe is shallow. I have painted it throughout in Farrow & Ball's 'All White'---their brightest, chalkiest shade---and for the recessed parts of the woodwork in their 'Strong White', actually a very pale pigeon-feather grey. Buying F&B paint has been a major expenditure, and you might well think me crazy---but I justify the extravagance by telling myself that this is a period building, and I might well be living here for fully five years. It makes such a difference to the sensual pleasure of the place that the colours have that classical richness and subtlety that you simply don't get with other brands. To soften the stark effect, rough untreated fabrics---like the sacking curtain---have been used on the floor and bed, and a tumble of cushions and pillows with contrasting textures. The bed is covered in an unbleached cotton dustsheet and a cream jacquard table runner; there's a white amaryllis in a jar on the windowsill, and an old cane chair does service as a bedside table.

Retracing our steps through the main room, to the right we find the kitchen:



Problems with the bedroom aside, the kitchen was, I think, the least prepossessing room when I moved in, as it's rendered hopelessly poky and studentesque by the steep angle of the ceiling. I opened it out by painting the woodwork in Farrow & Ball's 'Pointing', a faintly creamy white, and the walls in 'Cord' (also Farrow & Ball), a lovely warm ochre similar in tone to a buff envelope. The floor, which was a gritty pink linoleum the colour of a granulated liver (barf), has been covered with stick-down lino-tiles in crisp black and white, the pattern picked up by the Greek prints in square black frames. The elm chair beneath them in 200 years old. (You can see these in the very first picture, above.)

Back in the main room, here's the workstation, with MacBook and plenty of space for piles of papers:





The table, which my friend Ian picked up years ago and which has done sterling service as a dining table in no less than four homes, has been painted and then distressed. The legs are Farrow & Ball's 'Pointing', and the surface is 'Polly Green'; the corners have then been roughly sanded to give the impression of a history of hard knocks. Similarly distressed are the cane chairs (matching the one on the bedroom), which have been coated in Farrow & Ball's 'All White' before being sanded back to reveal bare wood. The white cushions come from India and are hand-printed.



The heart of the main room, which is of course simultaneously my living room and teaching space, is the book-wall, through which one walks in order to enter. The shelving under the window and the raised shelves in the curve were all added by the college's carpenters after I arrived, unpainted: they and the shelves that were already there have been painted the same cool, faintly melancholy white (F&B's 'Cabbage White', in fact) as the walls for an unfussy cleanness:





As you see, crowning the book-wall is my recent ikon of the Virgin of the Sign, hanging from the ceiling in a half-moon mandala:







I find her cosmic yet human face comforting as I sit writing. (Or rather 'writing', to be more truthful.) Of course, it drives noble friends and colleagues mad that I have my books arranged as I do, on their sides, but I am now past caring: I just prefer it, and like the textured shades of neutrals that this engenders. As they are catalogued and arranged strictly by subject I can in fact find everything with ease. Oddly the selves are much deeper on the left, where the books are double-stacked.





The nearest thing I have to a lounge is a long, hard sofa and these two smaller pieces, both arranged by the fireplace. In due course I may accentuate the depth of the mantlepiece by painting both the oblong coving and piece of board that blocks the fireplace off in a deep grey. This area generally is still not quite finished: I really dislike the green of the chairs and am going to have them slipcovered in brilliant white, as really I feel that this area of the room is too dark to have heavy wood and velvet. The long sofa has been covered in a hessian dustsheet from Homebase, washed and ironed. (It has a hectic, jazzy 80s print underneath.) Note the medieval hunting-scene cushions, and the two green silk pillows. You probably can't see in this picture, but the legs of the long sofa have been swatched around loosely with the fabric, which was then secured using safety pins and cheap pieces of silvery Moroccan jewellery. The various bits of floor-matting are all sisal, seagrass, and unbleached cotton, and the light-fittings are el-cheapo crystal-drop chandeliers, which I found for a fiver each in a hardware store. Both were ex-display and broken, so I repaired them with wire and a small pair of pliers.



This bit of the room sees heavy use: I sit in the armchair and students coming for tutorials sit on the sofa, as Oxbridge teaching ideally takes the form of a conversation between two or three people. (How lovely finally to be giving decent Oxford tutorials and not Cambridge 'supervisions', which always made me think of a training analysis.) Above the mantlepiece hangs an ikon I painted some years ago, which turned out with a particularly fuscous, Russian feel and a mysterious expression. Next to it is propped a carved and whitewashed wooden mirror and some miscellaneous objets: a wooden clog, a couple of antiquarian books, and---in homage to Guy Davenport's book of paintings and drawings---a balance of quinces, their green-yellow intended to pick up the shade elsewhere in the room.

The flat is south-facing, and though the windows are small and low, the space is often cut across by stripes of cool autumn light, accentuating the unity fostered by the simple painting-scheme:



That brings the tour to a close. I'm happy here, in this very personal sanctuary. By my wooden Buddha in his stillness sits a green bowl of artichokes, and here, to finish, is a bunch of late autumn dill, catching the slanting light next to a piece of bracket fungus now gone hard as oak.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Thou who didst mightly bring forth God the Word...



(Not quite finished, but showing the colours and the richness of the gold as they really are)



(Actually finished, complete with lettering, but looking washed out by the artificial light.)

Finished this icon today, which you saw developing from the initial plan a couple of posts down. The size, in case you were wondering, is about 1m along the straight edge.

Expect another episode of 'Through The Keyhole' with my new flat this week! Thanks for bearing with me during the move.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Move

I move back to Oxford in 24 hours: the flat is a wilderness of boxes and miscellaneous bits of life-chaff which I am trying to sort through.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Master and Fellows of Peterhouse, Cambridge, for appointing me to a Research Fellowship in 2008; my time in their company at the College has been intensely and invariably stimulating in many ways, and I take away a rich store of memories.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Greater in Honour than the Cherubim

The mock-up/design for one of my el-cheapo Byzantine icons:



The painting, as of 2am on Sunday (today):



And a little later:



Sunday, 18 September 2011

Moving

All go here. I leave Cambridge in a week's time, to take up a Fellowship in English at an extremely nice Oxford college. Sorry for the long gap in posting: the interview, the aftermath, the packing---you know how these things are. For now, here's a very beautiful song which I have on repeat:



Having a big creative surge too. This looks like nothing much in mock-up form, but is the template for another of my oversized ikons. The final version is going to be attached to the seam between a ceiling and wall in my new college flat in Oxford.



I've just ordered the board: the straight line along the top is 100cm, which gives you some idea of the scale. The dots and yellow lines will be gilded stars and rays. The concept, of course, is to make a whole wall look as though it's all part of one vast ikon: Byzantine ikons often have the Theotokos or Christ (or, as here, both) presiding from a semi-mandala at the top.

The colours on the Virgin's maphorion will be more like this:



But her face will be like this (pretty exactly, though possibly reversed to look slightly to the left):

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Arthur



I can see only one reason to love 'King' Arthur Uther Pendragon---the nom d'épée of deluded old sponge John Rothwell---and that's the mirror he holds up to religious leaders everywhere. His preposterous mixture of moral certainty and difficulty with the act of thinking reminds one strongly of George Carey's tenure in Augustine's seat; the cooked-up personal anger over the bones of the long dead puts me in mind of thicko Muslim youth declaring parts of East London a 'gay-free zone.' As 'Arthur Rex' (for so he signed the court papers) might have said: 'For verily, the Earth Goddess is mighty in anger and severe in punishment, and She looketh down in thunder upon the Unbeliever.'

Yes, he is a disgrace to thinking, and, like so many UK neo-Pagans, enemy to and fugitive from logic, sense, and taste. I should like to take him---and Carey, and the addle-pated madrassoids---to one side and explain to them that one key aspect of living in a democracy is that the intensity of your feelings is not a barometer of the seriousness with which they should be taken.

Also I'd like to say to him: get a job and STOP WASTING OUR F***ING MONEY.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Gutted

A miniature of the decline of the British education system. Twelve A-Level papers this year had serious errors on them, ranging from unanswerable questions to missing pages. Here's Mark Dawe, chief executive of the awarding body OCR: "We regret those mistakes and we are very sorry about them. We can reassure candidates that significant work has been undertaken to ensure they get the grades they deserve. You can't help but be gutted when mistakes are made."

'Gutted'? Gutted?! This just confirms my general feeling that what has been lost in British culture recently is a sense of appropriateness, here linguistic. There's nothing wrong with the word, but it's at best a slang term not suitable for a formal statement by the head of a national examination board. The man's obviously got a tin ear for register, which doesn't fill me with confidence. 'Gutted' also has overtones of a particular kind of lugubrious male self-pity which is out of place in a professional press-release. 'Gutted' is what you are when you write off your Vauxhall Corsa. 'Gutted' is what you are when your football team loses, or you find out your girlfriend of two months is pregnant. Possibly I'm just being an appalling snob here---after all, who knows? Perhaps Mr Dawe was too knackered to think straight this morning because he went down the bloody boozer last night with his new bird and they got a bit hammered. Like, ferchrissake.

[Comments welcome on how informal/jarring people find 'gutted'---or not.]

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Four fragrances



As regular readers will know, my favourite contemporary perfumer is the remarkable Bertrand Duchaufour, composer of vaporous chiaroscuro marvels like Timbuktu and Avignon. I recently bought $2 samples of four perfumes of his hitherto unknown to me, and here are some brief reviews.

Eau d'Italie, Sienne l'hiver
*** ghostly ciabatta

Interesting and strange evocation of---as the name suggests---a Tuscan winter. This is, it seems, Duchaufour's favourite among his own compositions: a cool dryness hovering beneath a mealy, bread-like iris and black olive accord. A study in muted greys and browns, there's a green note of something like geranium leaf in there too, coupled with the sweet, smoky nuttiness of chestnut skins. As a fragrance it's beautifully composed, the representation so up-close and precise as to be almost abstract. Sadly, it's simultaneously so fleeting that from the first spray it dissipates in the air like a faded memory of itself. Better on fabric than on skin, where it lingers with an odd, bitter dissonance.


Comme des Garcons, Sherbert Series: Cinnamon
** cinnamon leaf

Begins very like the clean turmeric-and-lemonade fizz of 1994's L'Eau d'Issey pour Homme, but morphs into late December in student bedsit-land: a raspy pong consisting of cheap 'Christmas Spice' joss sticks, limp clutches of ivy dessicated by the central heating, stale fags, and dry rot. Oh, innocence.


Comme des Garcons: Red Series: Sequoia
?** Baffling

Can't comment on this one: from trying it in the CdG shop in London I recall a big cedary-pine smell, and the sample I've been sent is a sweet floral oriental that smells so like the discontinued Fendi by Fendi (1985) that I suspect there's been a mislabelling somewhere.


Comme des Garcons, Incense Series: Kyoto
**** minimalist resin

Starts off smelling like hot hi-fi but rapidly turns into a pared-back incense-resinous accord, the main ingredients being cypress and the piny, terpenaceous tang of colophony, the resin used by violin players on their bow hair to make it grip the strings, also known as Rosin or Greek Pitch. Overall, serene and pleasant if a little stark.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The incomparable Terry Castle has a delightful piece in The Professor and Other Writings in which she discusses her fetishistic mania for interiors magazines: a fetish I entirely share. She writes, wonderfully:

The late Mario Praz—dandy, scholar, eccentric chronicler of interior-decorating styles through the ages—once observed that human beings could be divided into those who cared about such things and those who didn’t. An avid, even ensorcelled member of the first group, he confessed to finding people who were indifferent to décor both baffling and somewhat sinister. To discover that a friend was content to dwell in “fundamental and systematic ugliness,” he wrote in An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau, was as disturbing as “turning over one of those ivory figurines carved by the German artificers of the Renaissance, which show a lovely woman on one side and a worm-ridden corpse on the other.” All the more macabre when the friend was otherwise refined:

A venerated master of mine at the University of Florence used to say, from his lectern, many learned things about the Provençal poets. I hung on his every word. But it was a grim day when I first crossed the threshold of his house. As soon as the door was opened, I was confronted by a loathsome oleograph of a Neapolitan shepherdess (that same oleograph used to turn up often in the shops where unclaimed objects from the state pawnshop, the Monte di Pietà, are sold). The shepherdess, shading her eyes with her hand, affected a simpering smile, while Vesuvius smoked in the background.

Granted, for the “loathsome oleograph” (which now sounds enchantingly kitsch) one might want to substitute any number of contemporary abominations: fur-covered kitty condos placed nonchalantly in the living room, embroidered sofa pillows that say things like “She Who Must Be Obeyed” or “Bless This Mess,” Southwestern-style bent-willow furniture (barf), neoclassical wall sconces made out of glued and gilded polyurethane, monstrous sleigh beds from Restoration Hardware, Monet water-lily refrigerator magnets, fake “bistro” clocks, and just about any item of domestic ornament with an angel or a dolphin or a picture of Frida Kahlo on it. Yet even without a tchotchke update we can all sympathize with Praz’s baffled revulsion: “It’s curious, the squalor, the unnecessary and even deliberate squalor in which people who profess a sensitivity to the fine arts choose to live, or manage to adapt themselves.”

In this tendency New Agers and academics are very much alike, just as they also share a fondness for backbiting and pointless, fissiparous argument. I too have been as startled by unfathomable decorating choices in the 500k Banbury Road homes of venerable Oxford Professors as I have in the purple velveteen-draped yurts of Moon-daughters and simple quorn-herding folk. Afflicted by the congenital good taste of a certain type of posh mox---and good taste is ultimately as constricting to the breath as the steel corsetry into which every Bayreuth Brünnhilde until Olive Fremstad was strapped---I confess the same bafflement as Praz and Castle.

* * *

Ideal Home time. When I was a child, I fantasised about having a tiny house in the woods where I would live completely alone, with candles, firewood, and a sack of flour for making bread. That dream has modulated over the years into what my friend Justine and I now refer to as 'The Retreat Centre', our common vision-house. I have a very clear image of it in my mind, into which many influences have fed; but most of all, the Normandy home of the Russian artist Yuri Kuper. His home-cum-studio is exactly, exactly, my taste. Here are some pictures of it; see Phyllis Richardson's enticing Contemporary Natural for more.






Saturday, 23 July 2011

Vetiver



L'Artisan Parfumeur, Coeur de Vétiver Sacré

*** Put that in your orange and smoke it


Well, this is a pain. Guy Davenport once remarked that English is a Romance language in the same way that a porpoise is a fish, or a bat a bird. This gives you a nice sense of the degree to which Karine Vinchon's new fragrance works as a vetiver only if you squint at it. Full of ideas and potentially subtle, it doesn't quite come off.

Vetiver oil is extracted from the root of a fragrant tropical grass, which points to some of its fascinating qualities. Simultaneously earthy and airy, it has both a liquorice aspect and something of the autumnal cleanness of well-rotted compost after a crisp frost. Vinchon's fragrance is billed as an attempt to deconstruct the raw material's wonderful cool, grassy smokiness into a citrus~spice~smoke accord, the three core notes set in a frame of black tea which suits all of them. I can see the thinking---hey, vetiver smells kinda like lapsang souchong!---but sense a misparsing of the natural here. Vetiver possesses clean/rubbery and citric angles to go with its dry, earthy vaporousness, but trying to do that with orange and bergamot falls flat here. The concept's not actually a bad one, as aged vetiver oil can smell strikingly like single malt---see Profumum Roma's Fumidus---and whisky in marmalade is of course delicious. But to make the most of the ingredients, Vinchon should have turned the orange down fifty decibels and turned up the peat to compensate, but I suspect L'Artisan's noses fretted that the result would be too austere and make women less likely to buy the fragrance. (Everyone knows women like candied sweet things, don't they? Meh.)

The cod-hermetic blurb ('an offering to the gods', 'a mystical journey from East to West') and a glug of incense sidling around make me strongly suspect that Vinchon is attempting to replicate the structure of Bertrand Duchaufour's Bhutan-inspired Dzongkha (also for L'Artisan), but using vetiver instead of the latter's iris. Again, it's a good, literate idea: vetiver and iris are both cool, introverted materials, and the snowy Himalayan spirituality of Dzongkha shows how well warm spice and tea notes can work in such a composition. The problem is that what vetiver does best is melancholy, not solemnity; it's the more worldly-wise sister of chirpy lemongrass (a botanical relative). The actual vetiver here keeps sliding off the back of the fragrance---an effect like glimpsing, though the tipsy crush of a house-party, a sad-eyed, Modigliani-faced girl all by herself in the kitchen.

Coeur de Vétiver Sacré is an interesting idea and full marks for effort, but the overall effect is of a slightly-off pomander. Buy Andy Tauer's Orange Star if you want the kippered fruit aspect, or get Tom Ford's excellent, soapy Grey Vetiver if the other side appeals.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Take A Break

I've long loved J. C. Squire's hilarious parody, 'If Pope had written "Break, Break, Break"'. First, here's the original Tennyson poem which provides the object of Squire's parody:

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill:
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.



And here's Squire's clever literary lampoon, deftly capturing the zeugmatic style and leisured scribe-by-the-yard manner of the earlier 18th century:


Fly, Muse, thy wonted themes, nor longer seek
The consolations of a powder'd cheek;
Forsake the busy purlieus of the Court
For calmer meads where finny tribes resort.
So may th' Almighty's natural antidote
Abate the worldly tenour of thy note,
The various beauties of the liquid main
Refine thy reed and elevate thy strain.
See how the labour of the urgent oar
Propels the barks and draws them to the shore.
Hark! from the margin of the azure bay
The joyful cries of infants at their play.
(The offspring of a piscatorial swain,
his home the sands, his pasturage the main.)
Yet none of these may soothe the mourning heart,
Nor fond alleviation's sweets impart;
Nor may the pow'rs of infants that rejoice
Restore the accents of a former voice,
Nor the bright smiles of ocean's nymphs command
The pleasing contact of a vanished hand.
So let me still in meditation move,
Muse in the vale and ponder in the grove,
And scan the skies where sinking Phoebus glows
With hues more rubicund than Gibber's nose. . . .

(After which the poet gets into his proper stride).



And here's my own.

'If David Jones had written "Break, Break, Break"'


In Quintile month                   or Sextilmonað

                  the rising waters                   insolent footlappers

white horses of Lear’s kingdom                   salt daymares

on shorelines                   and tidemarks                   

                shatter the
cerrig.



Where is your curragh                   Inspiratrix of All Graces?

                  Are you she                   solemn as a rushlight on the tide

pale Venus of the northern seas?                   Be you Branwen, Fflur,

foamflower Essyllt            hung with whale-tooth ivory?

            Is it
MAPONOS or Mabonograin

with his black creel         and bone-blue catch

chanting countersong to Dylan’s
marwnad?



ECCE

                  Caesar’s barges cross the strait, aquila-signed

                  against landfall sergeants of alder-pool, Stour-bend ---

αιαι αιαι                   cries Private Davies

                  Pretannic woad worn,
glastyn-tinct

put out y'r bloody cigarette, man, there'll be hell to pay if Fritz clocks that, see---


LACRIMÆ RERVM

                HOVIS

                               pollywoggle

                                               so.






(and so on for another 78 densely-footnoted pages.)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Pow!





L'Artisan Parfumeur, Al Oudh

**** dirty hot

Well, this was a bit of a bold one. Who wants to smell like body odour?! Well, me, as it turns out.

Al Oudh is composed by the masterly Bertrand Duchaufour, whose aesthetic tends to be marked by an incredible knack for the pellucid, a see-right-to-the-bottom kind of transparency that is no doubt fearsomely difficult to achieve. It's a bit like Gustav Klimt's one-dimensional decorated surfaces---whether it's hieratic gold spangles for weathly Viennese, splodgy whorls of purple hollyhocks, or shimmering green birchleaves, each image hovers before the eye as a single tessellated plane. Thus, mutatis mutandis, with Duchaufour's translucent effects: whether working with incenses, woods, and papery smoky smells (Timbuktu, Kyoto, Dzongkha), drenched tropical florals (Fleur de Liane, Amaranthine), or sappy, milky leaves (Calamus), he achieves great depth without obscurity or fug.

Al Oudh is in the incense vein, with a core of burning agarwood chips. Oud/agarwood is an extraordinary substance---and whether there is any natural oud in this fragrance I shall leave to those with better noses than I---a kind of woody-sweet medicinal pong, interestingly clean and dirty simultaneously. A bit like spices, a bit like cough syrup, and a whole lot like armpits, the temptation is always to neuter its tomcat, on-the-turn forcefulness. Happily, Duchaufour went the opposite way, and has bolstered the oud note with a number of, uh, funky animalics: civet, castoreum, and the 'yesterday's shirt' honk of cumin. Over this he floats a lovely soft, dry rose, like a full moon over a Cairo slum. The whole thing makes one laugh at the way it breathes life into orientalist cliché. Yes, it's got a whiff of the souk. Yes, it's a what 1940s stage villains termed 'a Dusky Beauty'. Yes, I imagine---and I've put some effort into the exercise---it probably smells much like Jake Gyllenhaal's nethers in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (above). After several months with a 10ml sample, I've come to the conclusion that this is a Good Thing.

Drolly marketed for both sexes, I doubt that Al Oudh would make a good feminine, unless you happen to be either a) naturally intrepid, or b) Lady Hester Stanhope.

Great Nature's Second Course



One of the temptations of keeping such a long-term blog as this is to put a shape on life, to try and impose a narrative arc on a inherently rather aimless stream of obiter dicta. In general, everything pretty much carries on as it has, in a non-teleological way and without vast upheaval. Nevertheless, there has of late been a minor miracle, in the shape of a lovely complex molecule which puts me out like a light.

Yes, readers, I finally went to the GP about my galloping insomnia and constant nightmares, and was prescribed Zolpidem. I have subsequently had three nights of the most blissful, Lethean sleep I have had for about five years.

Getting wound-up is the killer, you see. There is of course helpful anxiety that spurs one on, but I have been labouring under the unhelpful kind that afflicts many young academics in the humanities, because there are no jobs. Specialized as miniature yellow treefrogs adapted to live in one type of tatty rainforest bromeliad, even as the chainsaws growl in the middle distance, academics at my stage of life often suffer from a characteristic, precarious Angst und Weltschmerz. In my case, it feels like somewhere inside there's a six-year old banging away at all the keys at the far right end of a piano keyboard all the time. I had got used to waking up for twenty minutes every hour and three quarters during the night, every night, with worry twanging and trembling through the air like an evil aeolian harp and loneliness stuck in my throat like a wishbone.

So you'll have noticed the general shift from postmodern drollery to lassitude and gloom that's hung over Cantos (and my life) of late. BUT (but), it turns out I wasn't, in fact, in a downward spiral into the greedy grave, hemmed in by the parched bricolage of academic life; I just hadn't achieved slow-wave sleep for a very, very long time. Readers, after three nights, I have risen again. Not only am I up, I am not falling asleep in my chair at 5pm like a gummy old spinster; I surge with Whitmanian vim and lissom elasticity; and best of all, I can concentrate.

* * *

The above are prolegomena to reflections upon sleep. I'm very prone (because of my disturbed rhythms) to enjoy a number of unusual effects associated with the whole experience, not all of them unpleasant. There are some tiresome tics associated with drifting off---I always need to pee after the light's been off for about fifteen minutes---and I occassionally suffer from a bizarre sleep disturbance called 'exploding head syndrome'. No, this is not a David Cronenburg visual effect, but something a little like the way that your feet sometimes kick sharply without warning as you drop off, usually accompanied by a falling sensation. What I get in addition (though, thank God, not often) is, as I drift into sleep, a sudden, pottery-shattering BOOM or crash that only I can hear, as loud as a bomb blast in the next room. Needless to say, I jerk upright, and often leap out of bed altogether, shaking and with my heart hammering.

As regular readers will know, my dreams are often so vivid and often so exhausting that they are indistinguishable from being awake---in particular they are frequently highly textual, with me speaking foreign languages, reading, or writing. I had an exquisite one about a week ago in which I was leafing through an imaginary, newly-published book called Shakespeare and the Horizon of Consciousness. (See, I can do self-referential meta-dreams.) The first chapter was called GLANCES and had a beautiful discussion of the semiotics of different expressions made with the eyes in the plays and in Early Modern culture more widely, ending with a delicate analysis of the implications of George Herbert's 'quick-ey'd Love'. Alas, that's all I can remember, and it's not actually a bad idea for a book. The devas are obviously sending me messages again.

I also remember being very surprised as an adolescent when I realised that not everyone experiences hypnagogic voices. This happens to me about once or twice a week, usually when I'm exhausted: as I drop off to sleep, one, then two, then up to six different voices---of different genders, nationalities, and ages, and entirely independent of my mind---start talking intelligibly over one another in my head. I've tried writing down what they say, but the state one needs to be in to hear the voices is spoiled if one comes out of it far enough to move a pen. If I maintain a kind of unfocused attention, I can hear them all at once, but if I try to isolate one strand it collapses into gibberish. You can recreate the effect at home simply by opening several interview videos on YouTube simultaneously. It's all a function, I suspect, of being a highly verbal person who spends all day considering language: interestingly, after I spend a few days speaking Welsh, the inner voices switch into that language.

Rather less often I get a visual equivalent which is a source of much frustration: I 'see' with the inner eye fully-formed canvasses passing in front of me for about half a second each, always sumptuously detailed. There are often over a hundred of them: pallid, mask-like faces scudding against a bone-blue background; gryphons, sulphurously yellow talons rearing and wings caparisoned in delicate beadwork; a woman turning with dark nipples and strands of wet hair by sour candlelight. This has made me a firm believer in the foaming fecundity of the deep mind, which is able to produce beautiful, polished art---clearly it is, I have seen them---just beneath the horizon of conscious grasping. I can't slow the slideshow down to 'fix' the images, but they are there.

Anyway, back to zolpidem. It is indescribably wonderful: I really had not realised how utterly ghastly I felt. I pop one tablet 15 minutes before sleep, and, here's the thing, I actually do go to sleep. No bells, no whistles, booms, or crashes; I don't pick up talk-radio through my fillings, or dream I've been transformed into a copy of the Iliad.* Though I still do in fact dream vividly, I am now remembering one a night rather than the six or seven that were normal before. (My Jungian analyst was faced with an embarrassment of riches. I used to bring more dreams in a week than some clients in a year.) And what's more I sleep for seven hours uninterrupted: it's like a blissful homeopathic dose of death.


*My weirdest ever dream, that.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Terence Malick's The Tree of Life





Any Malick film is a cultural event: readers, I am ashamed to say that I hated it, or at least parts of it. There were too many babies, and not enough dinosaurs.

Having been moved to tears by the first few minutes of Malick's The New World (review here), I was expecting to be rubbled into nothing by all this cosmic-yet-intimate, curling water, wind-through-grasses stuff. Instead, I was simply bored for quite long stretches---the film truly resembles life itself in that regard---and often felt quite guilty in the manner of the sheepish visitor at an ashram.

The whole thing is a mess, to my mind. It could have been a piercing meditation on the Book of Job---and at moments it looks very much like it's heading that way, from the opening quotation to the astounding CGI 'early universe' sequences---but it's grafted onto the unremarkable story of Sean Penn's Everyboy/man, Jack O'Brian. It feels like a splice of two different films: all the cosmic stuff might have ended up as a higherbrow, Blakean version of Ron Fricke's 1992 Baraka. The shots of the creation of the universe and the beginning of life rank as some of the most powerful images I have ever seen in the cinema: amid swirls of gas and igniting stars, galaxies form with peals of soft thunder. At one point, as a female vocal cries out 'Lacrimosa! Lacrimosa!' you see a single spiral galaxy glowing with its one hundred billion suns. At that point, my eyes did prickle with tears of wonder. I could have watched hours of it: pulsing veins, dividing cells, drifting jellyfish and beached plesiosaur, the whole lot. Kudos to Malick for the dinosaur sequence: first for making his CGI dinosaurs look entirely convincing as real animals at home in an ecosystem, with the rightful, organic beauty of living creatures, and second for having the boldness to deal with the issue of religion and deep time. This used to worry me as a child: what could we possibly be to God, as infinitesimal beings that had evolved with the slowness of aeons from water and rock!? I kept thinking of Kathleen Raine's lines:

Who but I
Speaks for the mute stone?
For fragile water feels
With finger and bone?


Malickian sentiments indeed.

The rest of the material---Jack's spiritual Bildungsroman---could have been repackaged as the story of a sensitive man's alienation from nature in Malick's usual Heideggerian way, which would have made a film much more like The Thin Red Line. The young Jack was played with exquisite melancholy; Jessica Chastain as Mrs O'Brien had the unearthly, haloed beauty of a Flemish Madonna, the camera lingering on her long, tapering Holbein fingers. But instead the splicing of the material engenders an awkward pushme-pullyou, a half-arsed theodicy.

There is a lot of God in The Tree of Life. Prone as I am to oceanic, contemplative states, I nevertheless found the film tranquillising rather than inducing excessus mentis, as medieval people termed it---the suspension of the chattering intellect in focused absorption and loss of self-consciousness. It's a measure of Malick's solemnity that I went in hoping for mystical self-naughting, which is quite a horizon of expectation to erect around any director's film.

Further, watching as a theologically-literate individual, I felt alienated by the film's constant rehearsal of the problem of suffering ('Why do bad things happen to good people?') without either the incarnational resolution of the Cross or the cooler emptiness~compassion of Buddhism, both of which were gestured towards. Going back to the problem of 'deep time', it's very hard to make an aesthetic case for Christianity in this kind of cosmic context, though not impossible; a cramped, parochial, made-in-Taiwan feeling tends to steal over the theological landscape. Watch Malick's galaxies coalesce and stars foam in the heart of nebulae, and then try worrying about monothelitism or whether the absence of episcopal oversight in Methodism renders its orders invalid. Go on, try.

Buddhism is perhaps a little better at this sort of thing with its vast timespans---Malick's film deals in kalpas, the unimaginable ages of eastern thought---but the Buddha famously eschewed metaphysical speculation about suffering's causes, preferring instead to preach its cessation. Malick doesn't push this far enough: the film seems to evoke emptiness in the technical, tongpanyid sense---that all things are impermanent and intrinsically empty of a separate self---only to climax with a baffling scene on a beach which seems to be intended to be heaven. (Families reunite while milling around on the strand.) Unfortunately, this section looks like a particularly beautifully-shot scene from a straight-to-DVD Christian movie. The metaphysic here seemed to me to be rather vacuous, if I didn't altogether misunderstand, but then I'm not a Christian. Indeed, there's an especially dodgy moment in this scene where you see some bare feet in the sand and the end of a white robe: my heart sank. Oh no, I thought, please don't tell me Malick's going to bring on Nazareth's gift to the Joy of Nations. But he wisely restrained himself.

Altogether a baffling, disappointing, beautiful, and flawed thing, 'worth seeing' (as Dr Johnson said), 'but not worth going to see.'

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Fasting

I'm currently more-or-less-fasting, which is an incredibly useful spiritual experience for me and something I now do fairly regularly. It not only lightens the body but clarifies the mind, making it feel incredibly concentrated and oddly gathered. My thoughts increase in speed; I feel more awake; I become more sensitive but at the same time less sentimental.

There's a fine line to be walked between 'eating so little you feel exhausted' and 'eating just enough to feel spare and light.' The latter for me is about 600 calories a day, for up to two months. I know, before anyone starts, that that is very restricted---but I assure you that after three weeks on even less than that last year I not only looked better but felt fantastic. So a few days of fasting/mindful eating will do no harm---no booze helps too, of course.

The other secret is to start the period with a bentonite and psyllium husk internal cleanse. My God...it may be New Age woowoo, but I assure you I have never experienced such a dramatic improvement in my general sense of wellbeing and vitality as after 5 days on that. You can't go more than five feet from the lav, but everything has its price.

Time for my health-giving bowl of air!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011



Deeply moved, as by all Malick's work.

Monday, 25 April 2011

New Blog Banner

Yes, these do vary with my mood, and I do try to make them striking and dramatic. My favourite is probably the gold-and-white Alexander McQueen one that pops up every few weeks, but when I began blogging I initially went for Remedios Varo in a big way. Since then I've varied between Quirky Goff (Dave McKeans and pictures of creepy old dead things, like hybrid taxidermy and Edith Sitwell) and Thoughtful Hippy (Antony Gormleys in the rain, the less grim sort of Paul Nash painting, images from my own Archetypal Tarot.) I am currently trying to decide whether it would be a) enormously annoying and/or b) colossally vulgar to do that thing whereby a piece of music starts to play when you open the blog. It would probably be Lisa Gerrard playing the Hungarian cymbalon v. quietly, but I am trying to avoid turning this blog into one enormous Gesamptkitschwerk.

Talking of Lisa Gerrard, massive hat-tip to Black Nyx for this clip:



I got as far as the sight of the performer's back walking up to the stage and I thought, 'No. No!!..YES!!! It IS! IT'S A LISA GERRARD DRAG ACT!'

For so, dear reader, it was. I'd have performed this service to mankind's greater joy myself, were it not for the fact that when it comes to impersonating a six foot, blonde, enigmatic Australian chanteuse, looking like a younger version of Brian Blessed probably isn't the best place to start.

Anyway, back to the banner. The figures are taken from the extraordinary terracotta figures by Niccolò dell'Arca (1462-63) in Santa Maria della Vita, in Bologna. On the left, Mary of Cleophas, on the right, Mary Magdalen. I saw this picture---the women's elemental anguish and horror at the deposition of Christ's body---in a copy of Church Times last night, which is right up there in my magazine rack next to the latest Journal of Nonlinear Phenomena in Complex Systems. I think we all agree they have an eerie and haunting power.

Plus, if you flipped Mary Magdalen's hands over at the wrists, she'd look just like a mediæval bacchant. Which I thought was cool.

Praxilla



κάλλιστον μὲν ἐγὼ λείπω φάος ἠελίοιο,
δεύτερον ἄστρα φαεινὰ σεληναίης τε πρόσωπον
ἠδὲ καὶ ὡραίους σικύους καὶ μῆλα καὶ ὄγχνας

The most beautiful thing I leave behind? Sunlight.
Then the bright stars, the moon's face;
cucumbers in their season, the fruit of appletrees, the pears.


This fragment by the 5th century BC Greek lyric poet Praxilla survives only because the sophist Zenobius quoted it in order to explain the expression 'dafter than Praxilla's Adonis'. In the fragment, the god Adonis is languishing in the underworld, and is asked what he misses most about the world of the living. Sun, moon, and stars, comes the reply---that, and a decent greengrocer.

I have come to the conclusion that this fragment has something sublime about it: an innocence, an immersive joy in quiddity and the quotidian. He doesn't say 'bright gold' or 'an army in array', something patriarchal and aristocratic, but rather fuses cosmic delight with the homely, earthy, and peasantlike. The poignancy of the still life. There's something Adamic here, a great uncorrupted and wondering love.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Poem



St Anthony and the Centaur

(for Maggie Ross)

There is another world, and it is this one.
PAUL ÉLUARD


He knows this is no devil, which breed
only the nausea of loss. No. Here is horse sweat,
sage, wild scent of trampled spurge,

flanks like oiled wood, and human eyes.
The slow rhythm of four lungs, two hearts,
beating wary vigil by the forest edge.

―Where is the path? To holy Paul of Thebes.
You must know him. He dwells in this wilderness, at a spring
beside a single tree. A raven brings to him his bread.


The centaur gives no answer. The nostrils flare
with shifting breath, stirring flies in chestnut hollows.
How can the hooves among the ferns be shod?

―We aid...one another. My kind. As thine do not.
Our bloods are knit in mercy. We have not forgot
that we are earthborn, and know no exile hence.


A blessing passes. Now the centaur points out the road,
and each to each bows low. Behold: shy annunciation
of the fathomless and hybrid Word.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Blogs I actually read---and envy



The blog list down the side has needed updating for an age. But here is a little rundown of the writers whose words I hang on every day: the criteria include the excellence of the writing and the 'liveness' of the blog (I know I've been bad about updating regularly this year, but I've paid for it by haemorrhaging readers all over the place); extra points for glossy visual style too.


Black Nyx

Wholly fabulous audiovisual spectacle: moody urban chic meets elusive occulture.


Lathophobic Aphasia

Magnificently dyspeptic wit and rhetoric from Vilges Suola: giving people a piece of one's mind elevated to the status of high art, with an effect oddly like Victoria Wood interviewing Gore Vidal.


Heresy Corner

Always outstanding current affairs blog, with stratospherically good writing. Worth it especially for this affectionate skewering (if such a thing is possible) of Guardianista Laurie Penny's fathomless self-involvement.


Voice in the Wilderness

Compelling, austerely beautiful writing on the contemplative life and the Work of Silence by my friend, the extraordinary Anglican solitary Maggie Ross.


A Don's Life

Prof. Mary Beard of Newnham College, Cambridge on UK academia, politics, and the ancient world. Profound learning put across utterly unpretentiously and with tremendous wit.

Nico Muhly

Frighteningly good, hyperkinetically hip writing from the dismayingly brilliant, handsome and successful composer. Who's, like, younger than me.


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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Part II.

Click here for Part I.



Day 2

Sunlight warm at 8am, filtering through la vecchia befana's dark wooden shutters. Events of the night before rear up like a lurid phantasmogoria: I vaguely recall a long 3am walk home past the Colosseum and the surreally-rebuilt Theatre of Marcellus (above), the weedy, ruinously lush roadsides sprouting the dozing homeless, all eerily swaddled head-to-toe in blankets like Man Ray's The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse. Feel a little footsore and slightly raddled from the bar's beer and cigarette smoke, but discreetly lounge in bed reading Einhorn's Old French until the thud of the flat door indicates that Dan and the night's gentleman caller have completed whatever aubade was deemed appropriate and have bid each other farewell.

Ablutions done, the two of us cheerfully munch toast spread with the landlady's apple jam (which turns out to be made of oranges), and set off for that day's Cultural Highlight. Trolling up through the central streets of Rome---Dan apparently blithe, me nervous of the traffic and itchily paranoid about the street-vendors---I reflect on our history of travel together. Our first major experiment in this direction was several months in Melbourne a decade ago, a long trip which I have never blogged because at the time I was so brutally depressed and heavily medicated that I simply have next to no memory of it. I had utterly burnt myself out that year striving for a double first, but the Horatian tag caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt had somehow escaped me: in other words, 'wherever you go, there you are', and at the time I was traversing an affectless inner landscape of asteroidal bleakness.

Dan was of course a complete angel at dealing with the whole thing: anticipating the trip of a lifetime with his best friend, he found himself instead forced to play duenna to a somnabulistic, shuffling ghost who had finally gone birthday-suit-bonkers. As we wander the streets of Rome, I catch myself morphing back into this pattern of dependent timidity and have to steel the Inner Man in order to resist subsiding into a bath of elemental shame. Ah, the roles we cast ourselves in: despite clearly playing Sallah to Dan's Indiana Jones, as we push through the heat, bus-exhaust fumes, and squawking hordes towards the Musei Vaticani, I give my latent and preposterous Bovarisme full rein and indulge the self-delusion that I in fact live by the heroic code, fearless and able to cope with anything. I fantasize a world (so close to our own!) in which my true, inner nature is revealed by extraordinary circumstance: no longer a podgy academic erotomane, no siree, but rather a baggy-trousered, bare-toothed zouave, sabre in hand and athirst for adventure.



Arriving at one of the greatest repositories of human cultural achievement manages, astonishingly, to distract me momentarily from the vertiginous mise en abyme of my own narcissism. The Vatican Museums are fearsomely well-organized for Italy: with our tickets bought over the web weeks before we are inside and free to wander within five minutes. If you are not some kind of human supercomputer, they will exhaust your ability to process quite rapidly. 500-foot galleries of suspiciously perfect classical sculpture everywhere: here a mighty eye, finger, or foot juts at you; there looms a massive statue of Mercury with his characteristic flattened World War I helmet, no doubt replaced during the Renaissance. Serried rows of haughty Neronian matrons with ziggurats of ringlets glare down at the viewer, as though auditioning for parts in Fellini films, under painted ceilings like 3D illuminated manuscripts. Past a half-mile long corridor of maps of Italy picked out in hallucinatory blues, greens, and golds, twelve-foot-tall sistrum-shaking Isides and Junoesque Junos bewilder and exhaust the eye. This is long, long before you even reach Raphael's 'The School of Athens' (there's Hypatia, looking nothing like Rachel Weisz), let alone the bafflingly familiar sight of the Sistine Chapel. So much splendour imparts a kind of tristesse: after three hours, both Dan and I look dazed, as though we've been smacked round the face with shovels. Everything somehow so...immoderate, exorbitant, invulnerable. Dumbfounded after such gigantism---of both achievement and sheer accumulation---I feel like I am struggling to free myself from the space-warping gravity well of a cultural black hole, and find myself thinking of Cocteau's aperçu that 'everything in art is monstrous'.

Exhausted, we pause for lunch near the Pantheon, in a square which illustrates the principle that foreign grime somehow contrives to be picturesque: I feel expansive and worldly about eating at an outdoor table under a tumble of plastic vineleaves, yards away from a heap of sweaty binbags filled with elderly fish-heads. The waiter charmless, and the meal itself not brilliant---Dan's tagliatelle alla carbonana fearsomely salty, so we swap. Cold beers and pistachio gelati delight---notwithstanding the vague arrière-goût of merluzzo---but as we eat the shutters are loudly flung back on a first-storey window a few yards to my right. From the window emerges as hideous an old crone as I've ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. Dan has heard at length my piteous laments about the uncannily iterative, impersonal way in which I seem to attract Mad Old Women, and not for the first time I feel like a character in a medieval romance---perhaps a beleaguered youth labouring under a particularly arbitrary curse. Now, I can cope with the hardbitten, wisecracking old dames in kaftans and Edith Sitwell turbans, but this is, as my friend Luke would say, hissing with pique, summink else. We watch open-mouthed as the sinister hag leans from her balcony ('Romeo's long gone, dear', quips Dan), places one withered hand over her right eye, and fixes us with a beady stare of gibbering malevolence. A cold, self-destructive impulse creeps over me. (Is she about to produce a pointing bone? Must I go out at once into the Bush and expire of despair? Am I in a remake of Suspiria?!!) At this point, still giggling to herself, the grisly old trout lets down a wicker basket on a string. Everyone seems to ignore this surreal, Commedia dell'Arte scene: she cackles and rubs her lips at us, one eye still covered. With the solipsism of latent Catholic guilt, I cannot escape the feeling that this demented, gummy mugging is all somehow aimed at me personally, belonging to the fairy tale-symbolic. (Help! Magical thinking! What am I supposed to do?! Offer to cut out my heart and place it in the basket, releasing her from some kind of spell?!). After a few minutes, the apparently gleeful hag winches up her empty pannier and withdraws behind her peeling shutters. Dan and I turn to each other, blinking and bemused.



* * *

Remainder of the day---and the trip---less demanding on frayed nerves: no other ill-omens or lowering beldams slinking into the sharp Roman shadows. That night we venture out into Garbatella, a faintly run-down neighbourhood south of the flat, looking for this delightful place, Ristoro degli Angeli. After a wrong turning out of the metro station (we walk several times past the same group of half-arsed, teenage Roman goths, death metal blasting out of their open car), we eventually find the restaurant and settle down to an exquisitely delicious meal with friendly service. Antipasti utterly perfect: artichoke hearts, wonderful salty Parma ham, anchovy fillets on delicate crostini. As we glug Frascati, Dan opts for vegetarian meatballs, and I enjoy ravioli stuffed with smoked cod in a velvety potato sauce (nothing like as carb-heavy as it sounds) and an orgasmic pear-tart with an extremely good glass of Muscat. Heavy of belly, we walk home at 1am, trading high-speed banter in the Mapp & Lucia mock-Italian which had been the holiday's humorous demotic ('Giorgino mio! After all these piccoli disturbi, we must have a little divine Mozartino to put us back in touch with beauty once again!')

Home on Alitalia the next morning. That afternoon, contemplating the greyness of the Piccadilly Line on the way back from Heathrow, I wonder why we had ever even considered going anywhere other than Italy. Next stop: Sicily, perhaps, as I want to see Agrigento and stand on the lip of a decent smoking crater, contemplating the death of Empedocles. Possibly Venice would be better, in the wintertime; after all, as Dan said wryly, 'We'll both be ending up there eventually anyway...'
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